Friday, June 08, 2007

Slow Code Again

Although I agree with Larry's view, at the same time I continue to be horrified by some of the code I come across. There's no question premature optimization is bad, but I have to think so is code that blatantly disregards and abuses speed issues.

For some time I have been meaning to look at the start up process for our application. There was no particular reason for this - no one had been complaining. But speed of start up is one of the first things people encounter and first impressions can be important. And we had had some complaints and found some problems with opening the help being slow, and some of the code is similar.

The first thing I looked at was database queries since they often dominate speed issues. I turned on the query tracing during startup and to my horror, ended up with 1800 lines of query trace! At first I thought that was 1800 queries, but there are multiple lines per query so it was actually only about 600 queries. It's a testament to the speed of computers and networks these days, that this doesn't even result in a noticeable slowdown. Although I think we did have one customer complain that after restarting their server, when all the users tried to log back in all at once, it was slow. I can understand why! Of course, we discounted it, thinking that, of course it'll be slow.

I have various ideas for reducing these startup queries, but I was able to cut them in half within a few minutes. Most of these queries are reading the menu tree for the application. At the same time it is checking for any menu options that are "hidden" (e.g. not purchased by that customer). To do this, the code was calling a general purpose permissions function which did queries on the permission table. But in this case all we needed to know was whether an option was hidden, which depended only on some configuration data in the code. We had a more specific function that only checked the configuration so switching to call this (didn't even need to change the arguments!) instantly eliminated almost half (about 300) of the queries.

I don't give this as an example of someone "screwing up". We all make mistakes or overlook things. The lesson that I take from it is that it's not enough to write some code and have it appear to work. You have to assume that there are always hidden problems and that you need to constantly be on the lookout for them. And constantly fighting entropy by fixing and refactoring.

See also my previous post on Slow Code

Bad Documentation

The easiest way to write software documentation is:
Date Field
Enter the date.

Rate Field
Enter the rate.
Needless to say this is very obviously useless. And it's actually worse than useless because any useful information is buried deeply in masses of this garbage. No one would actually write this kind of stuff, would they? Yes, they would and do. And in an amazing example of how we can justify justify anything to ourselves, writers of this kind of documentation actually appear to believe they have produced something useful. (Of course, if someone else had written it, that same person would have no problem recognizing it as useless.)

Of course, it's often thinly disguised. Here are some examples (from real documentation I was given yesterday):
In the Type field, choose the Type this record applies to.

Tab to the Fleet field. Choose the correct Fleet.

Tab to the Abbreviation field and enter the Abbreviation.
I'm sure you get the idea.

The problem is that to write useful documentation is orders of magnitude harder. It requires you to think. You need to decide who the documentation is for, what you hope to achieve with it, what things people need to be told, and just as importantly, what things they do not need to be told.

I think another factor is that people hate to leave "gaps". Rather than just describe the few fields that you actually have something worthwhile to say about, they feel they have to say something about every single field. And this is not just obsessive-compulsive people - almost everyone seems to feel uncomfortable about "leaving out" some fields.

Google Desktop versus Mac Spotlight versus Vista

One thing that frustrated me when I started using Google Desktop Search was that I would type my search, it would correctly identify and highlight the top result, but when I hit Enter it would open my browser and show me the search results there (instead of just running/opening the top result). Eventually I discovered you could change this in the Preferences "Launch Programs by Default" (instead of "Search by Default").

I guess I should mention that I use Desktop Search as much or more to launch programs rather than find files. My Windows Start menu has so many programs on it that it is a hassle to use.

Now I have the same hassle on my Mac. Spotlight finds the right result, but when I hit Enter it brings up a search window instead of running the top result. Unfortunately, so far I have not found a setting to change this. It hasn't been too annoying yet because I don't have as much software installed on my Mac so I don't need to use it as much.

As much as I like to dislike Microsoft, they appear to have got this right in Vista. The new search box defaults to running the top result when you hit Enter.

I wonder how Beagle on Linux works in this respect?

PS. I normally have my Google Desktop set to show on my Windows task bar, but today it was missing. I thought it must have crashed or something so I rebooted. But still no search box. I checked whether it was still set to run on startup but that looked ok. When I tried running it manually from the Start menu it displayed in "pop up" mode, but came up so fast it must have already been running. When I checked my preferences I found it was set to not show up. I'm pretty sure I never changed this, so I'm not sure what happened. Maybe some automatic update turned this off?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Chapters web site annoyance

Lately I've been ordering from Chapters more often than Amazon because they seem to have more books in stock and deliver them more quickly. (This is in Canada i.e.

But one part of ordering from Chapters really bugs me. Their web site does not understand that billing address belongs to the credit card. I order books both for work and personally. The billing address for my work credit card is different from the billing address for my personal credit card. Amazon handles this automatically. But Chapters not only doesn't handle this automatically, it makes me type in the address every time I switch between business/personal. They store multiple shipping addresses and multiple credit cards and let me pick from them rather than type them in, but apparently they only store a single billing address.

I guess I could set up a second account but I've got enough different accounts to keep track of!

It scares me to wonder how many similar annoyances our applications have that we're either unaware of or are ignoring.

Stevey's Blog Rants: The Next Big Language

An interesting (and cynically humorous) article about programming languages:

Stevey's Blog Rants: The Next Big Language

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Adobe Lightroom

I continue to be impressed with Adobe Lightroom. Like Tim Bray, although I prefer open source software, I can't help but like Lightroom.

I was also impressed by The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Book by Martin English. Usually I'm not that impressed with books on how to use software. They're either reference manuals or beginner's guides. This book is neither. It gives helpful advice, covers both basics and more advanced features, and is full of examples and annotated screen-shots. Lightroom was designed to be "simple to use". But it still has a ton of features, so "simple to use" means lots of non-obvious features - like things you can click on or drag. The book helped me discover these a lot faster than I would have on my own.

One of the reasons I like Lightroom is that there are lots of innovative user interface features. It's not "eye candy" - the UI is very subdued black and grey (after all what's important is your pictures, not the software) Even if you're not interested in digital photography, I'd recommend spending some time with the trial version just to see how the UI works, although you may not discover all the features in a short test. The UI has already inspired some improvements in Suneido.