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December 12, 2012

Filed under: journalism»industry

The Platform

Last week, Rupert Murdoch's iPad-only tabloid The Daily announced that it was closing its doors on Thursday, giving it a total lifespan of just under one year. Lots of people have written interesting things about this, because the schadenfreude is irresistable. Felix Salmon makes a good case against its format, while former staffer Peter Ha noted that its publication system was unaccountably terrible. Dean Starkman at CJR believes, perhaps rightly, that it will take more than a Murdoch rag going under to form any real conclusions.

Around the same time, Nieman Lab published a mind-bogglingly silly pitch piece for 29th Street Publishing, a middleman that republishes magazine content as mobile apps. "What if getting a magazine into Apple's Newsstand was as easy as pushing the publish button on a blog?" Nieman asked on Twitter, demonstrating once again that the business side of the news industry will let nothing stand between it and the wrong questions.

The problem publications face is not that getting into Apple's storefront is too hard--it's that they have a perfectly good (cross-platform) publishing system right in front of them in HTML ("as easy as pushing the publish button on a blog," one might say) and they're completely unwilling to find a business model for it other than throwing up their hands and ceding 30% of their income (and control of their future) to a third party in another industry with a completely different set of priorities. (Not to mention the barriers to search, sharing, and portability that apps throw up.)

What publishers need to be doing is finding a way to monetize the content that they've already got and can already publish using tools that are--well, probably not quite as easy as blogging, but undoubtably far easier than becoming a mobile software developer. One way to do that is with a leaky paywall: it's been a definite success for the NYT, and the Washington Post is considering one. I suspect that when calmer heads prevail, this will become a lot more common. The problem with paywalls is mobile: even if consumers were not conditioned to want "apps," sign-in on mobile is a frustrating user experience problem.

But let's say apps remain a hot topic in news boardrooms. I've been thinking about this for a few days: how could the news industry build a revenue model out of the best of both worlds, with clean mobile HTML deployed everywhere but leveraging the easy payment mechanism of an app store--assuming, in fact, that "payment is hard" is actually a problem the industry has, and given the NYT's success, I'm not honestly sure that it is. My best solution takes inspiration from two-factor authentication (which everyone should be using).

My plan goes like this: just like today, you visit the app store on your platform of choice. You download a yearly "subscription key" application, pay for it in the usual way, and then open it. Behind the scenes, the app talks to the content server and generates a one-time password, then opens a corresponding URL in the default site browser, setting a cookie so that further browser visits will always be signed in--but you as the user don't see any of that. All you see is that the content has been unlocked for you without any sign-in hassle. Next year, you renew your subscription the same way.

In an ideal world, there would be a standard for this that platform authors could implement. Your phone would have one "site key" application (not without precedent), and content publishers could just plug add-on apps into it for both purchasing and authentication. Everyone wins. But of course, that's not a sexy startup idea for milking thousands of dollars from gullible editors. Nor is it helpful for computer companies looking to keep you from leaving their platform: I'm pretty sure an application like this violates Apple's store rules. Personally, that's reason enough for me to consider them unacceptable, because I don't believe the correct response to exploitation is capitulation. That's probably why nobody lets me make business decisions for a major paper.

Assume we can't publish an app: two-factor auth still works in lots of ways that are mobile-friendly, post-purchase. You could visit the website, click a big "unlock" button and be sent a URL via text message, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever else you'd like. A site built in HTML and monetized this way works everywhere, instead of locking you into the iPad or another single platform. It lets the publisher, not a third party, retain control of billing and access. And it can be layered onto your existing system, not developed from scratch. Is it absolutely secure? No, of course not. But who cares? As the Times has proven, all you need to do is monetize the people who are willing to pay, not the pirates.

This is just one sane solution that lets news organizations control their own content, and their destiny. Will it happen? Probably not: the platform owners won't let them, and news organizations don't seem to care about having a platform that they themselves own. To me this is a terrible shame: after years of complaining that the Internet made everyone a publisher, news organizations don't seem to be interested in learning that same lesson when the shoe is on the other foot. But perhaps there's an upside: for every crappy app conversion startup funded by desparate magazine companies, there are jobs being created in a recovering economy. Thanks for taking one for the team, journalism.

December 5, 2012

Filed under: gaming»software»xcom


Why is it all capitalized? That's what I want to know. XCOM isn't an acronym for something--presumably it stands for Extraterrestrial Combat (or Command?)--so shouldn't it be XCom? I guess that doesn't look as good on the posters. Maybe they should add an exclamation point. (Or a dash, according to the purists. Luckily, having never played the original, I'm not really interested in purity.)

There aren't a lot of games where I finish them and immediately start a new session. Mass Effect 2 was probably the last example--I did two straight playthroughs, and possibly started a third, just because the basic mechanics were so solid and enjoyable. XCOM might be just as catchy, even though I didn't expect it to be. Here are three things that surprised me the first time through:

I didn't think I'd get so attached to my squad. People talk about doing this in the old X-COM, being genuinely upset when a soldier bit the dust, and I just figured those people were crazy. But about half-way through the game, letting Col. Zahara "Werewolf" Mabuza die just stopped being acceptable. The nicknames must have a lot to do with it. I knew every nickname on my squad, especially the ones that got funnier as they got more panic-prone ("Padre," indeed).

XCOM gets a lot of mileage out of only a few maps. I think I saw in an interview that there's only 30 or so maps in XCOM, which is not a lot considering the hundreds of encounters in a typical game. Partly, the maps are just well-designed: just starting out in a different space and direction is enough to make many of the UFO capture maps completely disorienting. But they're also partially-randomized, meaning that you never entirely develop a single cover strategy for each map. Add in the day/night filters, and it feels like a lot more content than it actually is.

Everything is short. Six soldiers means that you're doing with a turn in roughly 60 seconds. A mission in XCOM takes, at most, 30 minutes. Between missions, you pick your research tasks and your engineering projects and then you hit the big "GO FAST" button in Mission Control and see how far you get before the next invasion. Sometimes a movie plays--they're all skippable, as are all the little interstitial animations (launching a fighter, landing the SkyRanger, etc). Everything in the game is made with the understanding that you Should Not Wait, a convenient side effect of which is that it's compulsively playable.

It's not a particularly profound game. It's not even particularly well-made--bugs pop up all over. Even with the tutorial, I restarted the game twice trying to figure out how to keep everything balanced, which is pretty hardcore. But it's so consistently fun that those problems don't halt the experience. I never really got the Halo philosophy of "30 seconds of fun" because I find Halo to be a boring, frat-boy knockoff of better shooters, but XCOM pulls it off.

November 21, 2012

Filed under: gaming»perspective

Bundled Up

The fourth Humble Bundle for Android is wrapping up today: if you like games and charity, it's a ridiculously good deal, even if you don't own an Android device--everything works on Windows, Mac, and Linux as well. Although it turns the Nexus 4 into a toasty little space heater, it would be worth it just to get Waking Mars, the loopy botany platformer I've been playing for a couple of days now.

If nothing else, I like that the Humble Bundle proves that it's still feasible to sell software the old-fashioned way: by putting up a website and taking orders yourself. Digital retailers like Steam or the various mobile platform stores are all well and good (the Bundle comes with Steam keys, which I usually use to actually download the games), but a lot of my favorite gaming memories come from this kind of ad-hoc distribution. I don't want to see it die, and I think it would be bad for independent developers if it did.

In the last few months, people like Valve's Gabe Newell and Mojang's Markus Persson have raised concerns about where Windows is going. Since the PC has been the site of a lot of really interesting experimentation and independent development over the last few years, Microsoft's plan to shut down distribution of Metro-style applications on Windows 8, except through a centralized store that they own, is troubling. At the same time, a lot of people have criticized that perspective, saying that these worries are overblown and alarmist.

There may be some truth to that. But I think the fact that the Humble Bundle is, across the three or four mobile platforms in popular use, only available on Android should tell us something. Why is that? Probably because Google's OS is the only one where developers can handle their own distribution and updates, without having to get approval from the platform owner or fork over a 30% surcharge. That fact should make critics of Newell and Persson think twice. Can the Humble Bundle (one of the most successful and interesting experiments since the shareware catalogs I had in the 80s) and similar sales survive once traditional computing moves to a closed distribution model? It looks to me like the answer is no.

November 13, 2012

Filed under: journalism»new_media»data_driven

Nate Silver: Not a Witch

In retrospect, Joe Scarborough must be pretty thrilled he never took Nate Silver's $1,000 bet on the outcome of the election. Silver's statistical model went 50 for 50 states, and came close to the precise number of electoral votes, even as Scarborough insisted that the presidential campaign was a tossup. In doing so, Silver became an inadvertent hero to people who (unlike Joe Scarborough) are not bad at math, inspiring a New Yorker humor article and a Twitter joke tag ("#drunknatesilver", who only attends the 50% of weddings that don't end in divorce).

There are two things that are interesting about this. The first is the somewhat amusing fact that Silver's statistical model, strictly speaking, isn't actually that sophisticated. That's not to take anything away from the hard work and mathematical skills it took to create that model, or (probably more importantly) Silver's ability to write clearly and intelligently about it. I couldn't do it, myself. But when it all comes down to it, FiveThirtyEight's methodology is just to track state polls, compare them to past results, and organize the results (you can find a detailed--and quite readable--explanation of the entire methodology here). If nobody has done this before, it's not because the idea was an unthinkable revolution or the result of novel information technology. It's because they couldn't be bothered to figure out how.

The second interesting thing about Silver's predictions is how incredibly hard the pundits railed against them. Scarborough was most visible, but Politico's Dylan Byers took a few potshots himself, calling Silver a possible "one-term celebrity." You can almost smell sour grapes rising from Byers' piece, which presents on the one side Silver's math, and on the other side David Brooks. It says a lot about Byers that he quoted Brooks, the rodent-like New York Times columnist best known for a series of empty-headed books about "the American character," instead of contacting a single statistician for comment.

Why was Politico so keen on pulling down Silver's model? Andrew Beaujon at Poynter wrote that the difference was in journalism's distaste for the unknown--that reporters hate writing about things they can't know. There's an element of truth to that sentiment, but in this case I suspect it's exactly wrong: Politico attacked because its business model is based entirely on the cultivation of uncertainty. A world where authority derives from more than the loudest megaphone is a bad world for their business model.

Let's review, just for a second, how Politico (and a whole host of online, right-leaning opinion journals that followed in its wake) actually work. The oft-repeated motto, coming from Gabriel Sherman's 2009 profile, is "win the morning"--meaning, Politico wants to break controversial stories early in order to work its brand into the cable and blog chatter for the rest of the day. Everything else--accuracy, depth, other journalistic virtues--comes second to speed and infectiousness.

To that end, a lot of people cite Mike Allen's Playbook, a gossipy e-mail compendium of aggregated fluff and nonsense, as the exemplar of the Politico model. Every morning and throughout the day, the paper unleashes a steady stream of short, insider-ey stories. It's a rumor mill, in other words, one that's interested in politics over policy--but most of all, it's interested in Politico. Because if these stories get people talking, Politico will be mentioned, and that increases the brand's value to advertisers and sources.

(There is, by the way, no small amount of irony in the news industry's complaints about "aggregators" online, given the long presence of newsletters like Playbook around DC. Everyone has one of these mobile-friendly link factories, and has for years. CQ's is Behind the Lines, and when I first started there it was sent to editors as a monstrous Word document, filled with blue-underlined hyperlink text, early every morning for rebroadcast. Remember this the next time some publisher starts complaining about Gawker "stealing" their stories.)

Politico's motivations are blatant, but they're not substantially different from any number of talking heads on cable news, which has a 24-hour news hole to fill. Just as the paper wants people talking about Politico to keep revenue flowing, pundits want to be branded as commentators on every topic under the sun so they can stay in the public eye as much as possible. In a sane universe, David Brooks wouldn't be trusted to run a frozen yoghurt stand, because he knows nothing about anything. Expertise--the idea that speaking knowledgably requires study, sometimes in non-trivial amounts--is a threat to this entire industry (probably not a serious threat, but then they're not known for underreaction).

Election journalism has been a godsend to punditry precisely because it is so chaotic: who can say what will happen, unless you are a Very Important Person with a Trusted Name and a whole host of connections? Accountability has not traditionally been a concern, and because elections hinge on any number of complicated policy questions, this means that nothing is out of bounds for the political pundit. No matter how many times William Kristol or Megan McArdle are wrong on a wide range of important issues, they will never be fired (let's not even start on poor Tom Friedman, a man whose career consists of endlessly sorting the wheat from the chaff and then throwing away the wheat). But FiveThirtyEight undermines that thought process, by saying that there is a level of rigor to politics, that you can be wrong, and that accountability is important.

The optimistic take on this disruption is, as Nieman Journalism Lab's Jonathan Stray argues, that specialist experts will become more common in journalism, including in horse race election coverage. I'm not optimistic, personally, because I think the current state of political commentary owes as much to industry nepotism as it does to public opinion, and because I think political data is prone to intentional obfuscation. But it's a nice thought.

The real positive takeaway, I think, is that Brooks, Byers, Scarborough, and other people of little substance took such a strong public stance against Silver. By all means, let's have an open conversation about who was wrong in predicting this election--and whose track record is better. Let's talk about how often Silver is right, and how often that compares to everyone calling him (as Brooks did) "a wizard" whose predictions were "not possible." Let's talk about accountability, and expertise, and whether we should expect better. I suspect Silver's happy to have that talk. Are his accusers?

October 31, 2012

Filed under: tech»web

Node Win

As I've been teaching Advanced Web Development at SCCC this quarter, my role is often to be the person dropping in with little hints of workflow technique that the students will find helpful (if not essential) when they get out into real development positions. "You could use LESS to make your CSS simpler," I say, with the zeal of an infomercial pitchman. Or: "it will be a lot easier for your team to collaborate if you're working off the same Git repo."

I'm teaching at a community college, so most of my students are not wealthy, and they're not using expensive computers to do their work. I see a lot of cheap, flimsy-looking laptops. Almost everyone's on Windows, because that's what cheap computers run when you buy them from Best Buy. My suggestion that a Linux VM would be a handy thing to have is usually met with puzzled disbelief.

This makes my students different from the sleek, high-profile web developers doing a lot of open-source work. It's a difference both cultural (they're being taught PHP and, which are deeply unsexy), but technological as well. If you've been to a meetup or a conference lately, you've probably noticed that everyone's sporting almost exactly the same setup: as far as the wider front-end web community is concerned, if you're not carrying a newish MacBook or a Thinkpad (running Ubuntu, no doubt), you might as well not exist.

You can see some of this in Rebecca Murphey's otherwise excellent post, A Baseline for Front End Developers, which lists a ton of great resources and then sadly notes:

If you're on Windows, I don't begin to know how to help you, aside from suggesting Cygwin. Right or wrong, participating in the open-source front-end developer community is materially more difficult on a Windows machine. On the bright side, MacBook Airs are cheap, powerful, and ridiculously portable, and there's always Ubuntu or another *nix.

Murphey isn't trying to be mean (I think it's remarkable that she even thought about Windows when assembling her list--a lot of people wouldn't), but for my students a MacBook Air probably isn't cheap, no matter what its price-to-performance ratio might be. It could be twice, or even three times, the cost of their current laptop (assuming they have one--I have some students who don't even have computers, believe it or not). And while it's not actually that hard to set up many of the basic workflow tools on Windows (MinGW is a lifesaver), or to set up a Linux VM, it's clearly not considered important by a lot of open source coders--Murphey doesn't even know how to start!

This is why I'm thrilled about Node.js, which added a Windows version about a year ago. Increasingly, the kinds of tools that make web development qualitatively more pleasant--LESS, RequireJS, Grunt, Yeoman, Mocha, etc.--are written in pure JavaScript using Node. If you bring that to Windows, you also bring a huge amount of tooling to people you weren't able to reach before. Now those people are not only better developers, but they're potential contributors (which, in open source, is basically the difference between a live project and a dead one). Between Node.js, and Github creating a user-friendly Git client for the platform, it's a lot easier for students with lower incomes to keep up with the state of the art.

I'm not wild about the stereotype that "front-end" means a Mac and a funny haircut, personally. It bothers me that, as a web developer, I'm "supposed" to be using one platform or another--isn't the best thing about rich internet applications the fact that we don't have to take sides? Isn't a diverse web community stronger? I think we have a responsibility to increase access to technology and to the Internet, not focus our efforts solely on a privileged few.

We should be worried when any monoculture (technological or otherwise) takes over an industry, and exclusive tools or customs can serve as warning signs. So even though I don't love Node's API, I love that it's a web language being used to build web tools. It means that JavaScript is our bedrock, as Alex Russell once noted. That's what we build on. If it means that being a well-prepared front-end developer is A) more cross-platform and B) more consistent from top to bottom, it means my students aren't left out, no matter what their background. And that makes me increasingly happy.

October 24, 2012

Filed under: fiction»reviews»banks_iain

The Hydrogen Sonata

I believe there are two kinds of Iain Banks readers: those who are in it for the plot, and those who are looking for spectacle. Banks does both tremendously well, but hardly ever in the same book, which means that invariably reviews are split between people who thought his most recent novel was amazing, or merely very good.

I tend towards plot, myself. I think Banks is at his best when he keeps the scale small, and finds ways to twist and undermine his setting of high-tech, post-scarcity, socialist space dwellers, the Culture. Nobody does huge, mind-boggling scenes like him, but at those galaxy-spanning scales (and when starring the near-omniscient AIs that run the Culture) it's hard to feel like there's much at stake. My favorites, like Matter or Player of Games, combine the large and the small convincingly, hanging the outcome of huge events on the shoulders of fallible, comprehensible characters.

But for his last two books, Banks has tended more towards the huge-explosions-in-strange-places side of things. 2010's Surface Detail spun up a war in virtual Hells that spilled into reality, and now (with The Hydrogen Sonata), he's taken a look at a civilization trying to reach closure, even while long-kept secrets keep pushing up into the light.

I re-read Surface Detail this week, and I like it a bit more than I did the first time around. I still think it suffers from a lack of agency surrounding too many of its characters, who end up simply as pawns being ferried around to each major plot point, but I'll admit that those characters are charming, and the idea of the Hells--virtual worlds set up to punish people even after religion is technically obsolete--is thornier than it first appears.

The Hydrogen Sonata has a lot of the same issues: the events of its plot, while fascinating, are ultimately of dubious importance, and it's not entirely clear if any of the characters actually have real influence on anything that happens. But to its credit, the events of THS are so diverting, you almost don't care. This is Iain Banks doing spectacle at a level he hasn't really tried since Excession, and to a surpising degree it works. It's widescreen science fiction, and he's clearly having fun writing it.

The book opens as the Gzilt, one of the original co-founders (but not members) of the Culture, have decided to leave the material plane and "sublime" to a higher order of existence. Just as they're counting down, however, representatives of another sublimed civilization contact a Gzilt ship, hinting that they may have planted the seeds of Gzilt religion eons ago (and thus prevented them from joining the Culture when they had the chance). This sets off turmoil in the local government, and a gang of Culture ships recruits one former Gzilt military officer, named Vyr Cossont, to hunt down the oldest living survivor of the civilization's founding for a first-hand account of events.

There's not much actual mystery to be had here--Banks telegraphs how things are going to end up pretty quickly. But the fun is in the oversized set pieces being tossed around one after another, from the "Girdlecity" (a giant, elevated metropolis wrapped all the way around a planet's equator) to the hapless group of insects who conduct bee-like dances with their spacecraft while waiting to scavenge on the remains of the sublimed worlds. There's a Last Party being thrown by one rich Gzilt before the subliming that continually tops itself in extravagance. I was also tickled by Cossont's quest to play the titular composition on an instrument called the "Antagonistic Undecagonstring," which means she ends up lugging a bulky and inconvenient music case around the galaxy despite herself (as a bassist, I sympathize).

But while it's enjoyable enough, playing with these toys that Banks assembles, it's hard to shake the feeling that it's all a bit lightweight. The Culture has been set up in these books as tremendously powerful, almost omnipotent--it's run, if that could be said of decentralized anarchosocialists, by AI Minds at the helm of massive, powerful starships, far outclassing any of the other civilizations in the book. When there's a question of how events will turn out, it often reduces to "can ship X reach destination Y in an amount of time defined by the author?" which is not very dramatically satisfying. Like Excession, my least favorite Culture book, much of The Hydrogen Sonata takes place in catty infodumps between the Minds--these can be funny, but they can also read like you've wandered into someone else's e-mail thread by mistake.

Still, for people who are die-hard Culture fans like me, we'll take what we can get--even if I'd rather see more plot and less spectacle. Books like The Hydrogen Sonata flesh out a rich, funny, dark universe that Banks has been building for 25 (!) years now. It's good to visit, if only to point and enjoy the sights.

October 18, 2012

Filed under: meta»announce


I went back and forth on a number of ways to write this up, and eventually decided to just keep it simple: on Monday, I'll be starting a new position on the web team at ArenaNet, developers of Guild Wars 2.

It's funny: I've never actually played Guild Wars or its sequel. They're not really my bag (although I guess I'll have to spend some time in them, now). But ArenaNet, like all MMO developers, generates a terrific amount of data from its simulated world, and I find that potentially fascinating. Along with typical web development (and non-typical--GW2 uses an embedded WebKit view for a number of in-game functions), I'll hopefully be taking a crack at ways to expose and visualize that data for players. I'm looking forward to it.

October 14, 2012

Filed under: tech»coding

Repo Man

Although I've had a GitHub account for a while, I didn't really use it much until last week, when I taught my Seattle Central students how to use version control for project sharing. That lesson was the first chance I'd had to play with GitHub's Windows client (although I develop most of my web code on Linux, I do a lot of JavaScript work on my Thinkpad in Windows). It seemed like a good time to clean up my account and create a few new repositories for projects I'm working on, some of which other people might find interesting.


Code is my personal JavaScript utility belt--I use it for throwing together quick projects, when I don't want to hunt down a real library for any given task. So it provides a grab-bag of functionality: Futures/Promises, an extremely limited template system, shims for Function.bind and Base64 encoding, basic object/array utilities, and a couple of useful mixins. I started building this at CQ and took it with me because it was just too handy to lose. While I doubt anyone else will be using this instead of something like Underscore, I wanted to put it in a repo so that I can keep a history when I start removing unused portions or experimenting.


Grue is undoubtedly a cooler project: it's a small library for quickly building text games like Zork. I originally wanted to port Inform7 to JavaScript, but found myself stymied by A) Inform7's bizarre, English-like syntax, and B) its elaborate rule matching system. The fact that there's no source to study for the Inform7 compiler (not to mention that it's actually recompiling to an older version of Inform, then compiling from there to z-machine bytecode) puts this way beyond my "hobby project" threshold.

Instead, I tried to think about how to bring the best parts of Inform7, like its declarative syntax and simple object heirarchy, to JavaScript. Instead of connecting items directly to each other, Grue provides a "Bag" collection type that can be queried by object property--whether something is portable, or flammable, or contains a certain keyword--using a CSS3-like syntax. Objects also come with built-in getter/setter functions that can be "proxied" to temporarily override a value, or change it based on world conditions.

It takes about 30 lines of Grue code to write the opening scene of Zork I, which is not quite as concise as Inform7, but it's pretty close. I figure Grue is about halfway done--I still need to add more vocabulary, regional rulesets, and some additional types (Regions, Doors, Devices, etc)--but it's close enough to start dogfooding it. Feel free to pull the repo and open "index.html" to see what I've gotten so far.


My fork of KeepassDroid exists entirely to scratch a particular itch: I like the Android port of Keepass, but I find its UI to be functional, at best. The fonts are often too small, and forms end up underneath the virtual keyboard more often than not. So I've changed the view styles, and some of the layout XML, just for my own use (there's a .zip with the compiled application package, in case anyone else is interested). The main project doesn't seem interested in my changes, which is fine by me, but it does mean that every now and then I have to merge in changes from trunk if I want mine up to date. Increasingly, I don't bother.

Urban Artistry

And then there's one project I've been working on that's not located on GitHub, but went live this weekend. Ever since I started maintaining the web presence for Urban Artistry, it's been a mess of PHP files accreted since they first went online. There was an abortive attempt to move to WordPress in 2010, but it never got anywhere, and it would have used the same theme that someone once described as "a bit like a dark nightclub."

When UA went fully non-profit in the state of Maryland, and asked me to be on the board, one of my goals was to turn the site into something that would be a bit more appealing to the typical grant donor. The new site is intented to do exactly that: my design takes its cues from the UA logo with a lightweight, modern feel. The site is also responsive across three sizes--phone, tablet/netbook, and desktop--and since it's built on WordPress, it's easy for other members of the company to log in and make changes if they need to do so. I'm pretty happy with how things turned out, but the design was the easy part: content is much harder, and that's what we're tackling next.

October 3, 2012

Filed under: tech»coding

Teachable Moments

When you're on top of the world, it's the perfect time to start kicking the little people who lifted you up. At least, that's the only conclusion I can draw from Bret Victor's newest post on teaching code. After he did his presentation on "Inventing on Principle" a while back, the tech community went nuts for Victor's (admittedly impressive) visualization work and approach to live programming. This admiration culminated in Khan Academy's computer science curriculum, which integrates a live Processing environment very similar to Victor's demos. In response, he's written a long post bashing the crap out of it.

Instead, he has a plan to redesign programming itself in a new, education- oriented direction. I'm generally a fan of Victor's presentation work (his touch-based animation UX is phenomenal), but I find that his ideas for teaching tend to be impractical when they're examined closely, and I suspect that's the case here. I don't think it's a coincidence that Victor doesn't seem to spend a lot of time asking if anyone else has solved these problems. A little research should have turned up that someone already wrote the language he's proposing: Scratch.

Scratch isn't terribly pretty--it's designed for kids, and it shows--but it provides almost everything Victor claims he wants. Variables are provided in context, with an instant visual environment that lets users examine routines at any time. The syntax is all drag-and-drop, with clear indications of what is nested where, and there's a stepping debug mode that visually walks through the code and provides output for any variables in use. And as much as Victor wants to push the comparison to "pushing paint," Scratch's sprite-based palette is probably as good as that'll get for programming. That no mainstream programming languages have followed its lead doesn't necessarily indicate anything, but should at least give Victor pause.

In his essay, however, Scratch is nowhere to be found. Victor draws on four other programming paradigms to critique Processing: Logo, Smalltalk, Hypercard, and Rocky's Boots. To say that these references are dated is, perhaps, the least of their sins (although it does feel like Victor's research consisted of "stuff I remember from when I was a kid"). The problem is that they feel like four random things he likes, instead of coherent options for how to structure a learning program. They couldn't possibly be farther from each other, which suggests that these lessons are not easy to integrate. Moreover, using Logo as a contrast to Processing is ironic, since the latter's drawing instructions are strikingly similar (I typically use the Logo turtle to introduce people to canvas graphics). And in Smalltalk's case, the syntax he's applauding is deceptively complicated for beginners (even I find the message rules a little confusing).

Meanwhile, where are the examples that aren't twenty years old? The field hasn't stood still since the Apple IIGS, but you wouldn't know it from Victor's essay. Scratch is the most well-known educational programming environment, but there's no shortage of others, from the game-oriented (Kodu, Game Maker) to actual games (The Incredible Machine, SpaceChem). Where's the mention of the vibrant mod community (UnrealScript is many a coder's first language, and I've had several students whose introduction to coding was writing Lua scripts for World of Warcraft)? Like his Braid-inspired live coding demonstration, Victor's essay gives the impression that he's proposing some incredible innovation only by ignoring entire industries working on and around these problems. It's unclear whether he thinks they're not worth examining, or if he just can't be bothered to use Google.

There's also a question of whether these essays solve problems for anyone but Bret Victor. His obsession with visual programming and feedback is all well and good, but it ignores the large class of non-visual problems and learning styles that exist. As a result, it's nearly all untested, as far as I can tell, whereas its polar opposite (Zed Shaw's Learn Code the Hard Way) has a huge stream of actual users offering feedback and experience.

Let me clarify, in case it seems like I'm simply blaming Victor for failing to completely reinvent computing in his spare time. These essays repeatedly return to visualization as the method of feedback: visualization of time, visualization of data, and code that itself performs visualization. Unfortunately, there's an entire field of programming where a graphical representation is either impossible or misleading (how much of web programming is just pushing strings around, after all?).

Frankly, in actual programming, it's counterproductive to try to examine every value by stepping through the code: if I reach that point, I've already failed all other approaches. My goal when teaching is explicitly not for students to try to predict every value, but to think of programming as designing a process that will be fed values. In this, it's similar to this Quora answer on what it's like to be an advanced mathematician:

Your intuitive thinking about a problem is productive and usefully structured, wasting little time on being aimlessly puzzled. For example, when answering a question about a high-dimensional space (e.g., whether a certain kind of rotation of a five-dimensional object has a "fixed point" which does not move during the rotation), you do not spend much time straining to visualize those things that do not have obvious analogues in two and three dimensions. (Violating this principle is a huge source of frustration for beginning maths students who don't know that they shouldn't be straining to visualize things for which they don't seem to have the visualizing machinery.) Instead... When trying to understand a new thing, you automatically focus on very simple examples that are easy to think about, and then you leverage intuition about the examples into more impressive insights.

"Show the data" is a fine mantra when it comes to news graphics, but it's not really helpful when coding. Beginning coders should be learning to think in terms of data and code structure, not trying to out-calculate the computer. Working with exact, line-by-line values is a distraction at best--and yet it's the primary focus of Victor's proposed learning language, precisely because he's so graphically-focused. The idea that the goals of a visualization (to communicate data clearly) and the goals of a visualization programmer (to transform that data into graphics via abstraction) are diametrically opposed does not seem to have occurred to him. This is kind of shocking to me: as a data journalist, my goal is to use the computer to reduce the number of individual values I have to see at any time. A programming language that swamps me in detail is exactly what I don't want.

I'm glad that people are pushing the state of tech education forward. But changing the way people learn is not something you can do in isolation. It requires practical research, hands-on experience, and experimentation. It saddens me that Victor, who has some genuinely good feedback for Khan Academy in this essay, insists on framing them in grandiose proclamations instead of practical, full-fledged experiments. I don't know that I could honestly say which would be worse: if his ideas were imitated or if they were ignored. Victor, it seems, can't decide either.

September 25, 2012

Filed under: tech»web

DOM If You Don't

I've noticed, as browsers have gotten better (and the pace of improvement has picked up) that there's an increasingly vocal group of front-end developers crusading against libraries like jQuery, in favor of raw JavaScript coding. Granted, most of these are the fanatical comp.lang.javascript types who have been wearing tinfoil anti-jQuery hats for years. But the argument is intriguing: do we really need to include 30KB of script on every page as browsers implement dev-friendly features like querySelectorAll? Could we get away with writing "pure" JavaScript, especially on mobile where every kilobyte counts?

It's a good question. But I suspect that the answer, for most developers, will continue to be "no, use jQuery or Dojo." There are a lot of good reasons for this--including the fact that they deliver quite a bit more than just DOM navigation these days--but the primary reason, as usual, is simple: no matter how they claim to have changed, browser developers still hate you.

Let's take a simple example. I'd like to find all the file inputs in a document and add a listener to them for HTML5 uploads. In jQuery, of course, this is a beautifully short one-liner, thanks to the way it operates over collections: $('input[type=file]').on('change', onChange); Doing this in "naked" JavaScript is markedly more verbose, to the point where I'm forced to break it into several lines for readability (and it's still kind of a slog). var inputs = document.querySelectorAll('input[type=file]'); inputs.forEach(function(element) { element.addEventListener('change', onChange); }); Except, of course, it doesn't actually work: like all of the document methods, querySelectorAll doesn't return an array with JavaScript methods like slice, map, or forEach. Instead, it returns a NodeList object, which is array-like (meaning it's numerically-indexed and has a length property). Want to do anything other than a length check or an iterative loop over that list? Better break out your prototypes to convert it to a real JavaScript object: var inputs = document.querySelectorAll('input[type=file]'); inputs =; inputs.forEach(function(element) { element.addEventListener('change', onChange); }); Oh, yeah. That's elegant. Imagine writing all this boilerplate every time you want to do anything with multiple elements from the page (then imagine trying to train inexperienced teammates on what Array.prototype.slice is doing). No doubt you'd end up writing yourself a helper function to abstract all this away, followed by similar functions for bulk-editing CSS styles or performing animations. Congratulations, you've just reinvented jQuery!

All this could be fixable if browsers returned native JavaScript objects in response to JavaScript calls. That would be the logical, sensical thing to do. They don't, because those calls were originally specified as "live" queries (a feature that no developer has ever actually wanted, and exists to implement the now-obsolete DOM-0 document collections), and so the list they return is a thin wrapper over a native host object. Even though querySelector and querySelectorAll are not live, and even we knew by the time of their implementation that this was an issue, they're still wrappers around host objects with the same impedance mismatch.

Malice or incompetence? Who knows? It looks to me like the people developing browser standards are too close to their rendering engines, and not close enough to real-world JavaScript development. I think it's useful for illustration purposes to compare the output of running a DOM query in Firebug vs. the built-in Firefox Web Console. The former gives you a readable, selector-based line of elements. The latter gives you an incomprehensible line of gibberish or a flat "[Object HTMLDivElement]", which when clicked will produce a clunky tree menu of its contents. Calling this useless is an insult to dead-end interfaces everywhere--and yet that's what Mozilla seems to think is sufficient to compete with Firebug and the Chrome dev tools.

At any given time, there are at least three standards committees fighting over how to ruin JavaScript: there's ECMA TC-39 (syntax), W3C (DOM standards), and WHATWG (HTML5). There are people working on making JavaScript more like Python or CoffeeScript, and people working on more "semantic" tags than you can shake a stick at. But the real problems with JavaScript--the reasons that everyone includes that 30KB of jQuery.js--do not have anything to do with braces or function keywords or <aside> tags. The problem is that the DOM is a horrible API, from elements to events, filled with boilerplate and spring-loaded bear traps. The only people willing to take a run at a DOM 2.0 require you to use a whole new language (which might almost be worth it).

So in the meantime, for the vast majority of front-end developers (myself included), jQuery and other libraries have become that replacement DOM API. Even if they didn't provide a host of other useful utility functions (jQuery's Deferred and Callback objects being my new favorites), it's still just too frustrating to write against the raw browser interface. And library authors recognize this: you can see it in jQuery's planned removal of IE 6, 7, and 8 support in version 2.0. With the worst of the cross-compatibility issues clearing up, libraries can concentrate on writing APIs to make browsers more pleasant to develop in. After all, somebody has to do it.

Future - Present - Past