Assurances from CMP: DDJ to change, Jolts to continue

Apparently, DDJ has had a redesign (which doesn’t necessarily mean new editorial direction, but could be…) and wants to continue the Jolt Awards going forward (although it’s a little confusing, as the Jolts will apparently continue as a project tasked to CMP’s Events groups).

Rosalyn Lum, SD’s Technical Editor, is moving to the Events group, so to the extent that DDJ evolves its content, it won’t be with her help. That’s too bad, as Rosalyn should get most of the credit for SD’s improvement in surveys and quantitative numbers, which I think has grown to be one of SD’s key strengths.

Site issues

I’ve heard from several people that permalinks to this site fail initially, but if you reload the page, they work (but, of course, most people just click away at the first 404). The site is hosted with Gearhost, with whom I’m generally pleased, but I don’t have access to the actual OS, all I can do is work with web.config.

I’m running dasBlog, with which I’m generally happy, but the documentation sucks. There’s no sign of this in the defect tracker on SourceForge. Naturally, I suspect some kind of caching issue.

I’m going to try to take a run at the problem today, but ony have a few hours to look at it.

Update: Grr… It’s not a caching issue, it seems to be a defect / bug in dasBlog relating to session state. Haven’t been able to get a debug version of dasBlog to compile and run (it’s interacting with .NET 2.0 in a weird way). So much for my Sunday morning… The problem will have to wait.

Oh, by the way, the “technical refresh” of Office 12 Beta 1 is vastly improved. Outlook stability seems much better and I can actually understand at least some aspects of the “task-based” UI, of which my initial impression was utter shock and disapproval.

Why DDJ Won’t Change

Joel Spolsky incorrectly read the announcement as SD taking over the Dobb’s name. Dan Read  hopes this might mean a hybrid magazine that combines the best of both. At the risk of alienating my future potential editors, almost certainly not. So far, what we’ve got looks like the pro forma assurances that are typical of an all-out acquisition. Software Development’s Editor, Alexa Weber-Morales, was laid off in December (when she was six months pregnant, to boot). The magazine’s being folded in the June timeframe, which means that the “change” will coincide with the build-up to the announcement of the 2007 advertising rates (at least, if the calendars are the same as they were when I left the company 10 years ago). In other words, even with what I imagine is considerable overlap in their subscription lists, Dr. Dobb’s will get a circulation boost of 30-50K readers which will allow them to raise their advertising rates. Aside from a bug on the cover for a six months or a year, and perhaps a 16-page internal supplement, that’s probably all they will take from SD.

At the most basic level, Dr. Dobb’s probably sees no reason to change a winning formula — they know what they like and they execute it. If Jon Erickson and the editorial team wanted the softer, more management-oriented articles that characterized Software Development, they would have already incorporated that type of writing. As for columnists, I think SD has some writers who are clearly at the very top of their craft — you may have heard of this Scott Ambler kid — but DDJ already has a full boat of writers to whom they’ve always tended to be loyal.

I may be wrong and, facing the travails of the industry, this might be an epochal shift in content. I doubt it, though. There’s no new blood.

The Imminent Death of Developer’s Magazines

Eric Sink had an incredibly timely post on “The Eventual Death of Developer Magazines” in which he noted that print publications such as Dr. Dobb’s, Software Development, and Visual Studio were becoming thinner and thinner. Things were even worse than he noted, though, since the magazines held a certain portfolio length and devoted more and more “advertising pages” to unpaid ads for in-house projects such as conferences and other magazines.

Of course, the major issue with developer magazines is that they have not adapted to the Web. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but one that has gone largely unremarked is that the developer magazines (except Code Magazine) are all put together by old folk like me. At 42, I don’t consider myself particularly old unless I’m playing Ultimate Frisbee, but when I took over Computer Language, I was 26 and I was taking over from J.D. Hildebrand, who I think was 29. Our competitors at Dr. Dobb’s, Jeff Duntemann’s company, and R&D, were a little older, but not much.

The thing about young editors is that they create magazines that have a feeling of discovery, because the staff is not convinced that they know everything. They don’t know how the magazine “must be,” they don’t keep columns out of nostalgia and inertia, and they haven’t gotten over the passion for creativity and the thrill of power when a technique is explained clearly.

In the particular case of developer magazines, there is a myth that what makes a magazine popular is that it’s an “invaluable aide to the business of developing software.” (That’s not a direct quote from anyone, but it’s so absurd that I can’t write it without sarcastic quotes.) Dr. Dobb’s Journal, which launched with the boast of “Running light without overybyte” has long changed to “Software Tools for the Professional Programmer.” From the day I took over Computer Language, the advertising side pushed towards the momentous day when the magazine had not a line of code, a day which thankfully came to pass long after I’d left the top of the masthead.

What makes a magazine popular is … well, I could write a bunch of stuff about “shared passion” and “personal but authoritative voices” but that would just be old-farty of me — what makes a magazine successful is exactly what makes blogging successful. Same thing, different era.

SD Magazine: R.I.P.

Oh well. The writing had been on the wall, but today it’s official: Software Development magazine, which I founded in 1992, has been absorbed by Dr. Dobb’s Journal and will cease publication. Ironically, SD was born when Dr. Dobb’s absorbed Computer Language after Miller Freeman (now CMP) bought DDJ. Between the two events, that means more than 150,000 subscribers who signed up for Computer Language or Software Development and winded up with DDJ. Just saying.

Oscars, Sopranos, & Babylon 5

Having just watched “Junebug” (so far, my favorite movie released in 2005, but Hawaii being what it is, I haven’t yet seen some others that I expect to like a lot), we were reflecting on how over-rated “Crash” is. At this point, if you want to see characters that have truly complex moral struggles, you’re far better off television than movies. It’s no insight that many shows now have multi-episode and even multi-season story arcs that are too complex to understand on first viewing (oh, how I love “Deadwood”). With a new season of “The Sopranos” about to debut, I was reflecting on how supremely disappointed I’ll be if the series does not end with a conclusive end for Tony (Christopher killing him and taking his place would be the classical ending, but I could accept anything that leaves that house of his empty (oh, and has a final shot of ducks flying with the guns of unseen hunters banging in the distance)….Where was I?)  

But, I was thinking “What was first show that was designed to center around a multi-year story arc?” and, as far as I can recall, the answer is “Babylon 5.”

We also watched “The Island” this week — not nearly as bad as I had expected. Not great, but not bad at all. On the other hand, they’ve been playing “The Core” on one of the cable channels and I’ve caught about half an hour of it: where is “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” when you need them? There’s a scene where the scientist is explaining the composition of the Earth and he holds up a sliced avocado (or perhaps a pear) and says “Say this is the Earth–” at which point I immediately guessed that the next line was “– of course, the Earth is very much larger, but you knew that.”

Wikipedia is ripe for AI Exploitation

Researchers have already begun using Google to help with AI tasks. For instance, if you search Google for two words, you can get a sense of their relatedness by comparing the relative number of links returned (e.g., “cat and dog” vs. “cat and politics”

Wikipedia is an even greater potential source of data for AI techniques. With more than 1,000,000 articles now, I am sure the cross-links and statistical frequencies of words and phrases within Wikipedia could be put to startling effect.

C# & VB: Peer Pressure vs. Random Walk

Programming language popularity is a fascination of mine and has been since (at least) I joined “Computer Language” magazine “back in the day.” Note that this is a different fascination than programming language capability, which goes all the way back to the time I read my Dad’s copy of “Computer Lib/Dream Machines” because it had pictures.

My recent article on C#’s popularity on the CLR has brought some good commentary here and elsewhere, but one perspective really rankles. This is the dismissal of the popularity of the C language family as resulting from ignorance. Every programmer in the world knows that there are languages whose advocates claim significant productivity benefits over the C family. Yet in the past decade, we’ve seen two languages, Java and C#, come into existence and become very popular. Dismissing those millions of choices as “ignorant” is willfully … uh … not greatly insightful.

Bill Mill, a commentor who felt forced to move from VB to C#, says in email:

My most important point in C#’s favor was actually my third one: the third parties we work with want to use C#. They’ll use VB, but at higher cost, and they keep trying to push us to C# anyway. Why fight them when C# a) seems to be the only real first-class citizen of the CLR and b) has the most resources for learning?

Basically, VB.Net is enough of a new language for us that it’s not worth it to push against the grain to use it over C# – easier just to learn a (different) new language.

The centrality of network effects / peer pressure is the “stumbling into” argument made insightful. Historical contingency gave C an edge and resulted in a world where communication of programming pragmatics favors the forms in the C family. Okay, maybe.

But the implication is that language designers ought to create variations on C’s syntax. By this logic, a C-like LISP (Lots of Irritating Superfluous Curly Brackets?), a C-like Smalltalk, a C-like Ruby, etc. would succeed more than their current designs.

Now, I’m highly skeptical of that conclusion, but I think it follows from the premise, doesn’t it?

To anticipate at least one objection, there’s an argument about syntax complexity: at some point, the mainstream throws up its hands at the complexity that needs to be added to the C language family in order to achieve mainstream goals and turns to languages whose syntax can be described in a very concise manner. You can point to the crest of C++ popularity and the rise of Java and C# as, perhaps, a minor earthquake of this sort.

But then the question becomes, Is a Big One possible? Is a wholesale shift of the mainstream away from C-derived syntax going to happen? To me, the answer is undoubtedly “yes.” It’s only a question of how long the pressure will build and then what the trigger will be: a tool, a particular type of application, a new abstraction, a hardware shift? (I also don’t think that a “collapse” to a very concise syntax is necessarily inevitable or even likely. Look at the rise of C++: the coexistence of paradigms was more important than syntactical elegance)

I believe that the manycore era may well be a “window” in which there is an opportunity for a major shift in programming sensibilities (oh, what the heck, “paradigms”).