Recent Articles

Feb 2021

The Sound of an Unheard Treefall

by in Error'd on

Brett N. starts us off today with a timely notification that he received late on the 24th

and race conditions

A Bit of Power

by in CodeSOD on

Powers of two are second nature to a lot of programmers. They're nearly inescapable.

Equally inescapable are programmers finding new ways to do simple things wrong. Take Sander's co-worker, who needed to figure out, given a number of bits, what's the largest possible value you could store in that number of bits. You or I might reach for our language's pow function, but boy, in C++, that might mean you need to add an include file, and that sounds hard, so let's do this instead:

We're Going to Need a Bigger Boat

by in News Roundup on

You’ll have to stay patient with me on this post, since the point I will eventually get to really is the confluence of a number of different threads that have been going through my head the past few weeks.

Let’s start with my time in business school from 2007 to 2009. Charles Dickens couldn’t have penned a better dichotomy between the beginning and end of my time in school. In short: 2007 = the economy couldn’t be better, 2009 = the economy couldn’t be worse.

A Lack of Progress

by in CodeSOD on

Progress bars and throbbers are, in theory, tools that let your user know that a process is working. It's important to provide feedback when your program needs to do some long-running task.

Hegel inherited a rather old application, written in early versions of VB.Net. When you kicked off a long running process, it would update the status bar with a little animation, cycling from ".", to "..", to "...".


by in CodeSOD on

Molly's company has a home-grown database framework. It's not just doing big piles of string concatenation, and has a bunch of internal checks to make sure things happen safely, but it still involves a lot of hardcoded SQL strings.

Recently, Molly was reviewing a pull request, and found a Java block which looked like this:

The Timing is Off

by in Error'd on

Drew W discovers that the Daytona 500 is a different kind of exciting than we ever thought.

XXX Wins the Daytona 500

Spacious Backup

by in CodeSOD on

Today's anonymous submitter works on a project which uses Apache Derby to provide database services. Derby is a tiny database you can embed into your Java application, like SQLite. Even though it's part of the application, that doesn't mean it doesn't need to be backed up from time to time.

Our submitter was handed the code because the backup feature was "peculiar", and failed for reasons no one had figured out yet. It didn't take too long to figure out that the failures were triggered by not having enough space on the device for a backup. But they definitely had a enoughFreeSpaceForBackup check, so what was going wrong?

Shorely a Bad Choice

by in CodeSOD on

"This was developed by the offshore team," is usually spoken as a warning. There are a lot of reasons why the code-quality from offshore teams has such a bad reputation. You can list off a bunch of reasons why this is true, but it all boils down to variations on the Princpal-Agent Problem: the people writing the code (the agents) don't have their goals aligned with your company (the principal).

Magnus M recently inherited some C# code which came from the offshore team, and it got principal-agented all over.


by in CodeSOD on

In modern times, there's almost no reason to use Assembly, outside of highly specific and limited cases. For example, I recently worked on a project that uses a PRU, and while you can program that in C, I wanted to be able to count instructions so that I could get extremely precise timings to control LEDs.

In modern times, there's also no reason to use Delphi, but Andre found this code a few years ago, and has been puzzling over it ever since.

The Therac-25 Incident

by in Feature Articles on

A few months ago, someone noted in the comments that they hadn't heard about the Therac-25 incident. I was surprised, and went off to do an informal survey of developers I know, only to discover that only about half of them knew what it was without searching for it.
I think it's important that everyone in our industry know about this incident, and upon digging into the details I was stunned by how much of a WTF there was.
Today's article is not fun, or funny. It describes incidents of death and maiming caused by faulty software engineering processes. If that's not what you want today, grab a random article from our archive, instead.

When you're strapping a patient to an electron gun capable of delivering a 25MeV particle beam, following procedure is vitally important. The technician operating the Therac-25 radiotherapy machine at the East Texas Cancer Center (ETCC) had been running this machine, and those like it, long enough that she had the routine down.

Sweet Sweet Summertime

by in Error'd on

Gastronome Carl hungrily drools "I haven't measured the speed of a snail but it's gotta be close. "

His Name Is BRIAN

Self Improvement in Stages

by in CodeSOD on

Jake has a co-worker named "Eddie". Eddie is the kind of person who is always hoping to change and get better. They're gonna start eating healthier… after the holidays. They're gonna start doing test driven development… on the next project. They'll stop just copying and pasting code… someday.

At least, that's what we can get from this blob of code.

Stocking Up

by in CodeSOD on

Sometimes, you find some code that almost works, that almost makes sense. In a way, that's worse than just plain bad code. René was recently going through some legacy JavaScript code for their warehouse management system.

Like any such warehousing system, there's a problem you have to solve: sometimes, the number of units you need to pick to complete the order is larger than the stock you have available. At that point, you need to make a decision: do you hold the order until stock comes in, do you partially fill it and then follow up with a second shipment, or do you perhaps just cancel the order?

The Economic Problem

by in Feature Articles on

One of the main tasks any company needs to do is allocate resources. Regardless of the product or the industry they're in, they have to decide how to employ the assets they have to make money. No one has really "solved" this problem, and that's why there are swarms of resource planning systems, project management tools, and cultish trend-following.

After a C-suite shuffle at James B's employer, one of the newly installed C-level execs had some big ideas. They were strongly influenced by one of the two life-changing books, and not the one involving orcs. A company needs to allocate resources. The economy, as a whole, needs to allocate resources. If, on the economic level, we use markets to allocate resources because they're more efficient than planning, then we should use markets internally as well.

Flash Point

by in News Roundup on

With nearly one month of 2021 in the books and the spectre of Covid-19 exhausting all of us, let’s do a quick inventory of the memorable moments of the past three months, shall we?

  1. 11/3/2020:  US Presidential Election occurs (election called by media for Joe Biden on 11/9)
  2. 11/11/2020:  Rudy Giuliani, acting as personal lawyer for President Donald Trump, holds press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping to dispute election results
  3. 12/31/2020:  Adobe Flash support discontinued and officially sunset
  4. 1/5/2021:  Runoff for both Georgia US Senate seats
  5. 1/6/2021:  Twitter suspends and later kicks Donald Trump off of its platform for inciting the US Capital riot, resulting in a surge in downloads of Twitter-alternatives like Gab and Parler
  6. 1/22/2021:  r/WallStreetBets leads an army of day traders to dramatically drive up the price of Gamestop and AMC theaters (among others), which will eventually cause two hedge funds to close their short positions and fall into near bankruptcy, or put more succinctly by @ParikPatelCFA on Twitter:

We're Number 0th

by in Error'd on

Drinker Philip B. confesses "The first bottle went down fine but after the second my speech got a little schlurred ..."

Coming to Grips

by in Feature Articles on

Regardless of what industry you're in, every startup hits that dangerous phase where you're nearing the end of your runway but you still haven't gotten to the point where you can actually make money with your product. The cash crunch starts, and what happens next can often make or break the company.

Nathan was working for a biotech company that had hit that phase. They had a product, but they couldn't produce enough of it, cheaply enough, to actually make a profit. What they needed was some automation, and laboratory robots were the solution. But laboratory robots were expensive, and for a company facing a cash crunch, "expensive" was too risky. They needed a cheaper solution.

Don't Do This

by in CodeSOD on

Let's say you were writing a type checker in TypeScript. At some point, you would find that you need to iterate across various lists of things, like for example, the list of arguments to a function.

Now, JavaScript (and thus TypeScript) gives you plenty of options for building the right loop for your specific problem. Or, if you look at the code our anonymous submitter sent, you could just choose the wrongest one.

Not-so-Portable Document Format

by in Feature Articles on

Adrian worked for a document services company. Among other things, they provided high-speed printing services to clients in the financial services industry. This means providing on site service, which is how Adrian ended up with an office in the sub-sub-basement of a finance company. Adrian's boss, Lester, was too busy "developing high-end printing solutions on a Unix system" to spend any time in that sub-sub-basement, and instead embedded himself with the client's IT team.

"It's important that I'm working closely with them," Lester explained, "because it's the only way we can guarantee true inter-system compatibility." With disgust, he added, "They're mostly a Windows shop, and don't understand Unix systems, which is what drives our high-speed printing solution."

Null and Terminated

by in CodeSOD on

There's plenty of room for debate about what specific poor choices in history lead to the most bugs today. Was it the billion dollar mistake of allowing null pointers? Is it the absolute mess that is C memory management? Or is it C-style strings and all the attendant functions and buffer-overruns they entail?

A developer at Jay's company had been porting some C++ code to a new platform. That developer left, and the wheel-of-you-own-this-now spun and landed on Jay. The code was messy, but mostly functional. Jay was able to get it building, running, and then added a new feature. It was during testing that Jay noticed that some fields in the UI weren't being populated.