Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Ok vs. Silence

The very origins of DOS and Windows tells you something about the way it works now. I remember reading that in the original piece of software that Microsoft was hired to write, BASIC for the original IBM PC, one of the most difficult tasks was to get the interpreter to fit into the memory they had available in the machine's ROM. We're talking very primitive hardware here, and quite the engineering feat to work within those constraints.

One of their decisions speaks volumes about the philosophy that suffuses much of Microsoft software today. Because memory was so tight, they couldn't afford the number of bytes to print the traditional "READY>" on the screen, so they chose "Ok>" instead. If any of you remember using the BASIC built-in to the original PC, you'll remember that "Ok>" prompt.

Why say anything at all? If resources were tight, why not just provide a simple prompt when everything is OK? Like ">"? This is exactly what the Unix guys did when they needed to be frugal with resources -- they invented the idea that "no news is good news".

Take this simple distinction, "Ok" vs. "Silence", and multiply it by millions of lines of code and decades of development. What you end up with is the most annoyingly chatty software you can imagine, Windows and Office. They constantly pester me about things I don't care about ("You have un-used icons on your desktop", "You're network cable is unplugged", "Let me go harvest clip-art from the Internet for you", etc.). An alternative is Mac OS X, which is sublimely quiet most of the time, and of course command-line Unix which is positively mute (until it needs to tell you something that you really need to know).

Obviously, chatty software annoys me (I've blogged about shortcuts to turn off some of the annoying balloons in Windows before). But I had never thought about why it is that way until I remembered that, when given the choice between silence and verbosity, Bill and Paul chose the latter.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Bearable Moments

Friends and family, when they discover that I've written several technical books, ask me if I ever plan to write a novel. My stock response to that is "No! -- Writing a novel would be much more difficult for me, because in technical writing you just describe stuff, whereas in a novel, you have to create an entire internally consistent universe from whole cloth.".

Which makes Christopher Judd's Bearable Moments such a remarkable achievement. I've known Chris for years, and he's written a couple of fine technical books (Pro Eclipse JST: Plug-ins for J2EE Development and Enterprise Java Development on a Budget: Leveraging Java Open Source Technologies. Now, he's written his first children's book, Bearable Moments. One of the most daunting tasks facing any writer (no matter what the genre) is understanding and empathizing with the intended audience. To me, that makes writing a children's book one of the toughest jobs a writer can face. Hat's off to Chris -- I hope his venture into non-technical publishing garners him the accolades he deserves.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Is Struts Over?

At ApacheCon last week, I finally met some developers for whom I have great respect: Ted Husted, Craig McClanahan, and one of the original authors of WebWork (unfortunately, I didn't get his name). It was nice to finally meet these guys, even if it was during a train wreck. About the wreck in a second, but first why I can talk about said wreck. I have no small insight into the web framework world -- I did after all write a book just over 2 years ago (Art of Java Web Development) featuring Struts (the King of the Castle at that time), Tapestry, and WebWork. I think my crystal ball wasn't bad for those 3 particular frameworks. I've been giving conference talks on framework comparisons since the book came out, as well as conducting some Birds of a Feather sessions on web frameworks. All this credentializes me in the web framework space.

I bring this up for 2 reasons. First, I think the original Struts succeeded in no small part because it was simple. If you knew how request-response worked, and you knew a few design patterns, you could figure out most of Struts in about a day. Meanwhile, the competition (Tapestry, Turbine, WebWork) were a bit more complex. This is back in the day when people weren't even sure you needed a web framework -- most people were just rolling their own. Along came Struts, which managed to hit the sweet spot of solving some problems without being too big or complex. If you spend some time with them, I think that WebWork and Tapestry are better conceived frameworks (with totally opposite approaches). Note that this was a million years before Ruby on Rails was even a glint in DHH's eyes.

The second reason I bring this up was because I found myself in a Birds of a Feather session on Struts at ApacheCon. And my distinct impression was that of moving deck chairs on the Titanic. The big news of late, of course, is the merging of WebWork into Struts. But, at the same time, the Shale extension of Struts is rolling right along. There was a great deal of discussion about how to manage to reconcile these two fundamentally different paths (action framework vs. component framework). And, unfortunately, all these efforts apparently will appear under the Struts name.

I understand the software geek drive to always reach higher and further. But I think you also need objective perspective about what you've created. Based on my observations, the Struts team has completely lost that perspective. My solution? Keep Struts right where it is, a nice simple web framework with very low barrier to entry. Go ahead and enhance WebWork (and call it WebWork), and go ahead and work on Shale (and call it Shale). Trying to make Struts into an integration platform with lots of complex moving parts kills the one thing that Struts truly has going for it: simplicity in the face of ever growing complexity in the web framework space. For the polar opposite of simplicity, see Faces, JavaServer.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Ruby for Java Developers at ApacheCon

About 6 months ago, I submitted several abstracts to ApacheCon, and two were chosen. The first was cross-language Regular Expressions, which is no big surprise, given my history with that topic. The other selection surprised me: Ruby for Java Developers. This is a talk I have prepared for No Fluff, Just Stuff, but never had a chance to deliver it (you don't get to do Ruby talks when at the same conference as Dave Thomas, nor would I want to). During the interim, Ruby has gathered even more steam, so I was anxious to give this talk and see what kind of interest was present. I talked to several people over lunch about Ruby, and everyone I talked to at the conference said they were interested my talk.

The appointed time arrived, and I wasn't disappointed. They booked it in the large keynote room, and I had over 100 people for the talk. I had to rush a bit because I had too much material (I'm sure those of you who know me will be shocked by that), but the talk turned out really well. I ran up to and slightly into the afternoon coffee break, so I made the offer for people to stick around and ask questions after the talk. I had about 10 people come up and ask me about various aspects of Ruby, and everyone was interested and engaged.

I've been positioning myself both within ThoughtWorks and externally as a pragmatist on Ruby. I really like Ruby, but I'm not ready to sell the farm on more mainstream languages yet. Ruby has tremendous potential, but there are still hard problems to be solved in Ruby before it can storm the castle walls of Java and .NET. I fully believe that those problems will fall (and I think ThoughtWorks will solve many of them, just as we solved problems in Java and .NET). Of all the candidates for "Next Big Thing", Ruby is the clear, ahead of the pack contender.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Stalking Dr. Hawking

I don't really understand the weird fetishization of celebrity in the US. It seems that everyone wants to meet someone famous and get a piece of them. What's up with autographs? What does it mean that you got someone you admire to sign a piece of paper?

I understand the desire to meet and talk to the people I admire. But, going up to a famous person and being able to enter a real conversation with them is absolutely impossible. Because nuts stalk famous people, they must always be on their guard.

Because I feel this way, I have never approached anyone to shake their hand or get an autograph -- it's utterly meaningless. Besides, there are very few people in the world whos stature I would consider worthy of an autograph. I almost walked over one of them a couple of weeks ago.

During my last trip to San Francisco, my friend Terry and I went to Beethoven's opera Fidelio. Terry was calling home, so I was walking around the beautiful opera house. As I rounded a corner, I came upon a really elaborate wheel chair. I thought to myself "Wow, that's a really elaborate Stehen-Hawking-style wheel chair". Then I walked around the front and nearly bumped into...Stephen Hawking! I remembered reading that he was in town lecturing in San Jose while I was in San Francisco. Of course, even if I wanted to get something silly like an autograph, his advanced state of Lou Gerhig's disease would make it cumbersome. As much as I'm not star struck, it was a little amazing to be so close to such a great man. If ever there was someone worthy of adoration, I would vote for him long before the pop star of the week. I hope he enjoyed the opera!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A Year at the No Fluff Round Table

The last No Fluff, Just Stuff show of the year just wrapped up a few weeks ago in Denver. My travel schedule has been pretty brutal lately (in fact, I spent the week between No Fluff Dallas and No Fluff Denver at another conference in San Francisco), so in a way I'm glad that my weekend travel is winding down for the year (just one more conference for the rest of the year, ApacheCon). I was surprised, though, at how much I dreaded the end of the show in Denver. I've made real friends with speakers on the tour this year, and the propect of not seeing any of them for 3 or 4 months affected me more than I thought it would. When you do a series like this, you end up taking for granted many of the less obvious features, like when you will see your friends again. Then, the series is over for the year, and there is no upcoming event.

This has been a great year for me at No Fluff. I ended up doing 14 shows this year, several more than I had planned, but I'm certainly glad I did. I've blogged about the extraordinary level of attendees before, and they help make the weekend fly by. But the other thing that drives me from my home for a dozen+ weekends a year is the chance to get to hang out with the other speakers.

Back in the 1920's, a group of writers, actors, and other artists started gathering a few times a week at the Algonquin hotel restaurant. This group included Dorothy Parker and Harpo Marx, among others (for a great movie that depicts this group and era, check out Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle). According to legend, the Algonquin Round table discussions were the wittiest in history because they had gathered the quickest wit in New York at that time, which was the best in the world. Here are a few samples:

Robert Sherwood, reviewing cowboy hero Tom Mix: "They say he rides as if he’s part of the horse, but they don’t say which part."

Dorothy Parker: "That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them."

George S. Kaufman: Once when asked by a press agent, "How do I get my leading lady’s name into your newspaper?" Kaufman replied, "Shoot her."

No Fluff has created a geek version of this same phenomenom: the speaker's dinner. On Saturday night, the speakers go somewhere and eat, and every one of those gatherings ends up being the most fascinating coversation you can imagine. All these brilliant guys, gathered to talk about what they've been thinking about all week that they can't discuss with their spouse. I've had more revelations over food during the last year than I probably had my entire life leading up to this year. So, while I'm glad to spend some time at home, I can't wait for the next gathering of the No Fluff Round Table next year -- I'm sure that we will all have several months worth of pent-up discussion just waiting.