Programmers: You Probably Don’t Know What a Computer Is

March 14th, 2015 No comments

When car buffs debate the relative merits of say a Ferrari vs. a Lamborghini, they obviously discuss the most salient features — like which mine the iron ore in the chassis came from, the gauge of the wires connecting the interior lighting, and the polymerization reactions used to make the plastic parts.


The folly of the above argument is so obvious because we are intimately familiar with the purpose of a luxury race car — to perform well on the road (and looking cool doesn’t hurt either!). In the context of the purpose of the machine, the importance of those implementation details fades into the background.

And yet, this dramatic irony repeats ad infinitum as one of the programming world’s favorite pastimes… Debating Smalltalk. Why did it never become widely popular? How “pure” is the language? Is it still relevant?

Smalltalk is weighed against languages like Ruby, Java, C.

But sit down. Are you sitting? Are you sure? Don’t hate me on reddit if you fall over and hurt yourself after reading the next part…

Programming languages are the wires connecting the interior lighting, but Smalltalk is the car.

That’s right — the car — the computer itself. Smalltalk is a 1980 answer to what a computer could be. Namely, a world of living objects, simulating the user’s mental model, which each provide the full power of the computer itself.

Okay, okay. So the car is a 1980 Ferrari. It’s aging. But here’s the thing — for the most part, the programming world stopped building cars after that. They keep putting cooler, faster, smaller parts (i.e. programming languages) into the same pre-1980 Yugo — the computer in which isolated applications cut the user off from the full power of the computer, which are themselves boxed in by the operating system, of which Dan Ingalls famously remarked:

An operating system is a collection of things that don’t fit into a language. There shouldn’t be one.

While we take this “operating system plus applications” paradigm for granted, it’s not a particularly powerful idea. As Alan Kay would say, it’s “reinventing the flat tire”. And, it doesn’t have to be this way. Let me take you on a little journey. But first…

Disclaimer: The point of all this is not how great Smalltalk is, or why you should use it. The point is to answer Dr. Kay’s challenge to “obsolete the damn thing” [1], to pick up where Smalltalk left off — creating a uniform, dynamic, fun system that “provide[s] computer support for the creative spirit in everyone” [2], instead of smearing more cool icing on top of the “operating system plus applications” mud pie, the impenetrable layers of which have grown well beyond the possibility of human understanding.

The following is an introduction I wrote to some Smalltalk GSoC students…

Congratulations on finding Smalltalk. I doubt you have any idea how important this could be for you.

You may not realize it, but you have opened a portal to some of the greatest minds in the history of our industry. In the beginning, for many of our heroes — Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay, Seymour Papert — computing was about the possibility of evolving the general level of human thought for the benefit of mankind. Effective critical thinking is vital to modern life e.g. the proper functioning of democratic governments. Yet traditional media have been ineffective at improving our thought on a large scale. Today, we’re mostly glorified “caveman with briefcases”, reacting to the same human universals as our distant ancestors — Fantasies, Stories, Superstition, Religion/Magic, Vendetta.

So what does this have to do with computing?!

I’m glad you asked :) In 1972, Alan Kay envisioned a “dynamic medium for creative thought” which he called a Dynabook [2]. It was an answer to the problem described above — a computer to support and guide minds to the level required to overcome our uglier instincts, and replace them with our highest ideas, like Equal Rights, Democracy, Slow Deep Thinking, Legal System over Vendetta, Theory of Harmony — ideas which do not take seed on their own, but must be actively nurtured.

So what does this have to do with programming?!

I’m glad you asked that, too :) Smalltalk is interim[3] Dynabook software! You have in your hands, not a programming language, but a live, dynamic, turtles-all-the-way-down environment designed to provide “support for the creative spirit in everyone”.

More practically, Smalltalk is a programming tool that allows productivity unimaginable in most systems. And, if you put in enough time and effort to actually think in it, it will help you program better in any language you use. But, I think it would be a great waste if you left Smalltalk “a better programmer”, when the questions before you are:

  • What really matters?
  • How can computers fulfill on that?
  • How can I, as a programmer, contribute to that?

Ideas for research

[1] The Computer Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet
[2] Design Principles Behind Smalltalk
[3] The Dynabook is a Platonic ideal, as so any implementation is just a step along the way in an infinite game

Reprinted on

Categories: Programming, Smalltalk Tags:

Web Development: Reinventing the Flat Tire

April 29th, 2014 2 comments

The Dynabook is the holy grail of computing. It is the platonic ideal of a computer, whose purpose is “to provide computer support for the creative spirit in everyone” (Design Principles Behind Smalltalk). Yeah! I want my creative spirit unleashed :) Are you with me?!

But how do we get there?

We attack from both sides at once:

  • Education – have computing be as natural as pencil and paper from a young age. And we mean individual creation, not the dependent-consumer model of the iPad, where you can do only what other developers implement, and Apple approves. While the iPad looks like the illustrations from the original Dynabook paper, it is actually the Anti-Dynabook. Much like places in the U.S. that have kept the original Native American names after stealing the land, it adopts the form while betraying the meaning
  • Distillation – if we’re going to invent the future, we need to understand where we are now. Unfortunately, if you wrote the code of the average computing system (i.e. the OS plus and office suite) in books, they would stack the height of the Empire State Building. People (especially old people) feel stupid because they don’t understand computers. I feel compassion for them, but still have to chuckle and say, “don’t worry, neither do the developers at [Microsoft/Apple/Ubuntu]“. If Leonardo Da Vinci were a Microsoft engineer, he would not be able to understand how windows works. Computing in its present form is beyond human potential to understand!

This post will briefly look at the second point, distillation, as it applies to web development.

Why Simplicity Matters

We each have a limited amount of mental RAM, or working memory, with which to create. Less is available, the more complex and indirect our technology stack is…

See we’re here already. It’s assumed that you need to have a “stack” – WAMP, LAMP – an operating system, a database, programming language layered on top, often with a run-compile cycle, probably with tools (e.g. the compiler) written in another language, often glorified text editors as IDEs.

We must reduce the cognitive burden of the technology so that there is enough mental RAM left over to create.

The Vision

If you go back to the original intentions of Morphic from the Self world, the vision was:

  1. Find – physically, visually, find an object (notice, it’s not “find a class”) that looks like/behaves like I want
  2. Copy – again physically, visually, directly, by clicking the original object and dragging the copy away
  3. Tweak – the object directly, not in desiccated file form in a text editor, until it does what I want it to do.
The Reality

This is totally lost in even the best web workflow:

  1. Find - say a Bootstrap template
  2. Copy – find all the necessary HTML and CSS files, which might take a bit of investigation into where they all live
  3. Tweak – If it didn’t seem too bad yet, this is where the wheels really fall off. Edit the raw HTML and CSS files, then if you’re really trendy, click refresh on the browser window you have open parallel to your coding window and see things refresh. WTH?! Where did the objects go? You just cut your extremely limited mental RAM at least in half by working with your objects (forms, buttons, links) in the equivalent of web assembly language, and repeatedly switching contexts.
“Not As Bad” Is the New Better

You say, “I’m tired of programming in assembly in a text editor! Viva la Revolution! Instead of settling for a language piled on top of the manure heap, I’m going to use a live, dynamic environment like Amber or Seaside“. Well kudos! If the Dynabook was our ideal of 100% efficiency and most web technologies are 10%, you’re now at 30%, so you can whip the heck out of your competition.

But, and just indulge me here for a second, what if we’re not satisfied with being the one-eyed man in the land of the blind? What if we were interested in going beyond what’s better exploring what’s possible?

Even writing HTML with a nice DSL in Amber or Seaside, is a non-WYSIWYG run-compile-like cycle. It’s more like programming with punch cards than the live, direct universe hinted at by Self, Sketchpad, Squeak/Pharo, and Croquet.

Hints at What’s Possible

Ivan Sutherland had WYSIWYG (among other things, like constraint solvers) down with Sketchpad in 1963.

Morphic was another powerful attempt. In a Morphic system, if my code editor doesn’t work the way I want, I can drill down into it – without leaving my uniform dynamic environment of live objects – and make it so (theoretically, this is becoming less true with e.g. Spec, which hides the live objects under layers of hopefully-cross-ui-platform-compatibility *).

Here’s a good example of my initial excitement about Morphic. One of my first favorite examples of using Pharo was that creating a new repository in the Monticello Browser (a version control GUI tool) always started with IIRC the image (current) directory, and I have a folder under which all my local repos live. I brought up halos on the “new repository” button, then on the Settings browser, connected the two together, and submitted the fix in a few minutes with 0 context switches… and I was hooked on Smalltalk.

Of course, Smalltalk is just a step on the path toward the Dynabook, albeit the top step to date! To really blow your mind, check out VPRI’s work to build a complete computing system in 20,000 lines of code – about the size of a good novel! Here’s the original NSF proposal and the last published annual status report (still waiting on the final one)

* One of the funny (or sad) thing is that people keep developing UI Builders for Morphic – that’s what Morphic is. The question isn’t how to layer tool-centric crap on top, but how to directly play with the Morphs themselves (remember flaps?) until you have what you want, and then reify that. It wouldn’t be so hard (at least for geometry and layout) to implement “aMorphThatIBuiltViaDirectManipulation reifyAs: #MyCoolMorphSubclass”.

The Challenge

How do we interact with a cool Bootstrap login form as I did with the Browser above – directly, as a live object? How do we dig in to the web, find the live objects, and bend them to our vision, without leaving our live, dynamic, open, turtles-all-the-way-down system? I would love to live in that world.

Code Club: The Dynabook Vision Alive and Well

March 13th, 2013 1 comment

This video reminds me of those great stories about kids at PARC… They are using Scratch to teach children how to use their Dynabooks :)

From the teachers (Alan Kay has obviously developed a mind control device):

“We’d like the outcome of Code Club to be a whole generation that understands… how to make [computers] do what they want, so they can create their own tools and their own games”

“I really wanted to get the kids… learning how to make things work, [rather] than just being consumers”

From a student:

“It’s really good for learning… before we were just… moving around, but… now we know how to make proper games”

“Our mission… to give every child in the UK the chance to learn to code.

It is our aim to have a Code Club in 25% of primary schools in the UK by the end of 2014″

Alan Kay: Learning to See

February 6th, 2013 No comments

All of Alan’s speeches are packed with “aha!” moments. This one is no disappointment…

I thought the ending was especially profound:

Every human being is born with the potential to learn to see… with their hearts, bodies, spirits, and minds, and to learn to be… vividly alive and human…

Our great gift is that, though we are the stuff that dreams are made of, we can invest those dreams with the clearer knowledge brought by careful study beyond our simple prejudices.

There is nothing more powerful than imagination coupled with investigation. Imagination allows us to dream and conceive of better futures for us all. Investigation finds the powers and knowledge to make better futures happen.

So I think my advice to our species would be: “We can’t learn to see until we admit we are blind”.

In other words, let us learn how to wake up from the slumbers of our nervous system, culture, and beliefs, [and] try to find out what is going on and what is really needed.

The full transcript is available at

Categories: Critical Thinking Tags:

WordPress: Fix Inove Theme footer for WP 3.5+

February 1st, 2013 No comments

If you see an error at the bottom of your blog pages like:

Warning: Missing argument 2 for wpdb::prepare(), called in /.../wp-content/themes/inove/footer.php on line 22 and defined in /.../wp-includes/wp-db.php on line 990

The problem is that the prepare function was recently changed to require at least two parameters.

As my Inove theme doesn’t seem to be supported, I dove it to fix it myself.

I quickly found a simple fix online. N.B. depending on the application, there may be security ramifications; the changeset linked above mentioned that authors may have been incorrectly using prepare to sanitize queries.

That having been said, to eliminate the error, just change /…/wp-content/themes/inove/footer.php: line 22 from:

$post_datetimes = $wpdb->get_row($wpdb->prepare("SELECT YEAR(min(post_date_gmt)) AS firstyear, YEAR(max(post_date_gmt)) AS lastyear FROM $wpdb->posts WHERE post_date_gmt > 1970"));


$post_datetimes = $wpdb->get_row("SELECT YEAR(min(post_date_gmt)) AS firstyear, YEAR(max(post_date_gmt)) AS lastyear FROM $wpdb->posts WHERE post_date_gmt > 1970");

That is, remove the call to prepare.

Hope that helps!

Categories: WordPress Tags:

Metacello: Conditional Loading

February 1st, 2013 No comments


The most frequent use case I have is for pending bug fixes. Imagine this… you find a bug in Pharo that you need fixed to progress on your project, so you fix it. Now, you’ll need the fix to be present anywhere your project is loaded, so what do you do while waiting for the fix to be integrated? You’re obviously not about to manually file in changesets when you have a powerful tool like Metacello! And anyway, you don’t want to have to edit the scripts for your continuous integration server.


I’ve found two ways I like to handle this scenario. I’ll show the (slightly) easier one first.

Method #1 – #customProjectAttributes

This is the method to use for Monticello packages

1. Make sure your configuration has #customProjectAttributes

Depending on the version of Metacello that was used to create your ConfigurationOfMyProject, you may have to add this method (which is easy enough).

In ConfigurationOfMyProject>>project, if you see the following two statements:

	"Construct Metacello project"
	constructor := (Smalltalk at: #MetacelloVersionConstructor) on: self.
	project := constructor project.

Change them to the following:

	project := MetacelloMCProject new projectAttributes: self customProjectAttributes. 
	constructor := (Smalltalk at: #MetacelloVersionConstructor) on: self project: project.
2. Define your custom attributes

#customProjectAttributes will return a collection of symbols that will be added to the Metacello platform symbols e.g. #’squeak4.4′ or #’pharo2.0.x’. The following is for the bug fix example we discussed earlier. The general process is a) declare a condition that let’s you know the fix hasn’t been applied in this image (e.g. a class is not present or DNU a message), and if true, add an attribute declaring that (e.g. #’PharoIssue6300′, as below).

	| requiresPharoFix6300 requiresPharoFix6382 attributes |
	attributes := OrderedCollection new.
	requiresPharoFix6300 := (Morph canUnderstand: #hasKeymapCategoryNamed:) not.
	requiresPharoFix6300 ifTrue: [ attributes add: #'PharoIssue6300' ].
	^ attributes.
3. Finally, add fixes to your baseline

With this method, they must be packaged with Monticello. See method #2 below if you have to use changesets or .st files

	spec for: #'PharoIssue6300' do: [
	spec package: 'SLICE-Issue-6300-Detach-keymaping-shortcuts' with: [
		spec repository: '' ].
	spec package: 'VimPharo' with: [ spec requires: #'SLICE-Issue-6300-Detach-keymaping-shortcuts' ] ].


Method #2 – #preLoadDoIt:

This is the method to use for changesets or .st files

1. Add a #preLoadDoIt: to your baseline

For example:

	spec for: #'common' do: [
		spec blessing: #'baseline'.
		spec preLoadDoIt: #preLoad.
2. Define your callback

This method is going to look much like #customProjectAttributes in method #1. The main difference is, since Metacello can not handle file-ins, you will load the code right in this method instead of delegating, as in the following example:

	| shouldFixIssue7294 |
	shouldFixIssue7294 := (EventHandler canUnderstand: #keyStrokeRecipient) not.
	shouldFixIssue7294 ifTrue: [ '/path/to/issue7294.cs' asFileReference fileIn. ].


So when would you want to use method #2? For one, you may already have a changeset handy. But the other reason is time decay. In Pharo, for example, because of the rapid pace of development, the package you fixed may have another fix applied first. Now, loading your version may silently replace those changes (this is what happens in the MC browser, I assume Metcello works the same way). I’m actually still figuring out the tradeoffs here for myself. For now, I default to method #1 unless I have a specific reason for #2.


So there you have a simple pattern to conditionally load packages or code files in a Metacello configuration

Hope it helps!

Categories: Pharo, Squeak Tags: , , ,

Smalltalk: Extending the Kernel

January 28th, 2013 No comments


Many time I wish I could send a non-existent message to an object that’s part of the built-in Smalltalk library.

For example:

	^ $" asString, self, $" asString.


Simple Case: Project-specific Extensions

In Pharo, I can store this method in a package different from the one of the class in question. This is called an “extension method” and the implementation is currently a bit of a hack… You put the method in a protocol that starts with an asterisk followed by the package name. Thus, for the example above, if my project was packaged in MyPackage, I could package the method with it like this…

Screen Shot 2013-01-28 at 10.24.02 AM

For methods that are project-specific, this is all we need (although hopefully now that Pharo is working on first-class packages, it would be great if we could have both a protocol and specify an extension). However, the method above really has nothing to do with a particular project. It seems generally useful; and indeed, I find myself using it over and over.

Generally Useful Extensions

In these cases, it doesn’t work to package the method with the project that uses it, because if more than one of these projects are loaded into the same image, one method will override the other, creating a mess in Monticello. So I’ve been experimenting with two approaches.

The naive way would be to package all such methods in one package, e.g. “PharoExtensions”. This is the first thing I tried, but I was a bit uncomfortable with the all-or-nothing idea – that I’d have to load every extension I’ve ever created to use just one.

The most flexible tack is to package each method individually. The method above could be in the “StringSurroundedByDoubleQuotes” package. This way, one could load the method without effecting any other parts of the system. However, a package is a bit heavy-weight for just one method.

A Compromise

The current idea I’ve been playing with is to mirror the existing package structure of Pharo. For the above, String lives in “Collections-Strings”, so I tack on a standard suffix, making it “Collections-StringsSpd”. Now, we can load extensions for only the packages we are using, without having a confusing mess of ClassNameMethodName packages.



Categories: Smalltalk Tags:

Opportunity Cost: No Free Lunch

January 22nd, 2013 No comments

I read a great article about buying an apartment “for free” in NYC. It was well-written and thought-out, but missed a crucial financial factor that we all tend to forget about – opportunity cost.

From Wikipedia:

Opportunity cost is the… sacrifice related to the second best choice available to someone

In other words, we give up the benefits we would have gained had we made a different choice.

This was my comment to the author…

Nice analysis! For me, renting is still preferable because of two other factors. 1. Liquidity – if real estate prices in the area go down (everything has a cycle and it’s happened before in a big way in NYC), and I’m renting, I just walk away, leaving the owner to worry about it. You’ve made a bet that prices will go up; which is fine, but not guaranteed. 2. Opportunity cost – the 3.5% increase you’re hoping for will probably not keep pace with inflation (even the gov’t fantasy number, no less real inflation). But worse (if you’re wrong), you will not be investing any of the money tied up in equity in other asset classes. Again, this is another bet on real estate; this time vs. stocks or precious metals or agriculture… So I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, just that nothing comes for free ;)

Categories: Critical Thinking Tags:

[SOLVED]: iPhone Calendars wil not sync to Mac

January 16th, 2013 No comments

Recently, calendar events entered on my iPhone stopped syncing to my Mac. Calendar syncing was enabled, and I even tried “Replacing Calendar Information on This iPhone” (next sync only).

Luckily, it ended up being pretty easy to fix:

  1. In this Apple article, follow the instructions under “For issues with syncing calendars” (I skipped the steps before that)
  2. Restart iTunes (I tried to sync without this step, but got a message like “sync session cannot be started”)
  3. In iTunes, go to the “Info” tab for your iPhone, and make sure calendar syncing is enabled

That should do it. Good luck!

Categories: Mac Tags: ,

Smalltalk Magic: The Simplest Notes Browser That Could Possibly Work

September 11th, 2012 5 comments

From problem to source browser in 2 minutes (it took much longer to write this post about it)!

UPDATE: InspectIt (sorry, first version said “DoIt”):

'/path/to/home/Library/Mail/V2/Mailboxes/Notes.mbox/' asFileReference allChildren
    select: [ :e | e extension = 'emlx' ]
    thenCollect: [ :e | e readStream contents ].

Categories: Mac, Smalltalk Tags:

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