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Fun in coding

16 May 2020

This article really was grinding my gears today. Coding is not fun, it claims, and everyone who says otherwise is lying for evil reasons, like luring more people into programming.

Programming requires almost superhuman capabilities, it says. And other jobs who do that, such as brain surgery, would never be described as fun, so it is wrong to talk like this about coding.

That is all nonsense. The article not only misses the point, but it denies many people their experience. What's the goal? Tell those "pretty uncommon" people that they are not only different than other people, but that their experience is plain wrong, that when they say they are having fun doing this, they are lying to others, to the normal people, for nefarious reasons? To "lure people to the field" to "keep wages under control"?

I feel offended by this article.

There are many highly complex jobs that some people have fun doing some of the time. Think of writing a novel. Painting. Playing music. Cooking. Raising a child. Teaching. And many more.

To put it straight: coding can be fun. I have enjoyed hours and days of coding since I was a kid. I will not allow anyone to deny me that experience I had, and I was not a kid with nefarious plans like getting others into coding to make tech billionaires even richer. And many people I know have expressed fun with coding.

Also: coding does not *have* to be fun. Coding can be terribly boring, or difficult, or frustrating, or tedious, or bordering on painful. And there are people who never have fun coding, and yet are excellent coders. Or good enough to get paid and have an income. There are coders who code to pay for their rent and bills. There is nothing wrong with that either. It is a decent job. And many people I know have expressed not having fun with coding.

Having fun coding doesn't mean you are a good coder. Not having fun coding doesn't mean you are not a good coder. Being a good coder doesn't mean you have to have fun doing it. Being a bad coder doesn't mean you won't have fun doing it. It's the same for singing, dancing, writing, playing the trombone.

Also, professional coding today is rarely the kind of activity portrayed in this article, a solitary activity where you type code in green letters into a monotype font on black background, without having to answer to anyone, your code not being reviewed and scrutinized before it goes into production. For decades, coding has been a highly social activity, that requires negotiation and discussion and social skills. I don't know if I know many senior coders who spend the majority of their work time actually coding. And it's in that level of activity where ethical decisions are made. Ethical decisions are rarely happening at the moment the coder writes an if statement, or declares a variable. These decisions are made long in advance, documented in design docs and task descriptions, reviewed by a group of people.

So this article, although it has its heart in the right position, trying to point out that coding, like any engineering, also has many relevant ethical questions, goes about it entirely wrongly, and manages to offend me, and probably a lot of other people.

Sorry for my Saturday morning rant.

Simia

OK

11 May 2020

I often hear "don't go for the mediocre, go for the best!", or "I am the best, * the rest" and similar slogans. But striving for the best, for perfection, for excellence, is tiring in the best of times, never mind, forgive the cliché, in these unprecedented times.

Our brains are not wired for the best, we are not optimisers. We are naturally 'satisficers', we have evolved for the good-enough. For this insight, Herbert Simon received a Nobel prize, the only Turing Award winner to ever get one.

And yes, there are exceptional situations where only the best is good enough. But if good enough was good enough for a Turing-Award winning Nobel laureate, it is probably for most of us too.

It is OK to strive for OK. OK can sometimes be hard enough, to be honest.

May is mental health awareness month. Be kind to each other. And, I know it is even harder, be kind to yourself.

Here is OK in different ways. I hope it is OK.

Oké ఓకే ਓਕੇ オーケー ओके 👌 ওকে או. קיי. Окей أوكي Օքեյ O.K.


Simia

Tim Bray leaving Amazon in protest

Tim Bray, co-author of XML, stepped down as Amazon VP over their handling of whistleblowers on May 1st. His post on this decision is worth reading.

Simia

If life was one day

If the evolution of animals was one day... (600 million years)

  • From 1am to 4am, most of the modern types of animals have evolved (Cambrian explosion)
  • Animals get on land a bit at 3am. Early risers! It takes them until 7am to actually breath air.
  • Around noon, first octopuses show up.
  • Dinosaurs arrive at 3pm, and stick around until quarter to ten.
  • Humans and chimpanzees split off about fifteen minutes ago, modern humans and Neanderthals lived in the last minute, and the pyramids were built around 23:59:59.2.

In that world, if that was a Sunday:

  • Saturday would have started with the introduction of sexual reproduction
  • Friday would have started by introducing the nucleus to the cell
  • Thursday recovering from Wednesday's catastrophe
  • Wednesday photosynthesis started, and lead to a lot of oxygen which killed a lot of beings just before midnight
  • Tuesday bacteria show up
  • Monday first forms of life show up
  • Sunday morning, planet Earth forms, pretty much at the same time as the Sun.
  • Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is about a week older
  • The Universe is about another week older - about 22 days.

There are several things that surprised me here.

  • That dinosaurs were around for such an incredibly long time. Dinosaurs were around for seven hours, and humans for a minute.
  • That life started so quickly after Earth was formed, but then took so long to get to animals.
  • That the Earth and the Sun started basically at the same time.

Addendum April 27: Álvaro Ortiz, a graphic designer from Madrid, turned this text into an infographic.

Simia

Architecture for a multilingual Wikipedia

I published a paper today:

"Architecture for a multilingual Wikipedia"

I have been working on this for more than half a decade, and I am very happy to have it finally published. The paper is a working paper and comments are very welcome.

Abstract:

Wikipedia’s vision is a world in which everyone can share in the sum of all knowledge. In its first two decades, this vision has been very unevenly achieved. One of the largest hindrances is the sheer number of languages Wikipedia needs to cover in order to achieve that goal. We argue that we need anew approach to tackle this problem more effectively, a multilingual Wikipedia where content can be shared between language editions. This paper proposes an architecture for a system that fulfills this goal. It separates the goal in two parts: creating and maintaining content in an abstract notation within a project called Abstract Wikipedia, and creating an infrastructure called Wikilambda that can translate this notation to natural language. Both parts are fully owned and maintained by the community, as is the integration of the results in the existing Wikipedia editions. This architecture will make more encyclopedic content available to more people in their own language, and at the same time allow more people to contribute knowledge and reach more people with their contributions, no matter what their respective language backgrounds. Additionally, Wikilambda will unlock a new type of knowledge asset people can share in through the Wikimedia projects, functions, which will vastly expand what people can do with knowledge from Wikimedia, and provide a new venue to collaborate and to engage the creativity of contributors from all around the world. These two projects will considerably expand the capabilities of the Wikimedia platform to enable every single human being to freely share in the sum of all knowledge.

Simia

Stanford seminar on Knowledge Graphs

My friend Vinay Chaudhri is organising a seminar on Knowledge Graphs with Naren Chittar and Michael Genesereth this semester at Stanford.

I have the honour to present in it as the opening guest lecturer, introducing what Knowledge Graphs are and what are good for.

Due to the current COVID situation, the seminar was turned virtual, and opened to everyone to attend to.

Other speakers during the semester include Juan Sequeda, Marie-Laure Mugnier, Héctor Pérez Urbina, Michael Uschold, Jure Leskovec, Luna Dong, Mark Musen, and many others.

Change is in the air

I'll be prophetic: the current pandemic will shine a bright light on the different social and political systems in the different countries. I expect to see noticable differences in how disruptive the handling of the situation by the government is, how many issues will be caused by panic, and what effect freely available health care has. The US has always been on the very end of admiring the self sustained individual, and China has been on the other end of admiring the community and its power, and Europe is somewhere in the middle (I am grossly oversimplifying).

This pandemic will blow over in a year or two, it will sweep right through the US election, and the news about it might shape what we deem viable and possible in ways beyond the immediately obvious. The possible scenarios range all the way from high tech surveillance states to a much wider access to social goods such as health and education, and whatever it is, the pandemic might be a catalyst towards that.

Simia

Wired: "Wikipedia is the last best place on the Internet"

WIRED published a beautiful ode to Wikipedia, painting the history of the movement with broad strokes, aiming to capture its impact and ambition with beautiful prose. It is a long piece, but I found the writing exciting.

Here's my favorite paragraph:

"Pedantry this powerful is itself a kind of engine, and it is fueled by an enthusiasm that verges on love. Many early critiques of computer-assisted reference works feared a vital human quality would be stripped out in favor of bland fact-speak. That 1974 article in The Atlantic presaged this concern well: “Accuracy, of course, can better be won by a committee armed with computers than by a single intelligence. But while accuracy binds the trust between reader and contributor, eccentricity and elegance and surprise are the singular qualities that make learning an inviting transaction. And they are not qualities we associate with committees.” Yet Wikipedia has eccentricity, elegance, and surprise in abundance, especially in those moments when enthusiasm becomes excess and detail is rendered so finely (and pointlessly) that it becomes beautiful."

They also interviewed me and others for the piece, but the focus of the article is really on what the Wikipedia communities have achieved in our first two decades.

Two corrections: - I cannot be blamed for Wikidata alone, I blame Markus Krötzsch as well - the article says that half of the 40 million entries in Wikidata have been created by humans. I don't know if that is correct - what I said is that half of the edits are made by human contributors

Simia

Normbrunnenflasche

It's a pity there's no English Wikipedia article about this marvellous thing that exemplifies Germany so beautifully and quintessentially: the Normbrunnenflasche.

I was wondering the other day why in Germany sparkling water is being sold in 0.7l bottles and not in 1l or 2l or whatever, like in the US (when it's sold here at all, but that's another story).

Germany had a lot of small local producers and companies. To counter the advantages of the Coca Cola Company pressing in the German market, in 1969 a conference of representatives of the local companies decided to introduce a bottle design they all would use. This decision followed a half year competition and discussion on what this bottle should look like.

Every company would use the same bottle for sparkling water and other carbonated drinks, and so no matter which one you bought, the empty bottle would afterwards be routed to the closest participating company, not back home, therefore reducing transport costs and increasing competitiveness against Coca Cola.

The bottle is full of smart features. The 0.7l were chosen to ensure that the drink remained carbonated until the last sip, because larger bottles would last longer and thus gradually loose carbonization.

The form and the little pearls outside were chosen for improved grip, but also to symbolize the sparkles of the carbonization.

The metal screw cap was the real innovation there, useful for drinks that could increase pressure due to the carbonization.

And finally two slightly thicker bands along the lower half of the bottle that would, while being rerouted for another usage, slowly get more opaque due to mechanical pressure, thus indicating how well used the individual bottle was, so they could be taken out of service in time before breaking at the customer.

The bottles were reused an average of fifty times, their boxes an average of hundred times. More than five billion of them have been brought into circulation in the fifty years since their adoption, for an estimated quarter of a trillion fillings.

Simia

A new decade?

The job of an ontologist is to define concepts. And since I see some posts commenting on whether a decade is closing and a new decade is starting tonight, here's my private, but entirely official position.

A decade is a consecutive timespan of ten years, and therefore at every given point a new decade starts and one ends. But that's a trivial answer to the question and not very useful.

There are two ways to count calendar decades, and both are arbitrary and rely on retconning, I mean, they really on redefining the past. Therefore there is no right or wrong.

Method one is by using the proleptic Gregorian calendar, and starting with the year 1 and ending with the year 10, and calling that the first decade. If you keep counting, then the twohundredandthird decade will start on January 1st 2021, and we are currently firmly in the twohundredandsecond decade, and will stay there for another year.

Method two is based on the fact that for a millennium now and for many years to come there's a time period that conveniently lasts a decade where the years start with the same three digits. That is, the years starting with 202, which are called the 2020s, the ones with 199 which are called the 1990s (or sometimes just the 90s), etc. For centuries now we can find support for these kind of decades being widely used. According to this method, tonight marks a new decade.

So whether you are celebrating a new year tonight or not (because there are many other calendars out there too), or a new decade or not, I wish you wonderful 2020s!

Simia

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