Everyone Should Learn To Code

Ain’t she a beaut? (Tho I still prefer the C64)
By: Sebastian Bassi

I started coding on a Vic-20 they had just gotten in at my Elementary school.

I stayed after school and played with it. I remember it being in a small room, a teacher’s prep room. The letters were big and blocky, the colours bright but limited. There were programs to teach me how to spell, how to do math, even tell a little story.

I’ve never stopped loving to code.

I don’t do as much of it as I used to — ironically, doing research in computer science often means that coding for the love of it is secondary to frustratingly long hours debugging some theory. I’m going to start coding again soon — I can feel that itch.

It’s a creative itch, an urge to turn thoughts into action, to refine them and structure them, to build castles in my mind that the computer turns into screens and activity.

I loved puzzles as a kid, figuring out how things are put together, seeing the structures and the patterns and the rhythms. Once I discovered computers, I believe I had found the ultimate puzzle: the one that I could reconfigure myself, that I could create as well as figure out.

And then I noticed that in everything else, too: the fact that you can transform the world by finding ways to manipulate it, attach one thing to another and to another. Rube Goldberg machines are expressions of the art of code, although expressed as much for the whimsy of design as for the end product.

Good code is beautiful, like the internals of a fine mechanical watch, the layout, structure and detail of a fine painting, like the complexities of a well-made meal.

It’s one of the fundamentals, I agree: reading, writing, arithmetic — and coding. Just like the others, you don’t need to be an expert to have an entire world of possibilities open up to you. You don’t have to make a living at writing to recognize the importance of a good base of writing skill. You don’t have to be a professional programmer to gain enormous benefit from knowing the basics of coding.

I remember a friend of mine marvelling once when I took a plain text document, ran in through a few lines of code, and then re-imported it back into the document I was editing, all now perfectly sorted and formatted. To me, it was a natural use of a tool; to her, it was pretty amazing.

And when I thought it about afterward, I agreed: it was pretty amazing. And relatively simple.

And demonstrated how even a little bit of coding skill goes a long way.

PhD: Lessons Learned From Research Not Yet Finished

I work a lot of things out on whiteboards or large sketchbooks, because the ideas are visual and ever-changing.

For the last decade or so, I’ve been engaged in graduate research, mostly in pursuit of a PhD. This was my choice, although the exact weight and scope of that choice wasn’t really apparent to me at the time I decided it and, arguably, still isn’t entirely grasped.

One of the things I wish I had realized sooner was that research isn’t a solitary game. Sure, I have a list of articles from other researchers as long as my arm (or several arms), but the real thing that I have come to realize has been missing is not yet another reference, but people.

I’ve worked on this stuff, largely alone and with only my own direction, for several years. Coming close to the end, I now regret not having told more people about the research. For the most part, I doubt there are that many people that I know who would really understand what I’m working on.

To be honest, many days I’m not sure I understand it either…

But without others to express my work to, I have neither been forced to explain it to others, nor have I benefited from the insights of others. I’ve questioned the papers I’ve read — many of which are poorly written and either too terse to explain things or too complicated to — but the papers don’t respond. They just sit there, glowing pixels or dead ink, not giving me any feedback on the many brilliant or utterly insane ideas I’ve just thrown at it.

So, firstly, a piece of advice to those who are going to do research: find colleagues.   Continue reading

Balticon or Bust!

I find it fascinating just how much a gathering of people in real-time, in real-space, still excites.

After all, my tribe is all wired. We span the globe, but we connect in real-time or in async-time as a matter of natural practice. We’ve all adopted the Internet as the last lobe of our brains, started the process of embedding our consciousness externally in blogs, tweets, status updates, emails, photo streams, podcasts, text message and more. We spread ourselves out over the network like a fisherman’s net, reign it back in and pluck out the jewels that our sea of friends and acquaintances has given us. Unlike the aquatic origin of this simile, however, we can reap the rewards of this harvest without diminishing others, as the bounty is multiplied effortlessly (and usually smells much less fishy, too).

If I’d my druthers, I’d spend all year meeting with people who interest me, many of which I’m hoping that I’ll either already call “friends”, or to whom afterward I’ll add that title. I have a dream to travel in an ancient-but-roadworthy RV, going from town to town investigating the odd and talking philosophy with everyone I meet, digesting the massive input on a bi-daily basis into a deluge of online by-products, duplicating my own consciousness into something worthy of calling an online presence.

I like that dream. I’ll work toward that, as soon as I figure out how to finish the other things that concern me first…

In the mean time, I’m hitting the road in my annual trip somewhereContinue reading

RECOMMENDED: Dixie Stenberg and The Brassy Battalion

Cover art from Episode 24 of Dixie Stenberg and the Brassy Battalion

Cover Art from Episode 24

I love audio drama: the landscapes are more vivid, the characters deeper, the special effects more amazing, the stories more meaningful…

And the best of them tell a damn good story, too!

I consume a lot of media, most of which is podcasts, music or radio — audio, in one form or another. I find a lot of great stuff out there, and I listen to as much as I can. Unfortunately, that sometimes means that things have to wait a while before I get back to them.

In particular, audio dramas and audio novels can wait years before I get back to them, which is a real shame. I don’t usually participate in the original run fan push, don’t usually know about stuff until a few years later, when I (re-)discover it and consume it greedily.

On the plus side, this allows me to mainline it, consume it all gluttonously and in short succession. I do this with television series, books, and audio drama.

The latest of these bacchanals was the incredible Dixie Stenberg and The Brassy Battalion, by Pendant Audio.

Actually, to give its long and proper title: Umket Presents: Dixie Stenberg and The Brassy Battalion Adventure Theatre, a Pendant Production.

Continue reading

Twitter is *not* a marketing platform — it’s a *medium*

I think that the latest goldrush to Twitter by desperate sales and marketing teams is another example why they are desperate in the first place, at least with respect to newer media: they just don’t get it.

“New media” is the unfortunate umbrella word that has encapsulated this nebulous yet recognizably distinct set of communications tools. I call it unfortunate simply because besides being catchy, it really doesn’t have any inherent meaning. It holds the same level of informativeness as “modern art”, a term which is now totally meaningless except in a jargonized context. Anyway..

The important feature that seems to be common to all of these “new media” is that they are much more inter-communications media than “traditional” media. It’s not about pushing your message out to the masses, it’s about engaging a smaller yet more dedicated group in a conversation, providing a dialogue which is interacted with rather than a monologue which is consumed.

Twitter is even more exemplary of this “new media”, because it has very little distinction between “producers” and “consumers”: everyone is both, we are all “participants”.

So that’s why, when you stick your painfully ignorant mass-market message in my mass-communications medium, I get cranky.

If you see Twitter as a platform for advertising and consumer marketing, you have missed the point. I didn’t come to Twitter to be marketed to, I came to engage in conversation. I doubt most people came to Twitter to be the target of impersonal messages.

I didn’t buy a phone to receive cold sales calls and telemarketers. No one did. Is there any wonder that they aren’t received well?

I did buy cable television. (Well, I did once, but not anymore..) I expected commercial television to contain commercials — it was part of the deal when I signed up. I accepted it.

Not so with Twitter, my phone, my home mailbox, my email account…

So, am I telling all marketing types or product pushers to go take a leap? To find a hard structure and subject themselves to self-punishment? Well, I’m tempted to, but instead I’ll give them this advise: forget what you used elsewhere. It doesn’t work here, and can in fact make things worse for you. Be informative. Be personal. Be useful. Be responsive. Make people want to come to you. Make yourself attractive to be followed, and don’t abuse that.

TV gave us the ability to change the channel to get away from the marketing message — now we can completely silence you from view.

Get smart — or GTFO.