On Learning to Code. Or Not.

Alert! Jeff Atwood wrote an excellent post about the “learn to code” movement.

He starts with a tirade full of incredulity about Mayor Bloomberg’s New Years resolution to learn to code with Codeacademy.

“Fortunately, the odds of this technological flight of fancy happening – even in jest – are zero, and for good reason: the mayor of New York City will hopefully spend his time doing the job taxpayers paid him to do instead.”

Let’s put aside the princely sum of $1 that His Honor collects from the job. Let’s even put aside that Mayor Bloomberg is doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing – promoting New York’s bustling tech industry. More to put aside: our Mayor happens to be a technology pioneer with a ridiculous IQ.

This all comes down to a very difficult question: should people learn nerdy things when they have little use for them, just for the sake of learning.

I remember a Livejournal discussion that was hashed over and over in the Russian-speaking community. A math teacher was stumped by a question from his student: why was she supposed to learn about trigonometry when she wanted to become a beautician. The teacher did not come up with a good answer, but the livejournalers did dig up some awesome reasons. One well meaning pro-education-for-the-sake-of-education zelot said something to this effect: well, if you work with nail polish, tangents and cotangents figure prominently in formulas that deal with reflectiveness of thin films. That will lead to a greater understanding of how and why nail polish looks the way it does.

On the surface it may seem that Mayor Bloomberg has about as much need to know how to code as much as a beautician needs to know about sines and cosines.

There’s more: executives who learned a little bit about writing code at some point tend to say the following phrase “oh, I don’t know much about writing code, just enough to be dangerous”. They say it with this look on their faces:

Jeff takes this further with the plumbing analogy: since almost everyone has a toilet, should everyone take a course at toiletacademy.com and spend several weeks learning plumbing?

Normally I’m against education for the sake of education. I once argued for a whole hour with a co-worker who felt that _any_ education is worth _any_ amount of money. I did not know at the time that he held degrees in Psychology of Human Sexuality, Biology, Sociology and Communications. He must have been on to something: he made an amazing career while mine took a nosedive soon after that discussion.

Here’s where Jeff is wrong (I know, this is shocking, Jeff being all wrong and such): it is better to push people to learn incongruous things then to tell them that this is a bad idea. Steve Jobs learned calligraphy in college and it turned out to be super useful. He might not have become a master calligrapher, but man, did that piece of esoteric knowledge change the world.

When I was in college I badly wanted to take a scientific glass blowing class, but did not. I deeply regret that.

Are there people who learned plumbing from This Old House annoying contractors? Yes. Are self-install refrigerator ice maker lines causing millions in water damage? Yes. Is the world better off because Richard Trethewey taught it some plumbing? Absolutely.

If anything, attempting to learn to code will make people more compassionate towards coders. I do believe that people who are not already drawn to programming are not likely to become programmers, more than that, they are not likely to sit through a whole RoR bootcamp or worse. Learn to code movement is not likely to lure in bad programmers, but it might give people some understanding of what coders go through and maybe be more hesitant to have loud yelling-on-the-phone sessions near their cubes. Mayor Bloomberg, who enforces open workspace policies everywhere he works, might understand why programmers need offices. Jeff, let His Honor code a bit.

Apple Store at Night

The Apple store is eerily empty at night. It’s only populated by reflections from the other side of the street.

apple-store-reflections

A typical Mac user is camping out even though there is no special event tomorrow.

typical-mac-user

Being Dead Wrong

I like to think that I have a great intuition and am very good at predicting things. I also sometimes feel that I suffer from the Cassandra syndrome, as people don’t listen to my prediction as much as I would like them to.

This made me think about the times when I made ridiculously bad predictions. Here’s a list of what comes to mind off the bat:

1. When I was young I thought that programmers will soon write a computer program for writing computer programs, and that computer programming as a profession does not have much of a future.

2. I thought that architectural drawings will always have to be done by hand, as you can’t print out plans on dot matrix printers (the only printers I’ve seen at the time). I thought, sure, you can program some straight lines and such, but you’ll never get beautiful detailed drawings with all kinds of details.

3. I thought that Handspring would become the dominant player on the handheld market the same way that IBM did: by opening up the peripheral standards.

4. I thought that Diamond Rio would be huuuge and that Diamond Multimedia would become the hottest company ever because they were first on the market with an mp3 player.

5. I thought that Apple would just shrivel up and die, and if not, that I would certainly never completely switch to Macs.

Whewww, man. Those are some doozies. How about you, my readers?

Deadprogrammer visits Odessa : Part I : Introduction

I live on a high floor of an art deco tower facing a busy Brooklyn street. The acoustics of the building and the street are such that I can sometimes hear what’s going on in the street right from my desk. Once I heard the sounds of a minor fender bender followed by an angry exchange unpleasantness that was escalating into some creative Russian profanity. The driver who rammed the other car was pretty unapologetic and criticized the driving skills of the one who got rammed. Then followed the exchange that made me laugh out loud – the driver who got rammed said – “the way you behave, man, you must be from Odessa.” “Yes, I am,” – answered the other guy, and added – “and you still drive like a moron.”

Odessa, Ukraine, my hometown, is a very special place. It has a Bizarro mirror twin, Odessa, Texas.

Odessa is a resort town situated on the shore of the Black Sea, right across from Turkey. Culturally it’s a bit like Brooklyn (or Brooklyn is a bit like Odessa because of an almost constant infusion of Odessans) – a city with an attitude, a city where a lot of famous people are born and famous people come to live. Architecturally it’s a lot like Vienna and St. Petersburg: a city built on a grand scale (but with softer edges), by the best architects.

Odessa’s ancient past is obscure: a Greek colony, a small town controlled by Kievan Rus, the Golden Horde, various Khanates and Kaganates, and finally a Turkish fortress. Odessa’s fortunes have turned when Russian forces invaded it in late 1700s. Catherine the Great apparently wanted to fortify the newly won land, and committed the people and resources needed to make the new city of Odessa a success.

The founding fathers of Odessa were a bunch of distinguished foreigners in the service of the Russian crown: General José Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons, Armand Emmanuel Sophie Septemanie du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, and Count Louis Alexandre Andrault de Langéron.

Richelieu, or the Duc, as he’s commonly known in Odessa, will forever be loved by Odessans for his accomplishments. The way I imagine the Duc is sort of like the 18th century Steve Jobs, with a reality distortion field of his own, except without being an asshole (Richelieu was known for his kindness and indifference to money). Somehow – nobody know exactly how – Richelieu got Odessa the status of a “free port“. This meant that goods could be unloaded without paying the taxes within the city limit. This brought about an unprecedented influx of wealth, which in turn fueled the building of Odessa by the best European architects in the European manner. Odessa’s opera theater is only slightly smaller than Vienna’s, and is by the same architect.

Another unique aspect of this new city was the ethnic makeup. Besides the usual for Ukrainian cities mix of Ukrainians and Russians, Odessa became a melting pot. Frenchmen, Greeks, Turks, Germans, Armenians: all rushed into Odessa. Even the Jews were allowed in, and not being limited to certain occupations or living in a ghetto. Odessa is a very Jewish town despite what the author of Everything Is Illuminated might have you believe.

I left Odessa when I was 16. I came back for a 10 day visit 15 years later.

Odessa is a a city that makes you nostalgic, and I kept seeing it in my dreams. Luckily there’s a small international airport in Odessa and President Yushchenko kindly lets the holders of an American passport into the country freely, with no need for a visa.

12 hours and $1300 later I was standing in Odessa, looking for a cab. A pushy cabby was very surprised when I did not want to ride in his clean BMW and chose a cheaper and dearer to my heart filthy Soviet-vintage car.

As far as hotels go, Ukraine is much more reasonable than Russia, but there are still no Marriott-like affordable and well-designed chains. There are overpriced hotels with decor that will burn your eyes out, cheaper, but scarier hotels, and apartments that you can rent which cover the gamut. Odessa has a population of about a million, but it swells to twice the size in the Summer season. Because of that there are thousands of very reasonably priced rental apartments with great amenities. Unfortunately I did not plan enough ahead, and ended up reserving a very cheap room in a brand new hotel Zirka that recently opened right in the center of the city.

For a very reasonable $35/night I lived in a tiny-tiny, somewhat flimsily outfitted, but very clean room with a fully functioning shower, air conditioning and beautiful views, right in the historic center of Odessa.

The hotel was still being built when I lived there, and I herd later that it was becoming a bit notorious for renting the rooms at hourly rates.

As far as I’m concerned, you really can’t beat their amenities, their location, and their prices. Also, the staff was very courteous and professional. It was very quiet there during my stay – but worst case scenario – you might overhear noisy sex, from which you are not guaranteed at almost any hotel.

It’s hard to see on picture, but the towels had little dollar sign designs.

My hotel room reminded me very much of the affordable hotel room that I lived in in Japan, down to the picture of soft drinks that I took there.

In Odessa I mostly drank Borjomi, a Georgian mineral water. Borjomi, as far as I’m concerned is the tastiest mineral water in the world.

Odessa has its own mineral water, Kuyalnik, but it’s not sold in restaurants for some reason. I found a few bottles in a convenience store closer to the end of my stay. More about Kuyalnik later – I have a very special connection to it.

Apparently in Europe Diet Coke is marketed as Coca Cola Light, is sold in frosted bottles, and as far as I can tell, in a different formulation. It did taste different, and I know my cokes.

I quickly unpacked, grabbed my camera and went for a walk.

You really can’t enter the same river twice. I left Odessa when the Soviet Union was still intact. When I came back, a lot of things stayed the same.

There’s still a fountain in the City Square, the live band is still playing on Sundays and the pairs still dance.

Acacia trees, the most common plant and the symbol of Odessa, are still filling the city with the aroma and sidewalks with their yellow flowers. Cleaning ladies (and men) still sweep the sidewalks with brooms made out of small branches. I brought a small jar with acacia blooms with me – the smell of nostalgia.

Remember that ethnic markup that I described earlier on? Well, somehow that mixing of genes resulted in the hottest women on the planet. Odessa is still the city of super hot women. This brings a large contingent of sex tourists and mail order (in this case – cash and carry) bride seekers. I was approached (probably because I was typing away on a laptop) by a most distressed gentlemen in a cafe: he could not get online. His hands were shaking. I fixed some gnarly windows crud setup options and wi-fi started working. All he cared about was getting to a dating site, and when it loaded, his hands finally stopped shaking.

Things have changed though. Odessa took on some qualities of Havana, Cuba. Historic buildings are deteriorating, old cars are kept alive way past what’s reasonable.

It’s not like Havana because people seem to prosper. Even the pensioners do not go hungry, there is a lot of new construction, and the rich are really, really rich. I’ve seen just about every expensive car I know in the streets, except maybe a Maybach.

A few things about the new Ukrainian economy. The salaries are paid in US dollars, but dollars are not accepted anywhere. You can easily exchange them into hryvnas and back very easily, and the rate is somehow kept at about 5 to 1, without even having to shop around for a rate.

Real estate is amazingly expensive: for instance the apartment that my parents sold for something like $5K costs about $500K. At the same time the mortgage industry is almost non-existent.

I’m told that the government officials are amazingly corrupt, and they constitute a major portion of the upper crust. A police captain can easily become a multimillionaire, and so can just about any government bureaucrat. There’s a practice of “otkat” – kickback from a government project is rampant. High ranking policemen and bureaucrats are almost outside the law, like in India.

At the same time, even with all the corruption and bribery, the economy is pretty healthy, even without Russia’s oil.

Price-wise Odessa is not the bargain that it once was. For most things I’d estimate the cost of living at about 60-70% of Brooklyn prices. Food and rent is pretty cheap, but electronics, clothing and cars are more expensive. In particular, cars are taxed so much that they cost about 2 to 3 times more than in the US, which makes all those Rollses that I’ve seen even more impressive, and explain the Soviet-era cars.

Deadprogrammer Visits Odessa : Part II : Balconies and Yards.

Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World’s Most Colorful Company

Apple Confidential examines the tumultuous history of America’s best-known Silicon Valley start-up–from its legendary founding almost 30 years ago, through a series of disastrous executive decisions, to its return to profitability, and including Apple’s recent move into the music business. Linzmayer digs into forgotten archives and interviews the key players to give readers the real story of Apple Computer, Inc. This updated and expanded edition includes tons of new photos, timelines, and charts, as well as coverage of new lawsuit battles, updates on former Apple executives, and new chapters on Steve Wozniak and Pixar.

Masonic Apple

It’s been a few months already that I haven’t used Windows. The unreal amount of time that it takes to make Ubuntu play sound or use a second monitor and then do it again after a software update drove me straight to Mac.

By the way, why does the “applications” icon look so masonic?

The Gift of PR

When you are working with true professionals, one of the best things to do is to ask them to choose for you. Japanese have a special word for it – “omakase“. When you say “omakase onegaishimasu” in a sushi bar, the chef will create a custom meal for you, based on the freshest and the best ingredients available at the moment.

If you ever give your money to Warren Buffet, your hair to Jonathan Antin, your floundering computer maker to Steve Jobs, the choice of where and what to eat to Tony Burdain — they’ll do a good job. Doing the same with any stock broker (is likely to churn your investments or worse ), the Supercuts barber (might style you ala Gates) , Carly Fiorina (might make poor H and P spin in their graves some more) is a capitally bad idea.

For a while I’ve been running Amazon’s “omakaseTM” ads on my blog, and I’ve got to tell ya, they stink. I, personally, would fire the business dev suit running (or rather running into the ground) Amazon’s Associates program. This person is never going to be fired, because by it’s nature, Amazon Associates is an amazing thing, one of the best business ideas that Amazon ever implemented. It’s like an Abrams M1 tank – even a drunk moron can drive it around and do a lot of very impressive damage, but it takes a highly trained soldier to really unleash it’s true destructive capabilities.

I am very disappointed in Amazon Associates products, especially omakase, and because of that I am building my own Amazon Associates ad server in my spare time. Lately I haven’t had much spare time, so the project is moving rather slowly. I’ll be pulling omakase ads off though, and meanwhile I’ll replace it with a holiday gift for my readers.

I will replace the ads on my website with promos for some blogs and websites of my readers (as well as some of my favorites). Do you you have a site you’d like to promote? Comment here or send me an email. Suggest as many as you want. If you have some “creative” – that’ll help. And if you won’t suggest anything (as it usually happens when I ask for suggestions) and make me feel very sad, instead of promoting your sites, I’ll do the same with all the splogs that sometimes spam me. At least they take the time to leave a comment.

There are Always Leaks

There are those movies that keep you actively thinking about them for days and weeks after you see them. Primer, which I watched with my wife yesterday is one of those. If you are one of those who are afraid of “spoilers” – this is your warning, although I believe it’s really impossible to create a “spoiler” for this movie. You’ll watch it once, twice, three times, then with director’s commentaries, then read the entire message board and still will not be able to figure it out entirely.

Primer is a story about time travel paradoxes, but not really. It’s about innovation, competition, trust and inability to see the entire picture.

Without the science fiction element, the movie is about garage innovators. The core of innovative group is almost always two people. Sometimes it starts out with more people, but then boils down to two. Jobs and Wozniak, Hewlett and Packard, Gates and Allen. You need to have your John and your Paul, George and Ringo are not that important. So you have these two people who together are destined to create great things. Can they trust each other? Would they do screw each other over?

We know for a fact that the alpha geeks are often ruthless. Steve Jobs gets a design job from Atari, gives it to Steve Wozniak, promising 50/50 spilt, and after Woz delivers the work gives him $300 while pocketing a few grand, saying that the fee was $600? When Apple becomes a success he deserts Wozniak. Then gets forced out himself. Then he majorly screws over founders of Pixar. Then takes back Apple. Typical preppy high school drama, except with higher stakes. And realize this – he does all that instead of enjoying his money and free time.

Anyway, the movie has two protagonists, Abe and Aaron, engineers talented like Woz and a bit less ruthless than Jobs. Abe creates a time machine that can use to travel back in time to the moment when the machine is powered up for the first time and then explains its use to his friend. That opens endless possibilities for them: make money in the stock market, prevent bad stuff from happening. Which they do for a while, but then their competitive instincts kick in. Can you really trust your partner not to go into the past and put you out of commission?

Worse of all — if you go back in time and then prevent your second self from entering the time machine all of a sudden there are two of you. The biblical names of the characters are significant in this context – Abraham – the “Father of Many” and Aaron – the “Bearer of Martyrs”. They become involved and a four-dimensional battle for control with each other and their paradox-born doppelgangers. “Failsafe machines” — extra time boxes set up in hidden locations that allow for extra “entry points” or “save points” become important weapons in this game. Can you really trust yoursef becomes the real question.

Abe and Aaron are competitive and very, very smart. They create a crazily complicated situation, with time machines, time machines inside time machines, doubles that have all recorded audio track of the timeline provided to them by future selves, extra timelines and resets via failsafe machines. “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon” sounds absolutely normal in the context.

A similar, buth much less complicated situation transpired in Stanislaw Lem’s 7th voyage of the Star Diaries of Ijon Tichy..

That sci-fi story went like this: Ijon’s rocketship ends up in a “space storm” with a broken rudder. Fixing a rudder is a two person job, but luckily the space storm brings together Ijons from different times. All he really needs to do is put on a space suit, wait for a later him wearing a space suit to appear, cooperate and fix the rudder. Instead he ends up arguing with his future and past selves, hitting and being hit by them and eating his own supplies of chocolate. Here’s a quote from what seems to be a full text of the story that somebody probably illegally posted on the web:

“I came to, sitting on the floor of the bathroom; someone was banging on the door. I began to attend to my bruises and bumps, but he kept pounding away; it turned out to be the Wednesday me. After a while I showed him my battered head, he went with the Thursday me for the tools, then there was a lot of running around and yanking off of spacesuits, this too in one way or another I managed to live through, and on Saturday morning crawled under the bed to see if there wasn’t some chocolate left in the suitcase. Someone started pulling at my foot as I ate the last bar, which I’d found underneath the shirts; I no longer knew just who this was, but hit him over the head any how, pulled the spacesuit off him and was going to put it on–when the rocket fell into the next vortex.

When I regained consciousness, the cabin was packed with people. There was barely elbowroom. As it turned out, they were all of them me, from different days, weeks, months, and one–so he said–was even from the following year. There were plenty with bruises and black eyes, and five among those present had on spacesuits. But instead of immediately going out through the hatch and repairing the damage, they began to quarrel, argue, bicker and debate. The problem was, who had hit whom, and when. The situation was complicated by the fact that there now had appeared morning me’s and afternoon me’s–I feared that if things went on like this, I would soon be broken into minutes and seconds–and then too, the majority of the me’s present were lying like mad, so that to this day I’m not altogether sure whom I hit and who hit me when that whole business took place, triangularly, between the Thursday, the Friday and the Wednesday me’s, all of whom I was in turn. My impression is that because I had lied to the Friday me, pretending to be the Sunday me, I ended up with one blow more than I should have, going by the calendar. But I would prefer not to dwell any longer on these unpleasant memories; a man who for an entire week does nothing but hit himself over the head has little reason to be proud.”

One other main themes of the movie is the inability to know certain things no matter how smart you are. Too many things are open to too many interpretations. The geeks on the web are obsessively putting together timelines, diagrams and theories of what really went on. I don’t even think that the author of the screenplay completely understands the whole sequence of events. And he directed and played in the film! How many timelines are there? How many Abes and Aarons? What do they mean by “recycling” the machines? What the hell happened with Tom Granger?

There is also an interesting recursive theme in the movie: cheapness. The actor/director/screenwriter, shooting on what is described as $7000 budget and making it look very good, has done some ingenious things. So do the inventor in the movie – he keeps his day job instead of throwing it away to follow the dream, too cheap to have a steak for lunch, and even at some point he cuts copper tubing needed for the project out of a refrigerator. I don’t know if building a time machine is that much more difficult than making such an awesome movie on a 7K budget.

By the way, if you are looking for hints about the movie, the commentary track on the DVD is a pretty horrible place to start. It’s full of jems like “That sound effect – yeah [background laugh] – that was George Forman Grill”.

All I know, is that I want an Emiba Devices t-shirt. And a garage.

iPhoto Retro or John Sculley’s Gift To The World of Photography

I collect 20th century technology antiques. They are not expensive and don’t take up much space – perfect for my cubicle museum.

My shelf at work houses a small, but growing collection of monstrous early cellphones. There are a couple of gigantic vacuum tubes (some from an early Univac), a core memory plane, a multiprocessor unit from an Amdahl mainframe, a weird hardwired logic unit from a forgotten computing machine. My latest purchase is rather interesting – the first consumer digital camera.

A $700 piece of equipment in 1994 Apple Quicktake 100 cameras sell for just a few bucks on eBay. I first saw one mentioned in this outstanding livejournal post. This guy’s camera still had some images in it which provided a weird time tunnel into some office party in 1994. I guess the people in the photos were celebrating extravagant Mac purchases.

I bought two cameras on eBay for just a few bucks each, and one came with a cable and a floppy with PC software. Not even hoping that it’d work I plugged in the serial cable, installed the software on my Win 2000 machine, turned on the camera and ran the program. It worked the first time.

Here are the two Apple QuickTake 100’s that I purchased. I bought two so I could take stereo images and view them on my 100 year old stereoscope. In a couple of years I think I’ll be able to buy a couple of iPod photo thingies for a few bucks and do what this guy did.

Times Square at night in full .3 megapixel power (compressed to 500 width).

Times Square at night with lower resolution option turned on

Snow storm in Brooklyn

Considering how difficult lighting conditions were the results are respectable. Usability wise these cameras are lacking. Even though they look like those binoculars from Star Wars movies, they have a very nasty lens cover that is very hard to open without leaving a nice fingerprint on the lens. Taking portrait orientated pictures is rather hard.

So here I am, paying tribute to one of the last Apple products of John Sculley’s era at Apple (note how Apple CEOs are arranged in a timeline at Wikipedia – just like kings). I wonder if Steve Jobs will ever consider making an Apple digital camera. So far the fate of Apple Newton shows that to Jobs anything ever touched by Sculley is taboo.