Eugene Fedorenko is Designing, Writing, Reading, and Traveling

Reading (never enough)

Current book: Eloquent JavaScript, 3rd Edition: A Modern Introduction to Programming by Marijn Haverbeke

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The language of programming

By Artem Chistyakov

My friend Artem Chistyakov wrote a blog post exploring connection between English language and programming:

The teacher proceeded to decipher the program line by line. Avoiding English translation altogether, she assigned each lexeme a meaning and encouraged us to memorize them. After a while, we’d look at the program above and interpret it as if it was written in emoji.

🔲
➡️ 100
⬇️ 100
🖌 "➡️ 20 ⬇️ 20 ⬅️ 20 ⬆️ 20"
🏁


I still often think about this approach to teaching programming and how it bypasses the natural language link altogether. It’s amazing how a series of simple commands meant to be self-descriptive to an English speaker presents a serious coding challenge for everyone else. And coders we were. Twenty-something little compilers.

I had a very similar experience learning to operate computer and program as a child. Not really understanding what English-based commands like cd or mkdir really meant, they were basically magical spells to me. To this day I have these “Aha!” moments when I realize that something like <hr> is actually a shortcut for a “horizontal ruler”.

His observation about Excel is spot-on, too (and I didn’t know that those formulas get translated back and forth!):

I won’t lie, this looks outrageous even to me. But not to my Dad, who is a civil engineer and doesn’t speak a word of English. He is dangerously fluent in Excel’s formulas, which he uses extensively in those hundred-sheet documents bristling with filters, conditionals, and pivot tables. Then the roads and bridges are getting built based on those calculations. He doesn’t know what IF means, but he uses ЕСЛИ all the time. What’s amazing is that if he emailed you one of his spreadsheets and you happened to open it in your “real deal” MS Excel, every formula would appear in English, but work just as he intended.

Why didn’t great painters of the past reach the level of realism achieved today by many artists?

By Tyler Berry @ Quora

Day in and day out, we are inundated with photography and high res videos. We’re conditioned to think that clarity and resolution equal realism, and don’t question all the false visual information that we’re fed from these media. Our attention spans are small, and we don’t spend more than a few seconds with art before deciding if it’s good or bad and moving on. If it passes the 2 second “could be a photo” test, it’s considered good.

A great, deliberate answer on Quora that explains why hyperrealism and excessive details in paintings don't necessarily make them “good” or more real. Everything in this answer can be applied to painting vs photography as an art form, too.

Storage for Photographers (Part 2)

By Paul Stamatiou

Too bad I found this post only now — about 6 months ago I bought Synology DS416play for similar reasons myself. Paul shares a lot of great points, and I may reconsider some parts of my workflow. I hope to write about it at some point, but in short I keep Lightroom library and recent shoots on my laptop, while everything else goes to external SSD in USB 3 enclosure. Then all of that is backed up to Backblaze and Synology.

I've also been very happy with Synology as my home digital hub — Apple TV plays movies from it, Sonos plays music, all my photos are available on iOS devices, and all laptops get backed up to it with Time Machine. So far so good, and it feels like I barely scratched the surface of all its possibilities.

Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books

By Michiko Kakutani

On Obama’s reading habits and preferences:

To this day, reading has remained an essential part of his daily life. He recently gave his daughter Malia a Kindle filled with books he wanted to share with her (including “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “The Golden Notebook” and “The Woman Warrior”). And most every night in the White House, he would read for an hour or so late at night — reading that was deep and ecumenical, ranging from contemporary literary fiction (the last novel he read was Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”) to classic novels to groundbreaking works of nonfiction like Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction.”

On reading to escape and to develop empathy:

Such books were a way for the president to shift mental gears from the briefs and policy papers he studied during the day, a way “to get out of my own head,” a way to escape the White House bubble. Some novels helped him to better “imagine what’s going on in the lives of people” across the country — for instance, he found that Marilynne Robinson’s novels connected him emotionally to the people he was meeting in Iowa during the 2008 campaign, and to his own grandparents, who were from the Midwest, and the small town values of hard work and honesty and humility.

On journaling:

Mr. Obama taught himself to write as a young man by keeping a journal and writing short stories when he was a community organizer in Chicago — working on them after he came home from work and drawing upon the stories of the people he met.

Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too

By Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

On Darwin's schedule:

After his morning walk and breakfast, Darwin was in his study by 8 and worked a steady hour and a half. At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters. At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary, greenhouse, or one of several other buildings where he conducted his experiments. By noon, he would declare, “I’ve done a good day’s work,” and set out on a long walk on the Sandwalk, a path he had laid out not long after buying Down House. (Part of the Sandwalk ran through land leased to Darwin by the Lubbock family.) When he returned after an hour or more, Darwin had lunch and answered more letters. At 3 he would retire for a nap; an hour later he would arise, take another walk around the Sandwalk, then return to his study until 5:30, when he would join his wife, Emma, and their family for dinner.

On John Lubbock’s schedule, who was Darwin's neighbor and “one of the most accomplished of England’s amateur men of science, one of the most prolific and successful authors of his time, one of the most earnest of social reformers, and one of the most successful lawmakers in the recent history of Parliament”:

And Lubbock practiced what he preached. It could be hard to manage his time when Parliament was in session, as debates and votes could extend well after midnight, but at High Elms he was up at 6:30, and after prayers, a ride, and breakfast, he started work at 8:30. He divided his day into half-hour blocks, a habit he’d learned from his father. After long years of practice, he was able to switch his attention from “some intricate point of finance” with his partners or clients to “such a problem in biology as parthenogenesis” without skipping a beat. In the afternoons he would spend a couple more hours outdoors.

That summarizes similarities in their schedules pretty well:

Darwin and Lubbock, and many other creative and productive figures, weren’t accomplished despite their leisure; they were accomplished because of it.

I wonder if their approach with long walks, naps, and regular breaks is especially well-suited for scientist and deep thinkers. They weren’t talking on the phone or listening to audiobooks during their walks, but probably thinking about their work.

On Hardy’s schedule:

G.H. Hardy, one of Britain’s leading mathematicians in the first half of the 20th century, would start his day with a leisurely breakfast and close reading of the cricket scores, then from 9 to 1 would be immersed in mathematics. After lunch he would be out again, walking and playing tennis. “Four hours creative work a day is about the limit for a mathematician,” he told his friend and fellow Oxford professor C.P. Snow. Hardy’s longtime collaborator John Edensor Littlewood believed that the “close concentration” required to do serious work meant that a mathematician could work “four hours a day or at most five, with breaks about every hour (for walks perhaps).” Littlewood was famous for always taking Sundays off, claiming that it guaranteed he would have new ideas when he returned to work on Monday.

And some research results to back all of this up:

Scientists who spent 25 hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working 35 hours a week were half as productive as their 20-hours-a-week colleagues. From there, the curve rose again, but more modestly. Researchers who buckled down and spent 50 hours per week in the lab were able to pull themselves out of the 35-hour valley: They became as productive as colleagues who spent five hours a week in the lab. Van Zelst and Kerr speculated that this 50-hour bump was concentrated in “physical research which requires continuous use of bulky equipment,” and that most of those 10-hour days were spent tending machines and occasionally taking measurements.

On Charles Dickens’ schedule:

After an early life burning the midnight oil, Dickens settled into a schedule as “methodical or orderly” as a “city clerk,” his son Charley said. Dickens shut himself in his study from 9 until 2, with a break for lunch. Most of his novels were serialized in magazines, and Dickens was rarely more than a chapter or two ahead of the illustrators and printer. Nonetheless, after five hours, Dickens was done for the day.

What unites them all is a deliberate practice:

First, the great students didn’t just practice more than the average, they practiced more deliberately. During deliberate practice, Ericsson explained, you’re “engaging with full concentration in a special activity to improve one’s performance.” […] Second, you need a reason to keep at it, day after day. Deliberate practice isn’t a lot of fun, and it’s not immediately profitable.
“Deliberate practice,” they observed, “is an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day.” Practice too little and you never become world-class. Practice too much, though, and you increase the odds of being struck down by injury, draining yourself mentally, or burning out. To succeed, students must “avoid exhaustion” and “limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

And finally, on sleep and napping:

The top performers actually slept about an hour a day more than the average performers. They didn’t sleep late. They got more sleep because they napped during the day. Of course there was lots of variability, but the best students generally followed a pattern of practicing hardest and longest in the morning, taking a nap in the afternoon, and then having a second practice in the late afternoon or evening.

I am a big fan of rebooting with an afternoon nap. Long naps knock me off for a while, so my go-to recipe is a 20 minute nap followed by an espresso. For me it works better than just a coffee break, a walk, or mental switch.

A Year of Google Maps & Apple Maps

By Justin O'Beirne

A very detailed in-depth look at progress that Google Maps and Apple Maps did in a year. It's fascinating to see how steadily Google rolls out one design update after another, and how over time they all click together to become a part of a single plan.

I want to like and use Apple Maps, but in reality Google Maps are just way more reliable and better designed. I try Apple Maps for a day or two after every major update, but never stick to it.

Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy

By Tim Urban

Lucy is part of Generation Y, the generation born between the late 1970s and the mid 1990s. She’s also part of a yuppie culture that makes up a large portion of Gen Y.
I have a term for yuppies in the Gen Y age group—I call them Gen Y Protagonists & Special Yuppies, or GYPSYs. A GYPSY is a unique brand of yuppie, one who thinks they are the main character of a very special story.
So Lucy’s enjoying her GYPSY life, and she’s very pleased to be Lucy. Only issue is this one thing:
Lucy’s kind of unhappy.

Another great post at Wait But Why.

A better way to care for the dying

By The Economist

On life expectancy and average lifespan:

Many aspects of death changed during the 20th century. One was when it happens. The average lifespan increased by more over the past four generations than over the previous 8,000. In 1900 global life expectancy at birth was about 32 years, little more than at the dawn of agriculture. It is now 71.8 years. In large part that is a result of lower infant and child mortality; a century ago about a third of children died before their fifth birthday. But it is also because adults live longer. Today a 50-year-old Englishman can expect to live for another 33 years, 13 more than in 1900.

On change in a perspective:

What healthy people think they will want when they are mortally ill may well change when that moment comes. “Life becomes mighty precious when there is not a lot left,” says Diane Meier, a geriatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. It is common, for example, to hate the idea of a feeding tube but grudgingly accept one when the alternative is death.

On palliative care:

Doctors often neglect palliative care, which involves giving opioids for pain, treating breathlessness and counselling patients. (The name comes from the Latin palliare, as in “to cloak” pain.) A typical question is “What is important to you now?” It does not seek to cure. As a result, “it is seen as what you do when you give up on a patient,” sighs Dr Ikegami. It receives just 0.2% of the funding for cancer research in Britain and 1% in America. […] Since 2009 several randomised controlled trials have looked at what happens when patients with advanced cancer are given palliative care alongside standard treatment, such as chemotherapy. In each, the group receiving palliative care had lower rates of depression; and in all but one study, patients in that group were less likely to report pain.

In defense of “users”

By Dan Saffer

Every few weeks, some wannabe UX “thought leader” takes a “brave” stand against the word “user.” The only users in the world are drug users, they sneer. It’s dehumanizing. We should use the word “person” instead. It’s one of those debates that appears meaningful and principled, but is more noise than signal.
Words do matter, and word choice matters. But you’re not diminishing anyone or any group of people by using the term “user.” User is a perfectly fine, gender-neutral, activity-positive term for the person engaged with your product or service. Feel free to use it.

Can’t agree more.

Also, trends are funny — I still remember times when the same “thought leaders” wrote think pieces arguing to start calling them “user experience designers” or specifically “user interface designers”. Now the same crowd wants to replace “user” with the term “person”. “Person experience designer”, anyone?

Diderot effect

The effect was first described in Diderot's essay "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown". Here he tells how the gift of a beautiful scarlet dressing gown leads to unexpected results, eventually plunging him into debt. Initially pleased with the gift, Diderot came to rue his new garment. Compared to his elegant new dressing gown, the rest of his possessions began to seem tawdry and he became dissatisfied that they did not live up to the elegance and style of his new possession. He replaced his old straw chair, for example, with an armchair covered in Moroccan leather; his old desk was replaced with an expensive new writing table; his formerly beloved prints were replaced with more costly prints, and so on. "I was absolute master of my old dressing gown", Diderot writes, "but I have become a slave to my new one … Beware of the contamination of sudden wealth. The poor man may take his ease without thinking of appearances, but the rich man is always under a strain".