Tech Veganism

“One place where the veganism metaphor breaks down is that, although nearly anyone can be a vegan, tech veganism is mostly practiced by those who are expert enough or privileged enough to learn the elaborate workarounds to avoid the GAFAMs of the world. Setting up an Ubuntu laptop, a LineageOS phone, a Fastmail account, and wiring it all together so that you actually get calendar notifications is no easy feat. You will probably have to get your hands dirty on the command line.

I find that there’s a bit of a ‘let them eat cake’ attitude among tech vegan boosters, because they often discount the sheer difficulty of all this stuff. (‘Let them use Linux’ could be a fitting refrain.) After all, they figured it out, so why can’t you? What, doesn’t everyone have a computer science degree and six years experience as a sysadmin?”

-Nolan Lawson, “Tech Veganism.” May 31, 2019.

Reposting my comment here:

The point that a lot of people miss is that there are two tech revolutions going on.

On one end, there’s the application, end-user technology that is designed to fit some specific need and be easy to use. Ideally, it’s just tapping buttons on a screen.

These tend to follow direct physical analogs of specific, single purpose tools: Search/Keep replaces the file cabinet, Maps replaces maps, YouTube is mobile television, Play is mobile board games, News replaces the newspaper, Gmail is mail, Contacts replaces the Rolodex, Drive replaces the suitcase, calendar replaces the Day Planner, Translate replaces the foreign language phrase book, Photos replaces the photo album, etc.

They do one thing. They do it well. They are useful. And they are all being combined in one device. But, they aren’t the standard by which every tool needs to be judged.

Some tools are general tools that can be applied to a wide variety of problems. Any idiot can pick up an arc welder or write a Python script. But, it takes time to learn how to use these general purpose tools well. They’re never going to be easy in the way that using email is easy. And there is no need to use Python or an arc welder on your phone.

Should TeX be compared to Word? It’s apples and oranges. How much does that Venn diagram overlap, regardless of definition?

Emacs is as different from a word processor as a word processor is from the legal pad. There’s inherent capability that doesn’t reduce down to the level of a pull-down menu or button. As soon as you make ease of use the defining feature, you narrow down capability to what a pull down menu can handle.

Most people aren’t solving problems that require training A.I.s, collaboratively writing programs with a tool like Git, making CGI movies with Renderman, etc. So, they have no need to learn these tools, and these tools do not need to simplified to suit them. They are what they are. OpenBSD is about security, not being “user-friendly” to the novice user. If you want “user-friendly,” use what everyone else uses.

“Tech vegans,” as you describe them, have different needs and different values. Some day, it would be nice if a LineageOS device were available at your telephone carrier’s store, Google didn’t mess with ad blocking extensions in their browser to make more money, and so forth. But, the incentives are what they are. Opting out of the default is hard by design. That’s not only a technology problem. It’s also an economic one.

Static Websites with Hugo

I created a website back in 2010. It’s a professional website. It has a personal profile, description of the work, location and contact page. None of these change with any regularity. So, I just needed a few static pages.

I wanted to get up something quick. So, I had coded what I needed over a week, wrote all the copy and put the site up. Back then, around a quarter of the population had a smart phone, so it did not seem necessary to worry about mobile access to the site. So, I have a great site that works well for the PC. But, it’s useless on mobile. That’s not going to work in 2019.

But, I’ve been dreading doing the update. I figured it would be an unmitigated pain to code a site that worked across platforms. Being inclined to take the easiest route to solve a problem, I thought I might check to see if there was some free software that would help me make the transition with a minimum of fuss.

Turns out, there’s a lot of open source software to build static websites. Jekyll and Hugo are probably the most popular. But, Wintersmith, Harp, Middleman, and others are all viable options. I ended up using Hugo because of the two top options it didn’t require installation of any additional software on my system.

It ended up taking about two days to port the website content to Hugo. Most of the time was just understanding how Hugo works, such as the need to create directories and then put an in each of them to get the content to link up right from the main page.

In retrospect, there are two main considerations in this process. One, pick a system that will convert your old website for you, if you have a large site. For small static sites like mine, this really isn’t a problem. Two, make sure whatever you use has good theme support and choose a theme that has the built in look and feel you want for your site.

For example, I looked at Nikola first, but its theme support is largely non-existent. It became apparent I’d have better luck choosing the top two options after looking at this one.

Once the choice of system and theme is made, the coding and porting of sites is pretty straight-forward. I did have to noodle around a bit with templates to get the result I wanted, but it wasn’t much different from using HTML, just at one level of abstraction.

If you have the need to put up a small website that works on both PCs and mobile, using a static site generator like Hugo will save you a lot of time and be relatively painless. Recommended.

Map and Monitor the World’s Freshwater Supply

“[Google is] proud to showcase a new platform enabling all countries to freely measure and monitor when and where water is changing: UN’s Water-Related Ecosystems, or Released last week in Nairobi at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), the app provides statistics for every country’s annual surface water (like lakes and rivers). It also shows changes from 1984 through 2018 through interactive maps, graphs and full-data downloads.”

—Brian Sullivan, “A newg app to map and monitor the world’s freshwater supply.” Blog.Google. March 21, 2019.

Hinadan, a Mobile Game App For Apple by 82-Year-Old Developer Who Bought Her First Computer at 60

“It was easy because I have no one to care for me, whether it’s good or bad,” 83-year-old Masako Wakamiya said of building her first mobile app. In 2017, she launched Hinadan, a game aimed at elderly users…Wakamiya bought her first computer when she was approaching 60 — mostly to keep up with friends while she took care of her elderly mother.”

—Jane Sit and Yoko Wakatsuki, “How an 83-year-old found a new lease on life developing mobile apps.” CNN. March 24, 2019.

Learn to Program With Common Lisp

Tim Ferriss has a currently popular blog post, “Ten Lessons I Learned While Teaching Myself to Code,” that I’ve seen mentioned in a few places. While it is largely good advice, there is one point that is wrong. It does matter what language you learn. Here’s the ten lessons from his article:

  1. The online world is your friend, start there.
  2. Don’t stress over what language to pick.
  3. Code every day.
  4. Automate your life.
  5. Prepare for constant, grinding frustration.
  6. Build things. Build lots of things.
  7. “View Source”: Take other people’s code, pick it apart, and reuse it.
  8. Build things for you—code you need and want.
  9. Learn how to learn.
  10. Reach out to other coders.

The programming language you choose matters. If what you are doing is trivial, then yes, you can use any programming language. To quote from Paul Graham’s essay, “Revenge of the Nerds“:

“The disadvantage of believing that all programming languages are equivalent is that it’s not true. But the advantage is that it makes your life a lot simpler. And I think that’s the main reason the idea is so widespread. It is a comfortable idea…There are, of course, projects where the choice of programming language doesn’t matter much. As a rule, the more demanding the application, the more leverage you get from using a powerful language. But plenty of projects are not demanding at all. Most programming probably consists of writing little glue programs, and for little glue programs you can use any language that you’re already familiar with and that has good libraries for whatever you need to do. If you just need to feed data from one Windows app to another, sure, use Visual Basic.”

Tim Ferriss is writing trivial programs. So, for his use case, the choice of language is irrelevant. It might be for your use case as well.

But, computer languages are not the same. They have different strengths and weaknesses. For example, in this blog post, a professional programmer discusses why Rust is not a good replacement for C. The short version, Rust is a young language that isn’t stable, and it lacks features older languages have, such as a specification.

Some languages are simply more powerful, mature and give you more options. If you are going to go through the trouble to learning how to program, why not ground yourself in a language with more capabilities?

Your first choice of programming language is going to shape how you think about programming. It can take a long time to broaden your sense of the possible if you pick a language with limited features when you first start learning.

There are many good, powerful programming languages. Arguments can be made for any language you like. However, Paul Graham’s article mentioned above makes a good case that Lisp is a very powerful language. In Pascal Costanza’s Highly Opinionated Guide to Lisp, there’s an interesting observation:

…”Lisp is, in some sense, the mother of all [computer programming] languages…the mindset of Lisp asserts that expressive power is the single most important property of a programming language. Nothing should get in your way when you want to use that power. A programming language should not impose its view of the world on the programmer. It is the programmer who should be able to adapt the language to his/her needs, and not the other way around.”

Lisp is old. It’s stable. It is powerful. Textbooks teaching it date back to the early 1990s. But, they are still relevant and can be bought for almost nothing. So, why not learn Common Lisp? It’s a good question. The most common answer is that computer programming languages are subject to fads and new languages are more popular. But, given Lisp’s flexibility, it’s difficult to make the case that they are better.

Ok, suppose for a moment I’ve convinced you. Now, the question is: how do you go about learning Common Lisp? Last year, Steve Losh provided an answer. He put together a blog post called “A Road to Common Lisp,” that explains the Lisp language in detail and how he went about learning it. In short:

  1. Install SBCL or if you’re using MacOS and want a single GUI app you can download from the App Store, choose Clozure CL. My preference is for Emacs, SBCL, quicklisp and SLIME (tutorial), but you should use an editor that is comfortable to you that can balance parentheses, highlight comments and strings, and autoindent Lisp code. Atom can be a good choice if you haven’t use a text editor before. But, it would be better if you learned either Emacs or Vim.
  2. Read Common Lisp: A Gentle Introduction to Symbolic Computation (<$2 on Alibris, online for free). Do all the exercises and grok in fullness. This book is aimed at intelligent beginners with no prior programming knowledge. Take your time and noodle with this text. It’s going to take time to develop a fluency, and it’s a different style of thinking.
  3. Then read Practical Common Lisp (<$25 on Alibris, online for free). Work through some of this book every day until you complete it. Type in the code if it is going to help you understand it. It doesn’t have exercises.
  4. Write some code for something easy, e.g., Project Euler.
  5. Then, flesh out your understanding further with Paradigms of Artificial Intelligence Programming (<$25 on Alibris).
  6. Now, you’re ready to program something serious and need a weighty reference text, i.e., Common Lisp Recipes (<$50 on Alibris).
  7. Finally, I suspect that Patterns of Software: Tales from the Software Community (<$10 on Alibris) is recommended because it’s a help with understanding how to work on software projects, but the purpose of the recommendation is kept unclear to prevent spoilers.

This strikes me as a better alternative than a $11,000 boot camp. Depending on how much you want to learn, you can get the tools you need to learn Common Lisp to the level you want for somewhere between $0-$150. All the software is available at no cost, and it will run on any computer you already own. Then, if you want to branch out and learn Python, Javascript, or some other language, you’ll have an excellent foundation. However, if you try learning Python or Javascript and then try to learn Lisp or another more powerful language, you’ll find it to be a much more difficult task.

Good luck!