Jul 16

on the usefulness of computer books

I have a book, purchased during my undergraduate days, entitled Introduction to Algorithms. Said book contains a wealth of information about algorithms and data structures, has its own Wikipedia page, and even a snappy acronym people use (“CLRS”, for the first letters of its authors’ last names).

When I bought it, I expected it to be both an excellent textbook and a book I would refer to many times throughout my professional career.  I cannot remember whether it was a good textbook in the context of my classes, and I cannot remember the last time I opened it to find some algorithm or verify some subtle point.  Mostly, it has served two purposes: an excellent support for my monitor to position the monitor more closely to eye level, and as extra weight to move around when I have had to transfer my worldly possessions from place to place.

Whether this reflects on the sort of code I have worked on, or the rise of the Internet for answering questions, I am unsure.

I have another book, also purchased during my undergraduate days, entitled Programming with POSIX Threads.  Said book contains a wealth of information about POSIX threads (“pthreads”), is only mentioned in “Further Reading” on the Wikipedia page for POSIX threads, and has no snappy acronym associated with it.

I purchased this book because I thought I might assemble a library of programming knowledge, and of course threads would be a part of that.  Mostly, it would sit on the shelves to show people I was a Real Programmer(tm).

Instead, I have found it to be one of those books to always have close at hand, particularly working on Gecko.  Its explanations of the basic concepts of synchronization are clear and extensive, its examples of how to structure multithreaded algorithms are excellent, and its secondary coverage of “real-world” things such as memory ordering and signals + threads (short version: “don’t”) have been helpful when people have asked me for opinions or to review multi-threaded code.  When I have not followed the advice of this book, I have found myself in trouble later on.

My sense when searching for some of the same topics the book covers is that finding the same quality of coverage for those topics online is rather difficult, even taking into account that topics might be covered by disparate people.

If I had to trim my computer book library down significantly, I’m pretty sure I know what book I would choose.

What book have you found unexpectedly (un)helpful in your programming life?

Jan 16

for-purpose instead of non-profit

I began talking with a guy in his midforties who ran an investment fund and told me about his latest capital raise. We hit it off while discussing the differences between start-ups on the East and West Coasts, and I enjoyed learning about how he evaluated new investment opportunities. Although I’d left that space a while ago, I still knew it well enough to carry a solid conversation and felt as if we were speaking the same language. Then he asked what I did.

“I run a nonprofit organization called Pencils of Promise.”

“Oh,” he replied, somewhat taken aback. “And you do that full-time?”

More than full-time, I thought, feeling a bit judged. “Yeah, I do. I used to work at Bain, but left to work on the organization full-time.”

“Wow, good for you,” he said in the same tone you’d use to address a small child, then immediately looked over my shoulder for someone new to approach…

On my subway ride home that night I began to reflect on the many times that this scenario had happened since I’d started Pencils of Promise. Conversations began on an equal footing, but the word nonprofit could stop a discussion in its tracks and strip our work of its value and true meaning. That one word could shift the conversational dynamic so that the other person was suddenly speaking down to me. As mad as I was at this guy, it suddenly hit me. I was to blame for his lackluster response. With one word, nonprofit, I had described my company as something that stood in stark opposition to the one metric that his company was being most evluated by. I had used a negative word, non, to detail our work when that inaccurately described what we did. Our primary driver was not the avoidance of profits, but the abundance of social impact…

That night I decided to start using a new phrase that more appropriately labeled the motivation behind our work. By changing the words you use to describe something, you can change how other perceive it. For too long we had allowed society to judge us with shackling expectations that weren’t supportive of scale. I knew that the only way to win the respect of our for-profit peers would be to wed our values and idealism to business acumen. Rather than thinking of ourselves as nonprofit, we would begin to refer to our work as for-purpose.

From The Promise of a Pencil by Adam Braun.

Sep 15

standardizing things my way

I was reading The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age and ran across a passage that resonated:

Everybody, of course, supports standardization—in theory. But human beings (particularly, but not exclusively, famous Harvard professors practicing at famous Boston hospitals) want things to be standardized their way. The difficulty that doctors face in accepting a workplace that is not custom-designed around their personal preferences is captured in this old joke about the physician staffs of hospitals: What do you call a 99-1 vote of the medical staff? A tie.

Examples abound: coding styles, version control systems, code review systems…

May 15

white space as unused advertising space

I picked up Matthew Crawford’s The World Outside Your Head this weekend. The introduction, subtitled “Attention as a Cultural Problem”, opens with these words:

The idea of writing this book gained strength one day when I swiped my bank card to pay for groceries. I watched the screen intently, waiting for it to prompt me to do the next step. During the following seconds it became clear that some genius had realized that a person in this situation is a captive audience. During those intervals between swiping my card, confirming the amount, and entering my PIN, I was shown advertisements. The intervals themselves, which I had previously assumed were a mere artifact of the communication technology, now seemed to be something more deliberately calibrated. These haltings now served somebody’s interest.

I have had a similar experience: the gas station down the road from me has begun playing loud “news media” clips on the digital display of the gas pump while your car is being refueled, cleverly exploiting the driver as a captive audience. Despite this gas station being somewhat closer to my house and cheaper than the alternatives, I have not been back since I discovered this practice.

Crawford continues, describing how a recent airline trip bombarded him with advertisements in “unused” (“unmonetized”?) spaces: on the fold-down tray table in his airplane seat, the moving handrail on the escalator in the airport, on the key card (!) for his hotel room. The logic of filling up unused space reaches even to airport security:

But in the last few years, I have found I have to be careful at the far end of [going through airport security], because the bottoms of the gray trays that you place your items in for X-ray screening are now papered with advertisements, and their visual clutter makes it very easy to miss a pinky-sized flash memory stick against a picture of fanned-out L’Oréal lipstick colors…

Somehow L’Oréal has the Transportation Security Administration on its side. Who made the decision to pimp out the security trays with these advertisements? The answer, of course, is that Nobody decided on behalf of the public. Someone made a suggestion, and Nobody responded in the only way that seemed reasonable: here is an “inefficient” use of space that could instead be used to “inform” the public of “opportunities.” Justifications of this flavor are so much a part of the taken-for-granted field of public discourse that they may override our immediate experience and render it unintelligible to us. Our annoyance dissipates into vague impotence because we have no public language in which to articulate it, and we search instead for a diagnosis of ourselves: Why am I so angry? It may be time to adjust the meds.

Reading the introduction seemed especially pertinent to me in light of last week’s announcement about Suggested Tiles. The snippets in about:home featuring Mozilla properties or efforts, or even co-opting tiles on about:newtab for similar purposes feels qualitatively different than using those same tiles for advertisements from third parties bound only to Mozilla through the exchange of money. I have at least consented to the former, I think, by downloading Firefox and participating in that ecosystem, similar to how Chrome might ask you to sign into your Google account when the browser opens. The same logic is decidedly not true in the advertising case.

People’s attention is a scarce resource. We should be treating it as such in Firefox, not by “informing” them of “opportunities” from third parties unrelated to Mozilla’s mission, even if we act with the utmost concern for their privacy. Like the gas station near my house, people are not going to come to Firefox because it shows them advertisements in “inefficiently” used space. At best, they will tolerate the advertisements (maybe even taking steps to turn them off); at worst, they’ll use a different web browser and they won’t come back.

Apr 14

getting older

I have been reading The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson, which is a superb book, and thought this passage was relevant to writing software as well as scientific research:

At lunch one day in Paris, early in December of 1975, I asked Monod whether he missed doing research directly. “Oh, I miss it,” he said; then what began as a shrug became instantaneously more thoughtful. “I do more than miss it. It’s too short a question.” He paused, began again. “No, I don’t know that it is actually working at the bench that I miss—miss so very much, although I do, at times; but it is in fact not being this permanent contact with what’s going on in science, in the doing, which I do miss.” I was reminded of a parallel conversation in which Watson had tried to claim the opposite, that he could stay close to what was happening in science. But if one was not actively working, Monod said, “Then you don’t have that. And also if you’re overburdened with general responsibilities, it becomes not so much a question of time but your subjective preoccupations. There’s a displacement—the internal conversation that you keep running in your head concerns all sorts of subjects, things that have got to be done, rather than just thinking about situations [in research]. That’s what bothers me most.”

When his term as director was up? “No, it’s too late to go back to research.” Why? Monod paused once more, and then said, “Well, you know, I always had a sort of amused and—amused, pitiful sympathy for the wonderful old guys who were still doing something at the bench when it was quite clear that whatever they did, it would be less than one hundredth of what they had been able to do before.” We spoke of examples—of scientists whose work became gradually less interesting as they aged, of others who lost their critical judgement and fooled themselves into believing they had solved problems that were beyond them…

[Kornberg said] “Almost every scientist winds up working on a problem he can’t bear to solve. And that’s where his life in science ends. It’s probably being very cruel to the older scientists, but I really believe it’s true. Or sometimes it’s a gradual loss of energy, of the ability to focus the energy on the problem. Or perhaps it’s a loss of edge—of the hunger. Some younger scientists—a few—have that quality that Francis has exemplified; he was ruthless in solving problems, I mean he would just carve them up and solve them in the most brutal way, much to the dismay of people like Chargaff who enjoyed the mystery of those problems and didn’t want to see it disappear, to them the mystery was the beauty of it….It probably does happen to all aging scientists.”