Monthly Archives: July 2014

Best. Markdown. Writing. Setup. Ever.


When writing in a source format such as Markdown, it’s nice to be able to see your changes show up automatically in the output. One of my favorite ways to work is to have Emacs and Firefox open side by side (as shown above). Whenever I save my Markdown file, I want Emacs to automatically build a new HTML file from it, and I want Firefox to automatically refresh to show the latest changes.

Once you have this set up, all you have to do is write and save, write and save.

As it happens, fellow Redditor goodevilgenius was looking to accomplish just this workflow. I originally posted this answer on Reddit, but I’m reposting it here in the hope that it will help some kindly internet stranger someday.

I have this exact use case. I use compile-on-save mode and the Firefox Auto Reload extension.

So in a Markdown buffer (once you’ve installed compile-on-save mode):

M-x compile-on-save-mode RET
M-x compile RET markdown > /tmp/current-file.html
Open current-file.html in Firefox.
Write stuff and save. Emacs will auto-compile the Markdown, and Firefox will instantly auto-reload the HTML file.

With Emacs and Firefox open side-by-side, I find it pretty easy to enter a “flow” state, since all you have to do is write and save the file. Hope that helps!

The Emacs-savvy reader will note that this workflow isn’t confined to Markdown. For example, compile-on-save mode could kick off an XML doc build (or any other computation you like, for that matter).

The Josephus Problem


The Josephus Problem is deceptively simple. A number of people stand in a circle. (Let’s call this number N.) They agree to count around the circle, and every /M/th person will be killed. As they go around the circle, in what order do they die? Another way of looking at it is: who is the last person left alive?

For an interesting introduction, I recommend checking out the Wikipedia article.

I recently found this problem described in the 2nd edition of Sedgwick’s Algorithms, and thought it would be fun to implement in Scheme. Because I’m not a real programmer (and I had to translate to Scheme from the Pascal in the book), it took me a couple of hours instead of a couple of minutes. But what an enjoyable couple of hours!

I started, as usual for algorithmic programming tasks, with a simulation. In the book, Sedgwick provides an example: If there are 9 people, and every 5th person in the circle is killed, the order in which they’ll die is: 5, 1, 7, 4, 3, 6, 9, 2, 8.

It’s usually easier to start work on a problem by thinking about a simpler case, so that’s what I did. I chose N = 5, and M = 2. Below I’ll show the results of my “paper” simulation (OK, the paper was actually an Emacs buffer).

First, let me show you how to read my “notation”. It should be pretty easy to figure out. Below is an example of one “state snapshot”. I’ve labelled each line with its meaning. If you are a Scheme programmer, you will surmise that each named item corresponds to a “named-let” loop variable. In addition, the vertical bar character in the XS row represents the state of the “cursor” as it goes around the circle of 5 people.

;; I.                           <-- State Number
;; ------------
;; |1 2 3 4 5                   <--    XS
;; '()                          <--    YS
;; 0                            <-- COUNT

Above, we are in state 1, at the start of the program. The cursor is at the beginning of the list XS, which represents the circle of people. YS is our results list, where we will store the “dead”. As we travel around the circle and people are killed, they are added to YS. We could think of it as a “death toll”, but really it’s just a list of integers. As we go around the circle of people, we keep incrementing COUNT. When COUNT reaches the value of M, that person will be “killed”, that is, be added to YS.

When this happens, we reset the COUNT to 0 and keep going around the circle. There’s a catch, however. As more dead people are added to our result list YS, we need to ignore the spaces those people used to occupy in our count as we build COUNT back up towards M. In other words, the circle will have 4 people in it after the first person is killed. This means that as the circle gets smaller and smaller, people are killed more frequently.

I’ll show you how I’ve solved that problem in Scheme in a moment; first, the simulation:

;; I.
;; ------------
;; |1 2 3 4 5
;; '()
;; 0

;; II.
;; ------------
;; 1| 2 3 4 5
;; '()
;; 1

;; III.
;; ------------
;; 1 2| 3 4 5
;; '()
;; 1

;; IV.
;; ------------
;; 1 _ 3| 4 5
;; '(2)
;; 1

;; V.
;; ------------
;; 1 _ 3 4| 5
;; '(2)
;; 2

;; V.
;; ------------
;; 1 _ 3 _ 5|
;; '(4 2)
;; 1

;; VI.
;; ------------
;; 1| _ 3 _ 5
;; '(4 2)
;; 2

;; VII.
;; ------------
;; _ _ 3| _ 5
;; '(1 4 2)
;; 1

;; VIII.
;; ------------
;; _ _ 3 _ 5|
;; '(1 4 2)
;; 2

;; IX.
;; ------------
;; _ _ 3| _ _
;; '(5 1 4 2)
;; 1

;; X.
;; ------------
;; _ _ _| _ _
;; '(5 1 4 2)
;; 2

;; XI.
;; ------------
;; _ _ _| _ _
;; '(3 5 1 4 2)
;; 2

Now that you’ve seen how the algorithm should work on paper, let’s write some Scheme! I should state for the record that I did not read the Wikipedia article linked above until after I wrote this code. (This will be pretty obvious when you look at the code.) Here it is:

(define (josephus xs m)
  (let ((orig-xs (list-copy xs))
        (true-m (- m 1)))
    (let ((len (length xs)))
      (let loop ((xs xs)
                 (ys '())
                 (count 0))
         ;; If the dead list grows to the same length as our original
         ;; list, we know we're finished.
         ((= len (length ys))
          (reverse ys))
         ;; If XS is null, we have gone once around the circle.  We
         ;; start around again, leaving the count unchanged.
         ((null? xs)
          (loop orig-xs ys count))
         ;; If the current person we're looking at is already dead
         ;; (a ghost), move on.  And don't bother bumping the
         ;; count.
         ((member (car xs) ys)
          (loop (cdr xs) ys count))
         ;; If we're here, it's also the case that the current person
         ;; we're looking at is *not* in the dead list.  Therefore we
         ;; check if the count is equal to M.  If so, they must die.
         ((= count true-m)
          (loop (cdr xs) (cons (car xs) ys) 0))
         ;; If we get here, the current person we're looking at is
         ;; alive.  We check if the count is *not* equal to M.  If it
         ;; is not, we skip this person and bump the count.
         ((not (= count true-m))
          (loop (cdr xs) ys (+ count 1)))
         ;; We should never get here.
         (else #f))))))

How does it compare to the output described in Sedgwick? It seems to work!

> (josephus '(1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9) 5)
'(5 1 7 4 3 6 9 2 8)

There are several inefficiencies we could tackle, though. The first and most obvious is that we should try to calculate the solution mathematically (as shown in some of the Wikipedia examples) instead of building up lists using CONS. Another is that we make a “canonical” copy of the input list for restarting the loop. A third is the use of MEMBER to determine whether the person we’re currently visiting is already in the “dead” list.

For example, here’s the trace output showing 19 calls to MEMBER for a pretty small input:

(josephus '(1 2 3 4 5) 2)
[Enter (member 1 '())
 Leave member #f]
... 17 more calls to member ...
[Enter (member 3 '(5 1 4 2))
 Leave member #f]
'(2 4 1 5 3)

That said, in this case I was happy just to get something working. If this were going to be used for anything “real”, I would probably rewrite it statefully using vectors. Most of the fun was in coming up with this first draft without resorting to any stateful idioms.

(Image courtesy Chris Lott via CC-BY license.)

More Recommendations for Technical Writers


In the same spirit of the last post in this series, I have more recommendations for technical writers working in software-land. As before, I make no claims to living up to these recommendations myself. It’s like, aspirational, man.

Without further ado:

Learn Markdown

Yes, Markdown. It’s become a de facto standard plain text format for all kinds of web writing and documentation. It’s easy to use, it’s everywhere, and there are many tools that you can use to work with it.

See also: What is Markdown?

If you want to know what could happen to you if you start using it for things, see Ryan Tomayko’s Why You Should Not Use Markdown.

Learn your web browser’s development tools

From time to time you will need to peek under the covers of a web app you are documenting and see what’s actually going on. Especially nowadays with single page apps, browser-side local storage, and all that fun stuff.

Even if you never need to know that stuff to write your UI docs, you can use the dev tools to rewrite text in user interfaces for making nicer screenshots.

Strunk & White! Yes, Really!

Read it. Then try like hell to live it. I’ll confine the rest of this document to “technical” issues, since I can’t improve on the advice given in that book.

(Again, this is an area where I need to work harder on following my own advice. My long sentences and passive constructions are killing me.)

Think about learning to read code

Everything in our world runs on code (or will soon). Learning how to read code at least up to a basic level can help you figure out what the hell’s going on, sometimes. Yes, you can talk to an engineer, but your conversation will be more productive if you at least have a starting point.

The reason is simple: It’s usually easier to go to someone with a wrong idea and have them correct you with the right ideas than it is to get that same someone to teach you everything from scratch.

This doesn’t mean you have to become a programmer yourself (although you should try to learn how to write scripts to automate boring computer-y stuff, as I noted previously). But like most foreign languages, it helps to be able to read a little to get directions from the locals. And in this case the locals (programmers) speak code.

Seek out pathological edge cases

In any really large system or “platform” designed and built by multiple people on different teams, not all of whom are talking to each other three times a day about every single design decision they make, there will be a number of edge cases. In other words, there will be parts of the system that don’t play well together, or are at best, um, unintuitive in the way they behave.

It’s your job to find these and document them as well as you can. Sometimes this will be low-priority because the issues will be fixed “soon” (for some value of soon). Sometimes it will be necessary, though. You will have to use your own best judgment, along with input from your friends in Engineering and the Product organization, about when to do this.

You probably won’t get them all (not even close), but if you actively seek them out as you go, you will develop a mindset that will help you learn the system a little better.

Also: no one will assume this is part of your job or give you actual time to work on this; you just have to do it.

Don’t listen to anybody

Perhaps that should be rephrased as: “Don’t listen to anybody … just yet.” Until you’ve done your own research and testing and had your own look at the thing you’re documenting (whatever that thing is), you can’t really write about it for someone else. When Product folks, Engineering, etc. tell you the sky is blue, you should still stick your head out the nearest window.

It’s not that they don’t know what they’re talking about (they usually know more than you), it’s that the features they’re telling you about may exist soon at your layer of the onion, but right now they’re sitting on a git branch in somebody’s laptop, or as a line in a technical spec on the internal wiki, or in a weird corner of the internal-only sandbox environment that you will need to hunt down in order to actually use the thing.

If you are documenting a web API, only the things the APIs actually do are real. Everything else is bullshit. That’s part of the meaning of “API”.

Nobody will explicitly budget time for this, either. But you have to do it.

Do your own research, but prepare to be Wrong

It’s always faster to bug someone with a quick question, and sometimes that’s necessary. That said, I’ve been embarrassed by asking quick questions that turned out to have stupidly easy answers that I could have found out for myself.

It’s better to be known as someone who tries to solve their own problems before reaching out for help. Doing some light functional testing as you document, trying out a few database queries, or even reading through code (if that even makes sense and if you are able), will teach you things about the system that could prove useful to you in the future. It will at least give you something to talk about when you do sit down with someone else.

Having said all that, you will still be Wrong a lot (yes, that’s capitalized and bold). It’s one thing to use a thing, and another to build it. The engineers will always know a lot more than you about the systems. If you can get them to point out your mistakes, you’re doing your job! You’re learning things! So don’t get discouraged.

But didn’t I just tell you not to listen to anybody? Yes, but it’s never that simple – these are complex systems.

You are probably an unpaid part-time QA person, embrace it

In the course of writing documentation, you will naturally test things out to ensure that what you’re writing isn’t totally useless (even so, that happens sometimes). You’ll probably spend a lot of time doing this, and taking notes on what you find. These notes will then be integrated into the documentation you write, or into bug reports of some kind to your engineering colleagues (which will probably be rejected because you are Wrong – see above).

Again: no one will assume this is part of your job or give you actual time to work on it; you just have to do it.

Never Forget that The Train Never Stops

Finally – and most importantly – don’t let the fact that everything is changing all of the time get you down. The user interface will change drastically; new APIs will be added, and old ones deprecated and removed; people you’ve gotten to know and like will come and go. If you stay at a job like this for a couple of years, you will be rewriting your Year Two revision of the rewrite you did when you started.

Through it all, “the platform” can never stop running and changing: upgrades, changes, and so on all have to happen while the train is running down the tracks at eighty miles per hour. It doesn’t stop for the engineering teams working on it, and it certainly isn’t going to stop for you.

Your best weapon against change is automating as much drudge work as possible (again with the scripting!) so that you can focus on:

  1. Learning your company’s systems as well as you can technically given your limited time and resources
  2. Knowing what’s getting built next, and why
  3. Knowing what the business cares about (this is usually what drives #2)

Finally, never forget that you are doing important work. Someday, when the people who designed and built the current system have moved on, people will wonder “Why does API service ‘X’ behave this way when I set the twiddle_frobs field on API ‘Y’ to true, but only when API Z’s ignore_frob_twiddle_settings field is not null?”

If you’ve done a good job (and gotten really lucky), there will be some documentation on that.

For a great perspective on why documentation is so important to the health of a company from a smart man who’s been around the block once or twice, see Tim Daly’s talk Literate Programming in the Large.

(Image courtesy typedow under CC-BY-NC-SA.)