Spolsky: Today is the day that we did not launch, although we planned to. But then... We'll wait for another week.Atwood: Yeah, well, the good news on that is that we did actually figure out what that problem was.
Spolsky: Oh, oh, I want to hear, I want to hear, I want to hear.Atwood: Eh. So, it was a third party library. Indirectly, I mean. It's the third party library, and our particular use of it. It was Log4Net.
Spolsky: Oh!Atwood: We were logging in such a way that the log.... during the log call was triggering another log call. Which is normally okay, but with the load that we have, eventually they would happen so close together that there's also a lock. So, there's two locks going on there. There's a lock of like disposing of the database stuff that's going on. Then there's lock of like actually writing to a file...
Spolsky: Hm!Atwood: And... Huh... They happen in the opposite order, so it's like a classic deadlock, right. So, you release the lock on the database, then you release the lock on the file. And then the other call was doing in the other order. And they were happening so fast that... it was deadlocking eventually. And it was one of those things that would happen.. like... it was very intermittent, right.
Spolsky: Right.Atwood: So we had to dust-off Win Debug.
Spolsky: How on Earth do you find things like that?Atwood: Well. You bust out Win Debug. One nice feature in Windows 2008, and I think this is in Vista as well. In Task Manager, you can right-click a task and take a dump of it.
Spolsky: Yeah!Atwood: Like right there.
Spolsky: Aha.Atwood: So we took a dump of the W3Service process, and...
Spolsky: Ha ha, take a dump.Atwood: Yeah, I know, any time you do this it's like.. It's like the territory for jokes. It's just...
Spolsky: [giggles]Atwood: [laughs]. And then we loaded up a... Win... Debug.
Spolsky: Windbg! YeahAtwood: ...and then some .Net managed extensions you can, sort of load. You need like a chi-chi to figure out what the commands are. And then you load the dump, and you load the manage tools. And then you can sort of just investigate all of the threads. You can take the "Show me all the managed threads." And then say "Show me what's the call stack was for that thread." And what we saw was like tons and tons of threads that were all going "Hey, I would like to log something..." And it was like "Hmmmm... [laughs]... Interesting!" Right, you have like 80 threads that all try to write something to the log. So... Right then we kind of knew where the problem was.
And then somebody on Twitter actually volunteered to help us diagnose the dump. So I put it up on our server, and he a.... he nailed... he had a great description of it, like line by line, blow by blow of exactly what was happening. I mean, I'm... I'm competent enough to sort of figure out roughly what was going on, but he really knew this stuff and really helped us out, and I do appreciate that.
Spolsky: That's really awesome.
Spolsky: I'd never .. no ... I never do... I nev... But you know I don't... I don't think I've ever worked on code that is sort of operational in the same way.
Atwood: ah hm.
Spolsky: Eh.. because we definitely eh.. put a lot more ... oh you know, you know what, I did, at Juno we used to have all kinds of logging.
The trouble is that my philosophy has always been that you .. you.. you have a tendency to wanna log everything. But then you just get logs that are, you know, a hundred megabyte per user and you get thirty of them a minute and it can't possibly be analyzed or stored in any reasonable way. So the next thing you have to do is to start culling your logs or just have different levels of debugging, where it's like in high debug mode everything is logged and in low debug mode nothing is logged. And... it's kind of hard to figure out what you really want in a log. You you know you know .. a lot of logs, like I think of the logging that we did in Juno, where people would call with a complaint and you try to figure out where this program is crashing. And obviously a log of the crash, that's easy. Ehm, but then there's some line above the crash which hopefully gives you a lot of information about where it happened. And there's some line you don't see that should have been after that, after the crash, but it never got there 'cause it crashed sometime before there. And essentially what you're doing as you're adding logging, is you're doing binary search, right, where you're sticking in like "well gosh, I got to here and then got to there. But there's an awful lot of code between point A and point B. So let's make an A you know half-way from A to B, log point of some sort". Then you put that in and then you eliminate 50 percent of the possible places to look for your crash.
Um, but I've never really been able to...
Atwood: I mean that, ironically, to troubleshoot this hang, which turned out to be because of logging, we were adding more logging.
Atwood: The joke just writes itself! The joke just writes itself, right...
Spolsky: It does... How many... How many third-party tools do you have... uhh... How many third-party tools are a part of the StackOverflow code base?
Atwood: Well, okay, so... [chuckles] Uh, Dare [pronounces it as the English word "dare"] Obasanjo [pronounces it "oh-bih-san-ho"]... I don't know if I'm pronouncing it correctly.
Spolsky: Okay, "Dare" [pronounces it "daray"]... Obasanjo [pronounces it "oh-bih-san-ja"]... It's "Dare."
Atwood: Is it "Dare"?
Atwood: Really... Okay, I didn't know that. Well, I've learned something. But he had a whole blog entry about how, you know, I had chosen to write my own sanitizer, and that was a very deliberate choice for me...
Spolsky: Mm hmm.
Atwood: ...for a number of reasons that I won't get into. But he was very critical of this, because, of course there were bugs in the sanitizer...
Spolsky: Mm hmm.
Atwood: ...which there were going to be, and to me, it's about, like, it's about your velocity; it's not about where you are; it's about where you're going, and we're gonna fix that stuff, right, and I'm making the sanitizer public as well, so other people can have a sanitizer that's not ten thousand lines of code, and ridiculous, and uh, so there's a philosophy there of building something that's reusable for everyone. Um, but I thought it was ironic, because he was talking about how developers should just pick a third-party library and go with it, and I think obvio... it's a balancing act, because we picked this logging library, right, which kind of caused a problem for us, right, I mean partially it was the way we were using it, but the way it was locking the files was a design issue in terms of the way Log4Net works.
Atwood: So I... I think it's a trade-off. I don't think it's always as clear-cut as "you should always pick a library" or "you should never pick a library," right? I think there's always some in-between there. So, for us, I'm definitely a minimalist—I don't like third-party libraries; I feel like we have a giant third-party library called "Windows," called ".NET"... huh... ASP.NET MVC is technically a third-party library. Um, but these are, you know, major vendor stacks. And I do feel like—as much as we talk about open source and stuff—there's a certain level of quality you associate with these major first-party stacks, right, whether it's from Apple or Microsoft or Sun or whoever. That may or may not be true, but hopefully usually is true: that these things are really heavily tested.
Spolsky: There is definitely, yeah, there is definitely... I mean, there's something I've learned over the years, and, you know, I started out with working on the Excel team, um... The developers on that team had a motto, which was "Find the dependencies and eliminate them." You know, they had their own compiler; they would not use untested libraries from other groups at Microsoft even...
Atwood: I love that they had their own compiler. That is so hardcore. I can't even, like, I could not even hang out with those guys... right... that hardcore.
Spolsky: Hey, well, we have our own compiler, man.
Spolsky: Let me tell you why they had their own compiler: They had their own compiler because Excel was getting huge, and just compiled 8086 was just too large to fit on floppy disks and to fit in memory. You know, we were really trying to cram things in there. And so they developed a pcode compiler, which basically... you know, it's like bytecode. They called it pcode. This is a very old technique, and it compiled Excel into an imaginary machine, a virtual machine, which was a lot more expressive that an 8086, and had all kinds of additional features, and so the compiled code is about one-third the size, and in a lot of situations this made the performance a lot faster. So, for example, in those days when almost everybody was running programs off of floppy disks, the chances... Or no, not floppy, but the 3.5-inch, not-so-floppy disks. But the read time on those things is really really slow, so if you could launch your app—if your app was smaller at the time that you read it from disk—it didn't matter if it ran a little bit slower. The whole... the overall experience would be a lot faster. So if you could fit in memory without swapping, then obviously the whole thing would run faster, so it was worth doing this pcode thing for a long time, and about the time of Excel 5.0, the bit flipped on that and it suddenly became... suddenly everybody had hard drives, and nobody really cared about the size of the executable, and it was okay to have about a, I think, a four-megabyte executable instead of a one-megabyte executable, and so they got rid of that pcode back-end. But even then I think they had their own compiler for a while because in order to write really really efficient code, they wanted to be able to control... oh this is a long story.
Spolsky: So this was this feature that they eventually got added to the regular Microsoft C compiler called base pointers, and I think then they stopped using their own compiler. But their philosophy was really not to trust anybody and to have control over everything so that there's some hope they can get it to work without having an external dependency. You know, I've sort of taken this with me a long ways, and every time I've failed to do that I've tended to regret it. Every time we've put outside technology into Fog Bugz we've regretted it. There's a lot of these excellent components, and they are really great components, that are made by vendors like .Net components and they're widgets like the cool calendar widget dropdown that you put into your web page and all that kind of stuff. And inevitably what I've found is that they are good enough for enterprise code, like internal apps that you're using at the insurance company, and they're just never good enough for the kind of app you want to ship that has to be perfect. Somehow there is something that's not commercial quality about them. You know it's fine if there's 20 people using it, and they're all using it the same way, it allows you to in fifteen seconds put a calendar dropdown into something. But then you'll get to some customer who says, "You know we don't start our week's on Sunday in my country". And you'll say, "Oh", and you'll find out this library doesn't have that feature. As a hypothetical example.
Spolsky: Which I ...
Atwood: I believe that's one advantage of some of the web stuff is because everything is just public facing by default. You don't have sort of this, this internal development ghetto effect. Like... 'cuz I... we have... I mean, to be fair, any talk of dependencies, we have tons of dependencies, right? It's just a question of what dependencies you wanna take, like, I mean, jQuerry is a dependency, right?
Atwood: We're using the WMD control, that's a dependency.
Atwood: There's these little add-ons for jQuery that...
Spolsky: But you know what, if there was a bug in... if you found a bug in jQuery, you would just go, edit the source and you would be shipping your own private version of jQuerry and problem solved. And it wouldn't be ideal, but at least you wouldn't be screwed.
Atwood: Right ... We have actually done that and let me actually give an example. So the WMD editor has a bug with international keyboards. Like there's no way we would have found this because we don't use international keyboards but obviously some of the people that use StackOverflow do and
Atwood: They were, I think, understandably very annoyed because they couldn't enter like right bracket. Which is like an important key particularly in markdown. That's one of the key, like one of the delimiters you use sometimes.
Spolsky: Yeah, the...
Atwood: You could just view source and if-if you were, you know, motivated enough, you could figure it out, right? There wasn't like an executible that you had to decompile or anything like that. So I feel
Spolsky: [garbled - interrupting] Flash
Atwood: Go ahead
Spolsky: Unless it's Flash all flash. I mean like yahoo maps is all flash and you can't figure out what they're doing.
Atwood: Oh, right. Right. Right. Right. Right. Well, that gets back into the whole we call it a rectangle problem - the browser where you have this alien rectangle [laughs] that lives in another universe and it pokes a hole into your dimension and then like this crazy stuff comes through and yeah. So it...it...on a related note, let's close out the topic. So the struggling with the deadlock put us back I would say at least four or five days. So in order to have a smooth landing, there's also a couple of features that I really desperately want us to get in before we open to the public like say a captcha for [laughs] I think that's kinda important when we go live. Um. So adding like a week to the schedule really helps us to have a smooth landing. I mean we could launch on the third. I mean we honestly could, but it would be a little desperate. We would be really flailing,
Spolsky: Yeah, no. We're in no rush, we can take another week. I thought that
Spolsky: Yeah. We have quite a finite number of people who listen to our
Spolsky: It's not even public!
Spolsky: These people they're going to the backlash state before we even got to
Spolsky: For the beta.
Spolsky: Don't even respond. Why are we even talking about them?
Spolsky: blogging-harmful.blogspot.com. Complete waste of time, but you know if
Spolsky: That's the real failure, exactly. If you can't get anyone to care one
Atwood: But people who do something like that, they don't want attention or anything, they're not feeding on it at all, they're not interested in things like attention at all. The work is it's own reward, it doesn't matter if anyone is looking. Have you seen that thing on the ... I meant to blog about this but the whole concept of just, not looking at things, to basically discourage them. Or that, conversely, looking at things encourages them, like the whole Paris Hilton thing and just talking about these things over and over incessantly actually reinforces the whole trend. There was a series of children's books I don't know if you've heard them, they're called: "The Great Brain". It's set in Utah -
Atwood: - at the turn of the century. I got these books as a kid and I was totally obsessed with them, because the Great Brain is all about a family. I don't remember the family's name, but there is one central character J.D. who is the Great Brain. Essentially he's always thinking up ways to, essentially social engineering before we had that word in computer circles. Basically getting people to do what you want them to do, completely of their own volition. The Great Brain is basically this genius of a kid, who is using all these social engineering exploits to get away with all this crazy stuff. In that family, if they found out the Great Brain was doing this stuff then of course he would get punished, but the ultimate penalty was what they called the silent treatment. The silent treatment meant that nobody would talk to you or acknowledge you for a certain period of time. They would give you food and stuff, but they wouldn't talk at you. It was just stunning in the book, you don't really think about this stuff as a kid (I was like 10 or so), how desperate it is as a person, as a social being, when nobody will acknowledge you. How profoundly affecting that is, right? Even the Great Brain, as a smart kid, hated the silent treatment and would do anything he could to avoid getting the silent treatment because it was just such a brutal penalty. I remember Jason Kottke talking about an episode of The Simpsons where these animated statues came to life, and the way they got rid of them was they started chanting "Just Don't Look!"
Atwood: I also try to copy a lot of things I've seen online that have been successful, like conventions. Let me give you a specific example: PHP-BB, and I'm sure there are other web discussion boards that do this too but PHP-BB is the one I know, has this editing convention. When you post you can edit your own posts, and I noticed that when people are using PHP-BB that right after you post something you'll always notice some goofy mistake that you made, like immediately. This happens to me 9 times out of ten I'll post and think "oh, I should have talked about this" or "I missed that word," so you immediately go in and edit. At a certain threshold these are not treated as real edits, they're treated as just going back in time to pretend that it is the post you originally made. It doesn't kick off the whole auditing trail of you having edited it 50 times. One of the first things we did in stackoverflow is actually implement that. I remember talking to Geoff Dalgas about that, and he's like "why do we have to have this?" I said, "you don't understand, this feature has to be in there on day 1 otherwise we're going to have so many revisions that are just in the first minute or two after posting and are just silly little things that are being corrected."
Spolsky: My feeling is that if the tweak is a little bit subtle and little bit weird, people don't know quite what it is doing. Like that thing you were mentioning earlier about how if you do your own edit within about 5 minutes it doesn't get into the history. See, right then you are doing something that wouldn't be what people would expect. I mean, they might be able to learn that that's the way that it works, but it isn't what they would expect. They would expect that you either see the history, or they don't see the history. It would never occur to them that you'd do something more subtle than that, and therefore, they'd always assume the simple model, and therefore they may have usability problems because they don't understand what the app wants from them. You know what I mean? Basically, usability problems always occur at the intersection, of the user not understanding how the program model works. The program has a model as to how it works, and the user has some understanding as to how the program works, and when those are different that's when you have a usability problem. It may be small and it may be subtle, but that's where you have a usability problem. Your best hope, if you're setting things up and you're saying "Hey I going to give you points if you do X". and everyone does X, and X is something that you want, and you told them that that's what you'll give them points for, and it's obvious, then that's great. But if you're going to do something where you're doing something non-obvious, or a little bit tricky, or you're creating a little bit of a conflict between how they think it is going to work and how it really works, then in all those cases the best you can hope for is that they will accidentally stumble upon doing some behavior that you want them to do. Because of their misunderstanding will cause them to accidentally trip into the particular dark hallway that you want them to go down. That's the best you can do. I think you're always better off striving to make it that people understand what's going on. A lot of times that may mean that you can't have behavior that isn't clearly visible. There's going to be some kind of behavior in there like how you earn a badge, or when wiki edits don't show, there has to be some extreme visibility in the app. It has to explain itself a little bit, so that people understand what it is doing.
Atwood: Right. Normally, I'd totally agree with you. I think this is a little bit of an exception just because again it came out of phpBB, and these other very long well established messaging systems. Were harvesting these ideas from Wikipedia, message boards, and wherever I've been online and I've had a community that I thought really worked. I try to steal those ideas, and fold them into StackOverflow. So I think it is a proven idea that works. It's just a peculiarity of human behavior that you're always going to make mistakes immediately after doing something. So you have that little cusion. It's kind of a special case based on human behavior. And then two, I think we have a community --
Spolsky: What does it hurt to have at least the transaction history shown?
Atwood: Well, because it becomes noise. It's really tiny, simple, edits.
Spolsky: I don't know.
Atwood: Well again, we're not exactly doing... we're a hybrid, right? So, we're in between. So I think we harvest those ideas from different places. I don't think --
Spolsky: Hey I got a question. Heh. I got some questions. Want to listen to some questions?
Spolsky: Sorry, you'll see why I'm laughing in a minute.
Caller: Hi, this is Craig Jackson from corvallis Oregon. Joel, It's great hearing your ideas. Jeff, It's increasingly frustrating that you don't listen to a single argument that Joel makes during a conversation.
Caller: My question is, assume for a moment that StackOverflow becomes a great success ..
Spolsky: wait, let me just play that again [Laughter]
Caller: .. and gets nothing but good questions and even better answers. How do you intend in keeping folks interested in answering questions when the sheer volume of those questions gets so high. People will google for answers but they'll google for questions ..
Spolsky: [Starts playing question again]
Caller: Hi, this is Craig Jackson ...
Spolsky: I have to play it again and again. (Laughs)
Atwood: (Laughs) That's how much you like it, you wanna play it twice. Why was I not listening to your argument there?
Spolsky: It's about a one year project. We've got the same film maker as we had last time, except I'm basically interviewing everybody at Fog Creek. You know, three or four times, to get footage for this thing. And then we'll splice it all together, and the current plan is to have several different formats of this movie. There'll be a lot of short form little piece, like four minutes, we can put up on YouTube. If you want to hear about source code control, or you want to learn about hiring programmers or interviewing programmers or the phone interview. They'll be these little pieces that you can just download freely on the internet or watch. And then there's a [sort of a] more substantial ninety minute version, which is probably too much to distribute over the internet. But it'll probably distribute in DVD form. Maybe by that time, there'll be a good way to distribute a [you know] ninety minute DVD length thing over the internet. At kind of the high end, and what will hopefully pay for this whole operation, will be a corporate training video. Maybe a five to six hour thing that a team might buy inside a corporation to learn how to do software development a little bit better, and it'll just go into much more depth. There'll be like a whole hour of training on how to conduct interviews for programmers and a whole hour on how to setup your tools and that kind of stuff.
Atwood: Two things; we have a wiki, for people who can't listen to this. Where people can contribute transcriptions of our incredibly boring podcasts, and we thank you very much for that. Although I do have one request for the transcriptionists, and the ironic thing is, you're going to transcribe this, which I think is hilarious. When you transcribe, don't write down every time I say 'uh' or pause or 'yeah'. Make me sound awesome, that's my one request for the transcriptionists.
Spolsky: It doesn't have to be word for word. It doesn't necessarily read as well when it's word for word you can leave [out] 'uhms' and 'uhs'.
Atwood: In fact, leave out whole. If you think it reads better a certain way, just make me say whatever makes the transcriptionists sound the most awesome.
Spolsky: And it's wiki, go ahead and edit it.
Atwood: People edit anyway, you're right, it's hilarious. I've been reading the [revisions], it's very funny.
Atwood: The other thing is, if you do contribute to the wiki. Since our beta has been pushed back a week, this will get you in the same day, to the StackOverflow beta. If you want to be in, just email me after you've done a little bit of transcription, one minute or whatever you're comfortable with. If you want to get your question answered on the air, send a less than 90 second recording to firstname.lastname@example.org, we will put it in the queue and hopefully answer it on the next podcast.
Spolsky: Alright, that's it. Thank you very much, see you next week!
Atwood: See you next week.