YAGNI and the boring stuff

YAGNI is an acyonym meaning "You Ain't Gonna Need It", and behind this lies the principle in software that code should not be written before it is needed: the temptation to prematurely generalise and abstract, to write a framework for the problem you're trying to solve, should be resisted.

It also focuses you on the task at hand, which is to directly solve the problem. By focusing on the shortest path between point A and point B, the result should be small, lean, and direct.

However, in several projects I've worked on there comes a point where certain aspects of a codebase not directly related to its functionality begin to demand attention. These issues can be ignored up until the point at which inaction damages the codebase as a whole. I find these things are common across projects, and so they could be classed as "You're Gonna Need It". The examples that immediately come to mind in Java projects are:

  • A logging setup, i.e. configuration of log files for errors and debug info.
  • Likewise, a sprinkling of informative logging statements, without which it becomes difficult to tell what went wrong outside of a debugger.
  • An exception hierarchy. You can throw new RuntimeException for a while, but eventually it becomes unmanageable and you need to distinguish in catch() clauses between errors inside and outside of your own codebase
  • Interfaces, for the classic reason of hiding the implementation, but also because it enables Proxy-based AOP which is useful for a bunch of stuff 'YAGN' but may one day be 'YGNI', such as benchmarking and security interceptors.
  • A base test case / test harness that lets you pull in different parts of the application and test them individually.

This stuff is all boring but necessary. When living without them starts to affect efficiency and quality, that is the point at which to stop working on functionality, get this stuff right, and then go back to working on the important things.


And now for messed up UK politics: The Digital Economy Act and other IP

I want to bring together some articles I've read recently, which some of you may be familar with.

In Why Content is a Public Good, an economist-turned-coder explains why at an economic level, charging for digital content works against the nature of the digital medium. Note that this doesn't mean that it's right or wrong to do so - morality doesn't enter into it. It's just the nature of the beast. Markets are not intrinsically moral in any sense of the term, they're more akin to natural phenomena.

So it is with the nature of digital information and its redistributability. Disintermediation is what's slowly destroying the business models of the music, movie, book, and software industries. And as for "information wants to be free", the above post links to two good posts on the subject, one by Charlie Stross and one by Cory Doctorow, which explains the sloganity of the phrase.

In the Hacker News discussion of the this article, this comment by fexl proposes a "recursive auction" method of distributing digital goods that seems interesting. Googling on the keywords he provides, along with the examples provided in the article itself, shows that new and interesting ways of selling information can be had. Suppose Wikileaks auctioned of it's scoops like this? How much would CNN pay to have the first copy of the video and it's associated materials? How luch would the New York Times pay to have the second?

The second post on "information wants to be free" above by Cory Doctorow, a UK-resident Canadian. I like the guy for his eloquence in defending digital civil liberties and his understanding of online culture. He's also an author, and he credibly claims to make more money because he publishes his books online for free in addition to hard-copy. He wrote this article in the Guardian about the Digital Economy Act, and all the various (bad) things it contains.

There may be a little hyperbole in there but the essence of his article is correct. The bill was shoved through parliament with insufficient debate and is exceedingly sucky. Sometimes it seems to me that keeping a half-open eye on any leglislative process, be it in the the UK (the Digital Economy Act), USA (HCR), or the EU (software patents), is not just like being in a sausage factory...
“Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made."
... but more like being in a medieval abattoir. But I digress.

The third article concerns patents, and discusses a recent study that suggests that the entire system of patents is counter-productive to inducing or encouraging invention, and to 'social welfare' in general. Not just software or genetic patents, but all patents.

The article is a good summary of the paper, which is available for free. In short, most inventors (a) create in order to scratch an itch for themselves, not for money, (b) build on previous work which is easier to do if it isn't patented, and (c) prefer to freely share ideas with other inventors, rather be forced than keep things secret so they can make money.

Now I'm just going to throw some ideas out here. I like the whole open source mentality, and I don't like share-cropping, and although I have an iPhone I'm not interested in developing for a closed, restrictive-if-not-oppresive environment. It's ironic that I left the world of Microsoft to get away from that, when Microsoft is the company that won domination of the desktop market by being more open than Apple. Hopefully, now Google will do the same.

However, one thing worries me about this: when Microsoft and Apple went to war, Microsoft was swiftly gaining several 'legs' to its stool (or eyes to its group, if you play go at all). Google has one: search. Kill Google's search revenue and everything Google does - mobile, maps, Chrome, CromeOS, etc. - suddenly goes *poof* and disappears. Just as if the American federal government is a large insurance company with an army, then Google is an advertising agency with a well-run IT department that's allowed to get creative with cute little side-projects.

But I'll leave you with this final question, which is the same one that I would have posed to RMS when he gave his Fostem '05 talk, which is this: faced with all of the above, how does one effectively turn on, tune in and drop out - i.e. combine elements of civil disobedience and counter-cultural openness to combat the seemingly inevitable shift to Orwellian 'idea management'? I have no idea, but one thing I know is that it's not by downloading as many MP3's as possible. I'll leave you with a link to one of my own posts - "open source music", and the conclusion from Charlie Stross's article:

"So it follows that if you want information to be free you are taking on an obligation to make information, and give it freedom. An obligation to work to better the lot of humanity, not to merely sponge off the labour of others.

Next time you hear someone invoke "information wants to be free" as a justification for demanding free-as-in-no-payment-expected content, ask them: precisely what content have you released for free lately?"

The timing could not be better. Or worse, depending on your POV.

So, GOP Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell flies into New York to coordinate messaging with Wall Street in opposition to the proposed financial regulatory reform intended bring an end to the "Too Big To Fail" era, comes back with misleading and dishonest arguments that pretend to be against helping TBTF banks while actually supporting them. And yes, it is that obvious.

Then, just as the incredulity and blow-back starts to mount, the SEC charges Goldman Sachs, the great vampire squid itself, with CDO- and RMBS-related fraud. Ouch! So now he's stuck in a corner with the banks, the biggest of which is being hauled into court on fraud charges. The Dems will suddenly find it much easier to paint the GOP as being in bed with the banks, and this puts heavy, populist pressure on the GOP senators to break ranks and therefore the fillibuster, allowing the leglislation to go through. I'm a pessimist on this, however: I think Mitch can still rely on the cast-iron party discipline the GOP has built up to stop the bill going forwards.