Uncertainty about the future of programming

I finally got around to watching Bret Victor’s “The Future of Programming” talk at DBX. It did the rounds of the Intertubes about two months ago, but I was having too much at the Oregon Programming Languages Summer School to watch it (more on that later). Anyway, it’s an interesting talk and if you haven’t seen it already, here it is:

You really should watch it before we continue. I’ll wait.

Done? Great. Moving on.

While the talk generated a lot of buzz (as all of Bret Victor’s talks do), I’m not entirely sure what to take away from it. It’s interesting to see the innovations we achieved 40 years ago. It is a tad depressing to think that maybe we haven’t really progressed all that much from then (especially in terms of programmer-computer interaction). While I’m grateful to Mr. Victor for reminding us about the wonderful power of computation combined with human imagination, at the end of the talk, I left wondering: “What now?”

The talk isn’t quite a call-to-arms, but it feels like that’s what it wants to be. Victor’s 4 points about what will constitute the future of programming show us both how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go. However, like his other talks, I can’t help but wonder if he really thought through all the consequences of the points he’s making. He talks about direct manipulation of information structures, spatial and goal-directed programming and concurrent computation. His examples seem interesting and even inspiring. But how do I translate the broad strokes of Mr. Victor’s brush to the fine keystroke of my everyday work? And does that translation even make sense for more than small examples?

For my day to day to work I write compilers that generate code for network devices. While I would love to see spatial programming environments for networks and compilers, I have no idea what that would look like. If I’m building sufficiently complex systems, (like optimizing compilers or distributed data stores) the spatial representations are likely to be hundreds of pages of diagrams. Is such a representation really any easier to work with than lines of code in plain text files?

While I’m all for more powerful abstractions in general, I’m skeptical about building complicated systems with the kinds of abstractions that Bret Victor shows us. How do you patch a binary kernel image if all you have and understand is some kind of graphical representation? Can we build the complex computation that underlies graphical design systems (like Sketchpad or CAD tools) without resorting to textual code that lets us get close to the hardware? Even the Smalltalk system had significant chunks of plain text code front and center.

Plain text, for all it’s faults, has one big thing going for it — uniformity. While we might have thousands of different languages and dozens of different paradigms, models and framework, but they’re all expressed as source code. The tools of software development — editors, compilers, debuggers, profilers, are essentially similar from one language to the next. For programmers trying to build and deploy real systems I believe there is a certain benefit in such uniformity. Spatial programming systems would have to be incredibly more powerful for them to be seriously considered as an alternative.

I am doing the talk some injustice by focusing on spatial programming, but even in the other areas, I’m not quite sure what Mr. Victor is talking about. With regards to goal-directed programming, while I understand and appreciate the power of that paradigm, it’s just one among many. Concurrent and multicore is great, but a lot of modern computation is done across clusters of loosely connected machines. Where does the “cloud” fit into this vision? Mr. Victor talks about the Internet and machines connected over a network, but there’s no mention of actually computing over this network.

I believe that Mr. Victor’s point in this talk was to remind of an era of incredible innovation in computer technology, the good ideas that came out of it and how many of those ideas were never realized (and that there hasn’t really been such an era of imagination since). I can appreciate that message, but I’m still asking the question: “So what?”

Building complicated systems is a difficult job. even with plain old text files we’ve managed to do a pretty good job so far. The innovations between then and now have been less flashy but for me, at least, more helpful. Research into distributed systems, machine learning and programming languages have given us powerful languages, tools and platforms which may look mundane and boring but let us get the job fairly well. Personally I’m more interested in type systems and static analyses that let me rule out large classes of bugs at compile time than in interfaces where I connect boxes to link functionality. While I hope that Mr. Victor’s vision of more interactive and imaginative interactions with computers becomes a reality, it’s not the most important one and it’s not the future I’m working towards.

Pacific Rim is a work of art

Over the weekend I went with some fellow graduate students to see Pacific Rim. It’s not a particularly complicated movie, there are some gaping plot holes, the technobabble reaches facepalm levels and it fails the Bechdel Test. All that being said, Pacific rim was one of the most enjoyable science fiction movies I’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s much better than the current crop of superhero flicks (with possible exception of The Avengers and the Batman movies) and the last movie I liked this much was probably District Nine.

So why do I like this movie so much? It’s hard to put my finger on it, exactly. The concept is simple, but interesting: giant monsters rise out of the depths of the Pacific Ocean and humanity assembles giant robots piloted via a neural link. Crucially, these machines must be piloted by two pilots at time, leading to interesting character interactions who share the neural link. Over time, humanity grows complacent, the robot program gets scrapped and the defenses are left to rot until finally the apocalypse is nigh and only a handful of fighters stand between us and oblivion. Not the most novel premise in existence, but the magic is in the details.

The characters are at once both larger than life and fatally flawed. The imagery is classic Guillermo del Toro: beautifully detailed while being rough and gritty resulting in something that is clearly imaginary while being strangely believable. The giant robots have been neglected for years: they’re banged up, dented, rusty, constantly being repaired (think more Matrix Revolutions and less Oblivion). The last line of defense is a small, cramped base in Hong Kong. Everyone lives in cramped, mostly dirty conditions. This is not humanity’s finest hour. And with that as the background, humanity’s last line of defense is provocatively international: American, Russian, German, Australian, Chinese, Japanese and more. At the end of the day, scientists and engineers prove to be just as important as the gunslingers and military commanders. A smuggler and gangster helps put in place a core piece of the puzzle. Families are broken, important characters fall and fathers live to see their sons die. Accept the premise and forgive the technological stumblings and the movie is oddly human in comparison to your standard sci-fi flick.

And then there are the fight scenes. They are, to say the least, interesting. Though we see giant robots battling sea monsters, the battles are more martial arts than technological warfare. It’s as much about the pilots in the machines as it as about the machines themselves. Through it all, the anime influence is clear. The robots, termed Jaegers, are equipped with plasma cannons and missiles as well as swords and spinning blades. The camera angles are often imperfect and the lens is often wet or scratched. Crazy? Yes. Fun to watch? Absolutely.

In many ways,  Pacific Rim stands out because of what it is not. It’s not your run-of-the-mill action hero story, the characters and actors aren’t well known and hence open to both interpretation and evolution. You know there’s going to be an epic battle at the end, but there’s enough unknown in between to keep you from getting bored. It bears more in common with an old western than a modern superhero or scifi movie. It’s a reminder that people are still capable of coming up with an original screenplay that’s good and worth watching.

Should you go watch it? Absolutely. If you’re a scifi buff, keep in mind that it take the word “science” very liberally and definitely doesn’t take itself very seriously. If you’re not, then don’t worry, the science isn’t really a key part of the movie. The characters, their histories and interactions carry as much as the action sequences. Pacific Rim definitely takes it to my list of science fiction that I’ll recommend to people looking for something new.

(PS. If you’re interested in getting some insight in what went into the movie, this interview with Guillermo del Toro is definitely worth reading).

To thine own reading habits be true

It’s been about two weeks since the untimely demise of our dearly beloved Google Reader. Since then many replacements have been stepping up to the plate. I’ve been using Feedly, but I hear good things about Digg Reader too. A few days after that Anil Dash wrote a post entitled “The Golden Age of RSS” where, among other things, he provides a very long list of RSS readers across various platforms. He also makes four suggestions about improving the state of the RSS ecosystem and two of those four are about the actual reading experience. While I have immense respect for Mr. Dash (and Dave Winer), I’m not excited by either of his suggestions.

First off, Mr. Dash seems to not be a big fan of the mailbox style of displaying feeds (a la Google Reader) or the magazine style (a la Pinterest and Feedly). He seems to rather favor Winer’s river of news style. Secondly, he says that he wants a blog reader — essentially a single site RSS reader that kicks in when you visit the site and gives you a content-focused, style-independent view of the site. While both of these suggestions seem interesting (and I hope someone picks them up and does cool things with them) neither of them is particularly appealing to me.

Personally, I like the mailbox-style of reading feeds. I like to be able to look through a list of titles, read the ones that sound interesting, and get rid of the rest (currently by mass marking them as “read” — not the best interface, but it gets the job done). I don’t want a river of news — I want a digest of interesting things that I can read at my own leisure, irrespective of when the author posted them. My RSS reading list isn’t a source of news, it’s a selection of authors who write interesting pieces and whose posts I don’t want to miss. Now, an argument could be made that if some post is really good, it will filter through my Twitter or Facebook circles and I’ll hear about it. But I have neither the time nor the energy to sift through those streams to find interesting things my friends are posting. I’d rather just have the good stuff come directly to a single known location. And this brings me to Mr. Dash’s second recommendation (and why I disagree with it). I don’t see much personal value in the sort of site-specific reader he wants. The whole point of having RSS for me is that I don’t have to visit the website. See above arguments for a central location for posts from approved sources.

Does this mean that river-of-news or site specific RSS readers are a bad idea? No, of course not. Anil Dash and Dave Winer are both very intelligent people with proven track records and if they’re advocating something it’s worth looking into. All I’m saying is that they’re not the best idea for me. Reading habits are a very personal thing. We like to read different sorts of things and we like to read them in different ways. Dave Winer likes to be plugged into a river of news, I prefer to have a stack of articles waiting for me at the end of the day.

I truly believe that the web is a democratic medium — it allows us to define both how we publish and consume content (within limits). While we’ve explored the publishing aspect in lots of different ways (sites, blogs, tumblelogs, podcasts, microblogs, photoblogs, vlogs), the consumption side has perhaps seen a little less action. The death of Google Reader seems to have sparked a new burst of RSS-related innovation. Once we’re done picking our favorite clone, moving our lists and syncing our devices, maybe we can think about how to make the consumption experience as democratic as the publishing experience.

Celebrate Independence with Books

Happy Independence Day to all my American readers! While you’re enjoying your fireworks and barbeque and beer (and possibly sweltering hot weather) why not pick up some great books to go with it all? The fine folks over at Humble Bundle announced their second Humble eBook Bundle featuring 6 books from authors such as Wil Wheaton and Cory Doctorow. As of this writing there are just about 12 hours left and 25,000 bundles have already sold. You can name your price for 4 of the books and if you pay more than the average (currently under $10) you get the other two. 6 great books for $10 sounds like a great deal to me (especially when the books separately would cost about $70).



All the ebooks are available in multiple DRM-free formats so you can read them on your Kindle, iPad or any other reading device of your choice. Proceeds are divided between the authors, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Children’s Play Charity and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. So grab a good book and tell your friends all about it.

Sunday Selection 2013-06-23

Hello gentle readers! It is sunny, hot and humid here in beautiful Ithaca, New York. Yesterday I was out chasing the sunlight and sitting near waterfalls. Today I’m chasing air conditioning, writing and coding. Such is life (and as an aside, anyone who tells you climate change isn’t real is wrong and probably trying to sell you something). Anyways, today’s selection centers around productivity, routines and getting shit done (and programming is definitely a creative pursuit).

Around the Web

Don’t look for talent, look for people who do things.

Recently an interview made the rounds of the Intertubes showing that Google’s turned it’s data crunching skills to completely rework its hiring process. It seems like that best way to determine future success is to look at what people have already done and how they talk about their past achievements.

9 rules for success by British novelist Amelia Barr

My favorite is probably #1: “Men and women succeed because they take pains to succeed. Industry and patience are almost genius; and successful people are often more distinguished for resolution and perseverance than for unusual gifts.”

Creative People Say No

In the age of social media it’s easy to confuse talking about your work with actually doing your work. This article is a quiet rebuttal to two ideas that seem to be popular (a) success is as much about publicity as it is about good work and (2) that creative work is supposed to be easy and spontaneous.


Making ideas happen

Unfortunately I’ve been reading far fewer books than I would like to. However I picked this up after reading the excerpt and seeing the good reviews and it promises to be an interesting read. I hope to have a review once I’m done reading.

Sunday Selection 2013-06-09

Hello everyone. It’s June, we’re almost halfway through the  year and it’s a beautiful sunny day here in Ithaca, New York. The Intertubes are aflame with talk of PRISM and Occupy Gezi. Luckily there are writers and journalists far more capable than I handling those issues, so I’m going to steer clear of that for the time being. Instead, today we shall be talking about education and the how it’s changing (as all things are) in this age of ubiquitous information and communication.

Around the Web

The Anti-Dropout

Dropping out from some form of educational institution seems to becoming increasingly popular among my generation, especially in tech-savvy circles. While I do think that the current price of a formal higher education is ridiculous and taking on massive amounts of debts is rather unwise, you can pry my fancy liberal arts education from my cold dead hands (though, in the interest of full disclosure, I got engineering and science degrees, not liberal arts ones). Anyways, this article is one of the most level-headed takes on the interplay of education, technology, big corporations and technology startups that I’ve seen in a while.

“Perhaps Culture is the Now the Counterculture.” A defense of the humanities.

While I’m an engineer by education, I’ve always held the humanities to be of paramount importance, especially for citizens of a modern democracy. And while I don’t think spending upwards of $200,000 on a humanities degree is worth it, there are these things called libraries which you can use at a much lower price. This piece is the transcription of Brandeis University’s commencement address by the literary editor of the New Republic, a magazine that’s been publishing some really good writing.


How to escape education’s death valley

While I’m skeptical of TED’s ability to create lasting social change, I have a lot of admiration for Sir Ken Robinson. His original talk was one of the first TED talks that I saw. In this talk he talks about 3 elements necessary for the development of the human mind and how current educational systems fail at promoting them.

What does this app do?

Yesterday, after a productive afternoon of hackery I came across this interesting exclamation on Twitter:

While I sympathized with Mr. Balkan’s general point, I couldn’t help but see (and partially agree with) the article author’s point of view. Here’s the gist of the matter: popular blogger John Gruber has teamed up with developer Brent Simmons, and designer Dave Wiskus to launch a note-taking app called Vesper.

What does Vesper do? Apparently not much. It lets you take text or photo notes, tag them and share them via email or iMessage. The Verge, Macworld and GigaOm all have their own articles about it if you’re more interested. Macstories even has an interview with the creators. Its biggest selling points seem to be good design and John Gruber’s involvement.

I have no qualms with paying for software – I use OmniFocus as a task manager, I bought the Android and iOS versions of Instapaper and I paid for the Pinboard bookmarking service. All of them do useful things for me and do them well (better than most other apps and services in the same category). So what exactly would I be paying for if I bought Vesper? According to Marco Arment (of Tumblr and Instapaper fame) I’m paying for balls. Apparently the apps creators are extremely brave for releasing a feature-light app that’s about the same as a bunch of other apps while being comparatively more expensive (and having a mildly interesting Credits section).

Perhaps they are. But here’s the thing: I don’t care.

I don’t care how heroic Gruber and Co. are. I don’t really care that the app is $4.99. I do appreciate that the app looks well-designed and the interactions are well thought out. But I care more that the app doesn’t do very much and for some reason, I’m supposed to celebrate that. Apparently being “skillfully crafted” means that things I’m starting to take for granted (like oh.. I don’t know… simple export) are suddenly “power user features”. Somehow we’ve gotten to the point where the developer’s balls are more important than the app’s functionality and data loss is just as much of a problem as typos in the credits.

How did we get to this point and does it matter? I’m not sure. Perhaps it has something to do with the rise of The Cult of Design Dictatorship. I care about good design as much as the next guy and I’m glad that a small group of people can create and distribute widely used products. But when it comes to technology, I refuse to put form above function and I definitely won’t allow the developer’s pedigree to be a stand-in for functionality.