Friday, February 22, 2013

PSA: Watch Shaun of the Dead

There are few films that I will begrudgingly watch a second time, even fewer that I actually enjoy watching again every few years.

Shaun of the Dead is one of them, from start to finish, never slow and always funny. Easily makes my top 10, and is surely the most under-appreciated of my favorites. It came out in 2004, presciently on the leading edge of the zombie craze of our time.

The Walking Dead desensitized my wife to zombies (thankfully), so I was able to convince her to watch Shaun of the Dead last weekend.

My PSA: If you are among the millions enjoying The Walking Dead, do yourself a favor, and watch Shaun of the Dead this weekend as well.

Added bonus for some of who might be enjoying my other favorite series; I discovered a new treasure that gives me much joy:

Yes, Sean and Matthews mum are both played by the timeless English mother, Penelope Wilton (Barbara and Isobel Crawley respectively).

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Text Editor to Practice Writing Better

Over the last few years I have been learning: You do not need big words to say something great. If the idea is important; it is just as important to say it with clear and simple words that all can understand.

The Up-Goer Five text editor is the perfect way practice this.

The challenge is worth your while.
  • Can the same idea be stated more simply? The more work you put into making the words simple, the more work the reader can put into the idea.
  • Are the less common words appropriate for your audience? The more time you invest in the selection of every word, the more value your reader will receive.
And there is truth in this for much creative work in any medium:
"It is a false and foolish but widespread misconception that “innovation” goes only in the direction of additional complexity."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

My Failed Nextdoor Experience

Last year we tried, and failed, to establish our neighborhood on Nextdoor. This review covers what we learned from the experience.
  • Our neighborhood is more insular then we ever imagined

We're stuck in a web we spent decades spinning. Our social norms and architectural choices stand against us. A lot more than good intentions are needed to turn this titanic.
  • Our neighborhood is composed of an older disinterested and offline demographic

About half of our neighbors are retired, and many more aren't far behind. Much to my surprise, many from the older generation simply couldn't get excited about a vision for a better neighborhood. The few that were interested in actively making the neighborhood a better place, had no interest in using a digital tool to do so.
  • Many people worked very hard to make it this way, and don't want it to change.

After all, who built all those houses with garages as front doors, private back porches, and fenced in yards? That's a reality we have to face, even those who are online, some actually want the neighborhood to be this way. All you can do is communicate the benefits of the connected and collaborative vision you have for the neighborhood, then accept and respect theirs.
  • Everyone assumes you are selling something, even if it's not obvious what

While going door to door to invite people to the network provided a good excuse to talk to our neighbors and meet many people for the first time, that also might have been our biggest mistake. Without an existing repertoire, I put myself in their shoes, peaking through my half opened door at stranger trying to get me to sign up for something. I would naturally be skeptical and suspicious too.
  • Those who want a more vibrant neighborhood, are thirsty for it!

Despite the barriers we encountered, three households were anxious to get online and interacted through the platform for a couple months. One of whom was so excited they signed up just from the flier I left on the door when they weren't home. Those first messages exchanged on the site led to a great friendship. A flier really can work!
  • Even though our digital neighborhood failed, our physical neighborhood is better for it

Meaningful connections were made. Neighbors got invited over for dinner. Pets got fed when neighbors were out on vacation. A great tile contractor was recommended. When a house was burglarized, concerned neighbors came together.

As a testament to the lasting impact, some of this has even occurred after the plug got pulled on our digital neighborhood after failing to signup the minimum required neighbors.

Even if our neighborhood is not quite ready; now is increasingly becoming the right time and place for many to use Nextdoor as a tool to help turn their barren streets and locked doors into thriving neighborhoods.

I wrote a reflective post explaining why I began learning to code, but looking forward, a job at somewhere like Nextdoor that is changing the world for the better, is something I aspire towards.

At this point I'd be happy with an internship too.

Friday, February 08, 2013


Masterfully made. Fascinating personalities. Thought provoking subject.

For me, documentaries always raise more questions than answers.

But one things I am sure of: You can't put new wine into an old wineskin; you can't force a new idea into an old institution.

Learn Code the Hard Way

When I praised the merits of a textbook, I did not mean to invoke the commonly associated image of an overpriced stodgy physical book. Truly, a textbook need not have any of those three attributes.

A series of works which are the antithesis of that common definition is Learn Code the Hard Way.

Learn Code the Hardware is an amazing standard introduction to various programming languages. I found the basic methodology of "code first, explain second" to be effective for my learning style.

I first utilized Learn Python the Hard Way as a companion to Udacity courses CS 253 and CS 258, which both require a basic proficiency in Python.

And then, coming from a background in C++, I dove in to Learn C the Hard Way to prepare for a 300 level Operating Systems course at PSU. The other must read when learning C is the definitive, and refreshingly short, original manual by Kernighan and Ritchie: C Programming Language (2nd Edition) (also commonly known as K&R C).

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Merits of Reading a Textbook

I got hooked on coding through engaging and interactive tools that are freely available. The feedback and gratification is instant which is valuable for overcoming the initial barrier of learning a new skill.

However, I quickly hit a ceiling.

When I began my formal Computer Science courses in a more complex language I initially thought I could get by with the lectures and hacking it together with Google searches along the way.

I quickly discovered the breadth of subject matter is so wide, the levels of understanding so divergent, and the variables for a specific learner are so great that you simply won't get very deep this way. At least not very quickly.

I am convinced that patiently chewing chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, word by word through textbooks that were hand selected by my professors, explicitly for my level of knowledge gave me an accelerated edge over many of my peers who chose to disregard the text. This is also a barrier for someone hoping to learning to code on their own outside of a formal program.

That being said, there are still many horrible textbooks I wouldn't wish on my worst enemies. There is still something to be said for a textbook that is human, approachable, and well structured. Finding the right textbooks with content that is not too far out of reach is a challenge worth enduring.

Nothing beats the density and comprehensive nature of a textbook if you hope to drill a deep well of knowledge.

Make the time and do the reading.

Friday, February 01, 2013

The Angst of An Anakin Generation

Years before J.J. Abrams was pegged to direct the Star Wars sequels, he provided some thought provoking social commentary about the unique role of the first two trilogies to their respective generations:
“Obviously, [Anakin's] fall was inevitable and you learn that from the early films,” Abrams says. “You know it’s going to happen and watching it happen is tragic. What’s fascinating to me is that I grew up in a time when my friends related to Luke and now, my kids relate to Anakin. There is an interesting social comment there — that when I grew up the hero was an optimistic young neophyte who becomes this hero and the new generation’s hero is a strong-willed, ambitious and ultimately vilified protagonist who is misled and, for reasons of ego and heartbreak, literally becomes the very villain that my generation fought against.” - J.J. Abrams
It's ironic then that Malcolm David Kelley (Of "Walt" fame from Lost) captures this angst of the Anakin generation:

Lets hope the hero in the third trilogy is more redemptive, for humanities sake.