Category: Hugo

Bret Victor – Inventing on Principle

The hunt for shorter edit/compile/debug cycles

Bret Victor’s talk Inventing on Principle (video, transcript) changed the way I think about computing in 2019. Inventing on Principle is partly about Bret’s guiding principle:

Creators need an immediate connection to what they create. And what I mean by that is when you’re making something, if you make a change, or you make a decision, you need to see the effect of that immediately.”

The Edit-Compile-Run Cycle

Although Bret doesn’t use the term, programmers are deeply familiar with his principle. We’ve all worked with toolchains that introduce significant delay before you can “see” the results of a change, and we know they’re painful. Everyone wants a short edit-compile-run cycle.

But until IoP, I’d assumed that slow cycles wouldn’t materially change the output – you’d eventually get to the same place. This was wrong. I also didn’t appreciate the very small time scales involved; a 5 second delay used to seem trivial to me, but it’s still meaningfully different from a response time measured in milliseconds.

Through some very impressive custom tools, Bret shows how immediate feedback enables exploration, which then gives birth to ideas which would otherwise never see the light of day. This was an epiphany for me. Since IoP I’ve constantly been looking for better ways to code, and re-evaluating my existing processes for shorter feedback cycles. The results:

Rust

My typical Rust development workflow goes something like this:

  1. Write a small function that does roughly what I want
  2. Write a small unit test inline to exercise the function (even if it’s a private function)
  3. Iterate using cargo test until the function is correct
  4. Later, “productionize” the tests if necessary

Rust’s native support for inline unit tests helps a lot here, and the excellent type system catches a lot of issues before I even run cargo test. On the other hand, Rust’s compiler is notoriously slow and that extends to IDE tooling that depends on the Rust Language Server. I’m looking forward to Cranelift for faster debug builds.

Future Imperfect 2.0

A near-complete website rewrite

I spent a few weeks in August rewriting this website, and as promised here are the deets. The source code is available here under the MIT license.

Background

When I initially put this website together in January 2018, I used Julio Pescador’s Hugo port of the Future Imperfect theme. I’d heard good things about Hugo, I wanted to write blog posts in Markdown, and it was a good-looking theme that required minimal additional setup. It served me well for over a year, but a few things kept bothering me:

  1. The styling was very difficult to modify – it was nearly 3000 lines of CSS in a single file, with many duplicated colours and styles.
  2. The theme relied on a lot of JavaScript libraries: jQuery, highlight.js, Fancybox, Skel
    1. My simple static website was serving up hundreds of kilobytes of largely unnecessary scripts. As someone who grew up using a dialup modem, this offended me.

My goal was to rewrite the Hugo theme for extensibility and performance, and I figured it would take maybe a week. Of course, it took about 3 times that.

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I'm a software engineer in Vancouver, Canada. I'm interested in databases, urban planning, computing history, and whatever else catches my fancy.

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