30 September 2008

Spare some cycles?

Researchers at UCLA led by Edson Smith have announced the identification of the first Mersenne prime with more than 10 million digits, 243,112,609-1, as Thomas H. Maugh II reports.

22 September 2008

240 GLOC

Michael Swaine's "Is Your Next Language COBOL?":
To say that COBOL is widespread is an understatement. In 1997 the Gartner Group estimated that there were 240 billion lines of COBOL code in active apps. Something like 90 percent of financial transactions are processed by COBOL code, and 75 percent of all business data processing is COBOL. Merril Lynch reports that 70 percent of its business runs on COBOL apps.... One estimate puts the value of current running COBOL code at $2 trillion.

19 September 2008


Dan Wohlbruck continues his story of learning systems and programming in the 1960s. He learns IBM assembler using a new teaching device, "programmed instruction," something I haven't seen since I used it to teach myself a little calculus early in high school.
There were six or seven of us from the previous class that had been chosen to learn BAL and when we arrived at the Education Center, we were directed to our new classroom. The room had four rows of tables, enough chairs for the students, but no lectern for an instructor. Promptly at 9:00, two gentlemen, one from IBM and one from Bell Tell, arrived and explained that we were to be part of an experiment called "programmed instruction." We would be given paper-bound text books, Assembler Language coding pads, and pencils, but otherwise left on our own to learn a new generation of computer architecture and the language used to program it. Every 90 minutes an IBM expert would join us and ask us if we had questions. After a brief discussion with the expert, we would take a break.

17 September 2008


I don't know whether I'll participate much in Atwood and Spolsky's new collaboration site for software developers, Stack Overflow, but I'll say this much for it: it's the first site that I've walked up to and all I needed was an OpenID to register.

A workshop

We're looking into piloting the use of agile methods on some of our upcoming projects, so my director arranged a one-day workshop for the entire unit, including product management and documentation. It was led by Jeff Neilsen and John B. of local consultancy Stelligent. We got an overview of the agile approach to software development—about what you'd get from a few well-written articles and book chapters—and then dug deeper into the practice of user stories. A few of my notes and take-aways:

  • Short development cycles push people to find ways to be more efficient.

  • One of Jeff's clients calls refactoring "entropy reduction."

  • A rule of thumb for how big a user story should be: small enough to build six to twelve of them in a one- to two-week iteration. Of course, how much work this is depends on how many people you have on the development team.

  • Many of the practices suggested by agile practitioners seem counter-productive—scrum rooms, for example, with multiple conversations going on at the same time. Try it anyway: if it doesn't work for you, then drop it.

  • Agile's strength is that it expects requirements to change, and it explicitly provides for this, at the end of each iteration.

  • These techniques are best applied domains where the cost of failure is low: think shoestring-capitalized dot-com startups, not avionics.

  • I haven't seen much from the literature on applying agile methods to projects that are largely integration of third-party packages, nor to projects that are building APIs or frameworks with no user interface.

But what impressed me most about Jeff's presentation was his effective use of PowerPoint. To linger on a key point, generally he used a slide that consisted of a stock photo, full bleed, with oversized type reversed out of the image, something like those Miller Beer ads from a few years ago. (It was a photo of a tray of Krispy Kreme donuts labelled in Chinese that caused me to take notice.) His slides use little or no chrome—by that I mean those distracting standardized frames that corporate messaging departments insist on. Some of his slides reproduce a very small Stelligent logo in the lower left corner. About the only consistent design element is the oversized sans serif typeface that Jeff used; it looked something like Tahoma. This meant that he could incorporate disparate graphic elements from a lot of different sources (diagrams, mostly, and some Dilberts), of different qualities, and the design maintained unity. The effect was engaging without being too slick.