Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: March 2009 (page 2 of 4)

What I hate about RSpec

This is not developer-friendly:

response.should be_success

Unless you have fully internalized RSpec, it is nigh impossible to know where the space, underscore, and period go. The goal is to come up with code that looks like sentences but the end result is to come up with something a non-developer can read but that developers shouldn’t have to write.

Can information beat out anger?

Frank Rich writes that an inability to manage populist anger could undermine everything Barack Obama hopes to accomplish. I agree. But in the process, he writes some stupid stuff that’s likely to encourage more populist anger. To wit:

Bob Schieffer of CBS asked Summers the simple question that has haunted the American public since the bailouts began last fall: “Do you know, Dr. Summers, what the banks have done with all of this money that has been funneled to them through these bailouts?” What followed was a monologue of evasion that, translated into English, amounted to: Not really, but you little folk needn’t worry about it.

Yet even as Summers spoke, A.I.G. was belatedly confirming what he would not. It has, in essence, been laundering its $170 billion in taxpayers’ money by paying off its reckless partners in gambling and greed, from Goldman Sachs and Citigroup on Wall Street to Société Générale and Deutsche Bank abroad.

Rich apparently doesn’t understand that this was the entire point of bailing out AIG in the first place. The thought was that if AIG failed to fulfill its contracts with its counterparties, the entire financial system would probably collapse. So we bought the company and gave them a bunch of money so that they didn’t default on their obligations. That money was never for AIG, it was for paying off AIG’s claims.

I agree with Rich’s larger point, though. It’s up the government to explain in as much detail as possible what it’s doing, who benefits, and why it’s going to work. The fact that a New York Times columnist doesn’t know what the AIG bailout was fundamentally about illustrates that they’re failing at that.

Battlestar Galactica vs The Wire

Battlestar Galactica had its high points, but does it really deserve to even be mentioned in the same sentence as The Wire? The Guardian seems to think so, but we’ll assume they’re just trolling.

Battlestar Galactica and Mitochondrial Eve

I wanted to post a few thoughts on last night’s Battlestar Galactica series. I watched the entire series, from the miniseries/pilot to the big finish last night, and found the quality to be somewhat uneven. Its high points were very high, but it had plenty of low points as well.

The biggest spoiler I saw going into the finale was series creator Ron Moore saying in the special about the show’s production that the show was about the characters, not about the plot. I think that showed from beginning to end — the best parts of the show were very much character-driven rather than plot driven.

So, as to the ending. When the survivors arrive on Earth, Baltar informs them that they are DNA-compatible with the primitive humans that they find. Then in the present-day flash forward, we are made to understand that Hera, the child who is the key to the survival of humans and cylons, is Mitochondrial Eve. There really is a Mitochondrial Eve — she is the earliest common ancestor all humans alive right now share. (I believe she lived about 90,000 years ago, so the 150,000 number on the show is wrong.)

What this implies is that none of the humans or cylons who wind up on Earth (other than Hera) are able to successfully reproduce, or that all of their progeny die out. Hera’s offspring are the only ones who make it. And indeed, none of the indigenous residents of Earth will have produced successful offspring, except through Hera. So she’s not a MacGuffin — she turns out to be the only path forward for humans or cylons. And one could also argue that this is what the Harbinger of Death prophecy that the hybrid gives Starbuck meant as well — nobody but Hera has a future.

Distributing the surviving colonials around the planet to increase the odds of survival can be inferred to be a complete failure. For the Mitochondrial Eve plot point to work out, those colonies must all fail. So what appears to be an up ending is really a down ending, although I’m not sure the writers thought through it enough to see it that way.

The research that led to the discovery of Mitochondrial Eve is interesting. I’d suggest The Journey of Man, an excellent book on the subject by geneticist Spencer Wells.

Update: Be sure to read the comments, it seems I didn’t understand the scientific meaning of Mitochondrial Eve as well as I might have thought.

Monetary policy is not dead

Today the Federal Reserve announced it’s buying up $1.2 trillion in bonds as part of a program of quantitative easing. It’s a path to lowering interest rates once you’re in Paul Krugman’s famous liquidity trap.

A few weeks ago self-described right wing economist Scott Sumner suggested that quantitative easing be tried, and Tyler Cowen described his plan as the best he’d seen by far.

I know there’s been a surge of optimism lately, and an attendant degree of skepticism that we’re really even in a major crisis. This move should remind everyone that the Federal Reserve and Obama administration are still very, very worried about the state of the economy.

The future of Detroit

Today’s New York Times has an op-ed written by Toby Barlow on people moving to Detroit. Yesterday I linked to a photo essay that illustrates Detroit’s decline. The op-ed talks about Detroit’s possible rise.

Creative people who don’t want to have to worry about money have always flocked to places that are under severe economic distress. Go read Ed Ward’s old blog BerlinBites for stories of the artistic community that arose in Berlin after Germany’s reunification. People also flocked to Buenos Aires when Argentina’s economy collapsed in 1999.

Detroit is losing population rapidly, and the industries that built the city are unlikely to ever return. However, it’s a major American city where you can live incredibly cheaply. That’s an opportunity. Here’s the conclusion of the op-ed:

In a way, a strange, new American dream can be found here, amid the crumbling, semi-majestic ruins of a half-century’s industrial decline. The good news is that, almost magically, dreamers are already showing up. Mitch and Gina have already been approached by some Germans who want to build a giant two-story-tall beehive. Mitch thinks he knows just the spot for it.

Links from March 16th

Interviewing programmers on philosophy

Today I took a survey on Object Oriented Concepts. Two computer science researchers are trying to determine how divorced the theory they teach is from the day to day practices of professional programmers. Here’s the introduction:

You have done some programming for fun, or you are a professional that has been on one of those $2000 a day professional development courses, or read the latest book, or subscribed to the current in-RSS feed, so you know how you’re supposed to write good code. But do you actually write code the way you’ve been told is The Way, or do you ignore the theory and follow the tried and true practices learned the hard way in the School of Hard Knocks, the way that really works?

We’re researchers. We know what we teach and we know what all the research papers/books say, but you write the code – you know what really works and what’s just so much theory. Here’s your chance to tell us what you know.

If you’re a programmer, you may want to take the survey. I’m sure the researchers would appreciate it.

I’m so enamored with it that I think I’m going to post my answers to each of the groups of questions here, just because I wanted to add more detail and also because I think they’re interesting points of discussion.

What the survey really made me think, though, is that programmer interviews should center more on questions of philosophy. Obviously after an interview you should know whether the person you interviewed can program, but it’s also helpful to know whether you’d actually want to let that person touch your code. I think philosophical questions could extract more information that pertains to both. They also measures the thinking skills of the candidate, and their ability to communicate effectively.

Here’s one of the questions from the survey: “When working on a class, is its depth in the inheritance hierarchy important to you?”

That’s something that someone who thinks about programming could really chew on. If a candidate doesn’t even know where to start on the answer, that tells you something about them immediately. Or perhaps they answer in great detail, but their answer is the opposite of yours, and you don’t find their argument in favor of their side convincing. Do you really want to sit in meetings with this person for the next few years having this same discussion over and over? Do you want them refactoring your code because your way is different than theirs?

After responding to the survey, I want to ask other people these types of questions. They drive right at what’s important in finding good team members.

Well played, Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald has written the definitive post on the AIG bonuses. I’d summarize but I don’t want to spoil it.

Discomfort is a necessary side effect

I, like everyone else on the Internet (it seems) watched Jon Stewart pummel Jim Cramer on The Daily Show last night. At the end, Jon said, roughly, I hope that was as uncomfortable for you as it was for me. It was. But an aversion to that kind of discomfort is a disease that prevents big problems from being solved.

I had in mind a different post about the show, explaining that Jon Stewart’s criticism of how Jim Cramer and CNBC cover Wall Street describe the overall failure of journalism across the board, but Glenn Greenwald wrote that post for me.

So instead I want to talk about Glenn Greenwald and the necessity of feeling uncomfortable.

I voted for Barack Obama, and beyond that I donated money to his campaign and went door to door to encourage other people to vote for him as well. I really want him to succeed because I invested in his success.

Here’s the thing — sometimes President Obama lets me down, and I know this in large part because I read Glenn Greenwald’s blog. It’s not very comfortable for me to read about how the guy I really, really wanted to be our President does things I really think he shouldn’t, but I consider it to be necessary medicine. Greenwald is fighting the noble fight — criticizing a President who I’m sure he in large measure supports, because principles are more important than the person or the political value of a united front.

People are too unwilling to face discomfort. Journalists don’t want to make the people they interact with on a daily basis squirm. People want to read that the politicians they support are fighting the good fight. And this reaches far beyond politics as well. Java programmers didn’t want to read that C# had a lot of nice language features that improved on weaknesses in Java. People in general seem to prefer to remain ignorant of the practices of industrial agriculture in the modern world.

Ignorance may be bliss, but it also has negative externalities.

I’m not writing this to congratulate myself. For me, the challenge is in asking the uncomfortable questions directly when they need to be asked. I’d always rather try to figure out those answers myself, but in many cases there’s value in the asking.

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