Sci/Math/Prog summary: July 2017

Random list of interesting stuff this month:

Sun and Netscape are announcing a new version of Java that is intended to make programming more accessible to non-computer experts. The version is known as a scripting language, Javascript, and is based on a simple programming language already developed by Netscape. The idea is to make program development possible by people who are experienced computer users but not programmers.

… there is no business case anymore for a truly open platform based on custom-designed hardware, since people refuse to spend extra money for tweakability, freedom, and security.

  • I had always heard about the “hammer and feather” experiment on the moon; now, thanks to Youtube, I can see it.
  • Yep, Datomic is awesome and I wish I had more time or reason to play around with it. One day, one day.
  • Evan Miller seems to think Perl 6 is worth learning.
  • Herb Sutter put out a real teaser about upcoming metaprogramming abilities in C++
  • Finally, a short but important article reminds us that regardless of the machine underneath, we program in metaphors, and there’s no point trying to deny that.

You must master the art of metaphor selection, of meaning amplification. You must know when to add and when to subtract. You will learn to revise and rewrite code as a writer does. Once there’s nothing else to add or remove, you have finished your work. The problem you started with is now the solution. Is that the meaning you intended to convey in the first place?

Brainstorming digital tool chaos

I used to think that I alone struggled with various tools and apps to manage, track and digest all the things I want to keep track of, but I now suspect this is a pretty common source of discontent.

Every few years I go through a phase of ‘churn where I signup for something new, with the hope that now, at long last, my cognitive load will lessen, ideas will be remembered, snippets and quotes will be stored and retrieved, and so on. Yet inevitably, after some initial enthusiasm, the experiment ends in deadlock and decay.

In the best case, the tool or app becomes inconvenient and sluggish, while in the worst case everything laboriously entered in is los forever. So after about a decade and half of this ridiculous waste of time, I thought I’d try to think through to figure out what exactly it is that I’m looking for.

There’s no point pretending that the one true, great tool out there will solve these problems. So this post isn’t about finding solutions, but just listing problems.

  • I need away to remind me to do something on a one-off basis
  • I need to be able to track a small group of related tasks
  • I need to be able to make lists of things, sometimes collaboratively
  • I need to be able to write medium size posts, like this one, with minimum fuss
  • I want to be able to save bookmarks (lots of them!) and find them later, by date and ‘tag’
  • I want to be able to save quotes or extracts from web pages
  • I want to be able to save pdfs and later search within them
  • I need an easy way to make short notes without making an official ‘doc’ about something with a title, etc.
  • I want to be able to quickly snap a photo of something, annotate it, and file it away, sometimes with a reminder
  • I need to make notes about a certain topic as I go along, sometimes sigh snippets of text or code, and retrieve his later by date or by ‘tag’
  • Sometimes emails have to be be turned into tasks
  • I have to be able to quickly capture thoughts and ideas for future retrieval
  • I don’t want to be locked in to proprietary formats or hidden libraries, as far as possible
  • It should be possible to ‘sync’ between devices
  • I don’t necessarily want to keep everything ‘in the cloud’
  • I want a lot of photos around, forever, accessible from everywhere
  • I need to be able to search across text, images, pdfs, but without always doing a huge amount of tagging up front
  • I want to be able to create small ‘projects’ with tasks, but without having to fight some rigid ‘true way’ of defining them (fluid due dates, deferred dates, priorities, easy capture and editing)
  • I need recurring reminders too (sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly, sometimes quarterly, sometimes biannually, etc)
  • I don’t want to think too much about where to file a given snippet, all I care about is being able to look for it later as if I had filed it correctly to begin with
  • I want to avoid the risk of some one going out of business and taking my data with them (stick to regular files and plain text as far as possible)

Yeah, a lot to ask for, but also … it’s not all that much, there has to be a way to get all this to work somehow.

Getting Things Done, for Dummies

I’ve never really been very “organized” about anything (those who know me a bit can vouch for this), but I’ve had to get crap done recently, so I’ve been forced to come up with some, uh, systems and processes.

Basically, the three ingredients I feel you need are reminders, lists and some keep-track-and-dump-stuff-thingie (the technical term for such things). I happened to pick on the default Reminders app, Wunderlist and Trello respectively for these, but really anything else will do.

Wunderlist is frequently used, mostly to keep track of recurring things to do weekly/monthly, and for shopping lists, or stuff that’s running out (no more bread? add it to the “Buy list”!)

Trello is lightly used, to keep track of both vague long home projects, and vacation planning, and a catch-all “miscellaneous” board with the standard ‘To Do’, ‘Doing’ and ‘Done’ stacks.

Finally, the basic Reminders app is most heavily used, since I throw in whatever comes to mind, even it’s something like “mail this letter”.

Nothing fancy, all free tools, and I’ve been feeling way less cognitive load for the last couple of months or so.

Penzu. Use It.

No proselytizing here, I’ll make it brief (140 characters, to be precise):

I use Penzu, you should too. It is awesome. It gets you to do more writing. Your journal is private. Available on the web, iOS, and Android.

Reddit is better than the rest (or, three cheers for Ellen Pao)

I’ve seen my share of self-described “online communities” over the last couple of decades — and they have all sucked, one way or the other. Trolls abound, the good is moderated while the bad is amplified, etc, etc. Someone the early visionaries of the internet seemed naive about this, but perhaps they just fell into the common modern habit of denying human nature.

Having gone through a bunch of such sites/forums/message boards, I have very, very low expectations from any of them — which is why I was pleasantly surprised by how Reddit managed to suck less than the rest.

Forget the trolls — trolls are par for the course on the internet; it would be very strange not to have trolls when unmoderated anonymous behavior is permitted anywhere. What stands out at Reddit is the large amount of actual human interaction, or to put it differently, the numbers of people who reach out to complete strangers and don’t start by yelling at them.

It’s quite possible that I don’t frequent the kind of subreddits that other people complain about (e.g. my 22-year old self might have had a qualitatively different experience today), so perhaps I’ve missed out on a whole bunch of drama — but kudos to Ms. Pao for whatever she did to enable this level of discourse; I know it cannot have been easy.

Apropos of the recent article on how “Googling for stuff makes you feel smarter”, here is Umberto Eco on something similar:

A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labor he exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them. This sort of vertigo of accumulation, a neocapitalism of information, happens to many.

(sound familiar?)