Required reading for software engineers: The Inmates are Running the Asylum

After reading the Inmates are Running the Asylum, by Alan Cooper, it’s very easy to see its influence on Bret Victor.  Unfortunately, for the software industry, this book is as true in 1998 as it is today.  My two takeaways were: Interaction Design, i.e. how humans interact with a product, is hard and if software engineers are left to design the product, it will lead to a frustrating experience.

The book is well worth a read to anyone who has experienced, as Cooper described, “Computer Tourettes.”  For example, I have an extremely feature rich thermostat; it can do all sort of things like tell me the time, vary its temperature at different times of the day, and I’m sure other things.  I still can’t figure out how to change the temperature setpoint RIGHT NOW.  This is in contrast to my barometer, where I can simply compare the setpoint marker to the current pressure.  I would much rather have the interface from my barometer on my thermostat.

Without looking at the instructions, which button(s) are required to set the temperature?
Without looking at the instructions, which button(s) are required to set the temperature?
I'm starting to realize that when "old people" grumble about analog vs digital, what they really mean is "good design" vs "bad."
I’m starting to realize that when “old people” grumble about analog vs digital, what they really mean is “good design” vs “bad.”

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Hi, I’m Tom Pynchon

There are a handful of authors for whom I eagerly wait their next book: Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Haruki Murakami (ok, I wait for the translation of his books), and Thomas Pynchon.  Bleeding Edge is Pynchon’s latest book and it will be released on September 17th; I already have it pre-ordered.  I was first introduced to Pynchon by way of Gravity’s Rainbow, which was an experience and I’m looking around for a house on top of which I can grow a banana farm.

To build even more anticipation for the book (not that any is really needed), Penguin Press released a Pynchonesque book trailer.  From the t-shirt, to the glasses, to the hours at Zabar’s, this trailer is hilarious.

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Innovation and The Future of Programming

Bret Victor is one of the best presenters I have seen.  With very simple slides, he delivers powerful messages.  I first learned about Bret by watching his Inventing on Principle presentation, which was inspiring in its own right. But his recent “The Future of Programming” delivers another faith-shattering punch.  You should go watch it.  Seriously.  I’ll wait.

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Double Doctorow

Between my fall and winter quarters, I finished two great books by Cory Doctorow.  I also read Herman Hesse’s Stepphenwolf, but I don’t think I am ready to get into that one at the moment.  The two Doctorow novels were Little Brother and Pirate Cinema and I’m a bit surprised at myself for waiting this long.

How can I blog about Cory Doctorow and not include relevant XKCDs?!?!

I was in college when Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson was released and that book inspired me to study the field of network security and cryptography.  So much so, I left a rather geeky acknowledgment to Neal Stephenson in my undergraduate thesis.  Little Brother would have been equally inspiring had I read it when I was 19.  This is an amazing novel.  While technically a young adult novel, it deals with critical social issues involving privacy and technology.  It’s also filled with references to actual projects and privacy fighting technologies (complete with bibliography!).  In the true spirit of the book, it’s available to read for free (and for remixing) via a Creative Commons Licence from the website.  The afterward by Bruce Schneier is a nice touch.  For the security minded, Bruce has a great blog and according to the “Insider’s TSA Dictionary,” is now a verb.

After that I burned through Pirate Cinema, another great read.  Perhaps more appealing to a general audience, this book focuses on copyright issues specifically involved with digital media.  Like Little Brother, this book is also available for free on the website.  Not surprisingly, it has been recommended for a Prometheus Award by the Libertarian Futurist Society.  Little Brother was awarded the honor in 2009 and Ready Player One, another great book which is filled with 80s references, was awarded the prize in 2011.  Fittingly, RPO’s audiobook is narrated by Will Wheaton (strong emphasis on the wh).

Another good one is here.

For those who like to listen to author interviews, there is a good behind-the-scenes interview about Pirate Cinema over here.  Also Little Brother‘s sequel, Homeland, is scheduled for release this February.  Makers and Rapture of the Nerds (this guy writes a lot) both look fun but for the next ten weeks I’m submerging into two more graduate classes: Data Structures and Algorithms II and Advanced AI, so I’m not sure I’ll get to them anytime soon.  I may have to sneak in Homeland though, midterms be damned!  So between the classes and AI Winter, which I’m planning on attending, I’m going to be very busy.

Some remarks on *Some Remarks*

Neal Stephenson fans will love Some Remarks.  Eighteen articles dating from 1993 to 2012 and ranging from less than a page to the epic 118 page WIRED article, “Mother Earth, Mother Board.”  I had missed some of his short stories along the way, so I think the collection is a fun trip.  Short stories like “The Great Simoleon Caper,” detailing a country-free digital currency (think Bitcoin) make me want to go back and read Snow Crash.

The newest article with a clever name, “Arsebestos,” describes how sitting on one’s “arse” all day is killing us.  Of course, to those that have read REAMDE, one can’t help but to think of Skeletor, the once morbidly obese MMORPG player who replaced his chair with a treadmill and now has ridiculously low body fat.  Arsebestos expands on that idea with the standing desk concept: replace your desk at work with a slow speed treadmill.

But “Mother Earth, Mother Board” really is the centerpiece of the collection.  A mere essay by Stephenson standards, it is a Depth-First-Search into the cable laying industry of 1996.  Ok, it’s a bit dated, but it’s a true microcosm of Stephenson’s exhaustive writing style.  Lastly, the included forward to David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More, makes me want to go out buy that book. In the little I have read of DFW, I can see why he resonates with Neal.

In more mundane news, I’m a bit busier than usual at the moment with two classes: Operating Systems and Introduction to AI.  Both are fun so far, but very project intensive. The OS class will be a look into the linux kernel, after this first project implementing our own shell. When I get to write comments like :

Reap all Zombies!

How is that not fun?!?  The first project for AI is to write a solver for a sliding puzzle game in LISP. If I did any programming in LISP in undergrad, I can’t remember it.  But, the plus side is that my emacs-fu will be that much better after this!

Emacs Wizardry: markdown-mode


I have made an amazing discovery recently.  While its not quite an achievement like the Curiosity rover (Mr. Rover has been entertaining to follow on Twitter) it certainly has brought me great joy nonetheless.  It is Jason Blevin’s markdown-mode.

Back in this post I mentioned that I would be using Emacs more routinely, to include editing these blog posts which I have been doing so far.  But to get the formatting just the way I like it, I’ve been using html-mode and editing the raw html and then uploading it to WordPress.  This wasn’t all that bad, but I’d have to remember the paragraph tag for each paragraph, use the right href, etc… Word wrapping was an issue too and I would have to fill / unfill paragraphs prior to uploading as well.

This is no more.  Using markdown-mode I can edit in the lightweight markdown and after installing markdown (via brew install markdown on my mac), I can quickly generate the html from the text. I’ve used github’s flavored markdown (gfm) before, but it never clicked with me to use it for blogging until I did some googling. Conveniently, gfm-mode is also available.

emacs (specifically aquamacs24 built from source at github) with the top buffer in markdown-mode and the bottom buffer showing the html.

I realized that I’ve just geeked out on Emacs, but very much in the Neal Stephenson definition from “Tune On, Tune In, Veg Out” in Some Remarks, which I have been enjoying lately:

“To geek out on something means to immerse yourself in its details to an extent that is distinctly abnormal-and to have a good time doing it.”

My Emacs usage has drastically increased now that I’m back at work, so there will be more geeking out in the future.

But first, from that same article, another great Stephenson quote (that and I’m enjoying the simple blockquote markdown syntax):

“The few conservatives still able to hold up one end of a Socratic dialogue are those in the ostracized libertarian wing-interestingly enough, a group with a disproportionately high representation among fans of speculative fiction.”


Once in a blue moon or a Neal Stephenson public appereance

Neal Stephenson has really come out of his shell recently.  While never quite as recluse as Salinger, this is the same Stephenson who published an essay on why he is a bad correspondent (this essay used to be online, but it is now in his Some Remarks collection).  He has even tweeted thirteen times this year, almost matching his fifteen tweets since 2010.

Not that I’m counting his tweets (ok, some of those were retweets), but while he’s between books, it’s nice to hear from one of my favorite authors.  The topic of his public conversation lately has been a Kickstarter project about CLANG, a realistic sword fighting game / API.  A very detailed writer, “Umberto Eco without the charm” so says the NY Times about Snow Crash, Stephenson incorporated some swashbuckling scenes back in the Baroque Cycle, with which he was admittedly dissatisfied.  However, since then he wrote the Mongoliad, a western martial arts online-novel and now CLANG, to make up for it.

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