Monthly Archives: May 2013

Not That Kind of Writer

There’s this nice geeky T-shirt that says: “not that kind of doctor.” It’s designed for PhD holders, who arguably are the only people really entitled to be called doctors, but that usually aren’t (I’ve only been referred to as Dr. Marcelo once, actually), and in general don’t care about the title (except perhaps when booking a flight, in which case it can help getting a class upgrade — though it might cause disappointment if somebody gets sick in the airplane).

Similarly, there could be a T-shirt with the phrase “not that kind of writer,” meant to people that, while not being writers of fiction or non-fiction, do write for a living. And I argue they have an impact in our modern world that at least matches the importance of the writers of that kind.

I’m talking of computer scientists, applied mathematicians, software developers, and other professionals who write code.

Code is a funny kind of literary piece. It can be easily identified, regardless of the subject, due to the large use of indentation and different colors. Besides, writers of code prefer fonts whose characters have a constant width (otherwise indentation would be kind of useless).

Many paragraphs start with the words for, if, and while. These constructions are very important in telling the story the writer intends to be lived by the characters it’s aimed for: data. It seems boring, but data can refer to a wide range of interesting things: the color of a particular pixel on your computer screen, the balance of your bank account, the last book you ordered online.

A good writer of code, just like a good writer of that kind, is very concerned with syntax, semantics, and aesthetics in general. In the words of Francis Sullivan, “great algorithms are the poetry of computation.”

Indeed. Consider, for instance, the Fourier Transform story. It’s a story about how certain kinds of data, like audio, get decomposed in their frequencies. Until 1965, the length of the story increased too rapidly with respect to the size of the data. That year, James Cooley and John Tukey (by the time doctors, not of that kind) wrote a masterpiece poem, the Fast Fourier Transform, which makes that story much less tedious for their characters.

Writers not of that kind are often weird, socially awkward folks. Not of the kind that would impress regular writers, “liberal arts” people. But they are essential these days. If it were’t for them, there would be no space exploration, no mp3, no Angry Birds… And writers of that kind would still be using pens and typewriters (out of necessity, not just because vintage things are cool).

Google Glass: Meh…

We’ve been irreversibly spoiled, it seems. Apparently, it has been too long since Apple launched its last market-changing device. The anxiety is causing its stock to fall (it dropped more than 40% over the last seven months), and the quarterly profits of the iPhone maker went downwards for the first time in a decade, the company reported.

Apple is almost certainly working on something new, and speculations abound: a television, a game console, and a smart watch are among the most popular guesses. However, the currently most expected new tech-device is not from Apple, but Google: an internet-connected eyewear known as the Google Glass.

The main idea of the Google Glass is to provide easy access to information of the kind offered by a smartphone, as well as a camera conveniently located for videos. The concept has been around for a while, such as in a ski goggle made by Oakley, for instance, which displays speed, altitude, and incoming text messages.

At first, technologies like the Google Glass seem appealing. For anyone who tried to type a message while walking on the street, it would be interesting to interact with a computer via voice, having visual feedback at the corner of a glass. But while this would prevent people from weirdly walking holding a piece of rectangular glass with two hands, it wouldn’t prevent them from looking like a zombie.

As it turns out, the human visual system cannot focus on two things simultaneously. Speaking of the mentioned ski googles, neuroscientist David Strayer, who for decades studied attention and distraction, warned: “you are effectively skiing blind; you’re going to miss a mogul or hit somebody.” Smart glasses undoubtedly present a risk, whether in practicing some sport, walking on the street, or driving.

The second issue is with purpose. If you look at Google Glass’ website, you’ll see an advertisement campaign centered at the word “share.” Let alone the fact that the term has become a cliche, sharing is only really appealing to people who perform activities where first-person movie-recording is minimally interesting. I mean, if you’re a skydiver or a circus artist, than maybe the Google Glass is for you, otherwise your video won’t get that many “likes” or “+1’s.”

Last, and most important, there’s the concern with privacy. As the Google Glass has a camera, most users will cause others to frown, for they’ll be rightly afraid of being filmed.

Though versions for developers are already available, the hyped Google eyewear is not expected to reach the general market soon, Google’s Eric Schmidt said last month. When it does, I doubt it’s going to be of much success, except perhaps for a niche market. A market for people who like to look cool and record first-person perspectives of the accidents they get involved in.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)