Tag Archives: mind

Two Questions

Recently I was talking with a friend about coaching and specifically the act of helping younger developers improve themselves. I had a sort of microepiphany when I realized that I’ve been improving myself for over two decades with the same pair of questions, originally unconsciously and only recently in my active consciousness. The next time you do something you want to get better at, ask yourself these two questions:

What about this makes me feel good? This is a VERY specific question, and it is NOT “what do I like about this?”. It’s often hard to answer. You are not allowed to say “I don’t know”, and you are not allowed to settle for answering the much easier question “what about this do I like?”—although that can be a great guide into discovering what it is that makes you feel good. If you wrote an elegant passage of code, or did something clever, or shipped a really nasty hack but saved the company (thus buying them time to refactor your nasty hack) by shipping on time, that’s what you like. But go beyond this. What about that makes you feel good? Did it make you feel smart? Did it make you feel artistic? Did it make you feel like a hero? Did it make you feel like somehow, against all the odds, you might just be starting to “get it” as a programmer?

Take a moment and really just let yourself feel good about what you did. If you can find that and tap into it, you have just found a well inside yourself that you will return to again and again in the future. Congratulations, you’ve just found the reason you’re going to spend the rest of your life getting better at this.

If you can’t answer this question, don’t sweat it. But don’t be surprised if your life ends up going a different direction. Find something else that makes you feel good, and do that instead.

What about this could I do better? Most days, you’ll think of something right off. There was some duplication, or a lack of symmetry in the code, or your variable names were kind of awkward.

Other days it’s a bit harder. “Writing this bit felt a bit grindy, like I was pushing out lots of boilerplate. I don’t see how to fix it, but does it really have to hurt this much?”

The best days are the days when you try and try and just can’t answer it. Important: this doesn’t mean you did something perfect. Far from it, and far better: it means you’ve actually managed to see your blind spot. “This”, your brain is telling you, “this empty space, here… is where more knowledge will fit.” Those are the days that herald “getting it” on a whole new level.

So, them’s my questions for you. What made you feel good? What could do better?

Felt any good or done any better recently?

Donkeypunching Ruby Koans

Do you want instant enlightenment? Sure, we all do.

And now you can have it!

Tonight I presented Ruby Koans at URUG. It started out simple enough, but then we got on a weird quirk about trying to make the Koan tests pass without actually satisfying the test requirements. We monkeypatched Fixnum, then started playing with patching Object#to_s… basically we were looking for TMAETTCPW: The Most AEvil Thing That Could Possibly Work. I spelled Evil AEvil because it’s extra evilly.

Mike Moore had the bright idea to just break off all the assert methods in Test::Unit; after that it just became a challenge to discover how to get the rest of the koans to run at all.

With sincere apologies to Matz, Jim and Joe, here is the result:


Tourbus 2 is Out!

I just released Tourbus 2.0! You can get it by cloning the tourbus repo in that link, or by simply installing the gem from rubyforge.

What’s TourBus?

TourBus is a ruby framework for stress-testing a website. You define “Tourist” classes that “tour” their way through your site, and then tell tourbus to send a load of them at your site.

What’s New

Better Syntax, and tested support for most rubies. TourBus 2.0 has been tested and found worky on:

  • JRuby 1.6.0 <– strongly recommended, as it has better threading
  • MRI 1.8.7p334
  • MRI 1.9.2p180
  • REE 1.8.7-2011.03

Upgrading from Tourbus 0.9

  • Your tour classes will change; they are now called tourists and they go on tours, instead of being called tours who run tests (which really never made sense anyway)
  • Open your tour class, and change it to inherit from Tourist instead of Tour.
  • Change before_tests and after_tests to before_tours and after_tours.
  • Rename all your test_ methods to be tour_ methods. E.g. “def test_simple” => “def tour_simple”
  • That’s it! Tourbus should now run normally.

Quick and Easy Setup

gem install tourbus

Okay, let’s say you have a website running at localhost:3000 and you want to test that home.html includes the text “hi there” even when being pounded by hundreds of visitors at once. Let’s install and set up everything all at once! cd into your project folder, and do the following:

mkdir tours
echo 'class Simple tours/simple.rb

That’s it, you now have a tourist ready to wander over to your site and request the home page. Let’s run him and see that everything’s okay:


You should see a clean run followed by a text report showing what happened. If that worked, let’s make your tourist go through the website 10 times in a row. But let’s ALSO make 100 different tourists to the same 10 laps with him, all at once:

tourbus -n 10 -c 100

Happy server stressing! Check out the README for more info.

Bonus: Isolating Tourbus

Here’s how I like to install tourbus. I cd into my development folder, and then do:
rvm install jruby-1.6.0
rvm use jruby-1.6.0
rvm gemset create tourbus
rvm gemset use tourbus
git clone git://github.com/dbrady/tourbus.git
cd tourbus
gem install bundler
bundle install
gem build tourbus.gemspec
gem install tourbus-2.0.1.gem # (update version if it changes)

Next I cd into my project and do

echo 'rvm use jruby-1.6.0@tourbus' > .rvmrc

This lets me run tourbus under jruby and its own gemset, so even if my website is running rails on MRI, I can still get the lovely JVM native threads when tourbussing my site.

I Accidentally Spoke at MWRC 2011

I found out the night before the conference that one more speaker had canceled than the conference had backup speakers in reserve. I found this out because I was rooming with the conference organizer, Mike Moore, and BOY did he call in the favor of not asking me to split the hotel cost!

So, I spoke for about half an hour about Monkeypatching Your Brain. All while dressed in a Hilton Hotel bathrobe:

Photo by Jeremy Nicoll of Smashing Shots

It’s currently up at Justin.tv, here: http://www.justin.tv/confreaks/b/281745310 I am the second speaker, about 38 minutes in. It’s the livestream from the conference and I don’t know how long the link will be valid. Confreaks is in the process of making “proper” videos of the conference. I’ll post a link once those are up.

The Surprising Truth About Cellular Automata and You

Cellular automata is a way of modeling complex systems by focusing on simple, independent entities called automatons. These automatons are not simple by design but rather by definition; because they are each a tiny, tiny part of a massive system, and because the number of possible interactions between these automatons rises exponentially with each automaton added to the system, there is no possible way that a single automaton can possibly understand the complexity of its own system.

Here’s are some of the things a cellular automaton DOES know:

  • It knows what it wants. An automaton is independent and has goals of its own that it wishes to satisfy.
  • It interacts with the world. This varies depending on the model of the system and the goals of the automaton, but often an automaton will consume resources, attempt to obtain more, and may expel waste.
  • It interacts with other automata. I originally wrote “its neighbors” but “neighbor” is too restricted a term. An automaton may communicate with automata at great distances, or may receive summaries of the behavior of groups of automata, in much the same way that you or I can send an email or watch the news.
  • It has a staggering amount of hubris. The automaton cannot possibly understand the system in which it lies, but in spite of this limitation, it will attempt to interact with the world and other automata and attempt to achieve its goals.

The complexities of the system are beautiful and staggering. Readers of “The Land of Lisp” will recognize this example: consider a world in which resources are scarce everywhere except in a tight jungle area, where resources are very rich. Now consider an automaton which has only one choice in life: to move straight ahead or turn. The automaton consumes a resource if it finds one, and it will die if it goes for too many turns without finding a resource. Each automaton will have a random tendency towards turning or going straight. Now let’s say that every so often, the surviving automata create offspring with tendencies similar to its own.

In even this simple an example, the automata will VERY quickly–in just a few dozen generations–specialize into two different species. One species adapts to living in the jungle. It almost always turns, trying to keep itself from wandering away from the jungle. The other species almost always goes straight, trying to cover as much distance as possible to find resources in the desert.

With regard to the title of this post, that’s “The Suprising Truth About Cellular Automata”. What about the “And You” part?

Take a deep breath, and reread the rules of cellular automata. Now turn your head and look out the window. Stare off into the distance and think for a long time. Now say these words aloud:

“This is why I don’t understand politics or economics.”

Of course, the hubris rule still applies. Just because we don’t understand it, doesn’t mean we aren’t going to try and it definitely doesn’t mean we’re not going to manipulate it. But for me, this is a perfectly adequate explanation for why economic theory makes so much sense on paper and yet the world economy can be in the tank. It explains why I get offended when someone reminds me to unit test my code, even while my unit tests reveal so many defects in my code.

The scale of complexity explains why terrorist bombings and economic collapse don’t necessarily have to be the work of conspiracies, and hubris explains why I would much rather believe that they are. Conversely, hubris explains why campaigning politicians look good denouncing the ails of the system, and complexity explains why incumbent politicians look incompetent trying to fix them.