Content from 2013-03


posted on 2013-03-26 10:24:00

It's been a while since I posted some poetry. Since I'm pretty sure I'll need glasses in the next year, here's a piece by Milosz about eyes.


  My most honorable eyes, you are not in the best of shape.
  I receive from you an image that is less than sharp,
  And if a color, then it's dimmed.
  And you were a pack of royal greyhounds once,
  With whom I would set out early mornings.
  My wondrous quick eyes, you saw many things,
  Lands and cities, islands and oceans.
  Together we greeted immense sunrises
  When the fresh air set us running on trails
  Where the dew had just begun to dry.
  Now what you have seen is hidden inside me
  And changed into memories or dreams.
  I am slowly moving away from the fairgrounds of the world
  And I notice in myself a distaste
  For the monkeyish dress, the screams and the drumbeats.
  What a relief. To be alone with my meditation
  On the basic similarity in humans
  And their tiny grain of dissimilarity.
  Without eyes, my gaze is fixed on one bright point,
  That grows large and takes me in.

So Close and Yet So Far

posted on 2013-03-16 12:22:00

Famiclom Progress

"Low-level programming is good for the programmer's soul." - John Carmack, via ahefner

"What I like about Lisp is that you can feel the bits between your toes." - Drew McDermott, via Michael Weber


I never did enough systems programming. In college, I actually convinced my Operating Systems professor to let me do the course project in lisp. So when I decided I wanted to get closer to the metal a year ago, I thought I'd look into Nintendo emulation with Common Lisp rather than systems hacking with C. Besides, my needs for a web server or other daemons were filled. So I embarked on that weird journey and came out with a shiny, readable, reasonably fast 6502 CPU emulator in under 800 lines of code. It even has an assembler and disassembler!

Announcing Famiclom version least-positive-fixnum

But a CPU emulator isn't much fun. No graphics, no sound, no I/O! After a break from September through January I got back to work in earnest a month ago. It started with getting Klaus Dorfmann's exhaustive correctness tests for the CPU added to my testsuite and a lot of bugfixing. Then I used pcwalton's lovely Rust code as inspiration and started getting the memory mappers and PPU (graphics) working with lispbuilder-sdl. So far we only support NROM mapped games though MMC1 should be coming soon(tm). As you can see at the top of the post, there are still some rendering bugs to work out. All testing so far has been done on CCL and SBCL on Linux.

Current Status

The good news is that the CPU, PPU, and .nes file reading are all done in ~1570 lines of Lisp code! The CPU in particular I think makes for quite nice reading at this point. The main NES code still needs work. The bad news is that while the CPU runs at 2-3x the speed of the NES the graphics are about 15-20x slower so I'm going to have to spend some time optimizing. I'm in #lisp on freenode regularly and would love advice or patches from any low-level SBCL or lispbuilder-sdl hackers. :)

Where to next?

  1. Preliminary input handling is written, hook it into the main event loop.
  2. Finish MMC1 loader. Get Mega Man 2 title screen loading at least.
  3. Fix rendering bugs and try to play a few games.
  4. Optimize and/or add audio support!

On Inaction

posted on 2013-03-04 16:28:00

Seeing Value

I've been experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect a lot lately. At least, I've been feeling like a fraud. And while I could list reasons I'm not a great programmer, asking why I felt like a fraud has led me to something more interesting. I don't think I've worked at a company where I knew "where the money is coming from". What does that mean exactly?

  • I haven't worked for a company whose revenue comes from a product I use or want to use.
  • I haven't worked for a company in an "obvious" growth market.
  • The software I write generates revenue indirectly through customers I never interact with.

All of this creates a surprising problem for me: The value I add is opaque from my perspective. I take it on the word of my superiors and peers that any value is present. This makes it essential that I trust and enjoy working with those people.

The Mythical Customer

It might not be immediately apparent why this is a problem. Find a company with decent people and culture and you don't need to be directly connected to the product or customers. Just churn out code and have fun. Advertisers will foot the bill. While it's true that you can sustain a business this way it certainly isn't ideal. The issue comes from just how decoupled the product becomes from the revenue. When it's time to grow revenue, you have to do it by attracting more eyeballs. Here's how that works:

  1. A Product Manager decides on new features or a UI overhaul to increase site traffic.
  2. Programmers implement those features with small tweaks and adjustments.
  3. The changes are released and traffic is measured for an increase. A good shop will use A/B testing to try and at least ground these decisions in data.
  4. Improved numbers are sent to advertisers to garner more customers and/or revenue.

But Product Managers are not users. Programmers are not users. Advertisers are not users. Sure, we use the product some to verify the code works during testing but we're not invested in it. A/B testing is not the same as user input. There is also no requirement that you correlate traffic with actual perceived value. Many companies just read traffic AS perceived value. Frankly, that's bullshit. Our loyalty is necessarily to the advertisers. They pay us...but the users are the real customers. The product just happens to be paid for by collecting data about how they use it.

So What?

Thus far, none of this should surprise anyone who has worked in the tech industry. Hell, this shouldn't surprise anyone with a Facebook account. It points however to a serious cultural problem in many tech companies: not letting (or demanding) your technical experts be, well, technical experts. A friend of mine calls this "{} for $". Many people rant about this as "Taylorism in software". It cannot be overstated that no programming paradigm nor software engineering methodology will eliminate the need to connect engineers to the product. Similarly, letting the engineers take the reigns is not anathema to good product design or improved value to the business. And this is not new. Quoth Don Eastwood in a 1972 Status Report on MIT's Incompatible Timesharing System:

"In general, the ITS system can be said to have been designer implemented and user designed. The problem of unrealistic software design is greatly diminished when the designer is the implementor. The implementor's ease in programming and pride in the result is increased when he, in an essential sense, is the designer. Features are less likely to turn out to be of low utility if users are their designers and they are less likely to be difficult to use if their designers are their users."

Earlier in the report, Eastwood says, The system has been incrementally developed almost continuously since its inception. Hello, agile kids. I'll say it again. Any company pretending that software engineering methodology or a given technology replaces the need to connect engineers with what they're building deserves to be skewered. The reason knowing "where the money is coming from" is so essential is that software is different than any other product in history. Because the design in a fundamental sense is the product. If you don't know what I'm talking about, I'd encourage you to watch Glenn Vanderburg's talk from RailsConf 2011. If your engineers don't understand the reason for what they're building, then the product can at best accidentally support the business. If you think you or your company can just scrape by for your whole career without getting eaten, I'd encourage you to reevaluate that assumption.

Finding Alternatives

One big reason most companies are hierarchies more concerned with maintaining market position than creating value is the inherent risk. Real growth comes from bets and empowering people to change what's needed to find "a better way" or "The Right Thing"...and that's terrifying. Few individuals or institutions have the guts, bravery, and stamina for continuous reinvention. It's exhausting. Not to mention that it puts the focus squarely on a company's employees. It seems our best chance at winning big comes from those kinds of risks though. Github and Valve's experiments in distributed management are a brilliant step in this direction.

In the Interim

A lot of what has had me feeling like a fraud is remembering how much I have to learn. Learning is a kind of reinvention itself though and one of the reasons I've loved computers since the beginning. So I'll keep learning and next time I'm in a programming interview, I look forward to asking the other hackers, Do you know where the money is coming from?

Unless otherwise credited all material Creative Commons License by Brit Butler