RubyConf AU 2015

February 2015 saw Federation Square host the latest instalment of RubyConf AU, one of the best tech conferences in Australia. Over 450 Ruby developers from Australia, New Zealand & beyond gathered for 4 days of workshops, talks, and social activities.

…in 50 words or less

We’re growing up, Ruby community – but it’s okay! Ruby isn’t great just because it’s new, so let’s not freak out when other New Hotnesses™ come. If we learn from those who’ve come before, embrace new ideas, and welcome new & different voices, we’ll both survive and thrive!

…in tweets

…the talks!

I only attended the talks, so I can’t comment on the workshops, although every attendee I spoke to enjoyed them. The 2 days of talks only had the single track, but I think they fell neatly into a few distinct categories. Here are my highlights from each :) They will be available on Eventer soon, so I’ll update these with links when that happens.

Update: The talks are now available, so go and watch them all!

“Hey, there’s all this stuff people have known for a while!”

As Ruby & Rails get older, we’re using it to solve bigger problems (good!) and deal with Eldritchian abominations created by past us (bad!).

Loving Legacy Code – Keith Pitty

Got an old, hairy codebase to look after? Keith has some gentle suggestions for getting along with it.

A Case for Use Cases – Shevaun Coker

or, How Neither Thomas the Tank Engine Nor Plus Sizes Are The Answer.

Prefactoring: Getting it (Closer to) Right the First Time – Coraline Ada Ehmke & Service-Oriented Disasters – Rachel Meyers

Two great talks on traps & pitfalls to avoid when breaking apps into smaller pieces. The highlights of a strong SOA tinge through the technical talks.

“What cool things are Ruby people doing now?”

Like refreshing palate cleansers on a degustation menu, these were sprinkled through at just the right times. Real cool things being done by real cool people.

Principles of Play – Linda Liukas

This was a wonderful talk. Children are great because they haven’t learned about what they “shouldn’t do” yet. I will be buying her book when I become a Dad, regardless of whether I have a son or a daughter :)

Sweaters as a Service – Amy Wibowo

Amy and her team introduced Ruby to a 1980s knitting machine, and helped them to knit pretty pictures together.

Saving the World (Literally!) with Ruby – Sean Marcia

Big world problems don’t only need big solutions. Sometimes little projects can be a big help in themselves. Sean used Raspberry Pis and Ruby to give the plight of honeybees a voice.

Programming as Performance – Joseph Wilks

Live coding can be just as compelling as any other live art form. Joseph gave us a peek into the tools that exist for live coding music, and then gave a stunning demo of what’s possible with Clojure + Emacs.

“What new stuff could make Ruby better?”

A great mixture of humanity, high–level maths, and where our language might go in future.

What is a Rubyist? – Steve Klabnik

Plato, Process Philosophy, and a gentle prod to look outside our own bubble. Presented from a Moleskine, because hipster NY :)

Consider Static Typing – Tom Stuart

Ruby’s dynamically typed, and attracts people who like dynamic typing. Tom wonders whether we can’t have our cake and eat it too?

Towards a Higher-Level Language – Erik Michaels-Ober

Ruby’s a very high-level language. But while people are trying to “make a better C or Lisp”, nobody’s really trying to build a better Ruby. Why not?

“How can we be make ‘us’ better?”

We can and should become more rounded individuals, and there are lots of paths! Trying more things, listening to others and stepping out of our comfort zones will all get us there.

Side Projects & Startups – Collis Ta’eed

Startups are hard. Build side projects instead. Present You won’t be under so much pressure, and Future You will have a richer set of experiences to draw on. Plus side projects don’t have to justify their existence!

Feel like a better developer – Joss Paling

Understanding Despair – John Dalton

A great talk on depression, and how we still suck at talking about it, understanding it, and giving ourselves a break.

On Second Acts – John Barton

or, You Can Do Post-Technical Things (and doing them will help the entire Ruby community). A call to arms for the more senior members of the community: If some of us who understand the benefits of Ruby don’t move into management, we’ll get managers who don’t and the community will suffer.

Other Observations

  • I loved the venue – the Edge Theatre is a stunning place and so central to everything! The only downside is that it only allowed for a single conference track. A few people were disappointed that there weren’t more “Ruby-centric” talks, and a single track probably explains most of why.

  • I liked the diversity of Social Activities. The organisers deliberately recognised that not everyone likes to go drinking at the end of every day. I thought the balance of other activities they provided catered for lots of different tastes. Well done!

  • I was pleased to meet a few new Rubyists at the conference. I feel like I’ve been on the fringes of the community for ages, and haven’t quite known how to “break in”, as it were. Meeting new recruits to our community gave me a chance to pay that welcome forward.

If you made it this far, well done. The conference was great, and Rubyists of any level should go next year and make it even better.


Project 1, Iteration 0: Baby Sleep Monitor

Earlier this year, I resolved to complete more projects, and this is the first!

In just a few months time, I’m going to become a father for the first time. Being an expectant parent, and having some electronics lying around, I thought I’d combine the two!

The idea for this came from a Tessel blog post - taking readings from their modules and sending them directly to a cloud data service. I didn’t want (or think I’d get away with!) bare circuit boards in my newborn’s nursery, so I decided to make a small cover for the board as well.

I’ll be upfront: it’s not quite finished yet. I’m annoyed about that. But in the interests of accountability & transparency, iteration 0 is done!

I made a couple of errors, which I’ll fix when I do iteration 1.

  • I got the holes almost lined up correctly, but not enough to make the bolts sit smoothly with the PCB. I’ve got to be more precise.
  • I also painted the boards before drilling the holes (because I was ready to paint but not to drill) - sometimes you just have to be blocked.

What I wanted to discover

  • That I could simply pick up a new skill, and easily execute what I wanted to do. (This looks really embarrassing when I write it down!)

What I learned instead

  • I’m not as good with my hands as I thought.
  • Knowing what I want might be a good step towards the result, but it’s foolish to think I can get there in one step.
  • For me, better preparation is more important than feeling like I’m moving.
  • Iteration is totally acceptable.

Kata: Bowling

Description

Accurately model a game of ten-pin bowling. Inspired by a mini-Code Retreat I attended years ago, and the front page of rspec.info.

Tests

Code

Introducing Katas

Something I’ve really started to enjoy is working through software katas.

In karate, katas are exercises the student repeats many, many times. Each time through, the student will (hopefully) improve little by little in order to develop their technique and skill.

Similarly in software, katas are small, well-defined problems that are useful to practice software design techniques.

Inspired partly by Magnus Holm’s timeless repo, I’m going to post these kata here as embedded gists, so as I update them (and make more attempts at solving them) we’ll be able to see how my thoughts on software design grow and change.

The first one I’m going to put up is the bowling kata, and I’ll keep the full list up-to-date on the Kata page :)

Project Nov-Dec 2014: Making Soap

Why make soap?

So much of what we do as software developers is intangible - you can’t taste, touch, smell or feel code! I wanted to make something that was all of those (well, maybe not taste).

In 2011, I took a trip to the Middle East, where I visited a soap factory in Sidon, Lebanon. The same trip I bought some soap from Aleppo, Syria, and thought it was the most wonderful soap I’d ever used. Deep green, with a thick brown patina, it felt exotic to use and wonderful on the skin.

I decided that I would try my hand at soap-making. I’d never done much practical chemistry, and the thought of turning something you eat into something you could wash with was fun.

How does it work?

At one level, soap is Chemistry 101. You mix an acid with a base, you get a neutral salt. Soap is made up of two main components:

  • Lye (NaOH), which is a base
  • Some sort of oil, which is full of fatty acids.

With the right proportions and a good stirring arm, you’ll end up with soap!

This isn’t mine.

Did you learn anything?

Apart from how to make soap, I did learn a few things.

Be Prepared

Like lots of activities, soap-making works best if you have everything you need before you start. You also have lots of choices: what kind of oils will you use? Will you scent it? Will you follow the “hot” process or the “cold” process?

Because I’d thought ahead about my answers to these questions, I was ready when a block of time became available. I had what I needed, and I didn’t need to run out and look for an ingredient because I was ready.

Be Precise

Soap recipes are quite precise. I actually found the precision required comforting, for two reasons:

It helped me to concentrate on what I was doing.. Knowing too much lye or not enough stirring would ruin my batch scared me into focusing, being fully present.

It told me what to do next. I didn’t have to make lots of decisions on the fly, and I could concentrate more on executing instead.

Be Patient & Persistent

I knew what I wanted to do, and what I thought it would look like at the end. I still needed to do all the work required to go from ingredients to finished product. Following through and finishing gave me the real pleasure and satisfaction of a project completed. I got to use what I made, and I had pleasure in giving some away as gifts.

I’ll take these insights into my software projects, and my approach at work. I’m going to spell out what I need to do before I start, eliminate more distractions, and be thorough so when it’s done, it’s done.

Welcome to 2015

Hi everyone!

Another year has been and gone, and now 2015 extends before us as the Not Yet becomes the Has Been.

I have a few goals this year:

  • Say ‘no’ to more, and finish the ‘yeses’
  • Build routine
  • Tell more stories, better.

To achieve this, I’m limiting myself to the following two three simple rules:

  • You get one project a month.
  • You have to finish that project within the month.
  • Tell the story of that project, good or bad. “I just didn’t” makes a terrible story.

Like an agile project, I’ll maintain a backlog of projects, and if I choose to prioritise them then well and good. But during the month, I’ll focus just on that project.

Let’s see what happens :)

Projects

  1. Baby Sleep Monitor

AAH14: Waleed Aly

AAH14 Keynote - Waleed Aly: Ethics & Technology

Waleed Aly considered himself a strange guest speaker for a tech conference, given his background in journalism, political science & law. I disagree, though - especially for a conference focusing on humanity.

He challenged us to think about the ethics of the space we’re working in at both micro and macro levels, and used philosophy as a backdrop for the conversation.

The world of philosophy is often ignored, but it provides invaluable questions of “Why?” and “Should?” that engineering, as a “How?” discipline, simply cannot.

micro

Q: “Are there inherent ethical challenges to the technology I’m working on?” is a question we don’t ask ourselves enough. The tech sector has a tendency to focus on what is possible first, then work out whether we should afterwards (usually after it’s too late and we’ve already done it).

Take (as Waleed did) driverless cars. He transposed them into the famous “Trolley Problem” - where split-second decisions have moral questions. We afford ourselves a certain slack because in that situation it’s hard to know what we would choose. What about a machine, that by definition has to be told how to think? How should it answer the question? Even as technologists, ethics problems are our problems.

macro, or the myth of “neutral technology”

Q: Why do we tell ourselves technology is “neutral”, when it so often ends up causing changes for good and bad?

The introduction of the car changed forever the notion of the city. Television changed forever the notion of mass communication.

We tell ourselves that our technological changes (new platforms new media) are neutral - or at least that the net good will outweigh the bad. Why do we do this?

We talk about “the death of print” in the news industry, and assert that journalistic standards shouldn’t change. But how could we assume that standards wouldn’t change when new technology allows us to optimise speed over accuracy like never before?

We build drones, and drones that can wage war without people present. But what would war look like when attackers needn’t fear loss of their own life? Would they be more aggressive and kill more people? Or would they save lives by being more precise?

Waleed suggested that the tech industry perhaps unsurprisingly has more progressively-minded people in it than conservatively-minded. If we recognised that, perhaps we would make better-informed decisions about the social impacts our technological decisions might have.

aside: Technology & Worldview

During Waleed’s Q&A, someone asked questions as “a self-confessed ethics n00b.”. He worried the ethical conversations ended up being a waste of time because he left with more questions than answers!

That fascinated me, because we like to pretend we make decisions in a vacuum, or guided by “reason, science, facts, etc.” And, to an extent, we all do.

But we also see every fact, every piece of information through lenses, or worldviews. To deny that is the very essence of cognitive bias!

How could we, as people working in a quickly-changing industry, incorporate more mindfulness of our worldviews into what we do?

Above All Human 2014

This past week I got the opportunity to attend the inaugural Above All Human conference, held in North Melbourne’s Arts House Meat Market. Here are some thoughts & reflections I took out of it.

tl;dr

  • There are lots of conversations we’re not having as an industry. Ethics, diversity and responsibility often end up subservient to pragmatism, profit, and monoculture.
  • “Solving a problem” is a very broad statement. Some people’s problems are finding shoes that fit; others are finding capital to finance their businesses in places with no banking infrastructure. Others just want to find cool links on the Internet.
  • Just because people are internet-famous and can start cool businesses, doesn’t guarantee that they have insight to share.
  • Listen to people who are not like yourself, and you will learn.

Highlights

Bronwen & Susan’s opening remarks

Morning keynotes Perhaps I was just more awake in the morning, but I felt it was the best part. The morning keynote-ish talks were awesome, and I’ll give them some air time of their own.

#aah14 The conversations happening on twitter were amazing, and having MC @mpesce actively participating helped those back-channel interactions feed back into the main show.

Diversity of speakers One of the organisers’ stated goals was to have a diverse lineup, across genders & cultures. I think they did a great job of that. The only piece missing were older people. There is a wealth of wisdom in the older voices in tech that would have been great to see there.

The venue all the tech conferences I’ve attended in Melbourne have been, sadly, a touch on the bland side. But the Meat Market was a great venue, and the mingling space outside the auditorium was a fun place to hang out, chat, and get refueled.

Lowlights

VC panel I was really interested in the questions being asked of the VC guests - about diversity in VC funding, approaches Australian companies can take in a smaller pond of money, and why an “exit” is pretty much the only strategy VC seems to be interested in.

Their answers? “I’ll fund what appeals to me”, “maybe you should just go to the Valley”, and “because 1000x, duh”.

A sad irony that those keen to invest in “innovation”, etc. feel no need (or interest) to innovate their own practices. What would disrupting the VC space look like?

YC Office Hours This was a strange segment - designed to mimic the YC pitching sessions, but on stage in front of an audience. It felt a bit like free advertising for YCombinator, and (even more oddly) most of the pitching companies didn’t seem that interested in their advice anyway. If I’d made any of those companies I suppose I’d be defensive of my baby too - but it made for a strange (voyeuristic?) experience.

Conclusion

Thanks to Bronwen & Susan for organising a wonderful conference. We need more of these conversations in our industry. Well done & see you next year!

The Curse of the Ideal Project

I confess: I have an ideas problem. Not the generation of ideas, oh no. My problem is what to do (or not to do) with them when they arrive.

Like many idealistically-bent people, I tend to like the idea more than the implementation. Why is that?

And it’s true: there is a certain (almost-Platonic) beauty to the Idea. (The idea of idea? #stackoverflow)

You imagine the finished product, and it’s wonderful. Oh, to have given birth to such an incredible x!

And then the tarnishing starts. The corrosive factors of
I don’t have enough time!, and
I don’t know how to do this - maybe I’ll fail!, and
oh, someone’s already made one of those!, and
oh! I’ve just had a great idea for a …

start etching away, and before long the sheen is gone.

Sometimes the tarnish takes longer to take hold than others. A lot of projects might even get started. But it’s rare that a project actually makes it to “finished”, because the inevitable disappointment when the actual fails to meet the Ideal feels too much to bear.

Wouldn’t it be so much nicer, your troll-brain says, if things just stayed as ideas? Why not give yourself the reward for coming up with the idea?

Ko-Ko: When Your Majesty says “Let a thing be done”, it’s as good as done, practically it is done, because Your Majesty’s will is law. Your Majesty says “Kill a gentleman”, and the gentleman is to be killed, consequently that gentleman is as good as dead, practically he is dead, and if he is dead, why not say so?

The Mikado: I see. (Dramatic Pause) Nothing could possibly be more…satisfactory!

The Mikado, Act II.

Only it isn’t satisfactory. Eventually, you’ll end up with a bunch of baby projects you killed at birth - because in the moment you decided Not Creating Anything was better than Creating Something Less than Ideal. And we don’t live in Plato’s universe. An idea is only a shadow without its fulfilment.

Who wants to live in a world of shadows?

10 Films

There are posts going around facebook asking what 10 books/films/tea blends have lasted with you over your life. Here’s my movie list, in no real order of preference.

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)

Worth watching solely for the incredible performances of Geoffrey Rush, this is a gritty (and contracted) biopic of one of the greatest comedians of the 20th Century. I really resonated with Sellers’ fear that beneath all the masks there was no essence, no Peter underneath. While this “allowed” him to immerse himself in characters like few others, it paints his life as tragically sad. Tough watching at times, but worth it.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

A (very) long film, but its visuals are phenomenal given the time it was made. It deals with big themes (like the evolution of humankind), but most of the story is told in small segments. Our imagination is left to fill in the gaps, and it works very well.

Without that context, the psychedelia of the last 15 minutes or so will make no sense whatsoever. But if you’re prepared to invest in the big themes, this is a stunning piece of cinema history.

Gladiator (2000)

Another long film, and one I like for different reasons. I really like Russell Crowe’s portrayal of a loyal, dutiful soldier navigating a cunning, scheming world with integrity, even at his cost. Great soundtrack too.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Another Kubrick film, and another (kindof) Sellers film. The comedy is black as black, and full of the futility that marked the Cold War. This film wouldn’t be made today (because the “baddies” are much less centralised than the Cold War), but it does capture the gnawing feeling that one stupid renegade could bring the knife-edged balance of humanity crumbling down.

Network (1976)

Possibly my favourite film of all time. All the main actors put in stunning performances - it won 3 of the 4 acting Oscars in 1976. In fact, it holds the record for the shortest performance that won an acting award - Beatrice Straight won with only 5 minutes of screen time! (She deserves it, btw.)

While Dr. Strangelove looks at the Cold War through a military lens, Network looks through another lens - the camera lens of a TV studio. The callous way that people, current affairs, politics and even terrorism can be used for monetary gain get a caustic examination, with the lingering suspicion that even the “goodie/baddie” categories might themselves be a fabrication.

Worth watching for the stellar acting performances, and the prophetic (!) foreshadowing of reality TV.

The Matrix (1999)

Everyone knows this one. Solid cast, good storyline, amazing special effects, and kicking soundtrack. Shame they never made any sequels…

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012)

Found this while on honeymoon, and Verity kindly agreed to watch it. Tells the story of a young Pakistani man, who goes to chase the American Dream and support his family. But it’s on a collision course with his homeland, and he has some decisions to make.

Good, because it gives a non-American, non-Western voice to the modern conflict between militant Islam, imperial America, and the people who live under their ideologies.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Finally a predominantly positive film! A great story about a Christian athlete who takes his faith seriously in a culture dominated by lip service. A compelling story, and there’s that opening sequence.

Remember the Titans (2000)

America. 1970s. Race relations. Reconciliation. Killer soundtrack. Denzel Washington & Donald Faison. #saynomore

Amazing Grace (2006)

Biopic about William Wilberforce, and his tireless attempts to abolish the slave trade in Europe. As a Christian who cares about the world, Wilberforce is a tremendous example of determination to right an injustice. It’s such a terrible shame that so many people around the world are still in slavery of varying kinds. Wonderful performances by Albert Finney as John Newton, and Benedict Cumberbatch (before he was Sherlock!) as Prime Minister William Pitt.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

I need to thank my brother David for inviting me to watch this.

Two things:

  • This movie, more than any other in this list (perhaps with the exception of the 2 Kubrick films) needs to be watched on a big screen. The cinematography is stunningly good, and gives a real energy to the desert. It was also shot on sumptuous 70mm film (with its 6-channel audio), so there is an incredible richness to the imagery and sound.
  • This movie is long. The director’s cut is 228 minutes, or 3 hours and 48 minutes in duration! There is a shorter re-release, but don’t bother. Watch it all.

Despite its historical setting, and the many things one can learn about that region of the world from watching, it’s more of a character film than anything. Lawrence gets caught up in events and, despite knowing more about the Arab world than many of his British colleagues, still manages to find himself on the wrong side of everyone, including himself.

Watch it. You won’t be disappointed.