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Review: What Do You Care What Other People Think?

I recently reviewed Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!. It was good enough that I had to get the sequel.

What Do You Care What Other People Think? is another collection of stories and anecdotes written by and/or about Richard Feynman. A bit in contrast to the first book, rather than a chronological series of anecdotes, this book focuses on a couple of main topics.

Feynman discusses his first wife in some detail. Of particular interest, he describes his and his wife's brutal devotion to honesty in their relationship, even in the face of highly unpleasant truths (terminal disease, in this case). It's the honesty of a scientist, carried into "everyday" life. This was bittersweet for me to read, because the story has a sad ending.

There is also a short series of letters from Feynman to others, where he discusses the silliness of pomp and circumstance, e.g. his foibles and breaches of protocol when meeting some king or other. As someone who hates ceremony, I got a huge kick out of these.

A large part of the book is devoted to discussing the Presidential Commission which investigated the cause of the Challenger shuttle disaster. Feynman's full report is included in the book as well.

As someone interested in astronomy and space flight (and who isn't interested in those?) I found this fascinating. There's a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff. Engineers are painted in a good light, managers and politicians not so much. (Software engineers come out looking especially good, which made me feel (unjustifiably) good about myself by proxy.) There are some diagrams and a lot of technical discussion of the shuttle. Not so much that it drowns the narrative, but enough that I'm probably going to spend the next week reading Wikipedia on the subject now.

Feynman explains his simple methods at getting to the truth in the investigation. Go talk to the guys who put things together. Get your hands on some O-ring rubber and test its resistance to temperature yourself in a glass of ice water. Cut to the heart of the matter. It's good stuff.

Ultimately, as you know if you've read the report, Feynman rips NASA apart, showing that they were fooling themselves into believing the shuttle was safer than it really was. The last sentence of the report says everything: "Nature cannot be fooled."

The last section of the book discusses the value of science. More specifically, Feynman discusses the value of doubt. I very much liked how the chapter ends:

It is our responsibility as scientists , knowing the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.

If there's one trait I had to pick to separate good people from bad, it would be the ability to admit being wrong. And if I had to separate the good from the excellent, it would be not just the ability to admit being wrong, but the eagerness to be proved wrong.

There's a certain kind of devotion to the truth that not many people achieve, and maybe not many people even want to achieve. There's comfort in thinking that you know things. It's very tempting. I think it's probably partly why most people are religious. I suspect it's a big reason why so many people are so stubbornly wrong about so many things in general. I suspect this comfort is an enormous source of suffering in the world.

But there's another kind of comfort that people miss out on. It's the comfort of knowing that although you're probably wrong about a lot of things, you're trying your hardest to be right. You pay the price of being aware of your own state of ignorance, but you can rest a bit easier knowing that you're maybe, hopefully, inching towards the truth. I never heard the word "freedom" used to describe this feeling before, as Feynman does above, but it fits.

That's why I like reading about Feynman and reading Feynman's words. He seemed to live this philosophy as well as anyone could hope to.

August 06, 2010 @ 3:12 PM PDT
Cateogory: Book Reviews

Review: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

I'm probably the last person on earth to read "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!", a collection of stories and anecdotes from the life of Richard Feynman. But better late than never.

I'll keep this short. Feynman was the kind of nerd every nerd wishes he was, in one way or another. He was socially awkward. He was blunt and tactless. He felt out of place much of the time. And it was surprising to see how often Feynman expressed feelings of inadequacy. He wrote about being highly intimidated when talking in front of big names in physics, and jealous of the math abilities of some other people.

But none of that stopped him from having an exciting life. In fact he turned these traits to his advantage. He had romantic success, often via very highly unconventional means (e.g. walking up to girls and asking them for sex outright; they often said yes). His bluntness was seen as an admirable trait: where others might be intimidated by a famous physicist, Feynman would give his honest opinion, and that was often appreciated.

And Feynman went far outside his comfort zone. He did a stint in biology, even though he knew nothing of biology at the time. He went to Brazil and joined a samba band. He sold drawings and paintings for a while. He played drums for a ballet.

I picked up at least three lessons from this book.

  1. Try new things, even if you suck at them. Life is boring if you stick to what you're good at.

  2. Be intellectually honest. Brutally so. It's the only way to do good science, and arguably the only way to live a good life. I've always believed this, and Feynman hammers the point home well.

  3. Even the best and brightest of us feel insecure at times. You shouldn't let it stop you.

On top of all of that, reading of Feynman's time at Los Alamos working on The Bomb was a fascinating piece of history. I highly recommend this book.

And watch as much of Feynman on Youtube as you can find. It never ceases to be fascinating.

July 26, 2010 @ 9:19 AM PDT
Cateogory: Book Reviews

Review: Hacking Vim 7.2

Vim is an open-source text editor with a power and flexibility matched only by the steepness of its learning curve. As the author of this book states, "Vim Can Do Everything"; but configuring it to do so is sometimes daunting. Hacking Vim 7.2 aims to help the average Vimmer get the most out of customizing Vim, for fun and productivity.

May 07, 2010 @ 9:30 AM PDT
Cateogory: Book Reviews
Tags: Books, Vim

Review: Parsing Techniques: A Practical Guide

For Christmas this year, I received a shiny hardback copy of Parsing Techniques: A Practical Guide by Grune and Jacobs. It's a thrilling book, if you want to learn parsing, which I do.

Where most books proceed in a sort of linear fashion, this book teaches parsing in layers. First you learn what a grammar is. Then you learn what it means to parse: what's a parse tree? What's bottom-up vs. top-down? What's a leftmost vs. rightmost derivation?

Next you get some general ideas and methods for parsing, e.g. CYK and Unger, and then you dive into the implementations of parsers (in pseudocode and in C) in great detail. This is about as far as I've gotten so far, before having to go back and figure out what the heck I just read. But it's an interesting progression. Reading the book, I feel like I'm constantly revisiting things I learned a few chapters ago, but this time in more detail. The book kind of does a breadth-first traversal of the world of parsing.

Be warned however: this book is not easy reading. It's dense, heavy on the info, light on the entertainment. Unless you really get a kick of out parsing, this will probably put you to sleep if taken in large doses. But it is a trove of information, and I couldn't put the book down during certain chapters.

In fact there's so much information in this book that it's almost depressing. The bibliography alone takes up 1/4 of the book, and lists 1,500(!) authors. It'd take me a week to read the bibliography, and probably many years to read every book listed there. Parsing could easy consume a lifetime of study, and I'm saddened that I'm probably never going to find the time to master all there is to know. But such is life.

If I had one quibble with this book, it'd be the same quibble I have with most math papers. The notation is horrible. Say what you will about programmers, most of us know that code is written for humans, not for machines, and we give our variables descriptive names. In math it's all single letters variable names.

When the authors of this book run out of single letters, they use letters with bars over them, or bold letters vs. normal typeface letters, or they do things like this:

...whenever a non-terminal A is entered in to entry Ri,l of the recognition table because there is a rule A -> BC and B is in Ri,k, and C is in Ri+k,l-k, the rule A_i_l -> B_i_k C_m_n is added to the parse forest grammar, where m = i + k and n = i + l - k.

This is the first paragraph of a section. Those variables are not mentioned before this sentence. This is certainly not a style of writing that I'm used to reading. It takes me a good dozen tries to understand. (Using lowercase i's and l's right next to each other should be prohibited by law.)

In any case, this book is good. One of my favorite tools has always been Perl-style regular expressions, and I feel like this book has expanded my understanding of how they work. Learning to write a recognizer, learning how things are implemented under the hood, you couldn't ask for a more interesting topic. I can't wait to try writing a toy parser generator or regex recognizer in Clojure once I've solidified my understanding of some of these concepts.

February 13, 2010 @ 2:47 PM PST
Cateogory: Book Reviews

Technology ain't everything

Let's discuss can openers.

Growing up, my parents would often invest in electric can openers. These things never worked. Some of them sit robot-like on top of the can and walk themselves around the top while chopping the metal. Some of them were mounted on the wall and you somehow get the can to hang in a harness while the device spins the can around. It takes a PhD and double-jointedness to get the can set up in these devices properly. And then you push a button, a lot of noise happens, and usually the can ends up half-open, half-bent up to the point where it's un-openable short of dynamite.

When I open a can, I use one of these. You jam the metal bit into the can and turn the crank, the can spins in a circle and 10 seconds later, off comes the razer-sharp top. The one I own was probably manufactured in the 1980's and it's still sharp enough to open a can with minimal effort.

Is it really that hard to turn a handle for 10 seconds? Do we really need computer-controlled robotic can-opening devices?

Consider books. I still buy and read all of my books in the form of compressed wood pulp. There are newfangled e-book readers, but I don't want one. Why? Because the only places I read are 1) In the bathtub, and 2) Lying in bed. Taking a computer into the bathtub is generally not a good idea, and holding a Kindle above my head for 3 hours is awkward compared to lying a (3-D) book on the bed beside me with one page bent up so I can read it. (Note: I have dropped a book in the bathtub on more than one occasion, and contrary to my expectations, once it dried it was still perfectly readable, no ink runnage at all.)

I know some day, maybe soon, paper books are going to be gone and we're all going to read books from digital devices. But I like my books. I know there are benefits to having electronic books instead of paper ones. But even though they're a waste of space, even though they can have pages ripped out, even though they can burn up or smudge or age and become brittle, I like paper books better.

Mostly I like paper books because they're simple, analog devices. I don't have to mess with any kind of user interface. Books don't have battery life. Books don't have copy protection. Books don't require me to sign up for user accounts at some website and worry about having an internet connection. I can flip through the pages with my fingers. I can tell how many pages are left by the thickness of the pages that are left. I have actually never comfortably finished a long e-book, not even books about programming, where you'd think the ability to copy/paste code would be a boon. I'll pay good money for a paper copy of a book even if the electronic version is free.

This is probably the most banal thing I've ever written about. But there is such a thing as too much technology. I say this as a person who spends all day trying to get people to use databases instead of keeping drawers full of paper records. Technology for the sake of technology is a waste of time.

February 12, 2010 @ 7:40 AM PST
Cateogory: Rants

2009 in review

2009 sucked because I was living in a different country than my wife, thanks to months of Canadian immigration paperwork and bureaucracy. This situation is going to be changing in the immediate future, which means 2010 will not suck.

I did have a lot of time to learn things, which is good. I got all kinds of things accomplished at work, learned some supervisory skills (shudder), wrote some code that was put to good use etc. My websites grew in popularity slightly. I learned Clojure and had lots of fun banging out a few apps. I tried to learn Haskell and failed. I feel like I advanced in origami a bit. I inched ahead slightly learning Japanese. I figure in another 50 years I'll know Japanese enough to say "Hello, I know Japanese but I'm too old to use it for anything now".

I read a gratuitous amount of books. I got into Asimov for the first time; usually I dislike sci-fi, but his stuff is good. I found Neal Stephenson, and wish I'd have found him earlier. I read more programming books than I can remember. I found some interesting books on psychopathy and other psychology-related topics, and read plenty of Richard Dawkins and other sciency and atheismy books.

There just isn't enough time in the day to learn everything I want to learn. I come home from a day of writing code all day at work, goof off on the internet a bit, talk to my wife, and then I read books and write code until 3 or 4AM, and it's still not enough time.

I have apps I want to code, drawings I want to draw, origami I want to fold, video games I want to play, movies I want to watch, music I want to listen to, and the list of books I want to read keeps growing faster than I can read them, even given that I already read 4 or 5 books per month. If I had a social life, I can't imagine how little time I'd have for these things.

This year I almost want to slam the brakes on, spend a lot of time with my wife, and let my brain settle. I will definitely do that to some degree, but I can't stop learning in the meantime. I'm running out of years. 29 years old, only four or five good decades left, if I'm lucky, and my brain will be deteriorating the whole time. At least I have plenty to keep me busy.

January 04, 2010 @ 1:18 PM PST
Cateogory: Rants

Let's parse

Is there anything more fun than parsing strings? I submit to you that there is not. I'm currently reading my way through Parsing Techniques - A Practical Guide, which has a first edition free online. (I'm hoping Santa brings me a copy of the 2nd edition this year.)

This is a good book, with enough math to be rigorous but not so much that it's completely unreadable. It starts from the absolute basics ("What's a grammar?") and goes through the Chomsky hierarchy and then dives into parsing techniques in great detail, in a language-agnostic way.

Languages and grammars are fascinating. In high school I studied Spanish, French, Latin and German, largely in my spare time. When I was 16, if people asked what I wanted to do for a living, I said "translator".

The plan to become a translator failed partly because the quality of my early education was horrendous and partly because mastering a language is extremely difficult and at 16 I wasn't motived enough. And then computers showed up in my life, which gave me a never-ending supply of languages to play with, while being fun (and profitable) in so many other ways. But I still took two years of Japanese classes in college for no reason other than enjoyment, and I'm still trying (and failing) to learn Japanese in my spare time 8 years later.

Perl was my first favorite language probably for no reason other than regular expressions. I can understand how people call PCRE syntax line-noise, but to me it's beautiful line noise. I live and breathe regular expressions nowadays. My favorite CS class in college was one where we went through and laboriously built finite-state automata and pushdown automata and Turing machines. Seeing the equivalence of these simple machines with the different classes of grammars was a huge epiphany. Such a simple concept with such huge consequences.

Dijkstra said:

Besides a mathematical inclination, an exceptionally good mastery of one's native tongue is the most vital asset of a competent programmer.

I strongly agree with that sentiment. People tell me at times that I'm good at written communication. I have my doubts, and anyways I find it funny because I'm so terrible at verbal communication. I think if I have any success at writing, it's because I view writing as a mechanical process.

I told a prof in college once that I felt like my papers wrote themselves once I had an idea in mind. There are rules of grammar and style, and you learn them and follow them, or break them deliberately if you have a good reason to. You write some prose, then you debug it until it "works" mentally. I don't care about typos and I split infinitives and comma-splice on purpose, but ambiguous or awkward phrases usually stand out to me like compiler bugs in my brain.

What's more important than language? Few things. Language is important enough to be nearly hard-wired into our brains. Children learn it instinctively. Human beings can still easily and effortlessly out-perform the best supercomputer at the task of parsing and interpreting speech. We think in words. The programming languages computers understand are dirt-simple by comparison, but writing code still feels like writing "thoughts for the computer" sometimes.

There are very few times you'll hear me say "What a wonderful world we live in". But one of those times is when I have the opportunity to explore an area of study like language. It's such an enjoyable experience to struggle and try to master such a thing. It's an amazing universe where we have these weird little rules and they work and we can understand them and manipulate them and produce things with them.

December 15, 2009 @ 12:46 PM PST
Cateogory: Programming

Review: Coders at Work

Recently I received a preview copy of Peter Seibel's newest book, Coders at Work.

This is a wonderful book if you are a programmer and care at all about the art, craft, and/or science of programming. If there is any wisdom to be had in this fledgling field of ours, this book contains buckets of it.

The book consists entirely of long interviews with some big names in the world of programming: Donald Knuth, Ken Thompson, Jamie Zawinski, Guy Steele, Peter Norvig, the list goes on. There are also some names I wasn't quite so familiar with (but maybe should have been), like Brad Fitzpatrick, the inventor of Livejournal.

But everyone interviewed for the book has produced some grand, successful project in their time. These are tried-and-true, battle-tested programmers and in this book they share their war stories and advice.

September 08, 2009 @ 11:47 AM PDT
Cateogory: Book Reviews

Real Confusing Haskell

I can pinpoint the exact page in Real World Haskell where I became lost. I was reading along surprisingly well until page 156, upon introduction of newtype.

At that my point my smug grin became a panicked grimace. The next dozen pages were an insane downward spiral into the dark labyrinth of Haskell's type system. I had just barely kept data and class and friends straight in my mind. type I managed to ignore completely. newtype was the straw that broke the camel's back.

As a general rule, Haskell syntax is incredibly impenetrable. => vs. -> vs. <-? I have yet to reach the chapter dealing with >>=. The index tells me I can look forward to such wonders as >>? and ==> and <|>. Who in their right mind thought up the operator named .&.? The language looks like Japanese emoticons run amuck. If and when I reach the \(^.^)/ operator I'm calling it a day.

Maybe Lisp has spoiled me, but the prospect of memorizing a list of punctuation is wearisome. And the way you can switch between prefix and infix notation using parens and backticks makes my eyes cross. Add in syntactic whitespace and I don't know what to tell you.

I could still grow to like Haskell, but learning a new language for me always goes through a few distinct stages:

Curiosity -> Excitement -> Reality Sets In -> Frustration -> Rage ...

At Rage I reach a fork in the road: I either proceed through Acceptance into Fumbling and finally to Productivity, or I go straight from Rage to Undying Hatred. Haskell could still go either way.

April 02, 2009 @ 4:44 PM PDT
Cateogory: Programming

Books are our friends

I went on a reading binge over Thanksgiving break. Read on for reviews.

Test-Driven Development By Example

First I read Test-Driven Development By Example. This is a very short book, especially given the hefty price tag. I would probably not have bought this if I'd seen it on a shelf at the store rather than online.

That said, it's a good book if you want to understand the mindset behind the whole test-driven development fad. The book is heavy on mindset and light on mechanics; it doesn't tell you how to set up an environment, how to compile and run tests, or any such thing. It just goes through some examples and explains what the programmer was thinking, and how to tackle the problem from a TDD point of view. The intended audience therefore is someone who has plenty of experience programming and wants to learn a new way to look at problem solving.

The book goes through writing some terrible code (admittedly terrible by the author) to solve a simple problem, then refactoring the code to be less and less terrible by means of tests. The writing style is engaging and casual and he describes mistakes as well as successes, which is a nice way to write a tutorial book. The alternate writing style, belting out the correct answer the first time every time, is not as enlightening, and I appreciate it in this book.

The book places a heavy emphasis on writing tests FIRST, making small incremental changes, and refactoring as you go. It also explains how TDD can be related to various OOP design patterns, which I didn't find all that helpful. And it describes some "test patterns", which I found even less helpful. But it's mostly an aesthetic objection; something about "design patterns" sits less and less well with me the more I get away from Java-like languages. The information is still good, straightforward and to the point, take it or leave it.

I have been unable to drink the TDD Kool-Aid, but I can see where it'd probably result in an improvement in some of my code for certain specific kinds of problems. I'll probably try it out again next time I have to write a little library at work.

This book is expensive and short, but the alternative for learning about TDD are half-baked blog posts, which is why I bought a book. I don't know of a better book because this is the only one I have, and I'm unsure at this point whether I really want to buy another book on this topic. But this book is highly recommended by many TDD fanatics enthusiasts, so I don't know.

The Little Schemer

Next I read The Little Schemer. The style of this book can best be described as "cute". Examples all use food, and it instructs you at various points to go make yourself a sammich (even leaving room in the book for "jelly stains"). This somehow makes the topics, which can be rather intimidating, somehow less scary. The book is very short, and not very dense (not many words on a page), but they somehow cram a lot of information into the book anyways, via the many examples. It's a very focused and methodical book.

This book goes through developing a simplified dialect of Scheme, with a focus on recursion and building up parts of the language from very simple primitives. There are some neat little things along the way, like using s-expressions to represent numbers, and building up a full set of arithmetic functions using nothing but "add 1", "subtract 1", and recursion. It'd be insane to do in real life because of performance, but it's really neat from a "hey look what you can do, isn't this cool!" point of view.

The first half of the book is pretty simplistic (at least for me, with some basic knowledge of Lisp and Scheme), but the second half really starts delving into some crazy things, passing lambdas around to lambdas and writing evaluators and stuff. But you almost don't even notice because of how solidly the foundations are built up to that point, and how well the examples are explained. (You probably will notice once you hit the y-combinator, on account of your brains detonating.)

This not a good book for "learning Lisp" in terms of learning the gritty details of to use a real-life implementation of Lisp. But it's a good book for learning some of the concepts that make Lisp and functional languages powerful. This is a very interesting and unique book, also highly recommended by many in the Lisp world. I'm already planning to try The Seasoned Schemer next.

Real World Haskell

Finally I started plowing through the recently-released Real World Haskell. This book is freely available online, which is great. It also allows readers to make comments on every paragraph in the book, which is a highly collaborative and probably very intelligent way to write a book, and also can provide insight for readers who don't understand the text at any given point. I may buy a hard copy, I haven't decided. (The online version has some FIXME notes and typos that I can only hope are fixed in the real thing.)

I'm only up to chapter 11, but it's good so far. It gives a ton of examples and goes slow enough for people completely new to Haskell to pick the language up. And it includes some of the mechanics of compiling and/or running programs in GHC, which is extremely helpful. I did start getting lost around the time monads were introduced, but that's to be expected. It usually takes me two or three good reads of this kind of book before I grok it all, which is no fault of the book.

Haskell. Last time I used it, I wrote Pong in Haskell in one of my college classes. It was an immensely painful experience. I'm going back to re-learn Haskell now because I find myself edging more and more toward functional languages and away from the C/Java world.

Haskell is far too much to swallow if you have no experience with functional programming, which is probably why I hated it in college. (That said, a smarter person than I may have fewer problems.) After graduating school, I got my first whiff of this world again via Perl's map and grep and friends. Then Ruby pushed it home for me with its widespread use of block parameters (lambdas in disguise). And after learning Lisp (and especially later, Clojure) I can't live without higher-order functions. If I had to write a classic for-loop and manually keep track of a counter variable I'd probably vomit at this point. Haskell takes function manipulation to an even greater extreme, which I still haven't fully wrapped my head around, but I like what I've learned so far.

Laziness is awesome, function currying is awesome, and this is the first time I've read about folding, apart from brief struggles with Ruby's (poorly named) Enumerable#inject. Pattern matching strikes me as vaguely similar to Common Lisp's / Clojure's destructuring-binding, which is one of the nicest features I've seen in any language when it comes to making a programmer's life easier.

Maybe it's all just interesting because it's still new to me. But I like the whole idea of functional programming. I like the idea of functions that always produce the same output from a given input. How and when to handle side-effects and object mutation is a problem that's always nagged at the back of my mind even when writing Ruby code.

That said, Haskell still (at this point in the book) does not strike me as a practical or real-world language in the slightest. You've got to jump through some crazy hoops to get a lot of things to work, especially when it comes to I/O. The book describes how to write a pretty-printer, and how to parse a binary file, both of which require some acrobatics to write concisely in Haskell. In particular the parser library lost me entirely; functions were being chained to functions in all directions and I couldn't follow it.

I think one reason Java is so popular is that you don't have to be a genius to write it. To write Haskell (or even Lisp) well, to take advantage of the language and use it smoothly, you really do need to do some deeper thinking. The abstractions are more powerful and more "abstract". It's not too hard to understand a world made of objects with a bunch of knobs you turn via method calls. Lambdas and recursive functions and monads and typeclasses are a more ephemeral thing.

That said I plan to stick with the book. Practice makes perfect.

November 30, 2008 @ 2:22 PM PST
Cateogory: Book Reviews