hisham hm

🔗 Protests and the space launch

I am not going to talk directly about the US protests. Instead, I will briefly note the role of the State in them, both as cause—promoting institutional racism—and as a continuing instigator. But aren’t the protests for justice, which supposedly needs to come from the State? But the government is clearly not interested in justice. So we have on one side the people, on the other side the State. But it didn’t have to be this way by definition: it’s _this_ particular state that’s the problem. And this makes me think of Peter Thiel.

Peter Thiel has said, in no uncertain terms, that he does not believe in democracy and ultimately wants the destruction of any form of State. That’s what he went up on stage in the elections for. That’s what the alt-right stands for. This is not a crisis, this is an ongoing plan. Historians will look at this as a multi-decade process, with the early 1980s under Reagan and Thatcher as the first inflection point, and the last few years with the alt-right, Trump and Brexit as the second one.

The first stage, neoliberalism, was about crippling the state in order to declare it inefficient and privatize it. In the 90s in particular this was sped up in practice and played down in discourse, but early on this was the stated goal.

Now at the second stage, it is no longer about crippling government institutions. It is about crippling the concept of government itself: get the incompetent to power, so that the supposed flaws of the democratic model become evident. Then offer something else.

Of course, the trickery there is that invariably the incompetent were led to power in various places by apparently legal but effectively criminal means: mass propaganda done in breach of campaign funding laws, voter supression, buying congress.

So now we’re at the stage where there’s a useful minority of radicalized fascists ensuring we get the worst possible government, and a mass of average people whose heroes are billionaires, ranging from your monopolist-turned-philantropist to your tweeting-techbro bigot. It may seem contradictory that the forces that are ultimately destroying the notion of nation-state ostensibly employ the discourse of nationalism. But if you pay attention, they are priming their base on adapting to the upcoming state of things.

This pandemic is the first time in history when we see a national crisis being addressed by the government by giving a press release and giving names of _companies_ who are going to be doing this and that to deal with the issue. This was very, very startling to see.

The notion that is up for companies and not the state to organize society is being normalized. America is at the forefront of this process, and has been for a long time. Other places still have things like functioning health and educational systems, but the pressure exists. In that sense, the landmark space launch — once a matter of national pride, now privatized into another triumph of business over country — led by Thiel’s associate Musk, is not at all disconnected from the ongoing events. They are deeply, closely connected.

Thiel’s company Palantir — named after the all-seeing eye in LOTR, another techbro favorite — provides machinery for mass surveillance in the the US. The surveillance people worldwide are under is already managed by a private company.

When you think of Russia and its oligarchs, or the growing number of billionaires in China’s parliament — why lobby the middleman, just buy a Congress seat for yourself — we see that the increasingly direct control of superpowers by businessmen is not an American-only phenomenon. It might be that the façade of a state will stick around for long, as a useful device as people cling to their flags and anthems, but I feel the foundations of the modern nation-state slowly crumble into dust under my feet, and I do not like what’s taking its place.

Zygmunt Bauman saw it back in the 1990s: in a world of companies, we’re no longer citizens, only consumers. And the rippling effects of this are much worse than they initially sound, but this is a conversation for another time.

🔗 Dynamic type systems aren’t even simpler

Alexis King just published a great blog post titled “No, dynamic type systems are not inherently more open”.

That reminded me of the talk I gave last year at FOSDEM, titled “Minimalism versus types”, where I advocated for static types from a slightly different angle. I tried to convince people that types in dynamically-typed programs are often more complicated than people realize. And often more complicated than in typical statically-typed languages.

People often say the opposite, that static type systems are more complicated, and dynamically-typed languages are simpler. At the surface level, this seems true: in a dynamic world you just go merrily declaring variables, assigning values and doing things with them, without ever having to write down any types, no matter how trivial or complex they are. Things can’t get any simpler in the typing department than “doing nothing”, right?

Well, types are nothing more than the shapes and allowed behaviors of your data. So it’s not like you don’t have shapes and behaviors in any program, regardless of the language… so, you have types, whether you write them or not. They are there, even in assembly language, even if at a conceptual level, as the sets of “valid values” your program can manipulate. And you have to think about them, and they have to make sense, and they have to do the right thing. So, in short, in a correct dynamically-typed program the types need to be just as correct as they are in a statically-typed one (or else you’ll get runtime errors).

In other words, the types are there, but you have to run the type checker in your head. And you know what’s funny? When people don’t write down the types, they often end up with types that are often more complicated than the types from people who do write them. The complexity just goes under the radar, so it piles up.

One day you open that module which you haven’t touched in six months, and you see a function call where the third argument is null. You need to remember what kinds of variables you can pass to that third argument, or read the whole source code to figure it out. You follow through the code to see all places that third argument is used and realize the accepted type of the third argument depends on what you give to the second argument. Congratulations, you’re dealing with a dependent type, which means you’ve just surpassed Haskell in terms of type system complexity. Compilers that deal with this kind of type system are so complex they are effectively proof assistants (and are at the forefront of programming language research), and here you are dealing with those data types with your brain (and your faith in your ability to come up with sufficient tests) alone.

Given that there is no mechanical type checker to prescribe what is expressible, and that the dynamic runtime will accept anything as long as the program doesn’t crash, when doing typechecking in your head you essentially have the world’s most powerful and complicated type checker at your disposal. And once you start making use of this power, you end up dealing with the world’s most complicated type system.

And when you give people expressive power, they use it. In my experience, people go wild constructing complicated structures in dynamic languages that they normally wouldn’t in static languages. It’s not that static languages are less powerful (Turing equivalence, blah blah), but they make the things you’re doing more obvious to you (Alexis’s post has some great examples). In a dynamically-typed program people are all to keen to make variables and data structures perform double or triple duty (“this is a X but also a Y under circumstances Z”), but when they have to write down what they’re doing as types, it’s like a little conscience check, and they think twice before creating a more complex type for something that could be described in a simpler way (simple example: they’ll probably make two plain functions instead of making one function that takes a string argument that changes the behavior of other arguments). Static types nudge you towards simpler, less “clever” solutions (and we all know what kind of solution is more maintainable in the long run).

But okay, let’s assume we avoid “clever” and pick the same solutions in either. Writing the same program in a static or a dynamic language to process the same data in the same way, you will end up with values of roughly the same types in both. The fact that the variables have static types or not does not change that.

“But in a dynamic language I don’t have to write the types! It’s less work!”

“Not having to” write types but having to think about them anyway is like doing math “not having to” write anything down and doing all calculations in your head. How is it an advantage to not use pen and paper to track down your train of thought as you do a complex calculation, and instead be restricted to do it only in your head? And how is an advantage to not have a mechanical tool — like a calculator, which can actually compute the things you wrote down — to check whether what you wrote with pen and paper makes sense?

I’m lazy, so I hate doing any math in my head. I’ll take writing things down and have a machine check it for me any day of the week. Why wouldn’t I want the same when programming? That’s what computers are for, right? To save us from computing things in our head. So I’ll write my types, and have the compiler check whether they make sense, thank you very much. It’s less work.

🔗 Remembering Windows 3.1 themes and user empowerment

This reminiscence started reading a tweet that said:

Unpopular opinion: dark modes are overhyped

Windows 3.1 allowed you to change all system colors to your liking. Linux been fully themeable since the 90s. OSX came along with a draconian “all blue aqua, and maybe a hint of gray”.

People accepted it because frankly it looked better than anything else at the time (a ton of Linux themes were bad OSX replicas). But it was a very “Ford Model T is available in any color as long as it’s black” thing.

The rise of OSX (remember, when it came along Apple had a single-digit slice of the computer market) meant that people eventually got used to the idea of a life with no desktop personalization. Nowadays most people don’t even change their wallpapers anymore.

In the old days of Windows 3.1, it was common to walk into an office and see each person’s desktop colors, fonts and wallpapers tuned to their personalities, just like their physical desk, with one’s family portrait or plants.

I just showed the above screenshots to my sister, and she sighed with a happy nostalgia:

— Remember changing colors on the computer?
— Oh yes! we would spend hours having fun on that!
— Everyone’s was different, right?
— Yes! I’d even change it according to my mood.

Looking back, I feel like this trend of less aesthetic configurability has diminished the sense of user ownership from the computer experience, part of the general trend of the death of “personal computing”.

I almost wrote that a phone UI allows for more self-expression today than a Win/Mac computer. But then I realized how much I struggled to get my Android UI the way I wanted, until I installed Nova Launcher that gave me Linux-levels of tweaking. The average user does not do this.

But at least they are more likely to change wallpaper in their phones than their computers. Nowadays you walk into an office and all computers look the same.

The same thing happened to the web, as we compare the diminishing tweakability of a MySpace page to the blue conformity a Facebook page, for example.

Conformity and death of self-expression are the norm, all under the guise of “consistency”.

User avatars forced into circles.

App icons in phones forced into the same shape.

Years ago, a friend joked that the inconsistency of the various Linux UI toolkits was how he felt the system’s “freedom”. We all laughed and wished for a more consistent UI, of course. But that discourse on consistency was quickly coopted to remove users’ agency.

What begins with aesthetics and the sense of self-expression, continues to a lack of ownership of the computing experience and ends in the passive acceptance of systems we don’t control.

Changes happen, but those are independent from the users’ wishes, and it’s a lottery whether the changes are for better or for worse.

Ever notice how version changes are called “updates” and not “upgrades” anymore?

In that regard, I think Dark Mode is a welcome addition as it allows a tiny bit of control and self-expression to the user, but it’s still kinda sad to see how far we regressed overall.

The hype around it, and how excited users get when they get such crumbles of configurability handed to them, just comes to show how users are unused to getting any degree of control back in their hands.

🔗 An annoying aspect of Lua’s if-based error checking

Lua does not have error checking/propagation primitives (like `?` or `!` operators in newer languages). The usual convention is to use plain old `if` statements:

local ok, err = do_something()
if err then
   return nil, err
end

So any call that propagates an error ends up at least 4 lines long. This has an impact on the programmer’s “threshold” for deciding that something is worth refactoring into a function as opposed to programming-by-copy-and-paste.

(An aside: I know that in recent years it has been trendy to defend copy-and-paste programming as a knee-jerk response against Architecture Astronauts who don’t know the difference between abstraction and indirection layers — maybe a topic for another blog post? — but, like the Astronauts who went too far in one direction by following a mantra without understanding the principles, the copy-pasters are now too far in the other direction, leading to lots of boilerplate code that looks like productivity but can pile up into a mess.)

So, today I had a bit of code that looked like this:

local gpg = cfg.variables.GPG
local gpg_ok, err = fs.is_tool_available(gpg, "gpg")
if not gpg_ok then
   return nil, err
end

When I had to do the same thing in another function, the immediate reaction was to try to turn this into a nice five-line function and just `local gpg = get_gpg()` in both places. However, when we account to error checking, this would end up amounting to:

local function get_gpg()
   local gpg = cfg.variables.GPG
   local gpg_ok, err = fs.is_tool_available(gpg, "gpg")
   if not gpg_ok then
      return nil, err
   end
   return gpg
end

local function foo(...)
   local gpg, err = get_gpg()
   if not gpg then
      return nil, err
   end
   ...
end

local function bar(...)
   local gpg, err = get_gpg()
   if not gpg then
      return nil, err
   end
   ...
end

where as the “copy-paste” version would look like:

local function foo(...)
   local gpg = cfg.variables.GPG
   local gpg_ok, err = fs.is_tool_available(gpg, "gpg")
   if not gpg_ok then
      return nil, err
   end
   ...
end

local function bar(...)
   local gpg = cfg.variables.GPG
   local gpg_ok, err = fs.is_tool_available(gpg, "gpg")
   if not gpg_ok then
      return nil, err
   end
   ...
end

It is measurably less code. But it spreads the dependency on the external `cfg` and `fs` modules in two places, and adds two bits of code must remain in sync. So the shorter version is less maintainable, or in other words, more bug-prone in the long run.

It is unfortunate that overly verbose error handling drives the programmer towards the worse choice software-engineering-wise.

🔗 Splitting a Git commit into one commit per file

Sometimes when working on a branch, you end up with a “wip” or “fixup” commit that contains changes to several files:

01a25e6 introduce raccoon library
bd197ac modify core to use raccoon
02890e3 add --raccoon option to the CLI
f938740 fixes
fab9379 add documentation on raccoon features

Our f938740 fixes commit has changes that really belong in the three previous commits. Before merging, we want to squash those changes in the original commits where the correct code should have been in the first place.

The typical way to do this is to use interactive rebase, using git rebase -i.

This is not a post explaining interactive rebase, so check out some other sources before proceeding if you are not familiar with it!

Splitting things from a “fixup” commit can get tedious using git rebase -i in conjunction with the edit option and git add -p, especially when you really know that all changes to a file belong to a certain commit.

Here’s a quick script for the rescue: it is designed to be used during an interactive rebase, and splits the current commit into multiple commits, one with the contents of each file:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

message="$(git log --pretty=format:'%s' -n1)"

if [ `git status --porcelain --untracked-files=no | wc -l` = 0 ]
then
   git reset --soft HEAD^
fi

git status --porcelain --untracked-files=no | while read status file
do
   echo $status $file

   if [ "$status" = "M" ]
   then
      git add $file
      git commit -n $file -m "$file: $message"
   elif [ "$status" = "A" ]
   then
      git add $file
      git commit -n $file -m "added $file: $message"
   elif [ "$status" = "D" ]
   then
      git rm $file
      git commit -n $file -m "removed $file: $message"
   else
      echo "unknown status $file"
   fi
done

Save this as split-files.sh (and make it executable with chmod +x split-files.sh).

Now, we proceed with the interactive rebase. When doing an interactive rebase, Git will open a text editor: in the commit you want to split, replace pick with edit:

pick 01a25e6 introduce raccoon library
pick bd197ac modify core to use raccoon
pick 02890e3 add --raccoon option to the CLI
edit f938740 fixes
pick fab9379 add documentation on raccoon features

# Rebase 01a25e6..fab9379 onto cb370a2 (5 commands)
#
# Commands:
# p, pick  = use commit
# r, reword  = use commit, but edit the commit message
# e, edit  = use commit, but stop for amending
# ...

When you save and exit the text editor launched by Git, you will return to the prompt with the repo's HEAD pointing at the commit we will split. Then run ./split-files.sh and then git rebase --continue.

Now launch the interactive rebase again. Your commits should look like this:

pick 01a25e6 introduce raccoon library
pick bd197ac modify core to use raccoon
pick 02890e3 add --raccoon option to the CLI
pick 8369783 src/lib/racoon.foo: fixes
pick a3c4e42 src/cli/foobar: fixes
pick 108a931 src/core/core.foo: fixes
pick fab9379 add documentation on raccoon features

# Rebase 01a25e6..fab9379 onto cb370a2 (7 commands)
#
# Commands:
# p, pick  = use commit
# r, reword  = use commit, but edit the commit message
# e, edit  = use commit, but stop for amending
# ...

The "fixes" commit in our example was split into three. Now move these new commits around and use the fixup command to merge them to the commit immediately above it:

pick 01a25e6 introduce raccoon library
fixup 8369783 src/lib/racoon.foo: fixes
pick bd197ac modify core to use raccoon
fixup 108a931 src/core/core.foo: fixes
pick 02890e3 add --raccoon option to the CLI
fixup a3c4e42 src/cli/foobar: fixes
pick fab9379 add documentation on raccoon features

# Rebase 01a25e6..fab9379 onto cb370a2 (7 commands)
#
# Commands:
# p, pick  = use commit
# r, reword  = use commit, but edit the commit message
# e, edit  = use commit, but stop for amending
# ...

Save, exit, and we're done! But a word of warning: when moving commits around make sure there are no other commits that change the same part of the file in between your "fixes" commit and the one you're squashing it into. When in doubt, Gitk and similar tools make it easier to check this before you jump into squashing commits.

If everything went well, our history now looks like this:

8370e83 introduce raccoon library
038c5a3 modify core to use raccoon
bb9783a add --raccoon option to the CLI
fab9379 add documentation on raccoon features

The SHA hashes of the commits have changed, because they now contain the fixes merged into them, and the separate catch-all "fixes" commit is now gone for good!

Of course this is a bit of an ideal scenario where each file goes neatly into a separate commit. Sometimes changes made to a single file belong in separate commits. In those cases, the solution is a bit more manual, using edit and then git add -p, which is super useful.

And remember, if any moment you messed up, git reflog is your best friend! But this is a topic for another time. Cheers!


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