Ian's Blog


leave a comment »

The OSCON video people stopped by the booth on Thursday.


Written by Ian Olsen

August 8, 2011 at 11:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Veracity 0.9.0 Release

leave a comment »

I’m happy to announce the release of Veracity 0.9.0 today, which for the first time includes installers!

Next week, Veracity will have been self-hosting for one full year. We began dogfooding Veracity on May 24th, 2010. We think it’s gotten pretty decent, and we’re ready to extend its audience beyond the people willing to build it themselves from source.

The following installers are available:

  • Windows msi:
    • 32-bit installers support XP and later
    • 64-bit installers support Vista and later
    • non-privileged installers: current Windows user only, no administrative rights required
  • Linux deb packages supporting Ubuntu 10.04 and later (32 and 64-bit)
  • Intel Mac universal dmg (32 or 64-bit)

As before, the source tarball is also there.

Note that on Windows, the Tortoise client is still a work in progress and therefore isn’t installed. If you’re building veracity from source, however, the Tortoise client is in there.

Changes we’ve made since the 0.7.0 release last month include:

  • The server can be put in a read-only mode
  • Several server stability bug fixes
  • Lots of bug fixes in the command-line interface
  • Lots of bug fixes in the web interface
  • Overhaul of vv branch syntax. Type “vv help branch” for details.
  • Added branch and file history filters to web interface
  • Tortoise client has a functional history dialog

Previous users of Veracity should also be aware that branches changed significantly. Branches created with an 0.7.0 build won’t be visible with an 0.9.0 binary. If you want to keep them, make a note of them before upgrading and re-add them with “vv branch add-head”. As noted above, “vv branch help” gives full detail on the new branch syntax.

There was some debate among the team as to whether we should call this a public beta. The software is beta quality: there are no known serious bugs, but we still have some tinkering to do. And it’s not quite feature complete. With a little luck (and lots of hard work) next month’s release will be feature complete. At that point it will unequivocally be a public beta.

This is a big milestone for the team here at SourceGear. Let us know what you think!

Written by Ian Olsen

May 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Working With Your Hands

with 5 comments

This week I had the pleasure of setting up a flat-panel TV for my mother-in-law.  I had to mount it, too.  This was particularly challenging because she has a 2-3 foot deep cabinet built into the wall, where her old CRT TV was installed.  The new LCD TV would be mounted on the wall at the back of the cabinet, while the TV itself rests just outside the cabinet, flush with the front edge.  This way the biggest possible screen could be accommodated, whereas a TV that fit entirely inside the cabinet, on its stand, would have to be several inches smaller.  The mount I used was horizontally adjustable, but not vertically.  So I had to get the height exactly right or it was going to look funny.

Now to any serious craftsman, this would have been a trivial task.  Only one of three dimensions had to be Just Right, for crying out loud.  Let’s just say I struggled a bit.  I’m pleased to say it turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself.  But more importantly, I realized it’s my years of work on software that keeps me from becoming a proficient hacker of physical objects.  The word hacker is only awkwardly applied to the manipulation of physical objects.  (Unless you’re, you know, literally hacking away at something.)  The fact that I’d even think to do it reveals the problem:  I’ve been approaching smallish handyman tasks the same way I approach smallish software tasks: do the first thing that occurs to you.  If it works well, improve it.  If it still works well, improve it further.  At any iteration, if it stops working or you discover a better approach, start over.  Repeat until satisfied.  This is a terrible way to, say, mount an LCD TV.

One of the things that appealed to me about SourceGear, even before I came to work here, was Eric’s deliberate fence-sitting in the craftsman vs. engineer debate.  As far as I know, his business card still reads “Software Craftsman.” Are the creators of software more like carpenters, or scientists?  The predictable reality is that there are all kinds, and there’s work to be done by all kinds.  I read Matthew Crawford’s brilliant essay a while back, in which he explores the dichotomy between the intellectually challenging professions valued by white collar, middle class America and the work done by tradesmen.  He resigned from a prestigious Washington think tank to fix motorcycles, and never looked back.  Working on real, physical things, he argues, is not only intellectually stimulating, but you get to see the results of the work you’ve done.  I couldn’t ignore the similarities between working on the intricate machinery of an internal combustion engine and that of software:

Some diagnostic situations contain a lot of variables. Any given symptom may have several possible causes, and further, these causes may interact with one another and therefore be difficult to isolate. In deciding how to proceed, there often comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt. Have a cigarette and walk around the lift. The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you, and this is where it gets interesting. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.


The slap of worn-out pistons hitting their cylinders can sound a lot like loose valve tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is a virtue that is at once cognitive and moral. It seems to develop because the mechanic, if he is the sort who goes on to become good at it, internalizes the healthy functioning of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. How else can you explain the elation he gets when he identifies the root cause of some problem?

I realized, or perhaps remembered, what it is I love about creating software.  Nobody says it better than Frederick Brooks:

Why is programming fun? What delights may its practitioner expect as his reward?

First is the sheer joy of making things. As the child delights in his mud pie, so the adult enjoys building things, especially things of his own design. I think this delight must be an image of God’s delight in making things, a delight shown in the distinctness and newness of each leaf and each snowflake.

Second is the pleasure of making things that are useful to other people. Deep within, we want others to use our work and to find it helpful. In this respect the programming system is not essentially different from the child’s first clay pencil holder "for Daddy’s office."

Third is the fascination of fashioning complex puzzle-like objects of interlocking moving parts and watching them work in subtle cycles, playing out the consequences of principles built in from the beginning. The programmed computer has all the fascination of the pinball machine or the jukebox mechanism, carried to the ultimate.

Fourth is the joy of always learning, which springs from the nonrepeating nature of the task. In one way or another the problem is ever new, and its solver learns something: sometimes practical, sometimes theoretical, and sometimes both.

Finally, there is the delight of working in such a tractable medium. The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures. (…)

Yet the program construct, unlike the poet’s words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separately from the construct itself. It prints results, draws pictures, produces sounds, moves arms. The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be.

Programming then is fun because it gratifies creative longings built deep within us and delights sensibilities we have in common with all men.

I’m not particularly good at craftsmanship with physical objects, and doubt I ever will be.  It’s not just my lack of patience.  I’ve been spoiled by “such a tractable medium” for too long.  There’s nothing more frustrating than when the last bolt just won’t go in because the holes aren’t drilled quite right.  Or when, hypothetically, there are apparently NO STUDS in the wall!  Seriously, where the [redacted] are the [redacted] STUDS!  Three dimensional space is so confining!  Last winter I was absurdly pleased with myself for correctly diagnosing the problem and subsequently replacing my own car battery.  Only my coworkers understood: “doesn’t that void the warranty?” somebody asked.

It would be awfully nice to create things that normal people notice.  I spent many, many hours improving our home media server software, but my wife definitely would have preferred I spent those hours on tangible things around the house.  For every change she noticed on her own, there were ten times I forced her to stop what she was doing so I could demonstrate and prod for token enthusiasm.  When I first read The Mythical Man Month ten years ago, I emailed that passage to my non-programmer friends and family, in hopes that they would understand why I derive such pleasure in pecking away at the keys of a machine all day.  Nobody responded.  This is the drawback to working on machinery that operates outside three dimensional space: hardly anybody lives there.

Physical and metaphysical craftsmen share the thrill of creation.  The hum of a well-oiled machine has no substitute, even if the machine is virtual.  But I love working on software because it yields two wildly different forms of satisfaction.  I can take pride in the specialized intellectual challenge of fixing an O(n2) algorithm to be O(log n).  And I get the more visceral craftsman’s satisfaction when my wife notices that the music stopped skipping when the screensaver comes on.  Occasionally.

Written by Ian Olsen

July 29, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Back from OSCON

leave a comment »

Unveiling Veracity at OSCON last week was a ton of fun. I really enjoyed the surprising number of in-depth coversations I had with folks who are passionate about DVCS.

The kids these days are giving lots of feedback via The Twitters, so I finally signed up as _ianolsen_. 😉

Written by Ian Olsen

July 27, 2010 at 11:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Unit Tests Are Not a Substitute for Your Brain

leave a comment »

I spent all day yesterday getting unit tests to pass. 

I’d set my module to run in one of two modes, then run the test suite.  I fixed all the test failures, then set my module to run in the other mode, and fixed all those failures. 

Then I’d go back to the original mode, and lo!  More test failures.  I fixed them, then switched back to mode two.  I spend the better part of the day in this loop.  After lunch I realized perhaps I should step back for a moment and think about the problem.  All these failures were related, and I had simply been playing whack-a-mole with test failures rather than actually thinking about the problem.  Ten minutes of thinking, twenty minutes of changes, and suddenly everything worked.

I’m certainly glad we have tests to verify what I’ve done, but I’d have saved myself a lot of time if I’d not used the tests as an excuse not to use my brain.

Written by Ian Olsen

April 17, 2009 at 8:10 am

Chrome is Really (Really) Good

leave a comment »

I’d like to join the other zillion people who installed Chrome today and exclaimed, in unison: wow!

I installed Chrome 20 minutes ago, and I’m already impressed.

On literally the first page I visited, I noticed a dramatic speed difference compared to Firefox. I don’t use IE frequently, but when I do it seems roughly equivalent to Firefox. Chrome, on the other hand, was dramatically faster. Javascript-heavy pages like GMail are wicked fast. Unlike all those performance improvements I read about in Firefox 3, the speedup is dramatic enough to cross that all-important “perceptible by a human” threshold. So that’s nice.

I like the minimalist interface. All the meaningless stuff surrounding the page (*cough* the uh, chrome) is gone. The default start page actually makes sense: it lists the pages and bookmarks you visit most. I might not even change my default page to about:blank for the first time since 1998. I love that you can turn off the bookmarks toolbar, after which those bookmarks show up where you’d logically use them: the default start page.

It’s not perfect. On my laptop, the vertical scroll area of the touchpad is wonky. It’s way too sensitive and only scrolls down. Every time I forget and reach for it, I immediately scroll to the very bottom of whatever page I’m looking at and get stuck there. That’s annoying enough that I probably won’t make Chrome my default browser on this machine until it’s fixed.

I also miss several things I’d gotten used to in Firefox:

  • The Adblock Plus plugin. I’ve been using Adblock for most of the 21st century, and 20 minutes without it is already too long.
  • The del.icio.us plugin. I use at least 3 machines regularly. Portable bookmarks are essential.
  • Keyword searches. Typing in the address bar searches Google by default, but I’ve got at least a dozen customized keyword searches set up in Firefox. Not being able to determine if The Dark Knight is still the best movie of all time with a simple ALT+D “imdb the dark knight” really cramps my style. Oops. Looks like Chrome does this. Awesome!

Overall though, it’s an incredibly good “beta” browser. I can’t remember the last time any application made me literally say “wow” within 10 seconds of launching it for the first time. And I’ve only done pedestrian browsing. I haven’t yet scratched the surface of the browser-as-platform features at the heart of Chrome. Google’s done an incredible job with this opening salvo in the new browser wars.

Written by Ian Olsen

September 2, 2008 at 9:52 pm

Idle Musings

with one comment

I wasn’t aware of Randy Pausch until the day he died. That day I watched his Last Lecture and wondered aloud, “How have I not heard about this guy until just now?” Even my wife had heard of him. (I guess he was on Oprah? Seriously.) I find his story very inspiring as a fellow techie, father, and husband. It seems like he had it all figured out.

IDE-integrated source control would be so much easier to use if the whole concept of binding just went away. There’s a huge number of complications that arise from binding and varying opinions on how it works, actually and theoretically. Making IDE-integrated Vault work without binding is theoretically possible, but it would require pretty significant fundamental changes to non-IDE-related functionality. I think about it frequently, but it’s difficult to make the case that the benefit would be worth the cost.

It seems to me that with ten fingers, the natural convergence point for the human race should have been a base-11 written numerical system: you should run out of symbolic digits when you run out of physical digits. In base-10, you have to add a new column when you’ve still got one finger left! What a hack! Strangely, a half hour in Google and Wikipedia reveals no evidence of any non-fiction tribe or civilization, ever, that used a base-11 system. This gives me pause: what else do I consider perfectly reasonable and elegant that is demonstrably absurd?

I spent 9 days on Kentucky Lake this summer, sans laptop, and actually got ridiculously tan. Linda in support, (a professional people-person) mocked my bleached white eyebrows when I got back.

I’m reading Michael Lopp’s Managing Humans. I’ve read his blog for years, so in theory I’ve already read most of this, but I still find the book to be excellent. It’s both entertaining and informative. His writing style translates exceptionally well to dead-tree format, in my opinion. Lots of his advice pertains mainly to working in companies much larger than SourceGear, but I’m still enjoying it tremendously.

Written by Ian Olsen

July 30, 2008 at 10:52 am