Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Legacy Software is a Sticky Mess

I'll get to legacy software. First, however, some backstory on observability.

Sailors will sometimes create "Float Plans". Like aircraft flight plans, they have an itinerary to make it slightly easier to find us when something goes wrong. Unlike airspace, which is tightly controlled by the FAA, the seas are more-or-less chaos.

The practice then, is to create float plan and give it to a trusted shore-side party, go out sailing, check in periodically, and cancel the whole thing when you're done sailing. If you miss a check-in, they can call an appropriate Search-And-Rescue agency like the US Coast Guard or BASRA or local cops with jurisdiction over a lake or river.

How much detail should be in this plan? For a long or complex trip, it doesn't seem sensible to say "Going to the Bahamas" as your float plan. That's a little thin on details. The bare minimum is to provide an Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA). But. When you summarize 36 hours of sailing to a single ETA, you invite observability problems. It's a sailboat, and you could be becalmed. Things are fine, you're just going to be late. 

Late, of course is relative. Simply late means you missed your ETA. If you're becalmed to the point where you're running low on supplies, then, this can become a bit of a problem.

The general policy followed by SAR is to allow several hours past the ETA before activating SAR resources. (The US Coast announces overdue mariners on the VHF radio so others can keep a lookout for them and render assistance.)

If you have a one-checkin-plan that summarizes 36 hours of sailing with a single ETA, you're going to be waiting for many hours after the ETA for help. So. Total systems failure after the first hour means 35 hours of drifting before someone will even alert SAR folks. And then the SAR folks will wait several hours after the ETA in case you're only slow.

What seems better is to have a sequence of waypoints with ETA's at each waypoint. That way you have incremental evidence of success or failure, and you're not waiting a LOOOONG time for your one-and-only ETA to pass without a check-in.

This leads us to software. And legacy software.

Creating the Plan

To create a sensible plan, you have waypoints as Latitude, Longitude pairs. These are angles on a sphere, not distances on a plane, so computing the length of a leg isn't a simple hypotenuse. 

It is a lot like a hypotenuse. For short distances, we can assume the earth is more-or-less flat. We can then use a relatively simple conversion (cosine of the latitude) to compress the longitudes toward the poles. We can convert lat and lon to distances and use a hypotenuse and get a really close answer.

def range_bearing(p1: LatLon, p2: LatLon, R: float = NM) -> tuple[float, Angle]:
    """Rhumb-line course from :py:data:`p1` to :py:data:`p2`.

    See :ref:`calc.range_bearing`.
    This is the equirectangular approximation.
    Without even the minimal corrections for non-spherical Earth.

    :param p1: a :py:class:`LatLon` starting point
    :param p2: a :py:class:`LatLon` ending point
    :param R: radius of the earth in appropriate units;
        default is nautical miles.
        Values include :py:data:`KM` for kilometers,
        :py:data:`MI` for statute miles and :py:data:`NM` for nautical miles.
    :returns: 2-tuple of range and bearing from p1 to p2.

    d_NS = R * (p2.lat.radians - p1.lat.radians)
    d_EW = (
        * math.cos((p2.lat.radians + p1.lat.radians) / 2)
        * (p2.lon.radians - p1.lon.radians)
    d = math.hypot(d_NS, d_EW)
    tc = math.atan2(d_EW, d_NS) % (2 * math.pi)
    theta = Angle(tc)
    return d, theta

This means we can't trivially write down a list of waypoints. We need to do some fancy math to compute distances.

For years and years. (Since our first "big" trip in 2007.) I've used spreadsheets in various forms to work out the waypoints, distances, estimated time enroute (ETE) and ETA.

The math isn't too far beyond what a spreadsheet can do. But. There's a complication.


File formats are a complication.

There are KML files, GPX files, and CSV files that are used by various pieces of software. This is only the tip of the iceberg, because some of Navionics devices have an even more interesting USR file that contains everything in your chartplotter. It's cool. But complicated.

The file formats are -- clearly -- way outside the box for a spreadsheet.

Python to the rescue.

Since I'm a Python hack (and have been since well before 2007) I've got all kinds of file conversion tools. See https://github.com/slott56/navtools


And here's where legacy enters the picture. (Music Cue.)

Fear that rattles in men's ears
And rears its hideous head
Dread ... Death ... in the wind ...


Up until yesterday, the final planning tool was a spreadsheet with waypoints and times. Mac OS X Numbers is GREAT for this. I can pile in boat information, crew information, safety information, the itinerary, and SAR contact details in one spreadsheet, save it as a PDF, and email it to my shore-side contacts.

The BEST part of this was tinkering with the departure time while we waited for weather. We could plug in the day we're leaving, get revised ETA's for the waypoints, push the document, and take off. 

(We use an old Spot Navigator to provide notifications at midnight to show progress. We're going to upgrade to a SpotX so we can send messages a little more flexibly.)

The Legacy Spreadsheet

The legacy spreadsheet has a lot of good UX features. It's really adequate for some user stories. Save as PDF rocks.


For the more advanced route planning, it isn't ideal. Specifically, spreadsheets can be weak on multiple "what-if" scenarios. 

The genesis of spreadsheets (I'm old, I was there, I remember VisiCalc) was "what-if" analysis. Change an assumption and follow the consequences through the lattice of dependent cells. These are hard to save. You can "Save As" to make a copy of the spreadsheet. You can save pages within a single spreadsheet. These are terrible because you can't really make a more fundamental change very easily. You have to make the same change to all the copies in your pile of "what-if" alternatives. 

To be very specific. I often need to plan for different boat speeds. We have a sailboat; wind and water matter a lot. Slow is about 5 knots. Fast is about 6 knots. Our theoretical top speed is 8 knots, but we've rarely seen that without a river flowing along with us. Sailing at that speed means a lot of sail wrestling, something we'd rather not do.

Fine. That's 3 scenarios, one for each speed: 5, 5.5, and 6. No big deal.

Until we add a waypoint. Or move a waypoint. Now we have to reset all three spreadsheets with a different itinerary. Since it's a different number of rows, we have the usual copy-and-paste problems in spreadsheets. 

What's Better?

Jupyter notebooks crush the life out of spreadsheets.

Here's the revised workflow.

  1. Create the route. Use tools like OpenCPN so the route can be exported as a GPX or CSV file.
  2. Use a notebook to parse the route file, creating an internal Route object.
  3. Manipulate the Route object, providing different ETA's and speed assumptions. These assumptions lead to multiple cells in the notebook. They can all share details so that one fundamental change leads to lots and lots of recomputation of itineraries. We can include all kinds of headings and markdown notes and thoughts and considerations.
  4. Finalize a route that's part of the plan. Still working in the confines of a longish notebook.
  5. Emit a Markdown file with Vessel Identification, Itinerary, Notes, and SAR Contact sections. Run pandoc to make a PDF. (This is the foundation for the nbconvert utility.)

This workflow creates two categories results:

One result is a Notebook with all of the planning details and thoughts and contingencies and considerations. 

The other result(s) are float plan documents as PDF's that can be shared widely.

Why did this take so long?

I used spreadsheets from 2007 to 2021. Why switch now? Some reasons.

Legacy solutions are sticky. This has a lot of consequences. I built up "expertise" in making the legacy work. I had become an "expert" in working around the hinky little problems with multiple what-if scenarios and propagating changes from the route into the what-ifs. For example, I limited the number of what-if scenarios I would consider because more than two got confusing.

New solutions are sometimes invisible. I only learned about Jupyter Notebooks about three years ago. I did not realize how powerful they were. I've since rearranged my thinking.

I've known about RST and Markdown and Pandoc for years. But. Getting from spreadsheet-like flexibility to a Markdown document was never a clear step. Without something like Jupyter Lab.

Pulling it all together

Does it require some kind of catalyst to force change?

Is it a slow accretion of evidence that the legacy software isn't working?

I'm pretty sure I had a long, slow Aha! moment as I realized that the Numbers spreadsheet was a large pain in the ass and a notebook would be simpler. It took a few days of fiddling to become really, really sure Numbers was not working out.

I think one of the biggest issues was a third "what-if" scenario. It was helpful to visualize arrival times. But. It was a huge pain in the neck to fiddle with the spreadsheets to get the right waypoints in there and summarize the alternatives.

I think the lesson here is to avoid automating anything unless you actually are the user.

If an organization wants software, a developer needs to do the job manually to *really* understand what the pain points are. Users develop expertise in the wrong things. And they want automation where the benefits are minor. Automating the spreadsheet-to-PDF is wrong. Replacing the spreadsheet is right.

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