Monday, August 27, 2007

Increment by increment

Popular music lyrics don't often use the word "increment" so I was pleased to hear British Sea Power use it on their first album. In fact they use quite a few unusual words and phrases. But "increment" has stuck in my head because it's such an important word to me.

Take programming for instance. Joel Spolsky calls development "The Game of Inches", but personally I prefer to think of it as a game of millimetres. It's probably partly due to my metric background but also inches suggests you might spot you've made progress after a day, whereas often I'll only recognise some progress has been made on a development project after weeks or months. Perhaps I'm just a slower programmer...

The fact is you can't make a lot of headway in a day. Which is probably why agile development has become popular. I'm not sure about parts of agile development but the idea of taking baby steps to get to where you want to be seems like a pretty damn good idea and I've done it myself for years.

Big designs have lots of problems. It's impossible to keep the details of a massive project in your head. Then things change part way through, or the design wasn't as well thought out as you initially thought. Then your boss tells you we need to release something next week... So it goes on.

The Random Pub Finder started as a craply designed site with hardly any content. Six years later, after hundreds of tiny steps, I'm now quite proud of it.

The FreeFlow Administrator started as a simple project to solve a particular problem I had. A year or so later and it's a fully fledged application that beats the Metastorm provided tools in pretty much every respect.

The commonality between these two projects is that both started small and have had working functionality from the start and at all the intermediate steps. Perhaps it's agile but I prefer to think of it as incremental. Agile brings to mind scrum meetings and pair programming. Perhaps they help but they aren't the important bit as far as I'm concerned.

Which makes me wonder why you'd want to develop stuff any other way. Most projects I've seen with huge design documents actually fall into an incremental development lifecycle as they progress anyway, so why not start out that way?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

What I learnt on the road trip

Take as few tents as possible - Campsites in Europe generally charge per person, per vehicle and per tent. Since you can't do much about the first two, the only way to save money is to bring a single tent that's big enough for everybody to fit into. The downside of this is the possibility that your big tent won't fit in the plot, but most sites seem to provide a pretty big space for you.

Take some kind of mattress - I've always slept directly on the ground in the past without problem, but the campsites in Europe can have much harder ground than the sites in blighty, with little or no grass, leading to some not very restful nights.

Spanish people stay up very late and have exceedingly loud TVs - I guess I already knew they stay up late, but hadn't considered the potential problems when staying in a camp site. Most of Spain takes the whole of August off and some of them head off to camp for a month, along with their tellies. They are then involved in an arms war in an attempt to drown out the sound of other campers' TVs, leading to yet more lack of sleep. In the site we were in, we also right next to the train line into Barcelona... Loudest... campsite... ever...

People still camp - I was under the impression that there were only a few foolish people who still bother to use tents when on holiday but we found quite a few camp sites that were full when we arrived.

You can camp for free in France - As well as the standard service stations on major French roads, there are plenty of aires that are just a bit of land with toilet facilities and running water. We didn't use them ourselves and they are probably only for hardcore campers who are happy to do without modern facilities like swimming pools, shops and showers, but it's good to know they are available if necessary.

Driving is more fun than flying - OK, a 3 hour flight may be quicker and cheaper than a 3 day drive but it doesn't give you any kind of idea of how far you travelled or let you visit any intervening places. 

GPS would be useful - A bog standard map is fine when travelling on the major roads but when you get into a city things can get a bit tricky. If you've got a detailed map of each city you'll visit you'll probably be OK, otherwise GPS will probably make your life easier. I can't verify this since we didn't go for the GPS option. 

The UK should sign up for the Euro - It's surely inevitable so why not go ahead and do it? Life would be so much easier, no more carrying around two currencies, no more trying to work out how much something really costs. So we may lose some sovereignty, so what? Get over it.

Wine in Spain is very cheap - 8 euros for 10 litres...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Road trip

It all started when my brother read Trek by Paul Stewart. The book describes the story of four people attempting to cross Africa (including the Sahara) in a Morris Minor during the 50s. Unfortunately it all ended in tragedy. Oddly enough, due to this story, we head out on Thursday on a road trip of our own. Not quite as dangerous as crossing the Sahara (although by all accounts, thanks to GPS, even that journey is much less risky than in the past), we're heading off to Spain to see my dad. The original plan was to go in a Rover P4, but the demands of teenagers mean we have to go in an air-conditioned people carrier.

From a personal perspective, I also see this as part of the slow travel movement. I haven't worked out the figures but I'm hoping this will be better for the environment than flying (although staying at home would be even better of course) and will be much more fun than being crammed on an EasyJet plane.

So move along, there won't be anything to see here for a while.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Visual Studio Express 2008

I'm a big fan of the Visual Studio Express 2005 range of products. They cost nothing and are pretty powerful. In some respects they're better than the full-blown version of Visual Studio. They are super quick to load and if you're using FTP to upload ASP.NET web sites, Web Developer is easier to use than Visual Studio. I've been using it for the FreeFlow web site for a while. So I took the plunge and downloaded the beta 2 of the 2008 version of the C# and Web Developer.

First impressions are good. The install was flawless. C# comes with a WPF designer, so I can finally get down to learning that without having to hand-code it. The Web Developer version comes with some AJAX controls so I can play around with them as well. And it's still free.

The question is will there come a time when all Microsoft's development tools are free? We're signed up for the Empower program so they are virtually free for us anyway and presumably lots of other companies are on the same or similar programs. So my guess is Microsoft aren't actually making any money on development tools and with the free tools now being pretty damn good, I'm pretty sure they'll give the full versions away some time soon just to keep us all hooked.