The Word: Jack updates the embedded vernacular

May 30, 2007

Jack Ganssle-May 30, 2007

If a project's final phase is called debugging, do we call the initial parts bugging?

A few years ago Michael Barr and I wrote Embedded Systems Dictionary. Things change quickly in this industry; new words and expressions appear seemingly every day, while the meanings of older terms evolve. So here's an update.

Ada--The programming language that promised to deliver very high-quality code at a reasonable price. In practice it was found to fulfill those promises, though at the cost of annoying programmers by making them stick to a very strict syntax. So it was all but abandoned in favor of inferior alternatives. After all, debugging is sort of fun!

Agile method--A reaction to Big Up-Front Design, the agilists purport that nothing is known, nor will anything be known until customer acceptance, and therefore you better start coding, right now.

Algorithm--A problem's solution, invented by Al Gore.

Assembly language--The only computer language that allows unlimited artistic expression, assembly was invented by FDR during the Great Depression as a jobs program.

Big Up-Front Design--The traditional approach to building programs. It relies on the proven assumptions that the customer really knows what he wants, has expressed those ideas clearly and completely in the specification document, and that the future never brings change.

Bit banging--An abusive programming technique that has sent millions of bits into therapy.

Bugging--The part of programming that includes specification, design, and coding, but that ends before any sort of testing starts. Primarily involves seeding defects into the code. See Debugging.

C--A programming language whose syntax is so loose most C compilers will happily accept the telephone directory as syntactically correct.

C++--An object-oriented programming language that has an on-going committee whose goal is to add so many obfuscating features that no single individual really understands all of its nuances.

Capability Maturity Model--A set of practices that defines the effectiveness of a software organization. Rated in five levels, from minus 3 (Sabotage) to +1 (Chaos). Defining characteristics of a minus 3 organization: "Total neglect of own charter, conscious discrediting of peer organizations software process improvement efforts. Rewarding failure and poor performance." (Tom Schorsch,

COBOL--The only programming language that will still be around in the year 10,000 AD. See 8051.

Clever code--"Debugging is twice as hard as writing the code in the first place. Therefore, if you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it." (Brian W. Kernighan)

Cost Plus Contract--The opportunity to never say "no" to a feature request, never deliver, and keep vast numbers of people on the payroll till someone in Congress (in some other congressional district) notices.

Debugging--Removing the defects so laboriously inserted during bugging.

Embedded--An adjective designating a journalist in Iraq.

Embedded system--Who knows? Once an embedded system was something using an 8051. Now they include PowerPCs and Pentiums, plus desktop operating systems like Linux and Windows. Maybe an embedded system is anything with a computer in it that's not a PC or Mac. Except those usually have many processors embedded inside.

Engineer--A person trained to solve problems. If there are no problems, he'll create a few to solve.

Estimation--The act of putting together a schedule that, if developer productivity triples and electrons can be moved faster than the speed of light, will result in funding of the project. See Clairvoyance.

FET--A vacuum tube that does not require 6.3 VAC.

Firmware--Code that is so provably correct it's burned permanently into ROM.

Firmware standard--A list of practices we should adhere to while programming but don't.

Flash memory--A technology invented so no program needs to be completed. Ship with a boot loader and eternally e-mail updates till the customer is so frustrated he gives up, long after his check has cleared.

Forth--An older language whose adherents once sent me 20,000 e-mails when I poked some fun at it, . . . ah, so, uh, Forth is the world's most popular computer language and is perfect for a wide range of applications, including all of them.

Free()--obsolete; unused. See malloc().

Glitch--an anomaly in your program. In anyone else's program it's called a "bug."

Hacking--The art of software development as taught in many universities.

Hard core--A microprocessor embedded in fixed cells on a programmable device like an FPGA. What . . . did you expect some other definition?

Hard real time--A sentence resulting from a felony.

Int--A data type that holds some number of bits that varies depending on the processor, compiler, and wind direction.

Kernel--An important ingredient in Taco Bell's products, consumed by developers around the world.

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