Sunday Selection 2018-08-12

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek on Apple, Facebook, Netflix and the future

This is probably the most balanced interview I’ve ever read from a software company executive. Daniel Ek’s perspective on technology and his company’s place in the world shows much more humility and a more nuanced understanding than we’ve come to expect from technology companies. It’s a refreshing read and offers a lot to learn, for anyone interested in understanding how to manage people, lead companies and leverage technology for effective social change.

Why Writing Matters in the Age of Despair

One of my goals for post-PhD life is to write more, on both technical and non-technical topics. So far I’ve been managing to keep a more or less regular habit of writing privately, but been publishing very infrequently, but am hoping to change that. As the author notes: the limits of our stories are the limits of our lives. Our words should open up the world, not close it off. Our words should include all, not trap them in cages. I see every story, every word as a struggle of memory against forgetting.

Nick Offerman’s New Definition of Manliness

I’ve been a big fan of Nick Offerman ever since watching Parks & Recreation. This article seems to sum up his view on life and manliness, which in turn is summed up by his line about whiskey: my advice is to craft your life in such a way that your whiskey drinking can be for enjoyment, which means that it’s delicious and in moderation, rather than for escapism, or to obliterate your consciousness.

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Sunday Selection 2018-01-28

Around the Web

Field Notes Shenandoah Edition
Field Notes Shenandoah Edition

Why Field Notes Have Remained Curiously Addictive for a Decade

In the last few years, I’ve become a big fan of pen (and pencil) and paper for taking notes, journaling and sketching out ideas. More recently, I started carrying around a Field Notes pocket notebook all the time and using it to write down and keep track of all kinds of things about my day-to-day life. This is a wide-ranging and very interesting article about how Field Notes got started and kept going, along with a healthy dose of context to understand the why paper notebooks seem to making a comeback.

From inboxing to thought showers: how business bullshit took over

I’m very grateful to work in a field and environment where I have to deal with very little “business bullshit” on a regular basis. But this is an interesting look at how differences in language can shape the way we think and act and can spread unchecked through society at large. Pair this with an older article on the phenomenon of bullshit jobs.

Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics

I am a big fan of Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog and this is, in my opinion, the best article she’s written so far this year. It contain’s excerpts from an out-of-print by Lilian Lieber of the above name interspersed with Popova’s commentary. The book starts off using the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry to explain how science progresses, and then extends that line of reasoning to understanding the human condition, ending with a set of postulates that I think deserves to sit right beside Utilitarianism and Kant’s Categorical Imperative as foundational moral principles. A long, interesting and inspiring read. I hope to get my hands on a copy of the book itself someday.

From the Bookshelf

The Rise and Fall of DODO by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

I started this year wanting to read one book a week, but it looks like I might end up at one book a month instead. Oh well, I think I picked a good one to start with. Without going into details, this book blends together magic, time travel, politics, and a wide range of curious characters into a gripping and hard-to-put-down read. This book has made me stay up past my bedtime reading for the first time in a long while.

Video

Pacific Rim: Uprising 2nd trailer

The original Pacific Rim is one of my favorite movies. As far as movies go, I would it’s very good, but not excellent, but it is a whole lot of fun with a lot of great and unconventional characters. I’m really looking forward to the second installment, and to seeing more of Guillermo del Toro’s excellent work.

Amazon’s Digital Wonderland

A few weeks ago I found myself in Seattle, WA. Contrary to popular belief, it was a rather bright and sunny few days (if somewhat chilly). Here’s an obligatory picture of the Sky Needle.

Sky Needle

Anyways, on the first day there I fought a mostly losing battle against travel-induced tiredness (I was up at 4:30 in the morning) and walked around downtown for a while, somewhat zombie-like. I spent the most of the next day in one of Amazon’s new buildings attending their first ever PhD Symposium. I got to meet Amazon employees like Swami Sivasubramanian, one of the creators of Amazon’s Dynamo database, as well as fellow graduate students like Rahul Potharaju. The day was full of interesting presentations and the breaks in between were packed with lots of cool conversations. I presented my current project, Merlin(excuse the visuals) and got some good feedback. All-in-all it was a great day, I had a wonderful time and I hope Amazon keeps having more of these research Symposia.

But that’s not what this post is about. Personally, I think of Amazon as a retailer first and a technology company second. In fact, I’ve even written a post about their exemplary customer service. Even though I’ve known about EC2 for years and have used both S3 and Glacier as personal backup, the idea of Amazon as a technology company has always been at the back of my mind. In fact, it was only while attending the symposium that I really thought about the full weight of Amazon as a technology services company.

After coming home I looked up the keynote from Amazon’s recent Re:Invent conference. The keynote shows off some of their more interesting recent technology (including new EC2 instances) as well as client technologies built on top of it (including companies like Netflix and Vimeo). I also stumbled across Dave Winer’s post on Amazon’s support of static JavaScript applications and why that’s so interesting and important.

The more I think about it, the more I like Amazon. They make incredible technology, employ lots of really smart people and have a refreshingly honest and direct business model in an industry dominated by advertising and harvesting user data. From computation, to storage, to scalable DNS, Amazon offers a suite of services that’s just about stunning in its breadth. Though I’ve had little use for their services personally (apart from Glacier for backup), I can see myself extensively using their systems and technology if I was building any of type of scalable, distributed service.

Even as I write this, I’m trying to come up with excuses for trying out more of their technology. What would I build? I honestly don’t know. But looking at the range of Amazon technologies and thinking about the possibilities reminds me of the feelings I got when I first started programming and learning about computers.

In many ways, the world has changed since I started writing code about 12 years ago. I had a lot of fun writing LOGO and BASIC programs and then hacking together little Perl scripts. Today I find myself wondering what the loosely coupled services and technologies offered by Amazon and other cloud computing services enable. I wonder if the new programmers of today, still learning on primarily single-threaded, single-box computing platforms, should be encouraged to move on to the brave new world of instantly accessible, practically unlimited computing power. I wonder what we’ll achieve if we were to take distributed, connected computation as the starting point, rather than the state of the art.

As an ending note, let’s think about Microsoft. It’s become standard to talk about Google as today’s Microsoft, but I’m starting to wonder if that title doesn’t rightfully belong to Amazon. I’m not talking about monopolistic activities or questionable business practices, but rather their similarities in making computing more popular. Microsoft’s goal (ostensibly) was to put a computer in every household. Amazon, for its part, has commoditized high-powered computing and distributed systems and made them available to people with modest budgets. I suppose the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sunday Selection 2013-10-13

Around the Web

Advice to a Young Programmer

I’ve learned a lot about system design and programming since I started grad school two years ago. I’m still learning a lot as I use new tools and techniques. This post does a good job of summarizing an experienced programmer’s advice to someone younger and newer to the craft.

Why Microsoft Word Must Die

I’m quite happy to say that I haven’t used Word in years. I don’t have a copy installed and I can’t remember the last time I needed to edit a Word document. I use LaTeX for most of my writing (everything from applications and academic papers to my resume). For the rare occasion that I need to open a Word document, Google Docs is more than adequate. Charlie Stross is one of my favorite newer science fiction authors and like most of his technology-related writing, this piece is on point about why the modern Microsoft Word is simply bad.

Less is Exponentially More

This article about why Go hasn’t attracted more C++ programmers is over a year old, but as a student of language design it’s interesting to see how language features interact with programmers’ needs. If you’re interested in programming languages or write lot of C++ code this is a worthwhile read.

Video

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

I’ve been meaning to watch this documentary for a long time, but finally got around to seeing it last night. It’s about Jiro Ono, and 85-year-old sushi master and owner of a tiny 3-star Michelin sushi restaurant in Japan. At its heart it’s a story of a man’s quest for perfection and devotion to his craft. Though it’s ostensibly about the art of sushi, I think there’s a lot for any professional can learn. It reflects a way of life and devotion to purpose that we rarely see in day-to-day life. You can catch it on Netflix streaming and on Amazon Instant Video (it’s not free for Prime members though).

Sunday Selection 2012-12-09

Around the Web

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Academia

As my third semester as a PhD student draws to an end, I’m starting to think about what to do in the long term: what kind of a career I want to have, what kind of problems I want to focus on, etc. This piece is an interesting look at how research in computer science can coexist with making an impact in the real world today.

Trouble at Code School

I’ve been a Teaching Assistant for two semesters, but I haven’t really been on the front lines of teaching students. That being said, from what little experience I have introducing newcomers to programming that both teaching and learning beginning programming is no easy task. Luckily, with the growth of education-based startups and the resurgence in academic CS programs we’ll probably see interesting approaches in the near future.

GitHub vs Skyrim

Giles Bowkett manages to come up with interesting perspectives on a regular basis. This article talks about about GitHub and Skyrim and how the way they encourage team dynamics may lay the foundation for a new way of organizing companies and teams. Perhaps the most insightful idea is that the very definition of an office or workspace is not only changing, but gradually becoming irrelevant as work becomes increasingly distributed.

From the Bookshelf

Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman

I first read this book years ago in school and it was probably the first book to show me that you can fill a life with equal parts work and fun. This book probably played an important, though subconscious part in my decision to stay in academia for the time being. Even if you’re not a scientist or and academic, this book is worth reading and learning from. Life is supposed to be fun.