It’s been a long time since I’ve put finger to keyboard and typed out a post on this here Wayward Weblog, an artifact of the ancient web 1.1, where men were men and posts were posts, and men posted nonsense into the amorphous ether of the intertubes, hoping beyond hope that somehow, somewhere, someone out there might follow its link and indulge in the inanity of a lone stranger’s train of thought.  You might have wondered what happened.  Did the Wayward drop off the planet?  Or did he emigrate to the same future that has so captivated the rest of the known universe? Did he switch to Twitter? Is there a feed out there that encompasses the boldness that once was The Weblog?  Or did he just switch to Facebook and is only posting sumptuous morsels of enlightenment to his vast inner circle of friends? And why weren’t you friended? Who does this guy think he is?


No need to fret. Nothing so sinister has come to pass. You would indeed all be friended by the Great Wayward himself had he the nerve to actually book his own face, or the chutzpah to become one of the droves of twitterpaters drowning the web in scrawls of cryptic blurbs and emoticons.  But alas, a non-social cretin like the Wayward does not change his habits even when granted a tech-laden alternative interface to reality. The world of hyper-salivating coolness that has overtaken so many has simply passed him by.


The real truth is that I’m so anti-social that without constant reminder that the world outside my office exists, I tend to forget everything about it. It used to take extreme doses of overly caffeinated beverages to perk my interest in the outer realms, the hallways and other peoples’ doors, something that would give me a buzz and bad case of the shakes, anxiously rousing me from my chair and sending me wandering dazedly around the building, frenetically bumping into walls, tripping over chairs. Sometimes, if the planets aligned and the conditions were just right, I might have found myself interacting with actual other people. Back in the time of Jolt cola I got so wired I blacked out. I’m not really sure what happened, though I did get written up on a HR violation. The lawyers won’t let me talk about it anymore. Needless to say, those black days are gone and will never be repeated; especially since I’ve been off the caffeine.


So you can see, it’s really not you, it’s me, honestly. Without the personality altering drugs, I’m hopelessly lost in the only bit of reality that captivates me; my code. Without survival instinct buried deep within my brain and, of course, hunger signals I would not know when to leave and go home.  It would just be my code, day in day out, my internal world of organizing bits into blobs, refactoring hacks into tweeks and spewing forth all that is holy, the unquestioned word of the Wayward.


Which makes it extremely out of the ordinary for me be writing this now, far outside my comfort zone. Something tripped the switch and sent me mousing outside my code editor and into the bleak wasteland of the syntactically challenged word processor to type up this non-executable diatribe. You see, something extraordinary happened. Something so beyond fantastic, I could no longer stay focused on the screen of scintillating source in front of me.  

As it turns out, and to my utter astonishment, somebody else’s code was better.


And not just a little bit better; gobstoppingly better, from coding cowboy coolness to cold cognitive bliss.


Last week at the PDC we released the Async CTP (community technology preview) for C# and VB.  It’s got this really nifty feature that turns otherwise horrendous gobbledygook of callback nastiness into nice legible, linear source code, so you can actually write asynchronous code as if it were synchronous; no muss, no fuss.


But I don’t really need to tell you about this, as you’ve certainly read umpteen other blogs and news articles already that have either confounded you with a bazillion examples or threatened you with what the code would have otherwise looked like, the kinds of software geek horrors reserved for Halloween night obfuscation contests.


We’ve all been there, right?


Of course, this wasn’t news to me.  I had been in the thick of it for a long time.  Talking about asynchronous programming was always just enough inducement to get me out from in front of my PC and into a conference room.  It wasn’t the asynchrony itself or the cutesy new keywords, or the magic rewrite that’s kind of like iterators and kind of not.  It wasn’t the stack spilling or intricate details of exception handling that lead me to this degree of engagement.


It wasn’t the async feature at all.  It was one of the samples.


You see, while I had been long involved in the design I’d never much paid attention to the periphery.  Until the CTP released, I had never took much notice in the samples the others were busily compiling. 

Yet when I did, I found one sample that completely embodied the elegance and beauty of the underlying asynchrony itself.  It was and is so profoundly tied to the deep concept that I don’t think any other example could ever match it.


I’m sure you are oozing with curiosity so I’ll let you in on the secret.  It’s the ‘Dining Philosophers’ sample. Go ahead and pull that one up out of the CTP and take a look at the source.  I’ll wait.  You’ll probably see where I’m coming from and where I’m going just by ogling the text, but let me explain anyway.


The Dining Philosophers problem is a classic computer science problem that involves finding a process by which a group of self-serving windbags can all sit down at a table and share a meal without anyone starving. You’d think that such highly educated folks would not need help in such a matter, but in fact they do, since they are seldom in agreement and are often focused on talking more than anything else that they seldom take the time to even order their food, let alone realize there are not enough forks to go around. Eggheads like me find it a grand pastime to imaging different variations of forcing the gaggle to agree on how to accomplish this and there are many interesting and elegant solutions.


For me, however, the asynchronous sample is by far the most interesting and the most elegant.  It’s not because the new language feature makes the code vastly simpler than it would otherwise have been, allowing it to please the eyes and hearts of software enthusiasts of all ilk.  The true elegance is not even readily apparent in the source itself.  It’s more both at a meta level and an implementation level that the magnificence of the asynchrony feature really shines through.  You might not even notice it unless you have the kind of background in both the Dining Philophers problem and the CTP that I have, so I forgive you if you are still puzzled at this point.


You see, the compiler rewrites the cutesy new asynchrony operator into a few more explicit operations that harness the true power.  You will see it right away if and when you either decode the IL or manually translate it in your head.  The very first thing that happens is the compiler generates a call to ‘GetAWaiter’, and this alone has an immediate and dramatic impact for the dining philosophers. 

After all, once you’ve gotten a waiter, the problem about too few forks simply solves itself.


I’ll go back to my code now.