Comic Report: Suspended in Language

Last night I had dinner with a few co-workers and conversation of course turned to what Albert Einstein would do if we extended his lifespan 1000 years. Would he ever get used to quantum physics? Fortunately, I was pretty well prepped for this conversation. I'm not a nuclear physicist (unlike one of the other folks in on that conversation), but I'd just read Suspended in Language.

It's another Physics biography from G.T. Labs comics, this one about... no, not about Albert Einstein. It's about Niels Bohr, a totally different physicist. This got into plenty of Phsyics which I didn't understand, some models of the atom that turned out to be wrong. (Not that I'm one to throw stones at Physics theories proven wrong, but...) I can barely follow the model of the atom that we've settled on, with its electron orbits and all. Trying to keep track of the also-rans... I kinda gave up. Fortunately, there's plenty of history, too.

There are also some short Bohr comics by some good artists, including Linda Medley and Roger Langridge. Langridge's comic includes a multi-eyed alien wearing some cool-looking sunglasses. That drawing made up for all of the hypothetical-but-wrong Physics theories I didn't understand.

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100% Organically Farmed Software

The book The Mythical Man-Month pointed out the organic nature of software development in 1975

...The building metaphor has outlived its usefulness... If, as I believe, the conceptual structures we construct today are too complicated to be accurately specified in advance, and too complex to be built faultlessly, then we must take a radically different approach.

Let us turn to nature and study complexity in living things, instead of just the dead works of man. Here we find constructs whose complexities thrill us with awe. The brain alone is intricate beyond mapping, powerful beyond imagination, rich in diversity, self-protecting, and self-renewing. The secret is that it is grown, not built. So it must be with our software systems.

—Fred Brooks

The book The Pragmatic Programmer nicely compares software development to gardening in its section on Refactoring (in 1999, so maybe it's taking 25 years for the idea to take hold):

...Rather than construction, software is more like gardening—it is more organic than concrete. You plant many things in a garden according to an initial plan and conditions. Some thrive, others are destined to end up as compost. You may move plantings relative to each other to take advantage of the interplay of light and shadow, wind and rain. Overgrown plants get split or pruned, and colors that clash may get moved to more aesthetically pleasing locations. You pull weeds, and you fertilize plantings that are in need of some extra help. You constantly monitor the health of the garden, and make adjustments (to the soil, the plants, the layout) as needed.

—Andrew Hunt and David Thomas

Back when I programmed on an Apple ][, programming didn't feel organic. It felt solid. When my program ran, nothing else ran on that machine; my code was totally in control. There was no OS upgrade coming along next month to plan for. My programming language was in ROM, wouldn't change out from under me. Those programs I wrote were solid... solid and brittle.

Nowadays, we write software that bends instead of breaks. When things change, we bend our software to fit. But we don't always get it right. It fatigues. So we talk about an organic model, software that is meant to grow. We try to create systems that live. Occasionally, we get it right. Often it feels like we don't achieve living, flexible software—just something solid with a couple of hinges in it. We're still figuring this stuff out.

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Book Report: How to Win Friends and Influence People

This is a popular book about how to be well-liked. The good news is that there's some good advice in here. E.g., try to see things from the other person's point of view. The bad news is that some of this good advice is hard to follow. Sometimes you see things from the other person's point of view, and you realize that they must be some nutjob who will never come to their senses and we're all doomed. Then you realize you've gone to all this trouble to see things from their point of view and you still don't know how to influence this person.

The worse news is... This book has been out for a while. This book has been popular for a while. Many people already know its more straightforward advice. I suspect that so many people know about it that... the world has changed. This book's advice is now backfiring. I'm pretty sure it backfires when people try to use it on me. This book suggests addressing people by name—people tend to respond to their own name. The thing is... nowadays, I tend to respond to my name by flinching. I think Oh gee, someone is following this book's advice and is trying to turn on the charm. What are they up to?

You're also supposed to compliment people sincerely. Maybe that's how I picked up another tic—I flinch when people compliment me. Usually it means they're about to ask me for a favor. "Oh, gee, you're so much better at cleaning tile grout than I am... How would you feel about cleaning the shower?" According to this book's advice, you're also supposed to compliment people even when you don't especially want them to do something for you at the moment. But not many people do this, so I shy away when folks start dropping compliments. I don't think I'm the only one who does this.

You'd think that this book would just have me cringing. Actually, it was an interesting book. Ghe guy who wrote it had some good ideas about how to teach people. It does some interesting things with repetition. There's a summary at the end of each chapter. There was a blank page at the end of the book, and I was encouraged to note down how I'd applied the book's lessons. It was a library book, so I was tempted to make up some funny anecdotes for the amusement of the next person to check it out, but in the end I didn't think of any.

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, Even det kravmärkta molekylärgrönaprogrammet

It's a wonderful time to be alive. Of course, I'm referring to widespread automatic translation, the magic which allows me to find out about Swedish puzzle-hunt-like activities, like, say, a team building exercise for some bio students. roped together like sled dogs (their ropes forming a double-helix), they solved puzzles and shopped for groceries. Which is insane. Where, by "insane", I mean "I never would have thought of that myself. Thank you, lovely Swedish people for thinking of this, and then doing this, and then documenting your activities. Because that is wonderfully strange."


Book Report: the Pragmatic Programmer

This book, The Pragmatic Programmer is difficult to find by searching, since there's also a series of books by that name. So maybe I'll give the full title here: The Pragmatic Programmer / from journeyman to master. That subtitle sounds pretty highfalutin', at odds with the "pragmatic" in the main part of the title. But it does fit with this book's approach: treating programming as craft, trying to give direction to some folks who want to hone their craft.

This book is a survey of "best practices". It doesn't go into much detail on any one of these practices. So... for example... If you picked up this book thinking "Command Line Interfaces are relics of a stupider age," then you're going to see a section of this book which exposes you to the idea that Command Line Interfaces are awesome--but it won't give you enough detail to reverse your preconceived notion.

I'm older than dirt and have been in some well-run engineering organizations. Thus, I have already been exposed to these practices. I feel kinda sorry for someone who has to learn about these things from a book. If you've been in an engineering group that has a nice testing framework you appreciate it—especially if you then go to another group that doesn't have one. But if you've never used a testing framework, and if you just have this book telling you that it's a darned convenient thing, and you're going to the trouble of setting it up... I dunno if a book would convince me to take the trouble.

The authors are technologically aware, and have a pretty good web site about the book, with a table of contents and a list of "tips". If you're interested in reading a survey of best practices and want to make sure that this book contains the best practices you want to learn about, that table of contents might be pretty interesting to you.

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Kindle Thoughts

I tweeted Reviewed an early-draft novel via Kindle. It worked well for that. Search was handy. Highlighted lines of interest. Over on Facebook, my cousin Sierra asked some questions about that. And Alex Soe had a comment, too. (Yes, I looked at Facebook today. I was out IRL with the high school chums yesterday and one of them reminded me that Facebook sucks less than it used to. So I looked at it today. It does suck less than it used to. There wasn't any Farmville-clone-spam. And there were comments.) Composing a reply in the little window wasn't going so well, so here is a longwinded reply in a blog entry.

Peoples' comments are in italics. My replies are not.

Sierra writes:

Is a kindle really worth it?

Hey, Sierra, good to hear from you. So far, the Kindle has been darned nice, but not totally worth it. It's handier than a paper book. The search feature is darned nice, especially if you think you're going to read the book carefully.

On the other hand, it was $150. And I'm a cheapskate. And... the library has paper books for free. Of the books I want to read, I can find most of them at the San Francisco Public Library or in the excellent Link+ network of libraries. Of the books I want to read, I can find some of them for Kindle. But not most. So I tend to check the library first.

So... I've had the Kindle for several weeks now; I've read several books meanwhile, but only 2.5 of those on the Kindle. Reading them on the Kindle was better than reading them on paper. Let's say my increased enjoyment was worth, uhm, $5 per book. So maybe I've derived $12.50 of value from the Kindle so far. Say I keep using it for two years, extrapolate out... At the rate I'm going, maybe I'll get $100 of value. I shelled out $150 for my refurbished Kindle. Trotting out the balance scale—darned nice, but not worth it.

(Yes, Kindle fans, yes it's my fault for not giving Kindle a chance. I should get into the habit of checking the Kindle store before I check the library. As more books become Kindle-ified, I'll have more incentive to check the Kindle store first, as the odds will be more in its favor. I'll use the Kindle a lot when I travel. The next time Neal Stephenson writes a book whose paper version weighs 20 pounds, I'll read it on Kindle, and it will pay for itself in reduced wrist strain. Yes, yes, yes, all valid points. But so far, honestly, I'm still thinking: darned nice, but not worth it. I'm glad I got it, but it was a splurge, an indulgence. Like out-of-season strawberries or something.)

Do you miss turning pages?

Nope. Then again, I didn't have a sentimental attachment to turning pages. If you do, you might miss it.

Is it bulky?

Nope. The one I have (a Kindle, uhm, Classic. Kindle I? Kindle original? I forget what they call it) is about the size of a, uhm, normal hardcover book. It's a good shape for something you want to hold for a while without cramping your hands, wearing out your wrist, etc. Newer readers are smaller. That doesn't make much sense to me—some of them look like my hands would cramp if I held them too long. Then again, I have big hands. If you're not a mutant, your mileage may vary.

I'm sooooo hesitant to get on the bandwagon...

Yeah. I'm not surprised to find out it's a popular gift—it's a nice thing, but expensive.

Alex writes:

Yeah, I heard good things about Kindle from my co-workers. Lots of them got it as Xmas present from their wives. It was also a hot topic at this year's CES. I am kind of intersted in the flexible-but-resilient, paper-thin e-reader. No more dirty fingers from reading traditional newspaper. Heheh...

Hey, Alex. Maybe the Hawaiian newspapers need to learn about the newfangled printing methods that have non-smearing ink. We have that here in San Francisco.

Wow, how awkward. I Tweeted, people replied on Facebook, and here I am reply-replying on my Blog. I can hardly wait until the Salmon Protocol lets us have this conversation in a not-so-disjoint manner.

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Book Report: Influencer

Good grief, it's another pop psychology book. I've been reading a lot of these recently, it seems. I swear, if I have to sit through another discussion of children who can/cannot delay their consumption of marshmallows, I'm going to... Ahem, anyhow. I made it through this book.

Influencer is applied psychology. People don't reason logically. If you want to influence a group's behavior, if reason ain't working, what do you do? You can keep spewing facts, but maybe you'll just continue to watch those facts flop around ineffectively. Maybe you need to choose different material. Maybe you need to change up something else. Some more sources of influence to bring to bear:

  • Get society on your side. People can watch each other, can encourage or discourage each other. They can spread and reinforce your message.
  • If your message fails because you're an untrusted "outsider", try to convince a respected "insider" to deliver your message for you.
  • If people fail to follow the abstract philosophy you present to them, show them some concrete things they can do.
  • Or show them a story that makes the abstract, perhaps taboo, issues concrete. People identify with story protagonists.
  • Choose rewards carefully. Esteem and respect often work. Money is dangerous.
  • Can you change the environment? If you can't resist eating ice cream, maybe you should get rid of your ice cream freezer.

It's all good advice.

OK, there was one example that came up a lot that I hadn't already become sick of: the Delancey Street Foundation. I didn't know that much about their methods. I didn't know that so much of the recovery was up to the residents themselves, the wide application of "each one teach one". I can imagine that a new resident, showing up there, would adapt to fit in, and in so doing, would learn to operate in the world a lot better. But now I want to know how the system was bootstrapped—how did the first generation get it together?

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Book Report: Engineering the City

This book, Engineering the City showed up as an book, probably because I liked Brian Hayes' book Infrastructure so much. I kinda wish I'd paid more attention to the details of Engineering the City before I went to the hassle of requesting it through the LINK+ inter-library loan program. Not that it was a lot of hassle, but... Well... This book is for ages nine and up. I bet it's a very nice book for what it is. But. I went a ways through it, and it wasn't telling me much I didn't already know.

There was some new-to-me material--a few sentences about the history of construction of a harbor at Ostia. (The Romans built a couple of breakwaters, which were nice but not enough, so they built another one.)

The builders of the transcontinental railroad got a bonus built on mileage--before the "golden spike" was driven, there was a period of time when they were building parallel tracks, because the senate hadn't yet said "hey, we're only paying for one railroad, you west-bound builders and you east-bound builders have got to meet somewhere". That's neat stuff.

But I don't want to wade through a quick explanation of where rain comes from. And another quick explanation of something else I already have heard. And another and another.

Probably a darned good book for someone ages 9+. But not for me, I stopped partway through.

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Not-Really-Puzzlehunts are Everywhere, even Denmark

At work, I work with training/educator folks. Tonight, I posted a message about stuff I'd read this evening. But it's not confidential or anything so I guess I'll post it here, too:

LARPers run a school

LARPers are Live Action Role Players. These people don't think Dungeons and Dragons is geeky enough, so they act out what their characters are doing. Do you remember a video on YouTube a while back in which people whacked each other with foam swords while a "wizard" tossed rocks while yipping "Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt!" Yeah, those were LARPers.

A bunch of LARPers set up a school. And to teach real stuff, not just, uhm, imaginary dragon thwacking or whatever. For some lessons, they present material in, you know, the usual way with someone talking in front of a chalkboard. But when they can, they try to teach by means of acting out role-playing games. They describe themselves at An excerpt:

1st narrative structure was Godsplay. On the first day of school, the students were divided into different pantheons and were told, that they would compete to name the different parts of the school for the rest of the week. In the first day they sought information on the pantheon and chose god-characters for each of them, composing a text in Danish describing their character. On following days, they worked with geometrical structures on the premise that all gods want their followers to build as big and impressing as possible. ...

I found out about this school from, so help me, a free online book of articles about LARPing. Don't judge me. Book available from . Article "The Role-Players’ School: Østerskov Efterskole" starts on page 12. An excerpt:

In the third week of the World War II theme, the pupils were engaged in the East Front. For most of the week, they were not playing individual soldiers but rather taking charge of whole military units. They were fighting the battle for Stalingrad –one half played Germans and the other half played Russians. But instead of deciding every battle with a die roll as you would do in a board game, the result was dependant on the solving of arithmetic problems.

This article also reminds us that people are not wearing enough hats:

"Wear-a-hat –teaching is a unique method where the pupil behaves according to the social conventions of a normal classroom setting with the only notable exception being that both the pupil and the teacher are wearing costumes. By any rational definition, wearing a hat hardly counts as role-playing: It is simply practicing ordinary teaching, be it classroom or group work in the roleplaying gear. Nevertheless, engagement and concentration are usually higher than without the gear."

So now people at work know I've been reading about activities dangerously low on the geek hierarchy. We'll see if they're still willing to talk to me.

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Book Report: The Internet in China (Zixue Tai)

It's going to sound like I'm slamming this book, like it's bad. It's not bad. I just chose the wrong book, is all. The thing is: this is an academic work. [It might also sound like I'm obscurely referring to recent events. But, as usual, I had this book report sitting around in my queue for a while.]

This is an academic work about the effect of the internet upon civil society in China. By "academic work", I mean that... Well, for example this book's first chapter is a careful definition of "civil society". I guess. I mean, the book's intro warned me that's what the first chapter was going to be about, and that it would refer to Hegel. Hegel. Good grief. So I skipped the first chapter, since that was just going to be of interest to a few scholars.

Alas, the rest of the book is academic, too. It was tough to find useful bits amongst the hair-splitting arguments with others' work. Eventually, I stopped reading and started skimming.

There were nevertheless some worthwhile bits. This book taught me some things about China's administration of censorship. I assumed that the national censors had direct control over local news--but apparently, national censors control national news. Local news is under the control of local governments, which have their own censorship rules. So I thought that regional differences in censorship were mostly local corruption, but it turns out that some of those regional differences are legal.

This leads to an interesting pattern--local politicians worry about national news organizations. Just as a sherriff might help prop up a corrupt local government, in China a local news organization helps cover up illegal activities of local government. But just as the USA's feds might trump the sherriff, Chinese national reporters might expose local corruption since the local officials don't have power to stop them.

That was kind of neat. If it's true. I might have misinterpreted. Try wringing meaning out of a sentence like "Notwithstanding the Habermasian normative perspective of public opinion formation and its crtics, there has been a well-established line of research about the impact of public opinion on political governance (e.g., Heith, 2004; Manxa, Cook, and Page, 2002; Sharp 1999) and the theory and practice of accurately gauging public opinion (see Ferguson, 2000 for an overview) as well as the role of mass media in shaping public opinion (e.g., Perse, 2001)." Eventually figure out it's not saying anything about the book's topic, but is just anticipating debate about whether anyone can say anything about the topic... Oy veh.

There are probably a couple of dozen scholars who want to read this book. I eventually realized I wasn't one of them and stopped.

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Meta Vanity Searching: Nearby Search Suggestions

You know how some people are so shallow that they Google themselves? I do that. I did that today. But this time was different. You know how when you type a little into the Google search box, it pops down a little list of suggestions? Well, my name showed up on the list of search suggestions when I'd typed in larry hos:

I thought things only showed up on that list if a bunch of people searched for it, but apparently not that many people need to search, because... there I am. It still seems strange. I got kind of curious about other people on the list. How about that Larry Hoskinson guy? I just visited his MySpace page, which lets you play some songs by him including the darned good "King of the World". I admit I hadn't heard of him until just now and yet I found myself absurdly proud to be in his "neighborhood," if that makes any sense.

Larry "Hoss" Pearson is a retired US Navy pilot. As I click and read around, I get the impression that "Hoss" is pretty talented at flying, but it's tough to get recent information.

Who is the "Larry Host" that appears below me? Let's see, if I search for him, RipOff Report, scam warnings? Convicted felon? Doesn't pay child support? Wow, OK.

So... people above me on the list are searched for because they do impressive things—make music, fly airplanes. The guy just below me on the list shows up on Gee, I almost feel like I should try to do something to move up the list, get into a "better neighborhood", as it were.

What's your search suggestion neighborhood like?


Book Report: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

It's a collection of short stories. Easy-to-read stories about folks going through tough times in their lives. The protagonists tend to be thoughtful persons of color surrounded by not-so-thoughtful people. What do you want to bet that this tells you something about the author?


I Didn't See Your Mail; Facial Hair

Happy New Year! If you sent me email in the last few days, I maybe never saw it. My site's spam-detection software thought that mail dated 2010 or later was likely to be spam. (This was apparently an awesome spam-detection trick a few years ago.)

In site update news, I posted a photo of me to the page of photos of me. In this photo, I attempt to imitate Chuck Jordan, but fall short. And the lighting is bad.

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