For the past 4 years, just before the holidays, I’ve sent a newsletter to my colleagues about all the things I’ve read, watched, listened to, cooked, or ate in the last year. This is the 2020 edition.
The Christopher Alexander idea patch
Where I’m from, there are so many blueberries that people from that region are called bleuets. (The tourist info phone number is 1-877-BLEUETS (253-8387). You should go and visit.) When you go out to pick them (the blueberries, not the people) and you hit a patch with tons of them, we say “I found une talle!” That’s how it felt getting into Christopher Alexander’s ideas.
You might know of Alexander without realizing it. He’s considered as the father of the idea of design patterns, which were heavily inspired by his book architecture book A Pattern Language. Patterns are part of a larger process to solve design problems, from problem definitions, to solutions, to the evaluation of how good the solution is. It’s that larger process that I found interesting. He named the parts of the process context, form, and fit. In brief, the context is the problem to be solved together with its constraints. It’s totally independent of the solution. The form is the solution. It has a shape that fits the context more of less well. Once I had these words in my mind, I started seeing them everywhere.
Clay Christiensen’s Jobs-to-be-Done framework (from Competing Against Luck) is a way of defining product opportunities (jobs) as a context that can be fulfilled in many different ways. To get an idea of what that means, watch him telling the story of the job of a milkshake and how milkshakes compete with bananas, donuts, and bagels, and not with ice cream.
In Demand-Side Sales, Bob Moesta (who did the milkshake research) talks about selling from the buyer’s perspective, from their struggles, from their context. In contrast to selling from the supply-side, which talks about features and form words. I highly recommend this book.
On the programming side, unit testing has morphed into form testing, whereas the original intent was context testing. Behavior-driven development tried to get that spirit back. What I heard Ian Cooper say in his TDD, Where Did It All Go Wrong talk was “Write context tests.”
Basecamp’s Shape Up is basically Alexander’s ideas applied to product development and management. It makes a clear distinction between shaping (defining the problem and the context) and doing the work (creating a form). Which in turns allows a new dimension of diagnosis when a project fails: was the project badly shaped or is it that the execution failed and form was a bad fit?
Ryan Singer, head of strategy at Basecamp, did a great intro to Alexander’s work this summer.
The Best Writing
Losing the War by Lee Sandlin is the best writing I read this year (and I read it on January 1, 2020).
It’s an incredible essay on war (the Second World One), and memories. I found the “flow” to be exemplary with plenty of historical context and commentary. Well worth the time.
programming == cooking
I used to tell students that I was “teaching them how to fish.” But after reading Robin Sloan’s Home Cooked App, I’ve started telling people I’m teaching them how to cook. It’s a much richer analogy.
If you don’t know how to cook, you eat pre-packaged meals or you eat out (or you live with your mom forever). But there are tons of reasons to want to learn how to cook and tons of things to do once you’ve learned how. You can cook for health reasons, to please friends, to create the perfect version of something, as a creative output, because you’re picky, to make food you want to eat, because it’s fun. You can specialize and become a baker, or open a taco truck, or start a family restaurant, or run a fine-dining restaurant. You can teach others how to cook. In the end, you can still go out and eat if you want, you have a choice. There are so many reasons to learn to cook.
If you don’t know how to program (or how to reason about programming) you use apps you bought and hire consultants. But there are tons of reasons to want to learn how to program and tons of things to do once you’ve learned how. You can create little scripts to rename files, write notebooks to make custom analyzes, write an app to enable friends and colleagues to explore data like you can, write your own text editor (!) because vim is holding you back, because it’s fun. You can specialize and build deep learning models, or design data management systems, or build custom web apps, or start a scientific software development consultancy. You can teach others how to program. In the end, you can still hire consultants if you want, you have a choice. There are so many reasons to learn to program.
The Glamorous Toolkit is an impressive “moldable development environment”. I’d describe it as a strange hybrid between a notebook editor and an IDE. Any objects can have a rich and interactive representations, which is not new (to us), but the cool part is that it’s easy to dynamically add new rich representations to the development environment. Watch this talk by Tudor Gîrba to get a taste of what’s possible.
Simon Willison’s (co-creator of Django) Datasette is an impressive project to “explore and publish data”. It relies heavily on sqlite. I look forward to playing with it some more over the holidays. He’s done super cool things with it, including finding the best photo of a pelican according to Apple Photos, and building a regex search engine across a collection of Github repos using
I started many books this year, but didn’t finish that many:
Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows is a short introduction to “systems thinking,” their components (stocks, flows, feedback loops), common system configurations, common pitfalls/opportunities of those configurations, and leverage points to intervene in those systems. I had so many “Ah ha!” moments. Many about things I “knew” but hadn’t realized the consequences of. Like how “systems with similar feedback structures produce similar dynamic behaviors, even if the outward appearance of these systems is completely dissimilar.” For example, a population system (controlled by births and deaths) has a similar configuration as an economic capital system (controlled by investment and depreciation). Reading this book, it was so easy to think “Here’s a silver bullet!” but then she totally called me out on it:
People who are raised in the industrial world and who get enthused about systems thinking are likely to make a terrible mistake. They are likely to assume that here, in systems analysis, in interconnection and complication, in the power of the computer, here at last, is the key to prediction and control. This mistake is likely because the mind-set of the industrial world assumes that there is a key to prediction and control.
Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. Yes it’s a typography book, but it may also be the funniest thing I read all year. Bonus: the book itself is a beautiful object.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is a wonderful memoir of a “life in science.” She’s a good storyteller, telling a good story, about how the path to success in academia can be wild.
But I read a lot of good articles:
TYIL (This Year I Learned)
The Ouarzazate Solar Power Station melts salt by concentrating the power of 7400 parabolic mirrors towards a central tower. The molten salt is then used to superheat water and power steam-powered generators.
It’s possible to tell one’s position in the sea based on wave patterns. The 2016 NYT piece by Kim Tingley, The Secrets of the Wave Pilots, is an impressive testament of what our brains can perceive using our full bodies as sensors. See also these beautiful Marshall Islands navigation charts, and the Eagle Eyes Radiolab story about the vest David Eagleman is building to help deaf people hear.
Some Nice Pandemic things
I started making pizza just after the pandemic started. I can’t wait for it to be over to organize pizza parties. My source of knowledge is Ken Forkish’s Elements of Pizza. Using tipo 00 flour is worth it. So is a baking steel/stone.
Kenji Alt Lopez’s Serious Eats episode on emulsions has a really compelling demonstration of why you should put a surfactant in your emulsions. Now I put a little dollop of mustard in all my vinaigrettes.
My friend Matt shared some bardcore videos by Hildegard von Blingin’ earlier this year. Here’s Somebody That I Used To Know (Bardcore/Medieval Style Cover with Vocals). Bardcore is medieval renditions of pop songs. Obviously. So… the name Hildegard von Blingin’, is a reference to Hildegard von Bingen, an 11th century badass abbess, composer, and scientist (among others). In the early 2000, my mom gave me a CD by Garmarna, a Swedish band that does… electro-folk renditions of her 11th-century music.
Hildegard von Blingin' = 1/Garmarna! Here’s one song and here’s the whole Garmarna album.
According to Spotify and Last.fm, I’ve listened to 1,700+ different artists this year, 600 of which were new to me. I won’t give you the whole list, don’t worry. Although I do have a playlist of every album I liked in 2020 and one of only the best songs I listened to in 2020.
Here are my favorite albums released in 2020, in no particular order.
Here’s more great music I discovered this year but that wasn’t made this year.
I somehow ended up listening to a lot of Japanese indie music (for a lack of better term).
- The Newsroom by Aaon Sorkin is the best series I watched this year. Great characters, surprisingly funny, great storylines and overall arc.
- Ted Lasso is a close second.
- Crictor makes wonderful short, really short, videos. Do watch Popcorn (15 sec) and Hanabi (fireworks in Japanese, a big 45 sec).
- The Last Dance (Netflix), on Michael Jordan’s career was a riveting watch. I vividly remember the 1997 Utah game where Jordan “had the flu” and still scored 38 points. At the time, my English wasn’t so great and I remembered being puzzled by the fact that the announcer said Jordan had “the flu” (which in québécois basically means diarrhea). Well, I learned that he probably did have the runs! He didn’t have the flu, he had food poisoning from a bad pizza probably given to him by disgruntled Jazz fans. Take that, Jazz!
- The Good Place (Netflix) is an unlikely great show about… philosophy. My favorite character is Jason Mendoza. I’d watch it again.
- The West Wing: got me into Sorkin. I shed a tear during 5 of the first 5 episodes.
- I was going to say that The Magicians was funny, smart, emotional, with a great cast, and a fantastic ending. But as I write this, I learned there’s a 5th season I didn’t know existed. So take my “great ending” comment with a grain of salt.