Continuing a trend, I've been ploughing through yet another book, John McWhorter's "The Power of Babel" (it's somewhat related to the project I'm working on now so it's not like it's been all for fun :-)). It's an intriguing study on how languages have evolved, merged, diverged and generally mutated over the millennia into the six thousand we have now (an astounding number given that we currently only have some 190-odd countries).
Anyway, it got me thinking about this article which I came across last year but it's such a good one, it's worth revisiting. It tries to envisage what programming languages might look like one hundred years from now.
NOTE: Non-technical people may find this post somewhat boring and/or incomprehensible so you may want to make use of that most heinous of programming constructs and goto the last paragraph.
There are a huge number of programming languages around now, each one supposedly designed to solve different issues yet there has been an enormous amount of influence and cross-pollination between them all.
I'm a C programmer from way back (actually, assembly language from even way back-er) and well aware of the evolutionary changes that took place as it mutated into C++. For someone starting out with C++ (rather than C), there are some things that seem weird, incomprehensible or just plain wrong and you need to know the historical context in which those design decisions were made. Some of them were justified but some of them indeed turned out to be just plain wrong Even the name itself has a history. C was begat by a language called B which was begat by a language called BCPL and so when the propeller-heads were working on the new and improved version of C, there was much debate on whether it should be called D or P. Calling it C++ was a majestic stroke of geek humour since ++ is a shorthand programmers use to add one to a value (most processors have a specially optimized way of doing it since it is such a common operation). And of course, C++ was a big influence on the design of Java which in turn was ripped off by a big influence on C#. And so on.
Languages like Java and the .NET ones are the way to go, not because they are write-once, run-anywhere (since they're not) but because they come with a huge, standardized library of functionality. Of course, the problem with Java is that Sun messed up the way they sold it (amongst other things); it remains to see how .NET will fare. But this is definitely the way in which we want to head. As Paul Graham says:
Inefficient software isn't gross. What's gross is a language that makes programmers do needless work. Wasting programmer time is the true inefficiency, not wasting machine time.
At least, that's what I always tell my boss But it's true, laziness really is a virtue, at least for computer programmers
Sometimes I look at the code for the RSS readers written in .NET and get jealous at how easy it is for them to do some, nay, most things. For example, Awasu has a module that downloads and uploads stuff to and from a remote server; it handles HTTP, HTTPS, FTP, authentication, proxies, redirects, compressed responses and currently weighs in at a cool 1113 lines (well, 783 lines of actual code - I comment a lot :-)). In .NET or Java or Python, downloading a file can be done in a few lines of code, at most
I don't feel jealous for too long, though. It's the difference between taking the time to learn and become a master craftsman and make your own furniture and buying something from this year's collection at Ikea. As Paul Graham points out, a lot of modern programming languages act as nannies for developers, prohibiting them from doing many things that are deemed to be "dangerous." This is done because the bulk of computer software is written nowadays by herds of semi-competent developers who have been corralled into cubicle farms, churning out mass-produced software. There is a school of thought that says that language influences the way we think and this definitely seems to hold true in the IT industry; people who program in different languages tend to approach problems differently so given the current trend of languages designed for dumb programmers, the future doesn't look terribly bright...
But .NET is truly a revolutionary idea, having all programming languages boil down to the same set of underlying instructions, all using the same comprehensive libraries that take the drudge work out of anything you might want to do. If Microsoft play their cards right, programming is going to be a seriously less interesting field to be in over the coming years. Which is as it should be - do we really want our retirement funds and voting machines and all the other infrastructure we are so reliant on now to be run by software that we're not really 100% sure of what it's going to do? Nevertheless, it's going to be sad. Less fun at the very least
Anyway, if you're a programmer and care about what you do, check out the rest of his articles. And if you're not a programmer, the following are some intriguing analyses into the hacker psyche (note that there's a big difference between a hacker and somebody who just happens to program computers because they get paid for it):
I know, I know, I said that I was taking a break from working on Awasu but I just couldn't help myself...
This release is a maintenance release and contains bug fixes and optimizations. Some of them are fairly important, hence this special version.
The first addresses the issue of the UI sometimes getting a bit sluggish when lots of channels are updating. This is being caused by a third-party component we use but a new version of it is coming out soon that should make this problem go away.
The other major fix is for a possible blowout of memory usage if you have a lot of channels and are receiving certains types of content.
Thanks to everyone who helped with testing this release. Now I'm really taking a break from Awasu development...
This is what CNN wrote on their website about what happened yesterday here in Mosul:
Mosul clashes leave 12 dead
Clashes between police and insurgents in the northern city of Mosul left 12 Iraqis dead and 26 wounded, hospital and police sources said Wednesday.
Rifle and rocket-propelled grenade fire as well as explosions were heard in the streets of the city.
The provincial governor imposed a curfew that began at 3 p.m. local time (7 a.m. EDT), and two hours later, provincial forces, police and Iraqi National Guard took control, according to Hazem Gelawi, head of the governor's press office in the Nineveh province.
Gelawi said the city is stable and expects the curfew to be lifted Thursday.
As you may have gathered, I have a strong interest in South-East Asia. I've spent many years travelling around and living there and one of the things I always do is to take a notebook with me and scribble down thoughts and some sketches. At the risk of turning this into a literary blog :roll:, I thought that I might put up a block quote from myself for a change. This was written when I was in Cambodia in 1998:
Phnom Penh certainly isn't what I expected it to be: a sleepy little town, lots of old colonial buildings, bullet holes. Well, sleepy this place ain't! There is as much noise and traffic here as anywhere else in Asia, plus some of the most insane driving that I have ever seen. In addition to that, my previous long-standing record in the category of "Most Number Of People And/Or Farmyard Animals Seen On A Motorbike At One Time" was easily broken here. I've seen motorbikes so overloaded with ducks and chickens that they look like some kind of giant feathered mutant, farting noxious black smoke and being jockeyed by a wild maniac in sunglasses and a cap. Mind you, the animals seem to take it all quite calmly, trussed up and dangling upside-down from the handlebars. They must have quite an interesting view every time they go into town.
Phnom Penh was once a beautiful place, I think, but it has taken something of a beating in recent times. The Khmer Rouge destroyed so much of the old town and a lot of the damage has yet to be repaired. The prettiest area is along the river where many of the old mansions still stand, earning their keep today as bars and restaurants. There are an amazing number of places around town, with pool tables, good food and even better beer (Victoria Bitter, no less). It's just a shame that it's not necessarily safe to go out after dark. The Royal Palace is also situated on the waterfront, although it is closed to the public now that Prince Sihanouk has returned. Major roads have been repaired and are teeming with traffic and some of the boulevards actually look quite magnificent in places although the state of most of the back roads still justify having a 4WD to get around town.
But my favourite thing about this place (apart from the disoriented chooks) is the motorbike taxi drivers, especially the ones that can speak a bit of English and hang around the guesthouses. Walk out the front door and I'm swamped by a dozen guys all wanting to be my best friend: "konichiwa- ohio- gozaimasu- g'day- mate- howzit- goin'- you- want- lady- fuck- i- take- you- no- problem- go- killing- fields- cheap- price- go- shoot- a- gun- go- etc- etc..." Local laws require drivers to wear seriously cool shades and a baseball cap for identification purposes and while most drivers will tell you their name ("Hi! My name's Ng and I'll be the cause of your death today..."), everyone will ask you to remember them by their cap: Nike, USMC, deformed eagle, Bananas In Pajamas, etc...
But while life seems normal enough (for Asia) on the surface, I think that there's a storm of lawlessness underneath. Somebody gets pissed at you and lobs a grenade through your front door, there's probably not a whole lot you could do about it (assuming you survive, of course). After dark, gangs of one-legged men and other misfortunates roam the streets, collecting donations for their retirement funds from generous shopkeepers and passerbys. One of the first things everyone is told after arriving here is to be careful about taking motorbike taxis after dark, since it's not unheard of for them to take you straight to your local bandits. The guy who explained all of this to me also mentioned that he himself had been robbed at gunpoint "only twice" in the last year. Hmmm...
Another disturbing thing is the flogging off of a horrific and not-so-distant past as a tourist attraction. Moto drivers will approach you with: "Killing Fields, Killing Fields! You go only $2 cheap price!" or "I take you Tuol Sleng [the infamous Khmer Rouge interrogation centre] show you around no problem!" A similar thing happens in Vietnam, but at least the war there was something that the "foreigners" were "responsible" for. The Pol Pot era is a horror that most countries would closet away as a national shame.
And then towards the end of my visit:
Cambodia is a wonderful place to be a modern-day cowboy, where NGO employees can cruise around in luxurious 4WD's and brush up on their AK-47 skills before taking that long weekend upcountry. You can have all the perks of living in a formerly colonised Asian country, and just a hint of danger without the risks associated with being in, say, Sarajevo (or New York). The American dollar is still mighty powerful here - better restaurants and bars invariably list prices in dollars - while at Angkor it is not uncommon to see overweight, middle-aged European tourists being followed by an entourage of five or six Cambodians carrying fans, water and parasols. A sad sight indeed.
It has been several years since the last UN soldier left but the situation remains volatile, even as the Khmer Rouge slowly withers away and people try to come to terms with democratic elections. Major players in the political arena race to empty the public coffers and bomb each other's offices, and in the lead-up to the elections there has been a constant stream of reports of intimidation and harassment at voter registration stations. But as is the case in much of Asia, most people seem to be more concerned about simply making a living without getting beaten up too much rather than which particular guy in a suit happens to be in office.
For most of us, all we know of Cambodia is political turmoil, land-mines and the Khmer Rouge. The only Cambodians I had seen previously were refugees living in Melbourne, marginalised and stuck in the ghettos so to come here and see the people in their own country has been a wonderful experience. Outside of Phnom Penh, towns are small and peaceful and isolated from the rest of the world. Time passes by slowly as people live their lives to a completely different rhythm. There have been plenty of UN soldiers and foreign-aid workers, but few tourists venture out this way and I received a warm welcome and lots of help wherever I went.
The country is still desperately poor and there are a frightening number of maimed people around. My young moto driver in Siam Reap told me that he was terrified every time he had to go into the bush. In a country like Cambodia, a land-mine will end your life even if it doesn't kill you outright. Yet the people are still cheerful and friendly and after so many years of violence, I think that they are long overdue for some good times.
My (ahem) "publisher" is nosing around for a book deal so maybe something might come out of all these scrawlings. Who knows...
As you may have seen in the forums, I was out of town last week and having a bit of a hard time with masses of bureaucratic red tape. I won't bore you all with the gory details but I ended up spending a lot of time sitting around on my ass waiting for others to get off theirs. This was also partly caused by the fact that I managed to hurt my foot to the point where I was barely able to hobble over to the bar to get myself a beer. The horror!
So I crawled down to the local bookstore and picked up a few books which made for a nice change since I've been so busy of late, I've hardly had the time to do much reading.
The first was The Quality of Mercy by William Shawcross. While there have been many books that talk about the horrors that happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge (including Shawcross's own Sideshow), this one is a little different in that it examines the aid and redevelopment effort that happened afterwards. Not only were governments from around the globe in there trying to manipulate the situation for their own political gain, aid agencies were fighting amongst themselves over the best (read: highest-profile, easiest-to-sell-to-the-public-for-donations) projects while the local politicians and military were creaming off the aid money and supplies as fast as it arrived.
However, something that really caught my attention was what he wrote in the book's introduction (and this was published in 1984):
The flood of instant information in the world today - at least in the Western industrialized world - sometimes seems not to further, but to retard, education; not to excite, but to dampen, curiosity; not to enlighten, but to merely dismay. Archibald MacLeish once noted, "We are deluged with facts but we have lost or are losing our human ability to feel them."
MacLeish compared the speed and plethora of modern communications with the way in which the world learned of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. The news was brought to New York by MacLeish's grandfather, months after the event. The story was carried on the front page, but its effectiveness derived from the one man's telling of it.
Today the battle of the Nile or the retreat from Moscow might have been covered live or at least endlessly commented upon as it took place - or it might have been almost ignored. Either way, covered or uncovered, it would soon have been superseded. The exiled Czech writer Milan Kundera pointed out, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, that "the bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia; the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh; the war in the Sinai desert made people forget Allende; the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai; and so on and so forth, until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten."
I've always been somewhat bemused by the headline ticker that goes across the bottom of 24-hour news channels and nowadays, even the daily six o'clock news. Stock prices are one thing but headlines from other unrelated stories are just something else. People tell me that it's a more efficient way of getting your news; "multi-tasking" they tell me to which I have a one-word response: "bollocks." Are our attention spans now so short that we can't even focus on the story that the news reader is presenting right that very second without getting bored and reading what's on the ticker? Good grief
And it's not like all this endless analysis and talking heads are making us better informed. As often happens, we mistake quantity for quality and think that we are that more knowledgeable about what's happening in Iraq, for example, because of it. Yet all the hours and hours of coverage simply serve as filler until the next cause célèbre but until that happens (and especially in the runup to the US elections), what hope for the people of Darfur or North Korea or Tibet?
The next book was Air America by Christopher Robbins. First published in 1979, it takes a look at the "secret" air services provided by CIA-backed companies in South-East Asia during the 60's and 70's. The book served as the basis for the Mel Gibson/Robert Downey Jr. movie of the same name but while there may have been some collaboration between the author and the film producers in the early days of the project, Robbins devotes a chapter of the latest edition disassociating himself and the Air America pilots from the film
It's a very entertaining read, mostly anecdotal but some of the stories are amazing, from having to clear runways of tigers by releasing chickens with live grenades strapped to their bodies to learning how to keep a plane trimmed while cows wandered around inside to having to land planes on runways so short that they had to run the engines at full reverse except that the only way to do that was to have a guy sitting at the back of the plane and on a signal from the pilot, cross some wires over!
Of course, Air America is best known for running drugs and while Robbins doesn't go so far as to say that such a thing never happened, one feels that he lets them off somewhat lightly. Still, it's hard to imagine how he could have said anything else without losing access to the pilots (and getting the crap kicked out of him by the same). Opium has been an integral part of the region for a long time and the primary source of income for the Meo hilltribes who were fighting for the Americans; without it, the war in Laos would have been over very quickly. But in a deliciously ironical twist, a rising official interest in drug activities in the region during the early 70's led to Air America ferrying anti-drug agents around the country
The last book was Another Quiet American by Brett Dakin. In 1997, Brett was 22 and not even out of college when he took a Princeton-In-Asia position at the Lao National Tourism Authority advising them on tourism development, something that Laos had only just started experimenting with. He starts off completely in the dark about Laos and what he is supposed to be doing there and the book takes us through his journey of learning about the country and people (and even a bit about tourism).
Dakin raises an interesting question that is not often asked: why are the aid agencies even in there at all? Yes, the country is extremely poor, infrastructure terrible and life hard but it's their life and it's amazingly arrogant for the western aid agencies to roll into town in their trademark white 4WD's with huge amounts of money (that has a very destabilizing effect on the local economy), starting "major infrastructure projects" left, right and centre that often prove to be totally unsuitable because no-one bothered to take the time to ask the locals what they actually needed.
And of course, the aid workers themselves are well-taken care of. Dakin writes of one UN consultant who was shipped in at a rate of USD $10,000 per month (average annual income in Laos: around USD $300) and another agency that was instructed to buy more vehicles and computers for itself but to reduce wages paid to the local staff!
UPDATE: And just in case you were thinking that this is all of historical interest only, thirty years later there are still thousands of Lao hilltribe people living in what are essentially refugee camps in Thailand, looking for somewhere to go.
So I spent a few pleasant days with my nose buried in a book with a cold beer at hand. Lovely! I didn't choose these books with any particular theme in mind but together they gave a fascinating look at the recent history of that part of the world from three different perspectives, from the men who helped fight a war that had such a devastating effect, the efforts to rebuild a country after it had self-destructed and that of a small country's attempt to open itself up to a world that knew almost nothing about it.
Awasu 2.0.2 (beta) has been released here. It's been a while coming but worth the wait since there's a lot of good stuff, including:
Native support for Atom feeds.
The ability to search archived content.
Search agents that monitor incoming content for things that you are interested in.
Support for XML redirects.
The ability to FTP reports somewhere after they have been generated.
I'll be taking a short hiatus from Awasu development over the next 5 or 6 weeks since there's another (non-IT - woo hoo!) project I'll be working myself into the ground over but I'll still be around answering emails and hanging out in the forums.
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