Monthly Archives: March 2011

It’s also a shoe polish

One of the things I’ve noticed is that it is easy to think of technology as coming in little boxes: this is an app, this is a web page, this is a video. As engineers and technologists, we become experts at what the names are on the little boxes and how the little boxes fit together.

It doesn’t really have to work that way.

For instance, on my book review site, I got tired of doing reviews for a while, so I wrote a one-page app where startups can enter in a basic business model. (I came up with this idea after seeing several startup death clocks. I wanted something better)

So I spent a couple of days writing one. (also the obligatory hn link)

Hang it off the main site, and now it’s just part of the scenery.

If I had defined my hn-books site as “a website to write book reviews” then that’s pretty rigid. It focuses on the “what” instead of the “why”. It’s probably a lot better to focus on the user. How about “some place folks visit to explore new stuff about their startup ideas”

The first concept is a list. The second concept is a theme. A theme that can be expounded upon in all kinds of ways. Once I have my “why” — why is the user there? — then I can be extremely creative in helping him out.

In my opinion, developers need to think of the things they do less in terms of technology and more in terms of art. When I first read “Hackers and Painters” I didn’t get that — my head was so wrapped up in various kinds of buzzwords, platforms, and distribution paradigms that I couldn’t see that startups are an art, not an engineering discipline. When your potential customer comes along to see what you’ve done, unless you’re selling life preservers on the Titanic, they’re looking at your work artistically — does it fulfill my need in a way I find pleasing? After all, there are probably many places that fulfill their need. Regardless of what they might say, they are making a judgment on whether they are emotionally pleased with choosing your work. This is the act of an art patron, not a robot.

You’ll never solve a problem and you’ll always be frustrated if you’re have the wrong model in your head.

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In Defense of Old Grumpy Guy: Get Off My Lawn!

I was watching a former famous TV anchor being interviewed this past weekend and in response to one of the questions he said something like “I know this is going to make me sound like an old grumpy guy”

I immediately sat up. Him too? How many old grumpy guys can there be out there?

It’s common for older guys (I’m 45 currently) to note that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. In reply, it’s common for anybody not-so-old to note that old bastards have been saying things like that for years.

How can the world keep constantly going to hell in a handbasket? Think about it: some of the oldest Greek texts we have complain about how the younger generation isn’t worth a damn.

This attitude must be just a symptom of age, right? Or, as one VC put it, once you get old you no longer see possibilities, instead you see obstacles. That is, you see only the negatives.

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Slaughterhouse-Five

Just got through reading Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five

Pretty good book, but I think it probably has more emotional power for younger readers.

If you’re interested in the full review, it’s over on hn-books.

From a technical, website creator perspective, it’s interesting that this book is available in video formats: DVD, VHS, and instant download. Because of this, I went ahead and added new format codes to the site.

If you’ll remember, I added tools in about a month ago, and now I’m adding in videos? What’s up? Don’t I have focus?

There is a real problem of scope creep, yes, but remember that the purpose of the site was having a place to give folks lists of books when they asked one of the 10 or 20 common questions about hacking or startups. Questions like ‘What’s a good way to learn to program?” are typically answered by these lists of books, and I got tired of writing the same lists over and over again.

In that way, the site is really a bookstore, only one with various personalization features. So, just like a real bookstore, it makes sense to have other materials that are related. If the question is about becoming a rails programmer, there’s probably books, videos, and even online courses that are relevant. Seems kind of stupid to limit the conversation to just books.

So I’m happy that the site hasn’t drifted from what I wanted. I also added Facebook commenting last night at the request of a couple of longtime readers. We’ll see if that adds any stickiness to the site.

UPDATE: Here’s the HN link for the book review. Since hn-books is a spin-off of news.ycombinator.com, any votes or comments over there help me serve the community better. So direct your attention there if you’d like to help out.

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App Store Roulette and Suicide Truckers

You walk into a casino. All around you are slot machines. Most folks sit with a vacant stare, feeding coins into the slots. Every now and then a little money comes out. The folks smile, then continue feeding money.

Less occasionally, lights flash, horns honk, and there’s a big payout. Maybe several hundred dollars. Maybe thousands (or more). Everybody stops what they are doing and gawks. “Gee! This could happen to me!”

And even more people are pulled into the pit to play the slots, each one thinking how he would spend the money he’d get if only he’d “hit it big”

Many developers look at this and shake their head. How could these folks be such suckers? Can’t they see how they are being manipulated?

Then they go write an app for an app store somewhere based on reasoning just as bad.

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Hating the Wolfram

There’s something that’s always intrigued me when it comes to Stephen Wolfram.

If you don’t know Wolfram, he’s a child prodigy who went on to become a multi-millionaire programmer. Here’s a bit of wiki:

Wolfram was educated at Eton. At the age of 15, he published an article on particle physics[4] and entered St John’s College, University of Oxford at age 17. Wolfram wrote a widely cited paper on heavy quark production at age 18.[2] He received his Ph.D. in particle physics from the California Institute of Technology at age 20[5] and joined the faculty there.

Wolfram became highly interested in cellular automata at age 21.[2] His work in particle physics, cosmology and computer science earned him one of the first MacArthur awards. Wolfram’s work with Geoffrey Fox on the theory of the strong interaction is still used today in experimental particle physics.[6] He founded the journal Complex Systems in 1987.

You’d think somebody with that pedigree would be honored and revered among hackers, but nope, that’s not the case.

I ran across Wolfram when I read (most) of his book, “A New Kind of Science” In it, Wolfram goes over a lot of things, but his main point is that systems created along the lines of the “Game of Life” (Cellular Automata) are fundamentally different kinds of systems than have ever been seen before, and probably merit their own field of scientific study.

Since Wolfram is not a crank, and has interesting things to say in this area, I would have thought he would have been widely praised. But there are a lot of folks carrying pitchforks and torches out for Stephen, and best I can figure it boils down to a few things.

  • He’s copying from others
  • His writing is atrocious
  • He vastly overstates his case
  • He is egocentric and difficult to get along with
  • He has lost credibility with the community
  • He lives in a bubble
  • At best he’s an impostor

What’s interesting to me is how personal these points are. We are not talking about the quality of his ideas so much as we are talking about the man, the very definition of ad hominem. Where we do talk about Wolfram’s ideas it’s only to denigrate them by belittling them.

I found the book fascinating and engaging, and although I stopped about halfway through (the prose was a bit painful), it wasn’t for lack of ideas. Yes, there are many amalgamated concepts here, but that’s not really important. I don’t care who gets credit — which probably distinguishes me from many technical writers.

Stephens idea of computational complexity are especially insightful and it’s very troubling that these haven’t caught on. His allusions to a discrete, computational universe I found so fascinating that I’ve made them part of my “best guess” view of cosmology. Understanding that the complexity of the results had little, if anything, to do with the complexity of the ruleset was mind-blowing.

Yes, he probably is annoying in person, and he probably copied a bunch of other stuff, and he overstates his case. But none of that is any different than any other philosopher who wrote a book. Every great thinker I’ve ever read took his ideas too far because he got immersed in them, liberally stole from others, and had personality quirks. And as for bad writing, geesh! Have you read any philosophical works lately? Even the “classics” are so wrapped up in nuance, style, and verbosity as to make them impenetrable to the average reader.

I just don’t get it. Unless — and I suspect this — that the reaction to Wolfram is more along the lines of “he doesn’t play well with others”. Put another way, this part of science is cliquish and provincial, and Wolfram isn’t part of the cool kids club. He just doesn’t fit in.

But that can’t be it, can it?

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Write even when you have nothing to say

I’m a big fan of writing, even when I have nothing to say.

I guess that makes me a blowhard, a bore, or perhaps loquaciously incontinent. Meh. I’ve been called worse. As the drunken sailor said, I’ve been thrown out of better bars than this one.

Looking back on four years of blogging, I find many times I “circle around” a topic several times, like a shark taking tiny bites from a fat circus clown drowning in the sea after a tragic tour boat disaster. I see the opportunity, know where I want to go — I just can’t seem to get there.

This type of writing, where I have a goal or a problem in mind and I’m just trying to chew it over, is very useful to me. I might go at the same problem in a dozen different articles before it finally “clicks”. Usually once it clicks, folks stop by the blog and tell me how easy I made it all look. Sometimes I flail and thrash about over a subject so many times I just about give up, only to wake up one day with the entire thing as clear as a bell in my mind. Those are the days I “have” to write something. I sit down and inside of an hour pound out an article. People tell me how great it must be to have such insight!

If they only knew.

There are many other times, like today, when I sit down and have nothing to say. Sure, there are about a dozen topics that are sort of half-formed in my mind that I want to unload on, but none of them are ready. It’s like staring at a television set that’s not turned on. Those are the days that it’s most important to write.

Stephen King put it rather harshly in his advice to wannabe writers: if you want to write, write. Don’t write to be cute, or to have something of great importance to say, just write. Sit down everyday and make yourself write for 2 hours. Every. Day. To write, write.

Stevie is the man, and if I wanted to be a great writer I’d follow his advice, because writing is like a muscle. The more you write, the more you are able to write.

You might write five thousand words in a few hours, most of which is tripe. But then you cut it down to three or four hundred words that sing? That’s magic.

Write when you don’t have to, because that way when you need to write you’ll have those skills available. When you write, it forces you to organize your thoughts and channel them into a narrative format. It lets you take what is inside your brain, organize it, and put it inside the brain of another person. Being able to do this is the most powerful tool known to mankind. Making an argument, unveiling a discovery, explaining yourself lucidly, and doing it in your own style is something only you can do. It’s your magic power. Don’t sit on the sidelines and let it go to waste.

Write. Especially when you have nothing to say.

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This Perfect Day

I was getting a little burnt-out with the hard-core programming book, so I looked around for some sci-fi — nothing that has been done to death, but something really good.

I found “This Perfect Day“, by Ira Levin.

Great book! You can read the review over on hn-books if you like.

I’ve been having a real blast with hn-books. Each week I start and finish a good book on hacking or startups. Lately I’ve added sci-fi and tools in there just for good measure, since sci-fi helps you relax and tools multiply your impact. It’s been fun.

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The Pragmatic Programmer, From Journeyman to Master

I’ve been reading some really great books on startups and programming over on hn-books.com. Putting together a resource where I can answer questions folks have about programming and startups in one spot by using books? Then reviewing each book to give the reader an idea of what they’re getting into? I think it was one of the more fun ideas I’ve ever had.

I just completed reading “The Pragmatic Programmer, From Journeyman to Master“, and it was just another in a long series of cool titles. Probably ranks in the top 3-5 learning-to-be-a-master-programmer list, which means it’s a shame I haven’t gotten around to reading it until just now. I learned a lot of these lessons the hard way: by trial and error.

If you’re interested in hearing more about my thoughts, check out the review!

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