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Month: February 2022

The Write Stuff

The Write Stuff

What does it take to write software that lives depend on and send rockets to space? Fast Company wrote a great article of the software engineers that delivered that software for the Space Shuttle. Particularly noteworthy is the observations of Quinn Larson, 34, had worked on shuttle software for seven years when he left to go to work for Micron Technology automating the saws that cut finished chip wafers to the right size. “It was up to me to decide what to do,” says Larson. “There were no meetings, there was no record-keeping.” He had freedom; it was a real kick. But to Larson’s way of thinking, the culture didn’t focus on, well, the right stuff. “Speed there was the biggest thing,”. Larson eventually went back at the shuttle group. “The people here are just of the highest caliber,” he said on his first day back in Clear Lake.

In interviewing the Shuttle team, they boiled down to 4 key principles that set the development team apart from other software teams:

1. The product is only as good as the plan for the product. At the on-board shuttle group, about one-third of the process of writing software happens before anyone writes a line of code. NASA and the Lockheed Martin group agree in the most minute detail about everything the new code is supposed to do — and they commit that understanding to paper, with the kind of specificity and precision usually found in blueprints. Nothing in the specs is changed without agreement and understanding from both sides. And no coder changes a single line of code without specs carefully outlining the change.

2. Within the whole software team, the team is broken into two seperate groups: the coders and the verifiers. The two outfits report to separate bosses and function under opposing marching orders. The development group is supposed to deliver completely error-free code, so perfect that the testers find no flaws at all. The testing group is supposed to pummel away at the code with flight scenarios and simulations that reveal as many flaws as possible.

3. The software consists of the code and two enormous databases. There is the software. And then there are the databases beneath the software, two enormous databases, encyclopedic in their comprehensiveness. One is the history of the code itself — with every line annotated, showing every time it was changed, why it was changed, when it was changed, what the purpose of the change was, what specifications documents detail the change. Everything that happens to the program is recorded in its master history.

The other database — the error database — stands as a kind of monument to the way the on-board shuttle group goes about its work. Here is recorded every single error ever made while writing or working on the software, going back almost 20 years. For every one of those errors, the database records when the error was discovered; what set of commands revealed the error; who discovered it; what activity was going on when it was discovered — testing, training, or flight. It tracks how the error was introduced into the program; how the error managed to slip past the filters set up at every stage to catch errors — why wasn’t it caught during design? during development inspections? during verification? Finally, the database records how the error was corrected, and whether similar errors might have slipped through the same holes.

4. Don’t just fix the mistakes — fix whatever permitted the mistake. Importantly, the group avoids blaming people for errors. The process assumes blame – and it’s the process that is analyzed to discover why and how an error got through. At the same time, accountability is a team concept: no one person is ever solely responsible for writing or inspecting code. “You don’t get punished for making errors,” says Marjorie Seiter, a senior member of the technical staff. “If I make a mistake, and others reviewed my work, then I’m not alone. I’m not being blamed for this.”

Portland’s Daily Stolen Car Count

Portland’s Daily Stolen Car Count

Property crime – including car thefts and break-ins – have become the new pandemic in Portland. For 2021 we reached a 25 year high with many months now have over 1000 cars stolen. 2022 is shaping up to be the same or worse.

It’s not uncommon to see vehicles without license plates driving around city streets and even randomly crashed into buildings. Since last year, Portland police can no longer pull cars over for traffic infractions, missing tags, expired registration, etc. It may soon be Oregon state law that police cannot pull anyone over for minor infractions.

Much like the old Portland Stabtown counter, there is now a new PDXStolenCars.com that keeps tally on the location and stolen vehicle count each day. They also list the most common open-air chop shops and dumping locations for boosted cars since local police no longer pursue such cases.

Those Million Dollar Retro video games auctions are a scam

Those Million Dollar Retro video games auctions are a scam

Karl Jobst does a lot of great videos on retro gaming and speed running, but this is one of his best. He pulls back the covers on how and why we now see retro video games selling for hundreds of thousands (now millions) of dollars – seemingly overnight – and why they are part of a massive (but largely legal) scam.
Update: Wired has done an article on this, as has Kotaku who follows up Jobst’s claims with the auction houses – who did everything they could to avoid admitting to the scheme.

We’ve all seen record breaking and very high profile sales of retro video games. In investigating these sales, Jobst finds some absolutely fascinating information. There is very good evidence of a massively collusive industry (i.e. one guy that owns all of these sites) that involves grading agencies, auction houses, and fractional hedge investing houses who are all owned by the same people. Even worse, they have been doing this same scheme from the coin collector bubbles in the 80’s to comic book sales and other collectibles.

The short story? You first recognize an market with collectors and buy up a number of rare games in excellent condition for a few thousand dollars on the open market. After you quietly get a collection of the highest quality items, you then set up your own specialty auction site and grading system for those games. You start selling them on your own auction site and manipulate and pumping the bids to around 2x-5x original prices using accounts you control. This ensures that you have bought the items back yourself. It doesn’t matter what others bid so long as you win your own auction with one of your fake accounts. This creates a history of massively increasing prices and sense of scarcity without actually costing you anything. You’re selling them to yourself on your own auction site so there are no fees or overhead other than running a simple website. This part is easy, because the money you ‘paid’ just comes right back to yourself since you are both the buyer, seller, and own the auction house. You then repeat this process every 6-12 months per game – raising the price higher and higher. As sales break every record, you contact industry news sites that report on these nitch areas (like retro gaming) and off-handedly mention your auction and show the package in your grading services package during the interview.

Eventually you need someone else’s money to make a living at this. As prices rise and publicity spreads of exploding prices, you can then create fractional ownership shares of an item – and sell those to the open market. With the increasing cash inflow, you can then continue to sell the same game again and again at higher and higher prices. You use fractional share owners to compete against fractional share bidders. Again, since you are always the winning bidder (along with the collection of fractional sales customers) this is all profit. The fractional owners walk away with some small amount of money on the gains, you as the auction house take a 15-20% cut, and 5% seller’s cut. Even better – the game never leaves your possession. You then put it back on the fractional sales site under the winner’s account – and sell shares at the newer, higher price – and repeat as long as you like. Each time you turn it over, you make 20-25% of the new, inflated sale price.

How did he figure this all out? By researching and finding out the same guys in the news with these winning bids just happen to be the same folks that own and run the auction houses and grading companies. He also finds they were the key players in previous collector run-ups like the 80’s coin bubble, the comic collection bubbles, and many others.

Definitely worth a watch and as a serious cautionary tale – because like the coin collector scams they ran like this in the 80’s and 90’s the market eventually collapsed.

Video game developers leave the industry at a steady rate after 3-6 years of work. 

Video game developers leave the industry at a steady rate after 3-6 years of work. 

This article from Game Developer gives a pretty accurate description of working in the game industry in the 2010-20’s. They share a very common story of Frank D’Angelo who got into games, but ultimate left by late 20’s. Long term game careers are rare, with the latest numbers showing only 17% of 30,000 attendees at the Game Developers Conference having worked in the industry for seven to ten years. Why? It’s a number of factors, but common are: high stress and long hours, constant need to move for the next game job, unstable work with frequent layoffs, and unhealthy life and family balance. As someone that also felt themselves move away from games in my graphics career, I can echo much of what he experienced.

Jason Schreier also writes about these factors in his book “Blood, Sweat, and Pixels” and more recent follow up “Press Reset“.