Content assist

It looks like you are researching razors. I think you are about to go off on a yak-shaving endeavor, and I cannot let you do that, Dave.

What I would really like my DWIM
agent to do. That, and to stop calling me Dave.

Being lazy and impatient, I like an idea of an IDE. The ease of things like autocompletion, refactoring, code search, and graphical debugging with evaluation are, for the lack of a better word, are good.

I like Eclipse in particular — force of habit/finger memory; after all, neurons that pray together stay together. Just like all happy families are alike, all emacs users remember the key sequence to GTFO vi (:q!) and all vi users remember the same thing for emacs (C-x C-c n) – so they can get into their favorite editor and not have to “remember”.

So, recently I thought that it would be good for a a particular DSL I am using to have an auto-completion feature (because why should I remember ). So I thought, great, I’ll maybe write an Eclipse plugin for that… Because, hey, I’ve made one before, how bad could it be?

Well, obviously I would only be solving the problem for Eclipse users of the DSL in question. And I have a suspicion I am pretty much the only one in that group. Moreover, even I would like to use some other text editor occasionally, and get the same benefit.

It seems obvious that it should be a separation of concerns, so to speak:

  • Provider-side: A language/platform may expose a service for context-based auto-completion, and
  • Consumer-side: An editor or shell may have a plugin system exposed to take advantage of this.

Then a little gluing is all that is required. (OK, I don’t like the “provider/consumer” terminology, but I cannot come up with anything better — I almost named them “supply-side” and “demand-side” but it evokes too much association with AdTech that it’s even worse).

And indeed, there are already examples of this.

There is a focus on an IDE paradigm of using external programs for building, code completion, and any others sorts of language semantic functionality. Most of MelnormeEclipse infrastructure is UI infrastructure, the core of a concrete IDE’s engine functionality is usually driven by language-specific external programs. (This is not a requirement though — using internal tools is easily supported as well).

  • Atom defines its own API

And so I thought – wouldn’t it be good to standardize on some sort of interaction between the two in a more generic way?

And just as I thought this, I learned that the effort already exists: Language-server protocol by Microsoft.

I actually like it when an idea is validated and someone else is doing the hard work of making an OSS project out of it…

Of course you have an API!

The following is a dramatization of actual events.

“I need access to these reports.”

“Well, here they are, in the UI.”

“But I need programmatic access.”

“We don’t have an API yet.”

“Fine, I’ll scrape this… Wait… This is Flex. Wait, let me just run Charles… Flex is talking to the back-end using AMF. So what do you mean you don’t have an API? Of course you do — it is AMF. A little PyAMF script will do the trick.”

“Please don’t show it to anyone!”

P. S. That little script was still running (in “stealth production”) months, if not years, later.

Development philosophy

This is one of those posts that will continue to get updated periodically.

I’ve been asked to describe my software development philosophy (and variations thereof) often, so I’ll just keep this here as a list.

  • The right tool for the right job. A “PHP programmer”, to me, is like a “screwdriver plumber” or a “hammer carpenter”. First, figure out the problem you are trying to solve, then, pick the tool.
  • Do not reinvent the wheel.
    • It is likely that others solved a similar problem. There may be solutions out there already, in the form of libraries, SaaS, FOSS or commercial offerings, etc. Those are likely to have gone through extensive testing in real life. Use them. Your case is not unique, nor are you that smart.
    • You are not that smart.
    • Consider buying (borrowing, cloning, licensing) rather than rolling your own
  • Engineering is an art of tradeoffs. Time for space, technical debt for time to market, infrastructure costs for customer acquisition, etc.
  • Abstractions leak.
  • The following things are hard. However, they have been solved and tested and worked for years, if not decades. Learn to use them:
    • Calendars and timezones
    • Character encodings, Unicode, etc.
    • L10n & I18n in general
    • Relational databases
    • Networking (as in OSI)
    • Operating systems

Reporting: you’re doing it wrong

I’ve often said that there are certain things average application programmers just do not get. And those are:

  • Calendars and timezones
  • Character encodings, Unicode, etc.
  • L10n & I18n in general
  • Relational databases
  • Networking (as in OSI)
  • Operating systems

And by “do not get” I do not mean “are not experts in”. I mean, they don’t know what they don’t know. Time and time again I see evidence of this. Recently I saw one that was so bad it was good — and that, I think, necessitates a meta-like amendment to this list, in the spirit of Dunning-Kruger. As in:

You are probably not the first person to have this problem. It is very likely that smarter (yes, snowflake) people already solved this problem in some tool or library that has endured for years, if not decades. USE IT!

Here is the incident, worthy of The Daily WTF.

There is a monthly report that business runs (it doesn’t really matter what kind of report — some numbers and dollars and stuff). How is the report being generated? (Leaving aside for now the question of why one would roll one own‘s reports, rather than using a ready-made BI/reporting solution. Using the brilliant algorithm that Donald Knuth forever regrets not including in his TAO series:

  1. Set current_time to the chosen start date, at midnight.
  2. Output the relevant data from day specified by current_time.
  3. If current_time is greater than the chosen end date, exit.
  4. Increment current_time by 86400 (because 86400 is a universal constant).

What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing. Except when you hit the “fall back” time (end of DST). Once you go past that date, the system will subtract an hour, and you end up at 11pm the previous day, not midnight of the day you wanted. And because you’re stupid, you have no idea why all your business users are waiting for those reports forever.