It’s a pipeline definition file similar to GoCD’s, or other definition formats for Jenkins et al. You can trigger workflows based on (for example) a crontab schedule, or repository push, or repository pull-request, or when a URL is hit. I’m sure more triggers are to come, assuming they don’t exist already.
The format isn’t 100% intuitive, but is as easy to pick up as anything else, and I’m sure the docs will improve (right now there seems to be two sets of docs, one more formal and in the old (deprecated) HCL format, and the other less formal and in the new YAML format. I’m not entirely sure of the status of the ‘older’ documentation, but it hasn’t failed me yet).
GitHub Actions doesn’t just consist of this functionality in your repo. GitHub is providing a curated set of canned actions here that you can reference in your workflows. You needn’t use theirs, either, you can use any you can find on GitHub (or maybe anywhere else; I haven’t tried).
For me, the big deal is that this co-locates the actions with your code. So you can trigger a rebuild on a push, or on a schedule, or from an external URL. Just like CI tools do, but with less hassle and zero setup.
But it doesn’t just co-locate code and CI.
It is also threatening to take over CD, secrets management (there’s a ‘Secrets’ tab in the repo’s settings now), artifact store (there’s a supported ‘upload-artifact’ action that pushes arbitrary files to your repo), and user identity. Add in the vulnerability detection functionality and the whole package is as compelling as hell.
An Azure Gateway Drug? An AWS Killer?
When the possibilities of this start to dawn on you, it’s truly dizzying.
GitHub effectively gives you, for free, a CI/CD platform to run more or less whatever you like (but see limits, below). You can extend it to manage your code workflow in however sophisticated a way you like, as you have access to the repository’s GitHub token.
The tradeoff is that it’s all so easy that your business is soon going to depend on GitHub so much Microsoft will have a grip on you as tight as Windows used to.
I think the real trojan horse here is user identity. By re-using the identity management your business might already trust in GitHub, and extending its scope to help solve the challenges of secrets management and artifact stores, whole swathes of existing work could be cut away from your operational costs.
The default ‘hello-github-action’ setup demonstrates a Docker container that runs on an Ubuntu VM base. I found this quite confusing. Is access to the VM possible? If it’s not, why do I care whether it’s running on Ubuntu 18 or Ubuntu 16? I did some wrangling with this but ran into apparently undocumented requirements for an action.yml file, and haven’t had time to bottom them out.
(As an aside, the auto-created lab that GitHub makes for new users is one of the best UX’s I’ve ever seen for onboarding to a new product.)
What you do get is root within the container. Nice. And you can use an arbitrary container, from DockerHub or wherever.
You also get direct access back to GitHub without any faff. By default you get access to a github secret.
As with all these remote build environments, debugging can be a PITA. You can rig up a local Docker container to behave as it would on the server, but it’s a little fiddly to get the conventions right, as not everything about the setup is documented.
Limits and Restrictions
Limits are listed here, and includes a stern warning not to use this for ‘serverless computing’, or “Any other activity unrelated to the production, testing, deployment, or publication of the software project associated with the repository where GitHub Actions are used. In other words, be cool, don’t use GitHub Actions in ways you know you shouldn’t.”
Which makes me wonder: are they missing an opportunity here? I have serverless applications I could run on here, and (depending on the cost) might be willing to pay GitHub to host them for me. I suspect that they are not going to sit on that opportunity for long.
Each virtual machine has the same hardware resources available, which I assume are freely available to the running container:
2 core CPUs
7 GB of RAM memory
14 GB of SSD disk space
which seems generous to me.
The free tier gives you 2000 minutes (about a day and a half) of runtime, which also seems generous.
GitHub Actions is a set of features with enormous potential for using your codebase as a lever into your entire compute infrastructure. It flips the traditional view of code as just something to store, and compute where the interesting stuff happens on its head: the code is now the centre of gravity for your compute, and it’s only a matter of time before everything else follows.
Most guides to bash history shortcuts exhaustively list all of the shortcuts available to you.
The problem I always had with that was that I would use them once, and then glaze over as I tried out all the possibilities. Then I’d move onto my working day and completely forget them, retaining only the well-known !! trick I learned when I first started using bash.
So most never got committed to memory.
Here I outline the shortcuts I actually use every day. When people see me use them they often ask me “what the hell did you do there!?”, conferring God-like status on me with minimal effort or intelligence required.
I recommend using one a day for a week, then moving onto the next one. It’s worth taking your time to get them under your fingers, as the time you save will be significant in the long run.
1) !$ – The ‘Last Argument’ One
If you only take one shortcut from this article, make it this one.
It substitutes in the last argument of the last command into your line.
Consider this scenario:
$ mv /path/to/wrongfile /some/other/place mv: cannot stat '/path/to/wrongfile': No such file or directory
Ach, I put the wrongfile filename in my command. I should have put rightfile instead.
You might decide to fully re-type the last command, and replace wrongfile with rightfile.
$ tar -cvf afolder afolder.tar
tar: failed to open
Like others, I get the arguments to tar (and ln) wrong more than I would like to admit:
When you mix up arguments like that, you can run:
$ !:0 !:1 !:3 !:2
tar -cvf afolder.tar afolder
and your reputation will be saved.
The last command’s items are zero-indexed, and can be substituted in with the number after the !:.
Obviously, you can also use this to re-use specific arguments from the last command rather than all of them.
3) !:1-$ – The ‘All The Arguments’ One
Imagine you run a command, and realise that the arguments were correct, but
$ grep '(ping|pong)' afile
I wanted to match ping or pong in a file, but I used grep rather than egrep.
I start typing egrep, but I don’t want to re-type the other arguments, so I can use the !:1-$ shortcut to ask for all the arguments to the previous command from the second one (remember they’re zero-indexed) to the last one (represented by the $ sign):
$ egrep !:1-$
egrep '(ping|pong)' afile
You don’t need to pick 1-$, you can pick a subset like 1-2, or 3-9 if you had that many arguments in the previous command.
The above shortcuts are great when I know immediately how to correct my last command, but often I run commands after the orignal one which mean that the last command is no longer the one I want to reference.
For example, using the mv example from before, if I follow up my mistake with an ls check of the folder’s contents:
$ mv /path/to/wrongfile /some/other/place
mv: cannot stat '/path/to/wrongfile': No such file or directory
$ ls /path/to/
…I can no longer use the !$ shortcut.
In these cases, you can insert a -n: (where n is the number of commands to go back in the history) after the ! to grab the last argument from an older command:
These are the population figures broken down by age group at the time of the 2016 vote, taken from ‘ukmidyearestimates.xls 2012-2016, UK population counts for mid 2016’.
90 and over
Unfortunately the age groups do not align with Lord Ashcroft’s figures in the first table, but we can estimate the number of people who get the vote every month by taking the number of people in the 15-19 age group (3778900), and multiplying them by 3/5ths to get the number of people who could not vote in 2016 that can three years later.
This gives us a number of 2267340. Over the three years, this is 62982 people per month that can vote.
If we assume that the proportions voting for either side remain the same for the 18-24 age group, then 46% more of these votes will go to remain than leave (73% – 27%).
This gives us a final figure of 18,754extra remain votes per month.
How Many Leavers Die Per Month?
Deaths by age group vary little over the years, so I took the numbers recorded in 2016, 2017 and 2018:
Looking at these numbers gives roughly 450,000 people in the 65+ age bracket dying per year. Deaths between 15-64 are relatively speaking negligible, and the voting proportions by age group mean that votes lost and gained roughly cancel one another out (the exact numbers give a few dozen more to remain per month, but this can be ignored).
Dividing 450,000 by 12 gives a figure of 37,500 deaths per month in the 65% age group.
Taking the net leave vote in that age group (20%) and multiplying out gives a figure of roughly 7,500 leave votes lost per month.
Taking the net of the two numbers gives a gain for leave votes of about 26,000 per month, resulting in this graph:
which gives a rough crossover point of mid-2020.
I’ve made many crude assumptions here, and one could argue on both sides for tweaks to the numbers here and there. For example, you could argue that those in the 15-18 age bracket in 2016 would be even more likely to vote remain than the 18-24 cohort.
And of course, this analysis makes assumptions that won’t hold true in reality, such as that everyone would vote the same way as in 2016, and the age group analysis of voting patterns was accurate and uniform within the groups.
Broadly, though, the demographics point to a majority for remain happening around mid-2020 if nothing else changed from 2016.
After 6 years, I removed Docker from all my home servers.
apt purge -y docker-ce
This was triggered by a recurring incident I faced where the Docker daemon was using 100% CPU on multiple cores that made the host effectively unusable.
This had happened a few times before, and was likely due to a script that had got out of hand starting up too many containers. I’d never really got to the bottom of it, as I had to run a command to kill off all the containers and restart the daemon. This time, the daemon wouldn’t restart without a kill -9, so I figured enough was enough.
Anyway, I didn’t necessarily blame Docker for it, but it did add force to an argument I’d heard before:
Why does Docker need a daemon at all?
Podman, Skopeo, and Buildah
These three tools are an effort mostly pushed by RedHat that do everything I need Docker to do. They don’t require a daemon or access to a group with root privileges.
Podman replaces the Docker command for most of its sub-commands (run, push, pull etc). Because it doesn’t need a daemon, and uses user namespacing to simulate root in the container, there’s no need to attach to a socket with root privileges, which was a long-standing concern with Docker.
Buildah builds OCI images. Confusingly, podman build can also be used to build Docker images also, but it’s incredibly slow and used up a lot of disk space by using the vfs storage driver by default. buildah bud (‘build using Dockerfile’) was much faster for me, and uses the overlay storage driver.
The user namespacing allowing rootless builds was the other killer feature that made me want to move. I wrote a piece about trying to get rootless builds going last year, and now it comes out of the box with /etc/subuid and /etc/subgid set up for you, on Ubuntu at least.
Skopeo is a tool that allows you to work with Docker and OCI images by pushing, pulling, and copying images.
The code for these three are open source and available here:
Installing these tools on Ubuntu was a lot easier than it was 6 months ago.
I did seem to have to install runc independently of those instructions. Not sure why it wasn’t a pre-existing dependency.
First, I replaced all instances of docker in my cron and CI jobs with podman. That was relatively easy as it’s all in my Ansible scripts, and anything else was a quick search through my GitHub repos.
Once that was bedded in, I could see if anything else was calling docker by using sysdig to catch any references to it:
sysdig | grep -w docker
This may slow down your system considerably if you’re performance-sensitive.
Once happy that nothing was trying to run docker, I could run:
apt remove -y docker-ce
I didn’t actually purge in case there was some config I needed.
Once everything was deemed stable, the final cleanup could take place:
Remove any left-over sources in /etc/apt/* that point to Docker apt repos
Remove the docker group from the system with delgroup docker
Remove any left-over files in etc/docker/*, /etc/default/docker and /var/lib/docker
A few people asked what I did about Docker Compose, but I don’t use it, so that wasn’t an issue for me.
Edit: there exists a podman-compose project, but it’s not considered mature.
So far, and aside from the ‘no daemon’ and ‘no sudo access required’, I haven’t noticed many differences.
Builds are local to my user (in ~/.local/containers) rather than global (in /var/lib/docker), in keeping with the general philosophy of these tools as user-oriented rather than daemon-oriented. But since my home servers have only one user using Docker, that wasn’t much of an issue.
The other big difference I noticed was that podman pull downloads get all layers in parallel, in contrast to Docker’s. I don’t know if this causes problems if too many images are being pulled at once, but that wasn’t a concern for me.
Continuing in the series of posts about lesser-known bash features, here I take you through seven variables that bash makes available that you may not have known about.
You might already know that you can manipulate your prompt to show all sorts of useful information, but what fewer people know is that you can run a shell command every time your prompt is displayed.
In fact many sophisticated prompt manipulators use this variable to run the commands required to gather the information to display on the prompt.
Try running this in a fresh shell to see what happens to your session:
$ PROMPT_COMMAND='echo -n "writing the prompt at " && date'
If you run history in your terminal you should get a list of commands previous run by your account.
$ HISTTIMEFORMAT='I ran this at: %d/%m/%y %T '
Once this variable is set, new history entries record the time along with the command, so your history output can look like this:
1871 I ran this at: 01/05/19 13:38:07 cat /etc/resolv.conf
1872 I ran this at: 01/05/19 13:38:19 curl bbc.co.uk
1873 I ran this at: 01/05/19 13:38:41 sudo vi /etc/resolv.conf
1874 I ran this at: 01/05/19 13:39:18 curl -vvv bbc.co.uk
1876 I ran this at: 01/05/19 13:39:25 sudo su -
The formatting symbols are as per the symbols found in man date.
If you’re all about saving time at the command line, then you can use this variable to change directories as easily as you can call commands.
As with the PATH variable, the CDPATH variable is a colon-separated list of paths. When you run a cd command with a relative path (ie one without a leading slash), by default the shell looks in your local folder for matching names. CDPATH will look in the paths you give it for the directory you want to change to.
If you set CDPATH up like this:
Then typing in:
$ cd /home
$ cd tmp
will always take you to /tmp no matter where you are.
Watch out, though, as if you don’t put the local (.) folder in the list, then you won’t be able to create any other tmp folder and move to it as you normally would:
$ cd /home $ mkdir tmp $ cd tmp $ pwd /tmp
This is similar to the confusion I felt when I realised the dot folder was not included in my more familiar PATH variable… but you should do that in the PATH variable because you can get tricked into running a ‘fake’ command from some downloaded code.
Do you ever find yourself wondering whether typing exit will take you out of your current bash shell and into another ‘parent’ shell, or just close the terminal window entirely?
This variable tracks how deeply nested you are in the bash shell. If you create a fresh terminal you should see that it’s set to 1:
$ echo $SHLVL
Then, if you trigger another shell process, the number increments:
$ bash $ echo $SHLVL 2
This can be very useful in scripts where you’re not sure whether you should exit or not, or keeping track of where you are in a nest of scripts.
Also useful for introspection and debugging is the LINENO variable, which reports the number of commands that have been run in the session so far:
$ bash $ echo $LINENO 1 $ echo $LINENO 2
This is most often used in debugging scripts. By inserting lines like: echo DEBUG:$LINENO you can quickly determine where in the script you are (or are not) getting to.
If, like me, you routinely write code like this:
$ read input echo do something with $input
then it may come as a surprise that you don’t need to bother with creating a variable at all:
$ read echo do something with $REPLY
does exactly the same thing.
If you’re worried about staying on production servers for too long for security purposes, or worried that you’ll absent-mindedly run something harmful on the wrong terminal, then setting this variable can act as a protective factor.
If nothing is typed in for the number of seconds this is set to, then the shell will exit.
So this is an alternative to running sleep 1 && exit:
Readline is one of those technologies that is so commonly used many users don’t realise it’s there.
I went looking for a good primer on it so I could understand it better, but failed to find one. This is an attempt to write a primer that may help users get to grips with it, based on what I’ve managed to glean as I’ve tried to research and experiment with it over the years.
Bash Without Readline
First you’re going to see what bash looks like without readline.
In your ‘normal’ bash shell, hit the TAB key twice. You should see something like this:
Display all 2335 possibilities? (y or n)
That’s because bash normally has an ‘autocomplete’ function that allows you to see what commands are available to you if you tap tab twice.
Hit n to get out of that autocomplete.
Another useful function that’s commonly used is that if you hit the up arrow key a few times, then the previously-run commands should be brought back to the command line.
$ bash --noediting
The --noediting flag starts up bash without the readline library enabled.
If you hitTAB twice now you will see something different: the shell no longer ‘sees’ your tab and just sends a tab direct to the screen, moving your cursor along. Autocomplete has gone.
Autocomplete is just one of the things that the readline library gives you in the terminal. You might want to try hitting the up or down arrows as you did above to see that that no longer works as well.
Hit return to get a fresh command line, and exit your non-readline-enabled bash shell:
There are a great many shortcuts like autocomplete available to you if readline is enabled. I’ll quickly outline four of the most commonly-used of these before explaining how you can find out more.
$ echo 'some command'
There should not be many surprises there. Now if you hit the ‘up’ arrow, you will see you can get the last command back on your line. If you like, you can re-run the command, but there are other things you can do with readline before you hit return.
If you hold down the ctrl key and then hit a at the same time your cursor will return to the start of the line. Another way of representing this ‘multi-key’ way of inputting is to write it like this: \C-a. This is one conventional way to represent this kind of input. The \C represents the control key, and the -a represents that the a key is depressed at the same time.
Now if you hit \C-e (ctrl and e) then your cursor has moved to the end of the line. I use these two dozens of times a day.
Another frequently useful one is \C-l, which clears the screen, but leaves your command line intact.
The last one I’ll show you allows you to search your history to find matching commands while you type. Hit \C-r, and then type ec. You should see theecho command you just ran like this:
(reverse-i-search)`ec': echo echo
Then do it again, but keep hitting \C-r over and over. You should see all the commands that have `ec` in them that you’ve input before (if you’ve only got one echo command in your history then you will only see one). As you see them you are placed at that point in your history and you can move up and down from there or just hit return to re-run if you want.
There are many more shortcuts that you can use that readline gives you. Next I’ll show you how to view these.
You will see a list of bindings that readline is capable of. There’s a lot of them!
Have a read through if you’re interested, but don’t worry about understanding them all yet.
If you type:
$ bind -p | grep C-a
you’ll pick out the ‘beginning-of-line’ binding you used before, and see the \C-anotation I showed you before.
As an exercise at this point, you might want to look for the \C-e and \C-r bindings we used previously.
If you want to look through the entirety of the bind -p output, then you will want to know that \M refers to the Meta key (which you might also know as the Alt key), and \erefers to the Esc key on your keyboard. The ‘escape’ key bindings are different in that you don’t hit it and another key at the same time, rather you hit it, and then hit another key afterwards. So, for example, typing the Esc key, and then the ? key also tries to auto-complete the command you are typing. This is documented as:
in the bind -p output.
Readline and Terminal Options
If you’ve looked over the possibilities that readline offers you, you might have seen the \C-r binding we looked at earlier:
You might also have seen that there is another binding that allows you to search forward through your history too:
What often happens to me is that I hit \C-r over and over again, and then go too fast through the history and fly past the command I was looking for. In these cases I might try to hit \C-s to search forward and get to the one I missed.
Watch out though! Hitting \C-s to search forward through the history might well not work for you.
Why is this, if the binding is there and readline is switched on?
It’s because something picked up the \C-sbefore it got to the readline library: the terminal settings.
The terminal program you are running in may have standard settings that do other things on hitting some of these shortcuts before readline gets to see it.
You can see on the last four lines (discard dsusp [...]) there is a table of key bindings that your terminal will pick up before readline sees them. The ^ character (known as the ‘caret’) here represents the ctrl key that we previously represented with a \C.
If you think this is confusing I won’t disagree. Unfortunately in the history of Unix and Linux documenters did not stick to one way of describing these key combinations.
If you encounter a problem where the terminal options seem to catch a shortcut key binding before it gets to readline, then you can use the stty program to unset that binding. In this case, we want to unset the ‘stop’ binding.
If you are in the same situation, type:
$ stty stop undef
Now, if you re-run stty -e, the last two lines might look like this:
[...] min quit reprint start status stop susp time werase 1 ^\ ^R ^Q ^T <undef> ^Z 0 ^W
where the stop entry now has<undef> underneath it.
Strangely, for me C-r is also bound to ‘reprint’ above (^R).
But (on my terminals at least) that gets to readline without issue as I search up the history. Why this is the case I haven’t been able to figure out. I suspect that reprint is ignored by modern terminals that don’t need to ‘reprint’ the current line.
Most people regard tech professionals as dull people they don’t want to get stuck with at a dinner party, but if you’ve worked in tech for any period of time, then you have likely encountered a degree of passion for their preferences that would surprise most people unfamiliar with the field.
Some of them are so intense that they’ve been called ‘holy wars’, for example flame wars about something as mundane as text editors have gone on for decades. (Team vim, for the record).
I think this touches on a deeper truth about the nature of our work that is under-explored, and that I want to expand on here.
First I want to take a sharp left turn, and try and relate this to something we can all understand: architecture.
Which of these two buildings’ entrances do you prefer, and why?
How about this:
I don’t know which you preferred (and it’s a tiny sample), but I might be able to guess some of the reasons you might articulate for picking one over the other:
‘Clean’ vs ‘Messy’
‘Ordered’ vs ‘Disordered’
‘Plain’ vs ‘Interesting’
Obviously, there’s no right or wrong answer, but we can examine our responses and think about where they come from and why.
Classical vs Gothic
Some readers may have noticed that both pairs of images contrast a ‘classical’ building first with a ‘gothic’ second one. Definitions of what a classical versus a gothic building vary. Some look at the decoration, and if they see columns like this:
then it’s classical, and ornament like this:
makes it Gothic.
But you can look deeper than this, and consider the philosophy that underlies the decoration.
Classical architecture tends to seek to make its buildings orderly. The decoration is consistently applied, and laid down by historical precedent. Its exteriors and internal rooms are symmetrical, their dimensions often regular shapes such as cubes. It looks man-made, and seeks simplicity and repetition over complexity and detail. By contrast, gothic architecture loves fine detail and complex patterns. These details may be repeated across the building, or one-offs in their particular spaces.
Gothic architecture often allows for buildings to grow asymmetrically (or ‘organically’) without spoiling an overall design or need for symmetry. The shapes used are not Platonic ideals like cubes or circles, but more individual/unique fractal-like variations on them.
This is where classification gets difficult: many so-called gothic buildings look very symmetrical, and some so-called classical buildings can have very fractal-like decoration or asymmetry. Throw in styles like baroque, which revelled in fine asymmetric detail while embracing traditional classical forms, and it can get very confusing indeed.
Ruskin was a 19th century thinker who thought very deeply about these classifications, and his preferences, and came up with profound reasons to justify them. His writing ranged over art and aesthetics to architecture and its relation to society and economics, and, ultimately, morality and ethics.
He argued that what made gothic architecture gothic was a fundamentally different world view that resulted in these differences. First he separated out what made gothic and classical different without looking at the detail of ornament:
In that book, Raymond contrasts the ‘top-down’ (classical) design of a cathedral with the ‘bottom-up’ (gothic) design of a bazaar, and uses those as metaphors for different kinds of software development. In the book, he was talking about different kinds of free software development (centrally controlled contributions and release vs Linux-style distributed contributions and releasing), but here I want to extend it to any kind of technology, physical or virtual, open or closed.
It’s interesting that Raymond calls the ‘bazaar’ ‘revolutionary’, since Ruskin used the exact same word to describe what kind of architectural style (or ‘ornament’) he preferred. He divided these into three:
Servile ornament, in which the execution or power of the inferior workman is entirely subjected to the intellect of the higher
Constitutional ornament, in which the executive inferior power is, to a certain point, emancipated and independent, having a will of its own, yet confessing its inferiority and rendering obedience to higher powers
Revolutionary ornament, in which no executive inferiority is admitted at all.
For Ruskin, it didn’t matter what the object ended up looking like. What mattered was how much freedom the craftsman (it was almost always a man in medieval times) had when making it. The more freedom the craftsman had, the less a slave they were to some higher authority, and the more humane the society was that produced it.
What Does This Have To Do With Technology?
Let’s look at Apple’s headquarters. You’ve already seen it in one of the images above, but here’s another, wider view.
Put bluntly, you can’t get more classical than this. There’s barely any ornament here at all, no room for organic growth, and clean lines and ideal forms are everywhere.
You might think it’s delightful, but I find it disturbing. What does this say about Apple’s relationship with its workers? Where do I put my bag? Where do I sit down? Where do I wipe my feet?
Look at this picture again:
For me, those people spoil that view. Those irregular blobs of flesh and mostly water just ruin the symmetry of the place. Can’t we just do away with them?
This building doesn’t accommodate people, it admits them on sufferance.
The design of this building is no accident. It was overseen by Steve Jobs himself, and he ‘wanted no seam, gap, or paintbrush stroke visible for a clean fit and finish’.
It wasn’t just that building either. Nothing says ‘we have mastered nature and know better than you’ than putting a glass cube in downtown New York:
And if you think this doesn’t matter or mean anything, that it’s just aesthetics, then consider these two stories. The first is about the building itself:
Surrounding the Cupertino, Calif.-based building are 45-foot-tall curved panels of safety glass. Inside are work spaces, dubbed “pods,” also made with a lot of glass. Apple staff are often glued to the iPhones they helped popularize. That’s resulted in repeated cases of distracted employees walking into the panes, according to people familiar with the incidents.
Some staff started to stick Post-it notes on the glass doors to mark their presence. However, the notes were removed because they detracted from the building’s design, the people said.
I don’t think you can get anything more dehumanising, anti-organic, or plain evil in architecture as removing safety measures people themselves have taken to defend themselves against a hostile building because it doesn’t match the ‘clean fit and finish’ of the building.
You’re holding it wrong, you’re walking around wrong, you’re putting post-its on dangerous glass doors wrong. You’re the problem, mate.
The highly influential ‘Design of Everyday Things‘ by Don Norman explicitly calls out this kind of thinking as wrong-headed, under the heading of ‘human-centred design‘. Interestingly, Norman worked at Apple in the 90s, and I can’t help but speculate whether these philosophical differences ever caused tension there.
Once you start thinking about how building encourages or discourages a means of living compatible with a human, creative and dynamic life, then you start to see it everywhere.
Take programming languages. On the one side you have Java, top-down designed from the start to enable ‘superior minds’ to impose a limited domain of control on inferiors: use the class hierarchy we have given you; if you must write your own code, then use the Standard Libraries, which have been created to stop you from making mistakes.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have Perl, where “there’s more than one way to do it”, and games like Perl golf, allowing the individual to be creative in pursuit of their goal. The approach to the individual developer couldn’t be more different.
Where does your favourite language fit?
It’s not my intention here to argue that Perl is wonderful and Java is awful. I like neither. My intention is to point out that our preferences may reflect a deeper set of beliefs that we may want to reflect on.
Classicism has similar reasons for its persistence: in Britain, its uniformity and well-defined rules allowed those architects that followed the trailblazers (Inigo Jones, Wren) to create cheaper versions of their work that looked good enough to be fashionable.
Vitrivius Britannicus was the ‘Design Patterns‘ of its day, giving architects a copy-book of easy-to-follow examples for building grand houses in Britain (and then, later, America) that more or less look the same.
This style was called Palladianism, and became ubiquitous because it was quite difficult to mess up, as long as you knew the basics: how to keep things symmetrical, and draw straight lines. To me, this is Java, not Perl.
And back to Ruskin, Victorians did similar, by copying the patterns of Gothic decoration in a uniform and cheap pattern-book way, an ironic result for the frustrated Ruskin. I grew up going to churches that looked like this in East London:
These are essentially classical buildings with some pointed-arch windows and coloured bricks instead of columns and marble. Not much outlet for the creativity of the ‘individual craftsman’ there.
Structure of Projects – Agile
Which brings me to agile. Like Ruskin’s influential preference for Gothic, Agile’s original stated intention was a simple one:
Notes on the above tenets relevant to this discussion:
2 – ’embrace change’ is close to accepting organic change rather than adherence to an ideal
4 – the creative construction process requires a close collaboration with the patron: requirements are organic too
5 – emphasise the importance of the individual’s contribution to the overall product
8, 11, 12 – emphasise the importance of personalrelationships to the overall product
Note how many of these tenets are related to things that can’t easily be automated, defined or schematised. This is a philosophy that encourages post-its, or a big sheet of paper, or just having it out over a beer if that’s what’s needed to find the right way forward. It’s the bottom-up, gothic, bazaar way of working.
So how do you answer that favourite water-cooler conversation: how agile is a team? I suggest you ask yourself this question: how free is the team to make any decision it feels is necessary to get the job done?
Now, freedom and enterprise do not go hand in hand. This is why you end up with enterprise agile:
At each and every point, the demands enterprises must fulfil mitigate against the ability of the individual to make an imperfect contribution to the whole. So stop trying, dammit! You end up by subverting the whole, as this talk by agile founder Dave Thomas covers:
One of the points I want to make here is that there’s nothing wrong with not being agile if that’s not what makes sense for your business. But if the individual’s fulfilment and creativity isn’t a primary concern then just own that, and make sure the overall project is something people can make sense of.
To my taste, this is a really beautiful building, even though it’s about as classical and ‘ideal’ as it’s possible to be:
Why? Because although nothing can be moved, and arguably no-one that worked on it could express their own take on the theme, the scale of the building is still a human one: designed for people to be in and contemplate the demise of other humans.
Compare with this one:
The British Museum, a building I’ve always loathed. It feels designed to make you feel small and imperfect compared to its massive, inhuman scale. It’s also boring. Column, column, column, column, all the way round. The sculpture at the top might be interesting, but it doesn’t seem to have been designed for you to have a look.
So if you are going to be classical, to try and reach for an ideal, make sure that the centrally-designed systems make room for a human to be productive in, not just because it’s more correct, but because it’s important that what we do is not designed to turn us into cogs in a machine.
The last word goes to Ruskin. If we’re anything, we’re ‘fragments of imperfection’:
‘The principal admirableness of the Gothic schools of architecture, that they thus receive the results of the labor of inferior minds; and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole.’