Friday, May 31, 2013

Losing Interest

When I started working as a programmer most days were good, some days were mediocre, and the rare day was bad. By the time I took the better part of a year off in 2009 it was rarely good, mostly mediocre and sometimes bad. The nature of the work hadn't changed but my interest in the core activity, writing code, dwindled to the point that on more days than not it was a chore. All it took to turn a normal day into a bad day would be one bug being re-opened, or one stupid css quirk. Starting a new job reset the balance, but the slide was faster each time. Now most days it takes an active feat of will to get into the frame of mind I need to be in to write code, and I'm just plain tired of working on software. I am tired of compilers, tired of failed builds, tired of cryptic bug reports, tired of unhelpful stack traces, tired of obstinate and obscure APIs,  and so damned tired of merge conflicts.

It's not as melodramatic as that makes it sound, though. I like writing code but I don't like it enough to do it forty hours a week any more, or to do it when I don't want to. I'm in a position where I don't have to, so I'm not going to.

So, being able to do so, I've quit my job. I am now going to waste my savings hanging around doing nothing (my true calling), then probably going overseas to visit friends, and hopefully figuring out something I do want to do full time. Until I lose interest in that after a few years, I guess.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Key


Two stories from my first year of high school, or middle school as Americans would call it. Maybe. I was eleven years old and it was a new school, whatever that means in your part of the world.

As part of our day one orientation the head of the year, a cantankerous old bastard, explained a few simple rules. I think the school, being a private boys school, felt obliged to have few old men teachers floating around the traps, giving the impression that they missed nothing more than being able to cane students, and generally adding an air of authenticity to the private school experience. Anyway, among the rules meted out that day were "if you lose your locker key, a new one costs five dollars" and "you must put your name on all your stationery including pencil cases".

Some time during the first week I left my pencil case behind in a class. It goes without saying that my name was not on my pencil case, nor was my name the pens, the protractor, calculator, or any of the arcana that makes up an eleven years old's essential stationery. Late in the week we had an assembly. At some point Mr Cantankerous held up a green tartan pencil case and said "This pencil case has no name on it, so I don't know who to return it to." I put up my hand despite the embarrassment that was suggesting I will myself to disappear. He ignored my upraised arm, opened the pencil case and tipped the contents on the ground. "Does anyone recognise this as theirs?" I had to stand up, gather up all my things, put them into the pencil case, and skulk back to my seat in front of everyone. In my memory it was the whole grade of over a hundred, but maybe it was only our class of thirty. A hundred or thirty is a meaningless distinction to a boy in his first week at a new school. That night I named all of my school equipment.

Back to the first day. I received my locker key and, having never had to look after keys before, threw it into one of the myriad pockets provided by a school uniform. Not more than a fortnight later I was no longer able to find my key and trudged, shamefaced, to pay for a new key from Mr Cantankerous. Based on the pencil case incident I was expecting this to be some sort of nightmarish event but aside from enduring a glare of disappointment, it was cordial enough. Assuming it had been a once off, I threw the key into a pocket and went about my schoolyard business. Three weeks later, back to Mr Cantankerous who gave me a small lecture and provided me a new key. This time I took the key and placed it carefully into a pocket. Later the very same week, I was back to get another key. I can't remember exactly what word he used, Mr Cantankerous was not predisposed to using names, it was probably "son" or something like that. "Son," he (probably) said, "what are you using for a keyring? Because it's clearly not working." I replied that I didn't have a keyring and that I just kept my key in a pocket. He sighed, opened the third drawer of his desk and revealed a glittering array of keyrings. They were probably all the lost and found keyrings owned by a man who had taught absent minded boys for thirty years, but I like to think it was a curated collection, a different type of keyring for each type of scatterbrain. He took from the drawer a large steel keyring, the type that can clip onto a belt, heavily scratched and pitted, and handed it to me. "Put the key on this, and I don't want to see you in here again this year."

I used that keyring until I graduated from university almost ten years later, and only changed when the spring mechanism in it gave out. By contrast I still struggle to keep track of a pen for more than a week, and I don't put my name on anything I own.

Next week's word is keepsake.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Just


Over my years as a software developer I have developed a pet peeve in the form of the word "just". Not all uses of it, mind you, most of them are fine. If you want to use it to mean "fair" then you have my blessing, ditto if you mean "only barely". There is one way you can slide the word into a sentence that makes my blood boil and that's to use it as a qualifier. An email that asks "could you just change the blutagger so that it frambozzes the pofrog instead of nanupping it?" or a feature request that suggests "just moving the error message so that it aligns with the left margin" is a guaranteed way to make me fume.

It's not something that annoys me much in isolation but, like lead poisoning, it builds up over the course of a project until it reaches toxic levels (please note I am not an expert on lead poisoning and this analogy may be totally inaccurate but I wanted to avoid mentioning straws and camels). The source of my annoyance is twofold.

Firstly, it makes the assumption that the requested change or bug fix is simple. I find it incredibly
frustrating when someone who doesn't know anything about programming, let alone the specifics of a piece of software, tells me how easy it will be to change something. This goes double in those all too common situations where the feature was far more difficult to implement than originally expected. Spending two days getting some css working in half a dozen different browsers only to have someone ask to have the header "just a little bit thinner" is infuriating.

Secondly, the repeated use of "just" in this way feels like a steady passive aggressive dig that the work isn't being done fast enough, as though it beggars belief that there are still defects when the developers "just" need to fix them.

Obviously people do it without thinking and without intending to cause discontent, I understand that. Nobody writes a bug report with the aim of irritating the developers (or at least I like to think they don't). It's not a deliberate trivialisation, it's a subconscious caveat made all the time when asking for favours to emphasise that it's a little thing. It's a word people use to imply that they wouldn't ask if it wasn't such a trivial request. When given the opportunity of using the written word, though, just give it some more thought.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

There Their They're

There's no functional reason for me to wear matching shoes. After all, if I have a left and right shoe on then they're achieving their purpose of protecting my feet. If I wear my t-shirt back to front and inside out then my clothes are keeping me warm and (thankfully) protecting those around me from Bice nudity. It's easier and quicker for me to get dressed like this, grabbing what's nearby and pulling it on without paying attention to convention. Of course, if that's the decision I make then I can reasonably expect friends to think I'm a slob, strangers to think I'm weird, and clients to think I'm unprofessional. There's a well established norm for wearing clothes and if you don't adhere to it, judgement will be rendered.

For exactly the same reason, just because the same intent can generally be communicated using "whose" and "who's", or "it's" and "its", it doesn't follow that people who don't make the effort to write correctly shouldn't be judged for their decision. So go ahead and approach spelling like a lucky dip, but don't get angry at me if I assume you're an idiot when you do.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Jubilee


It was a well proportioned room in an old building on St James Street, where 'rich' was an assumed adjective on every piece of furniture and every fixture. That or 'sumptuous'. It was normally well lit with establishment types guffawing at borderline witticisms and wagering obscene amounts on absurd events, but some nights a more subdued environment was preferred. Or as one of the gentlemen present had put it "something with a bit of bloody class about it would be a good start." Flames oozed from a glowering pile of coals, providing enough light to outline the edges of the deep-backed seats and nothing more.
"It's quite astonishing when you give it some thought," said a voice from the shadows of one chair. There was a hint of whiskers about the voice, waxed of course, and strong overtones of a beaky nose.
"Huh?" The wobble in the voice from the other chair as it roused from fireplace reverie suggested jowls.
"I said that it is astonishing."
"Did you happen to say what is astonishing?"
"Not yet."
"I don't suppose," said as a sigh, "that you will do so soon?"
"I never miss your conversation, no matter how long we are apart. Anyway," he paused, and his next words were clearly after taking a drink of whatever was in the decanter on the table between them. "It is astonishing how few of them get to fifty. The most careful and cared for life one could possibly ask for, and yet this is only the fourth to get to fifty years."
"Fifth I think."
"Really? There's this one, Victoria obviously, that Edward, was it the second?"
"Third," came the rumbled reply.
"Third then, and the little Henry. Who did I miss?"
"George the third."
"He was around for fifty years?"
"Sixty in the end."
"I don't remember much of him if I'm being truthful. Besides the whole Napoleon unpleasantness of course."
"As I recall, you spent most of the time quite dissolute in the southern parts of Italy."
"Hah, yes! No worse than your stay with the Spaniards in the late fifteenth, to be fair. Now that was a bacchanal of the highest order."
"Indeed it was. Most enjoyable. I don't believe I was truly sober for nearly a quarter of a century." A few moments of nostalgia passed accompanied by nothing more than a few pops and hisses from the fireplace.
"Do you think this one will get to her diamond? Seventy five years, that would be something." He made an interrogative grunt at the sigh that rolled from his companion. "What now?"
"Diamond is sixty years. Victoria had one."
"Ah yes, now I recall." Their conversation was put on hiatus as a member of the serving staff entered, announced the arrival of a particularly obscure blend of tobacco, and left. The gentleman with the jowls performed the ritual packing and lighting of his pipe with the solemn dignity it deserved, and adjusted his posture to allow for ideal smoking conditions. He pushed the first plume of smoke towards the ceiling and cleared his throat.
"Do you ever wonder what we're supposed to be doing?"
"In what sense?"
"As far as we know it's just you, me and," a suggestive cough, "him. Nobody else seems to be around long enough to get get familiar with before they're put back in the ground, and there's this bloody," he reached for a word, "pull to the royal family. Do you suppose," he sounded like a student who knows he has homework but can't remember what it is, "that we should be doing something?"
"Most likely," was the reply. "But without master or mission, who is going ensure that we do?"
"I guess you're right."

Next week's word is just.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Indifference


Australia is currently in the grip of an indifferent electorate, although "in the grip of" may be putting it a touch too strongly. Perhaps "caught in a limp handshake with" would be more accurate. In some ways this is great because it comes from there being nothing, on a large scale, to care about. All around the world there are things for citizens to care about on a sliding scale from Syria to Greece to America, but in Australia things are going pretty well. We've got bucket loads of incoming money from all the pretty coloured dirt in Western Australia, and a well funded service industry from all the money spent by the people who get paid to dig up the coloured dirt. Our often overly zealous attitude to regulation and government intervention means that our banks weren't able to ruin the economy when every other developed economy fell into a hole. Our welfare and health systems aren't the best in the world, but they're comfortably in the top bracket.

So here we are then. A country which on balance has nothing to complain about. It's understandable then that the average Australian voter doesn't care much about the government. Sure, politics is still a regular topic of conversation, but it's not serious. We care about who's in charge in the same way we've always cared about who should be the opening combination in the Australian cricket team; there's lots of opinions and spirited debate, but whatever the final outcome you're still going to watch The Ashes. It's not the same kind of care that results in student riots, or a hundred thousand people marching in the streets.

Indifference is the last thing politicians want with an election around the corner. When a country has compulsory voting like Australia does, an indifferent voter is an unpredictable voter. Elsewhere they just won't vote, but here they'll drag themselves off to the nearest school hall and do what needs to be done to avoid a fine. If there's not an issue that the voter cares deeply enough about to have an opinion on who they should vote for, then what is going to be the deciding factor when they step into the booth? For the non swing voters it makes no difference. If you've always voted Liberal, you're going to vote Liberal because once every three years you have to roll out to the booths and vote Liberal. For the swing voter, though, if there's no substantial policy difference then anything at all could be the thing that tips the balance. Maybe one of the candidate names is a bit longer so it stands out on the list. Maybe the last interview you saw on TV featured Tony Abbott in budgie smugglers and Saturday morning is no time to be thinking about that, not so soon after breakfast. Maybe a possum on the roof kept you awake all night and you're not in a Greens kind of mood.

The safe move is to get voters to transition from indifferent to engaged, rather than relying on nocturnal marsupial activities. In Australia that means appealing to greed and not-so-latent racism. I for one can't wait to hear another six months worth of real talk about how failing to stop the boats will destroy Australia, and how managing the Australian economy is really more complex than hoping against hope that the mining boom lasts another twenty years. My guess is that by September I won't be indifferent any more, I'll be sick of the whining, insults, and B-grade rhetoric.