The Game of Life

game_of_life

“Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky”

— John Lennon “Imagine”

Once again, like every year, time has come to celebrate Towel Day, a great occasion to ponder Life, the Universe and Everything.

Speaking of Life — a surprising number of people, including software developers, don’t know about LIFE, also called Conway’s Game of Life; an even smaller number is aware of the corollaries, let alone accept them as a fact of life (pun intended!). So what is LIFE?

In LIFE, which isn’t really a game, but rather a simulation, there is an infinite field of cells; cells can be in either of two states: dead or alive. Conway defined four simple rules:

  1. A live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies (think: dies of loneliness).
  2. A live cell with two or three live neighbors continues to live.
  3. A live cell with more than three live neighbors dies (think: dies of overpopulation).
  4. A dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell (think: birth of a cell).

You start with an initial (e.g. random) set of live and dead cells, let time increase in discrete steps and after every step you apply these four rules. That’s all. After every step the board contains a new set of live and dead cells.

It is quite fascinating to see how structures, patterns (or objects) emerge, move, disappear and reappear. Some of these objects have been given names that aptly describe their nature, like “pulsars”, “gliders”, “glider guns”, just to name a few.

What is even more fascinating is that these objects are governed by higher-order “laws” that are not obvious from the four simple rules. For instance, you can observe that “blocks” never move, “gliders” always move diagonally and “lightweight spaceships” always move from right to left. (Here is a great site for trying out various patterns yourself.)

Isn’t this very much like our own universe? In our universe, we have some fundamental laws, which give rise to higher-level structures and laws, up to highest-level laws of physics or principles of human behavior.

What Conway proved was that complex structures can emerge from simple rules; he proved that you don’t need a Creator to obtain a complex universe, just simple rules, time and favorable circumstances.

Religious people often have a hard time accepting that. One the one hand, they argue, Conway didn’t prove the absence of a Creator, and second, Conway himself acted as a Creator himself since he — after all — created the rules of the game. Isn’t there, in our world, at least room for such a “Creator of Rules”?

Nobody knows, but I personally don’t think so. What Conway did was not create the rules — he rather zoomed in on a particular universe with a particular rule set, chosen from an infinite set of rules: He just shed light on one particular universe that is favorable of life in an infinite multiverse.

Let me close this post with the words of Stephen Hawking. Like all human beings, he doesn’t know everything, but he is probably one of the persons who has the best grasp of our universe:

“We are each free to believe what we want and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization. There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful.”

Oh No! The ‘in’ Operator Strikes Again!

depressed

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
— Scott Adams

When I discovered the eerie truth about JavaScript’s ‘in’ operator, I thought that it couldn’t get any weirder. But boy-oh-boy, was I wrong!

Let’s first recap what’s so bad about JavaScript’s implementation of ‘in’. If you have a list (aka. array) in JavaScript and use the ‘in’ operator to test for membership, you are asking for trouble:

> array = [4, 2, 1]
> 0 in array
true
> 4 in array
false

Contrary to what you might expect, the ‘in’ operator doesn’t test whether the left-hand side value is a member of the array, but rather whether it is a valid index into the array. This makes absolutely no sense for arrays, but it does for dictionaries, since it tests whether a given key is present or not:

> dict = {4 : 'four', 2 : 'two', 1 : 'one'}
> 0 in dict
false
> 4 in dict
true

The moral of the story? Don’t use the ‘in’ operator in JavaScript on arrays to test for membership; with dictionaries everything is fine.

The other day, I found another shocking behavior of the ‘in’ operator, but this time in Groovy; not when used on arrays — when used on dictionaries! Consider this routine. It has two parameters, a list of words (the input text) and a dictionary which contains an entry for every word whose number of occurrences in the input text is to be counted:

def countWords(wordsList, wordsToCount) {
    // For every word in list.
    wordsList.each { word ->
        // If word is a word that is to be counted.
        if (word in wordsToCount) {
            // Increase count.
            ++wordsToCount[word]
        }
    }
}

The initial word counts in ‘wordsToCount’ are set to 0; the word counts are increased for every corresponding word found in ‘wordsList’. For instance:

> def myText = ['spam', 'blah', 'eggs', 'foo', 'eggs', 'buzz']
> def myWordsToCount = ['spam' : 0, 'eggs' : 0, 'ham' : 0]
> countWords(myText, myWordsToCount)
> print myWordsToCount

should print:

[spam:1, eggs:2, ham:0]

At least, this is what most people would expect and what one would get in Python or JavaScript. Alas, what you will get in Groovy is this:

[spam:0, eggs:0, ham:0]

When used on dictionaries, Groovy’s ‘in’ operator not only checks whether the given key on its left-hand side exists in the dictionary, it also overeagerly checks if the corresponding value is ‘true’ according to the Groovy Truth Rules; that is, 0, null, empty strings and empty lists will make the ‘in’ operator return false.

The ‘in’ operator should only test for membership; that is, it should test if the left-hand side is in the collection on the right-hand side. On no account should it interpret an element’s value.

Not following a well-established convention is bad enought, but being inconsistent within the same language is a lot worse: when used with lists/arrays, the ‘in’ operator just checks for membership and doesn’t care a bag of beans about the value of a member:

> def mylist = [ 0, 1, null, "", [] ]
> 0 in mylist
true
> null in mylist
true
> "" in mylist
true
> [] in mylist
true

It won’t get any weirder — it simply can’t!

Bug Hunting Adventures #6: Logarithmic Errors

Sometimes, it is necessary to find out how an application uses dynamically memory. Especially on constrained (think embedded) systems you should know, for instance, what block sizes are typically requested, how much memory is allocated at any one time, and how much memory has been requested at most so far (allocation high-water mark). Data like this allows you to fine-tune your memory allocator and/or roll out your own highly-efficient, special-purpose allocator for popular block sizes.

I recently implemented such a statistics-enhanced version of operator new/delete and one of its tasks was to find out how frequently blocks of certain sizes were requested. Instead of keeping track of exact request sizes (which would have been prohibitively expensive on the target system) I came up with a simpler, but sufficient scheme where I counted allocations to block sizes, rounded to the next base-2 boundary:

void* operator new(std::size_t n) {
    ...
    ++g_allocations[log2ceil(n)];
    ...
}

log2ceil is the ‘ceiled’ (rounded-up) binary logarithm of a given value. As an example, log2ceil(100) and log2ceil(128) both yield the same value of 7. Hence, the value g_allocations[7] would tell me how many allocations of block sizes in the range of 65 – 128 bytes there have been.

Below is the code of a log2ceil function; it works by counting the number of leading (left-most) zero bits in a word and subtracting this value from 31. In order to get the desired rounding behavior, a well-known trick is applied: first, decrement the argument by one and then increment the result by one.

This implementation is straightforward and all the tests pass. Still, it has a subtle portability issue. Can you see it?

Code
Solution

The Reason We Have a Job

“There’s truths you have to grow into.”
― H.G. Wells, Love and Mr. Lewisham

Let me ask you a simple question. Why do you have a job?

Maybe you are convinced that you have a job because you have a lot of obligations, like hungry mouth to feed and bills to pay. Or because someone told you that every decent citizen simply must have a job these days.

But no, that’s not the answer I am looking for. These are all valid reasons why you want or need or should have a job.

Or maybe you believe the reason is that you are such an irresistibly smart person that every company just wants to posses.

No, again, such factors only make you attractive to your employer, they give you a competitive edge over other people.

So what is the real reason you have a job? Here is my answer: unless you work for a non-profit organization (or the government) the only reason why you have a job is that someone — the business owner — believes that, overall, you generate much more money than you cost.

The verb believes is essential here. It could be that you, objectively, turn out not to be such a great investment for your company, maybe even a massive waste of money, but that doesn’t matter much: you can still keep your job as long as your boss’ belief in your money-generating abilities remains strong.

However, once this belief (or hope) is gone, your days are numbered. You may stay on the payroll for quite some time, but you will be walking around neither dead nor alive, just like a zombie. The question is not if you will lose your job — the question is when.

But how cruel are these greedy company owners? What about social responsibility? Is it always just about the money?

This attitude arises from a common misconception, and yes, it is always just about the money. It is not the responsibility of a business owner to make employees rich (not even happy) — it is just the other way around. Sure, there are hip companies which treat their employees extremely well, pay high salaries and grant extraordinary benefits; but let’s not forget: it is only because there is (still) an enormous belief in a high return on investment. If everything turns out well in this gamble there is a win-win situation: happy business owner, happy employees — all the ingredients for a long-lasting virtuous circle.

In the not-so-fortunate case — and every company will face stormy weather, even the hippest — a business owner has to eliminate cost to ensure that his business stays profitable; not performing these life-saving amputations would put his and his employees’ future at risk. Unprofitable companies cannot exist for an extended period of time in a free market; they will sooner or later be eaten by the competition. And that’s not a statement — that’s a fact.

So wise developers should avoid becoming dependent on an employer’s dreams and beliefs. Instead, developers should constantly and aggressively invest in their knowledge portfolio and keep their resume up-to-date. They should neither mentally nor financially become too attached to a company or technology. Instead, they should always be ready to move on.

Give an outstanding performance for your money, but treat every day as if it would be your last. Get rid of those personal items on your desk. Accept that employments are transient. This not only gives you independence and self-confidence, it also makes you indispensable for your current employer — and your next.

Bug Hunting Adventures #5: False Diagnosis

Today’s cars host dozens of ECUs (electronic control units) that exchange tens of thousands of messages and signals on various buses (eg. CAN, MOST, Flexray, Ethernet). On top of that, ECUs provide hundredths of diagnostic services, that allow factories, maintenance personnel and even devices on the car to obtain (and change) various parameters, including vehicle speed, diagnostic trouble codes, and sensor/actuator data. By using diagnostic services, you can literally remote control your car, provided you get passed the security mechanisms, of course.

Diagnostic commands are exchanged based on the UDS protocol, as specified by ISO 14229-1:2013, via request/response pairs. Requests and responses are coded like this:

Request: SA, DA, SID1, ..., SIDn
Response (OK): SA, DA, SID1|0x40, SID2, ..., SIDn, RESP-PAYLOAD
Response (error): SA, DA, 0x7F, SID1, ERROR-CODE

Every ECU in a car has a unique 1-byte diagnostic address that uniquely identifies it (signified as source address SA and destination address DA, depending on whether a device acts as a sender or receiver) and each diagnostic service of an ECU is addressed by a 1 to n byte long service ID (SID). (Note that in reality, the n-byte “SID” consists of the real SID and a sub-level function ID, but this detail is of no importance for our considerations.)

If, for example, a device with SA = 0x20 wants to read all diagnostic trouble codes from an ECU with DA = 0x60, it would issue this request:

0x20 0x60 0x19 0x0A

where 0x19 0x0A is the two-byte service ID for the “READ DIAGNOSTIC TROUBLE CODES” service.

The positive response of the targeted ECU might look like this:

0x60 0x20 0x59 0x0A 0xFF 0x02 0x40 0x00 0x50 0x02 ...

Notice that the values of SA and DA are swapped; the replying ECU is now the sender and the requesting ECU the receiver. 0x59 is the first byte of the service ID (SID1) or’ed with the “response OK” flag 0x40. The response payload (the requested information, that is, the actual trouble codes) starts with 0xFF 0x02… .

If an ECU cannot fulfill a request, it sends a negative response indicator, followed by an error code that gives details on what went wrong:

0x60 0x20 0x7F 0x019 0x11

Here, 0x7F denotes ‘error’, 0x19 is the first SID byte of the original request (this time without the “response OK” flag) and 0x11 is the error code for “SERVICE NOT SUPPORTED”.

There are two error code values that usually require special treatment: If an ECU responds with error code 0x21 it means that it is currently busy and unable to process the request; if it responds with 0x78 it denotes that it is able to process the request but needs more time to complete it.

This description of the UDS protocol is of course an oversimplification, but it is enough for our bug-hunting purposes. Attached is an extract of an application that incorrectly processes the response to a diagnostic service request. Can you diagnose the problem?

Code
Solution

Hero or Zero?

Andrea: “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.”
Galileo: “No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero”

– Bert Brecht, “The Life of Galileo”

If you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, chances are that you get answers from this list: police officer, firefighter, astronaut, rock star. Children nearly always choose professions that are accompanied with acclamation, jobs where they can shine, where they can be big.

Even as adults, most of us still want to be heroes (or heroines), at least to some extent. This desire is deeply rooted in all human cultures and societies: Those who act, especially at the peril of their own lives, get praise and reward.

Strangely enough, the yearning for recognition is sometimes so strong, that people who should actually help in hazardous situations deliberately create them, just to get a chance to prove their bravery. You have probably heard about cases where firefighters set buildings on fire, just to be the first on the scene to extinguish it. This phenomenon is called “hero syndrome” and is an extreme form of degenerated professionalism, but it nevertheless does happen.

There is a lot of heroism going on in software development as well. Many software projects, for lack of software engineering knowledge and discipline, rely on heroics; the successful outcome totally depends on individuals who work crazy hours in an endless code-and-fix cycle. Especially the game industry has gained a sad reputation for such malpractice.

But sometimes it is not the companies which foist heroics upon their developers — sometimes, and much in line with the hero syndrome, developers deliberately create “hero situations” themselves.

One case in point is when developers accept impossible assignments in hope to get praise by their bosses for making the impossible happen, cases, where a clear, professional “No” would haven been the right answer. In his book “The Clean Coder” Uncle Bob cites a programmer whose words say it all: “I hit SEND, lay back in my chair and with a smug grin began to fantasize how the company would run me up onto their shoulders and lead a procession down 42nd Street while I was crowned ‘Greatest Developer Ev-ar'”.

By accepting ridiculous schedules and working ridiculous hours, such “heroes” not only put their pesonal well-being at risk, they also put their companies future at risk, at least for two reasons: first, if management is told that something which is highly improbable is doable, they might not look for alternatives, they might not set up a life-saving plan B; second, by leaving rushed, brittle, unmaintainable quick-hack code behind that nobody understands or dares to change.

But I’ve also met developers who gold-plate their code, write overly complicated code, or fervently and constantly use the most obscure language features — C++ template meta-programming immediately comes to mind — just to show everyone how clever they are. Again, the only thing such “heroes” usually achieve is that coworkers don’t dare touching their abominations — there is no praise at all, just head-shaking. This behavior is quite the opposite of what modern software development practices demand: software minimalism; that is, the simplest code that works, code that is easy to read, refactor, and extend by everyone — the basis for one of the most important software values: evolvability.

To me, people who behave in such a manner are no heroes at all, in fact they are quite the opposite of a hero. What they do is not a selfless act in order to help others but rather an act of selfishness that almost always hurts others. A wise manager would advise these folks to consult a specialist to get over their inferiority complex; if that doesn’t help, to seek their luck elsewhere, in the game industry, for instance.

By contrast, true heroes are invisible, they shun the limelight. They do things because they know that the overall benefit of their action is by far larger and more important than their own personal benefit. They are heroes because they do things that are right and not things that just shine bright.

There are firefighters out there who save lives every day, and some of them can rightly be called heroes. But the even bigger heroes are the people who probably nobody knows, people who work out fire protection standards — they must have saved hundreds of thousands of lives over the last century. Benjamin Franklin’s saying “An ounce prevention is worth a pound of cure” is what they live by. Such heroes, modest people who strive to prevent, are the true role models of every software professional.

Bug Hunting Adventures #4: Casino Royale

On August 18, 1913, something very strange happened at Monaco’s Monte Carlo casino: for the twentieth time in a row, the ball had fallen into a black pocket. More and more people gathered at the table and started betting like crazy for red — they were convinced that the time for red was more than overdue. Well, most of them lost a lot of money because it took another seven spins of the wheel until red finally arrived.

Today, I present a little Groovy program that I wrote in order to get insight into Roulette probability, to save us from what is now known as the Monte Carlo Fallacy.

When you call ‘runSimulation’ you can specify how many number of times you want to spin the wheel. With every spin, the method ‘spinWheel’ returns either 0 (for black), 1 (for red), or 2 (for Zero).

‘runSimulation’ keeps track of the length of a certain color series in three associative arrays (i. e. maps), one for every color (including the color Zero). The key into these maps is the length of the series and the associated value is the count of how often this series length was encountered during the experiment.

To make accessing these color length maps generic, their references are stored in a plain list (‘seriesMaps’). By using the color value returned from ‘spinWheel’ as an index, one can easily obtain the length map for a particular color. This list of length maps is returned at the end of the simulation. As an example, after 100 spins, the list might look like this:

[ [2:6, 3:3, 1:14, 5:1], [3:5, 1:8, 2:9, 4:1, 5:1, 7:1], [1:3] ]

In this simulation, for black, a series of length 2 was encountered 6 times, and a length of 5 one time. For red, there was one series length of 7, and our virtual ball landed three times on Zero, but there was never a series of Zeros (i. e. longer than 1). (Aside: in one experiment I did with the bug-fixed version, I spun the wheel more than 100 million times; I got a maximum series of 30 for black and — believe it or not — I once got a series of four times Zero in a row.)

But the program, as it is presented to you, contains a bug. It just doesn’t work as it is supposed to. Can you spot it? (Note: the bug has nothing to do with any Groovy idiosyncrasies.)

Code
Solution

Bug Hunting Adventures #3: Silent Threads

‘select’ isn’t broken
— The Pragmatic Programmers

Many moons ago, when I tried to familiarize myself with POSIX threads, I wrote a simple test program that was based on a textbook example.

My program sported two threads, one printing ‘+’ characters, the other one printing ‘-‘ characters. Everything worked as expected: a mixed stream of ‘+’ and ‘-‘ characters was emitted to stdout.

But everything happened so fast! Literally thousands of characters were outputted at the blink of an eye, so I added a little extra code that made the threads sleep for a specified amount of time before printing the next character.

Alas, when I set the delay (SLEEP_SECS) to 1 second (or in fact any value different to zero) nothing was printed at all! It looked like the threads got locked up completely. I came up with the weirdest theories about what had happened, including a bug in the pthreads library and the implementation of ‘sleep’.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized my mistake. Once I again, I had blamed it on the good ones, when the real problem was blind stupidity.

What was my mistake?

Code
Solution

Growing a Solid Software Company — Update

Yesterday, on October 21, all Lufhansa pilots went on strike in Germany. Nevertheless, Lufhansa managed to conduct half of their flights. They achieved this miracle by using a two-fold strategy: subcontractors and — lo and behold — their own managers, who, according to Lufthansa, work in most cases as part-time pilots, anyway.

Pilots that manage, managers that fly. Exactly my words, friends, exactly my words…

Let’s sing a song together, shall we?

I see trees of green, red roses, too,
I see them bloom, for me and you
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.

Growing a Solid Software Company

Isn’t it a shame that so many software development managers don’t code anymore?

Since I am in a malicious mood today, I claim that they didn’t even write much code when they were still developers. But does it always have to be like this?

After years of deep contemplation I’ve come up with this rule:

Managers, regardless of their position in a hierarchy, should spend at least one-third of their time doing the work of their immediate subordinates.

Not only would this mean that every manager is productive and actively contributes to a project; it would also mean that managers stay current from a technological point of view. Especially the latter would ensure that their strategic decisions are based on much firmer ground.

Wouldn’t performance appraisals (and promotions) suddenly become more objective and fair? Wouldn’t it be much easier for managers to hire new people since they would know — from first-hand experience — what exactly to look for?

If this recursive rule were applied, even the software manager’s boss would write small parts of the software himself. His boss, in turn, would probably not code that much but maybe do some code-reviews or check the nightly build for compiler warnings.

Wouldn’t the code quality be much higher if developers knew that someone way up the corporate ladder scrutinizes their work and gave feedback? Wouldn’t everyone feel much better because they knew that their bosses really cared for what they do?

This is a rule for building up a hierarchy of software craftsmen, a rule that yields what I call a “Solid Software Company”: A company were everyone is a developer (at least to some extent), where everyone understands software’s true nature and developer’s needs.

Imagine you could travel back in time, to the early days of a once hip, now bureaucratic, politics-laden, inefficient, dreadful-to-work-for monster of a software company. You will arrive at a point at which they suddenly start to promote or hire people to be “just managers”.

So, viewed from a different, more negative angle, my rule can be rephrased like this:

The long and slow demise of a young, aspiring software company begins when its software development managers cease to write code.