projects and coding adventures

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Keeping Files And Configuration In Sync

20 April 2015

I have a few computers I use on a daily basis, and I like to keep the same emacs and shell configuration on all of them, along with my org files and a handful of scripts. Since I'm sure other people have this problem as well, I'll share what I'm doing so anyone can learn from (or criticise) my solutions.

Git for configuration and projects

I'm a software developer, so keeping things in git just makes sense to me. I keep my org files in a privately hosted git repository, and Emacs and Zsh configurations in a public repo on github. My blog is also hosted and published on github as well; I like having it cloned to all my machines so I can work on drafts wherever I may be.

My .zshrc installs oh-my-zsh if it isn't installed already, and sets up my shell theme, path, and some other environmental things.

My Emacs configuration behaves similarly, making use of John Wiegley's excellent use-package tool to ensure all my packages are installed if they're not already there and configured the way I like them.

All I have to do to get running on a new system is to install git, emacs and zsh, clone my repo, symlink the files, and grab a cup of tea while everything installs.

Bittorrent sync for personal settings & books

For personal configuration that doesn't belong in and/or is too sensitive to be in a public repo, I have a folder of dotfiles and things that I sync between my machines using Bittorrent Sync. The dotfiles are arranged into directories by their purpose:

% tree -a -L 2
├── authinfo
│   └── .authinfo.gpg
├── bin
│   └── .bin
├── emacs
│   ├── .bbdb
│   └── .emacs.local.d
├── mail
│   ├── .gnus.el
│   ├── .signature
├── .sync
│   ├── Archive
│   ├── ID
│   ├── IgnoreList
│   └── StreamsList
├── tex
│   └── texmf
├── xmonad
│   └── .xmonad
└── zsh
    └── .zshenv

This folder structure allows my configs to be easily installed using GNU Stow from my dotenv folder:

stow -vvS *

Running that command will, for each file in each of the directories, create a symlink to it in my home folder if there isn't a file or directory with that name there already.

Bittorrent sync also comes in handy for syncing my growing Calibre ebook collection, which outgrew my Dropbox account a while back.

Birthday Puzzle

18 April 2015

This logic puzzle has been floating around the internet lately. When I caught wind of it, I thought it would be a great exercise to tackle using Prolog. I'm not especially good with the language yet, so it added to the challenge a bit, but it was a pretty worthwhile undertaking. When I got stumped, I discovered that mapping out the birthdays into a grid helped me visualize the problem and ultimately solve it, so I've included that with my prolog code so you can see how I arrived at the answer.

The Puzzle

Albert and Bernard have just met Cheryl. “When is your birthday?” Albert asked Cheryl. Cheryl thought for a moment and said, “I won’t tell you, but I’ll give you some clues”. She wrote down a list of ten dates:

  • May 15, May 16, May 19
  • June 17, June 18
  • July 14, July 16
  • August 14, August 15, August 17

“One of these is my birthday,” she said.

Cheryl whispered in Albert’s ear the month, and only the month, of her birthday. To Bernard, she whispered the day, and only the day. “Can you figure it out now?” she asked Albert.

Albert: “I don’t know when your birthday is, but I know Bernard doesn’t know, either.”

Bernard: “I didn’t know originally, but now I do.”

Albert: “Well, now I know, too!”

When is Cheryl’s birthday?

The Solution

The Dates

To start off, i entered each of the possible birthdays as facts:

possible_birthday(may, 15).
possible_birthday(may, 16).
possible_birthday(may, 19).
possible_birthday(june, 17).
possible_birthday(june, 18).
possible_birthday(july, 14).
possible_birthday(july, 16).
possible_birthday(august, 14).
possible_birthday(august, 15).
possible_birthday(august, 17).

And here they are, mapped out in a grid:

  May June July August
14     X X
15 X     X
16 X   X  
17   X   X
18   X    
19 X      

Albert's Statement

I don’t know when your birthday is,…

Albert only knows the month, and the month isn't enough to uniquely identify Cheryl's birthday.

month_is_not_unique(M) :-
    bagof(D, possible_birthday(M, D), Days),
    length(Days, Len),
    Len > 1.

… but I know Bernard doesn’t know, either.

Albert knows that Bernard doesn't know Cheryl's birthday. Therefore, the day alone isn't enough to know Cheryl's birthday, and we can infer that the month of Cheryl's birthday does not include any of the unique dates.

day_is_not_unique(D) :-
    bagof(M, possible_birthday(M, D), Months),
    length(Months, Len),
    Len > 1.

month_has_no_unique_days(M) :-

Based on what Albert knows at this point, let's see how we've reduced the possible dates:

part_one(M,D) :-
Results = [ (july, 14), (july, 16), (august, 14), (august, 15), (august, 17)].

So the unique days (the 18th and 19th) are out, as are the months that contained them (May and June).

  July August
14 X X
15   X
16 X  
17   X

Bernard's Statement

I didn’t know originally, but now I do.

For Bernard to know Cheryl's birthday, the day he knows must be unique within the constraints we have so far.

day_is_unique(Month, Day) :-
    findall(M, part_one(M, Day), [Month]).
part_two(Month, Day) :-
    possible_birthday(Month, Day),
    day_is_unique(Month, Day).
Results = [ (july, 16), (august, 15), (august, 17)].

Both July and August contain the 14th, so that row is out.

  July August
15   X
16 X  
17   X

Albert's Second Statement

Well, now I know, too!

Albert's month must be the remaining unique month:

month_is_not_unique(Month, Day) :-
    findall(D, part_two(Month, D), [Day]).
part_three(Month, Day) :-
    possible_birthday(Month, Day),
    month_is_not_unique(Month, Day).
Results = [ (july, 16)].

August had two possible days, so it's now clear that the only possible unique answer is July 16th.

16 X

Cheryl's Birthday

cheryls_birthday(Month, Day) :-
    part_three(Month, Day).
Month = july,
Day = 16.

So, there we have it. Cheryl's birthday is July 16th!

16 X

Coders at Work

28 January 2015

A few days before leaving work for a week and a half of flying and cruising to escape frigid Pennsylvania, I came across a Joe Armstrong quote during my regularly scheduled slacking off on twitter and Hacker News. I'd come across a couple times before, only this time I noticed it had a source link. This led me to discovering (and shortly thereafter, buying) Peter Seibel's "Coders at Work – Reflections on the Craft of Programming". I loaded it onto my nook, and off I went.

The book is essentially a collection of interviews with a series of highly accomplished software developers. Each of them has their own fascinating insights into the craft and its rich history.

While making my way through the book, I highlighted some excerpts that, for one reason or another, resonated with me. I've organized and elaborated on them below.

Incremental Changes

I've seen young programmers say, "Oh, shit, it doesn't work," and then rewrite it all. Stop. Try to figure out what's going on. Learn how to write things incrementally so that at each stage you could verify it.
– Brad Fitzpatrick

I can remember doing this to myself when I was still relatively new to coding (and even worse, before I discovered source control!). Some subroutine or other would be misbehaving, and rather than picking it apart and figuring out what it was I'd done wrong, I'd just blow it away and attempt to write it fresh. While I might be successful, that likely depended on the issue being some sort of typo or missed logic; if it was broken because I misunderstood something or had a bad plan to begin with, rewriting it would only result in more broken code, sometimes in more or different ways than before. I don't think I've ever rewritten someone else's code without first at least getting a firm understanding of it and what it was trying to accomplish, but even then, breaking down changes piece by piece makes it all the easier to maintain sanity.

I do still sometimes catch myself doing too much at once when building a new feature or fixing a bug. I may have to fix a separate bug that's in my way, or I may have to make several different changes in various parts of the code. If I'm not careful, things can get out of hand pretty quickly, and before I know it I have a blob of changes strewn across the codebase in my working directory without a clear picture of what's what. If something goes wrong, it can be pretty tough to sort out which change broke things (or fixed them). Committing changes often helps tremendously to avoid this sort of situation, and when I catch myself going off the rails I try to find a stopping point and split changes up into commits as soon as possible to regain control. Related changes and fixes can always be squashed together afterwards to keep things tidy.

Specifications & Documentation

Many customers won't tell you a problem; they'll tell you a solution. A customer might say, for instance, "I need you to add support for the following 17 attributes to this system. Then you have to ask, 'Why? What are you going to do with the system? How do you expect it to evolve?'" And so on. You go back and forth until you figure out what all the customer really needs the software to do. These are the use cases.
– Joshua Bloch

Whether your customer is your customer, or your CEO, the point stands: customers are really bad at expressing what they want. It's hard to blame them, though; analyzing what you really want and distilling it into a clear specification is tough work. If your customer is your boss, it can be intimidating to push back with questions like "Why?", but if you can get those questions answered you'll end up with a better product, a better understanding of the product, and a happy customer. The agile process of doing quick iterations to get tangible results in front of them is a great way of getting the feedback and answers you need.

The code shows me what it does. It doesn't show me what it's supposed to do. I think the code is the answer to a problem. If you don't have the spec or you don't have any documentation, you have to guess what the problem is from the answer. You might guess wrong.
– Joe Armstrong

Once you've got the definition of what you've got to build and how it's got to work, it's extremely important that you get it documented. Too often, I'm faced with code that's doing something in some way that somebody, either a customer or a developer reading it, takes issue with, and there's no documentation anywhere on why it's doing what it's doing. What happens next is anybody's guess. Code that's clear and conveys its intent is a good start towards avoiding this sort of situation. Comments explaining intent help too, though making sure they're kept up to date with the code can be challenging. At the very least, I try to promote useful commit messages explaining what the purpose of a change is, and reference a ticket in our issue tracker which (hopefully) has a clear accounting of the feature or bugfix that prompted it.

Pair Programming

if you don't know what you're doing then I think it can be very helpful with someone who also doesn't know what they're doing. If you have one programmer who's better than the other one, then there's probably benefit for the weaker programmer or the less-experienced programmer to observe the other one. They're going to learn something from that. But if the gap's too great then they won't learn, they'll just sit there feeling stupid.
– Joe Armstrong

Pairing isn't something I do much. At least, it's pretty rare that I have someone sitting next to me as I code. I do involve peers while I'm figuring out what I want to build as often as I can. The tougher the problem, the more important it is, I think, to get as much feedback and brainstorming in as possible. This way, everybody gets to tackle the problem and learn together, and anyone's input, however small it might seem, can be the key to the "a-ha" moment to figuring out a solution.

Peer Review

I think an hour of code reading is worth two weeks of QA. It's just a really effective way of removing errors. If you have someone who is strong reading, then the novices around them are going to learn a lot that they wouldn't be learning otherwise, and if you have a novice reading, he's going to get a lot of really good advice.
– Douglas Crockford

Just as important as designing the software as a team, I think, is reviewing it as a team. In doing so, each member of the team has an opportunity to understand how the system has been implemented, and to offer their suggestions and constructive criticisms. This helps the team grow together, and results in a higher quality of code overall. This benefits QA as well as the developers themselves for the next time they find themselves in that particular bit of the system.

Object-Oriented Programming

I think the lack of reusability comes in object-oriented languages, not in functional languages. Because the problem with object-oriented languages is they've got all this implicit environment that they carry around with them. You wanted a banana but what you got was a gorilla holding the banana and the entire jungle.
– Joe Armstrong

A lot has been written on why OOP isn't the great thing it claims to be, or was ever intended to be. Having grappled with it myself for years, attempting to find ways to keep my code clean, concise and extensible, I've more or less come to the same conclusion as Armstrong in that coupling data structures with behaviour makes for a terrible mess. Dividing the two led to a sort of moment of clarity; there was no more confusion about what methods belong on what object. There was simply the data, and the methods that act on it. I am still struggling a bit, though, on how to bring this mindset to the PHP I maintain at work. The language seems particularly ill-suited to managing complex data structures (or even simple ones – vectors and hashes are bizarrely intertwined).


You should read [Elements of Style] for two reasons: The first is that a large part of every software engineer's job is writing prose. If you can't write precise, coherent, readable specs, nobody is going to be able to use your stuff. So anything that improves your prose style is good. The second reason is that most of the ideas in that book are also applicable to programs.
– Joshua Bloch

My advice to everybody is pretty much the same, to read and write.

Are you a good Java programmer, a good C programmer, or whatever? I don't care. I just want to know that you know how to put an algorithm together, you understand data structures, and you know how to document it.
– Douglas Crockford

This is what literate programming is so great for --
I can talk to myself. I can read my program a year later and know exactly what I was thinking.
– Donald Knuth

The more I've program professionally, the clearer it is that writing (and communication in general) is a very important skill to develop. Whether it be writing documentation, putting together a project plan, or whiteboarding and discussing something, clear and concise communication skills are a must. Clarity in writing translates into clarity in coding as well, in my opinion. Code that is short, to the point, clear in its intention, making good use of structure and wording (in the form of function and variable names) is far easier to read and reason about than code that is disorganized and obtuse.


I tried to make familiarity with Knuth a hiring criteria, and I was disappointed that I couldn't find enough people that had read him. In my view, anybody who calls himself a professional programmer should have read Knuth's books or at least should have copies of his books.
– Douglas Crockford

… Knuth is really good at telling a story about code. When you read your way through The Art of Computer Programming and you read your way through an algorithm, he's explained it to you and showed you some applications and given you some exercises to work, and you feel like you've been led on a worthwhile journey.
– Guy Steele

At one point I had [The Art of Computer Programming] as my monitor stand because it was one of the biggest set of books I had, and it was just the right height. That was nice because it was always there, and I guess then I was more prone to use it as a reference because it was right in front of me.
– Peter Norvig

I haven't read any of Knuth's books yet, which is something I'll have to rectify soon. I don't think I have the mathematical background necessary to get through some of his stuff, but I expect it will be rewarding nonetheless. I'm also intrigued by his concept of literate programming, and I'm curious to learn more about TeX. I imagine I'll be skimming through TeX: The Program pretty soon now that I've finished Coders at Work :)

Adventuring Through SICP

01 January 2015

Back in May, a coworker and I got the idea to start up a little seminar after work every couple of weeks with the plan to set aside some time to learn and discuss new ideas together, along with anyone else who cared to join us.

Learning Together

Over the past several months, we've read our way through the first three chapters of the book, watched the related video lectures, and did (most of) the exercises.

Aside from being a great excuse to unwind with friends after work (which it is!), it's proved to be a great way to get through the material. Doing a section of a chapter every couple of weeks is an easy goal to meet, and meeting up to discuss it becomes something to look forward to. We all get to enjoy a sense of accomplishment in learning stuff that can be daunting or difficult to set aside time for alone.

The best part, by far, is getting different perspectives on the material. Most of my learning tends to be solitary, so it's refreshing to do it with a group. By reviewing the different concepts together, we're able to gain insights and clarity we'd never manage on our own. Even the simplest topics can spur interesting conversations.


Our first adventure together so far has been the venerable Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. This book had been on my todo list for a long time, but never quite bubbled to the top. I'm glad to have the opportunity to go through it in this format, since there's plenty of time to let really get into the excercises and let the lessons sink in.

SICP was originally an introductory textbook for MIT computer programming courses. What sets it apart from most, though, is that it doesn't focus so much on learning a particular programming language (while the book does use and cover MIT Scheme) as it does on identifying and abstracting out patterns common to most programming problems. Because of that, the book is every bit as useful and illuminating as ever, especially now that functional paradigms are re-entering the spotlight and means of abstracting and composing systems are as important as ever.

What's next?

We've still got plenty of SICP left to get through. We've only just gotten through Chapter 4, section 1, which has us building a scheme interpreter in scheme, so there's plenty of fun left to be had there.

We're also staring to do some smaller, lunchtime review meetings following the evening discussions to catch up the folks that can't make it. I may also try sneaking in some smaller material, like interesting blog posts, to keep things lively.

If anyone's interested, I have the exercise work along with some notes taken during the meetings hosted online. I apologize for the lack of notes early on, I've been trying to get better at capturing memorable excerpts and conversation topics recently. I may have to put some more posts together later on summarizing what we discussed for each chapter; if and when I do, they'll be posted on the seminar website.

Getting Organized with Org Mode

25 November 2014 emacs · org-mode · themes

Org mode logo

I've been using Emacs Org mode for nearly a year now. For a while I mostly just used it to take and organize notes, but over time I've discovered it's an incredibly useful tool for managing projects and tasks, writing and publishing documents, keeping track of time and todo lists, and maintaining a journal.

Project Management

Most of what I've been using Org mode for has been breaking down large projects at work into tasks and subtasks. It's really easy to enter projects in as a hierarchy of tasks and task groupings. Using Column View, I was able to dive right into scoping them individually and reporting total estimates for each major segment of work.

Example projects org file

Because Org Mode makes building and modifying an outline structure like this so quick and easy, I usually build and modify the project org document while planning it out with my team. Once done, I then manually load that information into our issue tracker and get underway. Occasionally I'll also update tags and progress status in the org document as well as the project progresses, so I can use the same document to plan subsequent development iterations.

Organizing Notes and Code Exercises

More recently, I've been looking into various ways to get more things organized with Org mode. I've been stepping through Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs with some other folks from work, and discovered that Org mode was an ideal fit for keeping my notes and exercise work together. The latter is neatly managed by Babel, which let me embed and edit source examples and my excercise solutions right in the org document itself, and even export them to one or more scheme files to load into my interpreter.

Exporting and Publishing Documents

Publishing my notes with org is also a breeze. I've published project plans and proposals to PDF to share with colleagues, and exported my SICP notes to html and dropped them into a site built with Jekyll. Embedding graphs and diagrams into exported documents using Graphviz, Mscgen, and PlantUML has also really helped with putting together some great project plans and documentation. A lot of great examples using those tools (and more!) can be found here.

Emacs Configuration

While learning all the cool things I could do with Org mode and Babel, it was only natural I'd end up using it to reorganize my Emacs configuration. Up until that point, I'd been managing my configuration in a single init.el file, plus a directory full of mode or purpose-specific elisp files that I'd loop through and load. Inspired primarily by the blog post, "Making Emacs Work For Me", and later by others such as Sacha Chua's Emacs configuration, I got all my configs neatly organized into a single org file that gets loaded on startup. I've found it makes it far easier to keep track of what I've got configured, and gives me a reason to document and organize things neatly now that it's living a double life as a published document on GitHub. I've still got a directory lying around with autoloaded scripts, but now it's simply reserved for tinkering and sensitive configuration.

Tracking Habits

Another great feature of Org mode that I've been taking advantage of a lot more lately is the Agenda. By defining some org files as being agenda files, Org mode can examine these files for TODO entries, scheduled tasks, deadlines and more to build out useful agenda views to get a quick handle on what needs to be done and when. While at first I started by simply syncing down my google calendars as org-files (using ical2org.awk), I've started managing TODO lists in a dedicated org file. By adding tasks to this file, scheduling them, and setting deadlines, I've been doing a much better job of keeping track of things I need to get done and (even more importantly) when I need to get them done.

Agenda view snippet

This works not only for one-shot tasks, but also habits and other repetitive tasks. It's possible to schedule a task that should be done every day, every few days, or maybe every first sunday of a month. For example, I've set up repeating tasks to write a blog post at least once a month, practice guitar every two to three days, and to do the dishes every one or two days. The agenda view can even show a small, colorized graph next to each repeating task that paints a picture of how well (or not!) I've been getting those tasks done on time.

Keeping a Journal and Tracking Work

The last thing I've been using (which I'm still getting a handle on) is using Capture to take and store notes, keep a journal, and even track time on tasks at work.

(setq org-capture-templates
      '(("j" "Journal Entry" plain
         (file+datetree "~/org/")
         "%U\n\n%?" :empty-lines-before 1)
        ("w" "Log Work Task" entry
         (file+datetree "~/org/")
         "* TODO %^{Description}  %^g\n%?\n\nAdded: %U"
         :clock-in t
         :clock-keep t)))

(global-set-key (kbd "C-c c") 'org-capture)

(setq org-clock-persist 'history)

For my journal, I've configured a capture template that I can use to write down a new entry that will be stored with a time stamp appended into its own org file, organized under headlines by year, month and date.

For work tasks, I have another capture template configured that will log and tag a task into another org file, also organized by date, which will automatically start tracking time for that task. Once done, I can simply clock out and check the time I've spent, and can easily find it later to clock in again, add notes, or update its status. This helps me keep track of what I've gotten done during the day, keep notes on what I was doing at any point in time, and get a better idea of how long it takes me to do different types of tasks.


There's a lot that can be done with Org mode, and I've only just scratched the surface. The simple outline format provided by Org mode lends itself to doing all sorts of things, be it organizing notes, keeping a private or work journal, or writing a book or technical document. I've even written this blog post in Org mode! There's tons of functionality that can be built on top of it, yet the underlying format itself remains simple and easy to work with. I've never been great at keeping myself organized, but Org mode is such a delight to use that I can't help trying anyway. If it can work for me, maybe it can work for you, too!

There's tons of resources for finding new ways for using Org mode, and I'm still discovering cool things I can track and integrate with it. I definitely recommend reading through Sacha Chua's Blog, as well as posts from John Wiegley. I'm always looking for more stuff to try out. Feel free to drop me a line if you find or are using something you think is cool or useful!