"…what he fundamentally had right was the understanding that you could no longer run a country properly if the elites don’t understand technology in the same way they grasp economics or ideology or propaganda. His analysis and predictions about what would happens if elites couldn’t learn were savage and depressingly accurate." Timely, sad, accurate, and lovely writing from Tom. A particular twinge of sadness for our loss as I realise I'm now older than Chris was when he died.
"…a whole art form has developed in my lifetime. I remember for the first time reading: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I remember the first time I heard: "I believe in America. America has made my fortune." And I remember standing in an open field, west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here." This is quite baggy and in places unfocused, but every now and then, there are moments of sharp focus. Most notably: the relation of the impulse to write to the impulse to play games (an escapist impulse in Prebble's mind, but that's not a bad one), and the understanding that 'culture is culture'.
"KNiiTTiiNG uses the Nintendo Wii to knit. KNiiTTiiNG was created by an artist and an engineer turned behavioral scientist." Says coming soon; presumably some kind of homebrew – Wii or Wii controllers, I ask? – but worth a link for the delicious pun in the title.
"Scans of sandwiches for education and delight." Yes.
Some interesting links here, but I swear: could people please find something OTHER than *that* Daigo Umehara video to link to when they talk about fighting games? There's this massively rich space to be explored, and it goes beyond 15-hit parries.
How to get proper HD out of iMovie 09, which is something it makes surprisingly difficult.
"I copy-and-pasted the text of my unread articles from Instapaper into a PDF, uploaded it to Lulu.com, and ordered a single book. Naturally I thought about scripting all of this but Instapaper doesn’t provide an API to retrieve articles, and I didn’t really want to bother with authentication headers and screen scraping and all of that hackery. I just wanted the book." Emmett makes an analogue version of Instapaper for himself.
"One of the great things about working at a company with both interaction and industrial designers is that when collaboratively designing a device, you have better control over where bits of its functionality are located: in the hardware or the software. At Kicker, we call the activity of figuring out where a feature “lives” Functional Cartography."
A story, between two people, told through email. Not looking like email; actually, originally, told over email. Now, it can only be read in order – but once, it would have been delivered. Can't imagine how striking it might have been.
"Watching classics like The Apartment and Manhattan made me wonder at the romances we’d write about some cities, and Slumdog Millionaire bizarrely seemed like a continuation of that: a romance of the maximum-city." Yes; my favourite thing in that film was the growth of the city around Jamal, Bombay becoming Mumbai, and the skyscrapers growing.
"The thing that caught my eye about the Unbook was the idea of accepting a book as a version: an evolving beast that spits out periodic iterations of itself before crawling away to mutate some more."
"See, the RAF reckons research has shown them that the best drone pilot candidates are those who are experienced video game players, rather than experienced pilots. Sounds crazy at first, but when you think about it, pilots are experienced at actually flying. But flying something remotely via a 2D monitor? That's a gamer's area of expertise."
22 January 2009
Charles Arthur recently wrote that if [he] had one piece of advice to a journalist starting out now, it would be: learn to code.
I understand the point he’s making, but I think there’s a further degree of subtlety to the argument. After all, learning to code is hard. Learning to glue together bits of scripts, and later bash your way into scripting langauges really is useful, but even that isn’t easy. It requires you to learn to translate intent into code, to know what’s possible, to know what’s easy and what’s hard, and to know what to do when third-party things you’re glueing together don’t work.
In short: it’s really easy to make a mess, and a mess that was difficult and stressful at that.
So my advice would be somewhat different, and apply to both those journalists who find code easy, and those who find it impossible:
Learn to think like a programmer.
What’s really important is to not understand how to do magical things with code, but to learn what magical things are possible, what the necessary inputs for that magic are, and who to ask to do it.
Identify the repetitive tasks that computers are good at. Yes, they’re good at find-and-replace, but tools like regular expressions are even handier, and I’m amazed how few people understand that find-and-replace is the beginning, not the end, of text processing. (And yes, I’m aware that regex are a quick way to give yourself two problems.)
Computers are really good at processing regular data, and they are really, really good at repetitive tasks. Every time I watched someone in an office doing a repetitive, regular task I despaired, because that’s exactly the kind of thing we have computers for.
You shouldn’t try to build the program that magically automates everything. But you should learn to smell the tasks where computers could help; learn to sniff out the angles on a story that a computer would be a useful tool for.
So that means when you find a table, or a regular data source, you don’t just take a print-out; ask for an Excel file, to convert to CSV, or maybe even a database dump. Even if you can’t do something with it, somebody else can. So the important thing to remember is what a progammer might want to receive.
When you’re gathering data, regularity is important. If you’re using Excel, keep it really simple, and one-column-per-thing, so that later a programmer can do something with the CSV. If you’re gathering textual information, put it in a plain text file, rather than Word; it’ll save you time in the long run.
Also: there are lots of useful tools that are halfway between being a programmer and not, and these are the most interesting spaces for the journalist right now. Simon linked to a bunch of these at the Guardian Hack Day, and it amazed me how many great tools there are for the non-programmer to do programmer-like tasks.
Excel, for starters, is a great environment (if a little limited and esoteric) for starting to explore datasets in a relatively visual way – structured data formats aren’t as immediate to more visual thinkers. Obvious examples include the frankly remarkable DabbleDB and, even though it’s never as useful as I hope it might be, Yahoo Pipes.
These let you exercise programmer-like thinking without needing to be a programmer. And then, when you’ve discovered what it is you want to do, even with the vaguest of prototypes, handing all your information and ideas over to a coder is much easier.
Why? Because you’ve already been thinking like a programmer. You’re handing them thoughts and data in the format they like.
So how do you learn this?
Partly, you have to try a bit of code yourself, but I’d make sure you’re always on the right side of the “understanding what I’m doing” vs “doing neat stuff” seesaw; understanding should be your goal.
Partly, it’s getting handy with a shell. One of the best places to explore what you can do with data is the command line; as well as the true scripting languages, there are tools like
awk which can be remarkably powerful. Not entirely user-friendly, I’ll give you, but easier than breaking out a full program.
And partly, it’s relaxing a little and stepping away from the Office suite. Putting your data in formats like CSV, XML, JSON, and plain text doesn’t just make the data more useful to coders; it’ll be more useful for you, when you want to move it around.
I remain convinced there’s an interesting book on “doing smart stuff with computers that isn’t quite programming but isn’t far off”, because let’s face it, most people deal with data all the time now, and have the ideal tool for working with it on their desks. Now they just need to work with it a little.
So whilst this isn’t quite the “learning to code” that Charles speaks of, it’s not far off. And indeed, I think he hits the nail on the head much better in his conclusion:
…nowadays, computers are a sort of primary source too. You’ve got to learn to interrogate them effectively – and quote them meaningfully – too.
That feels about right. You don’t need to be a coder, but you need to be able to interrogate computers meaningfully. Do that how you will.
(As for me? Well, I wanted to be a journalist, but fate didn’t turn that way (although I’ve worked in the media and had a small amount of writing published). I did, however, seem to take to the coding malarkey a little better. I still maintain I’m not really a programmer, and certainly not in the sense that my real-programmer friends are, but evidence sometimes disproves that).
Big guide to levelling hunters. Lots of good hunter stuff on here, actually, which muggins needs to learn quite fast.
"What I like about the rhetoric idea is that it places the accent on how the work operates on the player, and this is essential for an interactive medium. What I don't like is that it's a resolutely utilitarian framework for critical analysis: it focuses in on the way that games might change our opinions for good or ill at the expense of the way games might transport, entertain, humiliate, and ravish their users." Pliskin on Bogost's Procedural Rhetoric; both the post and its comments are smart, nuanced discussion around the idea.
"There was a correlation between their performance on the game and their improvement on certain cognitive tests, Kramer said. Those who did well in the game also improved the most on switching between tasks. They also tended to do better on tests of working memory." Playing the game (Rise of Nations) didn't affect all tasks, but it had improvements on some – seemingly those involving task and process management.
"Regardless of the dubious value of trying to dubiously value the art, one thing is immediately clear: in a reversal of casino logic, we value the rarity of the green stripe: 0, house wins."