Sunday Selection 2010-07-25

Reading

Emacs vs Vi is rooted in the love of Lisp — This is an older article I came across a few days which shows how the universal programming powers that define Lisp are at the root of the Emacs/Vi divide

Have generics killed Java in which the authors argues that generics have harmed Java and that static type checking is a dead-end

Media

Public Static Void — an excellent talk by Rob Pike that discusses language and evolution and why our languages mostly suck

Software

Firefox Alpha with TabCandy is an early test release that contains a very interesting new interaction interface for tabs which I think is a step forward. Now if only I could run it all from my keyboard. Be warned that no extensions will work.

Bonus: Here’s the TabCandy video

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Guns don’t kill people, people do

No, this post is not about guns, gun control or the right to bear arms. This post is about the iPad (you knew it was coming). There’s been a lot of talk of the iPad and like all such things, there’s a lot for and a lot against. I used one for a few minutes yesterday and it was an interesting experience. The iPad I was on didn’t have a lot of apps and I can’t say  I gave it a very thorough run down, but from how much I did use it, there are some things that become obvious (and not all of those things are about the iPad itself).  Here’s what I learned:

It’s a great e-reader

I loved reading on it. I used both the iBooks app as well as miscellaneous stuff online. I wanted to try out Instapaper on it too, but didn’t get a chance to. But it’s very clear from the get-go that it’s a great reading tool. The text display is beautiful in the same way that text display on Macs are. And the fact is that you can hold it at book distance instead of monitor display which makes it a pleasure to read. It’s not hard to think that you are reading a book.

It’s all about the interface

Make no mistake about it: the whole point of the iPad is the interface. As Jef and Aza Raskin tells us, the interface is the application to most people. The iPad takes this to heart and so do the apps on it. The iPhone apps run on it, either at normal iPhone size or at double-pixel size. Either way, they’re suboptimal (if not absolutely terrible). The apps that become successful will be the ones that use the large screen area and the touch interface best. It’s not about raw functionality, it’s about how well it’s exposed. And this understanding leads to my next understanding:

The interface could live outside the iPad

I have an Eee Netbook which I use fairly regularly. The screen size is about the same size as the iPad’s. After using the iPad coming back to the netbook was a bit of a pain. It was annoying because I was using standard desktop apps on a tiny screen. However, if the iPad interface (or just some of the apps) were ported to netbooks, then things would be much better. Apps like Instapaper and the WordPress would do really well on a netbook because they maximize screen usage. In fact, some of them might even be better since you don’t lose screen space to the keyboard when you need to type. I really really hope that some people take ideas from iPad apps and port them to the netbooks. In particular, I hope webapps start using the same interface for the iPad as well as netbooks. More on this in a later post.

It’s not going to kill computing

There has been a lot of talk on how the iPad is a threat to real computing. But here’s my take on the matter: the iPad is a different medium entirely and it’s not going to replace the general purpose computer any time soon. I agree with Dave Winer: At the moment, the iPad is a toy. I also agree with Alex Payne’s suggestions on how Apple could make the iPad experience better for both users and developers. There this going to take a lot of work (and a lot of apps and web services) to make the iPad a standard computing platform in any sense. Right now, I’m going to hold off judgment on the matter until the next generation or two come around.

About the post title

I chose the post title to emphasize the point that the iPad itself is not revolutionary, or good or bad or dangerous. There are a lot of factors that will come into play over the next few years to see how the iPad works out. But many of the ideas that the iPad is bringing to light (such as carefully building interfaces tailored to the task at hand) are applicable outside the device itself and it would be nice to see them popup elsewhere (including other mobile computers). Where the iPad story ends is up to us: the users, the programmers and Apple Inc. We live in exciting times and the iPad is a sign of those times. The way we interact with our machines is changing and the good thing is that we can drive the changes in the way we want to. Let’s embrace that opportunity.

Treat your education as a business

I’ve been thinking about business a lot lately, thanks in no small part to the hype surrounding the book Rework (which I haven’t bought yet, but am sorely tempted to). Also to blame is the startup visa that is interesting to me, to say the least. As romantic and exciting as starting a business may seem I’m a full time student right now and will be for a good few years to come. I’m really enjoying my student career, but I’m seriously thinking about starting a business someday. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been putting together the theory that though I won’t start a business now, I can certainly apply business-style thinking to my student life.

Before I dig in, there’s a disclaimer due: I’ve never run a business and I hope to never get a formal training in business. I’m also very much a fan of start-ups and I like businesses that sell premium products with large profit margins than ones that sell tons of cheap stuff. Feel free to provide your own examples. What I’m going to talk about will be informed from what I’ve read and heard backed up with healthy amounts of common sense (which often seem to be rather lacking in the business world). As an additional clarification, when I talk about getting returns from education, I’m talking about things you can cash in on today, not some vacuous future where you get a nice job and pay back your hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of student loans.

Your job is to turn a profit

If your business isn’t turning a profit, then you fail and deserve to be cut down by the Invisible Hand. At least stop calling what you’re doing a business. By the same logic, if you’re going to college and not learning, you’re doing it wrong. Living on a really diverse college campus it becomes abundantly clear that there are a fair share of students who are perfectly willing to coast along and graduate with the bare minimum credit and effort. It’s similar to how many businesses seem to think that it’s ok to give away their product for free with no clue as to how to get into the red. If you’re paying thousands of dollars and spending hundreds of hours in class, make sure that you are actually learning something that you are interested in and what to learn about. Of course you can’t do that if don’t realize that

Showing up is half the battle

This isn’t so much a business maxim as it is general life advice. Getting down to work everyday and actually starting on the important tasks is essential to running a business. You won’t be making any money if you’re not actually producing something. Similarly, don’t expect to be learning things if you’re not going to put in the effort of going to class, paying attention and doing the assignments. It’s tempting to sleep in and just study for the exam, but we all know that in most cases it just doesn’t work that way.

Though showing up is necessary, it’s not sufficient to keep you on target. In particular, there’s no point showing up if you’re not showing up for the right things. Which is why it’s important to …

Decide what your product is

Microsoft does a lot of things, but it still makes almost all its money from Windows and Office. Walmart knows what it does: sell lots of stuff for cheap.It irritates me no end when college students get to end of their second year with no idea of what they want to major in. Keeping an open mind and exploring is good, but you can’t expect to get a good education if you can’t decide what it is you want to study. If you’re not going to take charge and make your own decisions, someone else is going to make them for you and you probably won’t like it. After all,

No one is going to run your business for you

As the people at 37signals make clear: you can’t just be “the idea guy” and your ideas count for nothing without good execution. If you want to get a good education, you’re going to have to stand up and get it yourself. You’ll have to take hard classes, study hard and smart and really immerse yourself in the material (as opposed to the night-before-exam cram routine). If you take easy classes and do the bare minimum needed to pass, then you’ll get the bare minimum back — a degree that thousands of other people have as well with nothing to set you apart.

I can tell that I’m starting to make the whole thing sound really gloomy, but here’s the kicker:

You have to enjoy what you do

No one ever succeeded in a business that they didn’t believe in, but a lot of people get stuck in jobs they hate. A lot of students think that college is stressful and boring and a drag because they haven’t figured out what their product is. The happiest students I know are the ones that really love what they’re studying and tie it into their activities and daily lives. They may be insanely busy, in the same way that people at successful companies can work insanely hard, but they don’t regret it. In contrast, the students that are the most stressed are the ones that don’t like their major (and hence put off studying till the last minute) and would rather be doing something else. If you’re in it just for the money (or the degree) you’re doing it wrong and should seriously consider doing something else.

On an ending note, I haven’t yet taken all the rules to heart myself. I enjoy what I do and I have a good idea as to what my product is. I show up most of the time, but about once a week I’ll expect someone else to watch the shop for a prolonged period of time and my profits aren’t as high as I’d like them to be. But putting these thoughts down have given me a better idea of what I’m doing wrong and how I should restructure. I’m look forward to strong second quarter earnings.

Sunday Selection 2010-03-14

Reading:

Books in the age of the iPad is a very well thought out (and very well designed) article on how books and print media might evolve to be useful in a generation when lightweight, connected digital displays will become ubiquitous. It’s an old topic, but the article is definitely worth reading.

Media:

Reddit.com interviews Peter Norvig who as some of you might know, is something of a hero. He’s a prominent AI researcher, Lisp hacker and the author of a must-read essay titled Teach Yourself Programming in 10 Years.

Software:

nginx is a relatively new, but rising member of the server world. It’s a lightweight, high performance server that currently holds about 7% of the market and is being used by sites like WordPress.com and Hulu. It’s also what I plan to put on my server once I get around to putting Arch Linux on it.

Sunday Selection 2009-06-28

It’s been an eventful week with Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett passing away and all news of the Iran election situation being knocked off Twitter as a result. But life must go on and it’s sunday again.

Reading

Music Mind and Meaning This article from one of the legends of AI, Marvin Minsky takes a look at music and how it could affect the way we think about the mind (and vice versa). No directly about AI, but certainly worth reading if you have an hour’s time on your hands

Media

Merlin Mann on time and attention Too much to do and too little time? Can’t get yourself to focus on the important things in life? If that’s the case, then this video doesn’t have all the answers, but it can point you in the right direction

Software

Neuroarena I’m not much of a gamer, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate them (or the cool technology behind them). This is a fast paced action strategy games that should give you strategy fans something interesting to do on hot lazy weekend afternoons. What’s more, the game backends are written in a combination of Common Lisp and Erlang. Not bad at all.