Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Decline of the Internet, Part MMMDIC

Rant mode: on. Some effort will be made to keep ear-steam to a minimum.

Internet Relay Chat (better known as IRC), specifically Undernet, was one of the very first things I discovered on the (then-)text-mode-only Internet, Over the next 20 years or so, I've gone through varying levels of activity (including writing an IRC client for OS/2, the operating system that brought technology to a marketing fight (as in, "bringing a pocket knife to a firefight")./p>

One of the changes that happened on Usenet (and other networks) when the Net started getting used by larger hordes of people, with varying intentions, was to institute some form of registration. You'd visit a bare-bones Web site (such as the one for Undernet, fill in a few items on a form, and wait for an email to pop into your inbox stating that your ID was active (known to the bot managing authentication on the servers). I'd used the same "nick" (nickname), JeffD for at least as long as I or my logs can remember (certainly before 1998), and formalized this when the channels I frequented (chiefly #usa) started requiring it.

Now, I (like to think I) do have a life outside IRC and the Net in general; I've been known to go as long as a year without signing on in Undernet. Not a problem; things Just Worked™, in almost Mac-like fashion.

Until today. I fired up my current-favourite client program (Colloquy, highly recommended); it connected to a random Undernet server (in Budapest in this case), and sent the customary PRIVMSG (private message) to the bot that handles authentication, with my username and password. Instead of the usual "authentication accepted" message coming back, I see "X NOTICE I don't know who JeffD is."

Well, blowups happen. I go to the Undernet CService page I mentioned earlier; it's a whiz-bang series of 7 pages now. I go through it, enter my desired username, password, and an email address that I can be reached at (the same one I've had since text-mode days), and am finally presented with this marvel of clarity:

Congratulations! Something went wrong. Sorry.

I'd bet heavily that the reason for the breakage would, on investigation, turn out to be a case of unchecked assumptions no longer being valid, combined with a lack of human management. Nobody has the time for community-without-a-pricetag anymore, and that in a nutshell is what IRC is

And, two hours later, I still haven't received the expected email. Feh.

Rant mode: standby.

Friday, 18 June 2010

I Thought Standard Libraries Were Supposed to be Better...

...than hand coding. Either the PHP folks never got that memo, or I'm seriously misconceptualising here.

Case in point: I was reading through Somebody Else's Code™, and I saw a sequence of "hand-coded" assignments of an empty string to several array entries, similar to:

    $items[ 'key2' ] = '';
    $items[ 'key1' ] = '';
    $items[ 'key6' ] = '';
    $items[ 'key3' ] = '';
    $items[ 'key8' ] = '';
    $items[ 'key5' ] = '';
    $items[ 'key4' ] = '';
    $items[ 'key7' ] = '';

I thought, "hey, hang on; there's a function to do easy array merges in the standard library (array_merge); surely it'd be faster/easier/more reliable to just define a (quasi-)constant array and merge that in every time through the loop?"

Fortunately, I didn't take my assumption on blind faith; I wrote a quick little bit to test the hypothesis:

$count = 1e5;
$data = array(
        'key2' => '',
        'key1' => '',
        'key6' => '',
        'key3' => '',
        'key8' => '',
        'key5' => '',
        'key4' => '',
        'key7' => '',
$realdata = array();

$start = microtime( true );
for ( $loop = 0; $loop < $count; $loop++ )
    $realdata = array_merge( $realdata, $data );
$elapsed = microtime( true ) - $start;
printf( "%ld iterations with array_merge took %7.5f seconds.\n", $count, $elapsed );

$start = microtime( true );
for ( $loop = 0; $loop < $count; $loop++ )
    $data[ 'key2' ] = '';
    $data[ 'key1' ] = '';
    $data[ 'key6' ] = '';
    $data[ 'key3' ] = '';
    $data[ 'key8' ] = '';
    $data[ 'key5' ] = '';
    $data[ 'key4' ] = '';
    $data[ 'key7' ] = '';
$elapsed = microtime( true ) - $start;
printf( "%ld iterations with direct assignment took %7.5f seconds.\n", $count, $elapsed );

I ran the tests on a nearly two-year-old iMac with a 3.06 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 4 GB of RAM, OS X 10.6.4 and PHP 5.3.1 (with Zend Engine 2.3.0). Your results may vary on different kit, but I would be surprised if the basic results were significantly re-proportioned. The median times from running this test program 20 times came out as:

Assignment process Time (seconds) for 100,000 iterations
Hand assignment0.15569

So, the "obvious," "more readable" code runs nearly three times slower than the existing, potentially error-prone during maintenance, "hand assignment." Hang on, if we used numeric indexes on our array, we could use the array_fill function instead; how would that do?

Adding the code:

    $data2 = array();
    $data2[ 0 ] = '';
    $data2[ 1 ] = '';
    $data2[ 2 ] = '';
    $data2[ 3 ] = '';
    $data2[ 4 ] = '';
    $data2[ 5 ] = '';
    $data2[ 6 ] = '';
    $data2[ 7 ] = '';
$start = microtime( true );
for ( $loop = 0; $loop < $count; $loop++ )
    $data2 = array_fill( 0, 8, '' );
$elapsed = microtime( true ) - $start;
printf( "%ld iterations with array_fill took %7.5f seconds.\n", $count, $elapsed );

produced a median time of 0.21475 seconds, or some 37.9% slower than the original hand-coding.

For folks coming from other, compiled languages, such as C, C++, Ada or what-have-you, this makes no sense whatsoever; those languages have standard libraries that are not only intended to produce efficiently-maintainable code, but (given reasonably mature libraries) efficiently-executing code as well. PHP, at least in this instance, is completely counterintuitive (read: counterproductive): if you're in a loop that will be executed an arbitrary (and arbitrarily large) number of times, as the original code was intended to be, you're encouraged to write code that invites typos, omissions and other errors creeping in during maintenance. That's a pretty damning indictment for a language that's supposedly at its fifth major revision.

If anybody knows a better way of attacking this, I'd love to read about it in the comments, by email or IM.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The Sun Has Set on a Great Brand

Just a quick note pointing out, once again, that when many of us foresaw gloom and doom from the Oracle acquisition of Sun Microsystems....we were being hippie-pie-in-the-sky optimists.

Item: A couple of days ago, I tried to log into my Sun Developer Network account, so I could grab the latest "official" Java toolset for a Linux VM I was building. I couldn't log in; neither the password that was saved in my password manager nor any other password I could think of would work. I then went through the recover-lost-password form, expecting a reset email to pop into my inbox within a minute or two. An hour later, I had to go do other things. Yesterday, no email.

Finally, today (Tuesday morning), this gem appears in my inbox:

Date: Sun, 30 May 2010 10:07:20 -0700 (PDT)
Message-ID: <12602411.48691.1275239240752.JavaMail.daemon@mailhost>
Subject: Your Sun Online Account Information
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=us-ascii
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit
X-Source-IP: []
X-CT-RefId: str=0001.0A090205.4C029B48.0062,ss=1,fgs=0
X-Auth-Type: Internal IP

Thank you for contacting Sun Online Account Support.

We're sorry but a user name for your account could not be determined.

We would be happy to look into this further for you.  Please contact us at @EMAIL_FEEDBACK_CONTACT@.  We apologize for any inconvenience.

Thank you,
Sun Online Account Support

Oracle isn't even bothering to fill in (no doubt database-fed) form-mail fields to keep in touch with current and possible future Sun-originated customers, and the login-autoreply address is no doubt a black hole slaved to /dev/null. If they had sent an HTML email with 48-point red F*** YOU!!! as the entire content, the message received could not have been more clear: you don't matter, go away, throw your money, time and attention at somebody else.

I plan to do precisely that, and make clear to all and sundry precisely why.