I rarely look at C while at the office. In many ways, it’s a language of a bygone era, especially when you’re talking about web application development. Sure, we take advantage of C every day, but write in it? Never. 

However, I’ve become fairly proficient in it these past two years and have grown to appreciate the language for what it is: Blazing fast and fine-tuned for several specific use-cases. Unlike JavaScript (my language of choice while at work), C does not come with dozens of associated frameworks that come and go on a moment’s notice. It also doesn’t split its time between the hard logic of an application and managing the user interface. In many ways, C runs the world of computers around us without us even knowing.

The story behind C is the most interesting part of the language. Written in the late 60’s and launched into production around 1972/1973, C was born from necessity. In the late 60’s, Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson decided to write an operating system for the PDP-11, Unix (pictured above – it’s the size of a huge refrigerator and it’s processing power isn’t even close to the power of my phone).

Most of the logic of the operating system was written in Assembly at first, but this proved to be fairly clunky. Assembly’s limited support for logical constructs made this a painstaking process that grew so difficult that Ritchie decided to write his own language, specifically for handling Unix, and so C came into existence. 

The language is so basic that its primitives don’t include strings, garbage collection is left up to the programmer, and objects are nowhere to be found. However, the language’s relationship to the Unix operating system means that it is nearly ubiquitous as Unix (or some variant) is found on nearly every web server, the majority of smartphones, and the computer that I’m using (a Macbook Pro) to write this post. Wherever Unix is found, C is right behind, managing all of the commands you type into a terminal, the boot process of your computer, and, well, most anything you do. 

Like the core functionality of Unix, which has a philosophy of limited design, C has not grown much beyond it’s humble beginnings. Features have been added incrementally, but much of my own work with the language is done in C99, a standard written nearly 20 years ago. One of my favorite bits of back and forth that I have with Scott Fennell, our lead developer at LexBlog, is his love of languages that are well-defined and static. The more a language changes, the harder it is for teams and individuals to manage. Imagine if English were changing at the same breakneck pace of JavaScript; we would barely be able to communicate from day to day.

As I’ve grown less enamored of just getting a project up and running and seen the value of maintainable systems and software, I must admit that I’ve come to Mr. Fennell’s side of the argument. Give me a language that doesn’t change but does the job just as well, if not better, than any of it’s counterparts. That’s not to say that I want to spend my days writing C, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing.

I have a great fondness for journalism. The industry, the people, the organizations — it’s all fascinating and vitally important. My political and philosophical leanings lead me to believe that the tradition of having an independent and empowered Fourth Estate is key to a functioning democracy.  Even in the absence of my politics and philosophies, reading the news is fun. I enjoy reading about the experiences of people I’ve never met going to places I’ve never been. How odd.

So to hear that the profession is dying, shrinking, or changing for the worse, and to listen to the narrative get increasingly louder is cause for some concern.

Now, this is by no means a new story – from 2005 onward the demise of the journalist has been a meta conversation for the industry. The timing correlates to when advertising revenues for newspapers began to decline at a rate the industry was not yet prepared for:

This chart, pulled from a recent Neimen Lab article about the rising cost of print subscriptions underscores a hard reality: Newspapers are businesses first. Like any business, a newspaper employees professionals, manages operating costs, and receives money from people interested in their product. When the bottom line changes, so too must the business. In this case, that means finding new ways to make money (enter digital subscriptions), raising prices on your existing product, and searching for a new business model entirely. 

This third option (there can’t be a crazy third option, can there?) is where there is both the most opportunity and the most risk. Just ask the staff at Buzzfeed. In 2017, the company laid off 100 people after not meeting revenue goals, and last week announced a 15% reduction in staff as they struggle to meet the high expectations that come with a half billion dollars in funding under their belt.  

The news of Buzzfeed layoffs comes amidst a variety of other layoffs from media companies. The Verizon Media Group (which operates Huffington Post, AOL, and Yahoo) announced that nearly 800 employees would be let go and Gannett (owners of USA Today along with hundreds of other local news organizations) continues to “let go” – a polite term for firing – journalists around the country

Where does this leave the Fourth Estate? Is there a crazy fourth option? It’s something that the folks over at The Membership Puzzle, a project founded by Jay Rosen’s Studio 20 Program and the American arm of De Correspondent (The Correspondent), are asking. The project, set to run from 2017 to 2020, is searching for a sustainable path forward for journalism as digital media explodes and the pillars of the industry shift.

It’s something we should all be asking about if we have any interest in seeing the journalistic tradition continue. Newspapers aren’t just something to set down on your floor when you’re working on a DIY project – they’re the backbone of an informed citizenry. They provide context when context is needed. They keep communities together, talking, and engaged. It’s hard to undersell this; the decline of journalism is a crisis that we can’t ignore.

I’m over halfway through Oregon State University’s post-bacc computer science program. It’s a (mildly) grueling gauntlet of 15 courses, made more grueling by the fact that I’ve been working full-time and taking two-courses a quarter (with an exception made for this past summer when only one course was on the docket to give me some time to get married ūüôā ). To-date, I’ve taken, or am currently taking, the following courses (in no particular order):

  • Introduction to Computer Science I
  • Introduction to Computer Science II
  • Discrete Structures in Computer Science
  • Data Structures¬†
  • Web Development¬†
  • Introduction to Databases
  • Computer Architecture & Assembly Language
  • Analysis of Algorithms
  • Operating Systems (currently in progress)
  • Software Engineering I (currently in progress)
Continue Reading Over Halfway Through Oregon State’s Post-Bacc Computer Science Program

Another week of reading, lectures, and confused Googling and skimming through videos is in the bag. This week was all about NP-complete. It has been fun to experience an “aha!” moment in each course I’ve taken so far, and this was an especially fun one. In large part, because seeking answers to these questions is seemingly beyond the reach of computers (in a reasonable time).

We’re accustomed to computers being incredibly fast. So accustomed that we forget just how fast they are. They’re really fast. I’m writing this on a 4-year old computer. It has a 2.5 GHz Intel Core i7 processor. That number equates to how many cycles the system clock of this computer runs in a second. So 2,500,000,000 cycles in one second. The version of the CPU  running on this machine is quite powerful. It should execute around 9 instructions per cycle for a single core in the processor and there are 4 total cores running.

This all adds up to a lot of numbers and those numbers represent commands that we expect the computer to execute for us so that we can….. I dunno….. watch videos of cute cats.

Continue Reading Understanding NP-complete.

I should note that I continue to remain positive about the direction of the Gutenberg project (the new WordPress editor, coming to you as of WordPress 5.0). My feelings on this are numerous and expansive, but the long and short of it is that I believe WordPress core needs a major shakeup to help the community (re)develop focus and draw in engaged and effective technical participants. Gutenberg represents a wonderful opportunity to do that as it brings a new paradigm to the core editor (and likely elsewhere as the foundational technology expands into other areas of site management) and has the potential to draw in a new wave of web developers.

That said, the introduction of Gutenberg into core has been an interesting thing to watch. From afar, the concerns of the Accessibility Team seem to clearly show the divisions between WordPress as an open source project (WordPress.org) and as a commercial one (WordPress.com):

Continue Reading Trials and Tribulations with Gutenberg

Having just finished my midterm in Analysis of Algorithms (yes, the class is as dry as it sounds), my brain is still sharp on a few topics; one of them being dynamic programming, which I mentioned in my last post. In that post, wherein I tried to find motivation for forcing myself to relearn calculus, I used the classic example of trying to calculate the nth term of the Fibonacci sequence.

I thought it would be helpful to see this example running with some real code. Below, we have a JavaScript function –¬†fibRecursive¬†– that takes an integer as a parameter. This integer represents the term that we want from the Fibonacci sequence. For example, a call to the function like so¬†fibRecursive(6)¬†would return 8.¬†

Continue Reading A Short Story About Dynamic Programming

This is a question that is plaguing me at the moment as I force myself to relearn calculus for Analysis of Algorithms at Oregon State University. In moments like this, where the concepts are abstract and I need to learn even more abstract concepts so I can understand the first class of abstract ideas, motivation is key.

Why does this matter? I’ve been working in the industry for over five years and never needed this knowledge before, why now?

Well, the short answer is that you don’t need this body of knowledge to develop a wide range of applications and features to applications. In my world, many of the concerns that common sorting, searching, and general optimization algorithms address are not real concerns because they’ve been abstracted to parts of the language or framework. I’m able to do my job because someone else has figured out how to do other parts of my job that normally would need to be created from scratch. So while learning merge sort and analyzing its complexity is a fun exercise, I’ll not be writing it from scratch anytime soon.

Continue Reading Why Study Algorithms?

Updating LexBlog.com’s aggregation engine was no small feat. Scott Fennell and I spent months testing all of the various components of our new aggregation engine that powers the vast majority of the site, but something that was hard to prepare for was the shear scale of the site. Now that it’s up an running, we’re learning a lot about how to manage a site like this, and what sorts of features are necessary for it to be a successful publication from the perspective of an editor or reader.

One thing that I’ve recently keyed in on is search. Normally, I would tell a client that on-site search is not important. Most visitors are coming to a site from a much better search engine (Google), and are more apt to click around the site once there. LexBlog has layered in some nice features to the standard WordPress search, but most of those are around making sure that readers can search by an author’s name when they’re on a blog or website. This seems like a thing WordPress should do by default, but the generic WordPress search is “dumb” in the sense that it only looks to the post content and post title when running a search. Authors are not in either, so some work had to be done to support searching an author’s name and getting their posts.

Continue Reading Investigating New Options for Search on LexBlog.com

This was one of the most eventful summers in my life both personally and professionally. In July, Garry (LexBlog’s COO) and I had a chance to go to Chicago and spend some time talking about LexBlog’s future product line and general opportunities for integrating with our platform. It’s not often that I get an opportunity to do face-to-face meetings of these sort, and it was nice to get back in the saddle. It was also my first time visiting Chicago, and Garry seemed more than happy to drag me around.

The Chicago Riverwalk where I forced Garry to walk – he was incredibly pleased to be outdoors, walking for hours.
The Chicago Gate – aka “The Bean” – which actually looks pretty cool close up.

Continue Reading A LexBlogger’s Summer in Review

I’m about halfway through Oregon State University’s (Go Beavers!) post-bacc program for computer science, but feel like I’ve just entered the belly of the beast. On the docket for the summer is CS 271 ‚Äď Computer Architecture and Assembly Language; a fine relaxing course to take in the months before and during my wedding, right? Not so much.

The material is dense as we learn to program how to move memory around on a computer and perform basic actions on the contents of said memory.¬† The class is focused on the IA-32¬†– a 32-bit version of the x86 instruction set architecture found in early IBM workstations and personal computers, and then later in embedded systems for phones, aerospace tech, and electronic musical instruments.¬† I’m only a few weeks in, but already it’s painfully obvious to me that assembly is not like any other language I’ve used.

Continue Reading Oh The Places You’ll Go! …… with Assembly