Skip to main content

About the right tools for the job

Some time ago I was involved in a running debate about whether we should be using Ruby on Rails rather than the Java stack (junkyard?) that we were using. At the time, I did not really participate in the discussion except to note that everything seemed to be at least 5 times too difficult. I had this strong intuition that there were so many moving parts that that was the problem. The application itself was not really that hard. My assertions really ticked some of my colleagues off; for which I apologize; sort of.

I guess that I come from a tradition of high-level programming languages, by high level, I would say that I would consider LISP to be a medium level language, and Prolog is slightly better. I would say that it is a pretty common theme of my career that I end up having to defend the position of using high-level tools. I have gotten a number of arguments, ranging from "it will not be efficient enough" to "how do you expect to find enough XX programmers?". I used to try to answer these questions, because I thought that they are raised in good faith. Most of them, with the possible exception of the last, have all but been made moot by progress in silicon and compiler technology.

Anyway, afterwards, I decided to take a more serious look at RoR. I picked up a book on it, and followed along. At the end of three days, I had managed to replicate perhaps 60-70% of the functionality of the site I had been working on; and I became furious.

If we had used RoR at the beginning, I began to think, it is entirely possible that I would still have a share in a company that was going to go places. Not that RoR is perfect; far from it. For example, when something goes wrong with your Ruby program a neophyte has very little support. And Ruby is a pretty weird language. But, to replicate 60% of an application that had taken 5 man years of developer effort in two days really pissed me off.

You see, one key reason that everything fell apart was that we had a competitor; a competitor who got out into the market before we did. It is hard to be sure, but we did not get the feeling that they had started before us even. What they did do was use a much easier to get going technology (PHP). So, maybe PHP does not scale; but so what? The first to market can gain enough time to re-implement should the idea prove sufficiently interesting.

So, the next time someone says that they can't find programmers, or some other reason for not using advanced techniques; my response is likely to be more robust. If we need to train people, then so be it. Using technology that lets you get going quickly can make the difference between life or death for a startup.

I may even start pushing some of the languages that I have been involved in developing...

Popular posts from this blog

Existential Types are the flip side of generics

Generic types, as can now be seen in all the major programming languages have a flip side that has yet to be widely appreciated: existential types.

Variables whose types are generic may not be modified within a generic function (or class): they can be kept in variables, they can be passed to other functions (provided they too have been supplied to the generic function), but other than that they are opaque. Again, when a generic function (or class) is used, then the actual type binding for the generic must be provided – although that type may also be generic, in which case the enclosing entity must also be generic.

Existential types are often motivated by modules. A module can be seen to be equivalent to a record with its included functions: except that modules also typically encapsulate types too. Abstract data types are a closely related topic that also naturally connect to existential types (there is an old but still very relevant and readable article on the topic Abstract types have …

Concept Oriented Markup

I have long been frustrated with all the different text mark up languages and word processors that I have used. There are many reasons for this; but the biggest issue is that markups (including very powerful ones like TeX) are not targeted at the kind of stuff I write.

Nowadays, it seems archaic to still be thinking in terms of sections and chapters. The world is linked and that applies to the kind of technical writing that I do.

I believe that the issue is fundamental. A concept like "section" is inherently about the structure of a document. But, what I want to focus on are concepts like "example", "definition", and "function type".

A second problem is that, in a complex environment, the range of documentation that is available to an individual reader is actually composed of multiple sources. Javadoc exemplifies this: an individual library may be documented using Javadoc into a single HTML tree. However, most programmers require access to multiple…

Robotic Wisdom

It seems to me that one of the basic questions that haunt AI researchers is 'what have we missed?' Assuming that the goal of AI is to create intelligence with similar performance to natural intelligence; what are the key ingredients to such a capability?

There is an old saw
It takes 10,000 hours to master a skill
There is a lot of truth to that; it effectively amounts to 10 years of more-or-less full-time focus. This has been demonstrated for many fields of activity from learning an instrument, learning a language or learning to program.

But it does not take 10,000 hours to figure out if it is raining outside, and to decide to carry an umbrella. What is the difference?

One informal way of distinguishing the two forms of learning is to categorize one as `muscle memory' and the other as 'declarative memory'. Typically, skills take a lot of practice to acquire, whereas declarative learning is instant. Skills are more permanent too: you tend not to forget a skill; but it is…