Sunday Selection 2013-05-05

Happy Cinco de Mayo and Orthodox Easter everyone. Last week has been a bit quiet as far as reading is concerned. I have a hefty backlog in my RSS that probably won’t get cleared till next week. But here’s the pick of what I did read and discover:

Around the Web

10 Rules of  a Zen Programmer I’ve been doing meditation on a regular basis over the past few weeks and it’s been an interesting experience. I definitely feel calmer throughout the day and it’s getting easier to sit down and focus on tasks I would normally procrastinate on. This article agrees closely with both what I’ve been experiencing while meditating and as a programmer. I’m not a Zen practitioner, but you don’t have to be one to use the information this article provides.

I’m still here: back online after a year without the Internet This is the last (I think) in a series of articles by a journalist who spent a year offline. It’s an interesting read, though it ends on a very weak note. The author’s experience seems to agree with my own views on the matter: the Internet (and technology in general) is a tool and it’s up to us to use it best. Using it, or not using, is not suddenly going to make us a better or worse person. It’s up to us to use these tools according to our desires and help realize our potential.

Star Wars: Online review culture is dotted with black holes of bad taste This articles looks at the rise of popular review sites (focusing on Yelp and Amazon) and discusses how the reviews on these sites are often less then helpful to the point of negating the importance and usefulness of a review. There’s research going on at Cornell on better analyzing online reviews and review systems so this article was particularly interesting to me. While there’s something to be said for the usefulness of multiple opinions from different viewpoints, sometimes you just want an authoritative answer from an expert about the quality of a service and product, and that’s increasingly difficult to come by.

Software

Tomato.es As the end of the semester approaches and the amount of stuff I have to get done explodes, I’ve been starting to use the Pomodoro technique to keep on top of things. Tomato.es is a simple timer that counts off 25-minutes intervals. If you sign in using Twitter or Github, you can keep a record of what you’ve been doing in those intervals.

Sunday Selection 2012-04-28

Around the Web

Minecraft, Scrolls, 0x10c: The past, present and future of Mojang as seen through Notch’s eyes. I’m not much of a gamer, but I do like making cool stuff and I love reading about people who are making amazing, beautiful things. Notch is the creator of Minecraft and the anticipated 0x10c and this interview is full of interesting tidbits.

The Terrifying Reality of Long-term Employment As a recent college graduate who has chosen the temporary sanctuary of the ivory tower, the job market is something I can afford to avoid, but it’s still something at the back of my mind. The state of the current market makes me wonder if we need to rethink jobs and value structures in an age where long-term stability is increasingly rare.

The Boston Marathon Bombing: Keep Calm and Carry On. I usually don’t write about current events, partially because I’m never quite sure what to say, and partially because I’d rather not add to the noise if I don’t have something useful to say. That being said, I’m all too happy to point in the direction of people who I think are actually making level-headed and rational comments about the current state of affairs. Bruce Schneier is certainly one of those people and I can’t help but wonder how different the world would be if people like him were in charge of our security.

Software

Capsule: The Developer’s Code Journal. I find that keeping a record of things I’ve done through the day is very useful. It’s a good estimator of where my time went through the day, and an empty log is a sign that things didn’t go quite right.  I normally have a text file on my phone that I just dump everything into. Capsule looks like an interesting solution for programmers (both teams and individuals) to keep a quick and dirty log of what they’ve been up to. I’m probably going to put it on my Linode for a week and give it a try.

Tsuyoku Naritai

Happy New Year, dear readers (albeit somewhat belatedly). I’ve been spending most of the last month traveling and spending time with family and friends. And now I’m going to tackle the matter that is on everyone’s mind at this time of the year: New Year’s Resolutions! Aren’t you all excited?

I’ve never been a fan of making a long list of resolutions on January 1. There’s an arbitrariness to it that I’ve never found appealing. I understand the need for a New Year’s Day for practical purposes, but it is really just another day. It doesn’t even commemorate someone’s birthday or a memorable event. Furthermore, grand announcements of how we’re going to change our lives have always seemed unnatural. Most of the changes in my life (and I’ve changed a lot over the last few years) have been sequences of events, opportunities and small decisions building up over time, not sudden all-changing promises.

All that being said, I am a fan of the general notion of self-improvement. A few months ago I came across the Japanese phrase “Tsuyoku Naritai” which translates to “I want to become stronger”. The original article by Eliezer Yudkowsky is worth reading and I won’t bother repeating it here. It focuses on the idea of improvement (getting stronger) as opposed to the idea of simply apologizing for weakness (and not doing anything about it). But the concept of Tsuyoku Naritai presents an interesting contrast to the idea of New Year’s resolutions.

I have always felt that resolutions were mostly external motivations: they embodied things that we thought we should change, that we were constantly being told we should change. By contrast I feel Tsuyoku Naritai is more intrinsic. It’s not “I should” or “I will”, it is “I want”. It acknowledges that we may not have strength now, but it declares that we want to gain it.

“Tsuyoku Naritai” is more general than most resolutions. While I’m all for specificity of goals, the start of the year might be the wrong time for them. Making serious changes takes a lot of willpower – something that we have a finite supply of. Deciding to change our diet, our exercise routine, our work schedule and how we spend free time all at the same time is a fool’s errand. The need for willpower can be mitigated by making use of habit – putting things on autopilot. But setting a new habit takes about a month and in that time we’re burning precious willpower reserves. We may be able to completely change all the spheres of our life over a year, but we certainly can’t do it all at the same time. Instead of making lots of specific promises at the start of the year, maybe it’s better to pick an over-arching theme. We can pick a goal a month that to devote our willpower to and set into a habit.

This year I don’t have a set of resolutions. I do have a list of things I want to accomplish over the course of the year, but I’m taking them one at a time. But in addition to those specifics I have a more general theme of wanting to be stronger – physically, intellectually, maybe even mentally/emotionally (though I’m not entirely sure what that would entail). Tsuyoku Naritai is my theme for 2013 and something I hope to revisit as the year progresses.

I hope you all have a happy and productive new year. Live long and prosper. Become stronger.

The Internet as Echo Chamber

… and social media even more so. This isn’t a new idea, but it’s one I’ve been realizing first hand over the last few weeks. While the Internet makes it possible to contact and communicate on an unprecendented scale, it’s easy to simply walk in the same circles. It’s easy to hear and say the same things over and over again. It’s easy to follow the same sorts of people on Twitter, to be involved in a single, mostly homogenous community. And while this can certainly be interesting and enjoyable for a while, in the long run it is at least boring and (I suspect) even actively harmful.

Perhaps the truth is that I’m just bored. I’m bored of shiny Apple stuff, I’m tired of the newest Nexus hardware. I’m tired of startups whose products and services mostly just make me go ‘meh’. I’m tired of Twitter and Facebook dumping endless streams of I don’t even know what into my brain 24/7. I’m tired of endless discussions of best vs worst. I’m tired of vapid claims proclaimed as gospel truth without any proof or logical chain of reasoning. I’m tired of blandly homogenous groups of mostly mediocre individuals claiming to be “the best of the web” without a shred of evidence or a hint of irony. I’m tired of people expecting for-profit corporations to behave like public utilities and then being outraged and surprised when they act in favor of profit rather than social good. I’m tired of the Internet as an echo chamber.

No, I’m not quitting the Internet. Or going on an “information diet” as seems to be all the rage nowadays. No, I still love the Internet. Without it I would have known far less about computers than I do today. Without it I wouldn’t be where I am today. Without it I wouldn’t be talking to my parents and my friends on a daily basis basically free of charge.

I love the Internet, but not all of it. I love Wikipedia (please donate today), I love Google Search, I mostly like Lambda the Ultimate. I love the wealth of technical information and good books online, mostly for free. The Onion is killer. Reddit has its moments. But I could do without Hacker News. The Internet may be an information superhighway, but I really don’t want to go to all the places it leads. In fact, it’s best used when I have a clear(ish) idea of where I do want to go.

In some ways, the Internet is two things: it’s an information resource and it’s a communication tool. The two can be quite separate. Lately I’ve been finding myself using the former aspect more and more. As I throw myself into research and hacking and building, the Internet seems more like a library than it does a meeting place for all and sundry. This Internet is quieter, less chatty, slower, calmer. There are still voices, but they’re time-shifted, they’re softer, there’s a certain distance between me and them. In this Internet, the ideas come first, the voices later. This is the Internet in which people are building hobby operating systems for new hardware platforms. This is the Internet where people write programming languages and complex systems for fun. This is the Internet where I discovered Lisp and Linux and functional programming. This is the Internet as I first remember it.

Things change. To hold on to the old (or expect a return to it) is a fool’s errand. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of computer technology and the Internet. But perhaps part of the magic of the Internet is that the old can coexist with the new and you can choose one, or the other, or both. I’ve been choosing the new for a while and it’s been good. But I think it’s time to look back at the old again. For a while, at least, I need to leave the echo chamber and find a nice quiet corner of the library.

A Whole Lot About Books

Today’s post is just a collection of things about books. These are things that I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while, but none of them individually deserved a full post on its own. So I’m going to put them all together here and put them into a coherent narrative.

First off, you may have heard about the Kindle fiasco where Amazon removed a customer’s account without warning (or explanation) and then deleted all her books. Said customer’s account has been restored but it raises question about Amazon and the Kindle. I personally love the Kindle hardware and service, but I also want to actually own my books. I still buy paper copies of books that I want to keep and will read more than once. All my textbooks are paper too.

Luckily, many non-Amazon ebook vendors will provide DRM-free ePubs. If you have ePubs then the best reading experience for them is using the Readmill app on the iPad. They also recently added support for Adobe DRM, PDFs as well as books from the Kobo and Google Play store. Readmill will also sync your books to an online library and provides highlighting and social features to share what you’re reading. Highly recommended, I just wish they connected to Goodreads and Findings.

Unfortunately the Humble Bundle for eBooks has already ended. This bundle offered a selection of DRM-free ebooks (including some graphic novels) at your own price. The amount you paid got split between the authors, a number of charities and the Humble Bundle team. I hear that if eBooks counted all of these authors would have made the New York Times bestseller list. We can count this one as a success for DRM-free, post-scarcity publishing. You can sign up to receive notifications of later Humble Bundles and I hope to see similar bundles in the future.

A few weeks ago I reviewed Cal Newport’s excellent book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. It offers examples and advice on forging a career that’s based not on nebulous definitions of passion but rather on cultivating rare and valuable skills. If you’ve been wanting to read this book but haven’t gotten around to it yet, here’s your chance. Social Books is a new online book. Members read one book a month, sharing and discussing it as they go along. Their first book is So Good and they’re starting November 1. I’ve already read the book but I think it would be a learning experience to do it again.

Last but not least, one of my friends from college has been writing a blog called Courtney Reads a Lot. If you guessed that it’s all about books, you guessed right. If you’re looking for new books to read or a constant stream of book-related posts subscribe to her blog.

That’s all for today. Enjoy your weekend and see you all next week.

The Interface Paradox

As much as I love programming and good old-fashioned text-based command lines, I have an interest in ergonmics and futuristic interface. A few days ago a post entitled “A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design” made the rounds on the Internet. It opens with an old, but interesting video and goes to make the argument that our current obsession with flat touchscreens and simple gestures is doing our us all as disservice. Our hands are capable of complex gripping, grasping and touching motions and having all that expressivity confined to a small, two dimensional surface with a limited number of motions is self-defeating. The article makes the damning statement: “Are we really going to accept an Interface Of The Future that is less expressive than a sandwich?”

The article helped me express an uncertainty that’s been floating back and forth in my mind for some time. I use my iPod Touch on a daily basis and I’ve been loving the multitouch trackpad on the new Macbooks. I love the swiping motions for window management and moving things around. At the same time I’ve started drawing by hand again (I loved drawing as a kid) and I realize that putting a pencil to paper is a rather complex but very fulfilling activity. Strangely enough I think that both the pencil and the touch-based iOS interface have a lot in common. In both cases, the actual physical device almost disappears letting you focus on the underlying application. The iPad or iPhone itself is just a thin frame around whatever app you’re using. The pencil is basically just a simple pointer but allows us to create an infinited range of images with it.

However in both cases, the expressiveness offered by the device is not enough. Pencils are not enough to express all the images we might want to create. That’s why we have pens, brushes, chalk, crayons and a variety of papers and canvases. The flat touch interface is also not enough, especially if we are confined to a small surface that fits in one hand. The question then is how we can take the simplicity of our current touch interface and extend them to a larger set of expressions and interactions?

Case in point is the camera interface on the iPhone. For a long time there was a software button that you had to touch to take a picture. But that meant sticking your finger in the middle of the picture. Normal cameras have a better interface: there is shutter button on the top that keeps your hands far from the actual image (even if you’re using a LCD screen instead of a traditional viewfinder). This deficient interface on the iPhone led to the Red Pop, a giant red shutter button and now iOS 5 turns one of the hardware volume buttons into a shutter button.

The Red Pop camera interface for the iPhone
The Red Pop camera interface for the iPhone

Having a fluid, upgradeable, customizable software interface is nice and I like smooth gradients and rounded corners as much as the next guy. But our hands evolved to use actual physical matter and before computer interfaces we built a lot of interesting physical interfaces. Apple has hooked us on the idea of sleek, smooth devices with no extraneous. While it’s great to lose unnecessary knobs and edges the Apple design philosophy might not be best in the long run, especially if your device’s UI doesn’t neatly fit into the touch-drag-swipe system of gestures.

Ultimately it would be great to have “smart matter” physical interfaces – the flexibility and programmability of software with the physical usability that solid matter offers. Imagine some sort of rearranging material (based on some form of nano- or micro-technology maybe?) that can be be a simple smooth shell around your interfaces but can change to form buttons, sliders, knobs or big red shutter buttons as your application requires. But in the years (decades?) between now and then we need other solutions. The range of accessories and extensions available for the iPhone (including the Red Pop, tripods, lenses etc.) seem to suggest that enterprising young device maker could use the iPhone (and it’s successors and competitors) as a computing core to which they can attach their own physical extensions. With a more open and hackable platform (an Android-Arduino hybrid perhaps) we might see a thriving device market as well as an app market. Am I a dreamer? Hell yeah, but as the projects I’ve linked to show, I’m certainly not the only one.