On the Use of "Velcro"

So the Velcro company just put out a video about not using the word velcro in a way that would weaken its trademark.

The video is clearly trying to be funny but the company appears to be serious about the dilution of their trademark. Well, I think they are way too late on trying to change public habits on this, but what is really strange is when they say, in the text description of the video:

So please, do not say “velcro shoes” (or “velcro wallet” or “velcro gloves”) - we repeat “velcro” is not a noun or a verb.

Um, guys, the word velcro is being used as an adjective in those examples! The company may be displeased with having the word in lowercase, but those examples are using the word in the form they actually want it used, as a modifier to a noun. The problem with these examples is actually that the clasp in question may not be an actual product of the Velcro comapny, not the part of speech.

It's a good rule of writing: if you don't know what you mean, your reader won't know, either.

I also notice that the people at Velcro, Inc., want us to write the word in all-caps: VELCRO (with a registered trademark symbol affixed). But Velcro is not an acronym, as explained right there on the Velcro web site. I know that companies are always fudging the rules of capitalization (and punctuation and everything else) in a bid to make themselves and their trademarks more noticeable, but there's no reason in the world for the rest of us to play along. These requests should be distributed among Velcro's own PR department staff and to overly-compliant news outlets. Putting this kind of content in front of the public is not a good look!

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What If We Had to Start Over?

I've done a lot of writing that tries to explain how technology works, but the technology I write about has all developed over the past fifty years or so. I think we forget how much accumulated technological knowledge is required to make our world run the way it does. Start with a finished product we all use, like a house. How many of us could build a house, or even a simple shed, using whatever we find at a Home Depot? Then work backwards from there. What if you didn't have power tools but could buy all the materials needed to make an electric motor. Could you build one, even a crude one? Or how many of us could fell a tree with a handsaw without endangering our lives?

These are the thoughts that went through my head when I saw the following video, showing a young man who is first creating mud bricks, then using the bricks to make a kiln to fire clay tiles, all using materials found in the woods.

(Note: there's no narration--you can turn on captions for more information but it's easy to follow the idea without them.)

If something happened to our civilization and we needed to start over, this is the place where we'd begin, with the knowledge we can put to use with just those things found in nature. These ideas are foundational, both in the literal sense (bricks) and intellectually.

More broadly, we take the workings of the world for granted and forget how much knowledge we need to pass on from one generation to the next. Of course, no one person can absorb it all, but we must each learn and pass on as much as we can. I'd like to think I'm doing my part, but with programming for people all over the world, and with more general topics like mathematics and music with my daughter. How about you?

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Efficiency & Performance: Not the same thing

One of the first videos I created for YouTube was about the relationship between programming and puzzles, and specifically, about how some problems in either domain are only difficult when you don't consider all your possible options. That video has received a lot of hits and a lot of comments, but many of those comments are about the supposed lack of efficiency of the code I used in the program example, which really isn't the point of the video, or indeed, of what I will call the Think Like a Programmer philosophy. But it did make me realize that performance and efficiency are topics I should address, and so I have!

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Next Stop Budokan

Every since I heard all those screaming fans at the beginning of the live version of "I Want You to Want Me," I've been hopeful that one day, like Cheap Trick, I can be big in Japan. That will still probably never happen, but I am closer than ever before. First up, my most recent book, How Software Works, is now available in Japanese! I just received a copy, and it looks quite...purple.

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Besides my name and the publisher's name, I have no idea what any of this says, so if you know, feel free to tell me. I'm especially intrigued by the question mark at the end of what I assume is the title at the top, and the exclamation point at the bottom. It's fun to imagine the possibilities: Is This a Hamster or a Rat? for the top, or Buy This Now! at the bottom.

The book construction is interesting. It's a printed soft-cover, with a dust cover, and then a kind of skirt on top of that. Here are the three pieces separated:

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Anyway, it's always cool to see one's work translated. I hope readers in Japan enjoy it.

In related news, I've been told by my publisher that sales of the Japanese edition of Think Like a Programmer are really heating up. Cool!

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The Wisdom of Bob Ross

Perhaps the most soothing videos you can see on YouTube are the full-length episodes of The Joy of Painting available on the official Bob Ross channel. Last night, I was watching Bob paint a wonderful scene of a forest at night, lit by a camp fire, and Bob told a story with a message that really resonates with me and how I feel about learning to program.

The story is Bob's explanation of why he doesn't do any portraits on the show, even though many viewers have asked him to do so. He says that for two years he studied portraiture, until one day his instructor took him aside and told him to stick to painting bushes and trees, because that's where his heart was. Then he goes back to talking about the camp fire painting he is working on, before adding the following:

We talk about that sometime--about talent. What is talent? Talent is nothing more than a pursued interest. In other words, things that you're interested in, you'll spend a lot more time working at than something you're not interested in. So that's all talent is. It's if you're willing to spend the time to perfect something.

Video here, if you want to hear this in Bob's own ultra-soothing voice. Story starts at the 20:00 mark, if this doesn't start at the right spot when you play it:

The older and more experienced I get with learning and teaching, both when I am the teacher and when I am the learner, the more I realize the simple but profound truth of this statement. It definitely holds for programming, and indeed, for pretty much all skills that require diligence to learn.

It's important to note that the message cuts both ways. If you have real interest in programming, time and effort will make you a programmer. By real interest, I mean that programing, on some level, has to be enjoyable. It won't necessarily be fun, but you have to get a psychic reward from the task. Many programmers share stories of when they first wrote a simple program and the joy they felt knowing that they were making the computer do what they wanted. If you get this feeling, you should eventually succeed in making yourself a good programmer, even if at some times you are so frustrated, you feel like throwing your computer in the trash.

But if you don't have a real interest in programming, it doesn't matter how smart you are; you're going to be in trouble. You might think so someone without a real interest in programming wouldn't persist in trying to program, but it happens quite a bit. People are being bombarded every day with pitches that suggest that programming is the golden ladder to success in the 21st century. Politicians and others that should know better absurdly suggest that all of us should learn programming. And so on. All of this leads people to think that if they enjoy working with computers, or even if they don't but still want a good job, they need to learn to program, and pronto. What's worse, when people with no real interest in programming fail in the attempt to learn, they think of themselves as deficient--because if we're all supposed to learn programming then anyone who can't do it must be less than fully intelligent, right?--when the problem is nothing more than people pursuing a goal that lies out side their talents...outside their interests.

I encourage anyone who believes he or she has an interest in programming to try it out, and there's no harm in trying it out to see if the interest is there. Just remember that Bob Ross stunk at painting portraits, no matter how long he studied.

But he painted the happiest bushes and trees anyone ever saw.

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