Content from 2008-03

Leaving College to Leverage Compulsion

posted on 2008-03-28 20:15:31

I realized in the shower this morning that while I’ve made a few statements about my decision to leave college I haven’t really given much explanation. Moreover, I haven’t explained a tremendous amount about my views on education or the modern system of education. Those views I’ll hold for a later post. This one will be short and sweet.

I spent 3 and a half wonderful years at Oglethorpe University and half a year at Southern Polytechnic State University before deciding to leave formal education for a while. Before I state why I left, I think it’s important to note what I feel I benefited from while I was there.
1. An incredible community of mentors and peers to learn from (Oglethorpe), particularly social skills my Emo (ahem, Freshman) year.
2. A library filled with interesting books with ideas waiting to be digested (Oglethorpe, I only started using it Sophomore year).
3. A forced exposure to subjects I otherwise wouldn’t have studied (essentially the CORE program, again, Oglethorpe).
4. Time to figure some things out for myself (Oglethorpe and SPSU). And yes, I realize this one is pretty vague.

So, why did I leave? Well, there are a number of reasons but three stand out as prominent.

1. Burnout. I was miserable with school post-Sophomore year. I liked college but I couldn’t stand school. I felt like it was keeping me from learning all the things I really wanted to learn. There are plenty of books I knew I wanted to read, think about, and work my way through but I couldn’t due to prior academic obligations. I was unmotivated when it comes to those obligations so I shirked them in favor of personal study. The implication is that I knew I was getting an arbitrary education. Pursuing the paper for the paper, so to speak. And that didn’t sit well with me, both because it was preventing my personal education and not supporting my future in a direct fashion. I essentially avoided working both on schoolwork and my work to try to force myself towards a degree while hating the degree because I didn’t plan to use it. I felt like a failure most days. That alone was reason enough to leave. Or, in the words of Mark Twain, “I never let school get in the way of my education.”

2. Once I came to realize I wanted to study computer science and programming (they are arguably different) I realized there were very few schools that had the sort of program of study I was looking for. Of those that had something adequate, fewer would let me learn it the way I wanted to (at a moderate pace for fun as opposed to Ivy League sink or swim). Finally, I could get in to probably none of those schools ruling out the option of rigorous formal education. Now it would seem that I have a contradiction on my hands. I don’t want the hardship of Ivy League or heavy workload schools but I want the rigorous education. I believe that by slowing the pace you can keep the fun and rigor without the sink or swim aspect of the experience. The important thing is good material, a good approach to the material, and good supplementary material (including peers) to learn and reinforce from. The community of learning is significant but I don’t believe formal education is necessary for that.

3. I had enough of an idea for a course of study to actually do it. That is, I knew well enough what texts were good texts to study, there were lots of online lectures and materials, and programming is very much a learn by doing thing. Some of the best in the field have no formal training and it’s a field that’s historically unusually receptive to alternative training and heretical types. Paul Graham, I must admit, had something to do with this as well. His essays led me to remember that I really would love to try being an entrepreneur at some point. Additionally, they reminded me that if I ever do end up a decent programmer I’ll probably want to work somewhere obscure that would give me maximum freedom in how and what I coded (languages, frameworks, etc etc) as opposed to at a Megacorp. Agile coding with five buddies? *shrug* Sounds good. “What are we going to make?” Working with a ton of people on some accounting or CRM program in Java? Shoot me now, please. To do what I wanted to do, I really just needed to draft a syllabus and get going. So I did.

But I think the truth is really that I left college to leverage my compulsion to learn. I was compelled to learn these things, to read books on Programming, IP Law, Peer Production, Poetry, and plenty of other things and I’m terrible at stopping myself the way I needed to in formal education. So why not leave formal education for a bit? It seemed like the best thing to do and three months in I have to say it seems like a pretty prudent decision. I can think of two concrete reasons to go back, either because I couldn’t find work and was starving or I couldn’t learn something I wanted to. Let me be explicit, I haven’t decided not to go back but if I don’t encounter a concrete need to I probably won’t. Just wanted to be clear.

So what do you think?

Weak Ties & Loose Ends

posted on 2008-03-24 13:29:26

I had a lovely weekend. Good conversations tend to do that. I wasn't actually productive but maybe my brain was just digesting all that talk during my leisure. Also, my OLPC XO finally arrived. I've had some fun with it though there are things to get used to. I'm trying to get it set up to work with my needs a bit better which essentially means getting Gambit-C and emacs-nox installed. I'm also throwing XFCE on it for a more conventional work environment. Also, I can confirm that The National's album Boxer was the best album of 2007 that I've heard. It's phenomenal. I'll post more on all that later.

I really feel like I should read something tasty about Ontologies and Knowledge Representations or maybe Peer Production. I don't know. I need to empty my head out. Finally, here's a tasty Neruda poem to start off the week but it's behind a cut because I don't normally post poems this long.

Keeping Up With The Joneses

posted on 2008-03-19 04:13:07

It's an unusually late post for me tonight so I'm keeping it short as I'm pretty exhausted. Sanford, I'll get to your comment tomorrow once I can form a coherent thought.

One, I need to get motivated/cranking on SICP again. I've made progress since finishing Section 1.2 and I think Higher-Order Functions are great but I need to move forward. If you have words of wisdom/encouragement, feel free to speak them.

Two, I really enjoyed listening to a song called Green Gloves by The National tonight. When I heard Fake Empire I wondered but if the rest of the album is this good that seals it. Have they been this amazing all along and I was just missing it? Seriously, this is the first thing since Yeasayer that's just knocked me over.

The National - Green Gloves
Found at

What do you guys think?

Politics and Polemics

posted on 2008-03-18 02:37:07

Dear Livejournal Readers: I feel like there's some pretty good discussion of my last post going on at my primary blog, drop in and comment if you like.

I've bumped into several suggestions today that prices for crude oil will spiral back down in a short term period (under a year) for various reasons. I'm not sure whether to be distressed over this news or not. I worry that we may lose ourselves again to the path of least resistance, rather than recognizing that non-renewable energy should be discouraged and there is much we stand to gain if we can kick the habit. More on that soon. Sleep tight, folks.

Upside Down

posted on 2008-03-17 18:09:16

I'll try to actually write something useful in here (be it technology ruminations, code, or an essay) soon. For now, I'm too busy working, having fun, and sharing content with you all.

Today, I'm posting an excerpt from Eduardo Galeano's Upside Down. It's the first thing of Galeano's that I read (on recommendation from a friend) and I still think it's probably my favorite thing of his I've read. This excerpt is called Language and it's the first in a set of 3, taken from page 37.

"Companies are called multinationals because they operate in many countries at once, but they belong to the few countries that monopolize wealth; political, military, and cultural power; scientific knowledge; and advanced technology. The ten biggest multinationals today earn more than a hundred countries put together do.
"Developing countries" is the name that experts use to designate countries trampled by someone else's development. According to the United Nations, developing countries send developed countries ten times as much money through unequal trade and financial relations as they receive through foreign aid.
In international relations, "foreign aid" is what they call the little tax that vice pays to virtue. Foreign aid is generally distributed in ways that confirm injustice, rarely in ways that counter it. In 1995, black Africa suffered 75 percent of the world's AIDS cases but received 3 percent of the funds spent by international organization on AIDS prevention."

Well, what do you think?

Disabling SCIM in Hardy

posted on 2008-03-11 17:25:24

If anyone else has been struggling/annoyed/ready-to-kill due to the SCIM program that runs by default in Ubuntu Hardy I found, thanks to this gentleman, that you can disable the application altogether by doing the following:

sudo update-alternatives --set xinput-all_ALL /etc/X11/xinit/xinput.d/none

Restart your X server and that should be it!

EDIT: I received an anonymous comment from a British locale user that said the original solution switched him back to English. A cursory google didn't turn up anything tremendously helpful/enlightening, just this, and I'm lazy tonight so I hypothesize that /etc/X11/xinit/xinput.d/default sets your locale to the setup default and /etc/X11/xinput.d/none disables SCIM altogether. Maybe I'm right. YMMV.

Yevtushenko to match

posted on 2008-03-11 12:01:05

I would like by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

I would like
to be born
in every country,
have a passport
for them all
to throw
all foreign offices
into panic,
be every fish
in every ocean
and every dog
in the streets of the world.
I don’t want to bow down
before any idols
or play at being
a Russian Orthodox church hippie,
but I would like to plunge
deep into Lake Baikal
and surface snorting
why not in the Mississippi?
In my damned beloved universe
I would like
to be a lonely weed,
but not a delicate Narcissus
kissing his own mug
in the mirror.
I would like to be
any of God’s creatures
right down to the last mangy hyena--
but never a tyrant
or even the cat of a tyrant.
I would like to be
reincarnated as a man
in any image:
a victim of prison tortures,
a homeless child in the slums of Hong Kong,
a living skeleton in Bangladesh,
a holy beggar in Tibet,
a black in Cape Town,
but never
in the image of Rambo.
The only people whom I hate
are the hypocrites--
pickled hyenas
in heavy syrup.
I would like to lie
under the knives of all the surgeons in the world,
be hunchbacked, blind,
suffer all kinds of diseases,
wounds and scars,
be a victim of war,
or a sweeper of cigarette butts,
just so a filthy microbe of superiority
doesn’t creep inside.
I would not like to be in the elite,
nor, of course,
in the cowardly herd,
nor be a guard dog of that herd,
nor a shepherd,
sheltered by that herd.
And I would like happiness,
but not at the expense of the unhappy,
and I would like freedom,
but not at the expense of the unfree.
I would like to love
all the women in the world,
and I would like to be a woman, too--
just once...
Men have been diminished
by Mother Nature.
Why couldn’t we give motherhood
to men?
If an innocent child
below his heart,
man would probably
not be so cruel.
I would like to be man’s daily bread--
a cup of rice
for a Vietnamese woman in mourning,
cheap wine
in a Neapolitan workers’ trattoria,
or a tiny tube of cheese
in orbit round the moon.
Let them eat me,
let them drink me,
only let my death
be of some use.
I would like to belong to all times,
shock all history so much
that it would be amazed
what a smart aleck I was.
I would like to bring Nefertiti
to Pushkin in a troika.
I would like to increase
the space of a moment
a hundredfold,
so that in the same moment
I could drink vodka with fishermen in Siberia
and sit together with Homer,
and Tolstoy,
drinking anything,
except, of course,
--dance to the tom-toms in the Congo,
--strike at Renault,
--chase a ball with Brazilian boys
at Copacabana Beach.
I would like to know every language,
like the secret waters under the earth,
and do all kinds of work at once.
I would make sure
that one Yevtushenko was merely a poet,
the second--an underground fighter
I couldn’t say where
for security reasons,
the third--a student at Berkeley,
the fourth--a jolly Georgian drinker,
and the fifth--
maybe a teacher of Eskimo children in Alaska,
the sixth--
a young president,
somewhere, say, modestly speaking, in Sierra Leone,
the seventh--
would still be shaking a rattle in his stroller,
and the tenth...
the hundredth...
the millionth...
For me it’s not enough to be myself,
let me be everyone!
Every creature
usually has a double,
but God was stingy
with the carbon paper,
and in his Paradise Publishing Corporation
made a unique copy of me.
But I shall muddle up
all God’s cards--
I shall confound God!
I shall be in a thousand copies to the end of my days,
so that the earth buzzes with me,
and computers go berserk
in the world census of me.
I would like to fight on all your barricades,
dying each night
like an exhausted moon,
and resurrecting each morning
like a newborn sun,
with an immortal soft spot--fontanel--
on my head.
And when I die,
a smart-aleck Siberian Francois Villon,
do not lay me in the earth
of France
or Italy,
but in our Russian, Siberian earth,
on a still-green hill,
where I first felt
that I was

Spontaneous Monday Poem

posted on 2008-03-10 14:47:36

I thought we all might share this.

It's titled I would like to describe by Zbigniew Herbert.

I would like to describe the simplest emotion
joy or sadness
but not as others do
reaching for shafts of rain or sun

I would like to describe a light
which is being born in me
but I know it does not resemble
any star
for it is not so bright
not so pure
and is uncertain

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

to put it another way
I would give all metaphors
in return for one word
drawn out of my breast like a rib
for one word
contained within the boundaries
of my skin

but apparently this is not possible

and just to say - I love
I run around like mad
picking up handfuls of birds
and my tenderness
which after all is not made of water
asks the water for a face
and anger
different from fire
borrows from it
a loquacious tongue

so is blurred
so is blurred
in me
what white-haired gentlemen
separated once and for all
and said
this is the subject
and this is the object

we fall asleep
with one hand under our head
and with the other in a mound of planets

our feet abandon us
and taste the earth
with their tiny roots
which next morning
we tear out painfully.

On Schemes…

posted on 2008-03-05 21:28:56

One thing I've been thinking about a lot lately (even if it's premature) is what scheme implementation I want to settle on. Presumably at some point I'll be developing real applications. Or at least applications that I'll want to be able to pass along to one or two friends. At that point I'll need a way to pass said applications on without asking the friends to download and install the scheme environment themselves. See, Scheme is a LISP and LISPs are interpreted languages. There are native code compilers but they're not guaranteed.

So, my wishlist for a scheme implementation was something that was fairly fast, had a good FFI because we live in an inexorably polyglot programming age, could compile native binaries to be passed on to whomever without requiring a scheme install on their part, and decent library\module support. Other interesting features would be support for concurrency, documentation and community size, the corresponding development activity, and R6RS compliance (or plans of compliance).

This already cut my options down pretty quickly. The standout option was PLT Scheme/MzScheme. Bill Clementson proclaimed it the best open source LISP and in the general case I might agree with him. Now, I am another person that disagrees with DrScheme as an editor but I wouldn't let that stop me from using it. There's no reason one can't incorporate it into emacs, after all.

However, I couldn't find a way to force PLT Scheme to produce a standalone executable instead of a launcher and a cursory google does not lend me to believe that there is any way. That's more or less a deal breaker for me. PLT Scheme has incredible momentum and fantastic module support but what's a guy to do? There may be a way in here but I'm not really looking to embed MzScheme in whatever standalone I want to produce.

As I said, the options were already limited. Ikarus is of course the closest thing to R6RS but it's still sitting at 0.0.3. It's receiving heavy attention but I wouldn't use it yet. It's more something to keep an eye on. Scheme48 and Scsh would be great for Unix scripting but I'm interested in something with a larger community and more cross-platform nature. Guile has limitations to it's garbage collector that I question, it was designed as an extension language, and the community seems fairly small.

Bigloo, Gambit, and Chicken were the remaining options and of the three Gambit swayed me over. It's hard to say what factors exactly did the trick. Bigloo, Gambit, and Chicken all have FFI's to C and will generate native code. All three have active communities and decent module systems. I think what really compelled me in the end were three things, Gambit had some impressive benchmarks (even though they were on the Gambit homepage), I was compelled by Snow as a package system, and the fact that Termite is implemented on top of Gambit and it had such lightweight threads was highly compelling. After all, I do think concurrency via lightweight threads and message passing is going to matter a lot down the road so that was a pretty enticing bonus. As a final bonus, it runs on the OLPC.

So, now I had to figure out how to set it up. I won't keep you waiting but I should first note that I'll be installing the terminal (no-X) version of emacs because GTK emacs annoys me (aesthetically speaking).

sudo apt-get install emacs-snapshot-nox gambc

Create a desktop launcher thusly:

locate emacs-snapshot.desktop
sudo nano /your/path/to/emacs-snapshot.desktop

Change name to Emacs Snapshot (nox)
Change Terminal to true
Change Exec to /usr/bin/emacs-snapshot-nox)

Then install quack:

cd /usr/share/emacs/site-lisp
sudo wget

And to start out you'll want to edit your .emacs using

sudo nano ~/.emacs

to look something like this:

(require 'quack)
;; custom-set-variables was added by Custom.
;; If you edit it by hand, you could mess it up, so be careful.
;; Your init file should contain only one such instance.
;; If there is more than one, they won't work right.
'(quack-default-program "gsi")
'(quack-pretty-lambda-p t))
;; custom-set-faces was added by Custom.
;; If you edit it by hand, you could mess it up, so be careful.
;; Your init file should contain only one such instance.
;; If there is more than one, they won't work right.

And last but not least, a few choice commands:
C-x 1 kills all other windows
C-x C-s saves the buffer
C-x C-c exits immediately
M-x run-scheme RET drops you into the repl
C-d backs you out of runlevels
C-/ is undo
ESC-` Menu Bar

Snow will come next...

E-mails on Wordpress

posted on 2008-03-05 04:54:12

For those who don't know, Wordpress is the blogging software I run on my server. Whenever a comment is left though if it passes through my spam filters it goes to a moderation queue to be approved by me. This is practical for two reasons: 1) In spite of my spam filter (Akismet) being competent, it's not perfect and stuff still slips through. 2) I have low enough traffic that I can keep up with the moderation queue pretty closely.

However, until today there was a drawback to this. Wordpress is supposed to send out e-mails for various reasons but it never worked and the reason is that the program it needed to send mail (called sendmail, cleverly enough) I didn't install by default with Ubuntu 6.06 Server (now upgraded to 8.04).

Now, sendmail is not a mail client like Outlook, Thunderbird, or iMail. It's a MTA (Mail Transfer Agent) and frankly I have no desire to run an MTA on my server. That's overkill and it's just one more thing that can get hacked. So today, I did two things. 1) Set up ssmtp as an alternative that pushes everything to my gmail account. 2) Installed a plugin so I get notifications whenever a comment is in the moderation queue and the user gets an e-mail letting them know too.

Here's how I did it:

For the debian-based kids, try running:

sudo apt-get install ssmtp

After that completes, you're going to want to:

sudo nano /etc/ssmtp/ssmtp.conf

There are six values you'll want to change in here and they should look like the following:

From there you'll want to hit Ctrl-O Ctrl-X to save and exit. After that you'll need to tell your php configuration to use ssmtp instead of the default (sendmail). So type:

sudo nano /etc/php5/apache2/php.ini

and hit Ctrl-W, then type sendmail and hit enter to search for sendmail in the document. You should find something called sendmail_path, modify it to look like:

sendmail_path = /usr/sbin/ssmtp -t -i -au username -ap password -am LOGIN

Restart your Apache server to take advantage of the changes by typing:

sudo /etc/init.d/apache2 restart

Finally, download this to your server and unzip it into /wordpress_root/wp-content/plugins and activate it in the plugins menu. That's it!


SSMTP Gmail Guide

SSMTP Guide for PHP on Debian/Ubuntu

Wordpress Plugin

Spontaneous Monday Linkpost

posted on 2008-03-03 17:52:17

Bookshelf Jealousy

I need to try OpenBox and build a trim install from the ground up again. Maybe with Gentoo this time? Or should I stick to Arch of Foresight?

I continue to hear good things about Barack Obama. Staggering amounts of good things. It's not that Marc Andreesen is saying this. It's that everyone who's had contact with the guy is saying this. Also, he's big on civil liberties. Maybe from lecturing on Constitutional Law at University of Chicago. Hopefully that means he'll handle these fiascos a little better than the current administration. It wouldn't be too hard.

I really want to hear a good comparison of bzr and git and I'm not convinced I've heard one yet. It seems to be very "Linus made Git!" vs "Yeah but mere mortals can use Bzr!". Please guys can we elevate the sophistication in this debate?

Luis Villa comes up with some great ideas and this is one of them. Also, I may finally have to try greasemonkey because adding pictures to my posts continually sounds like a better and better idea. Well, at least some of my posts. While we're on Luis though, I take RSS feed reading seriously but I don't get near 800 feeds a day. I'd be interested in hearing what he settles on.

I'm wondering if I should start contributing to Ubuntu's Weekly Newsletter. It'd be a chance to do some volunteer work for a community I do care about and I have been thinking that down the road I might like to do some freelance writing so it wouldn't be a bad way to get a feel. What can I say? Ben inspired me.

I'm glad people are thinking about the future. This article from worldchanging appears particularly promising. Anyone have any formal responses to this? I'm going to work on mine along with an update of the Secondhand Standards essay.

Also, I'm not personally a Nine Inch Nails fan but it is pretty cool that they've released their latest album as CC'd work and I kind of hope Radiohead does that with their next album...

Personally, I share sogrady's taste in laptops and while I'm not in the market right now I am wildly optimistic about grabbing one of these in a year or so off craigslist or something.

I'm trying to really get into emacs. I want to settle on an editor and really learn it. Since I'm learning Scheme for the next year or so Emacs seems like an insanely reasonable place to start. Making it pretty seems like a good idea though.

Finally, this guy is totally awesome and I hope I can come up with a project as cool as this after my self-education.

Future Projects…

posted on 2008-03-02 22:08:29

I'm looking to make a "You might be an Oglethorpe Kid if..." list. Any suggestions?

I was driving to Oglethorpe Friday night and after seeing a license plate ("ADD 7018" I think...) I had this interesting idea for a function:

1. Takes an integer (i.e. 7018) as it's single argument.

2. Converts it to a list of integers (i.e. {7, 0, 1, 8}).

3. Adds the head of the list to the concatenated integer of the tail (i.e. 7 + 018).

4. Repeat until it's a 1 digit value and return that value.

So, on the first run you'd wind up with 025, then 25, then 7. Notice anything interesting? That's the first integer in the list. I'd like to write another function that runs the first million numbers through this function and then outputs the results in a nice readable table. That'd be interesting.

Anyway, in other news if you check I've updated the frontpage on my site to be a bit more accurate with regards to my current activities. I also started categorizing all my old blog entries back in January and I'm done so now everything is tagged and you can pull up stuff by topic. Say if you wanted to read all my bad poetry for example. Or my crazy essays, all my rants involving Linux, or posts with Pictures, etc. Of course, the search function always works too.

I watched Lecture 2-a of the SICP Lectures last night. The first half hour made sense but the half hour after that was more like the sound of my brain melting. I'm going to try a few of the problems and see how it goes. I also might work on some goofy playlists. If you've got some goofy playlist\artist\song you've been rocking out to recently post it in the comments. Alright, wish me luck.

Unless otherwise credited all material Creative Commons License by Brit Butler