Category Archives: Uncategorized keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. ..  Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united .. by a great mass of common assumptions…

None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.”

- C. S. Lewis, On the Reading of Old Books, (via Ayjay)

Lecture roundup

Here are some good lectures and speeches to watch on a Sunday morning, (or a Monday afternoon, or really any time).  I’ve posted most on these links on Twitter over the last couple months, and here they all are again, because this really is worth watching.

Niall Ferguson, who like all people with strong views about the big picture should be listened to with fascinated skepticism, talks about how empires fall, and about taking an evolutionary approach to finance history.

Frank Gavin is more grounded to earth when he talks about how to take the right lessons from history.

In Swedish, Hans Rosling explains that the taxonomy of industrial vs developing countries is 50 years out of date.

P.J. O’Rourke talks about his new book Don’t Vote.

Norman Doidge explains how neuroplasticity means your brain never stops changing.

Neal Stephenson talks about what science fiction is, and how it’s connected with mainstream culture.

Not having read anything by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I must say she’s less fanatical than her reputation.

In Norwegian, Asle Toje talks about the Norwegian culture war.

Not a lecture, but an experimental documentary from my favorite documentarist: Adam Curtis presents an unnarrated view of the year 1970.

For your next two months of commuting, here’s Robert Shiller’s course on financial markets, and John Merriman’s on France Since 1871.

And, of course, Milton Freedman’s 1980 documentary series Free to Choose, which I wrote about recently.

Suggestion: Watch these videos instead of the news every other day or so.  You won’t miss anything.

Hey look – I bought a Microsoft product

I bought a Microsoft product.  I don’t think I’ve ever actually bought a Microsoft product before.  It’s not because I don’t use Microsoft products.  I’ve been using their OS’es for close to two decades.  At work I write my code with Microsoft developer tools, for use in close integration with the Microsoft Office platform.

But, apart from some games, I’ve never personally bought a piece of Microsoft software.  It came with the PC, or my employer paid for it.

The product is OneNote 2010, which is sort of a scratchpad solution, a “note pad” if you will.  I bought it because I use it a lot at work, and I found myself missing it when I was writing at home.

OneNote is a fantastic product.  Actually the whole Office platform is.  I don’t think people quite appreciate what a leap in user-friendliness the Office suite has been through in the 2007 and 2010 versions.  It’s almost so I wish Apple would hire Microsoft’s Office team to rewrite iTunes.  You know, to make using it not remind you of a Kafka novel.  Maybe I’ll e-mail Jobs.  See what he thinks.

But OneNote is the only Office product I would ever use at home.  Word is for Documents, something I sometimes must produce at work.  Nobody outside a business environment ever asked for a Document.  Same with PowerPoint and Excel.

But OneNote: A giant blank piece of paper that is just sitting there, waiting for you to scribble a note or paste some info or start an essay.  Beautiful.

Organize your work like a programmer

In my essay on how software is made, I mentioned how programmers are constantly trying to find smarter, more flexible ways to Get Things Done.  This involves adopting all kinds of fads, and then some fads turn out to be really good ideas, and become permanent.

An interesting fad in my world at the moment is called Kanban.  One core idea is about how you visualize and restrict your team’s workflow in order to highlight bottlenecks, and maintain a steady flow of tasks without getting distracted by doing ten things at once.

What you do is make a board with different stages a task can go through.  For each area you choose a limit for how many tasks can be there at a time.  And then you use post-it notes to mark where each task is. Every time a task is moved, that opens up space for another task from upstream.  Essentially tasks are pulled instead of pushed through the system.

For instance, you may have a Backlog area for future work (max: unlimited? four months worth?), a Ready area for tasks you are ready to start on next (max: 5?), an In Progress area for the tasks you work on right now (max: 2?), and an Approval area for finished tasks that somebody needs to verify, (max: 5?)  The areas and limits are up to you.

Here’s one version of such a board.  Here’s another:

This might be useful in all kinds of situations, also for individuals.  Try it for your own work, see if it works.

Max 256 Blog expands with five extra words

When I launched the Max 256 Blog nearly two years ago, the purpose of the word limit was to make it easy to post regularly.  All my previous blogs suffered from spiralling post lengths, to a point where, by some estimates, the length of each post, and the interval between them, increased by as much as 40% for each post. The growth was unsustainable, and drastic action had to be taken.

Judging by the number of posts since, the word limit has been a resounding success. But the success has come at a price.  In order to write blog posts that are 256 words or shorter, I often have to delete some words.  And they’re the most interesting ones too.  Exciting adjectives are first to go.  Next are repetitions, rephrasings that don’t actually add anything to what came before.  And, you know, those interjections that give writing sort of a friendly and conversational character, well, they too are deleted.

Entire paragraphs never even get written in the first place, just because the message would stay the same without them. If it doesn’t serve a clear purpose, there’s no room.

As anyone who has seen Amadeus knows, true artists never delete anything.  That’s how I remember it, anyway.

I do not plan to abandon word limits alltogether, because there are usually just a few deleted words I wish I could have kept.  So, starting with this post, I am expanding the word limit by five words, to 261.  That should be sufficient to meet my writing needs for the new decade.

40’s movies marathon – part 89

The Big Sleep (1946) - Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall

The Big Sleep (1946, USA, Hawks) – Humphrey Bogart runs around L.A. getting involved with beautiful women.  Meanwhile somebody is doing something wrong to somebody, for some reason.  The details are unclear, but whatever it is, Bogart’s not going to stand for it.  Watched it all.

The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946, USA, Renoir) – Paulette Goddard learns to think for herself and question authority.  Yay!  Watched: 11 minutes.

The Brute Man (1946, USA, Yarbrough) – The Creeper creeps again.  See House of Horrors instead.  Watched: 4 minutes. Rondo Hatton was so ugly that his film studio invented a super-villain’s origin story for him: He had suffered a gas attack during World War I, which transformed him into a movie monster.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) - Fredric March

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, USA, Wyler) – The boys come home from war, some broken on the outside, and some on the inside, and they realize they’ll have to spend the rest of their lives as soda jerks and bank functionaries.  Watched it all.

The Secret Heart (1946, USA, Leonard) – June Allyson likes to be alone and play the piano.  Her psychiatrist takes us back into flashback mode to learn why.  Watched: 8 minutes.

Song of the South (1946, USA) – In the post-Civil War south, former slaves live in harmony with their former masters, and entertain themselves with fairy tales.  Disney was concerned about wandering into racial controversy here, but the larger problem is how dull this is.  Enough live-action now, Walt.  Watched: 25 minutes.

Turning high-volume RSS feeds into low-volume feeds

I added a few too many feeds to my RSS reader recently, and it crossed the line from “a bit hard to follow, but I’ll manage” to “there are how many new items since an hour ago now??!”

Nobody suffers from information overload, just from poor filters, so the first thing I did was split the feeds into high-volume feeds, typically news sites that post 20 times a day that I usually  just skim the headlines of,  and low-volume feeds, personal blogs that post once a day or less and are usually worth reading when they do.  I ended up with 30 feeds in the high-volume folder, at 500 posts a day, and 100 feeds in the low-volume folder, at 50 posts a day.

A good start.  Then I thought: Is there some way I could randomly pick a post now and then from a high-volume feed and show it in the low-volume folder?  Sort of to simulate dropping by a news site occasionally, just to see what’s going on.

And yes there is.  Using the amazing service Yahoo Pipes, I’ve made a public pipe that takes a feed and “randomly” outputs just a few items from it.

To use it, go here, and fill in the URL of a feed, and the approximate factor you want to limit its content by.  Click Run Pipe, then Get as RSS, and add that URL to your RSS reader.

It’s not really random, (“publication minute” % “the number you input” == 0), but it works, and I think it’s pretty cool.

Hey have you heard about this thing called “Twitter”?

I am now on the Twitter, as BjoernStaerk, and that is why every paragraph in this post is less than 140 characters. Nd prctc shrtnng sntncs.

So far I have mostly twittered (twut?) about how wonderful it is to be on Twitter. Twitterers (twits?) are like bloggers that way.

I also twit (twoot?) when I go to the bathroom, in case someone wonders where I am right now.

My first followers wanted to sell me cigars. My next followers came to hear about politics. I hope they like pirate-themed metal videos.

When you get 1000 followers I think you level up or something. At higher levels you get magic items. It’s awesome.

The hype is now so over that it isn’t even not cool to be on Twitter any more, so go right ahead and join.

Six word messages, next big thing.

Ah, the twentieth century. Ah, the turn of the great wheel.

Academic Earth has a (free) video lecture series about France since 1871.  I’ve watched a few, it seems good. Go have a look.

Why France?  Well, why not?  I find myself more and more interested in 20th century history these days.  The subject is so big, and the change is so rapid, that wherever you look there’s something interesting and unexpected.

The movie marathon is a part of that, especially since I reached the war years.  All stories of the 20th century converge on World War II.  The war itself actually doesn’t interest me so much, (we need to get over our obsession with this war), what interests me is how people understood and responded to it, and how it’s connected with what came before and after.

Movies bring the past to life, and books provide the actual facts and details.  Most of the history books I read are audio books or lectures, because I don’t like to read huge and difficult paper books, and good history books are often huge and difficult.  Unfortunately I don’t know how to review audio books, (the writing part of my brain shuts down when I listen), so I don’t blog about them.

Right now I’m listening to a history of the Algerian War. Earlier it was a biography of Charles de Gaulle. And I’ll probably keep going with the above-mentioned lecture series.  I like to fill in the blanks, and French history is one of the blanks.  Up next: Well, practically anything!

Playing tennis with Microsoft

My other identity, as a software developer, now has a blog too, along with some of my colleagues.  It’s full of all kinds of strange words, and is not the least bit interesting unless you happen to be a developer who works with something called “SharePoint 2010″, which may be some kind of sci-fi movie, I’m not really sure.  (My other identity would know.)

Do other professions have such a large vocabulary of jargon as programmers have?  Probably, but ours changes faster.  As a programmer you have two options: You can specialize in one technology, and pray that it will stay relevant until you retire, or you can try to stay up to date on the new stuff that’s always happening.

Staying up to date as a programmer is like playing against a frenzied tennis ball machine.  It’s best not to think about it too much, or you’ll realize that it’s impossible to get them all.  Just start hitting.  And don’t ever stop.

In my case the tennis ball machine is called Microsoft, who release interesting new technologies at a frightening pace. The nice thing about living inside the Microsoft sphere is that the people there are a little less preachy than elsewhere.  But they sure get enthusiastic about their new technologies.  I’m no exception.  Hence the blog.