Humble coder

One of the reasons I often dislike Joel Spolsky’s essays is because he makes me feel inferior for not having a Computer Science degree. He doesn’t inspire me to become a better coder; he makes me feel bad that I’m not a better coder in the first place.

Likewise, Paul Graham’s writings often concentrate on startups and the entrepreneurial spirit. Sometimes they’re good; sometimes they have the exact same effect as Spolsky—to make me feel worthless because I haven’t started my own company, and have no intention of doing so.

Rands, on the other hand, writes about management in an interesting and entertaining way, without making me feeling like a failure because I don’t have a team of people working for me. Likewise, I find Jeff Atwood an inspirational writer: in his dedication to coding as a craft, he understands that one of the keys to being a good developer is a fundamental desire to become a better developer. In his latest article, he takes Paul Graham to task for his “you suck” attitude. Thanks, Jeff—I needed that.

I still use this quote from Lois McMaster Bujold as my personal motto:

“There is this, about being the sparring partner of the best swordsman in Caribastos. I always lost. But if I ever meet the third best swordsman in Caribastos, he’s going to be in very deep trouble.”

I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that this attitude would give Paul Graham fits, but it would make Jeff Atwood smile. There’s the difference.

Pay close attention

If you haven’t seen it already, watch the following video–it’s only about a minute long, and you’ll find it amusing.

Then read this article by PZ Myers. Myers is a well-known scientist, blogger, and anti-creationism commentator.

“I went to attend a screening of the creationist propaganda movie, Expelled, a few minutes ago. Well, I tried … but I was Expelled! It was kind of weird — I was standing in line, hadn’t even gotten to the point where I had to sign in and show ID, and a policeman pulled me out of line and told me I could not go in. I asked why, of course, and he said that a producer of the film had specifically instructed him that I was not to be allowed to attend. The officer also told me that if I tried to go in, I would be arrested. I assured him that I wasn’t going to cause any trouble.”

The punchline is that his friend was allowed in to see the film. The friend was…Richard Dawkins.

So what does the video have in common with that story? They both show the problem with relying too heavily on blacklists. If you focus exclusively on one thing, you will miss whatever else may be right under your nose. (Think: old-fashioned spam filters, terrorist watch lists, screening for dangerous liquids on planes, etc.)

2007 in review: Radio Sunpig

As in previous years (2006, 2005, 2004), Radio Sunpig is a collection of songs that represent the best of what I’ve been listening to over the last year. The songs weren’t necessarily released in 2007, but that’s when I first heard them. And as usual, its about two months late for a traditional end-of-year roundup. Oh well.

Radio Sunpig 2007: Coming And Going

  1. The Dynamites – Body Snatcher

    The Dynamites are a modern big band funk group, with a classic 60s vibe. “Body Snatcher” is the opening track of their album “Kaboom!”, and it really does sound like an explosion in a funk factory. Horns and drums all over the place.
  2. Shitdisco – I Know Kung Fu
    It takes a big song to follow on from “Body Snatcher”, but this does the trick: fierce drums, mean bassline, and a shouty chorus that makes you want to get up and jump around.
  3. The Pigeon Detectives – I’m Not Sorry
    Their later single Take Her Back got more airplay, but I prefer this one. The whole album seems to be about going out, shallow relationships, and dumping or getting dumped. It has too much energy to be depressing, though.
  4. The Go! Team – The Power Is On
    This is from their 2005 album Thunder, Lightning, Strike, which I found much more powerful than the 2007 follow-up, Proof Of Youth.
  5. Tragically Hip – In View
    From the album World Container, which totally rocks.
  6. Malcolm Middleton – Fight Like The Night
    I never got into Arab Strap; my listening habits weren’t indie enough when they were active. I first heard Malcolm Middleton solo on Steve Lamacq’s late night Radio 1 show, one evening in 2005 when I was driving back to Edinburgh from Perth. There were roadworks on the bridge, so I decided to take a detour through the back roads of Fife to cross at Kincardine instead. Should have brought a map…. I heard Loneliness Shines on my way through Dollar. It wasn’t until this year that I caught up with the whole album (Into The Woods), and his latest, A Brighter Beat. Fight Like The Night is from the latter, and it features the heavenly voice of Jenny Reeve.. It also has the most extraordinary intro that passes through five distinct phases of increasing intensity over a full minute. (If you get the album, try to get the extended version, with the bonus tracks “Black Marks” and “Cheer Down” on it.)
  7. The Dykeenies – Stitches
    Great new Scottish band. Stitches is a woefully overlooked guitar-driven anthem.
  8. Biffy Clyro – The Conversation Is…
    From Puzzle, one of my favourite albums of the year. This is one of the few songs from it they didn’t release as a single.
  9. The Arcade Fire – Keep The Car Running
    I didn’t like Neon Bible nearly as much as Funeral; in fact, this is the only song from it that did anything for me at all. But I would gladly buy the album again for just this one track.
  10. Eagles Of Death Metal – I Want You So Hard (Boy’s Bad News)
    They’re not a comedy band, they just look that way sometimes. Ignore the “Death Metal” in the name – they are all about fun, ironic, sleazy garage rock. And yes, that’s Josh Homme on drums.
  11. Cajun Dance Party – Amylase
    New band from London whose members have only just finished school. Amylase is a perfect little pop record that had a tiny CD/vinyl-only limited release. Consequently, it got completely overlooked. But they’re building up a good following, and will have their first album out later this year.
  12. Blonde Redhead – Silently
    From the gorgeously moody album 23, this is a light, sweet interlude.
  13. The New Pornographers – Adventures In Solitude
    I found the New Pornographers (and through them, Neko Case) at the end of 2006. They released the album Challengers in 2007. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Twin Cinema, but if you like your pop intricate, varied, and melodic this is definitely one to look out for.
  14. Siobhan Donaghy – Halcyon Days
    This comes from her second album, Ghosts, to which I had been looking forward for a long time, especially after hearing the haunting title track way back in 2006. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the same bite as her solo debut. It’s full of pretty little pop songs, but only a few leave a lasting impression. This is one of them.
  15. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan – It’s Hard To Kill A Bad Thing
    Peaceful, melancholy little instrumental from a smoky, understated alt-folk-country gem of an album: Ballad Of The Broken Seas.
  16. Lindsey Buckingham – Shut Us Down
    Under The Skin is Lindsey Buckingham’s first solo album since Out Of The Cradle, and it’s a very different beast, full of subdued, almost whispered vocals and intricate acoustic guitars.
  17. Ebony Bones – We Know All About U
    A dark bassline and funky hand-claps. I picked this up from Zane Lowe on Radio 1 at the beginning of December, and I’m still amazed that it never saw a proper single release.
  18. Serj Tankian – Empty Walls
    Start with a boom, end with a bang. Serj Tankian normally does vocals for System Of A Down. Elect The Dead is his first solo album, and might be best described as “piano metal”. He still cranks out the noise, though.

Update (2 Mar 2008): Here are links to videos for many (unfortunately not all) of the tracks on YouTube:

  1. (Not found)
  2. Shitdisco – I Know Kung Fu
  3. The Pigeon Detectives – I’m Not Sorry
  4. The Go! Team – The Power Is On
  5. The Tragically Hip – In View
  6. Malcolm Middleton – Fight Like The Night
  7. The Dykeenies – Stitches
  8. Biffy Clyro – The Conversation Is…
  9. The Arcade Fire – Keep The Car Running
  10. Eagles Of Death Metal – I Want You So Hard (Boy’s Bad News)
  11. Cajun Dance Party – Amylase
  12. Blonde Redhead – Silently
  13. The New Pornographers – Adventures In Solitude
  14. (Not found)
  15. (Not found)
  16. Lindsey Buckingham – Shut Us Down
  17. Ebony Bones – We Know All About U
  18. Serj Tankian – Empty Walls

2007 in review: Gadget Fever

My life revolves around technology. Even the kids are massive geeks. Fiona may be fascinated by ballet and the Barbie fairytale animated films (which aren’t nearly as bad as you might think), but you know what else is pink? Her Nintendo DS Lite.

So what were the significant technological additions to my life in 2007?

  • New 80GB iPod (5G). My old one was a 20GB model, and it wasn’t enough to hold my entire music collection. Now that I work mostly from home, I don’t use the iPod nearly as much as I used to, though, and I have hardly watched any video on it at all. Mostly I use it to shuttle music around the house: we have a few sets of small portable speakers, and I plug the iPod in whenever I want some music in the kitchen or the bathroom. The bad: I have found this new iPod to be slower and more prone to crashing than the old one.
  • MacBook Pro (15″, Core Duo 2): sleek and gorgeous, it is one of the finest pieces of computing machinery I have ever used. (It’s a work laptop, so it’s not really a personal addition. But it’s a major feature on my desk and in my life, so I’m going to count it anyway.) The MBP is light and fast, and I have grown to love being able to pick it up easily and use it away from my desk. Travelling with it is great, too, apart from the way it picks up a charge when going through airport security–I regularly get a shock when I pick it up after it has gone through the scanner.
  • Crumpler Cheesy Disco bag: a good laptop deserves a good bag. The Cheesy Disco comfortably holds the MBP and accessories, as well as a book or two, papers, and all the other rubbish I carry with me. It’s too big for everyday use when all I need with me is a book, a pen, and my wallet, but it’s great for big trips.
  • Griffin Elevator notebook stand: it brings the MBP’s screen up to the same level as my main screen, which is a practical necessity for avoiding neck strain. Also, it gives me space underneath the MBP to put more desk clutter.
  • Samsung SyncMaster 2032BW 20″ monitor: It’s a good enough monitor, but not a great one. Compared to my Dell Ultrasharp, the colours are harsh and vary slightly (but noticeably) from top to bottom, the viewing angle is poor, and it lacks an ergonomic stand for changing its height or tilt. Still, it was cheap, and it gives me a THIRD MONITOR, which was reason enough for buying it. I used to be a multi-monitor skeptic, but I’m fully cured now.
  • Wacom Bamboo graphics tablet: this was a toy buy, because I had never tried a tablet before, and I just wanted one. I’m not much of an artist, but it does make fine work in Photoshop much easier and more natural. Also, it combines really well with Google SketchUp for drawing 3D models.
  • HP C5180 all-in-one printer/scanner/copier: It’s not as good a printer as our old printer, but cartridges are ahout half the price. It’s not as good a scanner as our standalone Epson Perfection, but it doesn’t take up any extra space on the desk. Being able to run off quick photocopies instead of scanning and printing is a big plus, and plugging it straight into our network with an ethernet connection instead of attaching it to an always-on computer is an even bigger plus. Overall: yay. But I will need to keep the old scanner around for occasional dedicated photo work.
  • Playstation 3. Okay, not strictly mine; it was Abi’s Christmas present. But it means that we now have a full complement of current-generation consoles around the house.
  • Roland TD-3 drum kit: total sweetness. I love playing the drums, but–to my detriment–sometimes I forget about that. For a clumsy and performance-shy amateur like me, the best feature of an electronic kit like this one is the ability to plug my iPod into the brain’s external input, and then be able to play along through a set of headphones.

There are a also a couple of software services that are worth mentioning. They’re not strictly gadgets, but I think they fit here anyway:

  • Mozy off-site backup. I have rotten luck with hard drives. Mozy ensures that I don’t have to worry about data loss any more. The initial upload takes a long time, but after that the daily run is painless. I still keep local backups for fast recovery, but I don’t feel like I have to be obsessive about them.
  • Jungle Disk. Jungle Disk is a remote storage system that uses Amazon S3 for its back-end. You can use it as a backup system like Mozy, but unlike Mozy it also gives you filesystem-level integration. This means you can map a drive to your off-site space. This is great for sharing files between different computers, and also between different people.

I’m trying to think now if there are any gadgets on the horizon in 2008. No new games consoles, unless we go retro and splash out on a Sega Mega Drive or something (not inconceivable). The biggie for which I’m going to have to put on my best puppy-dog eyes will be a new big-screen TV when we move house.

Actually, wait–we’re going to be buying a new house soon. Does a house count?

2007 in review: Books

33 books in 2007 – the same as in 2006. And although I haven’t managed to crack more than 50 books in any year since 2002 (when I started keeping notes), I keep being disappointed by this fact. Surely a book a week isn’t too hard a target? Clearly, for me, it is.

My book of the year was World War Z by Max Brooks. If you have never come across it before, it’s a…zombie novel. But don’t dismiss it out of hand because of the subject matter. The book is not framed as a traditional zombie horror story, with a band of survivors pitted against hordes of the living dead. Instead, it takes the perspective of a collection of interviews with people who survived a zombie pandemic. Their tales are often harsh and emotional, but never recounted for simple thrills. At a deeper level, it is all about some of our worst fears in the real world: political and economical collapse, global disease pandemics, terrorism, and war.

There is also an audio book version narrated by an interesting cast including Mark Hamill, John Turturro, Rob Reiner, Jürgen Prochnow, and Alan Alda. I don’t generally listen to audio books, but this one has me seriously tempted.

Other top picks from 2007:

  • Simon Singh – The Big Bang. Simon Singh is a great science writer, who excels at explaining science by telling the story of the people who made the discoveries. Here he tackles not just the Big Bang theory, but the whole history of cosmology, all in his characteristically accessible style. Simply brilliant.
  • William Gibson – Spook Country. It’s not science fiction, and not a spy novel, but it has elements of both.
  • Scott McCloud – Understanding Comics. McCloud explains the hidden language and structure of comics — all the stuff that you probably understand at some fundamental level but have never thought about consciously. It also offers fascinating insights into craftsmanship and mastery in general.
  • Peter Watts – Blindsight. SF first contact story with a disquieting horror backbone.
  • Richard Morgan – Black Man. (Published in the US as Thirteen.) Big chunky SF thriller; noirish, bleak, and brutal.

I haven’t read much in 2008 so far (4 books to date), but there’s a lot of good stuff stacked on the shelves. I doubt if I’ll hit 50 this year, either, but you never know…