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Fix it. Bolt it down. Forget it.

Setting up your environment to be the same all the time, everywhere, can make it easier to focus on the task at hand.

From the age of about 14 I’ve been sitting in front of a computer with a guitar in my lap. It’s been a cheap steel-string guitar, a cheap classical guitar, a cheap electric guitar, an expensive electric guitar, an expensive classical guitar, and several other variations in between, but it’s always there. My home office is full of guitars and amps and wires and microphones, but I keep my classical guitar right by my computer table where I can pick it up and noodle on it while I think.

The tag line of this site is “Pedagogy for the autodidactic programmer.” A goofy play on words, yes, but I firmly believe that if you’re self-taught you must be a much more demanding teacher and a much more dedicated student if you’re to be successful. I’m constantly looking for lessons to apply to the craft of software development, and I find many of them in the field of music, where I am also self-taught.

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The pbrain Programming Language

Note: This is a rather old post that didn’t quite survive the transition from my old ASP.NET server to my new Linux-based server. I imported it as-is into WordPress so that it would be readable again.

This is an extension to the Brainf**k programming language that adds the ability to define and call procedures. If you’re wondering about the asterisks in the name of the programming language, it’s because the name is rather rude. That’s why I decided to use a name for my extension that a good bit tamer. After all, my Mom and my kids still read my site from time to time.

After making a rather simplistic interpreter in C++, I decided to go ahead and make a .NET compiler as well. The first one was in C++/CLI, the new extension to standard C++ available with Visual Studio 2005 and .NET 2.0. I wanted to make this available for .NET 1.1 as well, so I ported the compiler to C# (since I’m not a huge fan of Managed C++, the precursor to C++/CLI).

Thanks to rdragon on the Undernet #c++ channel and to Daniel Cristofani for their comments and input.

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Dragsens version 1.4

It’s time for a new version of the command-line version of the dragsens utility, which allows one to change the mouse sensitivity for detecting mouse drag actions in Windows.

A comment posted by Mark suggested the addition of a parameter that would show the current sensitivity settings. I added a /D parameter which, when provided by itself in the parameter list, will output the current drag sensitivity settings for the X and Y axes:

Current settings:
X=4, Y=4

This new parameter may also be combined with the existing parameters. For example, to display the current sensitivity settings, set the X and Y sensitivity to 20, and then display the new settings, enter dragsens 20 /d on the command line:

Current settings:
X=4, Y=4

New settings:
X=20, Y=20

I took this opportunity to clean up the help text a little bit, too. Entering dragsens or dragsens /? on the command line will display the following:

Changes the default drag sensitivity.

DRAGSENS [pixels] [/X pixels] [/Y pixels] [/D]

  pixels  The number of pixels the mouse must travel to initiate
          a drag operation. Providing just a number will change both
          the X axis and the Y axis to the same value.

  /X      Change the setting for the X axis (horizontal).

  /Y      Change the setting for the Y axis (vertical).

  /D      Display the current drag sensitivity settings.

Version 1.4
Paul M. Parks
paul@parkscomputing.com

http://www.parkscomputing.com/

You may download the version 1.4 executable here:

http://www.parkscomputing.com/code/dragsens_14.zip
(MD5 hash: 651A73A9D1696E41AACABDCE2C8B4633)

If you’d like to examine or modify the source code or build your own executable rather than relying on the executable above, you may download the Visual Studio 2013 project and source here:

http://www.parkscomputing.com/code/dragsens_14_src.zip
(MD5 hash: E6174040203F220D7F0041481206BBA8)

Please let me know if you encounter any problems or have any questions.

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Cabin Fever

Atlanta shut down for a few days as the result of a moderate snowfall. Perhaps you saw something about it on the news. Now, another winter storm is on the way, and this one is supposed to be worse than the last one.

Last time, I made a little “diary” on my Facebook page using pictures I snapped with my phone and apocalyptic-sounding descriptions of my preparations for the oncoming storm. I got so bored sitting in my home office that I put them into a little Youtube video. With apologies to Ken Burns:

Even Bitstrips was co-opted:

There’s no telling what the next storm will produce. Stay tuned.

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Windows Version of Dragsens

In response to a comment on the previous version of the drag sensitivity utility, I’ve created a new version of the utility that includes a graphical interface and a means of testing the drag settings in the interface.

WinDragSens Interface

This version also maintains all of the command-line parameters of the previous version so that it may still be used from scripts or batch files.

You may download the executable here:

http://www.parkscomputing.com/code/WinDragSens.zip
(MD5 hash: CC1680ED81730AA73F70BCD21F0A6CB1)

If you’d like to examine or modify the source code or build your own executable rather than relying on the executable above, you may download the Visual Studio 2013 project and source here:

http://www.parkscomputing.com/code/WinDragSens_src.zip
(MD5 hash: 3D1AF2688F9560D90CAE8FD266F48915)

Please let me know if you encounter any problems or have any questions.

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Updated Version of Dragsens

UPDATE: There is now a version of this utility with a graphical interface that’s easier to use: http://www.parkscomputing.com/2013/12/windows-version-of-dragsens/. I have also updated this command-line utility (version 1.3) so that it will run on Windows XP.

I have built a new version of the dragsens utility, which allows one to change the mouse sensitivity for detecting mouse drag actions in Windows.

This new version fulfills a request by Zach to add the capability to set the horizontal and vertical sensitivity independently. This is accomplished through two new command-line parameters, /X and /Y. Specifying just one of these parameters will change the sensitivity in only that axis:

dragsens /x 8
dragsens /y 6

It is also possible to provide both parameters at once:

dragsens /x 8 /y 6

Providing only a number on the command line will change both the horizontal and vertical axes to the same number of pixels.

dragsens 8

You may download the version 1.2 executable here:

http://www.parkscomputing.com/code/dragsens_13.zip
(MD5 hash: C86AC30E3A07D6D063C3F710CE65C772)

If you’d like to examine or modify the source code or build your own executable rather than relying on the executable above, you may download the Visual Studio 2012 project and source here:

http://www.parkscomputing.com/code/dragsens_13_src.zip
(MD5 hash: B510F29CFDF1F8AFCA8857ACEB7870D8)

Please let me know if you encounter any problems or have any questions.

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My Life With Programming Languages

A language that doesn’t affect the way you think about programming, is not worth knowing. — Alan Perlis

My first programming language was Basic on a TI-99/4A. Contra Dijkstra, I don’t think it did me too much harm. Of course, I did eventually “outgrow” that language.

Just now I was pondering my progression through various programming languages and paradigms over the 28 years that I’ve been playing around with computers (almost 23 professionally as of this writing). My attitudes toward several of the languages I’ve used over that time looked something like the following:

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Facebook and Your Grandchildren

I think most people, at some point, have tried to keep a diary. Most people also gave up after a few days. Yet Facebook is like a diary that you’ll let your 900 closest friends read, and you have to try not to constantly write stuff on your page.

That realization made me wonder what it would be like if my grandparents had had Facebook pages in their teenage years. I would love to be able to read what they would have posted, or what videos and pictures they might have shared, if the technology had existed back then (in the case of my maternal grandfather, this would have been in from the 1880′s onward).

That made me wonder what my grandchildren will think when they read my Facebook page. Now, whenever I update my status or post a photo album I think about the people that might read it years from now.

The next time you type “OMG GOT SO WASTED LAST NIGHT LOL,” do think about your grandchildren before you hit the “Post” button. Of course, if you were partying with your grandchildren when you got wasted, well… okay, party on, I guess.

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Bragging On the GWA Marching Bulldog Band

My elder daughter, a senior at George Walton Academy in Monroe, GA, is a member of the color guard on the GWA Marching Bulldog Band. This past weekend the band competed in the USSBA Southern States Championships in Chattanooga, TN, where they placed first in the Group VI Open competition with a score of 98.563, the highest score of the competition among all bands in all classifications. This is an amazing band that performs at a high level year after year, and I’m so proud to have gotten to know the directors, students, parents, and many others that make this band what it is.

This year’s show theme was “The Carmen Project.” The show mixed music from the opera “Carmen” with other Latin themes such as Ravel’s “Boléro” while interpreting the story of the opera. It was a grand and moving spectacle that just got better and better every time I watched it. My daughter played the role of Carmen, which of course meant she got to die in dramatic fashion at the end of the show.

Here is my recording of the winning USSBA performance. The actual show starts at the 3:30 mark; before that, you can see the band marching onto the field and doing their warm-up routine.

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George Orwell and Effective Coding

I spend a lot of time and effort trying to get better at the craft of software development. My goal every day is to fall asleep as a better programmer than the one that awoke that morning. While this involves a lot of reading and practice within the field, I usually learn more by studying older disciplines since software development is still such a young craft.

Earlier today I read an essay on the decline of the English language by George Orwell. The essay is excellent, and I’m already trying to apply its lessons to my writing, but there was one passage that struck me as being particularly useful for software development.

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.

To apply the quote above to software development, replace “words” with “code” and “dialect” with “programming language.” When you become accustomed to using a particular language or coding pattern, you tend to think of any new problem in those terms. If you choose the wrong strategy for solving the problem and start implementing too quickly you may end up with a solution that is too “wordy” or that does not express the abstractions accurately.

Earlier today, before I read the essay, I put this very lesson into practice without even realizing exactly why I like to do it. Whenever I come up with an idea for a new feature that I need to implement, or whenever I need to make a radical change to some system I’m working on, I’ll get up and walk away from the PC before the idea forms too fully and I start to write code. I’ll go for a walk or do some mindless activity (today it was sweeping the driveway) while I think about the idea. I’ll consider different implementations to see what problems might arise before I commit to a solution. Though I’ve never thought of it this way, it’s the same sort of process that Orwell describes in the quote above. Now that I’ve read Orwell’s precise definition of why this is good for writing prose, I better understand why it’s also effective for writing code.

Software development is hard. The job of a software developer is to turn an abstract idea into a concrete implementation in an efficient manner. Until you fully understand the abstractions, it’s impossible to consider any concrete implementation, let alone one that is efficient. I find that I write better code once I’ve thought enough about a problem to create a sort of landscape in my mind. It really is a landscape, too. It’s almost as if I can walk though the implementation in my mind and explore its darker corners. If I can find a way to build a mental model with fewer dark corners and dead-end hallways, then the concrete implementation will usually be more solid.

As you try to become a better developer, look for lessons from other fields like writing, architecture, the building trades, or any craft or profession that has been around for a long time. You’ll find that many problems that look like they’re peculiar to software development were actually considered and solved in other trades hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

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