Writing Good Command Line Tools

By on October 21, 2014

Hints for writing Unix tools: I love command line programming, and this is some great advice for making Unix tools that can apply to everything. Beyond the actual advice here, I love the philosophical underpinning behind it – be non-opinionated, share well with others, don’t assume what the user wants to do, etc.  Good Unix programming is marked by a lack of narcissism.

Output should be free from headers or other decoration. Superflous output will frustrate users who are trying to parse tool output. Headers and decoration tend to be less regular and more idiosyncratic than the structured data you’re really trying to get at. Don’t do it.

[…] Treat a tool’s output as an API. Your tool will be used in contexts beyond your own imagination. If a tool’s output format is changed, other tools that compose or otherwise build on its output will invariably break—you have broken the API contract.

If you want more than this, it’s essentially scaled-down version of The Art of Unix Programming, which I haven’t read in years, but suddenly feel like I should again.


Text Wins

By on October 14, 2014

always bet on text: I enjoyed this blog post about something I also believe to be true: text in the safest, most stable, most durable communication medium we have ever known.

I figured I should just post this somewhere so I can make future reference to how I feel about the matter, anytime someone asks me about such-and-such video, 3D, game or “dynamic” multimedia system. Don’t get me wrong, I like me some illustrations, photos, movies and music.

But text wins by a mile. Text is everything. My thoughts on this are quite absolute: text is the most powerful, useful, effective communication technology ever, period.

Text is the oldest and most stable communication technology (assuming we treat speech/signing as natural phenomenon — there are no human societies without it — whereas textual capability has to be transmitted, taught, acquired) and it’s incredibly durable.

It amazes me the communication we can have through text – the ideas, emotions, and concepts we can communication through wiggly little symbols that appear somewhere. There’s a profoundly amazing aspect to the idea of a symbolic alphabet.


Incivility in Open Source Communities

By on October 6, 2014

Here’s an interesting diatribe on the Linux development community.

Much of the Open Source community tries to advertise the community as one happy place to the outside. Where contributions are valued only by their technical quality, and everybody meets at conferences for beers.

Well, it is not like that. It’s quite a sick place to be in.

One of the examples given is of Linus Torvalds himself, who apparently says things like this:

[specific folks] …should be retroactively aborted. Who the f*ck does idiotic things like that? How did they not die as babies, considering that they were likely too stupid to find a tit to suck on?

Yes, this actually happened in a discussion back in 2012.

I think part of the problem is that open-source brings the idea of ownership with it. With commercial software, it “belongs” to someone else. If they want to mess with it, that’s their right. But in open-source, it’s just as much “my” software as anyone else’s, and if you do something bad to it, that’s an indirect attack on me.

Certainly the advantages of open-source outweigh the disadvantages, but let’s not pretend emotions don’t run high at times and that people exist who can can’t control them.


New York Times Subscriber Numbers

By on October 1, 2014

New York Times Lays Off Staff, Shuts Down Opinion App: This is negative article about layoffs at the New York Times because their “multiple app” plan wasn’t working as well as they hoped. But I think it’s important to look at these numbers and acknowledge how far The Times has come in terms of paid content.

More likely, however, the theoretical limit at these prices would be 800,000 to 900,000 subscribers, and the Times already hit the low end of that in June with 831,000 paying online readers to its main online subscription. For the quarter that ended in September, the Times added about 40,000 new online subscribers, mostly for their core digital subscription service, bringing the tally to about 871,000, so there’s still some room for growth.


Another Argument Against Ad Blocking

By on September 26, 2014

Butterick’s Practical Typography: The author of Practical Typography released it on the web, for free (he specifically refused other, downloadable formats, even).  If you wanted to pay for it, you were welcome to.  A year later, he examines what happened, and he completely summarizes the perfect argument about why the advertising model is so broken, but when we block ads, we’re not doing anyone any favors.

Let’s face it, un­less you’re re­ally slow on the up­take, you’ve out­fit­ted your web browser with an ad blocker. Ha ha, you win! But wait—that means most web ads are only reach­ing those who are re­ally slow on the up­take. So their dol­lars are dis­pro­por­tion­ately im­por­tant in sup­port­ing the con­tent you’re get­ting ad-free. “Not my prob­lem,” you say. Oh re­ally? Since those peo­ple are the only ones fi­nan­cially sup­port­ing the con­tent, pub­lish­ers in­creas­ingly are shap­ing their sto­ries to ap­peal to them. Even­tu­ally, the con­tent you liked—well, didn’t like it enough to pay for it—will be gone.

Why? Be­cause you starved it to death. The im­mutable law re­mains: you can’t get some­thing for noth­ing. The web has been able to de­fer the con­se­quences of this prin­ci­ple by shift­ing the costs of con­tent off read­ers and onto ad­ver­tis­ers. But if read­ers per­ma­nently with­draw as eco­nomic par­tic­i­pants in the writ­ing in­dus­try—i.e., refuse to vote with their wal­lets—then they’ll have no rea­son to protest as the uni­verse of good writ­ing shrinks. (And make no mis­take—it’s al­ready happening.)

I’ve talked about this before:

I realize that blocking ads means you’re clever. But the ads are sometimes not there because someone is greedy. They’re there to support the content that you’re consuming.

(Stop arguing. You know it’s true.)


Canada Spends More on Digital Advertising Than TV Advertising

By on September 22, 2014

Canadian digital spend has surpassed TV for the first time: This is a fairly significant milestone.

Canadian brands spent $3.5 billion on digital advertising last year – roughly $100 million more than they spent on television.


Secret Hashtags

By on September 7, 2014

Inside The Secret World Of Teen Suicide Hashtags: Hashtags are being use to mobilize communities around some very bad things. What’s interesting is that the posts are public, but the hashtag acts as a password to the aggregate – so you can’t get the entire picture unless you search for the hashtag, which you need to know.

In a world where these companies actively police hashtags like #cutting and #proana to crack down on inappropriate content, young people are trying — and mostly succeeding — to fly under the radar by creating codewords like #sue and #secretsociety123 to discreetly form communities organized around self-harm, and they’re showing up in strong numbers. An Instagram search for the #sue hashtag, a secret word for suicide, reveals nearly 800,000 tagged posts. The vast majority of these posts all contain evidence of cutting, quotes about depression, and messages related to self-harm.


Email Never Dies

By on September 2, 2014

Email Will Last Forever: Absolutely agree.

A wave of new companies have recently tried to replace the communication channel people love to hate: email. Slack pretends to be “an email killer”,Asana promises “teamwork without email” etc. But the promise of a world without email is a fantasy.

Email represents a solid pattern of user interaction: The Necessity of Asynchronous Communication


Desktop Linux in Munich: The Aftermath

By on August 19, 2014

Linux-on-the-desktop pioneer Munich now considering a switch back to Windows: I remember writing about this often a decade ago. Sad to see that it hasn’t worked out, but I’ve long-maintained that Microsoft isn’t nearly as bad as it’s made out to be.

The world is still waiting for the year of Linux on the desktop, but in 2003 it looked as if that goal was within reach. Back then, the city of Munich announced plans to switch from Microsoft technology to Linux on 14,000 PCs belonging to the city’s municipal government. While the scheme suffered delays, it was completed in December 2013. There’s only been one small problem: users aren’t happy with the software, and the government isn’t happy with the price.

Though, towards the end of the article, things take on a tone of conspiracy. Not sure what to make of that.


The Difference Between Reading on Paper or in Pixels

By on August 19, 2014

Reading Literature on Screen: A Price for Convenience?: I was waiting for someone to do a study like this. The results confirm what I suspected, as I personally tend to rush more when reading something electronically.

A team of researchers led by Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger in Norway and Jean-Luc Velay at Aix-Marseille Université in France divided 50 graduate students — with equivalent reading habits and experience with tablets — into two groups and had them read the same short story by Elizabeth George (in French translation). One group read the story in paperback, the other on an Amazon Kindle DX. All the while, researchers measured the students’ reading time and their “emotional response” — using a standard psychology scale — to the text. Afterward, they were tested extensively on different aspects of the story.