Month: November 2013

Everyone should learn computer programming (to some extent)

I think everyone should learn a bit of computer programming. Computers and computer-like devices (tablets, smartphones) are just too important to our everyday lives for us to bumble around treating them like black boxes with incomprehensible innards. I recently started to learn a bit of basic programming myself. While Python is a pretty basic language and I am clearly a beginner, it’s already given me some insight into what the hell it is my laptop/phone is doing when I load up a program or app. It’s also helped me get a batter handle on the technology-related aspects of my fiction writing.

Here are the two beginner resources I would recommend if you want to learn to code:

Another great thing about learning coding and programming is there are plenty of helpful folks out there willing to share their expertise. This means there are a whole slew of free resources available on the web in addition to the two listed above. Give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.

Who knows, maybe it’ll help you start a tech company that you can sell for billions of dollars despite running an operating loss (oops! digression…).

One of the better passages I’ve read lately

Count Zero cover

Count Zero, by William Gibson

It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of base brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT.

He didn’t see it coming. The last he saw of India was the pink stucco facade of a place called the Khush-Oil Hotel.

Because he had a good agent, he had a good contract. Because he had a good contract, he was in Singapore an hour after the explosion. Most of him, anyway. The Dutch surgeon liked to joke about that, how an unspecified percentage of Turner hadn’t made it out of Palam International on that first flight and had to spent the night there in a shed, in a support vat.

It took the Dutchman and his team three months to put Turner together again. They cloned a square meter of skin for him, grew it on slabs of collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides. They bought eyes and genitals on the open market. The eyes were green. — William Gibson, Count Zero

Flash fiction submission to Every Day Fiction

Just submitted a flash piece to Every Day FictionIf you’re unfamiliar with the site, it publishes one piece of flash fiction a day, every day of the year. Hence the name. All genres are welcome as long as the submission is under 1,000 words. EDF’s a great place for previously unpublished writers to submit. There are some very astute and honest commenters offering critical feedback. The only downside is Every Day Fiction doesn’t pay anything except for a token dollar.

This particular submission is titled “Like killing a mockingbird.” It’s a bit of sci-fi, based on the premise that if computers ever become self-aware some of them will probably commit crimes, and someone will have to defend them in a court of law. It’s Neuromancer meets To Kill a Mockingbird. Or maybe Dead Man Walking. 

Updates to follow. It could be up to 90 days before I hear anything.


Learning Code the Hard Way

I like learning things. I mean, really like learning things, to the point of masochism (you have to be to attempt the CFA exams). Lately I have been fascinated by computer programming — generally the nuts and bolts of what makes the electronic would go round. As such I’m trying a crash course in coding. So far I am relying on Learn Python the Hard Way, by Zed Shaw.

It’s a whole course in coding, available online for free (if you prefer you can pay for an ebook version or instructional videos).

In his preface, Shaw describes the program thusly:

This simple book is meant to get you started in programming. The title says it’s the hard way to learn to write code but it’s actually not. It’s only the “hard” way because it uses a technique called instruction. Instruction is where I tell you to do a sequence of controlled exercises designed to build a skill through repetition. This technique works very well with beginners who know nothing and need to acquire basic skills before they can understand more complex topics. It’s used in everything from martial arts to music to even basic math and reading skills.

This book instructs you in Python by slowly building and establishing skills through techniques like practice and memorization, then applying them to increasingly difficult problems. By the end of the book you will have the tools needed to begin learning more complex programming topics. I like to tell people that my book gives you your “programming black belt.” What this means is that you know the basics well enough to now start learning programming.

So far I’ve done about a third of the exercises and I’m really enjoying myself. If you have any interest in computers you would do well to check it out.

“Mathematics can be magic”

Atrocity Archives cover

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

“Charlie had this great idea for a novel: ‘It’s a techno-thriller.’ The premise is that Turing cracked the NP-Completeness theorem back in the forties! The whole Cold War was about preventing the Singularity! The ICBMS were there in case godlike AIs ran amoke!” – Ken MacLeod, Foreword to The Atrocity Archives

Charles Stross writes fascinating stuff. The basic premise of The Atrocity Archives, MacLeod writes, “is that mathematics can be magic.” I would classify the novel as Lovecraftian horror/fantasy, though that still doesn’t quite do it justice (reasons to be found below).

The gist, in brief: given the proper combination of mathematic and occult knowledge, one effectively becomes a modern day wizard. This can involve manipulating objects or people around you. It can also involve knocking on the doors to other dimensions.

Stross describes it thusly:

This isn’t the only universe we have to worry about. Information can leak between one universe and another. And in a vanishingly small number of the other universes there are things that listen, and talk back –see Al-Hazred, Nietzsche, Lovecraft, Poe, et cetera. The many-angled ones, as they say, live at the bottom of the Mandelbrot set, except when a suitable incantation in the platonic realm of mathematics–computerised or otherwise–draws them forth. (And you thought running that fractal screen-saver was good for your computer?

The Atrocity Archives and its companion piece, The Concrete Jungle, are sci-fi/horror novels for nerds. They relate the adventures of on Bob Howard, IT flunky cum secret agent. See, someone has to keep any eye on all the Great Old Nasties from beyond the dimensional pale. In the UK that’s the Laundry (us Yanks have the Black Chamber). Howard, like most other Laundry employees, got his job after becoming a little too interested in certain obscure mathematical theorems. Now he spends his working days struggling to both navigate the Civil Service bureaucracy and thwart many-headed threats from other dimensions.

This is Lovecraft meets Fleming meets Dilbert. For Bob middle management is every bit as frightening as the Lovecraftian horrors lurking in Dimension X.

I’m not going to spoil details about plot points. By now you should know if The Atrocity Archives is a book for you (hint: you may be drooling all over your tablet). Don’t waste any more time reading reviews. Just wipe your mouth and go get it on Amazon.