Improving Wetware

Because technology is never the issue

The Economist does not understand numbers

Posted by Pete McBreen Sun, 20 Jan 2013 19:26:00 GMT

From Difference Engine: Edison’s revenge

It is true, and was the basis of Edison’s showmanship, that low-frequency alternating current can be more hazardous than an equivalent direct current. By oscillating at a similar (ie, close enough) frequency to the human heart, a sufficiently strong alternating current can cause that organ to beat arhythmically and thereby induce ventricular fibrillation—a potentially deadly condition that needs to be corrected immediately.

This is the improved, edited version. How can a journalist equate 50 to 60 Hz to be close to the frequency of the human heart 60 to 120 beats/minute (1 to 2 Hz).

With corrections like this, I remember why I stopped reading the Economist.

A look at the future of software development

Posted by Pete McBreen Mon, 12 Nov 2012 22:53:00 GMT

A political piece from last week’s election - We Need a Programmer for President.

It has an interesting take on the need for more emphasis on teaching programming in schools at an early age, rather than the more normal Computer Literacy which focuses on how to use the standard suite of applications.

Dealing With Transitions

Posted by Pete McBreen Sun, 21 Oct 2012 03:20:00 GMT

Looks like we are starting to live in what could be called Interesting Times.

Although Moore’s Law still seems to be holding out a bit longer, individually the cores in CPUs are not that much faster than they used to be. We have been stuck near 3GHz for nearly 10 years now, and a common occurrence on servers and laptops now is to see a process taking 100% of the available core but overall the machine is running at 25% or 16% loading (depending on whether it is a 4 or 8 core machine). In order to get processes to run faster we are going to have to learn how to program with multicore CPUs in mind.

Peak Oil seems to have occurred in the 2004-2007 timeframe, so the days of cheap fuel are behind us. In Canada fuel is still cheap, but $1/L is not something we have seen for a while. How society handles the transition to $2/L is going to be interesting. The effect of higher prices will have a double impact with the expected wild fluctuations in price that many analysts in the Peak Oil field are predicting. It is amusing however to watch local dealers having to do massive truck sales at the end of each year to get rid of their excess inventory of gas guzzling vehicles.

As we track towards 400ppm CO2 the thought that maybe Global Warming would be nice in a country with cold winters is turning out to be mistaken. A better term would have been Anthropogenic Climate Change and the changes that are resulting in more extreme weather with a tendency to more arid conditions on the western edge of the prairies is beginning to make things interesting.

The convergence of computers, open source and manufacturing will be having ramifications soon. The Maker Faire phenomenon of 3D printers and low cost CNC machines has been very instructive and soon may become disruptive when the costs of these technologies falls further. Already a 3D printer can be obtained for $1,000 with a resolution that rivals that of commercial machines that cost 30X more. A good bet would be that this is likely to have a bigger impact than did the arrival of low cost microcomputers that lead to the PC era and subsequently our current Internet era.

Rules For Reproducibility

Posted by Pete McBreen Fri, 12 Oct 2012 04:17:00 GMT

Looking to chemistry this time, here are six proposed Rules of Reproducibility.

  1. Were studies blinded?
  2. Were all results shown?
  3. Were experiments repeated?
  4. Were positive and negative controls shown?
  5. Were reagents validated?
  6. Were the statistical tests appropriate?

Many science papers are unfortunately weak when it comes to these rules, and in many fields #2 is a real problem - only the positive results are shown, the rest are hidden away and never seen.

More Lessons From Outside The Field

Posted by Pete McBreen Fri, 16 Mar 2012 23:53:00 GMT

Found another interesting parallel between software development and running. The field of running and exercise is full of lots of claims about special ideas that will drastically improve performance of athletes. The Science of Sport site has a blog post on How to spot bad science and fads- Determining whether an idea is worthwhile

At a recent track meet I was having a conversation with a friend in college, who made the astute observation that if the coaches inserted random scientific terms to explain things, even if they were totally wrong, the runners seemed to buy into it more enthusiastically. That’s a very common reaction, we all do it. We associate science and complexity with being smart or correct. As I’ve said before…people trying to fool you go from simple to complex…good coaches translate complex things into simple understandable ideas.

In another post the same site talks about the value of research, theory and practice

… I often rely on what one of my Professor’s, Jason Winchester, called the three stool leg test. You have research, theory, and practice. If you have all three, it’s almost certainly a good idea to implement it. If you have 2 of 3, it’s fairly likely that it works and it depends on the strength of the 2. If you’ve only got 1 of 3 going for it, it probably doesn’t work. The beauty of using the 3 stool leg test is it blends science and practice, and compliments it with theory which in itself is a blend of science and practice.

Lessons From Outside The Field

Posted by Pete McBreen Mon, 16 Jan 2012 02:46:00 GMT

Some interesting lessons for Software Development can be obtained form outside our field. I was reminded of this while reading a running blog that looked at what lessons could be gained from outside of the field of running coaching…

Rules of Everything

  1. When something is new or gains popularity, it is overemphasized until it eventually falls into it’s rightful place. How long that process takes varies greatly.
  2. Research is only as good as the measurement being used is.
  3. We overemphasize the importance of what we can measure and what we already know, ignoring that which we can not measure and know little about.
  4. We think in absolutes and either/ors instead of the spectrum that is really present. …

Point 1. helps explain a lot of the original hype/hope surrounding the agile approaches to software development.

Lessons from outside the running world

We go through a cycle of forgetting and remembering what’s been done before us. You see this in the reintroduction or rememphasis in certain training methods in the coaching world. That’s why it is incredibly important to know your history. And if you can, know your history from a primary source where you attempt to look at it through their eyes during that time period. For example, going back and reading Lydiard’s original work gives a greater appreciation of what he was trying to do, then reading someones summary now, 50 years later. We lose a little bit of the original message.

Sometimes there is useful information available from looking back at what worked in the past. Although many on the software field seem to try to forget the past, the pioneers in the field learned a lot, some of which is still applicable to our present circumstances.

Appropriate Complexity

Posted by Pete McBreen Wed, 28 Dec 2011 04:12:00 GMT

All too often in software development I hear the comment that there must be a “simpler/easier way.”

Unfortunately, although sometimes simple solutions are workable, in most cases the simplest solution is not workable. Or rather the simple solution would be workable in some circumstances, but not for the current project becasue of some fairly obvious deficiencies in the simple solution.

Science and extraordinary claims

Posted by Pete McBreen Sat, 03 Sep 2011 04:34:00 GMT

From thinkProgress.org

There is a famous saying in science: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” In this case, the arguments for climate change are backed up by such an astounding degree of science and evidence, that one, or even a few, papers that claim to refute the science of climate change deserve careful scrutiny. As the author of Skeptico notes:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence because they usually contradict claims that are backed by extraordinary evidence. The evidence for the extraordinary claim must support the new claim as well as explain why the old claims that are now being abandoned, previously appeared to be correct.”

Some climate links

Posted by Pete McBreen Fri, 24 Jun 2011 04:34:00 GMT

Clearing up the climate debate

The Rolling Stone piece Climate of Denial

Not climate, but about useful questions for a different denial community from PZ Myers

Magical Thinking

Posted by Pete McBreen Wed, 08 Jun 2011 05:12:00 GMT

There is a constant refrain that occurs whenever people try to achieve anything

There must be an easier way

We learn this lesson at an early age and never forget it. The toy problems we are “challenged” with while learning always have an easy solution. Sometimes the easy solution is non-obvious and hard to find, but there is always a trick that makes solving the problem easy.

Unfortunately the world does not work this way — but we want to be tricked into thinking that it does.

Some examples:

  • Finding the one food that will help the pounds melt away
  • A pill that will cure all diseases
  • The invisible hand of the market
  • Buying a CASE tool to improve code quality
  • Adopting Extreme Programming
  • Thinking that Requirements Traceability makes systems better

Whether we think of these as “Silver Bullets” or a “Technological Fix”, it seems that we are hardwired to seek out simple solutions. In part this could be because we are so good at pattern recognition that we see a pattern where none exists.

All of this makes progress in software development difficult, because collectively we don’t want to believe how hard it is to deliver reliable systems. There has to be an easier way …