First review of Coders at Work

August 9, 2009

My offer of sneak peeks at Coders at Work for would-be reviewers, has yielded its first fruit. I can only hope that all reviewers are as kind. (Though the author does accuse me of “subversive behavior” for dwelling on my subjects’ Emacs use.)

Meanwhile, I’m basically unable to function since I spend all my time waiting for the next update of my Amazon Sales Rank and checking to see whether the link to the review is being upvoted on Reddit. Ooops, gotta go; new Sales Rank coming in 48 seconds.


Coders at Work due out in just over a month

August 4, 2009

I just learned that my new book, Coders at Work is due to go to the printers on August 17th and should hit bookstore shelves about a month after that and, as I understand it, copies ordered from Amazon might show up even a bit earlier. I’m quite pleased with how it turned out and hope every programmer everywhere buys at least one copy!

Meanwhile I’m thinking about what’s next. The world of Lisp books seems to be exploding, with Conrad Barski’s Land of Lisp due out later this year and O’Reilly finally dropping their anti-Lisp policy to publish a book by Nick Levine. Meanwhile Practical Common Lisp continues to sell well. Perhaps a 2nd edition or sequel to Practical Common Lisp is in order. I also have several other non-Lisp book ideas bouncing around my head. We’ll see.

P.S. If you are a blogger or book reviewer interested in a sneak peek at Coders at Work, email me and I may be able to hook you up.

Patriarchal hegemony

July 15, 2009

My wife and I have what I think is a fairly equitable division of child-rearing labor: Monday mornings, and all day Wednesdays and Fridays she goes to her job as a doctor at a San Francisco clinic and I look after our now almost three-year-old daughter. Monday afternoons, Tuesdays, and Thursdays are my days to work on my writing or consulting while my wife looks after the kid. Weekends we share parenting duties.

We’ve been doing this since our daughter was three months old. Prior to that we were both home with the baby pretty much full time. We consider ourselves incredibly lucky that we’ve been able to arrange our lives this way and wouldn’t want it any other way. And our daughter has had plenty of chance to get used to the idea that although I didn’t give birth to her and have never provided her nourishment from my own body, I’m one of her parents and love her very much.

However, watching my daughter this morning for the umpteen-millionth time, say to her mom, “I don’t want you to go to work today! I want you to stay home!” something I don’t believe she’s ever said about me, it struck me that, at least as far as she is concerned, it would make a lot of sense if mom stayed home to take care of her full-time and dad went off to bring home the bacon.

My daughter, tool of the patriarchal hegemony.

Coders at Work in the Endgame

May 20, 2009

It’s now almost exactly two years since I started work on my book Coders at Work and I’m finally in the endgame. Once I get all of my chapters turned in I’ll probably do some work on the website and blog a bit about behind the scenes, making of the book kind of stuff.

Election 2008—some fun

November 1, 2008

I’ve been following the U.S. Presidential election on the excellent site which features sophisticated statistical aggregation of all the published polls done in the U.S and also at the prediction market But as it comes down to the election I know I’ll need a frequently updated dashboard for watching the results. So I came up with this. (N.B. Requires Firefox 3 and at least as much screen realestate as a 15″ Powerbook.)

Inspired by a page put together by Randall Munroe of xkcd fame, my dashboard periodically fetches the market price of Intrade’s state-by-state election markets, which represent the probability, as assessed by the Intrade traders, that a given candidate will win a given state. From those probabilities I compute the overall probability of various scenarios and color the map appropriate shades of blue and red. I also provide some dials and knobs (sliders) actually, to allow you to play some real-time “what if” games with the results.

There are some flaws some flaws with my statistical methodology (most notably the almost certainly erroneous assumption that the state probabilities are all independent) but it should nonetheless be a good way of tracking the results as the come in: Assuming the Intrade traders, who’ve got real money on the line, stay on the job the Intrade values will head toward certainty as exit polls and actual results become available and my dashboard will reflect that.

Practical Common Lisp Japanese translation

August 4, 2008

I was recently notified – somewhat to my suprise – that the Japanese publisher Ohmsha is publishing a Japanese translation of Practical Common Lisp which should now be avaliable in bookstores and on I had known that there was a small group working on a translation but hadn’t realized they had found a publisher. My thanks to those translators and to Masako Omata at Franz who, as I understand it, did a fair bit of work to make it all happen. I got my copy in the mail the other day. Looks good though I can’t say much about the quality of the translation other than that it seems to contain quite a number of Japanese characters. I’ll be interested to hear from any Japanese readers what they think of it.

California bans home schooling!?

March 8, 2008

This is the kind of thing, I imagine, that turns people into right-wing lunatics. Walking the dog today I saw the front page headline of the San Francico Chronicle, “Homeschoolers suffer setback: Appeals court rules parents who teach children at home must be credentialed.” Uh-oh. Our daughter is only a year and a half old so we’ve got a few years before we have to officially decide whether we’re going to home school but that’s the current plan.

Except that all the sudden that may no longer be an option unless this appeals court ruling is overturned, the legislature defies the teachers unions and changes the state’s education laws to specifically allow home schooling by uncredentialed parent-teachers, or we leave the state. Equally suddenly, I’m on the side of the right-wingers ranting about judges legislating from the bench and the nanny state trying to take over our lives. Heck, suddenly James Dobson of Focus on Family, who spent his radio show today decrying the ruling, is my ally.

We are not religous so that’s not our motivation for wanting to home school, but we are not really all that different from the homeschoolers who are. While we don’t object to the secularism of public schools—that’s one of their good points as far as I’m concerned—we object to other parts of mainstream culture: the relentless consumerism, the regimentation of academic instruction, and the emphasis on competition and working for extrinsic rewards. I’m sympathetic to the need for society (i.e. the state) to look out for the welfare of kids whose parents aren’t taking proper care of them. But to have the state tell me I have to send my daughter to the schools the state has approved and to be taught only in the way the state thinks is best makes me start thinking about holing up in a compound somewhere with too many guns and a couple years worth of canned food in the root cellar.

The quote from the Chronicle story that really killed me was from Leslie Heimov, the executive director of the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles. She said her organization was mostly concerned that children be “in a place daily where they would be observed by people who had a duty to ensure their ongoing safety.” Uh, wouldn’t parents have a duty to ensure the safety of their children. To say nothing of looking after their education and moral development. Hmmm, I really must be turning into a crazy right-wing nutjob.

Grammar School Grammar

March 7, 2008

Once again following around after Language Log’s Geoffrey Pullum yields food for thought. Long ago Pullum wrote a blog entry entitled “More timewasting garbage, another copy-editing moron” in which he heaped scorn on the copy editors who edited Mark Pilgrim’s Dive into Python for their many grammatical incorrections. That post was the one that made me a Language Log fan since I had written a book for the same publisher and had been made batty by all the same incorrections.

John McIntyre, the assistant managing editor for the copy desk at the Baltimore Sun must have seen that post because when he recently wrote a piece for his blog about the old that vs. which usage bugaboo, after defending Fowler’s made-up rule, he tried some preemptive self-defense saying, “That will probably bring down on my head the wrath of the linguists at Language Log …, who appear to hate copy editors’ guts.” He then went on to say:

But I’m just a simple country boy from Kentucky who learned English grammar in Mrs. Jessie Perkins’ fifth- and sixth-grade classes at Elizaville Elementary School and who just tries to get by on what is reasonable and useful.

Why is it that English grammar is one of the few fields where what we learned in fifth and sixth grade is considered state of the art? I doubt the Sun’s assistant managing editor in charge of political reporting would explain the paper’s approach to election coverage by saying: “I’m just a simple country boy from Kentucky who learned about U.S. politics in Mr. Bobbie Smith’s fifth- and sixth-grade Social Studies classes at Elizaville Elementary School.”

We all understand that the way we teach politics, and just about everything else, to ten- and eleven-year-olds is simplified, if not over-simplified. But that’s usually okay since most folks who grow up to be newspaper editors or, for that matter, newspaper readers, probably go on to high-school, college, and maybe even graduate school where they are exposed to less and less simplified versions of our collective understanding of things.

Yet when it comes to grammar and the use of the English language, most folks, including professionals, seem happy to work with the version they learned when they still thought members of the opposite sex had cooties.

Singular they

March 5, 2008

I see via a Geoffrey Pullum Language Log post that yet another otherwise intelligent person—this time David Gelernter, a Yale computer science professor—has been found ranting in public about the imminent destruction of the English language due to folks using they as a singular pronoun.

Pullum does his usual fine job highlighting the absurdities of this kind of rant: in this case the wild disparity between the magnitude of the social devastation allegedly being wrought and the venality of the linguistic sins, if any, being committed. Pullum—co-author of the massive and comprehensive Cambridge Grammar of the English Language—also points out that Gelernter is simply wrong about many points of grammar and historical linguistics. Pullum, however, doesn’t really take Gelernter’s argument seriously, presumably because it’s absurd and ignorant and doesn’t deserve to be. On the other hand, Gelernter’s rant is such a fine example of an anti-singular they diatribe, that it merits a closer analysis.

Gelernter’s thesis is that “the English language has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Academic-Industrial Complex”. In particular he claims “feminist authorities” effected a significant change to the rules of grammar such that “agreement between subject and pronoun was declared to be optional” allowing they to be used as a singular pronoun. As Pullum and regular Language Log readers of course know, this claim is deliciously ironic. The last time the Academic-Industrial Complex unilaterally changed the rules of grammar was in the 18th century, when grammarians, taking a bit too much of a cue from Latin, made up a rule that pronouns had to agree in number with their antecedents, a “rule” which, in fact, had been regularly violated by such writers as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen to say nothing of thousands of less notable authors and, no doubt, hundreds of thousands of plain old native English speakers.

Having made up their rule, these grammarians were then forced to choose a singular pronoun to use with indefinite antecedents (e.g. everyone, nobody) and singular nouns that could refer to a person of either gender (e.g. a person). Given the times and the fact that the grammarians were mostly men, the “natural” solution was to use he, his, and him. But one must wonder whether sentences like, “A grammarian should always keep his inkwell full”, sounded natural to an 18th-century grammarian because he really felt his was gender neutral or because he was envisioning a grammarian much like himself and all the other grammarians he knew who was, of course, also a “him”. Hard to say. I don’t have any 18th-century grammarians’ writings at hand but Gelernter gives up the game a bit with this sentence: “Who can afford to allow a virtual feminist to elbow her way like a noisy drunk into that inner mental circle where all your faculties (such as they are) are laboring to produce decent prose?” Surely that should be “elbow his way”.

Of course we’ve come a long way since the 18th century. Now that grammarians really are as likely to be women as men, maybe it’s silly to get hung up on gender-neutral he. On the other hand it’s also worth considering how recently we’ve really made progress on that front. Gelernter is full of praise for Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (excepting editions published since E.B. White’s death, which have softened the guide’s position on the absolute correctness of the gender-neutral he and are thus “a disgrace to his memory”.) But, as Pullum pointed out in a 2004 Language Log posting, when Strunk was passing along the rule that singular they should be changed to he, women in the United States still didn’t have the vote. And when E.B. White wrote about Strunk’s “little book” in his “Letter from the East” for the July 27, 1957 New Yorker that essay—which later became the introduction to White’s revision of the guide—appeared next to an advertisement with this text: “Traveling men get juicy steaks on ‘The Executives’—United’s for-men-only nonstops to Chicago.”

Gelernter does, however, inadvertently if somewhat belligerently, get to the real point of the singular-they debate when he asks: “Why should I worry about feminist ideology while I write? Why should I worry about anyone’s ideology? Writing is a tricky business that requires one’s whole concentration, as any professional will tell you; as no doubt you know anyway.” Yes, writing is a tricky business. Largely because it’s about communicating with other human beings. Unlike computer programming, where a deterministic and strictly logical computer is the ultimate arbiter of the meaning of your creation, writing is about conveying thoughts from your mind to that of your reader, a process that is neither deterministic nor entirely logical. For better or worse, readers can be thrown for a loop by clumsy diction, abstruse vocabulary, or violation of what they consider norms, whether grammatical or social. The harsh reality of a writer’s life is that some readers will be jolted out of their concentration by a singular they while others, who would have glided right past it, will trip over a gender-neutral he.1 There’s no good way out of this mess, at least in the short term. I do believe that for Gelernter, and for many others, sentences using a singular they really do “skreak like fingernails on a blackboard.” That they do so for silly, historical reasons is no consolation. (That Gelernter considers them evidince that feminism is destroying the possibility of rational thought is, however, just stupid.) On the other hand, I’m quite certain that singular they will prevail in the long run. It was standard usage long before the 18th-century grammarians put their oar in and it is even more attractive now for people who wish to avoid implying that executives and grammarians are always men. It also follows the pattern set when the plural pronoun you drove out the singular thou.

So I do my part by using singular they in my own writing. And any writer who wants to reclaim the English language from the dead hand of the 18th-century Academic-Industrial Complex, well, they should do likewise.

1. And some of us will be distracted by both, noting both singular theys and gender-neutral hes as instances of a writerly choice.

Coders at Work sweet sixteen

November 26, 2007

Woohoo. It’s all over except the interviewing. And transcribing. And editing. And reinterviewing. And more editing and then the publishing. But I’ve got my sixteen interviewees! I’ve just received an email from Miguel de Icaza agreeing to be interviewed, which fills out my roster. The complete list (in alphabetical order) is:

  • Frances Allen
  • Joe Armstrong
  • Joshua Bloch
  • Bernie Cosell
  • Douglas Crockford
  • L. Peter Deutsch
  • Anders Hejlsberg
  • Miguel de Icaza
  • Dan Ingalls
  • Simon Peyton Jones
  • Alan Kay
  • Donald Knuth
  • Peter Norvig
  • Guy Steele
  • Ken Thompson
  • Jamie Zawinski

There’s some more information about Coders at Work on the website and anyone should feel free to leave a comment if you have thoughts about stuff I should ask these folks.