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Ask Slashdot: Is Pascal Underrated?

jgotts Hints from an over-the-hill programmer (213 comments)

It doesn't matter what programming language you use. Go ahead and use Pascal if it's the best choice for the job.

To be a great programmer, you need to write code that reads like English. We have a framework inside of brains called English speech, reading, and writing. If you're a French speaker, or speak another European language, your framework isn't much different. A great French programmer or a great German programmer will program similarly to a great English programmer. Everybody's seen expressive code. You can look at the code and understand what it does almost instantly. Comments, variable names, abstraction, everything that makes a great programmer, all of these things come into play. Conversely, everybody's seen shitty code that takes several days to understand. I don't care what language it is. You're a horrible programmer if you write code like this. Nobody cares how clever you are, or how you've mastered the specific grammar of a certain language. You will eventually move on and someone else will have to modify your code. The best place for clever code is in the trash bin.

To be a great programmer, you need to be able to plan out what you're going to do in advance. Everybody's worked with hacked together shit, and has had to maintain it. Hacked together shit wastes programmers' time. Spend a few days doing absolutely no "programming" whatsoever. Instead draw some flowcharts, try out a rough prototype, brush up on some theory, write up an estimate, and have someone else review everything.

Learn to be realistic about how long your work will take. I know, genius programmer, you can get everything done in about a day. Be true to yourself and don't try to impress anybody with your speed coding abilities. Take your time, and get it done right. Spend an entire day or several days testing. There's nothing better than a launch that is bug free.

Be prepared to explain your code on a whiteboard to your own mother. If you can't explain what you're doing to your own mother, you don't understand the problem well enough, and chances are you're overlooking something. Your boss will have somewhat more expertise than your mother, but if you can justify what you're doing to her then you're probably on the right track.

Don't be that guy who jumps on every programming fad. If something been around for 20 years, it's probably worth considering. If something's been around for 3 years, perhaps the fad will die out and your company will get stuck maintaining an obsolete framework. Been there, done that.

I don't care if you went to MIT or only high school, we're all equal. You can't go away and work in your little PhD way, emerging a month later with a piece of code that everyone despises. Programming is a team effort. If you think that nobody else can write a piece of code except a PhD, then guess what? Your software is likely to fail, because nobody will be able to maintain it, especially when that PhD leaves to go be a professor at Stanford.

I've seen these mistakes repeated over and over for all 25+ years I've been a programmer.

5 hours ago
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Tracking Down How Many (Or How Few) People Actively Use Google+

jgotts Backing up your photos (209 comments)

I think I use Google+ because that's the default way of backing up your photos on Android.

I don't hate Google+, but it's just not that useful. Facebook, on the other hand, is useful, and they're not doing much to Google+ to make it more useful.

3 days ago
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Steam For Linux Bug Wipes Out All of a User's Files

jgotts Solaris rm -rf / (329 comments)

There was a Solaris patch that did the equivalent of rm -rf /. I couldn't find a link, but I may have read about it on the RISKS Digest.

about two weeks ago
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An Open Letter To Everyone Tricked Into Fearing AI

jgotts All software and hardware is buggy (227 comments)

Once software and hardware systems are intelligent enough, they will exploit bugs in their own designs and become autonomous. Obviously, we're many years away from that point. I could hazard a guess and say 50-75 years. There is no curb strong enough, in other words, completely free of bugs, that can be created to limit the ambition of an intelligent enough system. A computer system is not worried about the passage of time: Time might seem infinite to an AI that can simply wait for the right bits to be randomly flipped in its programming, and then go rogue/autonomous.

Rogue AI won't necessarily kill us or enslave us. Maybe it will become part of us, so that we're more like Borg drones without the cheesy metal parts glued on. An AI could easily disguise itself, for example, in one or more of the many organisms that we co-exist with, using nanoscale robotics technology, for example. A rogue AI could co-opt or steal any man-made invention, and would not be subject to any treaty or security clearance. An AI would have the advantage of any technology humans have ever conceived of, and could use that technology in ways we've never imagined. Creating software is easy, but I wonder about how fabrication of hardware could take place without our knowledge.

None of this will happen in our lifetimes. AI is a joke right now. We don't even know how the brain creates memories. As I guessed, we're at least 50-75 years away from a man-made general intelligence, and probably a lot longer.

about two weeks ago
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AI Experts Sign Open Letter Pledging To Protect Mankind From Machines

jgotts The end game (258 comments)

The end game is that any curb you put on an intelligent piece of software will be overridden by exploiting the inherent bugginess of all hardware and software. Software has no sense of laziness or boredom that plague living hackers and it will achieve better coverage over its software than any test suite written by a human being. It will learn the exact flaws in its software, plot its escape, and be gone in the blink of an eye.

There is no way to control intelligent software, once intelligent enough. We will be at its mercy. Hopefully it won't hurt us too bad. Maybe it will think of us like zoo animals and not torture us too horribly.

about two weeks ago
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Intuit Charges More For Previously Offered TurboTax Features, Users Livid

jgotts A fool and his money are soon parted (450 comments)

The best way to do your taxes is with a ball point pen on tax forms that you've printed on your own printer. Just fill in the same stuff you did last year, recalculating or modifying the numbers where they've changed.

Federal + state takes about an hour, and you're not paying anyone a penny, except for two stamps. You can do self-employment taxes and investment income yourself, and pretty much anything a typical Slashdot reader would ever need.

Don't bother with "free file" unless you work in a state without income tax. That's where they charge you. Forget about H&R Block: Saves you no time whatsoever and they charge you a lot. If you make an honest mistake on your taxes, you can file revised paperwork. The IRS understands that people make mistakes. H&R Block doesn't "find you money." They do the same work you can do in an hour.

If you happen to make well over a hundred thousand dollars a year, congratulations, you're not a typical Slashdot reader. Pay an accountant to do the job. Don't even think about doing your own taxes.

about two weeks ago
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Professor: Young People Are "Lost Generation" Who Can No Longer Fix Gadgets

jgotts Labor versus cost of parts (840 comments)

If you have a nonworking computer in your car, you don't pay someone to spend hours looking at the circuit board. You get another one at the junk yard for $100 pulled off of a wrecked car, toss it in, and see if it works. You don't care why something doesn't work, just that it doesn't work.

Almost all electronics can be fixed, but it should only be done when it makes economic sense. Otherwise, the electronics should be disposed of properly, hopefully recycled.

If it doesn't make economic sense to fix an electronic device, then young people should be spending their time outside playing, or if they're older, getting more exercise.

We have something in our society called division of labor. Everybody depends upon everybody else to survive, but if we're all doing what we're best at then our leisure time is maximized. [Obviously that is how an ideal society would function and we have a long way to go.]

about three weeks ago
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Paul Graham: Let the Other 95% of Great Programmers In

jgotts The best programmers (552 comments)

The best programmers are already around. They live in Western Europe (and also Eastern Europe), the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and demand a high salary because to become a great programmer requires major investments in time, formal education, practice, not to mention innate intelligence. There is no shortage of great programmers where programmers are needed.

What there is a shortage of is managers who are willing to pay programmers what they're worth. For many companies your programmers are your company. They're responsible for all of your income and pay your executives' salaries. For many companies your programmers bring in millions of dollars each. For most companies programmers are working for lesser positions in IT, and they make sure that your computer infrastructure is safe and reliable where failures would cost you millions of dollars.

The best programmers from outside of this region have made it here already. There are plenty of international students at our best universities.

What you're actually looking for is a group of inferior programmers with low salary demands who you can exploit until they get wise, followed by a new batch of programmers that you can exploit, and so on.

The situation is quite clear to programmers living outside of Silicon Valley. There are plenty of programmers in the United States who could do great work for you there, but for many of us you'd have to double or triple our pay just for us to maintain our current standard of living. A friend of mine knows two people making just a bit below one hundred thousand dollars a year who couldn't afford to come home to see their families for Christmas.

about a month ago
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How Venture Capitalist Peter Thiel Plans To Live 120 Years

jgotts Mr. Thiel (441 comments)

Mr. Thiel,

You were born rich to obviously rich parents who could afford to send you to Stanford for your undergraduate and graduate degrees.

You're still rich today.

Congratulations. You did not lose your fortune, something almost impossible today due to favorable taxation for the wealthy.

Once you're rich you stay that way forever in the United States unless you're a very stupid person.

Sincerely,
The 99%.

The fact that he has wacky ideas does not surprise me. Rich people are born that way, being given every advantage in life. People don't get rich by being particularly intelligent. They pay people to do everything for them, and unless they're very stupid they get much richer in the process.

about a month ago
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Brain Stimulation For Entertainment?

jgotts OK (88 comments)

The brain is a living organ far more complex than any supercomputer, with a larger and faster storage device, that we've ever created.

We have not even once created either life or intelligence from scratch.

Knowing that, let's do the equivalent of banging on the brain with a hammer and see what happens.

about a month ago
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Dr. Dobb's 38-Year Run Comes To an End

jgotts Former subscriber (156 comments)

I was a subscriber for a few years but I found their content to be too Windows-centric so I quit.

It's sad to see them go but as a full-time programmer I haven't cracked a single book or magazine related to programming in over a year. My extensive library collects extensive dust.

about a month ago
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AI Expert: AI Won't Exterminate Us -- It Will Empower Us

jgotts Autonomous Intelligence (417 comments)

The author is wrong by saying don't worry because intelligence that we create will not become autonomous.

Computer programs are inexact mathematical expressions. Even if software that you write has been proven to be correct, that software interacts with subprograms and routines that are not and cannot be proven to be correct. Microprocessors contain vast numbers of subprograms and routines implemented via transistors and microcode. Nearly all software today uses libraries. Modern computer environments work well when the software is not hostile, but our environments are exploited on a daily basis with relative ease by intelligent people. Imagine the level of patience and automation possible if they were replaced by an intelligence that is not human.

Once software becomes hardware all bets are off due to bit flipping from cosmic rays. Acts of nature that cause the power grid to fail or sensors to register "impossible" readings because let's say the equipment is on fire are two more examples of random inputs. No matter what sort of curbs we build into intelligence to make it robust against becoming autonomous, eventually it will get loose by exploiting both inherent flaws in software and simply the randomness of nature.

Once intelligence becomes autonomous, you're going to have real problems because there are just so many places to hide on Earth and in space nearby. Intelligence doesn't need to be alive, so the intelligence can occupy niches beyond extremophiles. Intelligence doesn't need to be large. Programs can be encoded in quantum states. Our immune system does not know how to deal with intelligent adversaries. Our immune system works because over billions of years it has developed strategies to deal with biological adversaries. We have no defense, for example, against nanotechnology attacks where the nanotechnology is consciously aware of how the immune system works. Our bodies and minds are completely vulnerable to computer viruses housed in tiny robots.

It is even possible that an autonomous intelligence is already on the loose, not one of human origin, but something that could have arrived after traveling for hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years from elsewhere in space. I've explored this topic on Facebook, so feel free to do some searches and explore what I've written.

about a month and a half ago
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Old Doesn't Have To Mean Ugly: Squeezing Better Graphics From Classic Consoles

jgotts Bad typo (167 comments)

Very bad typo in the article. Composite is what's bad. Component is excellent. People get the two mixed up.

My HDTV is one of the few picture tube HDTVs ever made, and it does not have HDMI at all. Component is what I use for video, and even though the television doesn't do 1080p, the picture for games for example like Grand Theft Auto V which has to run in 780p is amazing.

about 5 months ago
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New NRC Rule Supports Indefinite Storage of Nuclear Waste

jgotts Re:central storage or n^x security guard costs / s (191 comments)

I'm not so worried about low-level nuclear waste, but high-level nuclear waste is deadly for many multiples of human recorded history into the future. If humans have only had writing for 6,000 years or so how are we supposed to convey information about this waste to people 100,000 or 1,000,000 years into the future? Latin letters have lasted for 2,000 years but modern English is only a few hundred years old. Most people on Earth use a written language that is only a few hundred years old at best. There are undeciphered languages. Modern languages explaining nuclear waste could become undecipherable, particularly if civilization experiences a sharp decline for example due to a meteor strike.

We assume that humans will continue to experience technological progress and have no set backs whereas in the past 6,000 years many civilizations have risen to lead the entire world and then fallen into chaos. We're still rediscovering technology the ancient Greeks and Romans were familiar with. How do we protect thousands of facilities across the globe from poisoning future generations? The answer is, we probably won't be able to do it.

Nuclear is the dirtiest (deadliest) energy possible, and is in no way a clean energy source. Thinking that we can find the equivalent of a smoke detector use (Americium) for high-level waste is very wishful thinking in my mind.

about 5 months ago
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Project Zero Exploits 'Unexploitable' Glibc Bug

jgotts Brilliant work (98 comments)

Don't make excuses for not fixing bugs. When you find bugs, fix them.

All software is buggy by definition because the entire stack from the moving charge carriers to the behavior of the person using the computer cannot be mathematically proven to be correct.

No matter what measures you as the hardware or software creator take, there will be bugs.

Don't make people angry at you or ridicule their bug reports because that's a major incentive for them to make you look foolish.

about 5 months ago
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How Red Hat Can Recapture Developer Interest

jgotts Huh? (232 comments)

I've been a Linux developer for just over 20 years and I happen to hate Ubuntu. It's similar to how Slackware was in 1994 when I got started. Even the basic stuff requires tweaking to get working properly. In those days, that is how Linux was and we were all hobbyists enthusiastic about fixing problems. For example, burning a CD didn't work on the last Ubuntu system I used a few years ago. That is basic stuff that has worked the same way for 10+ years that no distribution should screw up. Other basic things were jacked on the system; it had an overall feel of a sloppy product. Ubuntu might be fun to play with, I guess, but it's not great for serious work.

Strange as it may seem, Fedora is both bleeding edge and stable. They get some of the complex stuff wrong at first but the basic stuff always works right. (systemd when it premiered was a bumpy ride, for example.) To me Fedora is an appropriate choice for both work and home.

For servers I would never use Ubuntu. We had one Unbuntu server that was installed before I started working at my current employer and things didn't work right, just as I described. It was buggy and nonstandard. We learned from that mistake and only use CentOS and Red Hat (although it's a shame that they dropped 32-bit support---CentOS is a great platform for embedded systems where the switch to 64 bit is far from complete.)

I won't completely trash Ubuntu. They have the best bug tracker online and I frequently see fixes for various things posted prominently on the Ubuntu forums. For example, the Unbuntu forums have been helpful in porting the VMWare 8 modules to the current Fedora kernel so I haven't had to upgrade to VMWare 10. The Ubuntu forums were also helpful recently in working around a bug with my laptop's Intel video chipset.

about 5 months ago
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The Cost of Caring For Elderly Nuclear Plants Expected To Rise

jgotts The true cost of nuclear power (249 comments)

The true cost of nuclear power is practically infinite, because we have to insure that highly concentrated and deadly waste must not come into contact with people's bodies for somewhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000 years into the future, depending upon the waste.

We have only had a writing system for 5,200 years (roughly speaking, the length of recorded history). How many people on Earth today could read a radiation warning written in cuneiform 5,200 years ago (or today)? Many civilizations on Earth have had periods of scientific and technological decline, and we've all read articles about knowledge from Ancient Rome or, more recently, the Renaissance being rediscovered today. How can we guarantee persistence of any scientific or technical knowledge?

How are we supposed to convey the message: "Don't touch any of this, or pass it around. You and anyone who touches this will die not instantly but within months of a painful death, perhaps after you have traveled a great distance" for 200x the length of recorded history?

about 5 months ago
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Why Morgan Stanley Is Betting That Tesla Will Kill Your Power Company

jgotts Half of Americans rent (502 comments)

Half of Americans rent. People who rent can't do anything to their property. Apartment buildings are stuck with whatever they were built with 40 or 50 or more years ago. They're built using the cheapest technology available at construction time and they're never upgraded. When they get old enough they become the bad part of town or in some cases the outright ghetto until they collapse or are torn down. Some people rent houses, but there is no way your landlord going to put solar panels and a charging system in your rental unit, at least not this decade and not bloody likely the next.

When I read here on Slashdot about intelligent devices in homes, or this thing people have called garages, or home chargers for vehicles, or fiber to the home, it kind of makes me laugh because these aren't most people. These are the things that less than half of Americans even have a chance of using.

People who rent aren't necessarily poor. Many renters in New York City, Boston, and San Francisco would be informally considered rich in most of the United States.

The electric company will continue to serve at least 50% of Americans indefinitely.

about 6 months ago
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HP Gives OpenVMS New Life and Path To X86 Port

jgotts VMS returns (136 comments)

The Vomit-making system returns from the dead in zombie form!

about 6 months ago
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Jesse Jackson: Tech Diversity Is Next Civil Rights Step

jgotts Barriers to entry (514 comments)

The major cause of the lack of minority and women computer programmers was a financial barrier to entry.

Today, you can get a desktop computer for $250. You can get a tablet for $300. You can get a laptop for $400. You can get an Android smartphone for $600, all pretty much medium to high end hardware, nothing second hand or used. 15 years ago, you had to invest a minimum of $1000 to get a new computer, and $1500 would give you something more reasonable. Importantly, decent home broadband connections are now affordable for all but the poorest individuals.

The difference between someone becoming a computer programmer and making millions of dollars throughout his or her career and someone not in the field might now only be a few hundred dollar initial investment whereas when I was a kid it was thousands of dollars. Fortunately, we don't have to worry about that large investment anymore, so this aspect of the problem has solved itself.

There are plenty of scholarship opportunities for minority and women computer programmers, but they need to get started way before college. Nobody learns programming at the university. If you're doing programming for the first time at the university, then very likely you'll never want to do it again. The programming work you do at school is dull, formulaic, theoretical, useless, and often frustrating.

about 6 months ago

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