Friday, March 26, 2010
Comments on the SDTimes article

Miguel de Icaza wrote up a good response to the SDTimes article in which both of us were quoted, and I thought it might serve to flesh out the discussion a bit more to chime in with my part in the piece.

First and foremost, Miguel notes:

David quotes Ted Neward (a speaker on the .NET and Java circuits, but not an open source guy by any stretch of the imagination).

Amen to that—I have never tried to promote myself as an open source guy, and certainly not somebody that can go toe-to-toe on open-source issues like Miguel can. David contacted me specifically to comment on some of Miguel's points, and that's what I tried to do.

Ted tried to refute my point about Java and innovation but seemed to have missed the point.

Again, I don't think I can argue with that. Your point becomes more clear in your blog entry, Miguel, and as you'll see in a second, I disagree with only part of the point, and perhaps it's a semantic discussion that isn't one you (or anybody else) wants to have, but seems important to note, at least in my mind. :-)

The article attributed this to Ted: "Microsoft has made an open-source CLI implementation codenamed 'Rotor' freely available, but it has had little or no uptake".

There is a very simple reason for that. Rotor was not open source and it was doomed to failure the moment it came out. When Microsoft released Rotor in 2002 or 2003 they had no idea what they were doing and basically botched the whole effort by using a proprietary license for Rotor.

And there we have it: "Rotor was not open source". This is the entire point on which the disagreement (or lack thereof) hinges.

Some time ago, on a panel, I mentioned that there are three kinds of common usage when people use the term "open source". (I'm not arguing the 'proper' definition here—I'm arguing the common lay usage, which may or may not actually be correct according to those who define such things.) Those three definitions are:

  1. Free. ("I didn't have to pay for it!")
  2. Source-available. ("I can build it!")
  3. Accepting community contributions, and as a result, forkable. ("I can submit patches!" or "I don't like the direction you're taking it, so I'm taking the source and forking it and going in a different direction!")

Rotor fit the definitions of the first 2, though #1 usually implies an ability to use it in a production environment, something the Shared Source license (the license applying to Rotor at the time of its release) didn't permit in any way shape or form.

And Miguel's exactly right—according to the #3 definition of the above, or the linked definition he cites, Rotor does not fit that. Period.

Alas, it is to the detriment of our industry that people don't use terms according to their actual definitions, but a looser, less precise, usage model. Not being an "open-source guy", I fall into the trap of using the looser definition, and that's what I was using when I read Miguel's point and made my counterpoint.

As to the rest of Miguel's point, that Microsoft "botched" the release of Rotor, I'm not sure that's the case—what I think was happening was a difference of intent versus interpretation of that intent. I don't want to put words in Miguel's mouth, so forgive me if I'm (again) not reading it right, but contrary to what Miguel seems to believe, Microsoft never really intended Rotor as an "open source" implementation in the sense that Mono was.

Instead, Microsoft intended Rotor to be an implementation that universities and research groups could use to hack on the CLR or build languages for the CLR, in an effort to promote .NET and its usage among researchers and universities. Based on the discussions I had with David Stutz during the Shared Source CLI Essentials writing, Microsoft never really thought that Rotor would be all that interesting as an open-source "platform", per se—hence the reason that the GC and JIT that appear in Rotor are "simplified" and "not all that interesting" (David's words, as best I can remember them). At the time, they felt that these (GC and JIT) would be areas that students and companies would want to research around those areas, so a production-ready implementation of either was really not necessary.

In other words, Microsoft saw Rotor as JikesRVM, not as Mono. And definitely not as OpenJDK.

Which gets us right back to Miguel's point, a spot-on analysis:

Had Microsoft been an open company in 2001 and had embraced diversity we would live in a different world. The awesome Mono team would probably be bigger, and the existing team members would have longer vacations.

The Microsoft of 2001 was categorically and absolutely afraid of the open-source community. In fact, I seem to recall David listing a litany of things he'd had to do to get Rotor pushed out the door, even with the license it had. Had David not been as high up in the organization as he was, we probably wouldn't have seen Rotor. And, I believe, we wouldn't see Microsoft being where they are now...

But for everyone that missed the point, luckily, Microsoft has new management, new employees that know open source, fresh new ideas, is becoming more open and is working actively on interoperability with third parties. They even launched the CodePlex Foundation.

... without it, because Rotor made it clear to the powers-that-be that even if they turn loose the "keys to the kingdom" (as the CLR was thought to be, in some quarters) out to the world, Microsoft doesn't go bankrupt. A steady yet slowly-emerging "new Microsoft" is coming, one which is figuring out how to interact with open source in ways that the "old Microsoft" could never consider. (Remember, this is not IBM, a company that makes more money on services than on software sales—this is a firm that makes its money principally from commercial software sales. Anybody who thinks they've got that part of the open source market figured out should probably run out and start a company, because that's a hell of a trick.)

And lest it seem like I'm harshing a bit too much on Microsoft, let's take one of Miguel's points and turn it over for a second:

But my point about the ecosystem goes beyond the JVM, it is about the Java ecosystem in general vs the .NET ecosystem. Java was able to capitalize on having implementations on Linux and Unix, which accounts for more than half the web today. The Apache Foundation is a big hub for Java-based development and it grew organically.

All of which was good for Java.... but not necessarily for Sun, who as most of you know, just recently got acquired by one of their former competitors. We can moan and groan and complain about the slow pace Microsoft has been taking to come to open source, particularly when compared to Sun's approach, but in the end, one of these companies is still in business and listed on the NYSE, and the other isn't.

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Friday, March 26, 2010 4:03:14 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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Swinging through Florida

Apparently April will be a pretty Florida-heavy month for me; on top of the No Fluff Just Stuff conference in Tampa on April 16th/17th/18th, I'm going to hit three Floridian user groups shortly therafter:

  • West Palm user group on Tuesday 4/27/2010
  • Tampa Architecture Group on Wednesday 4/28/2010
  • Pensacola SQL Server User Group on Thursday 4/29/2010

... before I head up to Reston, VA for the NFJS show there. Should be a fun time, seeing how the other corner of the US lives.....

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Friday, March 26, 2010 3:28:11 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Another Gartner prediction...

Let's see if this one holds: Gartner says that by 2012, Android will have a larger percentage of the worldwide mobile phone market than the iPhone, 14.5 % against 13.7%.

Reasons to doubt this particular bit of prescience? Gartner also predicts that "Windows Mobile" will have "12.8 percent" of the market. This despite the fact that at MIX last week, Microsoft basically canned Windows Mobile in favor of a complete reboot called "Windows Phone Series 7" based on ideas from Silverlight and XNA.


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Tuesday, March 23, 2010 11:15:23 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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Amanda takes umbrage....

... with my earlier speaking about F# post, which I will admit, surprises me, since I would've thought somebody interested in promoting F# would've been more supportive of the idea of putting some ideas out to help other speakers get F# more easily adopted by the community. Perhaps I misunderstood her objections, but I thought a response was required in any event.

Amanda opens with:

Let's start with the "Do" category.

OK, then, let's. :-)

First you say you want the speaker to show inheritance... in a functional-first language. This is an obvious no-no. Inheritance should be used extremely lightly in any language and it should be hidden completely in F#. You should NEVER have a student/instructor/employee inherit from a person. This language isn't used that way.

That's odd.... that's entirely contradictory to what I've heard from the F# team. I've never heard anyone on the F# team ever call it a "functional-first" language, nor that inheritance (or any other object-oriented feature) is something that should be used "extremely lightly" or "hidden completely". Quite the contrary, in fact; when I did a tag-team presentation on F# with Luke Hoban, the PM of the F# team, he gently corrected my use of the phrase describing F# as a "functional-object hybrid" language to suggest instead that it was a "fusion" of both features.

But even if that's not the case (or perhaps isn't the case anymore), I think it's critical to give audience members something concrete and familiar to hang onto as they start the roller-coaster ride of learning not only a new syntax, but new concepts. To simply say, "Everything you know from objects is wrong" is to do them a disservice, particularly when the language clearly is intended to expose object-oriented concepts as a first-class citizen.

Second you say to show interop. This will show nothing about the language. You might as well just say it is a .net language. If you spend your F# session discussing what it means to be on .net, you fail. Nobody expects that one dll will not be able to call another. If they do, I assure you that they will not be writing F# anytime soon.

Ah, but here is where my decades of experience teaching languages to audiences all over the world kicks in: they don't know that. DLLs are not all created equal, as anyone who's ever tried to get COM components to interop with native C++ DLLs that in turn want to call into managed code DLLs will tell you. It's important to stress, again, that what they know is still relevant in this new world. In fact, the goal of showing them interoperability is to reassure them that, in fact, it's not a new world at all, but simply a different spin on the world they already know and love.

Next you say give concrete examples of where F# is a win. This is a sales pitch. It's fine for some audiences but if you intend to teach F# to the audience, you likely are already there. Just make sure your examples are real world and you should be fine. I challenge you to make your next blog a "Why F#" which contains real world examples. I've not ever heard you give valuable advice about when to use F#. Also please post what your real world experience is with F#. Where did you implement a solution? What was that project like? Why was F# the best choice?

Interesting. Based on the conversations I've had with others, the main reason people come to technical talks, at least the talks I've been to (both as an audience member and as a speaker) is to know when and where and how they can use this technology (whatever it is) to solve the problems they face. That means that they need to see and hear where a technology fits well as a solution against a given problem domain or case, and the sooner they get that information, the sooner they can start to evaluate where, how and when they should use a particular technology. This has been true of almost every "new" technology I've evaluated—from the more recent presentations and articles around WCF, Workflow, MongoDB and Axum to the older talks/trainings I've given for C#, Java (including servlets, JSPs, EJBs, JMS, and so on), C++ and patterns. Case in point: does F# offer up a great experience in building UIs? Not really—Visual Studio 2010 doesn't have any of the templates or designer support that C# and Visual Basic will have, making it awkward at best to build a UI around it. On top of that, the data-binding architecture present in both WinForms and WPF rely on the idea of mutable objects, which while something F# allows, isn't something it encourages. So, it seems pretty reasonable to assume that F# is not great for UI scenarios.

Oh, and your memory is letting you down here—your comment "I've not ever heard you give valuable advice about when to use F#" is patently false. You were standing next to me at DevTeach 2008, talking about F# to an audience of about 20 or so when I said that I thought that functional-object languages were a natural fit for building services (XML or otherwise).

More importantly, these were tips to speakers interested in F#—where they think F# is strong and they think F# is weak is a personal judgment, not something that I should dictate. You used F# to implement an insurance-scoring engine, as I recall. I've used it (in conjunction with AbsIL, which used to ship with the F# bits back when they were a MSR technology) to do some IL weaving in the spirit of AOP. I've used it in a couple of other cases, but alas I cannot divulge the details due to NDA. But where I've used it and where you've used it isn't the point—it's what the speaker talking about F# has done that's important. This isn't about us—it's about the guy or gal on the stage who's giving the talk.

Then you say to inform the audience that the language is Turing complete. This seems like a huge waste as well. If the audience needs to understand that you can accomplish the same things in C#/VB/F#/Iron*/etc, you are speaking to people who are very young in the understanding of programming. They won't be using F# anytime soon.

Hmm. I think this is a reaction to the comment "DO stress that F# can do everything that C# or Visual Basic can do", which is a very different creature than simply informing the audience that the language is Turing complete. Again, based on my decade's-plus years of training experience, it's important to let the audience know that they don't have to throw away everything they already know in order to use this language. I know that it's fashionable among the functional programming community to suggest that we should just "toss away all that object stuff", but frankly I've not found that to be the attitude among the "heavyweights" in that part of the industry, nor do I find that attitude laced throughout F#. If that were the case, why would F# go to such great lengths to incorporate object-orientation as a full part of its linguistic capabilities? It would be far simpler to be a CLI Consumer (much as managed JScript is/was) and only offer up functional mechanisms, a la Yeti in the Java space.

I lived through the procedural-to-object transition back in the late 80's/early 90's, and realized that if you want to bring the previous generation of programmers along with you into a brave new world, you have to show them that a complete reboot of their mental processes is not necessary. Otherwise, you're basically calling them idiots if they can't keep up. Perhaps you're OK with that; I'm not.

Finally you say to Tease them for 20 minutes. I am not sure what this means. Can you post those 35 lines to wow us? I'd love to see your real world demo that is 35 lines. I'm curious as to why you wouldn't be able to explain the 35 lines as well. I guess there isn't time because you're busy showing interop examples that prove F# is a Turing complete, .net language.

Alas, I doubt my 35 lines would impress you. However, my 35 lines of F# service code, or Aaron's 35 lines of F# natural-language parser code might impress the crowd we're speaking to. I dunno. More importantly, again, this isn't about what *I* want to do in a talk, it's about helping other F# speakers be able to better reach their audience.

Let's get into the Don't category:

So soon? But we were just getting comfortable with all the DO's being judged completely out of order from their corresponding DON'Ts. *shrug* Ah, well.

First you say to stay away from mathematical examples because people don't write mathematical code every day. I think you already mentioned that F# is not meant to be the language you use for every scenario. Now it seems you want to say it should be the everyday tool. I'm confused. I agree that some of these simple examples aren't very useful but then again it's not because they are mathematical. It's because they are simple and ridiculous. I don't use a web crawler everyday either but I see value in the demo. I think the examples need to be more real world, period. Have you posted that blog I requested yet? :)

Ah, the black/white pedagogical argument: if it's not black, it must be white, and if it's not white, it must be black. Your confusion is clear: if it is not a language to be used for everything, it must be a niche language solely for creating high-end mathematical systems, and if it isn't just for creating high-end mathematical systems, it must be a language used for everything.

My reasoning for avoiding the exponent-hugging example is pretty easy, I think: Mathematical examples reinforce the idea that F# is solely to be used for high-end mathematical scenarios. If you're OK with the language only appealing to that crowd, please, by all means, continue to use those examples. Myself, I think functional concepts are powerful, and I try to show people the power of extracting behavior by showing them widely-disparate uses of foldLeft across lists of things to produce concrete yet widely different results. Simple examples, but without a shred of "derivatives" found anywhere.

Alas, that blog post will have to wait—I have an F# book I'm finishing up, and I'd rather put the energy there.

Next up you say to not stress FSI or the REPL. I'll start by reminding you that FSI is the REPL. There aren't two different things here. I think it's great to show a REPL! This is not just a cool F# thing. It's common to most functional languages, statically typed or not. The statically typed argument might be a better one to have than Turing completeness. I'd much rather discuss those benefits for the types of code that are written in F#.

Wow. I wouldn't have thought I would have to remind you that REPL is a generic phrase that can apply to both FSI and the Interactive Window inside Visual Studio. And while I'm certainly happy to hear that you think it's great to show a REPL, the fact remains that most .NET developers don't know what to do with it. More importantly, demonstrating a REPL reinforces the idea that this is a shell-scripting language like Python and Ruby and PowerShell, hence the questions comparing F# to Python or Perl that come up every time I've seen an F# talk show off FSI or the Interactive Window. Business developers using .NET build using Visual Studio (with the exception of that small percentage who've discovered IPy or IRb) and, again, need to be brought gently into this new approach.

(For those readers still following along, the REPL concept is hardly restricted to the functional language cadre; in fact, object-oriented developers would be well-advised to play with one of their own ancient progenitors, Smalltalk, and its environment that is essentially one giant REPL baked into a GUI image that can be frozen and re-hydrated at any time. Long-time readers of this blog will know I've talked about this before, and how incredibly powerful it would be if we could do similar kinds of things to the JVM or CLR.)

You go back into the Why F# question without giving any real reason. Can you post that blog please? I think many of your readers would appreciate that! PS: The Steelers are fantastic! :)

If I'm following your point-by-point refutation correctly, you're now saying I'm "going back" to the "Why F#" question for no real reason; I would've thought the progression of DON'T followed by DO would've been pretty obvious, but perhaps I was assuming too much on the part of at least one of the post's readership. The DO was designed to offer up prescriptive advice about how to accomplish something I'd said to DON'T previously. And thus is true here: DON'T answer the "Why F#" question with "Productivity", DO answer it with something more concrete and tangible than that, either in the form of real-world examples or concrete scenarios.

I think by this point, given all the wheedling for that blog post, the general readership would probably be very interested in your own rationale blog post, by the way.

Alas, your Steelers barely made it to .500 last year, their franchise quarterback is now the target of his second (and possibly more, if the rumors are to be believed) sexual assault charge, and their principal receiver has a reputation around the league as being a dirty player. So perhaps we will simply have to disagree on how fantastic they are. Which, you will note, proves my point—as the old saying goes, "there is no accounting for taste", because I can't understand how you think. Which then means "It's just how I think" is pretty ridiculous as a justification for using a language.

You say to stay away from the "functional jazz" or the reason why anyone should be looking at F# to start with. People don't come to these types of talks to see how F# is just like C#. They want to see what is different. Don't stress the jargon but if someone asks, let them know there is a name for what they are looking at. I remember when I was learning F# that everyone hid the meaning of let!. They would say "Something special happens here" and that would leave me thinking they were trying to hide the magic. There is no magic! I don't assume people are morons. They can handle the truth. If they want to learn more I want to give them a term to google and some potential resources. There isn't time to cover that completely in most sessions though. It's something to be careful of, not to avoid completely.

Interesting how your anecdotal evidence differs from mine—what I've seen, based on the quick poll I took of the attendees at the user group meeting last night, and based on conversations I've had with hundreds of developers from companies all over the world over the last four years, vastly more attendees come to a talk on a given subject because they have no clue what this thing is and want to see a general overview of it. Shy Cohen, one of the attendees last night, whom I first met during my days as a digerati on the WCF team back when it was still called "Indigo", admitted as much during a whispered conversation at the back of the room. If Shy, old Microsoft hand that he is/was, bright guy that he is, and close friend to Lisa Feigenbaum, who's a Program Manager for Visual Studio, has no clue what F# is and comes to a talk on it so he can get a quick overview of it, how likely is it that everybody is coming to an F# talk with a predetermined idea of what the language is and are thus ready to be given "the truth" complete with all the big dime-store words?

Yes, people want to know what is different, but to do that, they also have to see what is the same. Which takes us back to my earlier points about showing them what is the same between F# and C#.

As for people waving their hands and saying "something special happens here", well, maybe you just listened to the wrong people. *shrug* Can't help you there. For as long as I've been giving talks on F#, dating back to SDWest back in 2005 when I gave a talk on "A Tour of Microsoft Research" during which I talked about Fugue, Detours, AbsIL and F#, I've shown the language, talked about what's happening in there, and shown the IL bindings underneath to give people concrete ideas to hold on to. It's the truth, but without the pretentiousness of big words.

The last point is obvious. Nobody can learn F# in 20 (or 30 as it was) minutes.

Unfortunately, that doesn't stop people from trying to teach the entirety of the language in 20 minutes. Or even in a full day. (From having taught languages for many years, and knowing that it took most of a week to teach C# back in the 1.0/2.0 timeframe, I'm finding that it takes about 5 days of full 8-to-5 training to get them competent and confident in using the language. Less than that, by about a day or so, if they have a strong background in C#.)

Context, context, context.

Indeed. But for now, Amanda, if you take such strong issue with my suggested guidelines for F# speakers, I encourage you to create your own guidelines and post them to your blog. Let's rise the tide to raise all the ships, and encourage a broad spectrum of talk styles.

In the meantime, though, I have a lunch with Michael later this week, some OTN and developerWorks articles to write, an F# book to finish, a Scala book to start, some client code to wrap up, a slew of Scala recordings to work through, soccer practice Thursday night, and a Seattle Tech Speakers Workshop meeting next month to prep for, in addition to a class next week that requires some final polish, so you'll have to excuse me if I don't respond further down this particular path.


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Tuesday, March 23, 2010 10:38:17 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Monday, March 22, 2010
How to (and not to) give a talk on F#

Michael Easter called me out over Twitter tonight, entirely fairly. This blog post is to attempt to make right.

Context: Tonight was a .NET Developer Association meeting in Redmond, during which we had two presentations: one on Entity Framework, and one on F#. The talk on F#, while well-meaning and delivered by somebody I've not yet met personally, suffered from several failures that I believe to be endemic to Microsoft's approach to presenting F#. I don't fault the speaker—I think Michael was set up to fail from the very beginning. Thus, I decided that it was time for me to "put up" and describe the structural failures I've seen in several talks attempting to describe F# to the general .NET computing community. (I think these could probably be generalized to presenting a new language to any general computing community, but I'll keep it focused on F# for now.)

In no particular order:

  • DON'T use a demo based on a mathematical principle (like Fibonacci, factorial, or some other exponent-hugging formula). I ask you, how many developers find themselves writing that kind of code on a daily basis? If you offer up purely mathematical examples, you will create the impression that F# is only good for high-scale numerical and mathematical computing, such as what scientists use, and you will essentially convince everybody in the room that F# belongs in that class of programming language that doesn't have anything to do with them.
  • DO use a demo based on real-world environments or problems. Use domain types that could have come from a regular line-of-business scenario; my favorite is "Person", since that can serve as a base type for other, more domain-specific, types (like "Student", "Instructor", "Employee", and whatever).
  • DON'T stress the F# Interactive environment. Yes, it's great that F# has an interactive environment and a REPL. But accept that this is not what the general development community cares about, or even sees value in. In fact, the more you stress the REPL/interactive window in F#, the more likely you are to get a question at the end of the talk asking you to compare F# to Python or Perl. Then you end up having to argue the benefits of static typing and type inference over dynamic/duck typing, which really makes no sense in a scripting tool, which is only on the questioners' mind because you put it there by stressing the REPL.
  • DO show F# code being called by other assemblies, and vice versa. At the end of the day, the watchword here should be "interoperability", because no matter how eloquent your presentation, you're not going to get the audience to suddenly abandon their C# and Visual Basic and switch over to writing everything in F#, because there's just too many scenarios where F# is not the right answer (UI "top of the stack" kinds of things being at the top of my "not great for F#" list). Stress how an F# type is just a class, with methods that can be invoked from C# and vice versa.
  • DON'T answer the inevitable "why should I care?" question with the word "productivity". I hate to be the one to point this out, but every language ever introduced has held this up as a reason to switch to it, and none of them have ever really felt like they were a productivity boost, at least not in the long run. And if you answer with, "Because I just think that way", that's a FAIL on your part, because I can't see how your thinking changes mine. (You may also like the Pittsburgh Steelers, while I know they can't hold a candle to the New Orleans Saints—now where are we?)
  • DO answer the inevitable "why should I care?" question with tangible real-world scenarios or examples. Give two or three cases, abstract or concrete, where F# makes the developers' life easier, and how. And frankly, I would sprinkle in a few cases where F# isn't a net win, because everybody knows, deep down, that no one language is perfect for all scenarios. (Only marketing and sales people seem to think there is.)
  • DON'T jump straight into all this functional jazz. I hate to tell you this, but most of the developer community is not convinced that functional programming is "obviously" the right way to program. Attempting to take them deep into functional mojo is only going to lose them and overwhelm them and quite likely convince them that functional programming is for math majors. Use of the terms "catamorphism" or "monad" or "partial application" or "currying" in your introductory talk is an exercise in stroking your own ego, not in teaching the audience something useful.
  • DO stress that F# can do everything C# or Visual Basic can do. Developers like to start with the familiar—it's why every programming language starts with the "Hello World" example, not only because it's simple and straightforward but because developers have come to expect it. F# can build types just like C# can, so do that, and use that as a framework from which to build up their understanding of the syntax and semantics.
  • DON'T assume you can give an introduction to a programming language in 20 minutes. I don't care how good you are as a presenter, it can't be done. 50 minutes would be pushing it. 90 minutes is maybe just enough to get through enough syntax to get the audience to the point where they can read a commonplace F# program. Maybe.
  • DO tease the hell out of them for 20 minutes. If you only have 20 minutes, then create a super-sexy demo (not a math-based or scripting-based one), show them the demo, then point out that this is written in 35 lines of F#, and if they want to understand what's going on in that 35 lines, here's some resources to go learn F#. Leave them wanting more.

Again, I'm not faulting Michael (tonight's speaker): I think he bravely attempted what was likely to be a failure regardless of who was giving the talk. My hope is that as others start to step up to talk about F# to their coworkers and fellow user group members, this will help avoid a few more "Oh, so F# is totally irrelevant to me" reactions.

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Monday, March 22, 2010 10:34:57 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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