Interfaces as Ball of Mud protection

A response to, where Edmund Kirwan hypothesizes that using interfaces delays the onset of Mud.

A few observations:

* Any well-factored system will have more direct dependencies than methods. More methods than direct dependencies indicates that code re-use is very low.

* For any well-structured system, the relationship between direct dependencies and indirect dependencies will be linear, not exponential. The buttons and string experimental result is not surprising, but would only apply to software systems where people really do create interconnections at random. The whole purpose of modular program structure is explicitly to prevent this.

* Abstract interfaces are in no way a necessary condition for modular programming.

* Finally, the notion that interfaces act as a termination point for dependencies seems a little odd. An interface merely represents a point at which a dependency chain becomes potentially undiscoverable by static analysis. Unquestionably the dependencies are still there, otherwise your call to that method at runtime wouldn’t do anything.

So I suspect that what Edmund has discovered is a correlation between the use of interfaces and modular program structure. But that is just a correlation. A few years back there was an unfortunate vogue for creating an interface for each and every class, a practice which turned out to be entirely compatible with a Big Ball of Mud architecture. The button and string experiment provides an interesting support for modular programming, but I don’t know that it says much about interfaces.

New improved placebo effect!

Doncha just love the medical research community’s hate-hate relationship with the placebo effect? There’s a rich vein here, but I’ll limit myself to two observations:

1. According to the URL the placebo effect is getting better at fooling patients. Not getting better at treating patients. Which it is also doing, of course. Pretty obvious which aspect we’re really interested in.

2. Then there’s this paragraph:

“In any case, it’s something the medical industry will want to get on top of, as the move to conducting longer and larger drug trails – ostensibly for the purposes of testing efficacy – seems to be backfiring when it comes to getting new therapeutic solutions onto the market.”

In other words – conducting larger trials is not serving the goal, which is to get therapeutic solutions onto the market whether they are actually more effective than placebo or not.

And on and on it goes – all the usual terminology contrasting real drugs with imaginary cures etc etc. Why are we not researching how to generate and enhance the placebo effect?

Blackboard and software complexity

A comment on Blackboard’s complexity problems.

If either the author of this article or the otherwise knowledgeable Feldstein have ever worked in software development, it’s not apparent from this article and the ensuing comments thread. The list of architectural scare factors – multiple deployment environments, wide use of 3rd party libraries, legacy code – is simply business as usual for any substantial software product. And the assertion that “few other companies support this sheer raw complexity of configuration combinations” is just plain wrong. Many, many companies deal with exactly this. Cross-platform release engineering is a demanding but well-understood discipline.

To pick on a couple more representative points: “All enterprise software ages poorly”. No, all software ages. Whether it ages poorly or well depends on whether it’s worth the vendor’s time to manage its aging. Go and ask the IBM shops running 1960’s-vintage System 360 applications on modern virtualized environments whether they’re happy with 50 years of ROI on those applications. And then: “Microsoft control their entire ecosystem”. Please, please, go and talk to a Microsoft release test engineer about how controlled their release targets are. Make sure you have a very comfortable seat and lots of beer money, because you’ll be buying and you’ll be there for a looong time.

I don’t challenge the author’s underlying premise that Blackboard has mismanaged its software assets – I don’t have the inside knowledge to confirm or deny that. And the notion that Blackboard, like every software developer, needs to actively manage and reduce complexity is incontestable. But I don’t accept the notion that the architectural factors listed are any kind of indicator. I would bet that inside Blackboard there are some very frustrated developers who know exactly how to support that range of configurations, led by a management group who is telling them not to spend time refactoring and reducing technical debt, but rather to crack on with adding to the feature list smorgasbord. As if that’s an either/or choice.

Gradle – copy to multiple destinations

TL:DR (edited);

def deployTargets = ["my/dest/ination/path/1","my/other/desti/nation"]
def zipFile = file("${buildDir}/distributions/")

task deploy (dependsOn: distZip) {
	inputs.file zipFile
	deployTargets.each { outputDir ->
		outputs.dir outputDir
	doLast {
		deployTargets.each { outputDir ->
			copy {
				from zipTree(zipFile).files
				into outputDir

My specific use case is to copy the jars from a java library distribution to tomcat web contexts, so you can see the distZip dependency in there, along with zip file manipulation.

The multiple destination copy seems to be a bit of FAQ for gradle newcomers like myself. Gradle has a cool copy task, and lots of options to specify how to copy multiple sources into one destination. What about copying one source into multiple destinations? There’s a fair bit of confusion around the fact that the copy task supports multiple “from” properties, but only one “into” property.

The answers I’ve found seem to fall into one of two classes. The first is to just do the copy imperatively, like so:

task justDoit << {
  destinations.each { dest ->
    copy {
      from 'src'
      to dest

which gives up up-to-date checking. The solution I’ve settled on fixes that by using the inputs and outputs properties. Unlike the copy task type’s “into” property, a generic task can have multiple outputs.

The other advice given is to create multiple copy tasks, one for each destination. The latter seems to be a little unsatisfactory, and un-dynamic. What if I have 100 destinations? Must I really clutter up my build script with 100 copy tasks? The following is my attempt to handle it dynamically.

def deployTargets = ["my/dest/ination/path/1","my/other/desti/nation"]
def zipFile = file("${buildDir}/distributions/")

task deploy

// Set up a copy task for each deployment target
deployTargets.eachWithIndex { outputDir, index ->
	task "deploy${index}" (type: Copy, dependsOn: distZip) {
		from zipTree(zipFile).files
		into outputDir
	deploy.dependsOn tasks["deploy${index}"]

This one suffers from the problem that it will not execute on the same build when the zip file changes, but it will execute on the next build. So in sequence:

  • Change a source file
  • Run “gradle deploy”
  • Sources compile, distZip executes, zip file is produced, but deploy tasks do not execute
  • Run “gradle deploy” again
  • Deploy tasks execute

Why is this so? I don’t know. This thread seems to imply that there could be some race condition in gradle, but beyond that – *shrug*. The multiple copy task approach is recommended by a lot of smart people, so I assume there’s a better way to do it, but for now the single custom task is working for me.

Tech press bias

Will Windows 10 Win Developers Back To Microsoft?

This is a relatively balanced article on the issues facing Microsoft in growing developer mindshare, containing many balanced points. But I’m going to use it as a bit of a punching bag because I’m frustrated with the poor reporting and almost unbelievable levels of bias in the tech media. Sorry PW – there are way worse articles out there, you’re just in the firing line today.

There’s a bit of confusion in this article between iOS and MacOS. Yes, Apple sells a ton of iDevices. No, there aren’t “so many people on Mac”. In the article, we see the supposedly disastrous Windows phone market share numbers (2.7% vs 18% for iPhone). Then we hear from a former .NET desktop developer bemoaning the flight of his audience to MacOS. I’m sorry, but MacOS marketshare in the desktop space is not even as high as that of Windows in the tablet space – and, despite tech-press rhetoric, desktops are still ahead of tablets in raw numbers (just), eyeball hours (by a bit more), and value as enablers (no contest).

This is the old switcheroo we’ve seen so many times in the last ten years. Apple (and now Google) has sold a bunch of phones to upgrade-happy consumers, and somehow that means Microsoft is in trouble. Except it’s not, we have to admit, when we really look at the numbers. But it could be. Soon. Maybe. Or maybe a bit later. Or maybe not. Anyway, that’s gotta be worth an article, right?

The work of the world today overwhelmingly takes place on desktop computers. And if Microsoft has “failed” in the mobile space (a thesis with which I disagree), then Apple, after 35 years of trying, has surely “failed” in the desktop space. Anyone beating up Google for lack of market share for ChromeOS? No, didn’t think so.

But mass market plays aren’t the only ones that matter. The last 30 years of desktop computing would have been vastly poorer without Apple. Today, in the tablet space, the boot is on the other foot – Apple is the marketing success story, Google has taken cheap and cheerful to the limit, and Microsoft occupies the quality niche. And with its strengths in productivity, Microsoft has a lot to bring to the mobile table. Each vendor gets appropriate credit for their respective role, right?

Wrong. The bias is almost laughable. When Apple was a niche purveyor to the graphics and music industries, design quality was what mattered. Then when Apple had a mass market success with the iPad and then iPhone, market share was what mattered. Then the iPhone got knocked off by Android, and now high-end market share is what matters. Guys, if I want to read Apple sales brochures I know where to find them.

So why do I care? I can just ignore the tech press after all. But the scary thing is this: investors don’t. Year after year of relentless bad press is going to take its toll. It won’t be poor engineering quality, or inappropriate pricing, or the old red herring of “app ecosystem”, or lack of developer mindshare, or lack of market share that kills off mobile Windows. All those things are either furphies or eminently fixable. It’ll be plain old bad reporting. And that’s a shame. Like the Mac in the 80’s and 90’s, Microsoft’s mobile offerings have a lot to teach the major players.

Java logging fun facts

I finally bit the bullet. I pulled out all the nice System.out.println() calls from my slideshow app and set up proper Java logging. I didn’t expect it to be easy – in all the hours I’ve spent debugging Java frameworks, the hardest thing is always trying to work out how to get things to actually appear in logs – and, sure enough, I accumulated a little list of things that were non-obvious. I’ve used slf4j as the logging façade, and java.util.logging (aka JDK 1.4 logging) as the implementation.

Handler levels vs logger levels

If you have:

.level = SEVERE              = FINE
java.util.logging.FileHandler.level = INFO

what’s the actual log level? The first line gives the default log level. For packages in, this is overridden by the second line. The third line then gives the finest level that will be logged by the file handler. So in this case, the log file will actually only contain messages of level INFO and coarser. Another handler might accept the FINE messages that will be emitted by my app.

Logger specifications don’t need wildcards

Line 2 in the above snippet sets the log level for all classes in package and all it’s subpackages. So, if I want to get FINE logging in*:



# OR THIS (if I don't mind being that inclusive) = FINE

# WRONG!!*.level = FINE does NOT use slf4j level names

If you use SLF4J, you use calls like logger.debug(),, etc., to send strings to the logger. If you use java.util.logging (JDK 1.4 logging) as the logging provider, you configure the logger using a file.

These guys do NOT use the same log level names. Doing a bunch of logger.debug() calls? In the file:

# This shows logger.debug() messages
.level = FINE

# This is an error
.level = DEBUG

See here for the full translation between slf4j and j.u.l. log levels.

Specifying in Eclipse

When launching from the command line, I specify the properties file in the first command line parameter, like this:

java -Djava.util.logging.config.file=./ -cp .:./*:lib/*

When launching in Eclipse, -Djava.util.logging.config.file goes into the VM arguments box of the Run configuration, NOT the application arguments box.

Where on earth is the log file?

OK, this is in the documentation, but I can tell you that if you google “java logging log file location” it will be many, many pages before you find an answer you can use. Before you get there, you’ll have to wade through gems of the documentation writer’s art such as:

java.util.logging.FileHandler.pattern: The log file name pattern.

So here’s a hot tip: java.util.logging.FileHandler.pattern actually is the log file name. It’s not a pattern, at least not in the regex sense. There are some handy placeholders for variables that can be interpolated into it, but you don’t have to use any of them. Just type the path you want. If you want to know about the placeholders, have a look at the Javadoc for FileHandler.

What’s wrong with photo slideshow apps?

I’ve been dissatisfied with the photo slideshow applications I’ve been using. Like most people, I take a lot of photos, especially when I’m travelling. Unlike most people, I use a high-res camera with good lenses, not a camera phone. That means my photos have a lot of detail, and are worth looking at for a while (for me, anyway). And because there are a lot of them, I often find myself wondering exactly where and when an image was taken. So, here’s my feature wish list for a slideshow program:

  1. Recursive directory searching. I don’t have time to put together special collections. Even if I did, 10,000 files is too many for one folder. I just want to point the slideshow at a large folder tree and have it find everything.
  2. Configurable delay. I like to look at a photo for a while, focussing on different details. I took one photo of Dunedin Harbour with an entire penguin colony in one corner, that I didn’t see until I’d looked at it for several minutes.
  3. Metadata display. I don’t have time to caption every photo, but I tag pretty much everything with at least the occasion (e.g. “Christmas 2005”) and the place (e.g. “Dunedin”). So when I see a ten-year-old photo pop up on my screen saver, I’d like to see that metadata so I have some clue as to what I’m looking at.
  4. Forward and back controls. How often do you catch a great photo out of the corner of your eye and think “Wow, what’s that?” just as the slideshow transitions to the next photo. If you’re on shuffle in a collection of tens of thousands of files, I guarantee you’ll never find that photo again. Wouldn’t it be nice to just hit a key and get it back? Or, conversely, if you’ve got a nice long delay time so you can savour every detail, you’ll occasionally spend two minutes staring at a photo of a lens cap that you forgot to delete. Unless you can just hit a key and skip to the next photo.
  5. No fussy transitions. In fact, I really want to be able to turn transitions off. I pay a fair bit of attention to framing, so having my photos sliding and zooming around the place isn’t my cup of tea. I can live with a fade-in fade-out, but I really don’t need to see Grandma spinning off into space on the side of a cube. Slideshows that recrop 4:3 photos to 16:9 are a no-no as well.

Now, I have by no means done an exhaustive search of all slideshow applications. However, it’s not a crowded category. I suspect it’s one of those software categories where the tools bundled with the operating system, while inadequate, are still functional enough to take all the oxygen out of the market. For example, the Windows 8 lock screen slideshow is a pretty nice looking slideshow, but it doesn’t include a single one of my wishlist features. Still, given that it’s there, how many people have even gone looking for something better? I have, and I can tell you that the Windows Photo Gallery slideshow changes photos way too fast (non-configurable), Photo Slideshow has no forward/back and no metadata display, some other app I forget only lets you have one non-recursive photo folder – etc, etc.

So – what else? – I wrote my own. Here it is. Fair warning, though, it’s nothing like production quality code, and it’s a java program so you’ll need to have java installed. Check out the readme for more details, and stay tuned for a future post on the technical nitty gritty.

Java image scaling performance

I’ve been homebrewing a slideshow application – more on that later – and learning lots about Java’s AWT graphics libraries. This is a post on a rookie error I made with image scaling.

TL;DR – The real performance hit is in creating image buffers and moving data between them. The actual calculations are almost trivial in comparison. So, creating one image buffer and then just drawing everything into it will be fastest.

OK, some code. First some common setup code:

		BufferedImage img = ... // Get an image from somewhere
		BufferedImage after = new BufferedImage(w, h, BufferedImage.TYPE_INT_ARGB);
		Graphics g = after.getGraphics();
		// This just defines the transform, it doesn't apply it
                AffineTransform at = new AffineTransform();
		at.setToTranslation(translateX, translateY);
		at.scale(1/ratio, 1/ratio);
		AffineTransformOp scaleOp = 
		   new AffineTransformOp(at, AffineTransformOp.TYPE_NEAREST_NEIGHBOR);

This is slow:

		scaleOp.filter(img, after);

Why? Because it creates a whole new BufferedImage, then copies it into after.

This is about 100 times faster:

		g.drawImage(img, (int) translateX, (int) translateY, (int) scaledWidth, (int) scaledHeight,, this);

Because the scary affine transform is gone, right? Wrong. This is fast too, about 50 times faster than the first version:

		after = scaleOp.filter(img, null);

And this is just as fast as drawImage():

		((Graphics2D) g).drawRenderedImage(img,at);

How would you choose between them? Well, if you want rotations you’d need to use the one of affine transform versions. Snippet 3 may involve you in color model shenanigans you’d rather avoid (see, so my conclusion is: if you don’t need rotations, use drawImage(), otherwise use drawRenderedImage(). However, I’m sure there are a thousand other ways to do this, and I’m nowhere near having a handle on best practice.

The app-pocalypse ourobouros

The New York Times reports on Google et al.’s crusade to save us from app fragmentation.


The writer of the NY Times piece (and/or his sub-editors) has achieved the superhuman feat of not drawing any conclusions from this evocative material, but the signposts are all there:

“It is not just a matter of consumer convenience. For Google and Facebook, and any company that has built its business on the web, it is a matter of controlling the next entryway to the Internet — the mobile device.”

“But as people spend more time on their mobile devices and in their apps, their Internet has taken a step backward, becoming more isolated, more disorganized and ultimately harder to use — more like the web before search engines.

“How remarkable it is that we are back in 1997!” said Roger McNamee, co-founder of Elevation Partners, an investment firm in Menlo Park, Calif.”

“Take Google, which makes money helping people search the web. When people search in apps, it is mostly left out. And while the company has a fast-growing business selling apps through devices that use its Android operating system, that pales in comparison to its business selling search advertising.”

““Once we’re all using the same plumbing, everyone can go and build businesses and interesting experiences on top of that,” said Eddie O’Neil, a Facebook product manager working on the company’s program, App Links.”

The ironies are many, exquisite, and multi-layered. The complete and transparent prioritization of commercial value over social value is, well, honest. Let’s make some noise, then sell earplugs. One company’s sub-standard product is another company’s value-add opportunity. Well, actually, it’s the same company’s value-add opportunity. That what makes it so fun, amirite?

One of the more remarkable ironies is this: Apple, having created the app-pocalypse and crippled web interoperability with the whole Flash fiasco, remains “cool”; Google, having enthusiastically out-app-ed Apple and upped the ante by turning their web browser, of all things, into an app platform, remains “good” (or at least “not evil”); and Microsoft, having produced the most web-capable platform of the three (as I have remarked before), and been vilified by the tech press for its efforts, remains “evil”.

mod_cfml wrangling

In a previous post I talked about how Railo’s default install with mod_cfml can cause problems when you have a lot of virtual hosts. This post will deal with some details of various configurations to deal with those problems. I’ll assume an Apache + Linux install for these config examples.

Config file locations

Tomcat config is in /opt/railo/tomcat/conf
Tomcat context files are in /opt/railo/tomcat/conf/Catalina/<hostname>/ROOT.xml, where “hostname” is the hostname from the Tomcat host configuration. Mod_cfml uses the hostname from the URL for this purpose, but you can define it to be anything.
Apache config is in /etc/apache2

1. Explicitly define Tomcat hosts and aliases

The first thing you can do is to explicitly handle most or all of your Tomcat context creation, rather than let mod_cfml do it for you. Because of the way mod_cfml works, it stays completely out of the loop and adds no overhead for explicitly defined contexts.

For each distinct Railo application, add a <Host> element to Tomcat’s server.xml, like so:

<Host name="" appBase="webapps">

Important: this configuration is in addition to your virtual host setup in your web server.

Then create the context file, which will be called /opt/railo/tomcat/conf/Catalina/, and should contain:

<?xml version='1.0' encoding='utf-8'?>
<Context docBase="/var/www/myapps/lotsahosts_webroot">

TBH I don’t think the WatchedResource element is needed. It’s just come along for the cut-and-paste ride since forever.

To reiterate, you’ll need Host element and a context file for every distinct Railo application. How do you know when you need a new Host element, as opposed to just adding an Alias? It comes down to what your ColdFusion code is expecting. If it’s OK with handling multiple hostnames, then go ahead and use an alias. Otherwise, add a Host element and context file.

2. Disable the mod_cfml Tomcat valve

After the above config change, mod_cfml will stay out of the picture until your web server sends through a host header that you haven’t explicitly handled. At that point, mod_cfml springs into action and creates the context for you.

This can be a reasonable way to operate if you frequently need to provision new virtual hosts that are all just aliases into the one web app. You can let mod_cfml dynamically create the contexts, but keep the total context count down by periodically sweeping them up into your static configuration (i.e. add an <Alias> element to server xml and then just delete the context folder from conf/Catalina). However, if your new virtual hosts are not just aliases, your context count will unavoidably increase, and you’ll run into mod_cfml’s startup overhead.

So, to disable the mod_cfml Tomcat valve, just comment out these lines in Tomcat’s server.xml:

	<Valve className="mod_cfml.core"

Once you’ve done that (and restarted Railo), any host header that you haven’t explicitly handled will result in a 404 error.

3. Remove the web server’s mod_cfml component

If you’ve read the mod_cfml documentation (which I’d recommend), you’ll know that mod_cfml is actually a matched pair of components, one on the web server side and one on the Tomcat side. The web server component works differently depending on which web server you run. On Apache, it’s a very lightweight component that runs on top of the usual mod_proxy or mod_jk setup and adds some headers to help the Tomcat valve know how to set the docBase for new contexts.

I’m not sure why you’d need or want to remove the web server component, as the startup and memory overheads are all on the Tomcat side. But, for completeness, here’s how to do it for Apache 2.2: simply remove the PerlRequire, PerlHeaderParserHandler, and PerlSetVar directives from /etc/apache2/apache2.conf. Note that on older Apaches those directives might be in httpd.conf.

On IIS, mod_cfml uses the Boncode connector. If you want to remove that, you’ll have to replace it with another connector, but I’m no IIS guru, so I’ll leave it at that.