Why I Program

On the bus this morning, I read part of "The World is Flat" that deals with left-brain versus right-brain activities; to Friedman, jobs that can be replaced by technology and outsourcing (left-brain) and those that require an element of creativity (right-brain). Friedman made a statement:

"This weekend there will be accountants painting watercolors in their garages. There will be lawyers writing screen plays. But I guarantee you that you won't find any sculptors who on weekends will be doing other people's taxes for fun."

Friedman is trying to convey that some things are done out of passion, and some out of necessity. People do taxes out of necessity, people paint watercolors out of passion. It's all very black and white, and the jobs of necessity are the ones that are more easily sent overseas to India.

Can't there be be passion for traditional "jobs of necessity"? You can outsource your financial management to an established group or mutual fund -- but what about the excitement of finding good deal and making a sound investment? The satisfaction of having researched it and adding your own judgment to what you find? You need a table to eat dinner on, but can't creating that table be a creative outlet? When categorizing these jobs, I don't think there are clear cut categories; it's up to the individual to say what he is passionate about.

Whenever I go home or spend time with my parents, a lot of my free time is devoted to programming, and they can't figure it out. "You do this all day for your job [or for school]. Can't you put down the laptop?" While it's true that I sit in front of a computer for my day job, I'm working on problems of necessity. Database development isn't particularly exciting for me; what I've been working doesn't require a lot of creativity and seems mechanical. So, in my free time, I need to exercise my creative muscle, and I choose programming for that task.

I've often said that good code is beautiful (no, I'm not talking about the Perl Camel). A well designed component or architecture has elegance and sophistication; simplicity yet robustness. You step back, look at the code, say "Damn, that's gorgeous", and you know when you've created beauty instead of just hacking out a quick fix. This element of beauty is something that I've found lacking in a lot of code and with a lot of programmers. Too often programming is treated like a boring job of necessity than the passionate job of creativity that it can be.

This is why I enjoy coding in my free time. Sure, it's all ones and zeros when it comes right down to it, but the important thing isn't what the end product does; how you got there is so much more important. Programming gives you a chance to come up with creative solutions. And they don't even have to be real problems!

I spent an entire day obsessed with the idea of programming language quines, which are programs that print out their own source code. Sounds easy, right? "Just keep a copy of the source code in the code, and print it out. Oh crap. How do I recursively store the code in the code..." Quines are, as my office mate likes to say, mental masturbation: they produce no value and in that sense are worthless, but so incredibly amazing at the same time.

I look at quines and other beautiful code with the same curiosity and admiration that I look at pieces of artwork in a museum; I appreciate them not because of their utility, but because of their elegance. And I code as a hobby outside of my day job not as a task of necessity, but the desire to create beauty.


Asynchronous PHP Gotchas

As part of a PixCede re-write (read: correcting damage from a rabbit I chased to far down a hole -- more on that in another post), I decided to modularize the scripts for handling new messages. Previously, procmail was sending the email to a single PHP script that handled extracting attachments, storing the image, and sending the confirmation message. As the script started to get unwieldy, I decided to break it into separate scripts:

  • newMailDaemon.php - main script that handles writing the attachment to disk and asynchronously calling additional tasks. This is purposely kept minimal, so that there is less chance of something going wrong (e.g. compilation error). Worst case scenario, the email is written to disk; if the other tasks fail, the unit of work can be replayed from the message dump

  • processMail.php - handles extracting the image, creating the shortname, inserting it into the database, and sending the email confirmation. This will be split up eventually

After newMailDaemon.php writes the mail file to disk, it calls exec(..) to asynchronously kick off processMail.php. I was about to pull my hair out until I figured out a couple of things:

  • exec(..) does not get called as though through a shell. As a result of that, you need to use absolute paths. That means that `php ./processMail.php` becomes `/usr/bin/php /var/pixcede/xxxx/processMail.php`

  • As a corollary to the previous point, absolute paths need to be specified in exec'ed scripts as well; e.g. the database file specified to sqlite3

  • Permissions matter! I was using a logger to follow the actions once an email was resolved, and I couldn't figure out why nothing from processMail.php was getting logged. I was logging the command that got exec'ed, and running it manually -- and it always worked. procmail calling newMailDaemon.php calling processMail.php runs at the permissions of the user account that procmail is acting on behalf of, so the script needs to permissions to run from that user. Whatever is running the main script needs permission to exec additional scripts

This design is far from perfect. The different actions need separated more; ideally, having newMailDaemon load and parse an external workflow file wouldbe nice -- then I could lock down newMailDaemon and not have to change it to update the workflow (less chance of it failing). To handle and track the different steps, I would like to keep a table of actions to process, have entries put into that, and have another script act on that table until all tasks are set to "complete"; that sounds more scalable and manageable than exec'ing scripts for each action that needs to be done. Having newMailDaemon schedule tasks and processTasks execute those tasks sounds cleaner.

At any rate, PixCede works again now!