My very first computer, and why it matters

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It’s never as good as the first time.

Do you remember your first time? Do you think it is important?
Do you think it still influences you somehow?

Well, I do, I do and I do.

A couple of weeks ago, I received my long awaited Recreated ZX Spectrum,
basically a bluetooth keyboard shaped like an ’82 8 bits computer.
This is a piece of memorabilia from my youth, as the ZX Spectrum was my
very first computer.
It gave me an opportunity to ponder what it did taught me.

But first, let’s go through its ~~impressive~~ list of features
– A whopping 49152 bytes of RAM
– A 3.5Mhz Z80 8 bits processor, with an impressive 0.25 IPC
– 16384 bytes ROM with integrated basic interpreter
– A 256*192 colored pixels screen resolution, but color management is tricky
(more on that later)
– A 1500 bps in/out tape interface for persistent storage
– All of that in its signature book sized plastic encasing sporting a timeless
rubber keyboard

Those specs bear little meaning today! It is actually difficult to believe that
you could accomplish anything with those.
But they had an unsurpassable quality: they were engaging and not intimidating!

I had to learn how to enter instructions as it was required even to start a
game.
I could even compare my programs to off the self software as those were
done by one or two guys in a couple of months!

And, I gained some interesting skills:

  1. How to learn a programming language: BASIC at that time. Since then,
    I went through various ASMs, C, C++, Pascal, Ada, Smalltalk,
    some Lisp and Prolog, Java and more recently F#.
  2. I need to be aware of how much memory my programs used.
    Allocating a 100 x 100 int array uses up half available memory.
    And we are talking 16 bits int!
  3. How to read/disassemble others’ programs and learned a lot
    from those. Soon the debugger was my best friend.
  4. How to use non documented functions. Heck, nothing was documented.

Were they really beneficial? As a matter of facts,
I should probably talk about bad habits:

  1. BASIC, I mean, BASIC of all languages. This meant a lot of GOTOs
  2. I mostly learn nasty tricks to shave every single byte whenever possible
  3. I hacked other applications to remove protections or copy algorithms
  4. I created fragile code, depending on undocumented features, including
    undocumented opcodes for the processor

When I started my developer career I was still there. That’s the problem when you
code alone for your own: no feedback.

On one hand, being a self learner and self taught gave me some advantages. I did
read a lot, so I had a lot of book knowledge and knew C++ inside out. Which meant
that I lacked the humility that is needed to learn from feedback and I did
commit a lot of atrocities in the name of cute code cleverness.

Walk of shame

I still have a vivid memory of what I fear is the worst design I have ever
produced
.
The platform was C++ on OS/2 and the product we were working on was
getting close to release and, as an attempt to improve supportability,
I designed an error class.
And I decided to be clever by providing several overloaded assignment operator
(=) to capture the error code, error message and error category. Let’s see

MyError error;

error = 45;
error = "Invalid user id";
error = ErrorType.Security;

// which stands for
error.code = 45;
error.message = "Invalid user id";
error.type = ErrorType.Security;

I mean, come on, is there anyone who could see this as a good idea?

I did at the time, but I definitely no longer do!

So what did I actually learn from my first computer?!
I am afraid it will have to wait for the next part of this post.

Stay tuned

API design in practice: NFluent

A good API should allow developer to fall into the pit of success.

I use this sentence as a mantra whenever I am engaged in an API design exercise, which basically starts when writing my first tests

Selecting the next test is an act of design

In this post, I will give you food for thoughts on the design of APIs, using NFluent as an example. I will also provide some details on the genesis of the library.

The vision

Thomas and myself had the opportunity to assist to a great live coding session  demonstrating refactoring practices, based on the GildedRose kata, performed by David Gageot. At the end of the BBL, Thomas was pretty amazed by the power of Fest Assertions library which was heavily used during the demo. A few weeks later, he committed to build a similar library for the .Net world…

The design

Entry pointUgly APIs are a menace

A few months afterward, I joined the project. At that stage it was close to a first stable release; Thomas and myself engaged on a weeks long discussion, both online and at the office, about what should be the entry point of the library. This is a dear topic to me and I engaged in it passionately: I had wholeheartedly joined the vision and selecting the good entry point was key for me.

A library with a sub par API has no future. I do not care how help it can provide, if the APIs get in the way of getting results, I might as well write it myself.

The form

What should be the form of the API? The mission statement was clear: build a fluent assertion library, allowing check to be expressed in a form close to natural language. Some fluent assertions library, FluentAssertions and Should, rely on extension methods applied to the system under test. For example

...
42.Should().BeEqualTo(42);

myCounter.Should().BeGreaterThan(100);
...

Good isn’t it? From a fluent perspective, yes. But not that good from a TDD perspective. First of all, the SUT must exist and have a type so you can type the assertion code. Supporting and evangelizing TDD is part of the NFluent’s mission statement, so this approach seems counterproductive.

It is also that it is difficult to quickly identify assertions within the test code, but being fluent to write and fluent to read is a key part of NFluent mission statement.

Finally, there is also a more subtle impact: namespace pollution: every type now has a Should() method, which appears in auto-completion suggestion. This may be kind of distracting.

Definitely, Should() extension method does not fit those bills. So, we kept the static method approach.

The name

There was a long debate on what should be the proper name for the API. We ultimately settled on the now famous Check.That(…):

  • Assert was discarded due to naming conflicts with existing unit testing framework
  • Should was discarded for being weak
  • Verify and others were discarded for varying reasons.

Also, Check is test related in essence while still being assertive.

The design

NFluent has a fluent API, and you build your tests like you would write a sentence.

var heroes = "Batman and Robin";
Check.That(heroes).Not.Contains("Joker").And.StartsWith("Bat").And.Contains("Robin");

Thanks to ‘fluentness’, you just have stop start writing your next check and auto-completion does the rest.

To achieve this ‘fluentness’, NFluent relies heavily on extension methods, which turned out to be the best approach to manage polymorphism and rescue across types.

And it also turned out to be a significant pain in the ass, forcing us to use several code generation strategies to maintain an acceptable level of work.

What is important, is that very little of this surface in the API. There would be no excuse for us if we would impose any unintuitive effort to the users, let aside anything worse, such as boilerplate code.

I also put extra effort into the error messages and the overall error message infrastructure, which had undergone several refactoring phases. I wanted to reach an API where building usual error messages was as easy as possible and the more complex ones still possible. This is crucial to ensure a good consistency among messages.

Conclusion

I hope you are happy users of NFluent. By the way, happy or not, we would be very glad of any feedback you can provide, as it helps us moving forward.

The key messages for your API are:

  1. Put yourself in your users’ shoes. TDD cab go a long way here.
  2. Take the time to identify and design your key entry points (classes, static methods) before V 1.0. This is worth it.
  3. Your APIs must drive your design, never let the inner workings of your library surface through your API.

Keep those 3 rules in mind, they will serve you a long time.

Workload management strategies

In a React world, everything is an event that anybody can grab and process according to whatever its responsibility is. The notion of event allows for very low contract coupling; it acts as a medium between classes. A message is similar, but with more coupling as it aggregates endpoints or endpoints addresses.
This model offers flexible design where events flow and are processed through the systems. But what happens when you have too many events to process?

Continue reading “Workload management strategies”

Our Devoxx 2014 talk

Our Devoxx 2014 talk

My mate Thomas Pierrain and I were lucky enough to have our topic selected for Devoxx FR 2014. The subject was the presentation of the sequencer and an iterative design exercise for a financial real-time pricing service.

Many thanks to our amazing audience that gave us interesting questions and good feedback. For those who may be interested, the talk can be seen on Parleys in the Devoxx FR channel.

The Sequencer (part 2.2)

In my previous post, I mentioned that I had actually 4 implementations proposal and I commented two of them, which were within the drafted requirements but had an issue with fairness: in both cases, one could bypass the thread pool queue altogether.

Let’s turn our attention to the other two, which are interesting because they share a common issue while having radically different approach.

C#, very short one

Java, long implementation

Clearly, the .Net version benefits from the TPL features. That being said, they are actually very close as they share the same algorithm: ordering is secured by creating a private queue, and non concurrency is ensured by making sure at most one task is enqueued or executing in the .net threadpool.

Contract is fulfilled, albeit with a steep price in terms of performance, or more precisely latency. As a task is actually dispatched only after the previous one have been executed, there is a minimum delay between two tasks. So, once again there is a fairness issue. It is obvious that non sequenced tasks would be executed faster than sequenced ones.

Continue reading “The Sequencer (part 2.2)”