The Power of the Backchannel

February 21st, 2010 44 comments

Last week, I spoke at the New England Java Users Group, one of the biggest and best around. I had a rocking good time, the audience was outstanding and Dave Klein (author of the outstanding Grails: A Quick-Start Guide) was even there! Anyway, one of the attendees, Deborah Hamill (VP Engineering at Accordare, Inc.), was kind enough to collect up all the links I referenced during the talk – including ones that weren’t even on my slides! Many thanks Deborah, I appreciate it. By the way, said slides can be found here.


Others Deborah found while searching for my topics:

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January 31st, 2010 87 comments

Freedom (TM) is Daniel Suarez’s followup to one of my favorite books of 2009 – Daemon. Required reading for last year’s Hackers B and B, Daemon is a geek friendly book that includes a main character using a perfectly realistic SQL attack to hack into a computer (there’s no “this is UNIX” moment from Jurassic Park here.) Suarez is to geek what Tom Clancy is to military: dead on details abound. I tore through Daemon and I hotly awaited the conclusion of his epic tale. I was not disappointed.

The Daemon is the creation of an ultra rich (mad?) genius game designer Matthew Sobol. When Sobol dies of brain cancer, he unleashes his program on the world where it reeks havoc. Throughout his first book, we’re lead to believe the Daemon is ultimately an evil creation but Freedom(TM) shows us the other side of Sobol’s work. Indeed, we find a new world order emerging as darknet members (people who’ve joined with the Daemon) form new communities committed to sustainability (it’s easy to see where Suarez was influenced by Omnivore‚Äôs Dilemma.) Of course the old guard fights back as it sees its power and influence begin to wane…

I don’t want to say too much and ruin anything, but if you’re a geek, a gamer, a programmer or just someone that likes a fast paced action filled book, well then Freedom(TM) is your cup of tea. Some may be put off by the heavy handed political commentary but I wouldn’t let that stop you from giving it a go. I hope this isn’t the last book from Suarez though he’s set the bar awfully high.
Freedom (TM)

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Omnivore’s Dilemma

January 22nd, 2010 115 comments

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals has been on my reading list for quite some time now and over the holidays I finally got around to ordering it – as my first foray into the world of the Kindle. Yes, my dad came through in a big way and allowed me to join the likes of Neal Ford, Stu Halloway and Scott Davis…but back to Pollan’s book. Omnivore’s Dilemma starts with a simple question: where does our food come from? Pollan follows a humble hamburger back to the corn fields of Iowa and ultimately the oil fields of the Middle East showing us how the lack of diversity on the modern farm isn’t doing the farmers, the environment or our midsections any favors. No, it seems modern agriculture is designed to benefit large multinational corporations more than anything else. Shocking. Some will shun meat after reading about its processing but me, well I like a good burger. However, we’ll be picking up some grass fed beef from Thousand Hills shortly…

Part two explores the organic movement from the amazing synergy of a true farm ecosystem consisting of cows, chickens, pigs and grass working together in concert to the, shall we say, less noble minded large scale operations that see a market to tap. We consume a fair amount of organic food but there’s no comparison to what we get all summer long from our local CSA, Foxtail Farm. Thanks to Pollan, I’m more skeptical of the organic label though I still think its ultimately for the better and I’m even more convinced that supporting local growers is an important step – we get better food that’s produced in a more sustainable way.

The last part of Omnivore’s Dilemma looks at hunting and gathering with Pollan crafting an entire meal that he scavenged. He creates an amazing meal that reminds us that food isn’t just about shoveling sustenance into our maws – it’s about connecting with those we love. And it really is stunning what you can find if you know where to look though I won’t be hunting mushrooms anytime soon…

Omnivore’s Dilemma isn’t a new book but it’s still relevant and will definitely change how you approach food. I have a different mindset at the grocery store now and I try to follow Pollan’s advice on diet: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Whether you do all your shopping at Whole Foods or the quickie stop, arm yourself with Pollan’s teaching; you’ll eat better and ultimately you’ll feel better.

Updated to add cover image:
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

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The Backchannel

January 3rd, 2010 16 comments

It’s a new year and one of my resolutions is to post more – and to write up my thoughts on the books I read throughout the year. Looking at my Recent Reads page, it’s obvious I’ve let that lag a bit… With that in mind here is the first of what I hope is a relatively steady stream of reviews.

Based on effusive praise from Kathy Sierra, I picked up Cliff “Beyond Bullet Points” Atkinson’s latest book, The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever. Atkinson‘s book is an exploration of how social media sites like Twitter are changing the landscape of public speaking and while I wasn’t quite as blown away as Kathy was, there certainly are some good points to be found in this quick read. I’ll start with the positive and then finish up with my criticisms.

I can understand why Kathy is so fond of this book – throughout, Atkinson reminds speakers of a vitally important lesson: it’s about your audience stupid. Too many speakers epitomize the “me me me” approach of presenting and that’s a recipe for failure. Though I find the “four tweet” model bit minimal (especially for longer talks), it is a useful exercise that I’ll be incorporating into my talk prep. Again, the notion here is to focus on your audience and really think about the key ideas you’re trying to communicate. I also like thinking about Twitter sized bites – making your talk “Twitter friendly” is valuable advice.

The concept of a presentation home page is rock solid and I think I’ll play with that as well; starting (and fostering) conversation should be the goal of a modern talk. Considering the wealth of ways people can consume information today, live presentations need to offer something compelling to capture an audience. Turning a talk into one leg of a more immersive experience is a worth exploring.

While there certainly were some strong points in The Backchannel, I felt it took too long to get to the key points which is ironic considering Atkinson’s repeated advice to do so in a presentation. I suspect there was an effort to inflate the page count a bit – the first half of the book could be condensed quite a bit. Case in point, I was surprised to see a chapter that was devoted almost entirely to setting up a Twitter account. A number of the graphics did little to add to the material, in many cases, they stated exactly what was already on the page. It also felt like the book was written on Twitter – so many of the sentences and paragraphs seemed to adhere to a 140 character limit.

Atkinson has a great list of ways the backchannel can blow up but not nearly enough advice on just how to recover when faced with those situations in real life. I understand he wants us speakers to *think* about how we’d handle that situation (and that’s great advice) but I was hoping for more of his thoughts here; I wanted more hard won experience from people who’ve lived to tell the tale. The backchannel blowup case studies were useful but again, I wanted more “here’s what they should have done…”

Though a bit light on content, the last couple of chapters make this book worth reading. Atkinson reminds us to focus on our audience and our message and he has some practical advice for dealing with the realities of modern presentations. Just as we can’t turn back the clock to when bullet point laden talks were the norm, we can’t put the Twitter genie back in the bottle. But we can do a better job of engaging and leveraging these tools to make more compelling presentations.

The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever

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Persistent Data Structures and Managed References

October 28th, 2009 12 comments

Speaking of interesting videos, Stuart Halloway has been beating the drum pretty hard for Rich Hickey‘s talk: Persistent Data Structures and Managed References. I was actually in the audience (along with Glenn Vanderburg) when Rich gave this talk at QCon London and I concur with Stu – this is something you’re going to want to watch. A couple of times. Then watch it again. You’ll thank me (and Stu) later. Oh, and you really should go to QCon. I mean it, it’s a great show with some unique talks.

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DSLs in JavaScript Video

October 13th, 2009 10 comments

The video of my DSLs in JavaScript talk [slides - pdf] from QCon is now available on the InfoQ site; many thanks to all those who have written me or tweeted links, I appreciate it! I can’t say enough good things about QCon, it’s a great show with some amazing talks – if you have a chance to go, you really should. But, if getting to London or San Francisco (two of my absolutely favorite cities) isn’t on the radar screen, the next best thing is watching the fantastic videos you’ll find posted regularly on InfoQ. Enjoy!

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Rich Web Experience 2009

September 27th, 2009 8 comments

Where would rather be this December, adjusting to winter or spending a few days in Orlando learning about what’s new and exciting in JavaScript, Ajax, CSS, HTML, design and a host of other topics? If the later appeals to you, book your seat today at The Rich Web Experience! In addition to some great talks by some of the best speakers in the industry, you’ll also have access to the JSF Summit. I think Neal Ford has been listening in on some of my Ajax talks – I call it a seasoning, he calls it a spice, but either way, the user experience is a key to making great applications. See you in Orlando!

I'm speaking at the Rich Web Experience 2009!

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Ajax: Tools of the trade

May 26th, 2009 13 comments

Over on JavaWorld, you can see my latest article: Ajax: Tools of the trade. If it’s been a while since you looked at client side development and you still think alerts are the end all be all of web debugging, you might want to give it a read. Here’s the official summary:

Where JavaScript developers were once tool-deprived, today we’re often overwhelmed with the abundance of options. In this article, Foundations of Ajax author Nathaniel T. Schutta reviews development environments, debuggers, testing tools, and utilities that elevate JavaScript to first-class status in the Web development world. If you’re still programming JavaScript in a text editor, this survey of the modern tools landscape should open your eyes — and could make your life much easier.

If you like the article, you might also want to listen to the podcast of Andy Glover and I chatting about Ajax, JavaScript, testing and more. Enjoy!

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Good Ideas Aren’t Always New

April 21st, 2009 16 comments

At QCon, Glenn Vanderburg, Michael Feathers and I (there may have been others, as I recall some ESB was involved…) were talking about Mike’s 10 Papers Every Programmer Should Read post (if you haven’t read it, please do so now, I’ll wait. No really, go on.) A lot of programmers aren’t particularly well read, a fact that Mike laments, and we kicked around some theories as to why that is – here’s mine.

Why don’t we look at our past? I believe it has to do with the natural (10 year or so) cycle of language dominance. People who’ve never programmed in language n-1 look at the syntax in a book from, say the early 90s and scoff; they complain that they don’t know that language thus they can’t read the book. I’ve heard more than a few developers dismiss Design Patterns because the code wasn’t in Java, of course Java is starting to wane – a couple of days ago I was researching a book and noticed it had a bunch of negative reviews because the example code was Java!

Many developers are essentially Blub programmers and they can’t imagine life in any other language. Further, they firmly believe that anything that existed before Blub is the modern day equivalent of the Pony Express, antiquated and useless. To some, all the good ideas are new, and we have nothing to learn by studying our past, I suspect many of these people have never seen the mother of all demos (though maybe we have something new to rival that now.) A typical Blub programmer assumes that any book that doesn’t use Blub isn’t worth his time and thus misses out on a wealth of learning. They almost willfully ignore the past which explains some of the reactions to Mike’s post.

I’ve been doing my best to read my way through 10 papers and this afternoon I came to Kent Beck and Ward Cunningham’s A Laboratory For Teaching
Object-Oriented Thinking
. Now, many people assume the whole agile software thing is just a few years old but here we see waaaaaaay back in 1989, a reference to YAGNI and a plug for teamwork:

We stress the importance of creating objects not to meet mythical future needs, but only under the demands of the moment. This ensures that a design contains only as much information as the designer has directly experienced, and avoids premature complexity. Working in teams helps here because a concerned designer can influence team members by suggesting scenarios aimed specifically at suspected weaknesses or omissions.

Great ideas then, a great ideas now. We’re a young industry, one that is further hamstrung by the belief that the language/technology/process du jour is all that plus a bag of chips. We’ve obviously made some huge strides, but in so many ways we’ve barely moved. But for the video quality, Engelbart’s demo could have just as easily been from 1988 or even 1998; sure, we’ve all got a mouse on our desk, but what about that 5 fingered keyboard? Not so much. Heck, every language is just trying to reinvent Lisp, and that’s more than 50 years old! Don’t be afraid of the past, those old guys knew a thing or two. We only hurt ourselves by ignoring the lessons they have to teach us.

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Test Infecting the Legacy Organization

April 15th, 2009 13 comments

As Neal Ford explains, the NFJS Anthology series has been reborn as a monthly magazine and in the current edition, you can read my take on test infecting legacy organizations. I’ve been a proponent of the testing meme for most of my career but I’ve also spent much of that time convincing reluctant coworkers (and managers) that testing was in their best interest – the article takes my talk of the same name and puts it to paper. All NFJS attendees get a complimentary copy of of NFJS, the Magazine, but anyone is free to subscribe. Each month you’ll get an eclectic mix of articles written by NFJS speakers on topics they are passionate about; if you’d like to see a sample article, check out Jared Richardson‘s A Case for Continuous Integration [PDF]. Enjoy!

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