суббота, 28 декабря 2013 г.

Javascript: Plotting Rössler Attractor on HTML5 Canvas in 3D

In this blog I demonstrated how one can programmatically explore several chaotic systems: logistic map, Barnsley fern and Lorenz system. While doing this I focused mainly on producing plots or, at least, generating trajectories of these systems with different programming languages. At the same time, on my personal web page I have a section fully devoted to this same topic, where one can plot trajectories of simple chaotic systems right in their browser. Until recently I had only 1- and 2-dimensional systems, but last week I added the Rössler attractor and in this post I am going to show how one can easily produce 3-dimensional plots using only HTML5 canvas and a very handy three.js library.

среда, 11 декабря 2013 г.

TDD: Tests are for Focus

In recent posts I have written much about testing as an inherent component of the software development process – the last one, for example, was devoted to some drawbacks of having tests. Now, to keep things in balance I will turn to an advantage of TDD which I happen to mention much less frequently than it deserves.

среда, 27 ноября 2013 г.

XAML: Event Handlers for Templated Items of Collection Controls

Recently, while fighting my way through XAML required to create a relatively simple UI for a Windows Phone 8 application I have come across some unexpected difficulties. When it comes to hacking markup I prefer to modularize it as much as possible – many of us do. Here we follow the same ideas that govern us when we write imperative code and break it into relatively small and simple functions and classes to assemble them into something bigger on higher levels. The benefits of this approach are well known: better isolation, finer specification of responsibilities and less code duplication. With markup we usually behave worse – the code for pages frequently feels quite monolithic and it is difficult to explicitly split it into parts each of which pursues its own goals. Here XAML gives us ControlTemplate and DataTemplate allowing to improve the state of affairs to some extent. The DataTemplate is primarily used with collection controls so that we can specify the way each element should be displayed. In my specific case the parent control was LongListSelector, which should have displayed a list of more or less complex items.

суббота, 16 ноября 2013 г.

TDD: Downsides

Being a fan of TDD I have heard and read a lot about the benefits of test-driving software and creating tests in general – as well as about the drawbacks. While the most widely mentioned issue with tests is false confidence that they might give developers, there are also other major problems associated with this popular approach to software development. Most of these come from misusing TDD and because I have mastered the skill of doing things wrong I would like to describe some of the potentially harmful results of test-driving programs.

воскресенье, 27 октября 2013 г.

Advice: Don't Do It Right

I remember when, years ago, I was at elementary school I got an important advice from my grandmother. Once, checking my homework she noted that I should pay more attention and care to it, despite the illusion that doing it faster saves me time. The problem was that I didn’t want to do homework – it bored me – what I wanted was playing video games, taking a walk or watching some Discovery channel movies about science and hi-tech. With homework I pursued the sole purpose – to get rid of stupid exercises in arithmetic and Russian as fast as possible and get to worthy things. Obviously, this impacted the quality, which was difficult not to notice for my granny and thus she tried to help and motivate me to do better. She used quite a powerful argument saying that everything that’s not done right will have to be redone later. So being more careful and focused from the beginning I will be able to avoid returning and save a lot of time for great things even though this might not look this way at the first glance. I did grasped the idea and, although sometimes I failed to focus on boring stuff giving way to mistakes, I kept in mind the notion that one should take care to do everything the right way so that they don’t have to come back to it long after.

Still, now it seems to me that I got the advice wrong and took it too far, which produced a very bad side effect on the way I work. What I mean is that when trying to create something that is important and interesting to me I become obsessed with the quality of the thing long before it even begins to emerge. This way I quickly find myself in exhaustive search for the right ways to implement every tiny piece of what I am trying to accomplish and during its course I usually can’t allow myself to sit down and build something little and potentially dirty, because I remember this is a waste of my time. One may think that is great and helps me create nice and wonderful stuff, however the reality is harsher. This chase for perfection giving birth to the fear of dirt actually raises a stone wall between me and long waited moment of achieving my goals.

The reason for this is that creating means learning. Learning, in turn, can’t take place without building dirty things and making them better – as far as I know, there isn’t such a thing like a direct way to mastering something without making a stupid mistake or two first. It took me long to accustom myself with this idea, see how it hampers my own work and learn to spend less time on weighing infinite number of alternatives, throwing them away and finding and weighing some more, again and again. I have many times faced this problem when writing posts for the blog, but eventually I have developed a habit of quickly hacking a couple of dirty sketches without concerns of the language and other aspects of quality. Doing these I literally push myself to leave white spaces and ignore the fact that some of my phrases feel Hulkish at best – this way I can proceed knowing that later, when I see the full picture clearly, I will return and make the ugly parts polished and shiny. Such an approach saves me a lot of time, which would otherwise be wasted on searching for words that are yet to come and expressing the ideas, which I realize only partially. In fact, there is nothing bad or inefficient in producing a thing that lacks elegance or even correctness on some stages of the process. Moreover, doing so doesn’t hurt the quality of the final product at all, as long as one remembers to return this debt later.

Fellow coders might have guessed that I learnt this approach through programming. Kent Beck’s ‘Test-Driven Development: By Example’ book was the first thing to introduce me to the idea condensed in the words "first make it work, then refactor". While Kent deals mostly with the low level of code in the context of solving a specific bit of a problem, the advice is also applicable to most other levels and aspects of the software development process. I find it particularly helpful when working with new technologies – languages, frameworks, libraries and whatever else: in many cases spending a lot of time on trying to figure out the abstract right ways to use the tools turns out to be a major waste of resources of any kind. On the other side, actually taking what you have and building something, maybe so ugly and stupid that even stackoverflow won’t bear its presence – but working, provides one with better understanding of both means and goals. Honestly speaking, I rarely realize what I want from a particular tool until I actually try to use it some way, thus the chase for perfection ‘from start to end’, although may produce something nice, most likely won’t lead me to what I wanted. Moreover, there usually exists a chance that I will fail to create anything meaningful at all.

Perfection requires major investments and a firm basement, which is to be built from something common and dirty. In the end, it is quite difficult to claim a cathedral a piece of art while it is being constructed from stone, steel, cement or clay, but no one will remember what its naked walls and empty windows looked like once it is finished. I believe that years ago my granny didn’t want to make me do my homework perfectly correct right away. What she meant was that I should start whichever way I like but not stop until the thing looks beautiful. 

понедельник, 21 октября 2013 г.

Visual C++: PCH is not for Precompiled Hell

Recently I have faced the problem with Intellisense performance in Visual Studio 2012 for C++ , caused by Precompiled Headers feature being disabled. After eye-parsing some pages on the web including MSDN itself, MSDN blogs, stackoverflow and some other, I have managed to make the thing work fast enough, so that it doesn’t prevent me from coding. Still I find both the issue as well as the solution to it to be pretty undocumented and will thus explain my findings here in the form of a walkthrough.

вторник, 8 октября 2013 г.

Testing: Factory Method

These days I am working slowly on a Windows Phone application. Making my first steps in this direction turned out to be quite frustrating, although this is a topic for another post. As a disciplined developer (ha!) I started the project with unit tests and while writing these I noticed that there is a thing that I do automatically now. Including a kind of factory method into each and every test class which I write has become a habit for me, saving a lot of time and effort.

понедельник, 9 сентября 2013 г.

Road to Chaos

A few of my recent posts are devoted to various chaotic systems, in which I must have pointed out that my exploration of Chaos Theory in its simplest forms started quite long ago. Now it is a lot of joy for me to remember how these beautiful things gradually came into my life to make up a small but important share of what I learn and do. It turns out that it was a sequence of loosely, if at all, connected events that led me to programming ferns and double loops, most of which were characterized by total absence of any link to science.

воскресенье, 25 августа 2013 г.

Python: Lorenz

If you follow my blog or have devoted at least a minute to run through the headings, you should know that I am a fanatic of Chaos Theory. Or rather, I am crazy about messing with very simple systems, which are related to the ideas of sensitive dependence on initial conditions, unexpectedly complex behavior and other stuff that the words ‘mathematical chaos’ bring to one’s mind. The key word here is ‘simple’, since, because of very modest math skills, during my exploration I kept avoiding things involving any non-trivial mathematics. The most notable here is the fact that I didn’t even try to approach the Lorenz system, whose phase portrait, along with the plots of Mandelbrot set, may be considered the symbol of the Chaos Theory. However, beside playing with the Barnsley fern the last month I also made up enough guts to try and code the most well-known chaotic system.

вторник, 6 августа 2013 г.

Clojure: Barnsley Fern

In addition to other pleasurable events, the last month I got as a gift yet another book devoted to the Chaos Theory – ‘Simply Chaos’ by Sergey Demenok (in Russian). This one vaguely reminds me of ‘Chaos: Making a New Science’ by James Gleick, since both aim mostly at attracting readers to science, explaining it to them and showing how beautiful it can be. Still they differ a lot, with ‘Simply Chaos’ being more joyful reading balancing on the boundary between historical and scientifical truth on one side and myth and fantasy on the other. This way the last book was a great and funny refresher, making me remember of some things, that fascinated me while I was reading the Gleick’s ‘Chaos’ a year and a half ago. Most notably, I faced the idea of Barnsley Fern once more.

вторник, 30 июля 2013 г.


Recently I came across an advice on blogging by John Sonmez – he recommends those willing to maintain a personal blog to post there regularly – best of all, according to a strict schedule. As a mature blogger and, at the same time, an athlete, he definitely knows what he’s talking about. On the other hand, in the last post I mentioned that employment made my life more ‘scheduled’ in a way that seems positive to me. This makes me search for some reason making regularities desired for us and helpful in achieving our goals.

First, it is easy to note that the things we do regularly determine what we are in the eyes of others. For instance, you are considered a software developer if you devote several days a week to software engineering activities. The same way, one is called an alcoholic if and only if they drink a lot of spirits and do that on a daily basis (more or less). However, obviously, John didn’t mean this simple fact – i.e. if you post every day, you are a blogger, period – advising to blog regularly. Similarly, I like the fact that now I work from 11 a.m. till 8 p.m. on average not merely because doing so allows me to deem myself a proper citizen, but because this gives me finer control over my life, and that is what makes following certain patterns in a constant and consistent manner so important.

Actually, regular behavior is what allows for fine control. The nature of this idea can be seen clearly when one views it the way control theorists and machine learners do. For those who build automated systems control is all about minimizing error – the difference between the observed and the desired behavior. What makes the engineering approach so valuable is that it begins with acknowledging the possibility – or, better, inevitability – of errors. The idea to do so is as obvious as different from what people (including me) usually do – when deciding to start something new we tend to believe that we’ll succeed easily and quickly, and the sun will shine. While the latter assumption is certainly true, there is a problem with the former – we do fail.

Let’s follow the engineer’s path: say we prepared ourselves for failing and are ready to go – what does it have to do with regularities? The trick is that to succeed one needs to fail a lot and to do that on a regular basis, thus opening the doors to controlling things. Achieving one’s goals is made possible by the flow of information generated by doing something regularly. Only if you continuously get this information it can help you move closer to your goals. Not only setting up a schedule of blog posts allows one to know instantly when they fail and to react as soon as possible – it permits looking back and understanding the nature of one’s mistakes, making it possible to perform better in future. Furthermore, one shouldn’t forget that we, humans, are in fact sophisticated control systems and behave, to some extent, in the same error-minimizing fashion. When we deviate from a well-established behavior pattern, we tend to return to it unconsciously. That is, we develop habits and this is another reason to evenly divide the way to your targets into carefully defined steps.

Having said this, I can easily explain why getting employed feels so positive to me even if I don’t take into consideration the obvious benefits of a challenging and well-paid job. Surprisingly, the great part is that the job takes a great deal of my time and does that in a regular manner. Combined with the time spent on commuting, having breakfast and lunch, plus some other ‘transactional expenses’, this leaves me with approximately 3 to 4 hours each working day to do some cool and valuable stuff not related to work. Knowing this figure and realizing that it won’t change, I am free from illusions of having a lot of time to tackle everything I want. Even more, whenever (quite often) I fail to spend this free time on something worthy I know precisely how much I lose. With this same principle applying to other resources – say, money – as well, I now have a lot of information to be more manageable.

Keeping all this stuff in my head, I do not search to eliminate any uncertainties and 'free will' completely, since that is both impossible and boring. Still, I believe that in case I want to succeed in something, I should work toward my aims regularly – with close to constant pace and in carefully allocated timeframes. This is almost as important as knowing precisely where I want to arrive.

суббота, 13 июля 2013 г.

The Candidate's Wishlist: Wrecked

After defending the diploma in the end of June I have finally got employed this week. I already feel how the job changes my life and get first benefits from it, but what is more interesting right now is the rapid mutation of my views on working as a programmer.
It is easy to track these changes because before engaging into a series of job interviews back in the last month I made up the so-called candidate’s wishlist – a set of about ten points, which I deemed important in the context of choosing a company to work for. What makes me speak of it here is the fact that some of the items are not fulfilled, though this makes me even happier with the new job.
One thing that I desired is a comfortable office. When composing my wishlist I tried to imagine the place where I would like to develop software: it had an A/C, a coffee maker and a teapot as well as other stuff of this kind – we have all of this. The workplaces with decent computers in my ideal office were distributed across several medium-sized rooms hosting three to five people each. That’s precisely where I failed: we have an open-space. I heard a lot of bad words about open-space and feared it a bit, but now I thank God for getting into this one. Although it makes the boundaries of my private zone elusive – almost non-existent – it is at the same time very friendly and welcoming. Being able to constantly see the colleagues around me working, engaging into passionate conversations regarding our progress and simply striding to and fro somehow motivates and, instead of distracting, helps to concentrate on doing my own job. After a couple of days there I truly believe that the way our office is organized plays a major role in making me a part of my new team – that’s something that, surprisingly, I have never heard about open-space.
On the other side, mere floor and walls – or their absence – can’t do much to improve and make easier one’s interaction with colleagues – that’s the people who make the difference. Upon coming to the office last Monday I found about three dozen interesting and kind men and women there, who are indeed willing to help me to get accustomed to the new job and environment. It turned out that not only my teamleader is concerned about my progress, but also other seniors do pay attention to what I do and, even though I am mostly learning new stuff now, they make me feel that I contribute a little to the progress of the whole company.
Beside the requirements to the office and the presence of experienced developers my wishlist included the desired size of the team – I thought that it should lie somewhere between five and eight people. The company failed this expectation as well – I am actually going to become the third guy working on a project and we don’t expect any more newcomers. At the same time, after the week on job I feel I can’t easily draw a line between our team and the others – we depend too strongly on those who do other pieces of work and they do depend on us to some extent. Due to this fact combined with the close to absolute availability of every colleague provided be the open-space I could say that the size of my team is about 30 developers, QAs and support engineers. This leads me to an interesting idea: the tradeoff between a small team and a large one is actually a tradeoff between the availability of many experienced colleagues to learn from and the ability to focus on a particular piece of work – software in my case – and the corresponding features and customers. It seems to me that the configuration with a very small team nested in a larger one and strongly connected with the latter’s other parts provides me both kinds of benefit. I know there are no silver bullets and free lunches and I might face some drawbacks in future, although I believe I am really lucky to have things laid out this way. Moreover, now I am not sure if organizing the development of the system of our kind is actually possible in some other fashion.
In addition to wrecking my wishlist this way, the job also affects my life outside the office significantly. I always stated that a full-time position is not only a source of income – it is a way to spend less as well. Now, as my spending halved, I have an actual proof of this hypothesis. Moreover, the positive outcomes of my employment are not limited just to the improved trade balance – I also smoke less and even procrastinate much less. On the other side, being obliged to work every day except weekends I can’t devote as much time to, say, this blog and my pet-projects as I used to. However, the lack of free time makes me manage it carefully to be able to do more. Combined with the fact that the job allows me to do something important for the company and its customers that’s a fair compensation. Finally, the ease with which I wake up these days confirms that I am pretty satisfied with my new employer and the regularities, which employment brought into my life.

воскресенье, 19 мая 2013 г.

Heading West

These days I am working hard on my diploma project. The defense is scheduled for the 26th of June, so I have a great and nervous month ahead. Obviously, finishing the six year course of study is an enjoyable achievement. Being an ending of one significant period of my life, this event will at the same time mark a beginning of another one and this new beginning worries me because I am still uncertain not only about the things that it will bring, but about the direction I should go from there as well. One particular opportunity to which I am encouraged is continuing my education in the form of pursuing Master's degree in CS in USA or Canada.
The idea is great and there are lot's of reasons to try. First of all, I like the process of learning new skills and getting knowledge, so the chances are high that I will enjoy another couple of years at university. At the same time, the fact that I lack trust in Russian system of higher education makes me look for an opportunity to deepen and broaden my own education elsewhere. Moreover, even if my assumption about the quality of university education being higher in America doesn't hold, it would still be great to explore new grounds and se what do things look like there. Another feature that makes a degree obtained abroad more valuable for me than one got in Russia is that, as it seems to me, western MS is valued much higher not only in US, Canada and Europe, but in Russia as well.
However, while there are huge benefits offered by Master's program in a good university, I see drawbacks as well. The most important of these is the fact that the path I want to go is the path of a software engineer. While mastering this field indeed requires descent education, what is even more crucial for a developer is actual experience in tackling real-world problems. Since I will hopefully get diploma in a month it may be better for me to get into industry instead of spending another 20 months or so on education. This point is made even stronger by the fact that I am almost 24 now and still have only minor job experience. Put another way, I feel it's time to focus on producing things - not only preparing myself for that. I acknowledge that it is possible to create great stuff even while studying at a university, although the word 'focus' is important here and the availability of numerous MOOCs allows me to not merely trade further education for job but to get both at the same time.
One more thing that really frightens me when it comes to studying abroad is money. The education alone costs a great deal and one has to take into account the cost of dwelling and other stuff as well. The price really seems too high for me and I am not sure whether I will be willing to pay it - no matter through loans or from my parents' pocket. On the other side, I do believe that generally these costs are fully justified by the merits one gets from university in the form of skills, new contacts and the degree itself. Although, because I am close to getting a degree it is not that easy to estimate the value of such an investment in comparison to going straight for a job.
Even with all the arguments laid out it is still very difficult for me to make any reasonable decision. The idea that should I choose to pursue Master's abroad it is better to do this as soon as possible also doesn't make the decision easier. Fortunately, these days I have to concentrate all my efforts on the diploma and put most other issues aside.

воскресенье, 21 апреля 2013 г.

C#: Side Effects and LINQ's Defferred Execution

It is difficult for me to imagine a program that doesn't deal with collections of some type – all our applications do proliferate with Arrays, Lists HashSets, DataTables and dozens of others. When writing code in C# the first tool I consider when faced with a collection is LINQ. Its capabilities combined with the fact that LINQ queries can be applied to nearly everything make it a very powerful tool saving a lot of time for any .NET developer. Still, no power comes for free and every piece of equipment must be used with some caution.
One of the paradigms widely used by LINQ is lazy evaluation. Most LINQ methods, although it seems that these just return results immediately, are actually deferred. What it means is that whenever you write something like var strings = myArray.Select(n => n.ToString()); the only thing done at the moment of execution of these lines is creation of a query object. Real work in this case is not approached until someone wants the results. This is a well-known fact about LINQ and generally doesn't do any harm. However, when the processing wrapped into LINQ queries is not pure in the functional sense of the word quite strange and difficult to track down problems may occur. Below I will try to demonstrate such a case. 

воскресенье, 24 марта 2013 г.

C#: LINQ and IEqualityComparer

When writing programs in C# with the help of LINQ I have come across the IEqualityComparer<T> generic interface several times. The name conveys the purpose of the interface clearly, still, surprisingly, my first attempts to apply it were marked by strong confusion - the thing merely didn't work the way I wanted it to. Moreover, after going to Google and StackOverflow I have noticed that I'm not the only one to face difficulties with it. After inspecting multiple SO questions and answers related to the topic as well as some other articles I have both found the solution that fitted my needs for the moment and got some understanding of the way IEqualityComparer is actually used by LINQ operators. Here I will try to explain what I got from there.

суббота, 2 марта 2013 г.

Tutorials Are Not That Bad

From the time when I started to study programming in earnest I somehow disdained tutorials of any kind. There are dozens of them in the world of programming as well as in any other field involving operations performed by means of a personal computer. These tutorials composed of exercises or tasks, which end up being long lists of "go-there-type-this-click-that"s, sometimes interleaved with descriptions of "note-how-the-thing-changes" kind jump at you whenever you type a query involving a name of some technology or tool in Google. Moreover, almost every book dealing with some technology - a programming language, for instance, - contains such exercises. Maybe, it is even safe to say that the more exercises a book of this kind contains the better it is, so I don't state that all tutorials are useless and hardly deserve any attention and I am not even going to discuss the wide range of their quality. What I say is basically that during several years of study I used to think that an exercise inviting me to reproduce its author's actions is not worth the effort.
Actually, most of the tutorials, which I came across while exploring various languages and techniques, were very helpful and provided me with valuable insights, thus leaving me no reasons to lament the time spent. Furthermore, I really appreciate the work of people who produce such things just to make their knowledge and expertise accessible to others. Still, I had a reason or an excuse - the latter sounds closer to reality - to avoid tutorials when pursuing my learning goals. My explanation is as plain as possible: I merely used to believe that trying to apply a thing that is being studied to your own problems or to compose such a problem yourself for the purpose of learning and attempt to deal with it is a much more efficient approach, because it leaves a lot of room to creativity. At the same time I doubted that dumbly following the track of a tutorial can be that helpful and educating. I don't reject the idea that creativity is a rich source of both skills and knowledge, although now I barely think that the low level of creativity inherent to the process of doing most tutorials makes them bad equipment for learning.

Indeed, it is easy to spot a flaw in my reasoning about the educational value of tutorials. Above I have stated that following a track of an exercise dumbly wont teach you much - chances are high that this particular claim is correct. What is false is my belief that the only way to do tutorials is the stupid one, because obviously one can thoroughly inspect every step of the tutorial they struggle with and think over each action that they perform. Such an approach, even though it is guided, turns out to be quite intelligent and efficient. Moreover it seems to me that it is very difficult to do tutorials dumbly - even when I begin an exercise merely following the instructions in it, sooner or latter I find myself noting interesting features and how-to's highlighted by the author and imagining how I could use the tricks in my own solutions. So it's hard for me to accept the fact that I used to yell that tutorials are not proper learning tools.
It must have been my eagerness to do my own stuff, to invent things that made me reject other's expertise in the form of tutorials, but there are too many obvious benefits offered by such exercises to ignore them. First of all, their authors try hard to make one's first steps in a field as easy and as efficient as possible, so they tend to focus on the key aspects and to draw one's attention to the most important things of the technology or the tool under study. Therefore a tutorial usually provides one with understanding of the basics underlying all other matters that one is going to deal with. This is notably important whenever you explore something quite complex, incorporating dozens of features and cluttered with details, the purpose of which is hardly understandable from the first glance. Such focusing on the basics, that is delivered by tutorials and saves one from being totally overwhelmed by complexity, is made possible solely by the vast experience of their creators. Beside this, there is one more thing that an experienced teacher can give you through pages of a tutorial, and it has to do with creativity. The problem is that creativity has a dark side - the side that leads one to an invention of complex solutions to simple problems, which were, in fact, solved long ago. Unnecessary complexity of this kind is produced in huge quantities by those who study new fields and, although frequently the students learn the right way to achieve their goals later, sometimes these beasts survive in the minds for quite a long time so that later they can creep, for example, into production code. While I strongly appreciate creativity and acknowledge that even inventing a bicycle once more can be educating and worthy, I still think that when one starts to learn something new, it may be better for them to be shielded from such things by the experience of those who know the proper ways.
An interesting thing that I have noticed about doing tutorials while exploring SQL Server Analysis Services with the help of one is that the closer I follow the instructions in the exercise, the more it gives my. I mean that when I carefully inspect each statement that the author makes - even when some points are repeated - I end up with much better understanding, than in case I leap over instructions that seem obvious or too dull to me. Definitely, this has to do with the fact that when I skip something I risk missing minor aspects that turn out to be quite important, and this leads to holes in my mental models. These gaps, in turn, tend to produce mistakes later, but may be hard to spot at the same time. On the other hand, when deliberately examining each sentence in an exercise I focus not on achieving a goal itself, but on learning a good way to achieve it. This frees me from pressure - particularly, from the desire to complete a task as fast as possible and to leap to another problem - and allows me to keep a comfortable pace, stopping whenever I need to explore some aspect more thoroughly or think about a question. Surprisingly, learning how to achieve a goal and achieving a goal are not the same activities.
This said, my takeaway from the last tutorial that I have done are not only new skills and knowledge, but the obvious idea that one should not ignore other's experience merely for the sake of doing their own things and producing their own results. Experts always have a lot to say to us - newcomers - and the insights provided by their instructions may be much more valuable than the product of one's creative attempts to master something from scratch. Moreover, such intelligent and wise instructions can even spur a lot of creativity in students because they tend to provoke interesting problems and make one look for the solutions. In the end, you always learn something through facing questions and answering them - tutorials just encourage you to ask the right ones.

понедельник, 4 февраля 2013 г.

Our Predictions Are Bound To Fail

Some years ago, when I did pay much attention to politics, I have found multiple articles by Valeriy Panyshkin (here is some info about the journalist, alas it's in Russian only), who wrote a lot about politics as well as numerous other problems, which one could see in Russia. Despite the fact, that many of his articles, opening my eyes to the things, which I didn't necessarily want to see, were somehow depressing, I read almost all of them. Moreover, even after I had become less concerned about these things - closing my mind once more - I continued to follow the man's writing. Interestingly, Valeriy gradually switched his attention from politics to a narrower set of issues - he got focused mostly on various problems that children and those who try to help them face in our country. He still highlights many other things too, although, as I see it, now, working with organizations that raise money for healing badly ill children or try to protect orphans' rights, he devotes most of his time, efforts and writing to these particular issues.
Recently I have read his article (the link - in Russian too) discussing a set of principles, upon which, according to Valeriy, every charity should base its work. The most surprising thing about the article was the idea that any organization of this kind must aim at ceasing its existence. Although this may seem a bad mission, the idea is quite simple and makes sense when elaborated. Valeriy doesn't claim that every charity should give up helping people and go find a more reasonable niche. What he states is that everyone who works in such a foundation should dream of the day when the problem, that he fights with, is finally solved: a treatment is found, which heals blood cancer in a matter of minutes, orphans receive such a crazy amount of support from government that life is as easy for them as it can be and so on. This way the main purpose of any charity is not only to help people, but to put its best efforts into improving the situation so that one day there will be no need for their help at all. This notion of aiming at becoming obsolete, although looked interesting, seemed to me something local to the field of charities at the first glance. However, it is easy to see that it is inherent (or, at least, should be) to many other kinds of activities and institutions - from medical research centers and police departments to ministries of Justice and parliaments.
Because I am a programmer it was particularly interesting for me to notice a trace of this idea in the world of software. First of all, there is a multitude of software development jobs, which pursue a goal of solving a particular problem, and once the solution is brought to life, its consumers, roughly speaking, don't need the awesome guys, who built it. However, this kind of relation between producers and consumers, although widely present in my field, is quite common elsewhere. Maybe its because it looks so usual, that it does not seem that interesting. It stays hardly exciting even if we consider all the benefits that many of us could get in case we did our best to make working with our products and extending them absolutely independent of our own presence. Still, I have finally stumbled upon another idea that looks somehow reminiscent of the principled proposed by Valeriy.
There is a system at my university that eases collection and aggregates information about the progress of students in the course of a semester as well as their performance during final exams. As I have undoubtedly mentioned in this blog, my diploma project is going to involve analyzing this data and making predictions based on it. What I want to do is to build a system that is capable of predicting the results of exams for a particular student from their performance during some part of a semester. Such a tool may be useful for faculty staff - for instance, they might want to know who's chances to be expelled are high way before exams. Wait a minute... The people, who teach and do different kinds of administrative work at the university pursue the goal of providing every student with quality education - they barely want anyone of their students to be expelled. So, for what sake would they want my software to say that certain students perform poor enough to fail examination and thus put an end to their education? The answer to this question is not subtle at all, because once you know that someone in your responsibility has serious problems - with study in our case - you gain a chance to help them. Thus, my system is not designed to allow teachers and other faculty staff to concentrate only on those students, who work well, but to draw their attention to those who may fail and to do this before it is too late to change anything. This way I am working on a system that will hopefully predict events that are not supposed to happen thanks to these same predictions. Furthermore, I am quite satisfied with this situation and will work hard to make its failed predictions as precise as possible. Clearly the notion of forecasts, that we make with the purpose of making them fail, is not equivalent to the idea of charities aiming at self-elimination, still I feel there is something similar to the nature of these two things.
Not surprisingly, I am not the only one who strives to make precise forecasts to see them fail in the end. The most popular example of applying machine learning techniques, demonstrated in various courses devoted to the subject, is predicting whether a patient is going to have cancer (or has it already.) When such a thing is done by medics outside the lecture-room, their main goal is to save a patient from the disease. The same holds for exploiting data on cardiac arrests or CVAs - healthcare field is rich with examples of this kind, as many other areas are. For instance, analysis of constructions is usually performed to find flaws in them and discover where the thing should be strengthened so that no disaster will happen - not to know where to strike. Aircrafts and vessels are overseen to avoid collisions, which are predicted first. The list is quite long and there is no need to continue it, because my point should be clear already.
Actually activities of this kind took place much earlier than the first computer was built. People always tried to foresee things, which they wish didn't happen, and they did this not only because of the desire to know the future, but because they knew that as soon as one is aware of bad things ahead, one can escape or prevent these. So I am not opening something new - I just feel fascinated by the simplest idea that was here since the first days of humanity or even earlier. The invention of computers merely gave us new powerful tools and techniques to foresee things, and it seems astonishing to me, how frequently we try hard to make precise predictions that are bound to fail just because we do succeed.

понедельник, 28 января 2013 г.

Software Bucket

I have recently come across a short blog post devoted to having a personal list of software pieces, that one wants to develop - a software bucket. Of course it was interesting for me to think over the possible contents of my own bucket. The first lines of my list are occupied by the things I am currently working on. The topmost is definitely a simple tool for arranging personal tasks. I know that there are plenty of such applications, nevertheless I have decided to create one more - mainly because I want a tool, which is as convenient for me as possible, and hope that someone else might also find it useful.
I have originally come to the idea of creating such an application almost a year ago, but it was only in the end of October when I have finally made up a deadline for the first version of the tool. Being fascinated by the new Windows 8 OS I have chosen to deliver my app through the Windows Store. The key advantage of this approach is that it will provide me with both the means of distributing my creation and the feedback channel - in case someone downloads the application. Beside that, Windows Store applications development feels quite suitable for me because I have got reasonable experience with .NET development and, particularly, with Windows Presentation Foundation.
Despite having done a significant share of work, I have missed the initial deadline, but feeling ashamed for this I have already set up the new one. I feel determined not break one more promise given to myself. After delivering the first version, on which I am working now, I plan to continue expanding this project and add some more features to help me and  potential users plan activities in even more effective manner. I will struggle to avoid making the app overloaded with details and inconvenient, so that other Windows 8 users will be able to consider it helpful and easy to use.
Another thing in the bucket is my current job project - I am developing a little toolset for generating manufacturing-related reports from the data provided by a complex PDM-system. Although the task may seem not very interesting, I feel quite absorbed with it, because it offers me a great chance to practice TDD and refactoring techniques to build and deliver an efficient and reliable piece of software, which is capable of giving valuable help to our customers. Additionally, I believe that the need to continuously align the thing to fresh portions of requirements will build me up towards multiple challenges that I will face in future.
On the other side, I was stupid enough not to test drive the application from the first steps, so it developed in a way which is far from perfect. However, I feel surprisingly glad about that, because for me this is an opportunity to feel all the pain caused by my own code and design decisions - now I am refactoring the project and supporting it with automated tests. Lots of interesting details of this piece of software and decisions made while working on it, as well as the desire to clean and develop it further, make it an important part of my software bucket.
One more item on the list, which is easy to come by, is my diploma project. This one is going to be a data analysis tool for monitoring students' progress data in my university and making predictions based upon it. I am not sure whether there is a substantial chance for it to be adopted and used by the university staff, nevertheless it provides me with important experience and offers a lot of interesting opportunities. First of all, I would like to explore existing data analysis tools and techniques and to adopt some of these to real data. Besides, while working on the project I have to use an external system, which is aggregating and providing the data consumed by my application. The fact that I have been working with it for a considerable period has taught me to put significant effort into shielding my own creations from the fluctuations in the consumed systems' behavior - positively, that's an important lesson. In this sense this looks a bit like my job project, where my tools retrieve data from an external system. My diploma and job feel even more similar because both have something to do with reporting activities, although the projects focus on different problems. The key aspect of the former is data analysis, while the latter revolves around providing flexible data retrieving and processing tools to bridge the gap between the PDM-system, that our customers use, and the reporting engines. My work on the diploma project, as I see it, will involve facing multiple software development problems, learning new techniques and, hopefully, obtaining valuable results - the project is worth the effort.
The rest of my software bucket looks much less clear. Being fascinated by the world of software development and its numerous applications, I cant say where exactly I want to direct my work. Moreover, I love the process of designing, writing and testing programs so much, that it is very easy for me to build things merely for the sake of building things. I feel that's a problem and I have to fight this passion sometimes, because it prevents me from focusing on the issues that are truly important, and not only is it harmful to me, but it can also become a source of pain for my employers and customers. On the other hand, this same passion for software allows me to make out a couple of things, which are attracting me as a young developer.
Among these things one can find code analysis tools. I have come across multiple mentions of such software recently and it so happened, that the idea to contribute to some open-source project to taste the idea of open-source myself has come to me almost at the same time. That's why I plan to search for a project in Clojure, which will allow me to practice understanding others' code and design, to make contributions to a system that may feel alien to me and to better understand functional programming and Clojure itself. I don't really limit the search to code analysis projects only - I acknowledge these may be absent - but I feel eager to work on a project of this particular kind, as this may help both in understanding the ideas behind code analysis and writing better programs.
All the items listed above are united by the concept of tool - they are designed to assist users with their work and provide them with some solutions to the problems, which they face in some area of their life. At the same time any tool is marked by the lack of autonomy and relies heavily on the signals from its consumer. No hammer drives a nail into wall itself - it always needs a person who will pound it on the nail. Definitely, that's not the only way software can function, and I really wish to participate in building an entity, that is capable of analyzing situation on it's own, making sensible decisions and acting correspondingly. I cant say that I am fully determined to work on, say, self-driving car, but I suppose that the area of autonomous (and autonomously developing) systems - either robotics or less physical applications of AI - may turn out quite suitable for me. Anyway, it won't be easy for me to reject an opportunity in the field.
The key aspect of such a 'self-driving' system is the ability to function in a self-directed manner without a flow of instructions from human operator, who serves as a link between the thing and the world around it. The idea that 'reality' of this world may be varied - in the sense that the world of the thing need not be the same as the world where I write these paragraphs - combined with my affection for video games leads to another piece in my software bucket: creating an AI for a video game is a challenging task. While I can hardly imagine earning my living in the game development industry, I could sooner or later participate in some open-source game project. Although the game development field may seem not serious, I still think that it can sometimes serve as a source of inspiration and insight for other, more serious areas. Furthermore, my minor attempts to create some simplistic computer games showed me that this kind of work is highly paying in emotional sense, because it is always amazing to play with your own creations.
So these projects and ideas constitute my software bucket today, although due to the reasons mentioned above the growth and expansion of the list are barely constrained. This said, I will have to practice saying 'no' a lot in the near future to avoid getting torn apart by my own curiosity and desire to build things. Still, I hope that willingness to say 'yes' will guide me towards doing what I can do best and therefore must do.

среда, 2 января 2013 г.


Recently (well, that is several months ago), I have changed the name of this blog from meaningless 'Not that important notes' to something that seems at worst equally meaningless, but probably less irrelevant. To make sense of it I should explain what I feel courage is.
First of all, there is the common meaning of the word 'courage' which deals with being not prone to fear. Because I am very diffident person it is sometimes quite difficult for me to share notes with other people - especially when it comes to the things written in English, since I know that my language skills are far from excellency. This way it turns out that while posting something to the blog - including this particular entry - I am in fact exercising my courage. The quality of being open to others and not afraid of sharing my thoughts and ideas is of great importance. I believe that the blog helps me foster this trait, so the new title apparently makes some sense.
On the other hand, writing itself allows me to better understand different aspects of the things I deal with in any area of my life as well as the ways I am dealing with them, thus directly or indirectly improving my decision making skills. This reminds me of the definition given by a samurai in Hagakure:
To rush in to the thick of battle and to be slain in it is easy enough, and the merest churl is equal to the task, but it is true courage to live when it is right to live, and to die only when it is right to die.
Although Hagakure is a book for warriors written by a warrior, the quote suggests that courage is not about being able to get into battle without any hesitation or fear. Instead it states that courage is more of an ability to know what to do next. Such a quality is as important for warriors as it is for software developers and for everybody else. Beside this, it is required and at the same time hard to master for me as a young man, because being a man, as opposed to a child, has a lot to do with making my own decisions and dealing with their consequences. Thus, as the blog is used to communicate ideas - and its title is not an exception of any kind - I am communicating an idea: courage is very important both for me and you.
One more quote encourages me to value courage so high:
Courage is a litmus paper for all other human qualities.
I am not sure where does this definition originate from and don't even remember who is its author. However, what I feel sure about is the fact that this blog may serve as a good test or indicator for all my personal traits.