Saturday, February 24, 2007

Elitism can suck it.

Slashdot | Raymond Knocks Fedora, Switches to Ubuntu

I'm not an open source "guru", "expert", or "leading voice" as ESR has been variously labeled. I think ESR has started believing his own press releases recently and become a creature of his own ego (which, let's admit, all programmers have more than the average share of). He's done some good things for open source, free software, and for the community of computer users at large. I own The Cathedral and the Bazaar, and I'm not rushing to the nearest used bookstore to get rid of it. However, he seems to think he still speaks from some high position of authority; he seems to believe he's above the petty and meaningless squabbles he thinks pervade the open source community, and therefore his opinions are well-considered and without bias when they're nothing of the sort.

I don't care if he switches to Ubuntu. I did it myself, and I couldn't be happier with it. I used Red Hat, and then Fedora, for 8 years, and it's where I learned how to use Linux. I'm not happy with the quality of recent Fedora Core releases, but they don't exist to please me. My personal preferences are not an objective set of criteria for evaluating the worthiness of a distribution, and neither are ESR's.

The fact that he now has a financial interest in Ubuntu/Linspire -- and thus has a conflict of interest in trashing Red Hat the company and promoting Canonical -- turns this from a egomaniacal explosion into something akin to FUD.

The very things ESR has spent the past year decrying -- elitism and a lack of concern for the users -- are now his stock in trade. He thinks he's more important than the average hacker, and he's not. He thinks his opinions matter more than the average hacker, and despite the mainstream media prostrate at his feet due to his remembered glory, they're not. He thinks he knows what users need. Only the users know what the users need, and the developer's job is to try his damnedest to give it to them.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Back in touch with tech; or, How about a real programming language?

There's a singular joy in learning a new programming language, especially when you've been in the one- or one-and-a-half language rut for three years.

I tore through The Pragmatic Programmer, which is just as good as advertised, the past few days. While much of the book was already obvious to me and had already been part of my programming practice for a while, just as much was cleverly and brightly presented. "Wow, I can write my own code generators and source analyzers?" Not that it's beyond my ability to do so, but it had somehow never occurred to me to actually try it. Or I just never had a need.

Anyway, they also suggest keeping your "knowledge portfolio" up to date. It's become clear to me in the past few months that a lot of my knowledge is dating rapidly. A new language sounds like just the fix. While I'm at it, why not pick one that can help me write whizzy-bang code generators and analyzers?

I've done Perl in the past, but in my semi-regular checkins I've become impatient with the interminable Perl 6 gestation period. I'm not really interested in spending a lot of time to learn something experimental, and Perl 5 is 10 years old at this point with hardly any changes in that time. Perl is a really neat hack and a cool thing to work with, and I'm certainly not opposed to it, but as I find my own identity as an engineer and develop my own style, I feel that it's not the direction I want to be going in technically.

Next you're saying, "how about Python?" Well, I looked. Cool community, neat ideas, huge install base, pretty mature. Yet... there's something about it that just sounds foreign to my ears. While my company does a lot of internal work in Python, little of it is in spaces that scratch my itches. I think I'll pass for now. Maybe one day I'll check it out again, possibly even learn it, but right now I'll focus on the other alternative: Ruby, the other language we use internally.

This Ruby thing is neat. It works for me because:

  1. it's different enough from Java and C# and D to be a good mind-stretcher;
  2. it kicks ass at text processing;
  3. it's dynamically typed and puristically object-oriented;
  4. Rails is the new hotness in web architecting.
My Ruby education is just beginning, but already there are some ideas in it that have made me sit back and clap excitedly. Here's one neat nugget from an exception handling mechanism:

rescue ProtocolError
if @esmtp then
@esmtp = false

See what that does there? rescue is an exception handler, like a catch in the C++ family. Yet the keyword retry tells the control flow to reenter the exception scope after attempting to repair the error. Are you freaking kidding?! That kicks ass! That one little bit just blew my mind enough to make me completely interested in what Ruby has to say.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

So, you want to do Maven? Good luck.


Maven is the Next Big Thing in Java build management. Its goals and philosophy are pretty far from Ant, which in all honesty is a step in the right direction. Ant scales poorly, uses some ridiculous syntax, and becomes harder to understand the more you try to do with it. For slapping together a simple .war or .jar, it works fine. For controlling a vast array of slightly differing builds in an intelligent and maintainable way... well, let's just not mention that.

Maven has caught on among the Movers and Shakers for one reason only: dependency management. Maven has "repositories" which store version information for "artifacts" (fancy name for jars). You specify what version of something you want, and it does the Right AND Intelligent Thing: downloads it to a well-defined and organized location, automatically sets up classpaths, and makes it available for other Maven builds. This: 1) flat-out rocks; 2) solves one of the biggest problems with making Ant scaleable; 3) makes version conflicts a manageable problem instead of a hair-pulling fit of frustration. "Dammit, I said commons-lang 2.1, not 2.2! Users couldn't download jars properly if it guaranteed them a second life as Jessica Alba's Barcalounger!" Such days are now but a painful memory.

Unfortunately, they just HAD to go and cover this juicy nugget of awesome with a ponderous load of wtf. The pom.xml file, which is to Maven as build.xml is to Ant, is stunningly complex. It's true that you can get a lot more mileage out of a lot less XML in the simplest case, but that assumes you've laid out everything in your project according to the Maven "standard directory layout" -- and don't ask, because you haven't. "No problem, I'll just specify the location of everything!" Sure, do that. But even if you can figure it out without any documentation (of which more later), your nice, cute, simple POM just doubled or tripled in size. Worse, it now looks slightly familiar... I know, it's that huge list of Ant properties that every medium-to-large project has which has nothing in common with the similar list from any other medium-to-large project!

So if I want to use Maven, my first option is to move everything relating to my project into an arbitrary directory structure, thus:

  1. screwing up my working Ant scripts, thus requiring me to rewrite them;
  2. screwing me on all the taskdefs I'm using that have no corresponding Maven plugin;
  3. giving me yet another moving-crap-around-subversion headache;
  4. randomly hosing other useful things like the build machine's triggers, my cool Ruby code coverage scripts I'm prototyping, or proprietary analyzers that the Manager insists we waste otherwise useful CPU time on;
  5. hope that the next version of Maven doesn't change its mind about what the arbitrary directory structure should be (like v2 did with v1), or I'll have to repeat this entire process.
If that sounds unpalatable, no problem: make a nice big ugly POM telling Maven where everything is. How is this better than what I already have? I get the same finished builds out of this POM -- once I've got it debugged -- that I do with Ant. Now I have two ugly sets of build scripts to maintain instead of one.

This is progress?

Recently I migrated a little Java library project of mine to Maven 2 from Ant in order to learn how it worked. I had a simple 150-line Ant script that compiled, ran tests, created javadocs, checked versions, and threw the whole mess into a neatly packaged jar with a bowtie on top. I'm not that retarded, I like to think, but the conversion took around 8 hours, and we're talking about maybe 75 classes in two packages with one external dependency. Now I have a 200-line POM that does the same thing in a completely different way, and it's only that short because I bit the bullet and converted to The One True Project Organization. Why would I try this on a big important project on which screwups or delays might mean my job?

One last item on the rant parade: documentation. Maven 2's is pathetic, and Maven 1, which is well near abandoned only two years after a huge effort to convert people to it, is only slightly better. Tons of important docs on the live site are still "coming soon", and the plugin documentation is long on parameters and short on examples. I don't care how to use esoteric feature X of weird tool Y. I just want a drop-in for doing javadocs and creating shippable packages. This shouldn't be hard to do, and once you figure it out, it really isn't, but no way should I be forced to spend valuable time ferreting out the solution myself through trial-and-error. (No, mailing lists and bug reports are not the answer. I should NEVER have to Ask The Expert When Simple Things Break.) Please, Maven guys, think about the users here.

There is a bit of good news. Maven 2 comes with some Ant tasks that allow you to do Maven-ish things from Ant, including dependency resolution. My shiny new Ant script (after the Conversion) downloads one small jar of Maven tasks, feeds a few simple bits of info on package name and version number, and the whole shebang gets downloaded right then and there and built in one go without needing to restart the build. And if the user ever wants to try the Maven build, it will reuse the previously downloaded dependencies without a single tag of additional configuration. Freaking awesome. Groin-grabbingly transcendent. The Real Build Solution, when it comes, will work in all respects as this little combination does.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Mac Java considered harmful

For the past two months, I've been doing daily Java development on a PowerBook G4. It sucks. Why?

First of all, it's slow. "Well, duh, Java is always slow," squawks the ill-informed peanut gallery. No, as a matter of fact, it's not; runtime performance has gotten to the point where it's comparable with native code on almost every server platform, and I'm not hacking 3D game engines here.

What I mean is that Apple's implementation doesn't compare favorably with Sun's or IBM's. The latest released version of the SDK from Apple is still stuck on 1.5.0_06, which is getting pretty long in the tooth, and the beta download pushes it all the way to 1.5.0_07. The latest from Sun is _11. Also, 1.6 final has been out for over a month now while the Apple beta of 1.6 is months old with no word on updates.

Finally, there's the widely-reported Steve Jobs quote from just after the iPhone presentation (which -- you heard it here first -- will be a huge bomb):

Java’s not worth building in. Nobody uses Java anymore. It’s this big heavyweight ball and chain.
Gee, thanks, Steve. I guess I'll just go shut down those servers running my company's websites.

I know several people are saying he was only talking about the iPhone, but this is a pretty blanket condemnation when he could have said something like "Java doesn't make sense on the iPhone for us". I may have even accepted that prima facie, since client-side Java (outside of J2ME) has been more or less a bust. But combined with the apparent neglect of their Java implementation after extravagant promises on its performance on OS X, this sounds ominous.