The creep factor: How to think about big data and privacy

There was a great passage in Alexis Madrigal’s recent interview with Gibu Thomas, who runs innovation at Walmart:

“Our philosophy is pretty simple: When we use data, be transparent to the customers so that they can know what’s going on. There’s a clear opt-out mechanism. And, more important, the value equation has to be there. If we save them money or remind them of something they might need, no one says, “Wait, how did you get that data?” or “Why are you using that data?” They say, “Thank you!” I think we all know where the creep factor comes in, intuitively. Do unto others as you want to be done to you, right?”

This notion of “the creep factor” seems fairly central as we think about the future of privacy regulation. When companies use our data for our benefit, we know it and we are grateful for it.  We happily give up our location data to Google so they can give us directions, or to Yelp or Foursquare so they can help us find the best place to eat nearby. We don’t even mind when they keep that data if it helps them make better recommendations in future. Sure, Google, I’d love it if you can do a better job predicting how long it will take me to get to work at rush hour!  And yes, I don’t mind that you are using my search and browsing habits to give me better search results.  In fact, I’d complain if someone took away that data and I suddenly found that my search results just weren’t as good as they used to be!

But we also know when companies use our data against us, or sell it on to people who do not have our best interests in mind. Read more…

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A concrete approach to learning how to program

A solid foundation on which more meaningful learning can happen

578px-Perspectiva-1.svgAs someone who has previously taught computer programming for nearly a decade, I’m often asked questions that involve “what’s the best way to go about learning to program computers,” or “what’s the best way to get a software engineering job,” or “how can I learn to build mobile or web apps?”

Most of the readers of this blog have probably faced the same question at some point in their career. How did you answer it? I’ve seen many different responses: “come up with an idea for an app and build it,” or “get a computer science degree,” or “go read The Little Schemer,” or “join an open-source project that excites you,” or “learn Ruby on Rails.”

The interesting thing about these responses is that, for the most part, they can be classified into one of two categories: top-down approaches or bottom-up approaches. Top-down approaches are informed by the opinion that it’s better to be thrown in the middle of an application or a framework which encourages the learner to piece together knowledge in that context. Many books and online tutorials use an explicit top-down approach, often starting with the basics of a popular methodology, framework or technology. The most visible example of this are books on Ruby on Rails — they almost always inevitably begin with a description of the Model-View-Controller design pattern, but defer the incredible number of non-obvious ideas that make it up (Object-Oriented Programming, for instance).

On the other hand, a bottom-up approach starts with the basics/fundamentals of programming and then slowly builds your knowledge over time. In contrast to top-down approaches, bottom-up approaches try to minimize the number of these non-obvious ideas that the learner has to take for granted. Khan Academy and Code Academy are two examples of online sites that use a bottom-up approach to teaching programming. For the most part, they completely leave out any specific framework and focus on fundamentals of programming.

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The new PHP

PHP's experiencing a renaissance, with improvements and new standards

The programming language many love to hate is experiencing a renaissance. This is not your parents’ PHP. The new PHP is a more mature language with community standards, a growing affinity for interoperable components, and a passionate movement to improve performance. If you have bypassed PHP for alternative languages, or if you are a PHP veteran unaware of recent changes, you owe it to yourself to give PHP a second look.

Language Features

PHP 5.5 (the latest stable build as of this writing) has made major progress from earlier versions. Recent PHP releases contain powerful new features and helpful developer tools, such as a built-in web server, generators for simpler iteration, and namespaces. With PHP 5.4, traits were introduced (a la Scala or Perl) to allow code reuse in single inheritance languages, as well as closures, which allow you to code PHP in a functional style. Other important features include the built-in FastCGI process manager and phpdbg debugger, and a new password hashing API that makes it easy to hash and securely manage passwords in PHP.

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Parsing HTML with Perl

Efficiently manipulate documents on the Web

The need to extract interesting bits of an HTML document comes up often enough that by now we have all seen many ways of doing it wrong and some ways of doing it right for some values of “right”.

One might think that one of the most fascinating answers on Stackoverflow has put an end to the desire to parse HTML using regular expressions, but time and again such a desire proves too tempting.

Let’s say you want to check all the links on a page to identify stale ones, using regular expressions:

In this self-contained example, I put a small document in the __DATA__ section. This example corresponds to a situation where the maintainer of the page commented out a previously broken link, and replaced it with the correct link.

When run, this script produces the output:

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Web application development is different (and better)

On both front and back end, the Web challenges conventional wisdom

The Web became the most ubiquitous distributed application system because it didn’t have to think of itself as a programming environment. Almost every day I see comments or complaints from programmers (even brilliant programmers) muttering about how many strange and inferior parts they have to deal with, how they’d like to fix a historical accident by ripping out HTML completely and replacing it with Canvas, and how separation of concerns is an inconvenience. Everything should be JavaScript.

(Apologies to Tom Dale, who tweeted a perfect series of counterpoints just as I was writing. He has visions of rebuilding the rendering stack in JavaScript, but those tweets are not unusual opinions.)

The Web is different, and I can see why programmers might have little tolerance for the paths it chose, but this time the programmers are wrong. It’s not that the Web is perfect – it certainly has glitches. It’s not that success means something is better. Many terrible things have found broad audiences, and there are infinite levels to the Worse is Better conversations. And of course, the Web doesn’t solve every programming need. Many problems just don’t fit, and that’s fine.

So why is the Web better?

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7 ways to be a better programmer in 2014

Great tips to help you sharpen your skills

Coders make resolutions, no? If your to-do-better list is still empty, consider these ideas from other programmers to put to use in the New Year. Even the smartest folks have room to grow. The following excerpts are contained in the book 97 Things Every Programmer Should Know edited by Kevlin Henney.

  1. Check Your Code First Before Looking to Blame Others
  2. Continuous Learning
  3. Don’t Be Afraid to Break Things
  4. The Professional Programmer
  5. Take Advantage of Code Analysis Tools
  6. Ubuntu Coding for Your Friends
  7. You Gotta Care About the Code

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