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: Professional Education: Yesterday I bought and read Jeremy Blachman's Anonymous Lawyer because I remembered liking the blog. Strange. I don't usually like wince humor, but the book went pretty fast and balanced out the narrator's ambition and arrogance with quiet subtext. I have recently been letting work swallow up my life, so it was nice to sit on the couch next to Leonard and read a book for a while, even if it was a book about someone who lets work swallow up his life.

Now reading Making Software: What Really Works, and Why We Believe It. I swing between utterly loving this book and needing to take a nap.

Many claims are made about how certain tools, technologies, and practices improve software development. But which are true, and which are merely wishful thinking? In Making Software, leading researchers and practitioners present chapter-length summaries of key empirical findings in software engineering...

One of the editors is Greg Wilson, the Software Carpentry dude who wants to teach scientists basic software engineering skills -- talk about doing the Lord's work! I heard about Software Carpentry via Mary Gardiner's "Changing the World with Python" talk (transcript).

Speaking of Python, I'll be in Boston the weekend of December 17th to attend a project-driven introduction to Python for women and their friends. There are still 7 slots left, in case you want to join me. I fear that I'm in that bleh spot, not an utter novice but still too unskilled to make Python do what I want, so here's hoping the weekend gets me over that hump.

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: Asymptomatic, Asymptotic: Last night I gave Leonard some alone time to work on a Constellation Games bonus story. I went to Ward III, a Manhattan bar that does bespoke cocktails. They have a menu of predesigned cocktails as well, but if you tell them, "I would love something bubbly with basil and lemon," they think about it and figure something out. I especially appreciate that they are perfectly fine with making interesting nonalcoholic drinks. I don't know a better place to get a bespoke mocktail.

Sunita Williams aboard the International Space Station, working with a biological and chemical substances detector, 2007, public domainWhile there, I read a bit of Making Software. One of its editors also cowrote "Empirical Software Engineering: As researchers investigate how software gets made, a new empire for empirical research opens up" in the latest American Scientist, in case you want a taste of his approach. We can now do metasurveys and overviews of existing research into software development, and the science says:

Pair programmers tend to produce code that is easier to understand, and they do so with higher morale. Their productivity may fall initially as the programmers adjust to the new work style, but productivity recovers and often surpasses its initial level as programmer teams acquire experience....

Doctor Ella Eulows (right) and laboratory assistant Sadie Carlin (left) testing antipneumoccus serum for potency, 1920, public domainLarge meta-analyses and further studies by Hannay and others conclude that a programmer’s personality is not a strong predictor of performance. The people who swear by their beliefs about personality and programmer success have now been given reason to assess their position critically, along with methodological support for doing so....

....the distinctions between the two worlds are often illusory. There are cathedrals in the open-source sphere and bazaars in the closed-source. Similar social and technical trends can be documented in both.... Schryen and Rich sorted the packages they studied within categories such as open- and closed-source, application type (operating system, web server, web browser and so on), and structured or loose organization. They found that security vulnerabilities were equally severe for both open- and closed-source systems, and they further found that patching behavior did not align with an open–versus-closed source divide. In fact, they were able to show that application type is a much better determinant of vulnerability and response to security issues, and that patching behavior is directed by organizational policy without any correlation to the organizational structure that produced the software.

fishery biologist, 1972, public domainI read about software engineering research while sitting at the bar, over lemon-lime-and-bitters and devilled eggs served with slices of jalapeño. I always love getting to watch people who are good at their jobs, and the craftsmen at Ward III have a particularly explicitly collaborative style with their customers. One of them, Michael J. Neff, blogs at Serious Eats about cocktails and tending bar. He writes thoughtfully about the use of sugar, free-pouring versus using jiggers to measure, why Californians like us find hurricanes so unsettling ("I tend to think natural disasters should be short, violent, and most of all, unannounced."), and the downside of cocktail nostalgia.

Much of the current cocktail trend is based on nostalgia, and it is difficult to say it, but many cocktails that we now call "forgotten classics" are forgotten for a reason. They have the shine of history, and we're told we are supposed to love them, but they're too sweet, they lack balance, and they kind of suck....

...none of us invented the cocktail. Whatever we create now is a collaboration between those who make spirits, those who make cocktails, and those who imbibe them. If we leave behind the drinker, we leave behind the only people who can tell us what works. None of us make cocktails in a vacuum.

No matter what field you're in, it can be hard to hear criticism. It can be hard to switch habits in response to new data, from your customer or from research. But that's what learning is. Disequilibrium -- surprises, failures, jokes, and disorientations -- will always happen. Taking that opportunity to move away from a local maximum towards a global maximum is up to me.

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(1) : I Watched NBC On Thursday Nights In The Nineties: Guy in a bar told me that George Clooney & Noah Wyle are competing to play Steve Jobs in an upcoming biopic.

  1. So anyone from ER has a shot? Anthony Edwards, Sherry Stringfield... hold on, John Stamos was in ER? They got Thandie Newton & John Leguizamo? Well, a lot happens in 15 seasons.
  2. Shouldn't Noah be concentrating on his upcoming fanfilm, John Carter (Not) Of Mars?

(1) : Where All Happiness Is Contained: The song in my head right now is Pete Seeger's version of "Business" (hear a sample at Smithsonian Folkways). It's from an English translation of a French poem by Guillevic -- I should look up the original.

Image in my head: when I pour hot water over a used herbal tea bag to make a second cup, the air in the bag instantly heats and inflates, buoying the bag atop the rising water.

(4) : Analogies: From some recent explanations of software stuff to nontechnical folks:

Suites like Windows/IIS or LAMP go together the way everything at IKEA matches anything else you buy at IKEA.

Source control is like a wiki.

Virtualization is like Inception.

The IPv4 address shortage, and the switch to IPv6, is like when they had to make new US area codes when we were running out of phone numbers.

Using an interpreted language is like a conversation over instant messenger; compiled languages act more like correspondence over email.

Architecting up-front (waterfall) is good for when you are pretty sure what you want, as when you are hungry and want lunch. You have been hungry many times before and know food in lunch form will work to fix this. You do not need to reimagine the nature of food, hunger, and digestion.

We want people to make stuff that works with our API the way that Apple likes people making iPod accessories.

A database is like a library.

Working on software with other people is like living in a house together. Making your changes in trunk is like moving the shoes from the foyer to the hall closet a little at a time, and (during the changeover) leaving a few pairs out where your housemates will trip over them. In contrast, saving your changes in a branch to merge later, when your change is complete, is like moving all the shoes at once. (Better explanation.)

I beseech you: if you are going to nitpick these, please be funny.

: Constellation Games:

Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson

First contact isn't all fun and games.

Ariel Blum is pushing thirty and doesn't have much to show for it. His computer programming skills are producing nothing but pony-themed video games for little girls. His love life is a slow-motion train wreck, and whenever he tries to make something of his life, he finds himself back on the couch, replaying the games of his youth.

Then the aliens show up.

Out of the sky comes the Constellation: a swarm of anarchist anthropologists, exploring our seas, cataloguing our plants, editing our wikis and eating our Twinkies. No one knows how to respond--except for nerds like Ariel who've been reading, role-playing and wargaming first-contact scenarios their entire lives. Ariel sees the aliens' computers, and he knows that wherever there are computers, there are video games.

Ariel just wants to start a business translating alien games so they can be played on human computers. But a simple cultural exchange turns up ancient secrets, government conspiracies, and unconventional anthropology techniques that threaten humanity as we know it. If Ariel wants his species to have a future, he's going to have to take the step that nothing on Earth could make him take.

He'll have to grow up.

Constellation Games is a novel by my spouse, Leonard Richardson. You can read the first two chapters for free. It's now available for purchase as a serial -- for USD$5, total, you'll get a chapter in your email every week. If you pay a little more, you'll get a print paperback, bonus stories, a phrasebook, and so on. And for free, anyone can read the author's commentary, Twitter feed, &c.

This is a great book. I love it. Oh, and for all of December, Leonard's publisher is running a give-one-get-one special. So I encourage you to read those sample chapters and I hope you'll decide to subscribe.

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: Low-rent Thomas Friedman: I am on my couch in New York City. My Dutch colleague, who also works from home, is waiting with me on the conference call. We're waiting for the San Francisco folks to show up for the call. I can hear that he's watching a video of us doing karaoke together in November, in Mumbai. He was singing Aqua's "Barbie Girl".

: Diligence And Joy: I get a different kind of understanding, now, out of Paul Ford's "Cleaning My Room," ten years later. When I reread it, I flash back to my old messy apartment in Berkeley, where I sat as I absorbed it the first time. I'm years older than Ford was when he wrote it. I haven't quite been through the journey he experienced, but I've tasted some of the other side. It pairs with "Until the Water Boils."

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: Discovering An Origin: Yesterday I helped a bit with a Dreamwidth code tour. Every time Dreamwidth deploys a new update to the site, someone writes up explanations of what all the new bits are. Not just a summary of the big changes, but a sentence or a paragraph about every bugfix and improvement. Basically, imagine if release notes had explanations like this summary by ghoti:

Bug 4102: Checkboxes to retain relationships when renaming have disappeared
Category: Misc Backend
Patch by: [staff profile] denise and [staff profile] fu
Description: So when you rename your account, you're supposed to get checkboxes that keep your access list, filters, and stuff like that during the rename. Unfortunately those checkboxen had disappeared. This shouldn't happen anymore. If you got caught in this bug, please tell [staff profile] denise or [staff profile] fu.
for every bug. Then the code tour gets posted in the Dreamwidth Development community, and linked to from general Dreamwidth news posts. This effectively tells customers where their money's gone, showcases the work of volunteers, and provides examples for people who had been thinking of getting involved in bugfixing (a form of babydev-bait). I fear that the Wikimedia development pace is too high and its community size is too large to make this particular method effective for us, but I'm going to keep thinking about ways we could modify this tactic to achieve those goals for us.

I wrote the summaries of bugs 3186 & 3087, which took maybe ten or fifteen minutes from start to finish. It was fun to flex that muscle, remembering how to distill and translate and explain:

Most support requests are visible to everyone, so everyone can help answer them. For privacy, only Dreamwidth staff and trusted volunteers can see support requests in certain categories, like Account Payments issues or Terms of Service violations. But that wasn't clear to regular users on the support ticket submission page. Now it is, because there are asterisks marking those categories.
I remembered writing functional specifications as a project manager, and reading technical specs and translating them into "what this means for your weekend." I thought about my eventual goal of managing a product, a role that requires someone to think from logistical, marketing, design, financial, and technical perspectives.

Then this morning I picked up A Case of Need by Michael Crichton. He wrote it as a young doctor, under the pseudonym "Jeffery Hudson."

I cut a slice of the white lump and quick-froze it. There was only one way to be certain if the mass was benign or malignant, and that was to check it under the microscope. Quick-freezing the tissue allowed a thin section to be rapidly prepared. Normally, to make a microscope slide, you had to dunk your stuff into six or seven baths; it took at least six hours, sometimes days. The surgeons couldn't wait.
The key context you need to understand the emotional valence of the detail, always keeping the reader aware of what's normal and what's a surprise, what's the best practice and what shortcuts people end up taking. Crichton would have written that summary of the private category marking exactly as I did.

So -- just as I learned my long-distance mentorship skills from Beverly Cleary in Dear Mr. Henshaw, I learned my expository skill from Michael Crichton. Embarrassing, given what Crichton got up to in his later years, but I'll take my skill where I can get it.

(If I were smarter I could make a nice comparison among George Orwell, Alan Furst, Michael Crichton, and Ellen Ullman.)

(By the way, someone quoted from that A Case of Need passage in a comment in an FCC filing.)

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(8) : Confidence Interval: I enjoyed having the apartment to myself for a week while Leonard visited his blood family (why is it easier to clean when I have the house to myself? Why?!), but of course I also enjoy his return. After all, I need someone else to admire these clean countertops! And yesterday he and I talked about what's implausible or frustrating about Jurassic Park (the film), which I had watched afresh on Sunday.

For contrast: the year before Jurassic Park came out, all across the US television screens flickered and blared with "Rascals", a cute and fun episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that does UTTERLY AND WHOLLY IMPLAUSIBLE things with biology. We watched it again yesterday and Leonard pointed out that its science is about as bad as (and arguably contradicts!) that in "Similitude" (ENT). Argh argh argh.

Compare Jurassic Park, which barely ripples the suspension of disbelief.

    recursion dinosaur
  1. Leonard notes that the scientists shouldn't have used frog DNA to fill in the gaps, but rather some kind of avian DNA. Yes, but I'm willing to be technobabbled out of that.
  2. More troublingly (Leonard read an article about this once) -- could you really get enough intact DNA out of the stomachs of millions-years-old mosquitoes? Probably not; you'd need to find a lot of mosquitoes, and I imagine some anaerobic digestive processes would continue even after amber encasement, denaturing the proteins and so on. Still, I am (possibly too leniently) rather unbothered by this -- my impression is that we keep discovering new places DNA's been stashed, and if it's not mosquito bellies, it's, I dunno, the La Brea tar pits or peat bogs or something.
  3. The engineering management failure is plausible, but only if the managers don't know how to manage large engineering projects and mitigate risk properly. Well, Hammond is a fantastic user interface designer who tried to do the software and hardware sides on the cheap. "Spared no expense" only applies to the user-facing bits. And he doesn't listen to criticism. Annoyingly plausible.
  4. The glimpses of software that we get are basically fine, in my opinion.

Yes, I am not exactly pioneering the field of scifi or media criticism by going over the plausibility of this very-well-known artifact from 1993. But if I'd asked myself last week, "What will have more implausibilities? A TNG episode from 1992 or a big-budget Hollywood action thriller from 1993?" I would not have predicted this case. A reminder not to be complacent.

I also appreciate Leonard's presence because I can occasionally ask him to diagnose a Python error (e.g., "TypeError: 'type' object is not subscriptable"). After years of trying to self-teach with books and tutorials and scratch-my-own-itch projects and lectures and lecture videos, I find that the Boston Python Workshop, CodingBat, and Python Challenge were the dance partners I needed. Yesterday I used a dictionary data type to help solve a problem! And it worked! But I'll write more about this on Geek Feminism. Anyway, hence the "recursion" half of the "recursion dinosaur" graphic.

(1) : This Year I Built A Wall Of Text:

Part of the pleasure of starting again is feeling the years and years of riding behind me -- the teenage bolting around like a lunatic and learning how to land on my feet, the years in my twenties when David drummed cadence into me -- coming up and helping, like a whale surfacing under a struggling swimmer. As if those years weren't wasted after all; as if all is not lost.

In 2011 my past paid off splendidly. For more than a decade, sometimes without knowing it, I'd been investing in my domain knowledge, skills, credentials, and personal network. So when I started looking for project management and open source consulting work (starting in December 2010), I fairly quickly had as much work as I could handle. The job I have now is the most absorbing and rewarding I've ever had, excepting perhaps my two weeks of farm labor in the summer of 2007.

I worked thoroughly and consistently and busily in 2011. I saw my family, but I didn't see friends enough, and we didn't host enough parties. Then again I travelled a lot; there were months when I was away more than two weeks at a time. Barely exercised. Still married to Leonard, still childless. This year I started supporting him so he can concentrate on his fiction. We discovered Breaking Bad and The Dick Van Dyke Show.

I wrote about 6,814 emails, just under 500 public blog entries (here, Geek Feminism, Wikimedia Foundation blog), and probably 150 dents/tweets. Some of the best things I wrote in 2011:

Happy New Year.

: Drinkin' One-Forties: Oh, one more thing -- Leonard & I distilled my ten best microblog entries from 2011:

#captions error on TV yesterday: "We hold these trouts to be self evident"

You know that moment when you see a bright flash from the window through closed eyes, and know it's probably not a nuke, but still?

Procrustes was just Goldilocks with power.

Being a workaholic who works from home is like ... hmm, all these analogies are offensive.

"We have found that people of talent, ambition and accountability tend to stick together" - truth from http://amymlitt.com/who-we-are/

PLEASE CLIP YOUR NAMEBADGE FACING OUT. A personal appeal from Sumana Harihareswara of the Wikimedia Foundation. #wikimania

"Breaking Bad" in our house has been termed "the Arrested Development of despair," "evil Good Eats," & "Meth Mr. Wizard"

on getting lunch: "The thing about fixing your hunger is, it doesn't scale." "Depends how you fix it!" "I'll plant some corn." #osb11

Joke of the day: Who's Treebeard's favorite philosopher? Hume!

"Enjoy responsibly" is actually very difficult advice to take.

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