First panel of the comic about life and death

Life and death

First panel of the comic about life and death

First panel of the comic about life and death

I recently saw a comic about life and death and it bothered me. The comic shows life and death as two equal figures interacting and I think that’s incorrect. It feels like a false dichotomy. They are not both sides of the same coin. Life is the face of the coin, while death is the side of the coin. Death is limiting life, and the farther away it is, the more life we have.

The reason why I think this is important is because I people over value death. They say things like “we can’t have life without death”. For me, that’s like saying “We can’t have nice things without also having nice broken things later”. It’s true that a nice broken thing is a byproduct of a nice thing, but it’s not essential for its existence. A nice thing that lasts forever is awesome.

I think this is mostly bullshit that people make up to be at peace with the prospect of dying. It’s as much bullshit as the after-life or reincarnation, it’s just a non-religious non-spiritual one.

The big social implication about this is that it ostracises life extension. People enjoy living until they are 80 even though that would have been rare a few of centuries ago, but when people dream of extending it to 800, that’s wrong.

For example, I can’t believe that more people are not signing up for Alcor or the Cryonics Institute, something that thanks to the trick they play with life insurance is affordable by many, many people. When the OpenWorm project run a Kickstarter it clearly stayed away from the implications of life extension by brain emulation. The only reason why I gave them the biggest donation I ever gave to a anyone is because a friend explained it to me well before the Kickstarter. Actually, if they would have just asked me for money I would have said yes, their campaign made me hesitate.

I leave you with an interesting old TED talk about life extension:

How Star Trek into Darkness should have ended

Stop reading if you haven’t seen the movie yet, as obviously this will be a big spoiler.

I think Star Trek into Darkness should have ended with Kirk dead. I don’t care if they revive them in the next one, that’s fine. A friend told me:

I didn’t even realize that Kirk was dying, they wouldn’t kill him, it was just a small setback.

I think story tellers should be bolder and surprise us more.

I think they should have shown McCoy doing something with the body that can be later, in another movie, revealed as putting it in stasis. I think Spock shouldn’t have chased Kahn and have a fist fight. He should have been busy making sure the good of the many outweigh the revenge of the one by saving the Enterprise and making sure his crew was out of danger.

Hold on Pablo… you mean you want to end a movie with one of the main characters dead?

Yes, that would have been brave, although not new. Someone did it before and it might be familiar:

What about Kahn?

He should have run away. That’s it. Hold on… even better… he should have fled with his crippled ship.

But then… the bad guy won?

Yes. It would have been brave and it would have built a lot of tension and expectations for the next movie. Although, it wouldn’t have been the first franchise to have the bad guys win in one of their movies:

Wrapped exceptions in Ruby

Sometimes you want to raise an exception when a method fails but without losing information about an inner exception. Let me explain it with an example.

At Watu we have a method that causes a user to be indexed in our search engine. This method is called many times in different situations. One of those situations is when indexing most or all of our users. Recently, something failed and I got this exception:

undefined method `each' for #<String:0x10dab8fc>

Something that should be an array is actually a string. In this case the indexing method is correct, it’s just getting broken data. I want to fix the bug in the data generation, but to locate it, I need to know which user has broken data. I added a rescue clause to my indexing method to show me that data:

def index
  # ...
rescue
  raise "Error when indexing user #{self}"
end

Now I get something like:

Error when indexing user #<User:1234>

which allows me know that user 1234 has something wrong in its data. The problem is that now I have no idea what the issue is. I lost the information about trying to call each on a string.

The solution to this problem is exception wrapping (or nesting). You want the custom exception to wrap the other one so that you have both pieces of information. This, for example, exists in Java and if you search the web you’ll find ways on how to implement it in Ruby. Implementing this manually is not needed anymore since Ruby 2.1. Unfortunately, it’s a bit hidden and the tools haven’t caught up yet.

The secret lies in a new method in the class Exception called, cause. At the time of this writing it doesn’t even have documentation:

No documentation for the method Exception#cause

No documentation for the method Exception#cause

Using it is very straightforward. Just raise an exception in the rescue clause and the new exception will have the previous one as its cause. For example, in this case:

begin
  a = 1 / 0
rescue
  raise "Something went wrong"
end

you get two exceptions: the divided-by-zero wrapped inside one with the “Something went wrong” message.

The problem arrises that nobody seems to be using the causes of exceptions yet. If you run that in IRB, this is what you get:

RuntimeError: Something went wrong
        from (irb):4:in `rescue in irb_binding'
        from (irb):1
        from /Users/pupeno/.rvm/rubies/ruby-2.1.0/bin/irb:11:in `&lt;main&gt;'

But the exception’s cause is in there… hidden. If you catch the outer exception you can access its cause. For example:

begin
  begin
    a = 1 / 0
  rescue
    raise "Something went wrong"
  end
rescue => e
  puts e
  puts e.cause
end

would produce:

Something went wrong
divided by 0

The reason why it doesn’t produce something like that by default is because whatever IRB is using to print exceptions is ignoring the exception’s cause. Now we’ll have to wait until all the tools catch up with this new feature.

Well, we don’t actually have to wait. Aside from the fact that most of them are open source and you can fix them yourself, Ruby allows you to monkey patch so you can fix your own copy of these tools.

In my case I needed rake to print inner exceptions, so I wrote this monkey patch (which works for rake 10.1.1):

module Rake
  class Application
    def display_error_message(ex)
      trace "#{name} aborted!"
      display_exception(ex)
      trace "Tasks: #{ex.chain}" if has_chain?(ex)
      trace "(See full trace by running task with --trace)" unless options.backtrace
    end

    private

    def display_exception(ex, margin="")
      trace "#{margin}#{ex.message}"
      if options.backtrace
        trace "#{margin}#{ex.backtrace.join("\n#{margin}")}"
      else
        trace "#{margin}#{Backtrace.collapse(ex.backtrace).join("\n#{margin}")}"
      end
      if ex.respond_to?(:cause) && !ex.cause.nil? # Ruby < 2.1.0 doesn't have *cause*
        trace "#{margin}which was caused by:"
        display_exception(ex.cause, "#{margin} ")
      end
    end
  end
end

This is something that I would like to see in rake itself so I created an issue request (#253). Take a look at it to follow the development of this feature and hopefully, all tools will start displaying causes in one way or another.

The danger of the wide product

Working at Watu I came up with the categorization of products by width. There are products that are wide and products that are narrow. They have different traits and understanding those traits is important. Watu is a wide product. Twitter is a narrow product while Facebook is wider. This is not a matter of complexity or size but a matter of how many modules or independent parts a product has. An example of a narrow but complex product is Apple’s Siri.

GitHub used to be a narrow product: git repositories. Now it is a wider product: git repositories plus issue tracker, plus wiki for documentation, plus public pages. You can think of more features that GitHub could add to make it a wider product: product management, customer management, etc. Adding those features make GitHub a wider product, while adding pull requests handling doesn’t.

The advantage of wider products is that they are the all in one solution for more people than narrow products. That’s because people tend to have a wide variety of needs. If your social needs is just sending short messages, Twitter is the all-in-one, but if you also share pics, organize events, form groups, etc., then Twitter is no longer the all-in-one product and you need a wider solution, like Facebook.

The advantage of being the all-in-one product is that if your users are not looking outside your product they are less likely to jump to the competition. They are also more likely to put up with an inferior solution in one or several aspects because the other aspects make up for it and the seamless interconnection of the different parts of the product is in itself a big plus.

For example, if Facebook implements a Doodle-like module, it doesn’t have to be as good as Doodle to make me switch to it, because I’m already inside Facebook for socializing and event handling, so also using it for deciding when an event happens is very convenient (Facebook, please, don’t kill Doodle… just buy them if you have to).

But, there are some dangers to building wide products. Once is that it’s harder to keep focus because you need to constantly jump between modules. If I was to develop Twitter by myself I would be much more effective than if I was to develop Facebook, because I would have less context switching. I believe this point is not true when you have more people than modules so each person or team can keep focus. But when you are a small three-person startup, this is something worth considering.

Another danger of having a wide product is that, even as a developer, it’s scary to jump outside. At Watu we saw several opportunities to build different products where a customer came with a need that didn’t match Watu perfectly. Every time we discarded it because building a new product and making it as wide as Watu was too much work and modifying Watu was undesirable. The truth is that maybe those products didn’t need to be as wide, they didn’t need all these modules and features, but that fact was very hard to see when we were living and breathing Watu every day.

A return to space

In the 1990s we had what I consider the two best space related TV shows ever produced: Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5. TNG showed humans as explorers, evolved beings trying to move forward peacefully. It was a beautiful picture, something to aim for. Babylon 5 was more realistic: we still have problems and it’ll be a struggle, but we can do it. Babylon 5: In the beginning, one of the movies of the franchise, has some of the most realistic space battles. I read they got NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to do the math for them.

And then space died.

It was a slow and painful death. The spinoff of B5 lasted half a season. Star Trek managed to go on for much longer, but the quality went down until Enterprise was cancelled before a proper ending. And then we have Firefly… possibly the last big attempt at depicting humans living in space. It suffered the same fate as B5′s spinoff.

These developments are not just about fiction. Space exploration has been disappointing us for the last 30 years or so. We never went back to the moon. We never went to Mars. The International Space Station is amazing, but it’s not the space habitats we used to dream about. NASA cancelled the Space Shuttle program. The Hubble telescope was almost decommissioned. We stopped dreaming…

Well, not everybody stopped dreaming. And in a world where making a difference is becoming easier every day, some people have enough resources to do it even when it comes to something as expensive and crazy as space. People like Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin), Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic), and my favorite, Elon Musk (SpaceX):

In 2009 we saw the return of Star Trek with J. J. Abrams reboot. It’s not a good Star Trek movie but it is a good action movie, that happens in space, in the future, a future where humans have expanded throughout the galaxy and created a peaceful federation of planets. And this year we had another Star Trek movie for which I would say the previous statement applies as well. They are fun… but what really excites me is this:

potentially realistic depictions of space…

Maybe we are looking up again… hopefully… we’ll start dreaming again soon.

I need a new word

Yesterday I was going to meet a friend. I arrived very late due to poor planning on my side (leaving late) but also because I got lost. Well… I didn’t really get lost. I knew exactly where I was all the time. Pinpoint accuracy by my GPS. But I didn’t know how to proceed because buses got diverted, some may have been cancelled but I wasn’t sure.

One part of the definition of “lost” is the correct one:

Unable to find one’s way

but the other part is not:

not knowing one’s whereabouts

and when I say I got lost, I may sound like a lier: “How can you possible get lost with your phone/GPS/google maps?”. I need a new word that means “I know where I am but not how to proceed.”

I invented space elevators

I read The Last Theorem by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl and an important part of the plot is the construction of a space elevator. There, the authors explain to you what an space elevator is, how does it work, what are the challenges and even who invented them. Apparently in the 19th century some guys already dreamed (and wrote about) space elevators. I bet it was dreamed even before that, but at any rate, I invented them as well.

Picture of scaffoldingWhen I was a kid, the house where I lived used to have scaffoldings here and there quite frequently. It was never finished. I grew up playing in scaffoldings and like some kids build a house in a tree, I built it on scaffolding. It was amazing! I loved it. Obviously I started thinking how high could I build a scaffold? With my child’s mind I saw no limit but I realized that at some point, the outer part would pull instead of push and I fantasized about a scaffold that would reach the moon. A bit more than a mere space elevator.

In my phantasy one would climb the scaffold in a space suit, reach the top and when the moon passed by grab onto it: a small grab for a mind, a giant leap for the scaffolding industry.