Reads for your weekends

That what I’ve read today and greatly enjoyed:

  • 1491, on rethinking what America looked like before Europeans arrived. Has a delightful sci-fi twist: large parts of the Amazon rainforest could be a human effort, not simply nature. The notion that what many of us consider wilderness might be due to the human hand has tricky ramifications for the tension between preservation and development.
  • The End of the Nation State asks, what if we’re already forming the structures that come after large-scale states?
  • Innovation Starvation, Neal Stephenson on the reasons why we aren’t building big, awesome things like we did in the sixties or seventies.
  • Presentation Skills Considered Harmful, Kathy Sierra argues that it isn’t a good performer that makes a presentation good, it’s a presenter focused on the skills, needs, and experience of the audience that makes it good.
  • The Inferno of Independence, Frank Chimero on the tensions of what it means to be an independent creator of words, music, software, etc. The tensions and misconceptions are worth considering, even if you don’t consider your work “indie”.
  • FastImageCache, an iOS open source library for quickly storing and rendering images, has an intriguing explanation of why displaying many images on mobile devices is hard and how they’ve worked around it to deliver a smooth user experience.

Those Who Make, by hand

Those Who Make is a series about people who craft. Physical things, by hand, that don’t come out the same every time. I love watching people make things, and I doubly love hearing their passion for whatever it is they’re making. Even more enlightening, this is a very international series. It’s not all hipster shops in San Francisco, Portland, and Brooklyn; it’s everywhere.

This is delightful stuff.

How coffee is made in a colorful shop in another country, shot in the “Vimeo style” (is this a thing?): that will always get me.

Clips from unfinished pieces

On the crux of America’s challenges:

Part of the American experiment is answering the question, “how can we best take advantage of abundance?” Beginning with manifest destiny and evident in the machinations of Wall Street, one of the story lines of America is the quest to make sure resources of all kind are abundant and generating wealth. But we’re arguably at a pivot point. Our money and energy don’t go as far as they used to.

How do we make the transition from resource abundance to resource scarcity?

On helping people troubleshoot the Gowalla API:

While this level of self-documentation is quite helpful, sometimes people have questions on the developer list. For this, I’ve found that asking people to show me whatever it is they’re trying to do using curl is invaluable. It’s a win-win situation. Often, dropping down to a lower-level tool like curl helps to focus your thinking and makes silly error obvious. If it doesn’t become obvious to the API developer, they mail the list with the command they think should work. At that point its either obvious to me and I tell them what to change, or I have a nice, isolated test case from which I can easily try to reproduce their problem.

Who gets screwed when a borrower declares bankrupcty?

Is it possible that bankruptcy-declaring-borrowers are screwing lenders in aggregate? I find it really hard to believe that the banking industry, with its legion of lobbyists and regulatory capture, that any group of uncoordinated individuals could screw the banks.

On the other hand, there was lots of screwing on the part of the banks that led to the financial crisis. Whether it was predatory lending, relying on moral hazard to double down on terrible bets, or asinine compensation structures, the financial industry did something very human. They violated social norms. Except, corporations of this size don’t have social norms. They have only market incentives; when the executives, board members, and majority shareholders look at the books, the numbers devoted to “doing the right thing” are probably a rounding error.

On tail recursion and compilers:

Fact of life: modern processors don’t execute your code in the order the compiler spits it out.

If your code has, for instance, two adds followed by an if statement, it’s pretty likely that second add is going to be executed concurrently or after the conditional. In the world of computer architecture, they call this out-of-order execution, and it’s just another service your hard working processor offers to make sure your code runs faster than you ever intended it to.

On shorter cycles of production and the need to get past perfectionism:

Our modes of production are causing us to change how we produce. More and more mediums, be it journalism or software, are produced on shorter timelines. This is leading us to optimize production such that we can bang the content or code that matters into templates that mostly work, but have a tolerance for the rough edges where things don’t work.

On Barack Obama’s 2010 State of the Union speech that preceeded the health care debate:

Just for grins, I went and read the GOP response to the State of the Union. While they had some vague counterpoints policy-wise, it read mostly as subtle and useless jabs combined with carefully-constructed language to console their base. The GOP is a cynical, gutless organization.

On refactoring and deleting code:

People often say that they would miss having a refactoring browser in languages like Ruby, JavaScript, or anything that is reasonably dynamic. My glib response to this sort of comment is invariably “well, the best refactoring I know is to select the code to modify, hit delete, and start over.” Let’s take that apart.

I’ve observed that, despite our best intentions, we are often loathe to change code that we suspect is working, or that we suspect we don’t know why it’s there. And so, like the planet on which we live, applications accrete into Katamari balls of overly-coupled code that is bound only by locality. Cutting this Gordian knot is often the first step in reclaiming a project.

Deleting code is the knife with which we can attack this problem. Many will acknowledge the goodness of deleting code; it is, quite nearly, a virtue unto itself. I’ve observed that some of the best developers I know are always on the lookout for ways they can obviate code. So, by way of a strawman, I hope you see that I’m quite correct in this regard.

Read slightly less, practice slightly more

Chris Wanswrath, a smart and distinguished fellow, advises us to burn our news readers and just “hear it through the grapevine.” But how far can one go with that?

For myself, reading feeds gets me a few things:

* Aesthetic where I have none. Feeds like BLDGBLOG and Coudal point me to things that make me better at what I do, in a tangential way, and a more interesting person. These are things that otherwise I wouldn’t know where to start.

* Awareness on the edges. Reading folks like Simon Willison or Jason Kottke make sure that interesting topics in programming or erudition don’t go unseen even though I am focused on that topic.

* Aggregation of ideas. This cuts two ways. Most people worth reading compress a bunch of different sources down to a manageable stream. This gives me more bang for the buck in my feed reading time. On the other hand, if a link is mentioned several times in the aggregate of feeds I subscribe to, then its probably worth checking out.

I can see how following interesting folks on Twitter and reading aggregators occasionally can you get you some of this, but not all of it. With sources like Reddit or Hacker News, signal to noise is a problem – you can’t control who posts what. Some people have a lot of extra angst and/or spare time. Which is also the other side of the Twitter story. Some people are great to read, but a pain to put up with at times. So it goes.

When Chris’ essay first hit the wires, I was tempted to adopt his ways. But, I think I’m pretty good at ignoring the need to unbold things and cut down to business. What has proved immensely useful to me was has encouragement to just code all the time and make lots of stuff. I’m just getting started with this, but already I’m liking the increased feeling of accomplishment.

Regardless, we could all probably stand to trim our feed lists and hunker down on our projects, no?

Why is oil so damn expensive?

Great article in The Economist on oil prices and what’s causing their painful rise. Double, double, oil and trouble | Economist.com:

In the short run, neither demand for nor supply of oil is very elastic. It takes time for people to replace their old guzzlers with more fuel-efficient cars, or to switch to jobs with shorter commutes, or to move closer to public transport. By the same token, it can take ten years or more to develop an oilfield after its discovery—and that does not include the time firms need to bolster their exploration units.

In short, nothing related to oil consumption changes quickly. It takes a decade for consumers to fully adjust to prices and the same amount of time for producers to field new technology and start mining new discoveries.

In the mean time, this little scooter is looking better and better!

The Joy of Science

Put a Little Science in Your Life:

Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations…

Since my run in with Bachelor of Science-grade Physics, I’ve considered myself someone who sucks at science. However, I suppose by Brian Greene’s definition, I am a consummate scientist. I really enjoy diving into a deep subject (economics, linguistics, etc.) and trying to figure out what makes it tick. Its a fun way to go about life.

At the root of this pedagogical approach is a firm belief in the vertical nature of science: you must master A before moving on to B. When A happened a few hundred years ago, it’s a long climb to the modern era. Certainly, when it comes to teaching the technicalities — solving this equation, balancing that reaction, grasping the discrete parts of the cell — the verticality of science is unassailable.

A hearty "Amen!" here. So many topics seem intimidating to the neophyte. "You can’t do this until you’ve learned this, that and the other." Stacked knowledge as barrier to entry is a total bummer.

I think something immersive is more rewarding. They say the best way to learn a foreign language is to surround yourself in it. I think this is true of any endeavor that, at some level, rewires your brain.

Making sense of the world

I’ve noticed that when I’m walking about, sort of thinking idly, I find myself asking “How?” How was that building constructed? How come that sewer is there? OK, I guess that one is really a why question. So I suppose the underlying curiosity is really about the mechanism of the world.

Sure, you can’t reduce the world to a mechanism, a machine. Its full of humans, so you can’t really make any kind of useful predictions. But there are definitely systems in place and some are more influential than others. Some of those systems, while not predictable machines, do display tendencies and trends. Learning them is one of the little intellectual side-journeys I’ve been immersing myself in lately.

If you want to play along, here’s what I’m into at the moment:

  • Economics (probably macroeconomics in particular)
  • Cognitive science
  • Linguistics

For the former, I encourage you to listen to The Economist Podcast (iTunes) and read the weekly edition when you get the opportunity. They also seem to have moved away from using a pay-wall, so check out the articles on The Economist website as well.

If you’re wondering why on earth economics might be interesting, then check out Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. I never thought I’d wish I understood macroeconomics and financial instruments so that I could figure out what’s going on in a book by a cyberpunk author. But then I read the Baroque Cycle and I did. Its no coincidence the last of the cycle is titled The System of the World and here I am, seeking a system that illuminates the world.

For cognitive science and linguistics, I’m still just getting started. I read Introducing Linguistics this summer and its great. It seems its part of a series where they match a subject matter expert with a graphic designer. The result is easily read but highly informative. Its very much in the same style as Kathy Sierra.

If you’re ahead of me here and know a good bit on any of these subjects, feel free to drop some suggestions on what I should read next!

Alex the cognitive parrot

Best obituary ever:

A shame, then, that he is now, in the words of Monty Python, an ex-parrot.

If you’re not familiar, Alex The Parrot is a parrot who was adopted by a scientist who wasn’t, at the time, involved in linguistics. But, in teaching Alex to speak, she ended up teaching him things like counting and basic recognition of objects. Over the years, this evolved into all manners of experiments on what kind of cognition Alex was capable of.

AlexTheParrot.jpg

By the end, said Dr Pepperberg, Alex had the intelligence of a five-year-old child and had not reached his full potential. He had a vocabulary of 150 words. He knew the names of 50 objects and could, in addition, describe their colours, shapes and the materials they were made from. He could answer questions about objects’ properties, even when he had not seen that particular combination of properties before. He could ask for things – and would reject a proffered item and ask again if it was not what he wanted. He understood, and could discuss, the concepts of “bigger”, “smaller”, “same” and “different”. And he could count up to six, including the number zero (and was grappling with the concept of “seven” when he died). He even knew when and how to apologise if he annoyed Dr Pepperberg or her collaborators.

Its just amazing.