Saturday, 28 June 2008

It's Time to Grow Up

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes over at ZDNet has a very interesting post up, titled "Sticking with XP / Upgrading to Vista / Waiting for Windows 7 / Switching to Mac or Linux — There’s no single right answer". He puts forward the blitheringly-obvious elephant-in-the-room answer to the perennial food-fight question, "Which system is best?" Namely, "use what works for you."

As I read through the post and the comments that had been added to it, I thought about all the man-centuries (if not -millennia) that had been "invested" in the topic. Naturally, I had my own two rupiah worth to say on the topic. Following is the text of the comment I left at approximately 1645 GMT on Friday 27 June. Let me know what you think. (There aren't any links in the post reprinted below; to the best of my knowledge, ZDNet's commenting software hates links, and it definitely hates Macs; every single comment I've posted has given me the error "You must enter the text to post" — on a clean, empty comment form — after I've hit the "Add your opinion" button. Fix it, guys!

"Use what you like, and like what you use."

That's excellent advice for those of us who've been bouncing around in the funhouse for a while, who know which mirrors make us look weird (or, worse, are broken and likely to cut us if we're not careful)...and, granted, there are blessed few truly "new" users now; statistically, nearly everybody's used a PC with one form or another of Windows, and increasing numbers of us have used Mac and/or Linux, but...

We still do have the FNG syndrome with folks who haven't upgraded for a while, and finally they get tired of their molasses-slow Win98 box when they see this zippy new PC or Mac they've been handed at work. "Gee, we use XP at work, but I heard Microsoft isn't going to sell it anymore... what should I use?" Many of us, professionally or otherwise, are tasked with advising those people. Too often, the advice becomes "this is what I use; try it" without really understanding the (often vast) difference between the adviser and the user in question. And when "advisers" try and hash things out among themselves, it almost universally degenerates into an Animal House food fight scene — which doesn't bring any value to the discussion and actually makes us LESS able to give good advice.

Mental hands up: How many of you reading this have ever spent a month using Leopard? Vista? At least two of Ubuntu, Fedora or SuSE Linux? How many raised your hand all three times? Yeah, I see you, way back in the back.... but blessed few others.

In any other endeavour that dared call itself a craft, let alone aspire to an engineering discipline, this would be malfeasance if not negligence; you just DO NOT give advice on matters in which you are not qualified — and if you don't have experience and/or training with Technology X, you're NOT qualified to present advice as being any more valuable than used toilet paper.

In that light, Adrian has performed a major public service here. Given the reality that most people whose job relies on using and/or developing for one of the major platforms are quite unlikely to be as current and proficient on any of the others, this is the best advice that will just let us get along with our jobs without pissing in each other's lemonade each and every single day (Mike Cox and No_Axe, you know who you are).

But in the increasingly unlikely event that we're ever to make something professional out of this hobby that we are lucky enough to get paid for, the fact that this "solution" is seen as viable to any degree, let alone the MOST viable solution, is absolutely, reprehensibly unacceptable. And since computers and software have become absolutely central to nearly everything in modern life, including not least public policy, if we don't get our house in order under our own power, sooner or later some governmental organization or group thereof is going to step in and exert adult supervision. Is that what we want?

The days when Windows geeks and Mac users and Linux hackers could happily putter away, each in their own walled garden with tactical nuclear landmines guarding against any encroachment by reality, are gone as surely as the clipper ship. In the world of the Internet, where information is what's important and how it's processed/generated/visualized/stored is at best secondary, we're faced with the same choice as every biological or cultural organism at an evolutionary shift: adapt or die. Keep the lemonade clean, or drink the purple Kool-Aid. Our choice. Each and every one of us.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Browser Support: Why "Internet Explorer 6" Really Is A Typo

(Experienced Web developers know that the correct name for the program is Microsoft Internet Exploder — especially for version 6.)

Case in point: I was browsing the RSS feed and came across an article on the 37signals blog talking about Apple's new MobileMe service dropping support for IE6. The blog is mostly geared towards 37signals' current and potential clients who, if not Web developers themselves are at least familiar with the major technical issues involved. Not surprisingly, virtually every one of the 65 comments left between 9 and 13 June was enthusiastic in support for the move; not because the commenters necessarily favor Apple (though, clearly, many do), but because anybody who's ever cared about Web standards knows that IE6 is an antediluvian, defiantly defective middle finger thrust violently up the nostril of the Web development community; the technological equivalent of the Chevrolet Corvair: unsafe at any speed.

The degree to which this is true, and to which this truth continues to plague the Web developer and user communities, were brought into sharp focus by three of the comments on the post. The first, from 37signals' Jason Fried, estimates that 38% of their total traffic is IE, of which 31% is IE 6.0 (giving a grand total of 11.8% of total traffic — not huge, but significant).  The second is from Josh Nichols, who points out that Microsoft published a patch to solve the problem with IE6 in January, 2007; he notes, however, that an unknowable number of users may not have applied that patch. Finally, Michael Geary points out that later versions of Internet Explorer (version 7 and possibly the now-in-beta Version 8) also have the problem of not being able to "set cookies for a 2×2 domain, i.e. a two-letter second level domain in a two-letter top level domain with no further subdomain below that," (including his own blog domain). The fact that relatively few domains fall into that category can be argued to be part of the problem; users running IE, particularly an out-of-date version of IE, are likely to be less experienced, less able to recognize and solve the problem correctly, than to blame it on "something wrong with the Internet". For those people and companies who've paid for those perfectly legitimate domains, the negligence and/or incompetence of the browser supplier and/or user mean that they're not getting their money's worth.  And ICANN, the bureaucracy "managing" the domain-name system, is now "fast-tracking" a proposal to increase the number of top-level domain names (TLDs) used. (In time-honored ICANN custom, the press release is dated 22 June 2008 and "welcome[s]" "Public Comments" "by 23 June 2008." Nothing like transparency and responsiveness in governance, eh?

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Good Things are good things....aren't they?

Anybody who's worked with me over the last 20 years or so knows that I generally evangelize conforming to standards when they exist, are relevant and widely agreed on. As the famous quote from Andrew Tanenbaum (in Computer Networks, 2/e, p. 254) reminds us, "The nice thing about standards is that you have so many to choose from." When "standards" are used to promote vendor agendas (e.g., Microsoft force-feeding OOXML to a hapless ISO) or when they go against the common sense built up through hard-won experience by practitioners. And when multiple standards for a product or activity exist, and those standards are each widely used by various users (who could have chosen other alternatives), and when those standards conflict with each other in important ways that can't be amicably resolved, then those "standards" cause reasonable people to not merely question their validity, but, too often, the entire concept of "standards".

As any developer who's worked in more than one shop, or sometimes even on more than one project in a shop, knows, coding standards are sometimes arbitrary, often the prizes and products of epic bureaucratic struggle, and (in the absence of automated enforcement such as PHP CodeSniffer) often honored more in the breach than the compliance. What makes things even more "fun" is conflicting standards. It's not all that unusual for a company to contract out for development work, specifying that their coding standards be complied with (since they're the customer and they're going to maintain, or control maintenance of, the code). If the contractor has their own set of standards that conflict with the customer's, then problems arise with internal process compliance, customer involvement and final delivery. It can be — and too often is — a sorry mess. Simple code reformatting problems can be taken care of with a pretty-printer program; oftentimes, though, one sees entire programs (which have to be debugged, documented and maintained) developed just to "translate" one format to another. Many shops just give up, declare the project to be an exception or exemption from their own internal standards and processes, and try to conform to the customer's demands. "Try to", since their developers, both writing and reviewing the code, are going to be fighting against it tooth and nail because it just "feels wrong".

This whole rant was inspired by reading through yet another coding-standard document; this one the Zend Framework PHP Coding Standard. One item in particular struck me as counter-intuitive. In Item B.2.1.1, PHP File Formatting — General, it says:

For files that contain only PHP code, the closing tag ("?>") is never permitted. It is not required by PHP. Not including it prevents trailing whitespace from being accidentally injected into the output.

Experienced PHP developers are quite likely to have problems with this, not least because it conflicts with earlier behavior of the PHP interpreter and with tools that expect well-formed code. This is one of the oddities which tools like the aforementioned PHP CodeSniffer need to take into account. (There are other, more blatant "yellow flags"

If you're in a shop which takes standards seriously, uses PEAR code and uses the Zend Framework, your code review meetings are likely quite interesting.

  • "OK, we're going to look at foodb.class.php first, and then the others I mentioned in the email yesterday."
  • "Which standard does it use?"
  • "Well, it ties in with PDO, so it ought to follow the PEAR standard, right?"
  • "OK, that sounds reasonable."
As the meeting continues...
  • "Hey, what's this at the end of omnibar.class.php? There's no 'close-PHP' tag! If we start using the code-search Wiki plugin that the Bronx Project folks keep raving about, it's not going to like that...."
  • "Oh, yeah, but that's because  it uses all this Zend Framework stuff, so we use Zend's coding conventions... see that comment at the top about how to run CodeSniffer?"
  • "Riiiiight...."

and so on. Weren't process and standards supposed to make development easier and more reliable?

I agree with the sentiment, apocryphally attributed to one or another of numerous software gurus, that, in the presence of otherwise adequate and sufficient standards, we shouldn't be so "egotistical" as to think developing a "better" standard than others already have is worth our time; take what's already out there, adapt as necessary, and move forward. The trick, of course, is in evaluating that condition, "otherwise adequate and sufficient." Also, since our craft is (hopefully) continuing to advance and adopt standard patterns for things done before, striking out on your own (after careful consideration) demands that the question be revisited from time to time. What are other development groups using (broadly) similar techniques to solve (broadly) similar problems using? Is a consensus forming, and do we have anything useful to say about it? Or has a single standard already taken hold, and we can take advantage of it (at least for new or reworked code)?

Code analyzers like lint and PHP CodeSniffer can be amazingly useful. But for them to function as standard/policy enforcement tools, there must be a standard, or a small group of similar standards for them to enforce. When development teams have to juggle between incompatible standards, it discourages them from following any standards. And in that direction lie... the 1970s.

Monday, 16 June 2008

g++ != gcc (arrrrrrgh!)

Coming back up to speed on Mac programming, now that I've finally got a shiny new iMac. Their XCode IDE looks like a great tool (Objective C, C++, C, etc., etc.), but I was hacking around building some simple test code. Being a fully-certified Unix operating system, of course that's an easy way to get something done while minimizing the number of known and unknown unknowns that need to be dealt with.

This mostly transpired between 2300 Sunday and 0130 Monday (last night/this morning). I installed CppUnit (Boost was already on the system), and kept running into the same problem.

jeffs-imac:Foo jeff$ gcc -I /opt/local/include -I /opt/local/include/cppunit foo.cpp -L /usr/local/lib  -lcppunit  -o foo
ld: in /usr/local/lib, can't map file, errno=22
collect2: ld returned 1 exit status

Hmmm. Maybe the library that's on there is screwed up somehow? Go to Sourceforge, pull down the library source, build it, install it, and try again.

Same thing. Fiddle with the code, fiddle with the command line, nothing fixes it. Go out and Google for help. The very first hit, from MacOSXHints, had a silly-sounding but tantalizing "clue":

You're right. I figured out the problem is that I was missing the -c switch when building the .o file with gcc. For some reason the linker doesn't complain about it, but when I try to link the shared lib with my main program I get the obscure can't map file error. Now it is working. Thanks.

Hmmm again. Go fiddle some more, this time compiling and linking my trivial proof-of-concept in separate gcc command lines. Still no joy.

I go back and play with building libcppunit again, wondering if I've missed some funky option to configure. Nope. It's pushing 0130, I need to be up at 6-something, and my brain is fried, so I shut down for the night.

(Later) in the morning, something's niggling at the back of my mind, saying I missed something while watching libcppunit compile, so I do it again. Yep, cue the "you dumb palooka!" moment: it's not using gcc to compile; it's using g++. For those who've never had the (dubious) pleasure - gcc is the "general-purpose" front-end to the GNU Compiler Collection, a set of (numerous) language systems, of which g++ is the C++-specific toolchain (and standalone front end). All compilers in the Collection produce object code in compatible format (the same back-end is used for almost everything), so usually all you have to do is invoke the One Command to automagically compile your Ada, FORTRAN, Java, PL/I, whatever. And, to be honest, it had been a few months since I'd dealt with C++ on gcc/g++ from the command line. (Thank you, Eclipse!) But I remembered a bit of wisdom lost in the Mists of Time...

They can both compile your C++ (in a single step). But: They're. Not. The. Same.

So, I re-do my (now-) two-step process, substituting g++ for gcc:

jeffs-imac:Foo jeff$ g++ -c -I /opt/local/include/ -I /usr/local/include/cppunit/ foo.cpp
jeffs-imac:Foo jeff$ g++ foo.o -L/opt/local/lib -lcppunit -o foo
jeffs-imac:Foo jeff$

Ta-daaaaa!  OK, can we go back to a single step? That is, compiling and linking (using g++) in one go:

jeffs-imac:Foo jeff$ g++ -I /opt/local/include -I /opt/local/include/cppunit foo.cpp -L /usr/local/lib -lcppunit  -o foo
ld: in /usr/local/lib, can't map file, errno=22
collect2: ld returned 1 exit status
jeffs-imac:Foo jeff$ 

Nope. This is where the MacOSXHints commenter was right on the money. But why? I used to be knee-deep in the (FORTRAN-specific) code, a feeling akin to being knee-deep in the dead on occasion, and the answer doesn't come immediately to mind. Any ideas?