Tea Cups in the Garden (by )

We've been busy building paths to the chicken run though Al keeps miss judging how much concrete we need so it has spanned out several weekends now! He's found an easier way of mixing the concrete though and that is by using a tarp 🙂

Alaric mixing concrete fro the path to the chicken run

As you can probably see from the photograph the garden is a mess with the old rabbit run and soil that's been dug out to make the run area and the old oil drum that the people who lived here before left and which is full of stuff and bin bags of stuff that got damaged by leaking ceilings and so on. So I cheered myself up by putting up the nice teacup garden ornaments my friend Ulrike gave me and envisioning what it will look like after a few more weekends of hard graft.

Tea cup wind chime

I really love these and they will be the main feature of our garden food area. I may assess how easy the cats can get to them and put some bird food in or maybe a little pot plant - at the moment it is far too rainy for either option!

Tea Cup bird feeder

The Art House Bristol (by )

Light Orb Tangle

Thursday I headed off to Bristol with the lovely Nick Short, the aim - to read poetry at the Art House. We had a little bit of trouble finding it, the Art House is a lovely little cafe with a cellar/entertainment area. There are arty pictures on the walls and yummy foods to be had.

Guitarist Rianna Art House Bristol

There were some wonderful musicians playing, I especially liked the Vampire guy though I failed to get a photo of him 🙂

Poet with funky Russian hat Art House Bristol

We bumped into an old friend from Cheltenham who had also come up and ended up in a conversation with a woman at the end who wondered why we'd come all the way to Bristol to perform. It is a weekly event at the Arts House and Bristol simply is bigger and has more to offer was the answer. Cheltenham has a great poetry scene but it is not weekly or even every night like it is in Bristol. We spoke of the poetry society and the Festival and then moved on to art in general.

Nick Short performing poetry at the Art House

I read an arch of poetry starting with a Fist Full of Nitro and ending with Star Stuff. From the individual and depressing to the optimistic future of all was the way I saw it.

Sarah Snell-Pym reading her poetry at the Art House Bristol

It was a lovely night.

Orange wicker orb

Opening up Open Source (by )

One of the awesome things about free/open source software (FOSS) is that, as you have access to the source code, you have exactly as much power as the original authors of the software to modify and extend it.

When you are upset about something in closed-source software, or one hosted on the owner's servers on the Internet as a web app or API, all you can do is beg and plead with them, and threaten to take your future business elsewhere; they control the source code, so they have ultimate power. With FOSS software, in theory, the original authors have no special powers.

However, it often doesn't quite work out like that in practice.

Most FOSS software comes onto people's computers as a precompiled binary; they download it and run it. This is convenient and efficient. But if they then want to use their theoretical right to get in there and modify it, they need to do the following things:

  1. Learn the programming language(s) it's written in, and the libraries/frameworks/APIs it builds on top of. (This is particularly tricky if they have no previous programming experience).
  2. Find and download the sources (which shouldn't be too hard, but can still be tricky).
  3. Set up a build environment that can compile the thing. This may involve installing compilers, and development versions of libraries in order to get the header files, and so on.
  4. Actually make it compile. A lot of the time, a source package as shipped by the authors won't compile perfectly outright, as you need to apply patches written by the people who maintain the package for your platform, as each platform has their own conventions as to where things are placed in the filesystem, and their interaction with less-standardised bits of infrastructure such as service management frameworks, management of network interfaces, low-level hardware access, and so on.
  5. Learn the workings of the codebase. For a large project, this can be VERY daunting, even to a seasoned programmer.
  6. Actually design, implement, and debug the change. If the codebase is poorly architected, this can be made unnecessarily difficult, and require refactoring of existing code elsewhere within the codebase.
  7. Install the software once it's building. As it's been custom-built, it may not interact nicely with your platform's package manager, so you may end up running it out of /usr/local/bin or ~/bin or similar, and have trouble making managed packages that depend on the one you're tinkering with correctly linking to it, interaction with system configuration tools, and so on.

I think this is harder than it needs to be. It puts a lower bound on the effort required to make even a trivial change that, in many cases, means it's not worth making it; we're as beholden to the whims of the developers of the package as we would be to a closed-source software company, and the supposed benefits of open source are denied to you.

We can break down the barriers into a number of categories, and look at what can be done to solve each.

Learning the programming environment

Whether you're a seasoned programmer or not, any given piece of software you didn't write will involve a set of languages, tools, libraries, and other things, that you may not be familiar with, and these will need to be learnt.

What might help is better standards for automatically-generated API documentation, so you can find the documentation of API functions as they are used in the software you're learning how to edit by just pressing a button in your editor.

But if it became easier, commonplace, and expected for people to dig around in other people's source code, for curiosity or to make their own changes, developers of infrastructure components would feel more compelled to document their interfaces in ways that casual programmers can quickly pick them up, and to make their interfaces simpler and easier to learn, because the expected audience would be less dominated by seasoned programmers.

And, conversely, if more people were casually getting involved in simple programming tasks in order to improve the software they use (if it became easier to do so), then the general programming ability of the population would also rise, giving more people the grounding in basic conventions and concepts required to understand programming tools...

Migrating from a normal installation of the software to a hackable one

This is perhaps the biggest hurdle, and yet, the most amenable to being overcome with better technology. It covers the whole spectrum from finding and downloading the source code, setting up a build environment, getting it building on your platform, and getting it installed as a first-class citizen in the eyes of your package manager.

I can think of two technical fixes to this problem, and the best bit is, they're both things that already exist out there rather than my usual kinds of crazy new reinvent-the-wheel thinking!

Firstly, package managers like Nix make it easy to establish build environments on your own hardware, as the build environment of any package can be requested, and automatically set up for you. Also, they are built around installing software from sources in the first place, and offer downloading pre-built binaries as an optimisation. It's quite easy to adapt a nix expression that builds a software package from downloaded sources to one that builds from a source tarball you've made yourself, and install it into an isolate "profile" in such a way that it's easily kept isolated from other software you have running and might not want to risk being broken by your experimental changes yet, and to roll the change back if it doesn't work out.

I suspect that many traditional package managers are written with users in mind, and not developers, which sounds laudable; but in practice it forces the distinction between user and developer, not allowing the former to easily migrate into the latter. Nix feels written for developers, of course acknowledging that developers are also users and still want to be able to install off-the-shelf prebuilt binaries easily. The inbuilt package manager for Chicken Scheme is likewise developer-friendly, letting you directly build from arbitrary checked-out source trees into a properly installed package; my development process for most Chicken software is to run chicken-install in my in-progress sources as the first port of call to compile and run it, rather than the usual idiom in most languages of compiling and running from the source checkout then "installing" the binaries as an optional, later, step. And yet a "mere" end-user of my software can type chicken-install ugarit, and Chicken will download the latest public Ugarit release from the Internet and install it for them. If they want to join me in hacking Ugarit, they can check out the latest sources from my web site and get stuck in pretty quickly.

Secondly, the move away from compiling software ahead-of-time into distributable binaries, towards on-demand compilation of source code at run time (with caching of compiled forms, of course), means that the normal installation of some software is the source code, there is no need for an external "build environment" to convert your changes into a runnable package, and changes to the source code can be immediately used without going through any kind of build/install phase. Because this makes tinkering with the software so much easier, it can make it become a routine part of using the software, rather than something special done only by special people. The typical Emacs user will have overridden various internal functions of Emacs from within their personal configuration; although many configurations can be done without doing so, customisation through function overriding is so accessible that people routinely customise their Emacs installations in ways that the original developers didn't think (or didn't have time/energy) to add as a configurable option. I wish all open-source projects were written in such an open manner, but it will require a lot of migration away from the batch-compilation model of C, C++, and Java.

Poorly-architected existing code

This is a thorny issue; even if you can easily get into the code of your application and make the changes you want, and you understand all the tools it's built with, it can still be hard to make the changes you want because of one of a number of kinds of inherent "fragility" in the way the software is constructed.

Usually, this boils down to some variant on the idea of some information being repeated all over the code, rather than kept in one place. If your code relies on communicating between its components by using a special file, for instance, and every place where this file is read or written contains its own code to read and write this file directly, then changes such as storing the file in a different place, or adding some extra information to it, or replacing it with access to a database or something, will be difficult. You'll need to find all the places where the file is used, and individually re-write them to reflect your changes. This is laborious, and you might miss some, leading to bugs when those bits of code are run but don't reflect the changes.

However, if the mechanism of accessing this shared state (reading and writing the file) was isolated into one place in the software, with an interface that is used wherever required and reflects only the essentials of the access to the shared state, then that mechanism can easily be changed to another, as long as it still preserves those essentials, relatively painlessly and safely.

Software developers, before they even write a line of code, be thinking about how their software might be changed in future, and make sure that they split it into modules with clean interfaces, to make that easier. As side effects, it also makes their code easier to test and debug, as the interfaces serve to define and clarify the responsibilities and expectations of each module, which makes it easy to write comprehensive tests for the modules.

If this seems like hard work, then you're doing it wrong. We've all heard of code (usually in Java, for some reason) that seems to have taken the Design Patterns book as a checklist of things to do, and features pages and pages of AbstractFactoryWrappers that just indirect everything; the actual code that does the task at hand seems to be scattered thinly amongst all this framework. That's not what I mean by designing your software to be extensible. I just mean splitting it into bits with an explicit interface between each, and makings those interfaces reveal as little as possible about the workings behind them, and putting duplicated code into modules behind interfaces rather than writing the same logic more than once, rather than making it into one big ball of inter-related mud. If you're not saving time by writing software like this in the first place, or if it seems like a burden, then you need to re-think how you write code.

I think programming languages can do a lot to help us write cleaner code, too. I find that when I'm writing C and C++, it's often hard to cleanly pull bits of functionality out into other functions due to the manual memory management which complicates interfaces, and the lack of lexically-scoped first-class functions. Code written in Lispy languages tends to be a lot more easy to refactor as it grows, leading to cleaner interfaces (on average), and the automatic memory management tends to make the interfaces simpler as well.

Also, a culture of open extensibility in software means that extensibility of your code is high in the programmer's mind at all times. Developers of Emacs packages seem to expect bits of their software to be overridden, and write it accordingly.


I think that making programming more accessible has very many good consequences. It gives people more power to get more out of their computers. It gives people more reason to trust computers (and as we move to a more online society, people are forced to place their trust in computers in order to take part; but being forced to place your trust in something you don't trust is a harrowing experience), as they can peer inside the software to see how it works, and fix it if it doesn't. It also means that everyday users of computers have an easy, and natural, transition into learning programming, which is a very rewarding pastime; and more people contributing to open-source projects means we all get to have a better quality of life.

So, open-source software developers, I implore you to consider these points. Try to make your software open and welcoming to newcomers!

Day 9 – VAT issues (by )

The painting is called Lonely Christmas and is part of the painted advent I am doing, I like the concept and the colours but... I don't think it quiet works - nor unfortunately do my plans for The Little Book of Festive Poetry amongst other things. Basically there are new VAT laws coming in and they seem stupid complicated and so for now like many many authors I am having to currently put a hold on selling ebooks 🙁

But you can still listen too it here.

A Christmas Yorky (by )

Mary stroking the piggies

We headed up to see our Northern friends, going on a little tour on route to see our friend Andy which was far too brief but lots of fun. Though I don't think Alaric is going to forgive him for introducing us to the 'What does the Fox Say' song!

Jean loves this song as it is the style of music she likes but not about love or money or things she's not interested in - it's about foxes and she loves animals - her comments where high pitched and consisted of 'CUUUUUUTE!!!!' Also the old guy reading reminds her of Ferfer when he's reading her and Mary stories and doing the silly sounds. I personally think the guys are cute and I love silly songs 😉

Alaric lives in horror as I have started singing it but merging it with leek spin and the gummy bear songs etc al 😀

Anyway it was great seeing Andy again and the kids loved him 🙂 One of the things it has highlighted for me is how long it has been since I saw a lot of my friends - something I wish to rectify this year.

Andy and the girls

Then we went on to Yorkshire to see our friends Ulrike and Mike and their ginea pigs 🙂

Piggies enjoying some greens

Ulrike had decorated the house fantastically for Christmas! Jean and Mary are still talking about it 🙂 There were lots of pocket dragons and a golden dragon in a santa hat with bells on it for Jean. Mary is so happy with her 'babies' - survallian family rabbits - baby and toddler 🙂

Ulrikes Christmas table Pocket Dragon Dragon ridding and Christmas tree candle fretwork Pocket dragon christmas star Christmas scene windmill snow candle light dome

The girls loved opening their presents and we played board games 🙂

Jean opening presents

Mary and Alaric opening presents

We went to see some horses (photos on Alaric's phone still!) and watched the Grinch and Brave and played Mario Carts which I am even worse at than 2 years ago, when I played it at my Bro's house - Jean says this is because I was using a steering wheel last time and this time it was controllers. I was pretty bad with the steering wheel!

Mike and the Mario carts entertain the girls

Ulrike is a Harry Potter nut just like us and has the MOST amazing potion bottle collection 🙂

Ulrikes Potions Glass Ware

The potions store cupboard

We also had an amazing breakfast with bread rolls in a lovely wicker basket:)

Green Crockery set for breakfast

It was lovely and we really enjoyed ourselves and wish we could have stayed longer with both Andry and Ulrike and Mike. Here are more photos of the girlies and piggies 🙂

Silver the gineapig Jeany and the piggies Jean and Mary with the gineapigs

As you can see Jeany still really loves the bundles of fluff 🙂

Jeany feeding the piggies

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