Personal Picks of 2020
At the end of the year I look forward to Michael Fogus's "best things and stuff" posts. I never fail to find interesting items in each year's posts.
I've wanted to produce my own posts of that sort, but I haven't been organized to really do so. However in recent years I have become more intentional and attentive about the media I "consume". I now have enough notes from last year that I thought I would produce my own end of year post.
So without further ado, below you will find my picks from the things that were new to me in 2020 that I decided to share.1
- Blog Posts and Articles
- Reverse Engineering
- Unauthorized Bread by Corry Doctorow. Gripping story that humanizes the issues around laws like the DMCA.
- Break 'Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money by Zephyr Teachout. I found this a very readable introduction to the history of anti-trust law in the US. Having grown up in Reagan's America, I have only ever experienced weak and innefective anti-trust enforcement whose foundation is a vapid philosophy of reducing "consumer harm". I was unaware of the history of anti-trust that was more about preventing coprorations from amassing enough power to challenge and corrupt democratic government. An anti-trust enforcement approach that wasn't just woried about monopoly but any size of company with outsize influence. Teachout does a remarkable job explaining how monopoly is a danger to democracies and exacerbates problems like: inequality, racism, and sexism. Bonus links:
giving up screens one day a week to get more time, creativity, and connection by Tiffany Shlain. In
this book Shlain describes a her family's practice of a "tech shabbat". In an age where computer technology
has largely been turned over to uses of surveilance, manipulation, and never ending engagement to screens,
attempting to be more mindful about how we use technology and what others might be trying to do to us
through technology is incredibly important. This year turned out not to be the best year to try to start my
own "tech shabbat" practice, but I will be revisiting the idea.
- Bonus link: Tiffany Shlain giving a talk at the Interval on this topic.
I was going to write a little bit about each link, but I am out of time. They'll just have to stand mostly on their own.
- What is a 1x Engineer? see also https://10x.engineer.
- Declaration of Digital Autonomy by Karen Sandler and Molly de Blanc
- AI is an Ideology, Not a Technology by Jaron Lanier and Glen Weyl
- How Sustainable is a Solar Powered Website? by Kris De Decker, Roel Roscam Abbing, Marie Otsuka
- CO2 emissions on the web by Danny van Kooten
- Which Programming Languages Use the Least Electricity? by David Cassel. See related paper Energy Efficiency across Programming Languages.
- What's the Value of Hackable Hardware, Anyway? by Andrew "Bunnie" Huang
- Alan Kay and the Balance Bike - Alan Kay answers a question on Quora and really provides some things to chew on when it comes to design.
- Apollo 11 Guidance Computer (AGC) vs USB-C Chargers by Forrest Heller
- How the Boeing 737 Max Disaster Looks to a Software Developer by Gregory Travis
- Speeding up Linux disk encryption by Ignat Korchagin. A really nice description of sleuthing out performance issues in the Linux dm-crypt subsytem.
- What Remains Technical Breakdown by dustmp. A description of an 8-bit NES game developed using Co2, a Lisp-like language built on top of Racket.
- Small and Efficient by Carl Svensson. An essay effectively arguing against thoughtless criticisms of today's software as bloated and inefficient.
- Why the C Language Will Never Stop You from Making Mistakes by JeanHeyd Meneide.
- The Guy Behind Garbage Pail Kids Has Been Cartooning With Code for 20 Years - "John Pound started his code cartooning journey in the late '80s by teaching himself PostScript..."
- How People Used to Download Games From the Radio by Lews Packwood. We do something like this all the time without even thinking about it, but that would've been special to experience back in the 80s.
- “The Internet is Punk Rock!” The Story Behind Billy Idol’s 1993 Cyberpunk Album #cyberpunk by Gareth Branwyn
- First TV Image of Mars: Interplanetary color by numbers by Dan Goods
- The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months. By Rutger Bregman.
- The World's First Synthesizer Was a 200-Ton Behemoth by David Stubbs
- Approval Voting vs. Ranked Choice Voting
- The Economic Consequences of Major Tax Cuts for the Rich by David Hope and Julian Limberg
- Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure by A. Pluchino, A. E. Biondo, and A. Rapisarda. Introduced to me via the MIT Technology Review.
- It's Not "Talent," it's "Privilege" by Carl Wieman
- "Good" isn't good enough from Ben Green.
- Cry No More (2020) - Rhiannon Giddens et al. giving an arresting performance of a powerful song.
Interpretting the Masters, Volume 2: A Tribute to Van Halen - The Bird & The Bee.
- Bonus video: Diamond Dave.
Apex and Abyss - Unleash the Archers.
- Bonus video: Awakening (Full Band Playthrough Video).
- Powderpaint - Eponymous release from Powderpaint. I think I listened to this release more than any of the others I encountered this year.
- Monsters - The Midnight.
- Life on Other Planets - Moon Hooch.
I've always had a soft spot for audio theater. Not audio books, but something that takes full advantage of the sonic medium to tell a story. There's something I very much enjoy about sitting in a dimly lit room while intently listening to aural theater.
(Also if audio theater is your thing. Check out what ZBS has made over the years.)
I have been fortunate not to have to commute much this year, which means I don't have as much time to listen to podcasts as I did before. Despite this I did come across one new podcast this year.
- FOSS and Crafts - A podcast about free software, free culture, and making things together.
- Music Theory and White Supremacy - Adam Neely discussing some uncomfortable topics regarding western musical traditions. See also Dr. Philip Ewell's paper: Music Theory and the White Racial Frame.
- A Life in Waves - A biopic for Suzanne Ciani. I would've enjoyed hearing more of her work in the movie, but I suppose that is what her albums are for.
- What a Nuclear Bomb Explosion Feels Like - A small story about the over twenty thousand British soldiers that were deliberately exposed to nuclear explosions. Has interviews with some of the soliders.
- We Really Don't Know How to Compute! - A talk by Gerry Sussman introducing a propagator programming model. See InfoQ for a different presentation of the talk. Also additional material.
- How Crash Bandicoot Hacked the Original Playstation - Interview with Andy Gavin about the work he did on the original Crash Bandicoot.
- Cuba's Underground Gaming Network - I'm not a gamer, but I found this an interesting look at people taking matters into their own hands to meet their own desires.
- Star Trek: Picard - It was good to see the captain and some of the other crew reprise roles an take on new ones.
Just some projects that I found interesting or notable.
The ZedRipper by Chris Fenton. "Meet
the ZedRipper – a 16-core, 83 MHz Z80 powerhouse as portable as it is impractical." See
also part 2.
- Bonus link: ZMOB: A New Computing Engine for AI an idea from 1981 using 256 Z80s.
- Build your own FPGA by Nick Johnson. Designed an FPGA "slice" using 7400 series logic devices for a contest.
- Native Land a map of territories of Indigenous nations by Native Land Digital.
- Reasons to be Cheerful - a project started by David Byrne to counter all the ambient negative news.
- Mass by Ron Mueck. A collection of 100 gigantic hand-cast skulls. That's quite a memento mori.
- Fenestra6502 by Hisabumi Hatsugai. "The circuit realizes "zero-page windows", which is similar to "register windows" adopted in several RISC processors. The circuit detects the instruction fetch of JSR/RTS and changes the mapping of zero-page on physical memory."
I don't do reverse engineering much, but I enjoy reading about what others get up to.
- Ken Shirriff's blog. I know I've come across posts from Ken Shirriff in the past, but I really paid attention this year and find myself reading every post. I mean, who doesn't enjoy a good tear down of a digital clock from a Soyuz spacecraft?
- Fabien Sanglard's series of posts on Another World. I actually never played this game, but I recall friends doing so. And I enjoyed Sanglard's posts about the original implementations as well as all the ports. It's quite the list:
- Reversing the Nintendo 64 CIC - REcon 2015 a presentation about what it took to reverse engineer the Nintendo 64's copy protection chip: N64 CIC.
- Edmonia Lewis was an American sculptor who worked for most of her career away from the US. She incorporated themes relating to black and indigenous peoples of the Americas into Neoclassical-style sculpture. Her sculpture The Death of Cleopatra is very much worth studying.
- Dr. Ronald McNair was one of the NASA astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. A more complete biographical sketch can be found here.
- Rosa Bonheur was a French naturalist painter who managed to have a quite successful artistic career despite the sexism of the age. She also seems to have managed to generally live life her way.
- Mary Fields was the first African-American female star route mail carrier in the United States (late 1800s). She did her first mail routes at 60! Was doing mail routes through her 70s too. I hope I'm doing so well when I get to that age.
Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell an astrophysicist directly involved in the discovery of pulsars. As said on Twitter by Hannah Rose Woods:
My new hero is Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered pulsars as a PhD student but was uncredited when the Nobel Prize was given to her male colleagues. She spent the next 50 years winning every other award in physics and donating the money to fund PhDs for underrepresented groups
- People's Computer Company - An organization operating in the early years of personal compting that also prduced a newsletter (archive). Two of the members eventually founded Dr. Dobb's Journal (a magazine I remember fondly from my youth).
Computer Conservation Society- A British computer society whose assoicated journal, Resurrection, is available here.
I need privacy. Not because my actions are questionable, but because your judgement and intentions are.
One person's response to "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear." Source.
A friend of mine who teaches elementary school, taught her class, “don’t yuck my yum”
It was like a class mantra, all the kids knew and understood the phrase. So, if a kid brought a bean burrito for lunch, and another kid said “gross! I hate beans” burrito-kid could just say “don’t yuck my yum”
It became the perfect phrase when one student liked something another student hated it. Quickly, it moved from the tangible (food, smells, textures) to the intangible (music, religion, quality)
By the end of the year “don’t tuck my yum” was woven into the culture of the class. They actually used the phrase LESS by then, because yuckers would check themselves before tearing anyone down.
And that class of second graders moved to third, secure in the knowledge that it’s ok to love the things you love, even if other people don’t.
Pretty much our whole Internet economy runs on spreading false information on the Internet for money.
It's worked great! It's built trillions of US dollars of shareholder value. It's a very legit and sustainable business model.
But suddenly now we seem to have a completely unrelated and very bad problem, which came up right out of nowhere, which is that some bad people are now apparently spreading false information on the Internet for money.
In the battle with proprietary software open source eventually won, but it wasn't quite the victory which its early proponents had imagined. In the late 1990s the idea was that open source enabled companies to hire consultants to tailor publicly licensed software to their exact needs. What we eventually ended up with were giant monopoly companies delivering generic SaaS, mostly with OSI licenses.
By switching from the personal computer to the cloud data center the proprietarians managed to capture the digital commons and wield it to their own ends, resulting in giant profits. Very much the opposite of the small bespoke software companies of the 1990s. Today it doesn't really matter whether Facebook is running proprietary or public software. The problem is that they became infrastructural, and that's not something which open source ever had the ability to challenge.
— Bob Mottram
“Modern development tools” is code for “hot shit at time of posting”, and won’t become the default. We don’t need “modern” tools, we need lasting tools.
Do you remember when the iPhone came out and everyone said “wow this is amazing it’s so easy to use” and never once thought to themselves, “I’ve been bombarded with training videos for this disguised as commercials for the last six months, of course I know how to use it?” That's what Github has done to discussions about version control.
A digital circuit is like a tame animal, the analog circuit is like a wild animal. Every so often the tame animal reverts to the wild.Maurice Wilkes
Can't wait to boot up my APPLE to open up my MICROSOFT text editor and GOOGLE for solutions to FACEBOOK's technical debt in my MICROSOFT repository so I can deploy to AMAZON and I'll pay GOOGLE and FACEBOOK for the privilege of getting site traffic to show my visitors ads.
If programming has a signature occupational disease, it's not carpal tunnel or social awkwardness. It's our uncritical belief that building complex systems automatically entitles us to also understand them.
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
that steal the common from the goose.
The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own,
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.
— Unknown (and there are various versions)
If you do not travel,
if you do not read,
If you do not listen to the sounds of life,
If you do not appreciate yourself.
You start dying slowly
When you kill your self-esteem;
When you do not let others help you.
You start dying slowly
If you become a slave of your habits,
Walking everyday on the same paths…
If you do not change your routine,
If you do not wear different colours
Or you do not speak to those you don’t know.
You start dying slowly
If you avoid to feel passion
And their turbulent emotions;
Those which make your eyes glisten
And your heart beat fast.
You start dying slowly
If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice.
— Martha Medeiros2
The Star Gauge (Chinese: 璇玑圖)
I can't actually read this poem. But it sounds like an amazing work of art. From Wikipedia:
The Star Gauge (Chinese: 璇玑圖), also known as Xuanji Tu ("Picture of the Turning Sphere") is a Chinese poem written in the 4th century AD. It was written by the poet Su Hui to her husband. It consists of a 29 by 29 grid of characters, which can be read in different ways to form roughly 3,000 smaller rhyming poems. The outer border forms a single circular poem, thought to be both the first and the longest of its kind.
The outer border is meant to be read in a circle. The grid is known as a palindrome poem, and can be read in different ways to generate over 3,000 shorter poems, in which the second line of every couplet rhymes with that of the next.— A PDP-8 inspired to write poetry by Darius Kazemi.3
- Tsundoku (Japanese: 積ん読) is acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one's home without reading them.4
This is embarrassingly relatable.
- Going through my notes was an interesting exrecise and jogged my memory about things. But now that I've done one of these, I'm not sure I'll do another one unless I streamline my process some. This took a little more time than I thought it would. I admit that part of the time was fussing with CSS. Anyway...↩
- This poem is often attributed to Pablo Neruda. I did a little digging, and couldn't find this poem in the Neruda translations I had available, and then I eventually stumbled on this article which attributes the poem to Martha Medeiros.↩
- I attempted to recreate the poem with just text, but it just didn't have the same impact. So I ended up copying the photo.↩
- Okay. It was just one word. But "Word" as a heading felt weird.↩