The Stack Overflow Podcast

Open source contributors helped a helicopter fly on Mars

Episode Summary

On today’s episode we celebrate all the contributors, maintainers, minders, and menders who crafted or cleaned up the code that let a helicopter fly on Mars. You are all part of the sci-if future we imagined.

Episode Notes

You can check out the badge Github gave to folks for helping with the Mars flight here. You can learn more about F´, NASA’s open source flight software and embedded system framework, here.

Paul tells the story of a shady financial operator who offered to take his blog public during the dot com boom. Yes, was once an IPO candidate.

Who copies and pastes from Stack Overflow? We dig into some of the data from our April Fools joke to get a sense of the scale and collaboration happening across our community.

Paul takes a tutorial on coding with Ethereum but decides decarbonizing is the real future for software.

Today's lifeboat badge winner is Scott M., who answered the question: How to remove one line from a txt file?


Episode Transcription

Ben Popper If I don't get you to rage kick your machine then I have not done my job.

Paul Ford That's right. Well, for context, Sara, I kicked my USB cable out when we were recording. [Ben laughs]


PF Well...

BP Well, another day, another dollar. Hello Paul! Welcome to the Stack Overflow Podcast.

PF Oh my goodness! Welcome. Welcome back, everybody! Good to be here. Good to be talking.

BP Thanks for being here. Thanks for listening. Paul, there was a fun story this morning up on the GitHub blog thanking everybody who contributed to flying a helicopter on Mars. This is not a sci-fi film. This is real.

PF Goodness! That is good. That is good. Wow. So it says here on the weblog, nearly 12,000 people contributed code documentation, graphic design and more to the open source software that made Ingenuity's is launch possible.

BP Yeah, it's very cool. So yeah, I mean, let's let's work through this. First of all, Mars has an atmosphere 1% of Earth. So I guess it's not you know, on Earth, when you're using a helicopter is pushing against the atmosphere. That's how it goes, you know, up and down.

PF Well, I wonder, right, because I'm guessing you get, there's less friction. So I bet you can spin those wheels real fast. Spin those rotors real fast. But there's less lift, because what are you pushing against? So it's gotta be like weeee!

BP Right. So there's a bit of a trade-off. Yeah, exactly. Can you make that noise a little bit more?

PF Weeeee! Beep beep!

BP The helicopter runs on an embedded Linux distribution on its navigation computer written in c++, GPL's open source flight framework fprime.

PF Hell yeah! fprime! And, you know—

BP You got Python ecosystem under there. Yeah.

PF The only thing when it whenever you say that I'm just like, I just imagined the helicopter kind of coming up behind you and going like, "I run on Arch Linux" [Ben laughs] you know, just this, it's once you get into Linux, embedded Linux distros, I mean, it's maybe it's Alpine. Who knows, who knows.

BP The helicopter, is a little bit snooty. But we applaud its efforts. I mean, what's interesting here, right, like you were saying 12,000 people, and then all these different things, they sort of did the hard work, which doesn't happen often enough, because you know, who's going to do it of going back through all the dependencies, and then thanking all the people and giving them all a special badge. So it's not like people knowingly contributed code to this, right? They just were working on their own thing, whatever that may be. And it kind of all spidered up to the to the final thing.

PF What's cool here, what I didn't understand at first is that, so NASA made a list of all the different things that they used. So I mean, we're looking at like Python, and there's fprime and Linux and URL lib, but lots of good Python here. Wow they use Werkzeug.

BP Yeah, there's two metaphors here, what we find is there's a hierarchy of dependencies, a single project might have 10, or fewer, but they spider out from there. And then if that metaphor doesn't work for you, much like dropping a pebble and dropping a pebble in a lake, your small contribution ripples out to have a much larger impact.

PF So they did a good thing here, which is they got in touch with GitHub, and they said, hey, everybody qualifies here as some as someone who contributed to the space program who contributed to these repositories. So they fanned out the credit to 1000s and 1000s of developers. And of course, GitHub kind of knows inherent in Git is this social graph of who contributed to what and when, and where and how and so like, that is very cool. So basically, everybody who, you know, your code, you might have updated the documentation on the Elastic Search Python module. And that is part of what gets the helicopter to fly on Mars.

BP It is very cool. I mean, it's very cool to get a special badge and right, as you said, to get it maybe for just doing some basic housekeeping, that is what you like to do on a slow rainy Sunday.

PF I mean, listen, open source right now, not just right now, but now in particular, it's going through some stuff. It's not, it's it's it's roll in culture, which used to be kind of certain in the tech world is a little more like, hey, what are we doing here? There is a problem all over the place. This is a good thing. And frankly, you know, they shipped a lot of Python to Mars, they didn't ship quite as much JavaScript as I would have expected. Some good stuff. There's markdown on Mars. Python markdown.

BP It's a lot.

PF There's, you know, the Jinja I mean, this is I love this Python web development ecosystem. It's one of my favorite pieces of code. It's very friendly. Flask is wonderful. No SQL alchemy. I don't I don't see an ORM in here. So it looks like and Lucene. They absolutely ship Java to Mars. But they've done that before. I think Java has been. So good job. Hey, NASA. Great job from the Stack Overflow Podcast. You know, I know you guys were waiting.

BP This brings us we haven't publicly revealed this yet, but we will I think today and then it'll be on the podcast tomorrow, but I'll come down later. But, you know, sort of going back to this, we used to have this thing on Stack Overflow, where we'd say how many people, you know, your questions and answers reach. So I think very famously, you know, it was like John skeet when they, you know, gave him his award or whatever, you know, he had gotten to a million reputation, but he had impacted, you know, 50 million people have been helped, you know, roughly something by and stuff. And so now we know, because we ran a fun little April Fool's joke that one out of every four people who visit a Stack Overflow page, copy something within the first five minutes. Sometimes it's, usually it's the, it's the answer. But sometimes it's the question, and sometimes it's a comment. And all that stuff, then goes on to have a new life probably in some of these dependencies.

PF Well, it does. And actually the licensing on Stack has always been really clear. So you know, it cutting and pasting. And so I'm guessing you're able to capture the cut event inside of the browser. That's good. And off, you go from there. So and then we use a lot of spyware.

BP And we track the pace. No, I'm just kidding, we don't do that. [Paul & Ben laugh]

PF Anyway, look, I mean, check out NASA/fprime that is on That is a cool URL, NASA/fprime. fprime is a component driven framework that enables rapid development and deployment of spaceflight and other embedded software applications. I'll tell you, I read something like that. And I just want to throw it all out the window. I'm just like, okay, well, that's what you should be doing. You should be putting Python on Mars. But that's okay. We all have a role to play. Yeah, those of us who talk on the podcast, you know, we serve in our own way.

BP Yeah, exactly. You know, it's not, it's not like we didn't want to help. It's just you know, we didn't think about it that way. Spaceflight, podcast. I mean, we're talking about this spaceflight thing right now. So maybe we should get a badge? To be honest.

PF Yeah, no, absolutely. I would love it. I've never gotten a badge in my life.

BP Helping to spread the word.

PF I love too everybody gets upset about NASA spending all this money to put stuff on Mars. But then I'm like, well, that's, that's like the—and then you learn and Amazon's paying $465 million to make one season of a prequel to Lord of the Rings. And I'm like, you know, world is complicated. And I'm getting more value out of watching that little helicopter go up and down, then I will out of another 80 hours of Hobbit lore. [Ben laughs] So you know, to each their own.

BP And we did see another thing that was interesting that came out of looking at the the copies was that there are so many questions out there that don't have an accepted answer. That doesn't mean people aren't copying the code. It doesn't mean people aren't getting value out of it. No, no, no. Some of the most copied were questions with we didn't have accepted answer. So as long as you're contributing an idea, as long as you're giving it your best shot, you might be helping people.

PF Hey, if you're out there contributing to Stack Overflow, you're doing great. You're helping the culture. Thank you. Thank you very much. I'm looking at Stack exchange as we're talking and you know, it just it keeps happening. The only problem is, you know, why didn't Hermione try to get Slughorn's memory? I do feel that we could maybe move on a little bit but lots of good code golfing. You know, it's funny is you just realize what your clickbait is, like your personal clickbait. And mine is drawing a man in LaTeX, like just like, how do I draw a little guy in my typesetting language, you know, originally created by Donald Knuth with with add ons from Leslie Lamport. And you click on and it's like, oh my god, they drew a koala. They drew a koala outr of circles and there's a macro. There exists specific packages for the outlines of beings and I'm going to tell you, these are not good koalas or snowmen. But there is a koala package in LaTeX. So you know, it's gotcha. It's there for you.

BP Somewhere at the intersection of code golf, generative art and really, really dorky computer history. That's where you're sitting.

PF I'm telling you, I mean, drawing a man in LaTeX, three answers posted by user 2040141 just rolls off the tongue in the in the tech Stack Exchange. TeX, by the way everybody's pronouncing things in funny ways is definitely an artifact of 1980s open computer culture.


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BP Paul, I heard an argument the other day that I wanted to run by you because I know you don't love the nonsense nickels, or the cryptocurrencies.

PF I know.

BP Are you a collector of anything now? Like do you collect anything?

PF You know, this is a funny thing because I'm actually wrestling with this because I probably more than almost anyone I know in my life need a hobby. [Paul laughs]

BP Yeah.

PF I need to do something that isn't me thinking about my company or computers—

BP Right, computers, I thought you were building like your new machine or building something can't count? Or you want to, okay, you wanna have a hobby that's separate from that?

PF I mean computer is like infinite hobby computer, like just so much computer. [Ben laughs] No, I need to get away from the computer. I do have a tendency to go on eBay. And the thing is, is what I what I like is cheap ephemera. So I would say if you have a, if I have a hobby, it's like second editions of books, right? Like, it's right. I enjoy collecting old Omni magazines. But I have no desire, mostly because when dads come over to hang out at my house, it gives us something to talk about. Because otherwise you just kind of sit there and it's like—also I live in Brooklyn. So sports is not a given. And not everyone's in the tech industry. So it's just like, what are we gonna do? You know, 'cause in Brooklyn, it'll be like, 'hey, what do you think about the Mets this year?' And it'd be like, 'well, actually, I'm just really into curling' and you're like, 'oh, man, wow...'

BP But vintage magazines work because everyone's into vintage, a little peek down memory lane.

PF It's really, it's very 80s all the ads are for cigarettes and crazy technologies. And everybody's like, oh, okay, alright, that's interesting, look at this. Wow, they really thought, look at it. They're talking about like a gigabyte! [Paul & Ben laugh] You know? So that's, yeah, I am not much of a collector. And I've tried to be but then I'm like, I don't want stuff. Stuff is, you know me because I just moved.

BP So the way it was explained to me is that there was sort of a there was a naming error at the beginning. And if we had called them crypto assets or collectibles instead of cryptocurrency, we could have saved ourselves five years of arguing about, hey, nobody's you know, really wants to pay for pizza with this. You can't pay for you know, pizza with something that's worth a penny now, and you know, $60,000 later, or whatever it may be. But we all love to collect things. That's like a natural instinct. And this actually kind of stuck with me, because then now I realize oh, I do like, when I'm playing a video game, I love to collect all the things. I look for all the loot, you know, the loot box, I've got all my digital card games, I collect all those. So when you think about it in that way, then you can sort of like start to understand why people love all these nonsense nickels.

PF No, I get it. I get bored is my real problem. Right? So it's like, there's a little game that you play when you subscribe to The New York Times. And look, I know, I live in New York City, it's my hometown newspaper, whatever your opinions of it out there in Stack land. And they have a little game that comes with it called Spelling Bee where you make letters out of seven letters. And it's and it's kind of been a hit, right? And I was into this game so bad for like a month. I'm like, yeah, I'm gonna get all the words. And now I got like three minutes on that thing. And I'm like, I'm just gonna be spelling more letters. That's all I'm gonna be. I'm gonna be like spelling more words. That's not gonna change. And the words don't mean anything. And then I'm like, well, time to put the phone down. Right? So yeah, I will say like, I just don't, I'm not wired for collecting. I did start a watching and learning about, I started watching a video called The Complete Guide to Full Stack Ethereum Development. Tutorial for beginners. It's by Nader Dabit. And it's connected to a blog post, and so on. And on dev two, and it's pretty good. I mean, I'm starting to figure it out. It's... very complicated. I don't know if you were connected to the world. But Ben, there was a point. So you know about Ruby on Rails, right?

BP Mhm.

PF The thing that put Ruby on Rails over the edge is that up until that point, let's say you were building things in PHP, or you were doing or you were doing sort of bigger systems and API's and so on and so forth. You kind of cobbled together, like, I'm going to use my database over here. And I'm going to use my, I'm going to build my web pages over here. And you sort of put all the pieces together. Ruby on Rails shows up and there is a 15 minute video. And it says, here's how you build a full app. You know, anything, there's a blog, here's how you build a full blog app, top to bottom database, so on and so forth interface, people can log in, they can post, they can do all this stuff. And it was like, that was off to the races, you saw so many middle European accents telling you how to build, you know, like Ruby on Rails based apps over the next couple of years. And it was different 'cause it wasn't tutorial based. It was a tutorial on video, but it wasn't like a set of blog posts. You didn't have to cobble it together, you get the whole story. But this thing is an hour long and it is dense. There's a lot going on. And so I'm like yeah, it actually puts a lot in the context for me. The things that really create true dynamism in the tech industry are things where you get the basics in 15 or 20 minutes and once you get into that hour, it's like now you're really making a point. And so this is it. This stuff is just really complicated.

BP I think one of the things that's interesting, and we were talking about this last time is that I think it's fair to say that Ethereum, as you say, is very complicated and does not yet have, has not yet built, you know, many apps are daps that have like major consumer adoption. What's really interesting is that, you know, there was this moment where like, the internet got ahead of itself, and there was the .com boom and bust. And I think we could have had that with cryptocurrency. But there's two things one, there's like the collectibles speculation. And two, the government is doing things differently. Now, we had the great financial crisis, we had the pandemic, and powered through that, we just printed the money. And we didn't have that kind of like, you know, moment where like, a lot of startups go under. In fact, venture capital, like increased during the pandemic the opposite way. And so we're still like, 10 years out maybe the same way, we were 10 years out from like, mainstream adoption of ecommerce, from whatever crypto will be. But the cycling of value from finance to tech is just like going, going strong.

PF Well, I think what's weird here, though, right, like, and sort of that, that initial sale, the 2001 wave that imploded. Those companies were all participating in the real economy. And they were going public in the real economy, and they were failing in the real economy. And I'll tell you, one day, somebody came up to me and said, "you have a blog!" like I do, don't tell anybody. And they're like, "look, here's what I can do for you. I can if you want to, sir, to set your blog up as like a new thing. And we kind of tell a little story on the website, I got these people who will go out there and they will sell this thing as a sort of about to go public company. And then we can take you, what you do is you get a credit card out of the Caymans." And I was like, every time I've come face to face with your financial corruption, my utter stupidity—

BP Wow, this is good.

PF Oh, this happened to me—

BP So they were ready to take ftrain public. They were like, you know, ftrain could be the next social network. It could be an ecommerce, it could be all of these things.

PF I'm like, I write about going to the dentist, like what are you talking about? [ben laughs] But they're like, no, no, because it's, you know, they just basically wanted me to figure out like, they wanted me to, like, make it into some fake business. And then at that point, you would just, and it was boiler rooms, they would just get the boiler rooms to go out and call the institutional investors. I mean, doesn't that just take money away from people and they're like, they're idiots anyway. I was like oh... oh...

BP You've never unearthed this story, I'm so glad we got this.

PF Look, you gotta remember, the web early days, it would be like "I have a FedEx envelope filled with cash." There is an actual criminality to the early days of the web, that was always there. And it doesn't get talked about because who's gonna talk about it?

BP Well, isn't that true? Kind of too, though, I feel like both between the like, Bitcoin got started is interesting and cool. And the now and it's like, Bitcoin is like institutional and on Wall Street and bigger than than most banks. There was the dark web like crypto era, right of like two or three years. It was like, oh, this is for—what was that drug site?

PF Silk Road.

BP You know, this is for buying MDMA. Silk Road. Exactly, exactly. So there was that.

PF That's right. Like I said, it said subterranean economy. And like I was in the middle of this, I be going out and talking to people. And the reason that I didn't get involved is like A) I think I'm just, I'm not inclined that way. But also just B) I just didn't understand what the hell was going on. They'd be like this and this and this. I mean, one of your best defenses against getting roped into that world is just kind of being an innocent and being like, that doesn't make sense to me. I don't want to do it. Somebody told me I, somebody told me I should invest in ImClone at one point, that was a hot stock. And that was the one that took down Martha Stewart.

BP Ahhh.

PF The reason I didn't because I didn't know they were like, you should absolutely do this, this will make you a lot of money. I'm like, I like money. But I didn't understand how to set up a Schwab account. So I was like, ahhh, this is not for me. Whoo. And so like, you know, and then over time you you figure out what's actually going on, but your defenses are built up. And it's stay away from crime kids, this is my advice. But yeah, so I think like, we're going through this, we went through that phase again. And now I think there's a legitimate thing happening. The thing that's interesting to me is that essentially is its own economy. And what's happened is that it really does feel like Silicon Valley has said, we're gonna have our own marketplaces, we're tired of Wall Street. We're tired of like, we're gonna have our own stock trading, we're gonna have our own economy that runs along technology principles. And I'll tell you what I think deep down Ben, I think it's all fine. And I think it'll be here for 100 years, and I think that Bitcoin could go to a billion dollars, you're not going to get rid of the real economy. You just aren't. Like whether you think that money is fake? Well, it's no more fake than Bitcoin. It's all fake. Okay, so there's a new class of fake. And I just also look at it and I'm like, yeah, all of this is real. I'm glad you guys are making lots of money. I'm really happy for you. But the new economy is actually the decarbonized economy and we should be thinking about that. And we're going in the other direction, we're trying to make things more expensive which I respect because the internet really was very bad at taking care of the people who created its value. All of that value went to very few people. But at the same time, boy, you're all headed in the direction that doesn't really acknowledge what the real banana cakes economy of extreme weather events in two degrees Celsius looks like.

BP Well, yeah, I mean, I think there's two things happening. One is like, they kept repeating the Coinbase mantra, which is like, "we're going to democratize finance"

PF No, that does not work.

BP I don't think you've done any of that!

PF God bless us all. That is a story that people told themselves. Okay. Okay. [Paul laughs]

BP Okay. But I do think it's interesting that it was, I think, like you said, I think technology, the technology sector, and finance and all this, like, I think they got so far ahead of finance that now it's this self fulfilling prophecy, where finance has to follow because they can't miss the boat. And so in that sense, it won't have that.

PF They financialized everything before it worked, right, like, it's like, it doesn't work yet. But they're like, let's financialize it. And that was actually look, I like I said, you talk to people in blockchain companies in they're like, check out our white paper, this is, this is a stable coin tethered to another stable coin. And you're like, cool? That seems really cool. I like your home, I like the the test net, you've got gone with those little charts, but those could also be the charts that my pi hole puts out for how many ads are blocked, I couldn't tell the difference. Right? So to me the fundamental error, the fundamental culture error—I would be interested in and I remain interested in a lot of things like FileCoin, where the computational resources are what's being traded for, and the market of future computation is in play. So look, I mean, you know, as we're just working through, I'm just like money changes the dialogue so much because people are like, am I in? Am I out? What am I missing? Am I gonna be the only person who's left behind? But you know, we're it's still early days. It really is. And I don't, like it's still early days for the platform. It might actually be definancialized, might be that Ethereum is worth a penny in the future. But it's really, really interesting. Yeah. Which you know, God forbid, right, like that is literally everybody's worst nightmare. But there's good stuff coming.


BP Should I read us a lifeboat?

PF Let's do a lifeboat!

BP ​"How to remove one line from a txt file." This week's lifeboat badge Award winner is Scott M. Thanks, Scott for answering the question with a score of negative three and getting up to an entry score of 20 or more. You spread some knowledge around the internet and help some people I'm sure many have copied and pasted from you. So how to remove one line from a txt file. We'll put it in the shownotes. I'm Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. I didn't directly help put a helicopter on Mars, but I applaud everyone who did

PF Me neither, but you know, good job and great impeccable taste in open source library.

BP Exactly.

PF Good choice of ecosystem NASA! You know, I'm Paul Ford. I have a company called Postlight. And check out Jewelbots. Sara isn't here today.

BP Yeah, we'll shout it out.

PF But you know, let's shout her out. Sara Chipps, my wonderful co-host here with Ben. Get your daughter excited about the world of science and technology. Just the coolest thing in the world.

BP And if you've ever copied and pasted from Stack Overflow and felt guilty about it, don't. Check out the blog. You'll see you're not alone. You're one of 40 million a week. [ben laughs] Something like that.

PF No, that's right. We know we all cut and pasted, it is how we learn. That's the true object oriented programming.

BP Alright, there we go.

PF Alright friends. Friend.

BP Talk to you soon! Bye.

PF Bye!