Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Fri 11th Apr, 2014

Sitting at the feet of the Miller

Today I woke nearly an hour earlier than I'm used to, and got on a plane at a barely dignified hour, to travel for over three hours to visit a good friend of mine, Peter Miller, in Gosford.

Peter may be known to my readers, so I won't be otiose in describing him as a programmer with great experience who's worked in the Open Source community for decades. For the last couple of years he's been battling Leukaemia, a fight which has taken its toll - not only on him physically and on his work but also on his coding output. It's a telling point for all good coders to consider that he wrote tests on his good days - so that when he was feeling barely up to it but still wanted to do some coding he could write something that could be verified as correct.

I arrived while he was getting a blood transfusion at a local hospital, and we had spent a pleasurable hour talking about good coding practices, why people don't care about how things work any more, how fascinating things that work are (ever seen inside a triple lay-shaft synchronous mesh gearbox?), how to deal with frustration and bad times, how inventions often build on one another and analogies to the open source movement, and many other topics. Once done, we went back to his place where I cooked him some toasted sandwiches and we talked about fiction, the elements of a good mystery, what we do to plan for the future, how to fix the health care system (even though it's nowhere near as broken as, say, the USA), dealing with road accidents and fear, why you can never have too much bacon, what makes a good Linux Conference, and many other things.

Finally, we got around to talking about code. I wanted to ask him about a project I've talked about before - a new library for working with files that allows the application to insert, overwrite, and delete any amount of data anywhere in the file without having to read the entire file into memory, massage it, and write it back out again. Happily for me this turned out to be something that Peter had also given thought to, apropos of talking with Andrew Cowie about text editors (which was one of my many applications for such a system). He'd also independently worked out that such a system would also allow a fairly neat and comprehensive undo and versioning system, which was something I thought would be possible - although we differed on the implementation details, I felt like I was on the right track.

We discussed how such a system would minimise on-disk reads and writes, how it could offer transparent, randomly seekable, per-block compression, how to recover from partial file corruption, and what kind of API it should offer. Then Peter's son arrived and we talked a bit about his recently completed psychology degree, why psychologists are treated the same way that scientists and programmers are at parties (i.e. like a form of social death), and how useful it is to consider human beings as individual when trying to help them. Then it was time for my train back to Sydney and on to Canberra and home.

Computing is famous, or denigrated, as an industry full of introverts, who would rather hack on code than interact with humans. Yet many of us are extroverts who don't really enjoy this mould we are forced into. We want to talk with other people - especially about code! For an extrovert like myself, having a chance to spend time with someone knowledgeable, funny, human, and sympathetic is to see sun again after long days of rain. I'm fired up to continue work on something that I thought was only an idle, personal fantasy unwanted by others.

I can only hope it means as much to Peter as it does to me.

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