Archive for August, 2009

Programming is a lot like writing

August 28th, 2009

Computer programming is a lot like writing. You use the same tools to do both (chair, computer, scraps of paper) and you have to follow a similar set of rules.

What sort of rules? There’s the strict rules, like syntax, grammar, and spelling. Then there’s the not-so-strict rules, like style and taste. Same idea, slightly different type of language.

Your program also has to “tell a story” in the sense that it’s telling the computer what to do. The stories have varying levels of complexity, but they often involve the same basic overall structure. Both tend to re-use tried and true plot devices that change the story as it goes along.

What are some differences between programming and writing?

  • No matter how great you think your program is, it will never be printed out on paper. (Unless you’re writing a book about programming, in which case you’re writing as well so ha!)
  • If nobody understand your book, it could still be a bestseller. If a computer doesn’t understand your program, nobody will buy it.
  • Writers don’t have SCO filing patent claims on their work.

Next week’s post: Driving a car into a lake is a lot like making silly analogies.

Newspaper industry

August 14th, 2009

There’s a lot of talk about how the newspaper industry is dying. And there’s some truth to this — NY Times is in debt, Seattle PI went out of business, etc. etc.

And yet we have more sources for our news than ever before: 24 hour news networks, blogs, Twitter…

Has our attention has shifted from newspapers to other forms of media?

It seems like the answer to this is a resounding YES. But unfortunately, we’ve made a terrible trade off.

Before we discuss this, let’s think of a few reasons about why having several local newspapers is a good idea:

  1. We need to see different informed views on a subject. One voice means there’s only two views: for or against. This is a bad place to be, because any sufficiently complex issue needs to be looked at from a variety of angles before a reasonable assessment should be made.
  2. We need to have good local news. Without a good local paper, who’s going to call out the mayor on stealing money from the city? Who’s going to tell us that our schools are failing too many kids? Without a local paper, our communities are lost in the dark. The local TV and radio news will never have the same depth as a solid local paper.
  3. We need real news. In a world of hype, angry yelling, and ignorant opinions, newspapers have managed to maintain a calm and informed voice, for the most part. Occasionally, newspapers even engage in reporting real news and conducting investigations. Imagine that!

So what’s wrong with the “new” news media? Why is it different than a newspaper?

  • 24 Hour News Networks. All you have to do is watch a few minutes of so-called “reporters” blathering on and on about nothing for hours on end on CNN. Then try watching Glen Beck and friends yelling on Fox. It’s easy to see that 24 hour news networks aren’t reporting anything new at all. It’s mostly reactions to news that was originally reported in a newspaper. Even local news shows do a better job at investigative reporting than the 24 hour networks (and that’s not saying much.)
  • Blogs. Likewise, blogs do very little reporting and mostly tend to be humor or angry yelling (think Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly.) Those that do actual reporting have a narrow focus and only a handful of reporters. This is fine, but the idea doesn’t seem to scale. Blogs just don’t make enough money to be effective at covering an entire locale.
  • Twitter. And how about Twitter? Come on. Twitter is a way for ADHD celebrities to communicate with their ADHD fans. If something can be said in only 140 characters, it’s not new and therefore not worth saying to an audience.

Don’t get me wrong, the consumers of news are not entirely to blame. Sure, they should be demanding better news. We could (and should) all call up Glen Beck and Keith Olberman’s advertisers and tell them we won’t buy their products anymore. That would be a good start.

But the news media needs to make changes as well. The newspaper industry is to blame here as well. Newspapers are looking quite thin these days, and the content remaining is not up to par. To sell papers, they need to make some big changes, particularly in the face of their boisterous competition.

So what can the newspaper industry do?

  1. Do some actual reporting. This facet of running a newspaper seems to be lost on many. An opinion page is fine, but anything more than that and you run the risk of overshadowing your editorials with journalism. That said, the opinion page shouldn’t be a bunch of insane rants. If there are factual errors or obviousl problems with the reasoning, they simply should not be printed.
  2. Stop lying. Recently, Fox News was sued for reporting false information as news. Unfortunately, the ruling was in favor of Fox, because there’s no law against reporting false information. While we’ve all come to expect ridiculous lies from Fox, the newspaper business needs to hold itself to a much higher standard if they want to continue to command respect from their readers. But even at the NY Times, a reporter was fired for making up stories, and he wasn’t the only one. Who would trust a source who constantly lies to them? People stop subscribing when they’re lied to, and rightfully so.
  3. Investigate. When a newspaper reports on opinion polls and what someone said, it’s hardly newsworthy. Our world is filled with scandals, injustices, and other actual hard news. This is real journalism. Reporting on a car crash or whether babies should really be wearing diapers are not journalism. It’s that simple.
  4. Stop whining. Not a month goes by without a newspaper story about how nobody reads newspapers anymore. Maybe if the news reporters would do their job instead of whining constantly, they would get more readers. Crazy idea, huh? Must not be — the NY Times mentioned this idea in a story about (what else?) how nobody reads newspapers anymore. It’s time for the editors to tell their reporters to stop their whining.
  5. Get serious about the internet. Almost every newspaper has a website. But why? Most of them don’t make money or even have plans to make money on their website. The news organizations are stuck in the 1980’s, treating the internet like some exotic new thing instead of a real distribution format. If they have to charge for it, so be it. But the subscription model isn’t likely to work in a world of links and copy/paste. I’m not saying there’s a right answer to this. This is something the newspapers need to take a lot more seriously.

Conclusion: even though newspapers are becoming worse and worse, they’re still the best news source we have, by far. And they probably won’t get any better until the industry takes a good look in the mirror.

What a mess.

Jejune Institute

August 8th, 2009

I was walking to my job in the SOMA district of San Francisco one morning, and I came across a strange poster. The content was completely off the wall — according to the poster, there was a camera that could see through time.

The Time Camera

A few days later, I saw a similar advertisement for speaking to dolphins.

Aquatic Thought Foundation

Finally, I came across this poster for recording your memories to a VHS tape.

Memory to Media Center

It was no surprise that all three posters had similar contact information and lead to the same people.

Who was behind these crazy ads?

The Jejune Institute.

I won’t try to describe what the Jejune Institute is, but I’ll allow their leader, Octavio Coleman, Esquire, to explain:

I highly recommend visiting; I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s an experience you won’t soon forget, to say the least.

The Jejune Institute

Where: 580 California St, 16th Floor, San Francisco (map)


Phone: (415) 325-4014

Visit: Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 4 (don’t go later than 4, or you may not make it.)

Bring: $1 + tax, a cell phone, comfortable shoes, and an umbrella if it’s raining. Keep in mind there may be a 10-30 minute wait on busy days.

UPDATE: The Jejune Institute closed for good in April 2011.

Bookmark: Auto-Tune the News

August 5th, 2009

Auto-tune is the latest pop music novelty. Thanks to auto-tune, singers like T-Pain sound like a robot designed to output R&B hits.

Michael Gregory (no relation, afaik) has taken auto-tune to a new extreme: singing along with the news.

And it’s amazing.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. I’ll stop typing and let you see for yourself.

Auto-Tune the News #7: texting. rhyming. pat buchanan fail.


Auto-Tune the News #6: Michael Jackson. drugs. Palin.


Auto-Tune the News #5: lettuce regulation. American blessings.


Auto-Tune the News #4: spa regulation. serbians. sotomayor.


Auto-Tune the News #3: cuba. afghan friendship. 2-party woes.


Auto-Tune the News #2: pirates. drugs. gay marriage.


Auto-Tune the News #1: march madness. economic woes.


For future Auto-Tune the News videos, see this YouTube playlist.

Bookmark: TheDailyWTF

August 1st, 2009

It wasn’t so much that Richard, a software engineer, sat in his cubical making animal noises all day — as it was that he was getting very little done.  And what he had been doing needed a sort of Rosetta Stone to explain.  If you never considered how one variable might be a “ghost” and another might be a “warrior,” and how each might be referred to  using a cryptic dialect you made up, then you must not be Richard.

There are many such tales of absurdity in the world of professional software development.  Richard’s boss, Taka, had to sort through that mess after Richard was let go.  In an industry that wavers between extreme stress and extreme boredom, it’s cathartic to here about someone who’s in a worse position than you.  And Taka is definitely one such engineer who knew about stress.

This aforementioned story, titled “A Peculilar System,” is one of many excellent tales collected by a programmer humor website called The Daily WTF.  I read their site religiously and find it educational, hilarious, and, well, calming — all at the same time.  If you’re a computer programmer with a sense of humor you’ll definitely enjoy The Daily WTF.

Here’s a few of my favorites from their site:

Bitten by the Enterprise Bug.  Why develop a simple in-house tool when a third party “consultant” can write the same application with substantially more complexity?

The Virtudyne Saga.  Sure, there’s Microsoft Office.  But you’ve got a lot of money and could do better, right?  Warning: several pages long, and completely insane.

Just a Wiring Problem.  You’re familiar with the term “ad-hoc network”?  Well if this network isn’t ad-hoc, I don’t know what is.  If you’ve ever done any type of IT or repair for a living, and dealt with crazy clients, you can relate to this story.