CUSEC 2010 Keynote: Reg Braithwaite – “Beautiful Failure”

Reg Braithwaite, standing at the lectern, giving his keynote at CUSEC 2010

Here’s the third in my series of notes taken from keynotes at CUSEC 2010, the 2010 edition of the Canadian University Software Engineering Conference. These are from Beautiful Failure, a keynote given by my friend Reg “Raganwald” Braithwaite, who’s forgotten more about combinators than I will ever learn.

My notes from his keynote appear below; Reg has also published his slides online.

  • I gave a talk at Stack Overflow DevDays Toronto in which I was thinking out loud about programming about programming
  • I was trying to rewrite the way we program
  • The language we use for coding guides the way we think about the program and the solutions
  • When you write things to change your programming language, you change the way you think

Thinking About Programming About Programming

  • I often get called in by clients to automate a process
  • Often, during this process, they want to change the process that I’m supposed to automate
  • Automating a process forces you to think about it
  • The very act of thinking about how you do things helps you understand what it is you do
  • The exercise of thinking it through is useful, even if it fails or you don’t end up using it
  • Languages and frameworks come and go, but everything you to do fix what’s between your ears stays with you forever
  • Programming languages are just a notation for the way we think


  • Some people try to do things like add a "sum" method to Ruby’s Enumerable mixin
  • What happen when you try [[1, 2], [3, 4], [5, 6]].sum?
  • [He showed two implementations of a “sum” method:
    • One by “Alice”, which when applied to [[1, 2], [3, 4], [5, 6]], yielded 21,
    • and one by “Bob”, which when applied to [[1, 2], [3, 4], [5, 6]], yielded [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
  • With “monkeypatching”, it’s possible for two different modules to implement Enumerable#sum, and then for someone else to import both modules.
    • In which case, which version of sum will get called? It depends on the load order of the module
    • But what if these were written as gems? Then there’s trouble
  • To solve this sort of problem, I decided to steal extension methods from C# and add them to Ruby [Joey’s note: extension methods are a C# feature that let you add methods to an existing class without subclassing]
  • It works, but what’s wrong with what I’ve done?
  • My extension methods for Ruby are a hack…
  • It eliminates the annoyance without solving the core problem
  • Do extension methods reengineer the way we think about problems? Or do they simply deal with an annoyance?
  • Do they reengineer the way we think about programs?

 Reg Braithwaite, standing at the lectern, giving his keynote at CUSEC 2010

  • Take the Single Responsibility Principle (SRP)
  • When you write an extension method, you break SRP
  • When you monkeypatch, you violate SRP
  • Is that bad? I don’t know
    • C# breaks SRP with extension methods
    • Rails "runs roughshod over it"
    • If two popular languages break SRP, maybe SRP isn’t all that
    • What does the sum method tell us?
    • Why is this a beautiful failure?
    • Maybe we’ve gone beyond the class — Ruby is not C++ or Smalltalk
    • Hacks like this scratch an itch and suggest a flaw — what else is flawed?
  • You have an advantage over me
    • I have this ball and chain of experience
    • I’ve been fucking with computers for almost 40 years
    • They way I’ve been doing things has made me a living; I’m not incented to change the way I do things
    • You’re not tied down
  • So now I present a few ideas that have occurred to me — think about them!
    • I don’t have the answers


  • Unit tests tell us that compilers are flawed
    • If we need them, what is wrong with our programming languages and compilers that requires us to step out of what we’re doing to implement them?
    • Why do we need to take a great language and bolt something onto the side?
  • Github tells us that our existing idea of a program is flawed
    • Most people think of programs as static things
    • In Github, there is no "program" — there are branches, forks and tags
    • Languages themselves have no notion of what a version is
    • Looking at the way we actually use tools shows that there’s a disconnect between our toolsets and the way we write code
    • Are Github commits congruent to objects?
      • If you change 4 classes in a commit, there must be something they have in common, but that’s not apparent from the way we write them
  • Do we manage work the way we manage code?
    • Project management seems awfully disconnected from our tool chain
    • Consider the complete disconnect between issue tracking and time tracking
    • Maybe not so important in your company, but more important for personal projects
    • Git and Lighthouse — “like two cups connected by string”
  • Do we manage object versions the way we manage API versions?


  • "Do not follow in the footsteps of the sages, seek what they sought."
  • What I think is particularly cool and interesting is…but to me
  • Think about what your heroes were trying to achieve using the tools available to you today
  • An example of following blindly in the footsteps of sages:
    • In November 2002, I attended Paul Graham’s “Lightweight Languages 2” conference in Boston
    • The morning keynote was by John Armstrong, who presented Erlang, which today is considered an important language for concurrent programming
    • The afternoon keynotes was Matz, who presented Ruby, one of the most influential dynamic languages that soon after enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity
    • Many people in the room, die-hard Lisp-heads, were shouting them down because their languages didn’t have macros [Joey’s note: Macros are a Lisp feature that smug Lisp weenies often use in the never-ending “Why my language is better than your language” argument]

Four Ugly Failure Modes and How to Avoid Them

Reg Braithwaite, standing at the lectern, giving his keynote at CUSEC 2010

Confusing correlation with causation

  • I think it’s one of the most prevalent diseases in the business world
  • Ruby is not a silver bullet
    • Was the success of many Ruby projects [such as Rails and Twitter] because of Ruby the language?
    • Or was it that smart people who could get things done were picking Ruby at a given point in time?
  • Agile is not a process
    • It’s a set of values
  • Here’s how many companies fail:
    • They start a little consulting company
    • They enjoy some successes, which leads to more business
    • As a result, they hire people and the company grows
    • But they can’t hire smart people faster than the work is coming in
    • So in order to hire people to meet the demand, they start hiring people who aren’t as smart
    • That’s when things go downhill
    • Who here doesn’t think this isn’t standard for any consulting company?
  • Toronto Agile User Group recruiting process
    • In our field, "best practices" are cow patties
    • I’ve gone to many companies where they combine "best practices" simply by smooshing them together
    • I’ve been to many Toronto Agile User Group meetings where very few attendees work at companies that even practice agile
    • The important thing is that the people there are attending because interested in finding a better way of doing their work – those are the people you should be hiring!
  • The plural of "anecdote" is not "data"
    • Greg Wilson will talk about this in his keynote later today – listen to him!
    • Problem: Talks are given by narcissists (or masochists)
    • When you read something in a blog, see something on TV or buy a book, you’re not getting a large enough sample, and the content is biased
    • Another problem is that history is written by the survivors
    • People write about really notable successes or failures

Confirmation bias

  • "Most of you will be immune to this, because you’re all sensible people"
  • You might fall victim to confirmation bias if you have an overly-inflated (or under-inflated) ego
  • You might also fall victim to it if your worldview is too narrow
    • If you’re a Ruby developer, you probably don’t read C# blogs, and vice versa
  • Seek out more representative info; not just the stuff that confirms your opinions

Local maxima

  • The innovator’s dilemma
    • If you have customers, they will trap you in a local maximum
    • They’re not trying to be mean, they’re trying to give you money
    • You might end up optimizing to serve your customer base while the rest of the world (and eventually your business moves on)
  • The Principle of Least Surprise is a trap!
    • Familiarity comes from doing the old things the old way
    • This doesn’t apply to just UI, but also naming variables or coding styles
    • Once in a while, you should say "Maybe this one time, we should do things differently"
  • Iterative anything is a trap
    • It’s hill climbing
    • Sometimes you have to leap
    • It’s supposed to be bad to "go dark" in development for a longer period rather than go through many small iterations, but sometimes it’s the only way to make a great leap
    • You can’t climb a big mountain if you do things in small increments

"A Market for Lemons"

  • What happens when you sell to people who don’t fundamentally understand what they’re buying?
  • If customers don’t understand what they’re buying, they make their decisions based on easily differentiable features
  • One example is buying a house, which you’re not going to do very often in your life, so most people know very little about it
    • As a result, they focus on easily differentiable features like square footage, number of rooms, and other features that can easily be picked out
    • But it’s better to focus on whether the house’s design makes it more liveable, which is harder to suss out
  • Another example of this is feature checklists on the back of product boxes
  • Gresham’s Law — “bad money drives out good” — applies to talent: When you have good currency and bad currency in an economy, the bad currency drives the good currency out
    • This happens in Cuba, where the good currency – black market US dollars – gets hoarded while the local currency gets spent
    • It also applies to information: people put the crappy information out, and it drives the good information down
    • It also applies to talent: headhunters, not knowing what sort of people to look for, end up grabbing the people who put the most buzzwords on their resumes
  • You don’t want to be one of those buyers

At the end of the presentation, posted a slide dedicated to his late friend, Sam Roweis (1972 – 2010).

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.


The Manifesto of Fail and FailCamp Toronto 3


In honour of tomorrow’s event, FailCamp Toronto 3, I present The Manifesto of Fail, which was published for the FailCamp held in Philadelphia last summer.

The Manifesto of Fail


Failure is the default

From biological species to companies to government policies, there appears to be an Iron Law of Failure, which is extremely difficult to break.

Paul Ormerod, Why Most Things Fail


Failure can be intrinsically valuable

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.

J.K. Rowling, Harvard Commencement Speech


We can bond through our failures

But there is an even stronger reason why we can learn from the failures of others, beyond the simple pleasure of knowing that an expert can fail too. It has to do with our ability as human beings to relate better to people in their failures than in their successes, and to learn more in the process.

Richard Farson, Management of the Absurd


And bonding over failure is a good thing

Over and over again, when people ask how they can achieve the Silicon Valley-type of opportunities in their areas, I tell them, "Celebrate failure."

Tara Hunt, Losercamp


Also, beer is a good thing

Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

Ben Franklin (allegedly)

FailCamp Toronto 3


FailCamp Toronto 3 takes place tomorrow night – Tuesday, September 29th – at the South Building of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, room 716 at 7:00 p.m.!


It’s a FREE event in which you’re invited to share your tale of epic fail with your peers, whether the failure was personal, business or technical. By celebrating failure, we hope to overcome the fear of failure, which in turn leads to fear of trying. We want people to unlearn the moral that Homer Simpson taught his children: “You tried, and you failed. So the moral of the story is: never try.”


We’ll start FailCamp with an opening monologue talking about failure in general, some well-known and obscure failures throughout history and why we fear failure. Then we’ll turn the microphone on you, the audience, and challenge you to tell your most spectacular and epic story of FAIL. Our “Judging Panel of FAIL” featuring Justin Kozuch of Refresh Events and Meghann Millard of Unspace will preside and decide which stories are most worthy of winning valuable FAIL prizes.


After FailCamp, we’ll make our way to the pub. FAIL demands beer!

For more information about FailCamp Toronto 3 and to register (remember, it’s free!), visit FailCamp’s event page.


FailCamp: One Week Away!

FailCamp poster, featuring Sean Connery in his role as "Zed" from "Zardoz"

If you were at last year’s FailCamp, you might remember the best story of FAIL of the evening, which involved warming up some “body lube” in the microwave oven for a little too long, after which hilarity ensued.

Here’s how Amy Hoy and Thomas Fuchs, the originators of FailCamp, describe their vision of the event:

We believe that it’s time to give our personal fail some tough love and talk it out over beer!

Join us for a brief, rousing introduction followed by camaraderie, beer, and show-and-tell. We’ll present a little about failure through the ages, mining your personal suck, maybe some science, pithy quotes from people you may or may not respect, and share some failure stories of our own.

Then it’ll be your turn. If all goes to plan, you may even win in our friendly “race to the bottom” for the most public, most expensive, or most ridiculous Story of Fail.

FailCamp returns next Thursday, July 9th and once again, it’s the warm-up act for Unspace’s Ruby programmer conference (going by the name “FutureRuby” this year), which takes place on the weekend of July 10th through 12th. Just like last year, FailCamp will once again provide a forum for you to share your greatest and most pathetic stories of FAIL, and hopefully how that failure taught you some important lessons and made you a better, wiser, more-careful-with-the-lube person.

joey_presenting_at_failcamp_1Me, presenting at last year’s FailCamp.

Once again, I will be hosting FailCamp. I’ll start the evening with a couple of stories of failure, including a couple of Keyboard Cat-worthy ones of my own, after which I’ll open up the floor to you, the audience, to share your own stories of FAIL. Once we’re all thoroughly embarrassed, DJ Barbi will spin the wheels of steel and we’ll dance our shame away.

There are some tickets left as of this writing:

  • For FutureRuby attendees, there are 4 free tickets to FailCamp remaining.
  • For those of you who are not attending FutureRuby but would like to catch FailCamp, there are 19 “Pay What You Can” tickets left.

If you want ‘em, go to the FailCamp registration page and get them before they disappear!

joey_presenting_at_failcamp_2My one-slide summary of how things went terribly wrong in the movie Deliverance
(The link leads to the “Squeal like a pig” scene from the movie – you might not want to watch at work).

FailCamp will take place at the Queen City Yacht Club on the Toronto Islands (Algonquin Island, to be precise). Your printed ticket stub is good for a free ferry ride from the Toronto docks to the Yacht Club, where we’ll have some finger food, the Yacht club’s kitchen and cash bar will be open, and the evening should be full of surprises.

What better way to close an article about FailCamp than the Keyboard Cat video starring “Pinky, Pet of the Week”?


Career-Limiting Move

When using your company-assigned laptop to make presentations, remember to disable your pornographically-themed screensaver (and yes, the video below is not safe for work):


RubyFringe Guide: FAILCamp (Friday, July 18 – 4 to 7 p.m. at The Rhino)

Joey\'s Unofficial Ruby Fringe Guide to Toronto - Small logoWelcome to the fifth installment of Joey’s Unofficial RubyFringe Guide to Toronto, my guide to Accordion City for attendees of the RubyFringe conference as well as people just curious about this place.

In case you missed the earlier articles in this series, I’ll list them here:

  1. Where Did All the Cigarettes Go?
  2. Getting from the Airport to the Hotel
  3. Boozin’ in Accordion City
  4. The Lay of the Land, Part 1

In this article, I’m going to cover FAILCamp.

The first event of RubyFringe is the only one that’s open to anyone, whether or not they’re attending the conference itself. It’s FAILCamp, a gathering where we’ll share stories about and lessons from failure. It will take place at The Rhino Bar and Grill (1249 Queen Street West, just west of Dufferin) and runs from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.. Once again, you don’t have to be a RubyFringe attendee to catch this one. Admission is free, but you’ll have to buy your own beer.

Here’s a quick description of the event, as written by its originators, Amy “Slash7” Hoy and Thomas “Scriptaculous” Fuchs:

We believe that it’s time to give our personal fail some tough love and talk it out over beer!

Join us for a brief, rousing introduction followed by camaraderie, beer, and show-and-tell. We’ll present a little about failure through the ages, mining your personal suck, maybe some science, pithy quotes from people you may or may not respect, and share some failure stories of our own.

Then it’ll be your turn. If all goes to plan, you may even win in our friendly “race to the bottom” for the most public, most expensive, or most ridiculous Story of Fail.

I believe that the original plan was for Amy and Thomas to host the event as a dry run for a much larger FAILCamp event taking place on the 26th in Philadelphia. Circumstances have arisen and they will be unable to make it to Accordion City this weekend. While this fits with the theme of FAILCamp, it hasn’t stopped it — instead, two new hosts have stepped up to fill in for them:

  • Hampton “HAML” Catlin, who very well might be the best Ruby hacker in town, and
  • Yours Truly, who very well might be the worst Ruby hacker in town.

Hampton’s going to provide a lot of insight and programming know-how to FAILCamp. Me? I’m going to be responsible for innuendo-laden stories of personal and professional failure peppered with gratuitous Zardoz references.

As for the Rhino itself, it is truly pub with a “neighbourhoody” feel. Where many places are content to be mere endpoints in the Anheuser-Busch/Molson-Coors supply chain, the Rhino is what some sociologists call a “third place”, a neighbourhood gathering point for all kinds of people, from the locals who’ve been in the Parkdale area since it was a more rough-and-tumble place to the artsy and musician types who moved into the neighbourhood to the geeks who use it as the venue for the monthly Rails Pub Nites and Ajax Pub Nites. Even though the neighbourhood is gentrifying in a manner similar to New York’s Lower East Side or certain parts of Brooklyn, The Rhino has managed to remain pretty much douchebag-free and inexpensive, unlike a number of the other pubs in the area.

The only way in which The Rhino gets fancy is with their beer menu. There are about 200 beers on the menu hailing from a few dozen countries, and they’re generally well-stocked and priced in the 5 to 7 dollar per pint/bottle range. Be sure to try the locals: their own lager, as well as Mill Street, Wellington and Creemore Springs.