From the archives: Computing

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WordPress for happy campers

Friday, 22 January 2010 — 3:59am | Computing

Sometime ago I worked at a rather well-regarded summer camp for children interested in science, technology, and engineering. It was by and large a positive experience, and none of what I am about to raise pertains to that programme alone. Any camp run by university students will undergo a lot of staff turnover year to year, with comparably less turnover in the boys and girls who show up every summer because (as their parents attest) they don’t want to go outside. At DiscoverE, the instructors had an instrumental role in planning the day camps on offer, but broadly speaking the schemes were adapted from the successes of previous years with minor modifications.

For computer camps, that sense of inherited continuity can be crippling in ways that aren’t obvious at first sight. Consider a standard offering of computer instruction today: an introduction to building websites. When kids look at websites, they dream about making their own—and they pattern their imaginations after what they see, not what is practical. The instructors have to teach them how to do this, in a rudimentary sense, in a severely limited timeframe with a minimum of confusion and drudgery.

Most quick-and-dirty website instruction, right up to the community-college level, will adopt one of two solutions. Both of them are holdovers from a decade ago. On one hand you can teach hand-coded HTML, which is how we grizzled warriors learned the ropes when we braved the jungles of GeoCities to hang our(selves on) <marquee> lights. But you don’t do that to kids today, certainly not within a week; it’s demoralizing to start with an empty canvas, teaching it ends up in a mire of copy-and-paste, and the youngsters don’t value minimalism like we do. Besides, you’ll only end up showing them how to write bad code that doesn’t validate, since there’s no way in holy hell you’re covering CSS.

Introductory website courses thus swing to the other extreme: proprietary WYSIWYG site-builders like Dreamweaver. This is a terrible idea, for two major reasons (among others):

  • Campers want to take their work home with them when the week is through and continue chipping away. To do this, they have to pressure their parents to obtain a product that isn’t priced for individual amateurs and certainly not for kids, a fraction of which will ever see use. As much as I love Adobe, I have an ethical problem with this, especially as I do not consider piracy a legitimate workaround to the high cost of software licenses. It ends up being either a de facto endorsement of a commercial product or a de facto endorsement of piracy.

  • These tools are not for beginner sites. Years ago, nobody serious about websites used WYSIWYG editors; they had a dreadful reputation for generating messy code, non-compliant with standards and a pain to fine-tune. Dreamweaver has improved considerably, but it is a professional tool for business purposes more than personal use, best left to the people who know the nuts and bolts of web design and use it for mock-ups or speeding up their workflow. If you don’t know what you’re doing, the interface is bewildering and problems are hard to spot and fix—and children break things in the most fascinating and creative ways.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Dreamweaver wrecked my camp. The kids had fun, the parents offered their compliments, the instructors didn’t go too crazy, and whoever planned the course that year did an admirable job considering how they stuck to what I think is a fundamentally broken orthodoxy of how to introduce 9-to-11-year-olds to making websites. I’m saying computer camps can do better.

I propose that crash courses in website building teach WordPress. Here’s why.

Continued »

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Additional libraries cannot be launched

Monday, 16 November 2009 — 8:07pm | Computing, Video games

Shortly before I sauntered across the Atlantic, I remarked to an old friend of mine that moving would be far more convenient with the aid of extradimensional portals. The concept I had in mind comes from role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons (and its many derivatives in the digital age) where players bear containers of fantastical capacity to keep their inventory of material possessions close at hand, but I envisioned it as something like an improved Swiss bank, where you pass through security, deposit your goods in the vault, and pick them up at the same vault at a different branch anywhere else in the world. The vault would therefore be a material analogue to the “cloud” that you hear about in computing these days, a singular storage space with unlimited access points. Not even Gringotts thought of that.

There are a number of considerations that become quickly problematic, though, even if you dismiss the obvious practical obstacles and take for granted that we have the technology to build such a thing. In the legal sphere, what do you do about territorial sovereignty or customs law? And then there’s the basic hygienic objection—what about the risk of contamination and the transcontinental spread of airborne disease? Then again, chances are that by the time humanity is advanced enough that something like this becomes feasible, we will have undergone so radical a social transformation that the policy issues are moot.

In any case, the advent of cloud computing urges us to revisit that old sci-fi pipe dream of the Enterprise transporter: the conception of matter as data. Note that this isn’t the same thing as digitization. What I am speaking of is not the representation of matter as information, but the harnessing of matter in the same ways we harness information.

I thought of this today in the library whilst awaiting an order of rare books. Libraries are socially fascinating spaces: patrons share communal resources, but under a mutual agreement to behave in such a manner that everyone feels the library is his or her private space. People work and study in the library with the expectation that everyone else is silent and effectively invisible. Like car parks and highways in the age of the automobile, the major obstacle to the smooth operation of libraries (from the client’s point of view) is the conflicting presence of others, whether they are typing obnoxiously on clackety keyboards or requesting the same books.

In the world of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft, the solution to the overexploitation of shared spaces comes in the form of instances—private copies of dungeons for individuals and small groups to slay beasts and loot sparkling purple treasures without any strangers in the way. The content in the shared world outside of instances often suffers from a tragedy of the commons, where you might be on a quest to kill ten boars only to find that somebody minutes ahead of you has already brought home the bacon. Instanced dungeons ensure that everyone gets a crack at the most rewarding content day to day, week to week.

Should we ever be able to harness matter-as-data—a holy grail of science fiction as unattainable, but arguably more consequential, than travelling faster than the speed of light—libraries would seem to be the perfect candidate for an instanced space. You wouldn’t disturb anybody, and nobody would disturb you; the library would work as designed. Granted, there might be issues with server load when entire libraries have to be copied and simulated for each individual who walks in the door. But the bigger problem is that in the absence of the social and institutional deterrence that others create, nothing stops you from disturbing the books.

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Speaking into the keyboard

Monday, 9 November 2009 — 9:10am | Computing, Literature

A few days ago, The Wall Street Journal published an article about the peculiar working habits of novelists, which may be a good companion piece to the Where I Write gallery of writers’ messy studies. Margaret Atwood is her usual making-it-sound-so-easy self (“Put your left hand on the table. Put your right hand in the air. If you stay that way long enough, you’ll get a plot”), and Michael Ondaatje’s trademark cubism suddenly makes a lot more sense when you consider that he reassembles his drafts with scissors and tape. And then there’s Richard Powers:

Richard Powers, whose books are often concept-driven, intricately plotted and stuffed with arcane science, wrote his last three novels while lying in bed, speaking to a lap-top computer with voice-recognition software.

To write “Generosity,” his recent novel about the search for a happiness gene, he worked like this for eight or nine hours a day. He uses a stylus pen to edit on a touch screen, rewriting sentences and highlighting words.

“It’s recovering storytelling by voice and recovering the use of the hand and all that tactile immediacy,” Mr. Powers says of the process. “I like to use different parts of my brain.”

If you are at all familiar with Richard Powers’ fiction, this will not surprise you in the least. He is not, to my recollection, the only tech-savvy author to work this way; I seem to recall Douglas Adams saying something about doing the same in one of the essays published in The Salmon of Doubt, although it is entirely possible my memory is off and I’ve been thinking of Mr Powers all along.

Dictating a piece of writing of any length, let alone a book, is not something I could fathom doing myself. I am a deeply nonlinear thinker who takes ideas preformed as block chords and splashes them on the page in fragments of verbal shrapnel, and for me the writing process is largely a matter of bridging broken sentences and putting Humpty together again. This does not lend itself well to finishing long-form works and revising them in drafts.

One of the clear advantages to dictation, it seems, is that the linearity of the spoken word compels you to finish what you begin. But speaking in clear and complete sentences that convey whole ideas is not one of the strengths of a nonlinear mind. Anyone who has listened to me deliver extemporaneous remarks (which account for nearly all of my remarks) can attest that it doesn’t take long for me to break off into tangents and parentheticals. I like the control and precision of the written word, and somehow there must be a way to adjust its nets to capture the spontaneity of speech.

That is where the Apple Wireless Keyboard comes in. You may not have been aware of it, dear reader, but I have been writing this post “blind”. As I speak—and that’s what it really feels like, speaking—I am staring at the ceiling and typing in bed. My computer is on the other side of the room. The experience is most like that of sitting down with a notebook and pen and writing single-spaced within the rules, so as to leave no room for correction, adjustment, or retroactive insertion. The difference, of course, is that I am doing it on a keyboard, which is both faster and less taxing on the wrists.

This method of composition seems ill suited to works of an academic nature, where I have to juggle citations, or even blog posts that rely heavily on quotations and links (like the beginning of the post you are reading now, which was most assuredly not written blind)—but when it comes to forms of writing where the primary challenge is to force oneself to improvise and forge on ahead, it may turn out to be ideal. Failing that, it would still be a fruitful exercise that I am pleased to be have tried this once.

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Zen and the Art of Macintosh Maintenance

Monday, 28 September 2009 — 2:42am | Computing

People with Apple Macintosh computers occasionally ask me to recommend third-party software (preferably free) for the odd tasks where solutions do not come bundled with Mac OS X. As I am finally cleaning up some of the permanent pages on the site to replace the filler copy and revise outdated information, I thought to post an OS X software guide listing some of the applications, utilities, and plug-ins I like to keep installed. This is more for my convenience than anybody else’s, but other Mac users may find it of some worth.

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Twitterpated in Persia

Thursday, 18 June 2009 — 12:04pm | Computing, Journalism

I’m as glued to the fallout from the Iranian “election” as anybody else, and if there was one opinion I wanted to hear, it was Marjane Satrapi’s. More than one outlet has sold the present events in Iran as the 1979 revolution reborn, often with a suggestion that it is the long-concealed expression of the way the revolution ought to have turned out had the fundamentalists not steered it off course and filled the power vacuum themselves.

When I read Satrapi’s superb graphic novel Persepolis, I described it as “an act of remembrance for the promise of an Iran that could have been, had the theocratic powers that govern Iran not shoved that promise in a closet, and had the rest of the world not believed them.” Well, the citizenry sure hasn’t forgotten, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see it. It is as if the silenced middle class of educated moderates decided to speak up all at once and say, enough is enough.

For those of you just catching up: Juan Cole summarizes the top pieces of evidence the election was stolen. Christopher Hitchens highlights the blatancy of the fraud when set against the trends in the rest of the Islamic world. Poll analysis superstar Nate Silver and his colleagues at FiveThirtyEight crunch the data and offer their findings in a comprehensive and, thank goodness, levelheaded series of posts, reminding us of the alternative scenarios and the fact that statistics don’t prove a whole lot to the outside observer who fails to account for the reality of the political climate.

Andrew Sullivan has been on top of things from the beginning, as I knew he would be, and if you like your aggregated updates five to ten minutes apart you’ve already been reading him all along.

And now, for a bucket of cold water.

I am deeply unimpressed at the media, by which I mean both the frumious bandersnatch of the “MSM” and independent bloggers, and their coverage of Twitter.

I only signed up for Twitter two weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised to find it useful all of a sudden. Yes, it is newsworthy that it’s our best source of information on the ground when the Iranian government has taken the usual precautionary measures to shut down cell phones, block social networks, restrict bandwidth, arrest and expel journalists, and jam BBC satellites. Yes, it is newsworthy that Twitter shifted its maintenance schedule to accommodate its Iranian users, presumably at the behest of the Obama administration. It is being used to publish eyewitness reports and organize impromptu rallies. And probably the most encouraging thing I’ve seen it do is facilitate the emergence of a mutual understanding between the western and Iranian citizenry: more people know, and the Iranians know they know, that the Iranian people aren’t a rabble of fundie terrorists. (Their state is a different matter entirely.)

But Twitter has taken over the Iranian story to an unconscionable degree. A good proportion of the Twitter traffic about Iran involves people far away from the action feeling important about themselves for using the service, bashing the mainstream media while linking to their stories about Twitter. The peak of involvement among its users was, narcissistically, when Twitter announced its maintenance delay. Sullivan goes so far as to retract his previous mockery of Ashton Kutcher’s pronouncement in that most happily credulous of early-adopter rags, TIME, that “the creation of Twitter […] is as significant and paradigm-shifting as the invention of Morse code, the telephone, radio, television or the personal computer.”

I don’t buy it, and neither should you.

Continued »

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