Want a cool cucumber salad? Joël's got you covered. Stephanie has evolved and found some pickles she enjoys.
Experienced programmers use a lot of heuristics or "rules of thumb" about what makes their code better. These aren't always true, but they work in most situations. Stephanie and Joël discuss a range of heuristics, how to use them, how to come up with them, how to know when to break them, and how to teach them to more junior devs.
- Pickled mustard seeds
- The purpose of a system is what it does
- Intro to empirical software engineering by Hillel Wayne
STEPHANIE: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Stephanie Minn.
JOËL: And I'm Joël Quenneville. And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way.
STEPHANIE: So, Joël, what's new in your world?
JOËL: So, as of the recording of this, summer is in full swing, and it's the time of year where we have all these, you know, fresh vegetables out, so I've been really enjoying a lot of those. I think this week; in particular, I've been going into, like, all the variations on cucumber salads.
JOËL: Yeah. So, that's been kind of fun for me. A fun thing I've been doing to spice this up is pickling mustard seeds to add as a topping. That's actually really amazing. It adds just a little bit of acidity, a little bit of crunch, a little bit of texture. And it's pretty.
STEPHANIE: That sounds so delicious. And also, I was going to share something about pickles about what's new in my world. [laughs] But first, I am curious, what has been your go-to cucumber salad that you put this pickled mustard seed situation on top?
JOËL: So, cucumbers and tomatoes is just the base of everything. And then, it kind of goes with random things I have in my fridge. A little bit of goat cheese on top can be a great topping, big fan of balsamic glaze. You can just get, like, a bottle of that at the grocery store, the pickled mustard seeds. I've recently been trying topping with a fried egg.
STEPHANIE: Ooh, that sounds really fun. It kind of, like, adds a bit of savoriness and creaminess and maybe even, like, the crunchy fried edges. That sounds really yummy.
JOËL: Particularly if you do it over easy where the center is not fully cooked. When the egg breaks, you effectively get salad dressing for free.
STEPHANIE: That sounds so delicious.
JOËL: Summer vegetables, they're great.
STEPHANIE: They are great. Last year, I did have a cucumber garden, as in a garden, and a few cucumber plants that were too prolific for me, to be honest. I found myself overrun with cucumbers and having to give them away because we just didn't eat them enough. And this year, we scaled back a little bit [laughs] on the cucs. But I am so excited to bring up what's new in my world now because it's, like, so related, and we did not plan this at all. But I have a silly little thing to share about my own pickle journey. So, I used to be a pickle hater.
JOËL: You know what? Same.
STEPHANIE: Oh my gosh, incredible. Another new thing we've learned about each other. I really, like, wanted to like pickles because, you know, when you order a sandwich in a restaurant, it always comes with the pickle spear. And neither me nor my partner were into pickles, and we would always leave the spear uneaten on the plate, and we felt so bad about it. I felt really bad about it.
And so, every, like, three to six months or so, I'd be like, okay, I'm going to gather the courage to try the pickle again and see if maybe my taste buds have changed, and this time I'll like it. And, you know, I would try a bite and just be like, no, no, I don't think it's for me. [laughs] But I guess I was just so primed to do something about, like, wanting to eliminate this really inconsequential food waste. But every time it happened, I would just, you know, [laughs] be, like, oh, if only I loved pickles.
And I got my friend, who is a pickle connoisseur, to help me figure out, like, what pickles I might like. So, I asked her to come up with, like, a pickle sampler for me because I really hadn't tried all too many. And that actually really helped me find which ones were a little more palatable to me. So, I found out that I liked the sweeter ones. There's, like, a bread and butter pickle that can be quite sweet. Your diner pickle can be very different from a jar of, like, fancy pickles. [laughs]
STEPHANIE: One day, she gifted me a jar of, like, Polish gherkins that were delicious.
STEPHANIE: I was like, wow, I can just snack on these. So, the thing that's new is that this time, I went to an Eastern European grocery store, and I bought my own jar of pickled gherkins. And that was something that Stephanie, like, two years ago, would never even do. [laughs]
JOËL: That's really cool that you got a chance to sort of explore a broader range of what was available in the pickle world and then were able to find kind of your niche there and discover something new that you actually like.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, it was very fun. And now I feel like my whole world has opened up to, you know, pickley and fermented things and just, like, get to enjoy even more snacks.
So, to move away from pickles, recently, on my client project, I've been pairing a lot more with other client developers. And one thing that has come up is, you know, talking about our reasoning or our thought process for when we're pairing on some code. And I realized that I have built up a lot of either intuition or maybe some rules that I like to follow when I'm writing code, writing a test, or even doing a code review. And I've realized that you know, as developers, we often use these kinds of shortcuts or heuristics to help orient us as we're doing our work.
JOËL: Yeah. I think that's definitely something that either comes yourself from experience or sometimes is passed along, and you get to benefit from somebody else's experience. They learned the hard way a lot of these tips and tricks, and now they kind of pass on some of these guidelines to us. Do you have any favorites that you reach for frequently?
STEPHANIE: So, one way I like to approach a problem is to start messy [laughs] and to kind of see what that gets me and then where to go from there. I find that it's a little bit easier for me to draw on things that I've, you know, learned or picked up and tips once I have something in front of me to react to. So, maybe I will just go with the naive implementation and just write all of the code in one method, you know, in a class. And from there, now that it's out of my system, can I kind of come back in with a finer tooth comb and then apply more of a sustained effort to clean things up, right?
And, to me, the question I find myself asking is, like, can this be extracted further? And so, you know, if I have everything in one giant method, then yes, [laughs] there is likely, you know, many opportunities to extract that, and maybe I will see something like, oh, the way that I spaced out this code that might be a signal to me that, like, these are some ideas that are grouped together, and I can pull something out there.
JOËL: Do you have a heuristic around when to stop extracting?
STEPHANIE: That's a good point. I think I tend to stop when I have kind of pulled out the classes that make sense to me. And, at that point, you know, like, maybe there is more extraction that can be done. But at a certain point, you know, you then get these really tiny classes that maybe don't hold their weight. And I think that's also true of methods that then call other methods, and that's the only thing that they do.
Then it's like, well, is this too extracted that it's not really giving a future reader helpful information, right? I want the extraction to improve readability. And that tends to be another lens through which I am applying to this idea of, like, can I extract further? Is this extraction helpful for understanding this code?
JOËL: I like the idea of looking at the code through multiple lenses. And so, sometimes you look at it through the lens of, yeah, are there enough moving parts here? Or does it feel kind of brittle and all in one place? And then sometimes completely shifting your lens and saying, you know what? Let's put myself in the seat of someone who's looking at this code for the first time. Can I understand it?
So, structuring and extracting code is a big part of the work that we do. And I also happen to have a couple of heuristics that I like to use. One is separate branching code from doing code. So, if I have an if...else condition, I try not to put ten lines of logic inside each branch; instead, I have just a call out to a method so that the only thing the conditional does is to choose which path you go, and then each individual path is its own method.
Similarly, if I'm writing a method, I'm not going to have a bunch of logic then a conditional mixed in together. So, my heuristic is a method gets to do one of two things. It either gets to choose a path to take or it gets to do a thing, but you can't mix and match both.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I really appreciate a well-named method that is, you know, determining, like, what condition needs to happen because then that helps me, yeah, like, avoid having to hold all of this information about this condition or this other condition, and this other condition in order to figure out what path I'm trying to take.
JOËL: And the naming and the readability, I think, is a big part of this. Another heuristic that I like to use that kind of converges on the same result is trying to write each method at a single level of abstraction. So, if I am writing a method that has some kind of high-level terms it's using, I'm not going to also mix in a lot of low-level implementation. And then, similarly, if it's a method that's doing a lot of, like, low-level nuts and bolts things, I'm going to try not to pull in some of these higher-level domain name methods in there.
And so, by separating things out so that every method reads one level of abstraction, you make it much easier for the reader to go through and figure out what's happening. Are we kind of getting that more 10,000-foot view, getting a sense of what's happening, and saying, okay, we want to process the user form, and then we want to send off an email, and then we want to, you know, write to a file? Or are we going through, okay, we're going to increment a counter so that we get exponential back off on our [inaudible 10:28] request? Those two things do not belong together in the same method.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. I really like this heuristic. And I have been applying it more and more and found it really useful for making sure that you're handling your errors correctly, especially because, at different levels of abstraction, you want to do different things with your errors, right?
An implementation error that's raised because, you know, you're calling something accidentally on nil, or maybe a third-party service is down, and you get a custom error, whatever that is, those concerns are different from how you want to handle things at the controller level. And oftentimes, I see those things really mixed together, and honestly, I think leads to a lot of buggy code when you're trying to handle things that can go wrong at the wrong level of abstraction.
JOËL: Yeah. Is there a good heuristic around what level you think is best to trigger an exception? Or maybe, more generally, just being aware of different levels of abstraction and knowing that catching or triggering errors at each level will have different impacts.
STEPHANIE: I think more of the latter, the having an awareness of what kinds of errors might be possible and what impact that has on the user, right? The user being either an actual customer or, you know, another developer who has to read a notification from an error monitoring service. [laughs]
JOËL: This is really interesting to me because I think we've now bridged the concept of heuristics into the idea of mental models. So, the heuristic is write your methods at a single level of abstraction, but that then leads into a mental model where maybe code is structured in three or four different layers. You've got a low level, a mid-level, a high level, something like that, of abstraction. And now, you can use that mental model to start thinking about what are the impacts of exceptions at each layer?
And then, maybe you complete the circle by creating a heuristic that relies on that mental model, maybe, I don't know, raise in the low-level rescue at the top level or something. I'm making something absolutely arbitrary up right now. But somehow, we've gone from heuristic, which creates a mental model, which then allows us to build new heuristics on top of that, and that seems like a virtuous cycle to me.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. I think what I'm also picking up is the idea that you do need a mental model, or you do need to draw on your own ideas about something in order to apply the heuristic, right? You know, someone could tell you to separate branching code from doing code. But maybe you don't know what that means or, like, maybe you don't see why that's important. And sure, you can still apply it and try your best to follow it. But, in some ways, I think that the best heuristics are ones that you've kind of developed for yourself based on your own experience.
JOËL: That's really interesting. I think once you've built from your own experience, I definitely feel like they're really impactful because you've kind of synthesized 2, 5, 10, 20 years of experience doing some of this work into, oftentimes, like, you know, a pithy one-line sentence, 5, 6 words that convey an approach that you've found works best, you know, maybe 80% or 90% of the time. The power of synthesis for your own self-learning I think it's really hard to understate.
So, I'm curious if there's any other heuristics that you commonly use that you kind of created yourself based off your own experience rather than just having it be more of a broadly received idea from the community.
STEPHANIE: I think, for me, it's more so that the experience has helped affirm certain heuristics and also made me feel more comfortable with letting others go. And one that I heard a lot but, like, didn't quite understand until really working through it deeper is the idea of feeling pain when you write a test, and that being a signal of opportunities to try different design with your code. And I just didn't know what that pain was at the beginning. Like, what does that even mean? [laughs] Like, how can a test cause me pain?
But on my own, I realized, oh, like, actually, I get really frustrated when I need to stub out a whole method chain, right? And I find myself having to go look up how to do that or just spending a lot of time having to do something that I haven't done before. Maybe the pain comes from having to change a lot of files because, oh no, like, I also broke 20 other tests in the process.
But when you're first starting out, oftentimes, you, like, don't know that that is not normal [laughs]; at least, that was true for me. And so, that was something that I had heard about, like, if you are feeling pain when writing a test, then, like, maybe reconsider your code design. But when you don't know how to identify what that pain is, and you also, like, don't know where to go from there, I find that, you know, the heuristic can only help you so much.
JOËL: Yeah. Maybe that's something that's challenging with a heuristic in that they're often expressed as these pithy sentences. But if you're not familiar with some of the underlying concepts, that might make them harder to apply, which is unfortunate because, oftentimes, these heuristics that we've developed as a community are targeted to newcomers to help them kind of avoid the mistakes that we've made along the way.
STEPHANIE: I think what really helped me the most in connecting a heuristic that's commonly expressed and my own experience is when I've had someone ask me about how I'm feeling when I'm, you know, making some kind of decision or when I'm reading some code. Like, what do I think of this, or what has been my experience with this? And giving me the opportunity on the spot to synthesize that information. Because otherwise, it's hard to figure out, you know, like, what is just normal? This is just life as a developer [laughs]. And what are opportunities to maybe gain some more insight about the work itself?
JOËL: One thing that I've learned over time as a developer, and I'm not sure if this quite rises to the level of a heuristic, but a lot of, like, pain and frustration in development doesn't necessarily have to be that way. And it's not necessarily because I'm bad at the job or I'm too new to the technology or whatever. It can often be a sign of underlying design issues or the fact that the system was modeled with certain assumptions that are no longer true. These can often be signals that you can make things better.
So, I think if I had to reduce this idea down to a clever one-liner, it'd be something along the lines of, it can be better, or it doesn't have to be this bad. You're writing a test, and it's really annoying. There might be a better way to structure the underlying code that would make the test better. You're having to do some, like, really clunky code to deal with something. Is there maybe a better object design that would make a lot of that pain go away, or at least kind of quarantine it in a certain part of the codebase?
STEPHANIE: I actually think you're really onto something because what I was just hearing, I love that, like, it can be better. It's less prescribed, I guess, than some other heuristics, like, you know, do not repeat yourself, or whatever.
STEPHANIE: [laughs] It really encourages, like, the individual to think a little deeper. And it actually reminded me of another...this is actually a bit of a pithy saying, but I find it to be really useful. And I'm curious if you've heard it before. It's a systems thinking heuristic, and the phrase is, the purpose of a system is what it does.
JOËL: Ooh, I have heard that, and I'm trying to remember what context.
STEPHANIE: So, it was coined by a systems thinking expert. Stafford Beer, I think, is his name. And I recently learned about it from a friend. But I think the cool thing is that it can be applied to literally anything [laughs] because everything is a system, you know, or not just software. But I have found a lot of value in applying it to just, like, is this function doing what it says it does, right? Or is it actually also doing, like, a side effect? And turns out, maybe we want to bring that into alignment with what the name of the function is, or try pulling that out, or whatever. I think it can also be true of test suites.
I don't know if this is a heuristic or not. But the idea that we should always be testing or all tests are good, yeah, I guess that could pass as a heuristic. By bringing this perspective of the purpose of a system is what it does, it's like, well, is the test suite also so bloated and takes so long and so flaky that it is actually hindering development? And if that is the case, then maybe there is some reevaluation necessary, right? Rather than just claiming that it's helping us have more confidence in our code when that may or may not be true.
JOËL: You brought up an interesting idea here, which is that heuristics aren't always right. So, you're talking about the idea that a heuristic like good code is tested code might not be correct in 100% of the cases. Like, how accurate does a heuristic need to be in order for it to be really valuable? You know, you're hoping for something that's, like, 90% correct that you can follow most of the time, except in some edge cases, or something maybe as low as, like, 50% where it's a coin toss whether the heuristic applies in the situation or not. Are those still useful? Or are they maybe more confusing than otherwise?
STEPHANIE: Oh wow. That's a really interesting way to frame it because I don't know if I've ever stored information about how well my heuristics are serving me. [laughs] But I do really like the idea that you can use a heuristic as a guiding principle just to try and that you can always back out of it, right?
So, if you're wanting to take DRY to the extremist of extremes, just for fun or just to see how that might go, you can go down that path and, at any point, decide, okay, like, I like this, or I don't like this, and choose a different path. But the idea of kind of tracking, like, how well they're working for you that is really interesting to me, and not something I've tried before.
JOËL: I love the idea of taking a heuristic and, like, doing a side project whose whole goal is just to kind of push that heuristic to the extreme, to the breaking point so that, that way, you get an intuition of, like, when does it work for you? When does it not? That sounds like a really fun exercise for someone to do. Is that something that you've done yourself?
STEPHANIE: Not to the point of a whole side project, but just like I like to try pickles randomly every now and then to see if I like them, [laughs] will just try a new technique and see how it goes. In an episode a while back, we talked about whether we TDD or not, and, to be honest, I don't do it, you know, 100% of the time or all the time. But one day, I did decide to TDD a full-stack feature from start to finish just for fun [laughs], and I enjoyed it. I learned some things about it.
And I think now I've kind of integrated the parts that I liked about it into my development flow. Like, I'm not always going to do it. But I think it also just helped me figure out, like, okay, like, what is this thing about that people claim that is the pinnacle of how we should be writing our code? And how can I decide for myself, like, whether it works for me or just pick and choose the parts of it that work for me?
JOËL: Yeah. That just seems like a really valuable exercise. There are definitely too many heuristics out there to do that for everything. But I guess I've never thought of it quite so concretely. But I almost wonder if I should, like, add this to my kind of personal growth plan to say, like, once a year, I'm going to take a heuristic and kind of push it to an extreme and see what I can learn about it.
STEPHANIE: I actually think what's really cool is the process of, like, any individual developer figuring out what kinds of heuristics they want to follow, as opposed to, you know, like, a mass proclamation that, like, this is the way, right? Are there any heuristics that you have maybe picked up and then let go of because you realized that, you know, they weren't working enough or frequently enough for you or that you just didn't like?
JOËL: I don't know about, like, fully letting go, but definitely kind of recontextualize and sometimes even sort of rewrote them a little bit to work for me. So, a classic one would be the idea that shorter code is more readable. So, it's common to see comments on a pull request sort of like, "Hey, you could make this shorter by doing this." And that can be true to a certain extent. When you get to the point where you're playing code golf, it becomes absolutely unreadable.
But also, there's a point where sometimes using some other heuristics will result in longer code but actually make it more readable on the whole. And so, packing everything into one method might be overall shorter, so it's fewer lines to read going through a class. But maybe extracting some methods or doing that separating branching code from doing code might lead to an overall longer class but an also overall more readable one. So, I think there's probably a lot of caveats that go with that idea. Oftentimes, shorter can be more readable with, you know, two or three asterisks that maybe go a little bit more into the why that is the case.
STEPHANIE: Yeah. I like the contextualizing. That actually reminded me of a talk that I watched recently by Hillel Wayne. It's called Intro to Empirical Software Engineering. And he basically, like, does a deep dive into all these studies about software practices that we think are, quote, unquote, "good," like, as a community or as an industry. And it's like, well, like, how do we actually know? Like, show me the research, right?
And one of the studies that he included was trying to determine if using abbreviations for variable names or using the full words made the code easier to debug or not. And so, the main example that he was using was employee number as a variable, and the abbreviation was EMP num. And it turns out that there was no difference in how easy it was to debug. But the approach that each group that was studied differed.
So, the folks who had the full names, the full words for the variable names, were kind of using an approach of just scanning the code and being able to understand at a higher level the domain, right? Whereas the folks who were debugging with just abbreviations had to work at a bit of a lower level and, you know, or maybe using breakpoints and debugging the code that way.
And I thought that was really cool because, first of all, I think it kind of was trying to prove that, like, we don't actually know if one is better or not. But what is important and interesting to me is the idea that, like, you can choose the method that you like better or that works for you and the human side of it, right? The impact it has on our process.
JOËL: That's really cool. I'll have to go and watch that talk. Building this kind of context and nuance around a heuristic, though, takes a lot of time, takes experience. And part of the value of a heuristic is that we're collapsing down maybe our own experience or somebody else's experience into something that doesn't require you to necessarily do all that work upfront.
How do you feel about sharing and kind of targeting a lot of these heuristics to newer coders who are kind of trying to get better at their craft and looking for ways to improve without necessarily having to do, you know, five years of experience digging into a particular topic? Do you think heuristics are helpful, or do they maybe mislead?
STEPHANIE: I really value when they're presented as an opinion, as opposed to a true fact about code. [laughs] Because I really appreciate when someone is able to explain to me why they chose readability in this particular scenario or why they chose speed and performance. Or maybe they were making a trade-off between accessibility and, you know, something else. To just, like, tell someone, "Oh yeah, like, DRY code is better code," or to just tell someone that without the explanation with, like, offering them the opportunity to reflect themselves on, like, oh, like, where have I seen DRY code that was easier for me to read? That seems a little less helpful in terms of investing in their growth.
JOËL: Yeah. Definitely, I think sharing some of the purpose behind it can often be really useful because most of these heuristics are never an end unto themselves. They're a means to some other end. So, you're not writing code that's DRY just because you want to be cool. You're writing code to be DRY because you're trying to improve readability, make it easier to change so you don't have to change it in multiple places. You want to maybe reduce the chance of certain types of bugs.
These are all actual purposes of what you want to do in your code. DRY is just one way of getting there. But oftentimes, we might skip that part and just be like, hey, you should make your code DRY because DRY is the best. And it can be, but it's in service to these other goals.
STEPHANIE: I think when I am sharing those types of heuristics that are more commonly held, I also do like to preface, like, some people think this, or some people like to do things this way, just to be clear that they don't have to like it or do it. In general, I always prefer injecting more nuance [laughs] into the conversation. But yeah, like, it is a really personal process, I think, and figuring out, like, how any individual makes decisions about, like, all the code they're writing. You have to make a million [laughs] decisions every time you do it.
So, yes, like, those heuristics do provide a shortcut. And also, I think it's worth taking the time to think about if it's working, especially for the specific context that you're applying it, right? Because that also can change. And, I don't know, maybe I'm just skeptical of any one size fits all solution.
JOËL: I think for myself, with many heuristics, as a beginner coder, I had a bit of, like, a spiral journey, or maybe kind of going up a set of stairs. So, as a brand-new developer, I would make a lot of duplication bugs in my code, where, you know, I would have the same value in multiple places, and then I'd change it in one place, and I don't remember to change it in other places, and the code breaks.
And so, being introduced to the idea of DRY actually helped my code get quite a bit better. It was, like, a net positive on my experience because I was not getting burned by all these bugs quite so frequently. And so, for a while, just throwing more DRY into my code just made my life better. And then, eventually, you kind of hit that plateau where I don't run into the pain of these bugs anymore. But now I keep doing more DRY somewhat mindlessly. And I end up with this pile of abstractions that are actually really brittle or frustrating to work with. And now, I have to rethink some of the assumptions behind the heuristic.
And then, at that point, yep, maybe recontextualize a little bit, learn about when it's good, when are the trade-offs not worth it. Now I have a better understanding, and I kind of go on another growth bit where it makes a lot of my code better until maybe I hit another plateau. I've kind of maxed out the benefits. I start seeing some of the pain, and then, again, I have to go through this cycle again. And maybe the approach you were talking about earlier, where you do a side project and kind of push a heuristic to its breaking point, is a way to kind of speed run that process.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's really interesting because you're just committing to it and trying to learn everything you can from it in a very concentrated setting. I also wonder, and it's totally fine if you don't know, but if someone had told you kind of all of those reasons you listed about why DRY code, like, what that achieves, if that may have reframed how you were thinking about applying it. Or was that also something that had to come from doing it enough?
JOËL: I think as a brand-new developer, a lot of that would have gone over my head. I was still really shaky on the concept of abstraction. When is it useful? When is it not? So, a lot of those more subtle pitfalls, I think, would not have been relevant to me at that point in my career, even the concept of readability, right? When I'm a brand-new programmer, I'm still getting used to reading a lot of code.
And so, the idea that code might be written in a way that's unreadable or more challenging to read, it might just feel like, oh, I just need to get better, improve myself. It's not that the code is written in a hard-to-read way. It's just I don't have enough experience at reading code. And I think that's a common thing that we do as beginners at everything, right? We start by blaming ourselves when things get hard.
STEPHANIE: Yeah. I was just thinking that, you know, if you are sharing heuristics with a newer developer or an early-career developer, at the end of the day, like, really, I'm not sure about the value of just dropping it on them and letting them run [laughs] with it. But I think what could be really, really effective is just having a sustained relationship with them and, like, continuing that conversation. It's, like, maybe in a code review or in a pairing session being like, "Oh yeah, like, I see you're practicing DRY. Like, what do you think about how this made this piece of code different?" And kind of baking in that process of self-discovery along the way and speeding it up in that way as well.
JOËL: So, what you're really saying is the one heuristic to rule them all is code in community.
STEPHANIE: I love that. I'm totally with you.
JOËL: On that note, shall we wrap up?
STEPHANIE: Let's wrap up.
Show notes for this episode can be found at bikeshed.fm.
JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore.
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JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter.
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JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week.
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