Lisp, Smalltalk, and the Power of Symmetry

Like many hackers, my first real programming language love was Lisp. Paul Graham, who inspired my own explorations of the language, is a particular advocate and has written quite a bit about Lisp and what makes it different from other programming languages. So what does make Lisp different? Why does Lisp continue to be one of the most powerful, flexible, and concise programming languages in existence, despite the fact that it was invented in 1958–making it the second-oldest high-level programming language in the world? Continue reading

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The New Service Economy

As our transition from agriculture to manufacturing shifted the focus from food to material wealth (commodities), we are undergoing a similar shift now where material wealth is becoming as cheap as food became during the industrial revolution (introducing similar problems of overabundance). As material goods were the most valuable things before the industrial revolution, ideas and information are what’s most valuable now–in other words, service industries. This has implications across the economy not just concerning which businesses will make the most money, but how most of that money will be made. Continue reading

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We Have A New Puppy!

This Monday, July 7th, my fiance and I went to the airport and picked up this little guy:

A tiny baby pug sleeping in a travel crate

His name is Beetle and he is adorable.  Normally I think pugs are hideous (it was her idea), but Beetle is the sole exception.  Obviously. Continue reading

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Amber Smalltalk

How come nobody told me about this before?  Amber Smalltalk is a dialect of the Smalltalk programming language, which is what caught my attention.  I have been a fan of Smalltalk for years, but the image-based development environment proved a little too cumbersome and monolithic for my tastes.  Amber to the rescue!

Amber is a Smalltalk language for web development.  Now, as I understand it, there is already an excellent Smalltalk-based environment for web development called Seaside.  However, what sets Amber apart from other Smalltalk variants for the web is that it is client-based, and compiles directly to JavaScript.  This means, among other things, that you can go try Amber out right now using nothing but your browser!  It’s the perfect “gateway drug” for the wider Smalltalk world!  I find this especially appealing because it means I won’t have to learn JavaScript to do portable, client-based web programming!  Hurray!

After my initial “project” (modifying the “counter” example to count only by primes), I’ve started working on a web-based game.  It won’t be the much-anticipated port of my game “Press A to Win” (my apologies to both of you who were hoping it would be), instead it will be a game about numbers!  A game about finding numbers’ unique prime factorizations, specifically.  What?  Why are you looking at me like that?  Of course it’ll be fun!

Anyway, you should go check Amber out.  It’s great.  I’ll have something more for you to look at next week.  Until then, stay curious!

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Why I’m Frustrated With 2D Boy’s Games

I’ve expressed unpopular opinions about nerd idols before, but this one is a little harder for me to talk about. My dislike of Terry Pratchett’s books is simple: I don’t like the deconstructionist genre. Easy enough; I can just stick my tongue in my cheek and go on a rant. But my reasons for disliking World of Goo and Little Inferno aren’t so straightforward. Continue reading

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“What Am I Getting Out of This?” Is the Wrong Question

As a procrastinator, and in particular a procrastinator who is easily addicted, I frequently find myself in the middle of some activity or experience of questionable value.  At that point, my usual response has been to ask myself “what am I getting out of this?”  It’s good to ask something: every second I spend doing one thing is an irretrievable second spent not doing something potentially more valuable.  However, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that “what am I getting out of this?” is the wrong question to be asking.

The problem with asking what you’re “getting” out of something is that it places the burden of responsibility on you.  By suggesting that if you only worked a little harder, you might be able to get more value out of something, it makes you culpable for wasted time.  It characterizes your relationship with media and experiences as exploitative, as though every time you read an article or attended a concert you were trudging down into some Experience mine in order to extract the raw Value ore therein and shape it into…something (swords?)  If you’re not getting enough out of some experience then you could find another, richer vein, sure–or you could just work harder to get more out of what you’ve already got.  This thrifty attitude is great for material possessions, or experiences you’ve already had or cannot avoid, but it’s entirely the wrong way to think about time and art.  There is a cost to getting better possessions–there’s no cost to finding something better to do with your time.

The other problem with asking what you’re getting out of a given experience is that it encourages the idea that you might be “missing out” on something if you stop.  It reinforces the mine fallacy by implying that there might be some hidden, gleaming gem of precious value buried under all that rock that will languish, forever hidden, if you don’t personally unearth it.  This idea is especially problematic for perfectionists like myself–it’s the same impulse that makes me want to 100% every videogame I play, or watch all the bonus content on DVDs, or spend hours on Wikipedia or TV Tropes accumulating mountains of useless trivia.  “Sure, the first half of this article was 98% crap, but there was that 2% I really liked!  What if there’s another 2% in the second half?  If I don’t finish it I’LL NEVER KNOW.”

Time for a reality check: you are always missing out on something.  You can only do one thing at a time, and there are an infinite number of things you could be doing at any given moment.  That’s just how time works: you are always, constantly, continually not doing something of potential value.  So to ask yourself what you’re “getting” out of whatever experience you choose at any given moment is to implicitly task yourself with getting the most possible value out of everything.  It can’t be done!  There are an infinite number of experiences that might be more valuable, any one of which you could be doing instead.  The task of creating value from an experience is not your responsibility–it is the responsibility of the experience.

Don’t ask “what am I getting out of this?”  Instead, ask “what is this giving to me?”–and if the answer is “nothing” or “not much,” then move on!  True, some experiences require an investment if you want to get their full value–a difficult book may be harder to read than a pulp novel, yet give you more to think about in return.  But this is true of all experiences, because if nothing else they at least require the investment of your time.  By focusing on the value the experience is giving to you, rather than the work you’re putting in to derive that value, you place the burden of responsibility back where it belongs: on the experience in which you have already invested.

Your job is to decide what art and experiences to spend your time on; once you’ve decided it is not your job to “make” those experiences work.  If it bothers you that you have to read through two dozen tweets on your timeline before you see one that’s interesting, unfollow some folks!  If you’re halfway through an article and you’re reluctant to read the second half, don’t!  And if you keep giving a videogame your time (and/or money) because you want something from it that it seems reluctant to give you (story, content, “fun,” whatever), then get rid of that sucker!  There are plenty of other experiences out there that will treat you with more respect–your time is valuable, and you should expect a high return for it.

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Webcomic Roundup

I’ve already been over some of my favorite bloggers in the past, but you may have noticed that bloggers aren’t the only thing in my sidebar.  Although I enjoy all art forms, comics are a particular pleasure for me, and since webcomics are usually free I tend to read a lot of them.  Here are my favorites:

  • Gunnerkrigg Court by Tom Siddell might well be my favorite comic of all time, online or off.  It hits all my weak points: alternatively funny, serious, and touching, with a story featuring both technology and magic, told through expressive and well-rounded characters.  It’s smart, imaginative, and very well-written and drawn (though, like many of the comics on this list, its early pages are much rougher than its later ones).  Tom plans each page meticulously and has probably had the entire story planned out start-to-finish since the beginning–relevant plot details will regularly be foreshadowed many months or even years in advance.  In short, it’s excellent, and you should start reading it from the beginning right now.
  • Dresden Codak is the kind of comic that could only have existed on the internet.  Especially in his earlier stories, creator Aaron Diaz frequently makes various scientific references that will leave you feeling really stupid, then really smart after you’ve been to Wikipedia so you can get the joke.  His art and writing are both brilliant, a little surreal, and frequently esoteric.  The biggest downside of his comic is that it only updates about once every hundred years.  You can start reading it from the beginning here.
  • A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible–hm.  Well, basically, imagine Dresden Codak turned up to eleven.  Kind of.  Very surreal, very highbrow, frequently makes literary and/or philosophical references that will leave you feeling stupid and/or smart, occasionally flirts with continuity but doesn’t really make a habit of it.  Written by Dale Beran and drawn by David Hellman (who also did the art for Braid), it updates approximately once every thousand years.  You can read it from what I suppose is technically the beginning here.
  • El Goonish Shive by Dan Shive is something of a guilty pleasure of mine–it’s a fun, quirky story about a group of teenagers featuring magic, aliens, relationships, and frequent shapeshifting and gender-bending.  It’s funny and cute and I like it, okay? Stop looking at me like that.  The first comic is here (and yes, the art and writing do in fact get way better).
  • Oglaf (EXTREMELY NSFW, by the way) is, well…I’m just gonna quote the ‘warning’ page directly: “This comic started out as an attempt to make pornography.  It degenerated into sex comedy pretty much immediately.”  Yeah, that about sums the whole thing up.  Written by Trudy Cooper and Doug Bayne, it’s fantasy-themed, frequently inappropriate, and always funny.  Make sure nobody’s watching over your shoulder, then start from the beginning here.
  • Lackadaisy is the tale of a group of charismatic bootleggers in prohibition-era St. Louis, told by the master of brilliant and hilarious facial expressions, Tracy J. Butler.  Oh, did I mention the bootleggers are anthropomorphic cats?  In addition to the main storyline (which you can read from the beginning here), her website features a number of vignettes, side stories and sketches that are often even more hilarious than the main comics.  This one about waffles is one of my particular favorites (don’t worry, it’s spoiler-free).
  • Cerintha is a fantasy webcomic set in an alternate universe shortly before the fall of Rome.  The art isn’t as impressive as many of the other comics on this list, but Cope (the author) keeps drawing me back with intricate plotlines and fun, interesting characters.  Be warned: although the comic is frequently funny, the overall tone of Cope’s stories (including his previous comic, Atavism) tends to be pretty fatalistic.  You can start reading Cerintha here.
  • Speaking of dark and humorous, The Perry Bible Fellowship has some of the darkest and humor-iest on the ‘net.  Nicholas Gurewitch masterfully juxtaposes cartoonish, childlike visuals with morbid, sexual, or just downright terrible stories.  You will laugh, and you will feel like a horrible person, and then you will click the ‘next’ button.  Go ahead, you monster.
  • Continuing to speak of dark and humorous, never forget Garfield Minus Garfield, the greatest existentialist-humor webcomic ever accidentally written.  I’ll let the comic’s description speak for itself: “Garfield Minus Garfield is a site dedicated to removing Garfield from the Garfield comic strips in order to reveal the existential angst of a certain young Mr. Jon Arbuckle. It is a journey deep into the mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression in a quiet American suburb.”  I have honestly never laughed harder than I have reading this comic.  Start here, then keep going until you can’t breathe.  Trust me, it’ll happen sooner or later.
  • Switching gears, Erstwhile is a comic that re-tells many of the lesser-known stories by the brothers Grimm.  Each story is adapted and illustrated by a different author–Gina Biggs, Louisa Roy, and Elle Skinner.  If you like fairy tales (especially the original versions), give them a look!  Their first story is The Farmer’s Clever Daughter.
  • Finally, there’s xkcd–a nerd classic.  If you haven’t heard of Randall Munroe’s comic yet, you should get out from under that rock you’ve been living beneath and go check it out.  Unlike most of the other comics on this list, there’s no real need to start from the beginning, since only a few of his storylines are continuous–it’s probably better to just hit the random button and go from there.  Enjoy!

How about you?  What are your favorite webcomics?  Let me know which ones I’ve missed in the comments!

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