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Reading Notes, August 2015

Book: The Complete Far Side Vol 1

Gary Larsen, creator of The Far Side comic strip, in the preface to his complete comic book anthology:

It's been almost seven years since I hung up my eraser. (For the record, an eraser was the most essential tool I owned.)

Earlier in the introduction, his newspaper editor talked about how fastidious Gary was in writing the captions for his comic strips. He made this observation, which for anyone familiar with The Far Side rings true:

good writing can save bad art, but good art can never save bad writing.

Article: “Stop Pushing the Web Forward”

An interesting read on the state of the web and how, just maybe, we should ponder slowing down for one second to consider the direction we’re headed in and contrast that with where and what we want the web to be. Of course to suggest “slowing down” is technological blasphemy. So the author correctly prefaces his article with “Fair warning. You’re going to hate this one.”

Here are a few passages I enjoyed, in no particular order:

Recently I’ve been having serious doubts about the whole push the web forward thing. Why should we push the web forward? And forward to what, exactly? Do we want the web to be at whatever we push it forward to? You never hear those questions.

Pushing the web forward currently means cramming in more copies of native functionality at breakneck speed — interesting stuff, mind you, but there’s just too much of it.

Native apps will always be much better at native than a browser. Instead, we should focus on the web’s strengths: simplicity, URLs and reach.

But why do web developers want navigation transitions? In order to emulate native apps, of course. To me, that’s not good enough.

We’re pushing the web forward to emulate native more and more, but we can’t out-native native. We are weighed down by the millstone of an ever-expanding set of tools that polyfill everything we don’t understand — and that’s most of a browser’s features nowadays. This is not the future that I want to push the web forward to.

Website: “Computer Jargon”

A coworker showed me this resource around computer jargon — a hacker’s lexicon if you will (apparently it’s the online version of The New Hacker’s Dictionary).There are some funny terms in there. If you work in technology, you’ll probably enjoy these.

Here are a few I enjoyed:


Able to use a mouse with either hand.

disemvowel :

To partially obscure a potentially provocative word by substituting splat characters () for some of its letters (usually, but not always, the vowels). The purpose is not to make the word unrecognizable but to make it a mention rather than a use, so that no flamewar ensues. [Example: “gn cntrl”]

job security:

When some piece of code is written in a particularly obscure fashion, and no good reason (such as time or space optimization) can be discovered, it is often said that the programmer was attempting to increase his job security (i.e., by making himself indispensable for maintenance). This sour joke seldom has to be said in full; if two hackers are looking over some code together and one points at a section and says “job security”, the other one may just nod.

goat file:

A sacrificial file used to test a computer virus, i.e. a dummy executable that carries a sample of the virus, isolated so it can be studied. Not common among hackers, since the Unix systems most use basically don't get viruses.

Ninety-nine rule:

“The first 90% of the code accounts for the first 90% of the development time. The remaining 10% of the code accounts for the other 90% of the development time.” ... Other maxims in the same vein include the law attributed to the early British computer scientist Douglas Hartree: “The time from now until the completion of the project tends to become constant.”

Article: “Can Computers Improvise?”

Because, apparently, there’s so little to talk about anymore, it’s been announced that a computer has written lyrics that rival rap legend Eminem. As such, some have even claimed “rappers might soon lose their jobs to robots”. But as Nicholas Carr points out, that’s a little premature:

Our assumptions and expectations about artificial intelligence have gotten ahead of the reality, in a way that is distorting our view not only of the future but of the very real accomplishments being made in the AI and robotics fields.

Personally, I find this especially true for computer illiterate people. My dad constantly sees “news” headlines making outlandish claims for AI and therefore has this sense that the robot rapture will soon be upon us.

As someone who works in tech, I find it laughable, borderline ridiculous that as soon as computers do the tiniest little thing “we jump to the conclusion that computers are mastering wordplay and, by implication, encroaching on the human facility for creativity and improvisation”.

Article: “Programming Sucks”

Fairly recently, Paul Ford wrote a piece called What is Code? where he tried to explain programming. This is another piece that takes a different (shall we say realistic) view of programming. If Ford’s article is seeing programming as a cup half-full, this article is seeing programming as a cup half-empty. Both are true, it's just a matter of view point (or current mood).

Firstly programming is hard. Even if you know lots of programming languages that doesn't mean you will understand an application written in any particular language you know.

The first few weeks of any job are just figuring out how a program works even if you’re familiar with every single language, framework, and standard that's involved...

The average life of a programmer on the web, remembering that a programmer is such a wide-reaching term (emphasis added):

Say you're an average web developer. You're familiar with a dozen programming languages, tons of helpful libraries, standards, protocols, what have you. You still have to learn more at the rate of about one a week, and remember to check the hundreds of things you know to see if they’ve been updated or broken and make sure they all still work together and that nobody fixed the bug in one of them that you exploited to do something you thought was really clever one weekend... You're all up to date, so that’s cool, then everything breaks....You are an expert in all these technologies, and that's a good thing, because that expertise let you spend only six hours figuring out what went wrong, as opposed to losing your job...And that’s just in your own chosen field, which represents such a tiny fraction of all the things there are to know in computer science you might as well never have learned anything at all. Not a single living person knows how everything in your five-year-old MacBook actually works.

The internet is really just being held together by duct tape and glue:

Websites that are glorified shopping carts with maybe three dynamic pages are maintained by teams of people around the clock, because the truth is everything is breaking all the time, everywhere, for everyone. Right now someone who works for Facebook is getting tens of thousands of error messages and frantically trying to find the problem before the whole charade collapses. There’s a team at a Google office that hasn’t slept in three days. Somewhere there’s a database programmer surrounded by empty Mountain Dew bottles whose husband thinks she’s dead. And if these people stop, the world burns. Most people don’t even know what sysadmins do, but trust me, if they all took a lunch break at the same time they wouldn’t make it to the deli before you ran out of bullets protecting your canned goods from roving bands of mutants … You can't restart the internet. Trillions of dollars depend on a rickety cobweb of unofficial agreements and “good enough for now” code with comments like “TODO: FIX THIS IT’S A REALLY DANGEROUS HACK BUT I DON’T KNOW WHAT'S WRONG” that were written ten years ago. I haven't even mentioned the legions of people attacking various parts of the internet for espionage and profit or because they’re bored.