We’re off to see the Wizard

The wonderful wizard of… Oxford.

Yep, Siobhan and I are moving to the UK. We’ll be starting off in Oxford, where my family lives. Once Qualica has worked out plans for office location, we’ll be settling down from there.

We should have applications in next week, and hope to have approval in about 2 weeks. Then we’re off!

In the meantime, I’m on leave so that I can help pack. Which largely consists of dealing with a LARGE number of books.

Happy New Year

Happy new year!

2007 ended very appropriately for us: As we were leaving, our shopping-bag broke. The champagne bottle in it fell to the floor and exploded, spraying us with broken glass and bubbly.

It’s a good analogy for how we felt most of 2007: harassed, stressed, late, and in the middle of a disaster zone.

So, we’re looking forward to 2008. I hope you are all too!

We wish you all a happy new year, filled with all of the things you could want.


Happy New Year

The scientific study of deliciousness

Hervé This started his career in molecular gastronomy when he tried to shortcut a recipe – adding all the egg yolks to a dish at once, instead of the prescribed 2-at-a-time.

When the shortcut didn’t work, he started investigating how these apparently-arbitrary rules work.

That was 27 years and 25,000 rules ago.

Apparently his discoveries work well enough that someone’s given him access to a million-dollar nuclear-magnetic-resonance device. He uses it to figure out why peas change colour when they are cooked.

Courtesy of Why-Read’s article.

The Process of Everyday Things

How do you decide to push on a door, or pull it?

How is a fiction book structured? Does it even have a structure? Does structure destroy the writing’s artistry, or improve it? Does the author simply start at page one, and keep going until he/she is done? Can they plan the work? Or does it take shape over time as the story meanders?

Have you ever read something which covers a seemingly-simple thing in incredible detail? Something so simple you take it for granted?

How about something so complicated that you rely on your subconscious to figure it out?

The snowflake model by Randall Ingermanson covers a process for writing fiction in great detail. As the author says: “Good fiction doesn’t just happen, it is designed.” I’ve never read any of his books, and probably wouldn’t want to given his subject matter, but none of his fiction books rank under 4 and a half stars on Amazon

The Practice of Leadership blog covers how to read and digest a non-fiction book. Again in great detail. And the detail of it reminds me what opportunities I’m missing when I plough through non-fiction texts.

The Manager Tools Podcasts cover the minutae of accepting an apology, in a discussion lasting about 30 minutes.

Try imagine describing “how to accept an apology” to someone right now. How long does it last? Spread out your explanation a bit.. expand on it… have you got to 5 minutes yet?

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman is a classic book for programmers and designers of physical objects alike. It covers seemingly simple things, such as doors handles, in great detail. Sound boring? How about when he discusses that the same problems apply to levers in nuclear powerstations?

Once you’ve read it, it changes the way you think about every door you come to and every button you press or lever you pull.

These are all things that intrigue me.. and not just because of their subject matter. I can’t precisely say why, but I get a huge thrill when reading something that has been thought through rigorously, in great detail, and then explained well.

And yet I generally think of myself as a “big picture” guy. Perhaps it’s because I love integrating this sort of information into a “bigger whole,” and actively do so continuously in my daily life.

I think that’s why A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander interests me so much. Where else can you find someone that’s worked though all of these items, and then covered all the levels between for extra measure.

  • The size of independent regions (countries), by taking the number of person-to-person links into account.
  • The height of ceilings, and their impact on social interactions.
  • The 13 variables of office space. (Examples are “Presence or absence of a wall immediately behind you”, “Distance to the nearest person,” and “Number of people you are aware of from your workplace”)

So is it just me? Or is this universal?

As an aside: I find my edition of “The Design of Everyday Things” incredibly difficult to read, due to horrible typefacing and layout choices. I’ve no idea why – and every person I’ve lent it to has remarked on the same thing.

And I find the Pattern Language web site very difficult to navigate. Of course, the physical book works better than the website… but Christopher Alexander’s home page is about as unstructured as… minestrone soup.

Oh – those that have read “The Design of Everyday Things” may figure out that my post’s title matches his original title – “The Psychology of Everyday Things” – which he chose because it’s cutesy abbreviation POET.

Very cool art by Mark Jenkins

After my post entry on photography, Rita (that’s my mom) sent me a great link. Have a look at Mark Jenkins’ art.

His sense of humour really comes through in his art… and I really like his sense of humour.

Instead of enjoying today’s public holiday by having a leisurely lie-in, and then eating breakfast at around 12, I’ve spent it running around buying balloons and helping with packing boxes and couriering for an event Siobhan is organising.

And then getting to eat breakfast at around 12.

Great photographs by Hughes Leglise-Bataille

I can’t recommend Hughes Leglise-Bataille enough.

His photojournalist series on protests by Paris firefighters is amazing. Have a look at it here – “Au feu, les pompiers !”

Demonstrating the power of Flickr and the creative-commons licence, his work has been used or featured on CNN Exchange, BBC World, Salon, and Le Monde, to name but a few.

He’s also the winner of the “National Press Photographers Association” prizes for “Amateurs Photoblogs” on both “News” and “Photojournalism”.

The Undercover Economist and Drug prices

Some books change the way you think about things forever. The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford, is one of them.

Here’s a simple example of how it changes your day-to-day life.

I am often exasperated by the headlines in “The Star” – a local Johannesburg newspaper – they are generally as sensationalist as possible without being completely ridiculous and stooping to the level of “The Sun”. For some reason, this drives me around the bend – at least “The Sun”‘s headlines are sometimes funny.

Shortly after starting this book, one of their headlines read something like “12 year olds buying heroin in primary schools for the same price as dope.” I think the actual headline probably included kittens and puppies for extra effect.

So I spent a few moments analysing it, given recent readings of The Undercover Economist. Firstly, weed is definitely cheaper to produce in South Africa than heroin is to import, since it pretty much grows wild. Pricing thus isn’t reflective of the cost of production – it must be set by demand.

And what does a low price on heroin tell us? That supply exceeds demand… and the dealers are trying to offload it on whoever they can.

And it tells us that pretty much nobody sane would consider using heroin, no matter that it might cost around as much as two 500ml cooldrinks.

And suddenly, you’re reading a very different story to their “over the top” headline. Sure, there is the problem of dealers in school – but their core emotional point is suddenly meaningless. They are actually saying “overwhelming majority of 12 years are too smart to buy heroin – instead they report on dealers and their prices to teachers and newspaper salesmen.” That is great, isn’t it?

Of course, gentle reader, since some of you don’t know me, I have to tell you that you don’t use any of the above substances, with the exception of cooldrinks.

(I’ve not linked to either “The Star” or “The Sun”, as I wouldn’t want to dignify them with a higher google ranking.)

Thoughts on “Art of the Start”

Given my previous post on blogging, I may have given the impression that “The Art of the Start” by Guy Kawasaki is the best thing since sliced bread.

Unfortunately – it’s not. It is good – and it adds a reasonable amount of value, but it’s not “all that”.

I skim-read the book over coffee in the bookshop when I first saw it. And unfortunately for Guy, I have say that I got the most value out of the book in that initial skim reading.

Perhaps it’s because I haven’t any use for information on: how to deal with potential venture capitalists; the differences in venture-capital meeting dress-style between the east and west coast; and how most financial projections in business plans are completely useless.

Or perhaps it’s because in he and I have a similar way of thinking about these sorts of things, so there isn’t that much that seems new. Your mileage may vary.

One of the main problems I have with the book is that it’s marketed as “for anyone starting anything.” However, I suspect there was a conversation like this between two of the publishers just before releasing the book:

  1. Publisher 1 – “So we’re publishing a book for people starting software businesses that need venture capital. Now tell me, how many people do that each year? And how many do we have to sell to make a profit? Who the hell signed this deal?”
  2. Publisher 2 – “Well… the introduction is fairly general – you could even use it as a way of structuring a blog, for example. He also does use some other examples besides software and tech business stuff in parts of the book – there’s one sentence on page 47, for example. How about we subtitle it ‘Your guide to starting anything?'”
  3. Publisher 1 – “Isn’t that a bit bland? It needs a ‘little something’, I think”
  4. Publisher 2 – “How about ‘The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything’? Now everyone can buy our book.”
  5. Publisher 1 – “Publisher 2, you’re a bloody genius.”

That said – I don’t regret buying the book. The first few chapters especially have some important and useful ideas. But it has some major assumptions about the business you’re going to build, where it’s going to be located, and how you are going to build it. (It always goes something along these lines: think of the idea; start building it while you try find venture capital; list it on the stock market or sell it to a competitor.)

I personally think of starting a business in a different way – but I’ll have more about that in another post.

Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs

I’ve recently started reading The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs – one of the textbooks for MIT’s electrical engineering and computer science degrees.

One thing that’s immediately interesting to me is how challenging the first year introductory text is. The second thing is how well the book is thought out. I know how difficult that is, having written a reasonable amount of a book myself for the Squid User’s Guide.

The third thing I’ve noticed is how years of coding predominantly in “the {} languages” (Perl, and occasional bits of C, Java, etc) make it difficult for my brain to parse scheme/lisp syntax like this:

(define (abs x)
(cond ((> x 0) x)
((= x 0) 0)
((< x 0) (- x))))

My brain also encounters similar pain parsing ruby (though it does use {braces}):

5.times { print "Odelay!" }

and smalltalk:

a := [:x | x + 1]

If you've ever learned another spoken language (and I'm not referring to chatting with a programmer-friend in Perl with statements like "oops - s/oskar/fred/g in that last statement"), you'll probably remember the first time that you started "thinking in the new language".

Right now, I'm not "thinking in ruby" or "thinking in smalltalk" - I go through a mental process that's very similar to reading a new language:

  1. Change each word to it's English equivalent (In the case of a programming language, convert the tokens and keywords to some other language)
  2. Rearrange the words so that they make sense in English - if the direct translation is "couch sat on by man", I'd rearrange to "the man sat on the couch". For more complicated statements, I'd have to try out multiple rearrangements, until I find something that makes sense in the sentence's context.

The process I have to follow with new programming languages is pretty similar to the process of converting from one spoken language to another.

With time, no doubt, I'll be "thinking in" these programming languages. But the only way to do that isn't through reading the language - it's by writing the language.

Luckily, in this process I don't have to upset people with my poor pronunciation and grammar.