Peter Cai

Raymond Chen’s lessons

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A random collection of wisdom from Raymond Chen and The Old New Thing. I plan to keep this updated as I discover/remember more of them.

Windows doesn’t have an expert mode because you are not an expert.
This is just the Dunning-Kruger effect in play: people who are not experts pretty much by definition lack the ability to judge whether they are experts or not. “Expert users” using the advanced features of Windows invariably make feature requests that are equivalent to the beginner feature that already exists.

The hatchway is still secure, even if you opened it with the key.
It’s not a security bug if the user has to first give permission to elevate. Bogus security reports of this nature generally go like this:

  1. Do something that requires elevation, such as replacing an application’s DLL with a malicious copy.
  2. Run the application.
  3. YOU HAVE NOW COMPROMISED THE USER’S COMPUTER.

Except, it’s not a security bug because step 1 required elevation, and therefore an administrator’s consent.

Eventually, nothing is special any more.
If you create special functions or flags in your API to give them extra functionality, they will in practice become the defaults over time, as programmers cargo-cult their way through programming. Eventually people find that the regular function “doesn’t work” (for various definitions of “work”), and that the special function does.

http://blogs.msdn.com/b/oldnewthing/archive/2008/10/06/8969399.aspx

Providing compatibility overrides is basically the same is not deprecating a behavior.
“If you provide an administrative override to restore earlier behavior, then you never really removed the earlier behavior. Since installers run with administrator privileges, they can go ahead and flip the setting that is intended to be set only by system administrators.”

Appearing to succeed is a valid form of undefined behavior.
Undefined means anything can happen, including: returning success, nothing, formatting your system drive, playing music, etc. So it is futile to ask “if the documentation says doing x results in undefined behavior, why does it appear to work?” Also, one cannot rely on a specific form of undefined behavior; relying on it implies the behavior is defined and contractual.

The registry is superior to config files.
Config and .ini files are deprecated in favor of the registry because:

  1. ini files do not support unicode.
  2. Security is not granular (how do you restrict a group from editing a certain part of the file?)
  3. Atomicity issues with multiple threads/processes can lead to data loss on the flat file (the registry is a database).
  4. Denial of service issues – someone could just take an exclusive lock on your config to screw with you.
  5. ini can store strings only, so if you need to store binary you’d have to encode it as a string.
  6. Parsing files is slower, and writing settings would require loading and reparsing the whole file.
  7. Central administration via group policy would be exceedingly difficult compared to a registry.

Computer science: do not confuse the means with the ends.
It is often said that the purpose of garbage collection is to reclaim unused memory, but this is incorrect. The purpose of garbage collection is to simulate infinite memory. Reclamation is just the process by which this is achieved. For example, a null garbage collector is provably correct if you have more physical memory than your program needs. Similarly, allocating a value type on the stack is an implementation detail. It’s not a requirement that it is on the stack, only that it is always passed by value.

http://blogs.msdn.com/b/oldnewthing/archive/2010/08/09/10047586.aspx

Open source isn’t a compatibility panacea.
You don’t get rid of compatibility problems by publishing source code; in fact that makes it easier to introduce compatibility issues because it exposes all the internal undocumented behaviors that aren’t contractual.

http://blogs.msdn.com/b/oldnewthing/archive/2014/04/11/10516280.aspx

You can’t satisfy everyone about where to put advanced settings.
This is a specific case of not being able to delight all the people all the time when the audience is measured in billions. Most people prefer advanced settings in one of five categories (quoting Raymond):

  1. It’s okay if the setting is hidden behind a registry key. I know how to set it myself.
  2. I don’t want to mess with the registry. Put the setting in a configuration file that I pass to the installer.
  3. I don’t want to write a configuration file. The program should have an Advanced button that calls up a dialog which lets the user change the advanced setting.
  4. Every setting must be exposed in the user interface.
  5. Every setting must be exposed in the user interface by default. Don’t make me call up the extended context menu.
  6. The first time the user does X, show users a dialog asking if they want to change the advanced setting.

Each item is approximately an order of magnitude harder than the last, and the final one is objectively user-hostile. Whatever you decide to implement, the other five groups will call you an idiot.

http://blogs.msdn.com/b/oldnewthing/archive/2008/01/14/7103585.aspx

Cleanup must never fail.
Low level cleanup functions don’t have very many options for recovering from failure, so they must always succeed (they may succeed with errors, but that is not the same as failing).

http://blogs.msdn.com/b/oldnewthing/archive/2008/01/07/7011066.aspx

Don’t use a global solution to a local problem.
Since an operating system is a shared playground, you can’t just run around changing global settings because that’s how you like it. If two applications with opposing preferences tried this, one or both of them would break; the correct approach is to change the setting in a local scope to avoid breaking other applications.

A platform must support broken apps; otherwise you’re just punishing the user.
Compatibility with apps, including incorrectly written apps, is crucial for platforms because users expect programs to work between versions of Windows. It is tempting to be a purist and declare that the apps should break, which will force the developers to fix them. In practice, the developers either don’t care, no longer exist, or don’t have the source code any more. Users will instead blame the platform and/or not upgrade.

Users hate it when they can’t cancel.
If you have a long running operation or some multi-step wizard, the user should be able to cancel. It should be clear what will and will not be saved or committed when they cancel.

http://blogs.msdn.com/b/oldnewthing/archive/2006/03/08/546177.aspx

Geopolitics is serious business.
It can be illegal to have a map with incorrect labels or borders (the correctness of which depends on who is looking), or to call disputed territories (such as Taiwan) countries in some places.

http://blogs.msdn.com/b/oldnewthing/archive/2003/08/22/54679.aspx

The USB stack is dumb because it’s dealing with dumb manufacturers.
Some USB devices have identical serial numbers which can cause non-deterministic behavior and arbitrary settings assignment, so Windows has no choice but to pretend every device is unique. This is why if you unplug/re-plug a device into a different USB port, Windows treats it like a new device and forgets all your settings. More generally, Windows could be smarter, but then things would break.

http://blogs.msdn.com/b/oldnewthing/archive/2004/11/10/255047.aspx

Avoid Polling
Polling prevents the hot code and all code leading up to it from being paged out, prevents the CPU from halting to a lower power state, and wastes CPU.

http://blogs.msdn.com/b/oldnewthing/archive/2006/01/24/516808.aspx

The Case Against Exceptions

haters

Goto statements went out of style in the 60s, relegated today to be the prototypical example of bad coding. Yet hardly anyone seems to be bothered by exceptions, which do basically the same thing. Used improperly, exceptions behave like goto statements and can be just as bad.

Exceptions essentially allow you to move error handling code out to a dedicated location. They have the added benefit that they can propagate up the stack so you can consolidate error handling into sensible modules. This allows certain subsystems to not care about exceptions because they can be handled by a caller. Gotos on the other hand generally would require every function have its own error handling section, either because the language doesn’t support gotos to a different scope, or the fact that it would be a terrible idea even if it was supported.

As a corollary, without exceptions you end up having to check every method call to ensure it succeeded, whereas exceptions optimize for the common case and make for much cleaner looking code.

Unfortunately, these benefits are mostly illusory, if you aren’t careful. You end up needing to write much more exception handling code to handle the different cases, and it’s incredibly easy to introduce subtle and hard-to-spot bugs. For example, suppose you have the following (loosely based on a snippet by Raymond Chen):

try {
    Package.Install();
} catch (Exception e) {
    // error handling
}

...

class Package {
    void Install() {
        UpdatePermissions();
        CopyFiles();
        CreateDatabase();
    }
    ...
}

Notice the subtle bug here: if CreateDatabase throws, then the catch statement needs to know that CopyFiles() and UpdatePermissions() have already been run, but we’ve already lost that important context because we returned from those functions already. To be correct, the catch clause needs to know exactly how the install method works, what it can throw, and in what order it performs its operations (in this case, a cleanup method needs to know that permissions should be reverted and copied files removed. And depending on how far CreateDatabase got, it may have to clean up database files as well). This introduces tight coupling that isn’t immediately obvious because in the common-case scenario, nothing goes wrong and the bug is not exposed. However, important information about where the exception originated is lost unless additional work is done to preserve this state.

More generally, exceptions can decrease code visibility, because it’s extremely hard to tell if code is correct by looking at it. Did you forget to catch possible exceptions here, or is it handled further up the stack? Does any given method document all the exceptions it could throw? How do you know without reading the declaration?

These problems are not academic and invariably many larger projects become basically unmanageable because each subsystem introduces another layer of exceptions that must be handled. This leads to what I call whack-a-mole debugging: just run the code in production, and every time an uncaught exception causes a crash/bug, you go in and find where you let the exception leak and plug the hole, then repeat this forever.

But wait! What about finally statements? Finally can help improve the atomicity of methods by cleaning up, freeing resources, and generally making state consistent again. But they are once again tightly coupled to exactly what the throwing method was doing: what needs to be cleaned up? What is the order of operations of the function that threw? More importantly, will this break if the function changes later down the line? The catch / finally blocks might not even be in the same file or class, which means the code locality is now far enough away that there is a brittle sort-of-contract here that’s probably fuzzily documented, if at all.

But wait! What about checked exceptions like in Java? Doesn’t that solve a problem by explicitly declaring what the caller should expect and handle?

Even assuming they are implemented and used correctly, checked exceptions suffer from a versioning problem. Changing what exceptions can be thrown in a method can cause calling code to break or stop compiling, so checked exceptions are actually part of a method’s signature. Want to add a new throws declaration in a library? You can’t — you have to make a wrapper method to ensure backwards compatibility, assuming other people use your code. So unless you are prepared to do this (or don’t care that other people depend on your code) you must never change the throws declaration of a method.

Libraries
The alternative without checked exceptions is just as bad: a call to any random library could crash you at any moment because it threw an unchecked exception you weren’t expecting. All told, it makes it a total pain to reuse code because literally any function call is a hidden minefield of invisible gotos: can you guarantee the call won’t throw, and that everything it transitively depends on won’t throw either? No? Then you better wrap it in a massive try statement. Exceptions mean any method anywhere can return at any moment, creating exponentially more return paths for every line of code.

Another subtle problem exceptions can cause is it can force you to architect your code differently, due to disagreements on the meaning of an exception: you might throw exceptions rarely, but a library might be more liberal with them, which can force you to change how your code is structured to be more correct when using this library. Because partially-written states are a real threat when programming with exceptions, you may end up having to structure a lot of code into a “commit” phase where exceptions won’t cause problems.

Some Suggestions
1. Set and enforce rules on how and where exceptions can be thrown and where they will be expected and handled. Make a guarantee about the side effects of a function when it throws, and what the catch block will do in terms of cleanup.
1a. Avoid operating under uncertainty: don’t do anything fancy in a global catch-all block. Catch the most precise type of exception and do the least amount of work possible.

2. Create and enforce boundaries to encapsulate subsystems; do not allow exceptions to cross subsystem boundaries. This is the loose coupling pattern applied to exception handling. It will help prevent return paths from exploding exponentially.
2a. You can use a stricter version of this rule by requiring your own code to never throw. This way, you only have to worry about external libraries that might use exceptions, but you can abstract this away from other modules. Google’s own C++ style guide forbids throwing exceptions.

Why are Microsoft Products so Large?

A few months ago I anonymously answered a question on Quora, and it turned out to be my most popular answer ever, by several orders of magnitude. I’ve reposted it here, in order to expand on it a little bit.

Question (paraphrased): Why is Office more than 800MB in size, when LibreOffice can come preloaded with all of Ubuntu on a 750MB CD?

This question seems a little loaded, and is looking for an excuse to accuse Office of bloat. However, it’s important to keep in mind how difficult it is to make a software suite: you have an extremely broad user base, comprising the proverbial grandma who fires up Word to type up an email, to the banker who uses the most advanced pivot-table-sparkline-sprinkled features of Excel. Here’s a couple major reasons I can think of, in no particular order:

  • Office ships with a huge and growing number of templates, graphics, macros, default add-ons, help documents, etc. This is a major driver of bloat — it has nothing to do with lines of code, and everything to do with a vibrant, comprehensive, and growing ecosystem.
  • Office is decades old. Think about this for a moment. I’ve debugged code that was written in the early 90s. Since Office is pretty well designed and written (contrary to public perception), we almost never throw away old code. So the cumulative effects of years of new features tends to only grow the codebase. Properly leveraged, this is a major competitive advantage.
  • The sheer number of features in Office is mind-boggling. For most releases, Office closes more bugs (not sure if I’m allowed to disclose numbers) than most products have lines of code. Failure to understand how many features Office has is the #1 cause of death to direct competitors.
  • Office installs all code that it needs out of the box, with no external dependencies aside from the Windows API. This might seem counter-intuitive, but it actually makes the suite much larger. This is because we don’t rely on any third party library or framework. This can obscure the real size of installations such as LibreOffice, because it requires Java (and its default library), but nobody counts that against the size of LibreOffice’s installation. The same can be said of .NET applications – .NET itself is a massive codebase.
  • Licensing and code obfuscation plays a small factor. In addition to having to write licensing and antipiracy code that LibreOffice doesn’t need to implement, this must be obfuscated and protected against attacks. No easy feat, considering the attacker has local administrator rights. Also, Office is designed to be resistant to failure, and there is significant updating and security support built into the platform. This all adds weight.
  • Running in native code also means there are fewer abstractions; Office has code to deal with weird hardware and software configurations. It accounts for settings that stupid “registry cleaners” tweaked that would otherwise break it. It ships in 40+ languages. It knows how to deal with paths that exceed 255, or contain unicode characters. It contains security checks to defend against users opening malicious excel documents. There are hundreds more examples of things Office does that nobody realizes, but which would be sorely missed if they disappeared. This all takes code.

In general terms, Microsoft products optimize for the long tail of use cases. This means it has lots and lots of features that are seldom used. The 80/20 rule applies here: 80% of the users use 20% only of the features. There is a nuance to this rule though: every user uses a different 20% of the product. This means a software suite needs exponentially more features to capture a larger and larger share of the market; Office owns the market.

The reasons for Office’s dominance is poorly understood, and often attributed to format lock-in, or being the existing standard. But Office really wins by fully exploiting its economy-of-scale, and size is a side-effect of this. The massive user base allows Microsoft to invest in features that are relevant to only a small segment of users and still turn a positive ROI. But Microsoft often invests in features even when ROI is negative. Subsidizing unprofitable features means Microsoft can do lots and lots of things that competing software won’t do. This means competitors will have to burn money to catch up to Office, which they won’t have because they don’t have as large a customer base[1]. This essentially guarantees Office’s dominance.

It also explains why Office takes up so much space. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

[1] Except Google, which is apparently happy to subsidize from search.

Why do new computers have so much crapware?

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tl;dr: because that’s what the market wants.

The commodity PC business is very competitive. The margin on a typical consumer desktop or laptop computer is at break-even or less. Mostly, profits come from selling support or extended warranties and the like.

Imagine you are a PC manufacturer. Due to intense pricing pressure, you are basically losing a couple dollars on every sale. Now imagine some software vendor comes along and offers you $10 per unit to preload Office, or some antivirus, or whatever. Would you rather:

  1. Say no, and continue to lose money on every sale.
  2. Say no, and raise prices to cover costs, but lose all sales to your competitor.
  3. Say yes, and preload the crapware to lower the cost-per-unit?

Hint: only one of these results in you staying in business.

How is any of this the fault of consumers? Because consumers will search online for five hours to save 7 bucks on an 600 dollar laptop. In this kind of environment, you either preload trialware, or your prices aren’t low enough to move any units.

The same kind of nonsense is also happening to the airline industry[1], which is why they are always inventing baggage fees and dreaming up ways to charge customers for using the restroom.

 

[1] To be fair, there are other causes, one of them being an entire industry designed to work when oil is < 80 dollars/barrel and go bankrupt when it isn’t.

People prefer Bing over Google when the labels are swapped

SurveyMonkey last month released some surprising insight from a study they recently did comparing users’ search preferences.

The result? It turns out people prefer Bing over Google, but only if you label them Google results. Actually, if you correct for the Google brand, people outright prefer Bing.

Screen-Shot-2013-06-25-at-2.37.40-PM

Why does this matter? Because it means Google’s search quality is actually inferior to Bing’s. If you look at the preference graphs, this is obvious because Google slightly edges out Bing when the labels are correct, but when the labels are swapped, Bing’s results shoot WAY ahead. However — there are a couple nuances we can’t get into here. For example, it’s not clear if Bing is universally better over the set of all queries, or if they managed the trivial task of optimizing the most common ones. Anecdotally, my experience is that Bing is fairly good at long tail queries, although I have sometimes had to switch to Google for very specific and obscure searches about narrow subjects. Unfortunately, nothing in SurveyMonkey’s blog post gives us any further clues on this.

This should be a major coup for Bing, but it’s not clear what they do with this information: after all, they’re still Bing. Basically, it’s not clear whether the problem is that they’re not Google, or that they’re Microsoft. I suspect it’s probably a mix of both: old habits die hard, and Google is good enough for most people. You’re not going to get an order of magnitude improvement in relevance like Google was over the old search engines. And even though search theoretically has very low lock-in, the incentives to switch are actually fairly low: marginally better results in exchange for changing a well-practiced workflow, and admitting that an iconic search engine is no longer the best. Never underestimate the human affection with rationalization.

In addition to many people instinctively having a grudge against Microsoft, they also have a fairly terrible marketing department. Remember, these are the guys who came up with the name “Windows Phone 7 Series” and insisted that was the official name. Also recall that Bing in some Chinese dialects sounds a bit like “disease” or “sickness.” That’s not exactly the kind of connotation you want with the world’s fastest growing internet population.

It’s interesting to note that SurveyMonkey was not commissioned by Microsoft to do this study; in fact, Google is an investor in SurveyMonkey.

Survey results here:

http://blog.surveymonkey.com/blog/2013/06/26/google-bing-seo-surveys/

Hey Engineers, Let’s Stop Being Assholes?

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There’s this toxic idea in tech circles right now that’s starting to get really tiring. And it pains me to have to point this out because I could just blissfully go along with it, and give myself that self-congratulatory pat on the back that most of the tech world is doing on a nearly daily basis.

It’s the elitism. There’s this culture (cultivated by engineers) that worships engineers and shuns everyone else for not ‘being technical.’ This culture is backwards and counterproductive. It presupposes that engineering is the only thing that matters, and that everything else must defer to it.

There’s a reasonable origin for this line of thinking. Back in the dot com days, business majors were raising 50 million to make online wedding invitations and going public because they had a homepage. MBAs were looking for some engineers to “code up this idea quick,” as if the tech part of a tech company was just this checkbox that needed filling. As if engineers were these interchangeable cogs in the machine of a startup. Of course, those tech companies imploded and for most of them, technology wasn’t the primary cause. But even really great business ideas often failed for lack of technical expertise. It turns out people who don’t know how to create software are also terrible at recognizing how important (and hard) it is.

But the reverse is also true. And that’s how far the pendulum has swung in the other direction. There are lots of engineers proudly proclaiming that everything that isn’t engineering is just some checkbox department filled with warm bodies who weren’t good enough to be programmers. As those in the know have known for a long time, it turns out things like business development and “having customers” is pretty important too. It turns out people who don’t specialize in a non-technical role are also terrible at realizing how hard and important it is.

Which brings me to the general observation that everyone thinks their job is obviously the most important and indispensable. Not surprisingly, everyone is wrong, but engineers have convinced themselves that because the MBAs were demonstrably wrong about engineering, engineering must be right. Which is just a logical fallacy wrapped in wishful thinking sprinkled with the chocolate covered bacon bits of all your friends who also happen to be engineers agreeing.

This false premise (engineering is everything) leads to all sorts of crazy conclusions. One of them is that everyone should learn to code. This is stupid, and a waste of time. There’s no substitute for computer literacy, but saying everyone should learn to code is like saying everyone should learn to drive manual transmission and change their own oil: cars are everywhere! Cars are the future! If you don’t drive, you will not be in control of where you are driven! This kind of alarmist propaganda is nonsensical and should be laughed out of the room. The whole point of software engineers is so other people don’t have to code!

This phenomenon coincides with a related one that also annoys me: the insinuation that being an engineer automatically demonstrates your superior intellect. The recent shortage of engineering talent in the US exacerbates this feeling, because it’s easy to conclude that the problem is because people aren’t smart enough to become software engineers. Actually, it’s mostly[1] because 1) most people think programming is about as sexy as mopping floors, and 2) for the past decade, smart people who just wanted to make money could make more for the same hours and less risk — in finance.

Software engineering is actually not that hard. There, I said it. Basic computer science type education and work is not much harder, conceptually, than intermediate calculus. The majority of the population is capable of being taught, and understanding, intermediate calculus. We know this because lots of countries teach both in middle school. QED.

This means that being a software engineer is not beyond the intellectual capacity of the average joe[2]. It also means engineers need to stop waving their diplomas around like they’re computer astronauts[3]. It makes us all look like elitist assholes, and it’s holding back our profession.

 

[1] Ignores our immigration problem, since it’s better if this isn’t about politics.
[2] Speaking strictly about proficiency, of course. We all know there’s a very high skill ceiling, and being a “great engineer” is a whole other ballgame. But this too has lots of external factors not related to innate skill.
[3] But don’t take this to mean we shouldn’t be proud of what we do.