Remy Porter

Remy is a veteran developer who provides software for architectural installations with IonTank.

He's often on stage, doing improv comedy, but insists that he isn't doing comedy- it's deadly serious. You're laughing at him, not with him. That, by the way, is usually true- you're laughing at him, not with him.

A Pointer to your References

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John C works at a defense contractor, and his peers are well versed in C. Unfortunately, many years ago, a lot of their software started being developed in Java. While references are often described as "pointers, but safer," they are not pointers, so your intuitions about how memory gets allocated and released are likely to be wrong.

Which is definitely the case for John's peers. For example, in C, you generally want really clear understandings of who owns a given block of memory. You don't want to allocate memory and hand it off to another module without being really clear about who is responsible for cleaning it up later. This means that you'll often write methods that expect buffers and other blocks of memory passed into them, so that they don't have to worry about memory ownership.


The Correct Browser

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Sometimes, it's not the code that's bad, but what the code costs. For Elizabeth's company, that cost was significant in terms of dollars and cents. They needed to staff up to accomplish some major Java Enterprise work, so they went with the highest of the highly paid consultants they could find. These consultants came from a big name firm, and were billed at an eye-watering hourly rate.

Elizabeth warns us that the Java code is a behemoth of WTFs that is "too difficult to describe", but one particular WTF leapt out at her. Specifically, included in the application was a file called nonIEUser.html. This project was happening circa 2012, which is after Microsoft finally admitted standards might need to be a thing, and definitely well outside of the time when your web application should only work in Internet Explorer. For a greenfield project, there was no reason to do anything IE only, and fortunately, they didn't- aside from forcing a check to yell at you if you didn't use IE.


The New Management

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For a young college graduate in the early 80s, Argle was fortunate to already have some real-world experience. That served him well, because businesses which were looking towards the future were already looking into how they could improve their automation with the new and relatively cheap computer systems that were hitting the market.

One such company was a family-owned, multi-generational manufacturing company. They had a vision for the future, and the future involved the latest in CNC milling machines and robotic manufacturing. They needed the team that could send them into the future, and were hiring to build that team.


Well Trained

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Mandatory compliance training is a thing. The reasons behind it range from companies trying to reduce civil liabilities to actual legal mandates which require the training. The quality of mandatory training ranges from "useless" to "actively awful", and it's mostly PowerPoint-style slides interspersed with quizzes to make sure you were "paying attention". The worse ones will usually have timers on the slides so you can't just click past, and have to actually idle to "force" you to read it.

Also, since legal compliance tends to move slower than technology, training built years ago is frequently still relevant. So, for example, Duncan's company built training back when you could reasonably expect Flash to run in the browser. Building the training and the content cost money, so once Flash got deprecated, they weren't just going to throw that money away- they found a contractor who'd convert it to "HTML5".


Do Nothing

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Ivan encountered a strange bug. His organization uses the R language, which has a handy-dandy documentation language attached to it, for Rd files. The language itself is an organically grown hodge-podge of R and LaTeX, built to make it easy to format both plain text and R code within the documentation. It lets you use LaTeX-like commands, but also mix in R code to control the output.

Ivan's problem was that one of his macros, which we'll call \mymacro, only worked sometimes. The specific cases where it failed were where the macro expanded into multi-line output, which once upon a time wasn't a thing that Rd supported, but is supported, and clearly wasn't the problem. Ivan poked at it from that direction, suspecting there was maybe a regression, and then spent a lot of time trying to understand the places where the macro did and didn't work.


Cloudy Optimizations

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Search engine optimization is both a dark art and a corrupt industry. Search providers work hard to keep their algorithms opaque. SEO is a mix of guessing and snake oil and sometimes outright lying.

For example, Mark M recently inherited a rather… bad PHP website. One of its notable SEO tweaks was that it had a tag cloud that slapped a bunch of keywords together to give a sense of what kinds of articles had been posted recently. At least, that was the idea. But when Mark dug into the code, there was no sign that there was any source of tags in the database. In fact, articles didn't get tagged at all. So where was the tag cloud coming from?


My Many Girlfriends

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In the long ago, wild-west days of the late 90s, there was an expectation that managers would put up with a certain degree of eccentricity from their software developers. The IT and software boom was still new, people didn't quite know what worked and what didn't, the "nerds had conquered the Earth" and managers just had to roll with this reality. So when Barry D gave the okay to hire Sten, who came with glowing recommendations from his previous employers, Barry and his team were ready to deal with eccentricities.

Of course, on the first day, building services came to Barry with some concerns about Sten's requests for his workspace. No natural light. No ventilation ducts that couldn't be closed. And then the co-workers who had interacted with Sten expressed their concerns.


Best of 2021: The Therac-25 Incident

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It's not always "fun" bugs and flaws. Earlier this year, we did a deep dive on a much more serious example of what can go wrong.

A few months ago, someone noted in the comments that they hadn't heard about the Therac-25 incident. I was surprised, and went off to do an informal survey of developers I know, only to discover that only about half of them knew what it was without searching for it.
I think it's important that everyone in our industry know about this incident, and upon digging into the details I was stunned by how much of a WTF there was.
Today's article is not fun, or funny. It describes incidents of death and maiming caused by faulty software engineering processes. If that's not what you want today, grab a random article from our archive, instead.

When you're strapping a patient to an electron gun capable of delivering a 25MeV particle beam, following procedure is vitally important. The technician operating the Therac-25 radiotherapy machine at the East Texas Cancer Center (ETCC) had been running this machine, and those like it, long enough that she had the routine down.


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