Look, Ma! betterC Without Linker Hacking!

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Version 2.079 of the DMD compiler has just been released with improvements to the -betterC flag. I just gave it a try, and the D code I linked into a C executable with some horrible linker hacking in 2016 now works without any linker hacking at all. There’s still some more stuff to test out when I get around to it, but, hey, here’s some progress:

The Catch-22 of Risk-Averse Organisations

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Markets are supposed to make corporations efficient, so if you do consulting, you have to wonder why so many organisations (both private and government) are so absurdly dysfunctional. The way I see it, there’s no real paradox: organisations are pushed by both forces of efficiency (like market forces) and forces of dysfunction (like political drama). Corporations are only efficient if the forces of efficiency are stronger.

There are many forces of dysfunction that can affect an organisation, but there’s one that’s particularly important for risk-averse organisations (like banks and large government departments). Whenever I see people in an organisation doing something that doesn’t make any sense, I always ask if this catch-22 can explain it:

Every risk-averse organisation needs someone to take the initiative to eliminate risks. But in a risk-averse organisation, that’s exactly what no one does.

Popular Web Servers Compared

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Here’s a comparison of the web servers I’ve used the most.

Making a Compile-time Brainfuck Compiler in D (translation)

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NB: This post is just a translation (with some extra comments by me). Credit goes to the original and the C code generator that inspired it.

Relational Databases Considered Incredibly Useful

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A year ago I worked on a web service that had Postgres and Elasticsearch as backends. Postgres was doing most of the work and was the primary source of truth about all data, but some documents were replicated in Elasticsearch for querying. Elasticsearch was easy to get started with, but had an ongoing maintenance cost: it was one more moving part to break down, it occasionally went out of sync with the main database, it was another thing for new developers to install, and it added complexity to the deployment, as well as the integration tests. But most of the features of Elasticsearch weren’t needed because the documents were semi-structured, and the search queries were heavily keyword-based. Dropping Elasticsearch and just using Postgres turned out to work okay. No, I’m not talking about brute-force string matching using LIKE expressions (as implemented in certain popular CMSs); I’m talking about using the featureful text search indexes in good modern databases. Text search with Postgres took more work to implement, and couldn’t do all the things Elasticsearch could, but it was easier to deploy, and since then it’s been zero maintenance. Overall, it’s considered a net win (I talked to some of the developers again just recently).

Busywork

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My first small business wasn’t actually in the software industry. Back when I was a student, I did contract office jobs in the summer holidays to pay for things while I was studying. I got a feeling that I’d be happier self-employed than someone else’s employee, so after graduation I experimented with registering an Australian Business Number (ABN) and using it to do maths and sciences tuition. I went back to working for other companies eventually, but I learned a lot from the experience, and that know-how was extremely valuable later when I quit my full-time job to start my own little consulting business.

I might write more about that experience some other time, but for now I want to write about what’s been hardest for me to get used to: when you’re self-employed, no one cares how much work you do.

Trying Out the New -betterC

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It was less than a year ago that I wrote about linker hacking the runtime out of D code so that it could work as “better C” code, but things have already changed a lot since then. A few days ago Walter Bright announced a new, improved -betterC switch, which can now do a lot of the stuff that needed ugly hacking before.

Counting Sudoku Solution Grids using Monte Carlo

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How many ways can you fill a 9x9 grid, obeying all the rules of the sudoku puzzle? The answer is too big to just calculate directly on a computer, so an exact answer takes careful analysis. But if an absolutely exact answer isn’t required, we can get a good statistical approximation using a Monte Carlo algorithm. As a bonus, the algorithm doesn’t need any application-specific analysis and works on many other problems, too. It’s a handy “stupid things that work” approach to solving problems.

Terraform is Best for Configuring Hashicorp Vault

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Hashicorp Vault is a handy tool for scalable secrets management in a distributed system or team-based project. Unfortunately, the only out-of-the-box way to configure it is through its API (or a UI), but most projects that need Vault will need to manage the configuration in source control.

There’s a workaround explained on the Hashicorp blog. It’s a neat hack, but here’s a quick note about why using Terraform’s Vault integration is a better idea for production use.

Compression, Complexity and Software System Design

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Information theory gives us a way to understand communication systems, by giving us a way to understand what happens to information as it’s transmitted or re-encoded.

We can also study what happens to complexity in a software system as components depend on or interface each other. Just like we can make rigorous arguments about how much information can be compressed, we can make arguments about how much complexity can be simplified, and use this to make better choices when designing software systems.