Data is ones and zeroes. Software is ones and zeroes and hard work. Welcome to the Third Bit.

Greg Wilson Welcome to Greg Wilson's personal blog.
Not all of my stories are true,
but this is a true story.
May  2, 2015 Selling Hope
Last summer, George Monbiot wrote: If we had set out to alienate and antagonise the people we've been trying to reach, we could scarcely have done it better. This is how I feel, looking back on the past few decades of environmental campaigning, including my own... Experimental work suggests that when fears are whipped up, they trigger an instinctive survival response. You suppress your concern for other people and focus on your own interests... Terrify the living daylights out of people, and they will protect themselves at the expense of others... I think a lot of advocates for open science...
Mar 30, 2015 A Base Case for Empirical Software Engineering Research
I've been saying for years that programmers ought to pay more attention to empirical studies of software engineering and base their practices on evidence rather than strong opinion. I was challenged on this yesterday when someone asked me to cite studies showing that a bug tracker is a better way to manage backlog than a shared spreadsheet. I couldn't, and still can't. I also can't find any studies showing that version control is a better way to manage software projects than mailing files around or dumping them in a shared folder. I "know" it's true—I wouldn't work on a project...
Mar 12, 2015 Goodbye, Terry
"It is often said that before you die you life passes before your eyes. It is in fact true. It's called living." — Terry Pratchett
Feb  3, 2015 Open Access and Computer Science
I was very pleased to see the announcement today of PeerJ Computer Science, an open access journal for my discipline with a stellar advisory board and over 300 topic editors. I've always thought it ironic that the people who made open access possible by building the Internet have been laggards in adopting it themselves; here's hoping that this new venue will help to finally change that.
Jan  5, 2015 Cathedrals, Bazaars, and In Between
Poul-Henning Kamp's article A Generation Lost in the Bazaar was doing the rounds on Twitter again last week. In it, he argues that the free-for-all "bazaar" model of open source has left us saddled with "a tangled web of haphazard dependencies that results in much code duplication and waste", and further that: ...the sorry reality of the bazaar Raymond praised in his book [is] a pile of old festering hacks, endlessly copied and pasted by a clueless generation of IT "professionals" who wouldn't recognize sound IT architecture if you hit them over the head with it. and that: the generation...
Jan  2, 2015 Books You May Enjoy
I didn't read (or re-read) much in 2014, but I enjoyed these: Lauren Beukes: The Shining Girls Elizabeth Green: Building a Better Teacher David George Haskell: The Forest Unseen Ben Hatke: Zita the Spacegirl (and its sequels) Jennifer Michael Hecht: Doubt: A History Peter Higgins: Wolfhound Century (and its sequels) Susan Jacoby: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism Richard Landes: Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millenial Experience Ann Leckie: Ancillary Justice Philip Mansel: Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean Terry Pratchett: Going Postal, Night Watch, and The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents Philip Reeve: Mortal Engines...
Jan  1, 2015 Things I Won't Do This Year
I've made and broken my share of New Year's resolutions, so this year I thought I'd do something different and make a list of things I'd like to do in 2015 but (almost certainly) won't. Turn Software Carpentry into a book. I promised Frank Willison I would do this more than a decade ago, and got as far as turning the existing lessons into a badly-formatted e-book last summer. I've never been satisfied with the results, but have never made time to revise it all. The good news is that Katy Huff and Anthony Scopatz have a book of their...
Nov 18, 2014 IP Communism
Back in August, the editor-in-chief of Communications of the ACM wrote an editorial in which he wrote, "It is regrettable, I believe, that the open access (OA) movement found itself in the IP communist camp." Before you dismiss this as out of touch, please go and read the comments on Mark Guzdial's post about the editorial, particularly this one, in which he points out that most of the SIGCSE community (i.e., most people studying computer science education) don't have research funding, and hence are reliant on the money raised by the ACM's paywall to support their activities. But please then...
Nov 10, 2014 Sarah Mei on Software Engineering Research
Sarah Mei tweeted this in response to news that researchers at Rice were getting $11 million for a souped-up autocomplete: These Rice University folks do realize that "coding" is about 5% of what software developers do. Right? http://www.engadget.com/2014/11/09/darpa-pliny-coding/ Hope they can optimize the shit out of that 5% with their 11 MILLION dollars. That is surely a good use of my taxes. Academic research on software engineering has been a decade behind current practice since I've been practicing. Some contributing factors: 1) The folks with PhDs often haven't been practitioners for years (if ever). They don't know what state of...
Nov  5, 2014 Politics for Current Physicsts
Richard Muller's Physics for Future Presidents and its sequel Energy for Future Presidents are both really good books, even if you're not planning to be president. Each one explains the key scientific ideas behind a pressing everyday issue in a way designed to help people make informed decisions. They're everything good science popularization should be. After discovering how many kids in my daughter's school aren't vaccinated because their parents have bought into fashionable yuppie angst about autism, I'd really like a book called Public Health for Future Presidents (see also this tweet), but more than that, I'd like someone to...
Oct 27, 2014 Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship Application
I just submitted an application for a Shuttleworth Foundation fellowship, and as a believer in openness, I figure it's only right to post it here as well. If you're interested, you can watch the five-minute video, or get more details from the Q&A below it. Describe the world as it is. Scientists spend an increasing amount of time building and using software. However, most of them are never actually taught how to do this - they pick up bits and pieces by osmosis and good luck. As a result, it takes them weeks or months to do things they could...
Oct 22, 2014 Massuni Kickstarter Has Launched
I'm very excited that Massuni's Kickstarter has launched. They're bringing custom furniture design to the web: you can use an in-browser tool to design exactly what you need, and they then manufacture it using a mass customization process. I know I'm biased—its founder is a family member—but this is what the word "revolutionary" is meant to be used for.
Oct 20, 2014 Beautiful Lessons
On May 17, 2006, I sent the following email to a couple of hundred programmers and computer scientists whose email addresses I had gleaned from the web: I hope you don't mind mail out of the blue, but I'm working on a new book project with O'Reilly called "Beautiful Code" and would like to ask you to contribute an article-length section. Profits from the book will be donated to Amnesty International. The book will be a collection of master classes in software design. In each chapter, a well-known software developer will present one of his or her favorite pieces of...
Oct  2, 2014 A Better Software Engineering Course
I've taught several university courses on software engineering over the years, and haven't been happy with any of them. Like most professors, I build these courses around team projects, and had students work in small groups to design, build, and test a sizeable (ish) piece of software. I realized after a couple of years, though, that students weren't actually learning what I wanted them to learn in these courses because: We were putting them in impossible situations. Having two bosses is hell; having five is—well, it's actually quite normal for students who are taking that many courses from faculty who...
Sep 16, 2014 Mentioned in the Paris Review
Blake Winton pointed me at this article by Vikram Chandra in the Paris Review titled "The Beauty of Code". It opens with a hairball of a dependency diagram, then quotes from Yukihiro Matsumoto's essay in Beautiful Code (but doesn't link to it). Chandra's own book Geek Sublime has mixed reviews on Amazon, but is now on my reading list...
Sep 15, 2014 Stray Thoughts
My friend Bob told me a story once. He spent a winter in a cabin outside Whitehorse with only a dog for company. When the thaw finally came, he and his dog got into his truck and headed into town to pick up supplies. Suddenly, without warning, a thought popped into his head: "I wonder if I have enough money?" He said it didn't feel like it was his thought. It felt like it was something from outside him that had just been floating around looking for a brain to land in, in the way that a mosquito might cruise...
Sep 11, 2014 What Sciences Are There?
The Software Carpentry pre-assessment questionnaire for bootcamp participants ask them to tell us what field they're in. The options we give them are usually some variation on: Space sciences Physics Chemistry Earth sciences (geology, oceanography, meteorology) "Macro" life science (ecology, zoology, botany) "Micro" life science (microbiology, genetics) Neuroscience Medicine Engineering (civil, mechanical, chemical) Computer science and electrical engineering Economics Humanities and social sciences Library sciences Other: ______________________________ People frequently use the "Other" field to tell us that their specialty doesn't fit any of our categories, or that the categories themselves don't make sense. I agree with the complaint, and would...
Sep 10, 2014 Please Help Trans Tech
Naomi Ceder's talk at PyCon 2014 about her transition from male to female was the highlight of the conference for a lot of people. She recently posted this; I think it's a great cause, and they'd be grateful for your support. Un- or under-employment. Harassment and violence. Suicide. These were the sobering possibilities I considered as I prepared to transition, the risks that I run as a transgender woman in our society. And as frightening as those prospects were and are for me, they are orders of magnitude worse for trans people who are young, who are poor, who are...
Apr 24, 2014 Hand Made
Sadie made this for me. It's super-cuddly.
Apr 15, 2014 This Is Why I Don't Write Any More
Thursday: fly to Montreal for PyCon. Friday: give a talk at McGill. Saturday: tell people at PyCon what I know about education. Sunday: help Michael DiBernardo run a reviewing sprint on 500 Lines or Less, the fourth volume in The Architecture of Open Source Applications, then forget to mention him by name in a lightning talk about the project. (Sorry, man...) Monday: teach a one-day version of our instructor training course while a dozen other people are teaching three Software Carpentry bootcamps in parallel and a bunch of volunteers are sprinting to gather names and genders of speakers at computing...
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