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Tech Q&A

Brian D. Foy

Describe your latest project.
I'm currently working on Mastering Perl, which will complete the series of Learning Perl and Intermediate Perl. I wish I could say I was working on more technology stuff, but I'm spending most of my time writing. When I'm not writing, I'm editing for my magazine, The Perl Review.

  1. Intermediate Perl
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    Intermediate Perl

    Randal L. Schwartz and Brian Foy and Tom Phoenix

What inspires you to sit down and write?
Sitting down to write is the hard part, because it's much more inspiring to do something else.

As for the Perl programming language, I write for much the same reasons I teach classes for Stonehenge Consulting. I'm in a position to think about Perl all day long, so I can figure things out and tell other people about it. That saves them the time and, I hope, passes on some simple perspectives on the subjects. Most things aren't that hard if we simply change how we think about them, although to change how we think about them we have to see other ways of thinking.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
I hadn't taken it, but I went to look for it. I don't think I rated too highly. I'm not interested in geek fiction, most television shows, or role playing games, so I didn't get too many geek points. Michel Rodriguez created a Geek Code version for Perl, and I got my own section of that since I started the first Perl user group.

What was your first computer?
My first computer was a Commodore Plus 4, which was almost an "all in one" computer, save that you had to connect it to a TV. It came with an improved version of BASIC that had graphics and audio capabilities, so I spent quite a bit of time programming tunes by setting up sequences of frequencies and durations. It wasn't compatible with the Commodore 64 though, and since I was the only one with a Plus 4, I was basically on my own.

I had to save programs on a four-track audio cassette. I didn't do much more than fiddle with BASIC, since nobody was writing software for that computer. I think Commodore only produced them for about a year, and mine was the only one I have ever really seen.

After that, I've been pretty much a Mac person. In college I saved up for a Quadra 650 (and a copy of MetroWerks CodeWarrior). That was really the start of my programming career, although I was doing it as a sideline to physics.

Now I just buy whatever Powerbook is in the middle of the line. It's not the small, cheaper one, or the bigger, mega-expensive one. With Apple, I know I'll get good stuff, so I don't sweat the hardware that much. I'm much more interested in what I can do with a computer, which mostly serves as a fancy display for the internet nowadays.

Chess or video games?
I'm not actually that much of a video game player, and I wish I had more time for chess. I really like Zendo, which my co-author Tom Phoenix introduced to me. Using colored pyramids, a "master" decides on a hidden rule, then displays an arrangement that illustrates the rule and an arrangement that doesn't. The rest of the players make other arrangements to induce then verbalize the rule.

I think I'd like multi-player video games that involved cooperation and plot, but the ones I've seen are too directed. They look like they give you a lot of freedom, but you're really just bouncing along the wide path they gave you. What would happen, for instance, if in SimCity I didn't want to build anything at all and instead created a huge national park?

What's your favorite blog right now?
I'm a bit put off by blogs right now. I think I might even be past them, and I've slowly been removing feeds from my aggregator (I like NetNewsWire). Most people just don't have that many interesting things to say. They probably got my attention because they had a couple of good entries, but those are few and far between. I'm sure people think the same of my blogging too, and even then I've been blogging less because I know that.

Once you start writing, you have this amazing temptation to keep doing it to keep your audience interested in you, even when you don't feel like it. The topics start to blur, so although I might want to read what one blogger has to say about Linux, and I don't want to read their views on foreign affairs, or what they had for dinner, or their bad day at work.

The interesting people I know have stopped blogging because, aside from simple technology issues, their lives aren't disconnected from the lives of other people. Almost anything interesting is going to involve other people, but other people don't always want to be part of the story for whatever reason. To respect their privacy, you can't tell those stories.

After that, I have to consider the blogs which simply rehash or reprint material from other sources, just like a lot of online newspapers publish unaltered wire service stories. It's the Web 2.0 answer to the "Me, too" message to the mailing list.

Now, having said that, I'd be hard-up to have to choose between Joel on Software and Back to Iraq.

Joel Splosky is a former Microsoft employee who now runs Fog Creek Software, which makes a variety of software development tools. I'm not really interested in the software, but Joel talks about things from a reasonable and balanced perspective. He recognizes that software is a human problem rather than a technological one, and he mostly sticks to the same topics. His perspective encourages people to think and to work together.

Completely different from that is Chris Albritton's Back to Iraq. I'm not a fan so much for the content, but that Chris writes about Iraq by actually being there. He's gone to Iraq twice on his own steam and has some exciting border-crossing stories. He's much braver than I would be, given the choice. Instead of being some pundit sitting comfortably at home writing about what he thinks on the subject based on what other news organizations decide to tell him, he's there living it. I'm much more interested in first-hand accounts than I am of random, uninformed commentary.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
I used to like Dilbert, but I think it turned into something worse than what it parodied. For a couple of years, it was funny to make fun of the corporate environment and the stupid things that happen, but Dilbert turned out to be divisive and turned each side against each other even more. Instead of being facile humor, Dilbert gave techies the vocabulary to make the problem worse. The topics aren't especially corporate in nature since the underlying problems are in just about any human activity.

Certainly Dilbert does reflect some truth, and it's only funny because it's true. But I'm mostly a manager now, so I see the other side of things. Sure, you might think your boss is an idiot, and maybe he is, but he's operating under a different set of constraints. He probably thinks of his boss just like you think of yours. I've found that a lot of what gets blamed on the people techies see is really just misunderstanding between the two groups, or some hidden constraint that people don't understand or aren't allowed to see.

I'm not sure that mice controlling everything is any better, though, so I'm not sure that Douglas Adams should win either.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
The greatest thing I've seen is a portable water purifier that can serve a village. I forget the technical details of the device I saw a couple years ago, but it was man-portable (meaning one person could carry it), inexpensive, and repairable. Given some human power and filters, it could make potable water almost anywhere in the world. We don't think about that too much in the United States, but in a lot of cases bottled water costs more than already expensive gasoline. Water is something that everyone needs, and we haven't been able to deliver it effectively to everyone.

I bet you were expecting me to talk about computers or phones or something, but I don't think they add much to life. Gadgets are pretty high on Maslow's pyramid, and I tend to think that they are, in the language of Herzberg, "hygiene factors." If we don't keep improving them or taking care of them, we become unhappy. What made us perfectly happy last year, say, a four-megapixel camera, makes us unhappy this year. We are constantly dissatisfied with computers despite the fact that they continue to do exactly the same thing they always were able to do. They don't get slower, they hold as much information, and they are just as useful. Still, I'm annoyed that my Powerbook only has 80 GB of disk space and that it keeps telling me my startup disk is almost full, even though my first computer couldn't even count to 80 billion.

The ability to constantly communicate with almost anyone at any time has made life much more stressful, too. If someone calls me on the phone and I don't answer, they know they haven't spoken to me. If they email me but they don't get a response, people tend to assume that I've seen their message and have ignored them, making some judgment on what they sent. I, and other people I know, end up seeing as our first contact these scathing, angry email messages about how I'm ignoring their very important concerns. People expect immediate action along with instantaneous communication. Maybe it's a geek thing, though.

Along with that, people just communicate too much. Why should it take five emails sent back and forth to get anything done? Instead of sending me a message saying "Can I ask you a question?," just ask the question. The ease of communication means people talk too much before they act, so instead of being a time-saver, we're getting less done because we spend more time talking about it and we try to get more input from even more people just because we can. People take less care to compose their messages, communicate their intent, and get what they want. It's easier to ask someone else than it is to find out the answer ourselves. The stuff we do get done doesn't really improve life for most people, either.

Consider things such as blogs, feeds, and all of these wonderful Web 2.0 things. Have they made my life any better? Am I more happy? They've certainly made my life more stressful. I feel like I'm constantly behind on my reading list, or that I don't know what's going on if I don't read these things. In reality, if I miss most of them, nothing really changes. Out of all the things that people talk about and things that might happen, given time, 99% of them won't matter.

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