Sifting Through Billions and Billions of Bytes

Here are ten or so invaluable resources for software developers.

According to an anecdote, a person born before the Twentieth Century might amass enough information in a lifetime to fill one edition of today’s Sunday New York Times. Certainly, life expectancies were about half of modern realities and labor was largely manual and not intellectual, but the huge disparity likely has more to do with the sheer rapidity of technological change of the last eighty years. Think about it. Anesthesia is less than one hundred years old (ouch). Television is a sexagenarian. The personal computer is approaching mid-life crisis. And the Internet has been publicly available for two decades. My parents’ generation has seen the introduction of all those inventions, and my children take all those advances for granted. Dick Tracy’s once futuristic gadgets have nothing on a smart phone.

In general, people are now constantly inundated with information. In fact, many livelihoods depend on keeping apace even as the pace quickens. Developing software is certainly among them: it is solely intellectual; it advances relentlessly; and it must be practiced diligently. Most developers I know are information sponges, full of minutiae, trivia, quips from geek classic movies, maps to ethnic restaurants, and of course, programming languages and technique. This trait isn’t new: programmers have always tended to be eccentric, smart, well-read, well-fed, and, to use an old cliche, willing to “drink from a firehose.” But the advent of the Internet and the movement to share code freely with increasingly liberal licenses—few on Github mandate the GPL, for example—turned a tendency into a necessity. The sheer volume of information available to developers is likely more blessing than curse, but the onus to stay sharp is real nonetheless.

Books? Prehistoric. Usenet? Ancient. Email? How old-fashioned. RSS? That’s so over. Comprehension is now measured in tweets per second.

And actually, that’s a good thing. It’s brought energy and vitality to the profession. From the Web to the iPhone, ideas small and large are flourishing. Each day brings a new challenge. Again, software development has to be practiced and it’s a great time to be a practitioner.

This week I thought I’d share some of the resources I find invaluable. Some are feeds and some are working developers who share their knowledge and expertise. Admittedly, this is a subjective list and does not cast light into every corner of the computing universe—it’s impossible to specialize in more than two or three subjects at most—but I hope you find it useful all the same. Linux Magazine launched its own forums this week; I’ll be sure to post my URLs there and I encourage you to post your favorite references there, too.

  • Rails. I admit it. I’m a Rails junkie. I get my fixes from three sources. I subscribe to the Ruby Corner RSS feed. I subscribe to the Rails Envy podcast. And I follow Ryan Daigle’s Ryan’s Scraps blog.

    Ruby Corner aggregates news from all over the Ruby world into one feed (and a simultaneous Twitter stream). Rails Envy, hosted by Jason Seifer and Gregg Pollack, is a freewheeling look at Rails innovations with commentary (chortles and sound effects) provided by two notable, working Rails developers. Ryan’s Scraps typically features working examples of new features in Edge Rails.

    I also want to recommend a new RSS feed: Ruby Best Practices. This blog launched concurrently with the publication of the O’Reilly Media book of the same name and is already chock full of thought provoking problems and solutions.

  • HTML. The World Wide Web is a tangled, mysterious place, and it’s helpful to have a skilled guide lead you through browser oddities and clever markup to the Sacred Grounds of Best Practices. I am a big fan of Sitepoint and regularly find helpful news, tricks, and tips in the website’s newsletters. The site recently broke news about the founding of Typekit (which I hope to cover in a future column) and regularly reviews new software, such as the beta of YUI 3. I don’t spend as much time on front-end code as I do on server tinkering, so this reference comes in handy often.
  • Accursed software. Believe it or not, Google is my debugger. Well, it and gdb, rdebug, and perl5db. The combination of blogs, groups, and chat and mailing list archives is the best source of practical, in-the-trenches know how available. Installation error? Search for it on Google. Crash on startup? Surely, someone else has seen the same problem. In addition to the search engine, many of the packages I use have mailing lists hosted on Google Groups. If I am really stuck, I can post a question and an answer is usually just minutes or at most hours away from being solved.
  • Technology and science news. To keep my sterling geek cred intact, I have to follow technology and science news. My favorites? TechCrunch, the Slashdot daily newsletter, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Talk of the Nation Science Friday. And being a Mac guy, I love TiDBITS.

    TechCrunch tracks everything online, from Silicon Valley startups to the travails of the iPhone 3GS launch. Its analysis and opinions are thought-provoking and the site serves the public well, exposing double-speak and disingenuousness. The geek-driven daily Slashdot newsletter is a smart mix of legal, technical, sociological, and just plain bizarre news. Delivered at midnight each day, this is one email you can look forward to each morning.

    I still read the Wall Street Journal the old school way: on paper, with a glass of milk and a bowl of Apple Jacks. Although the information in the Journal is not very technical, its coverage of the nexus of technology and business is unrivaled. Further, its stories usually have an inside track, be it Jobs’s surgery in Tennessee or key defections from Google. The New York Times Science Page is fantastic and if you haven’t installed the nytimes.com AIR news reader, you are missing out. It is easy-to-scan, a pleasure to read onscreen, and a near-facsimile of the printed edition. The iPhone version of the application, albeit limited by the form factor and the lack of Flash on the device, is also worthwhile.

    The New York Times Reader
    The New York Times Reader

    Finally, Ira Flatow’s weekly National Public Radio show is entertaining and informative, and the TiDBITS staff continues to impress with expansive, balanced coverage of Apple, the iPhone, and all things Mac.

    By the way, NPR science reporter Robert Krulwich is the best reason to listen to NPR, well, beside Ira Flatow. Here’s his story on the ant zombie.

  • Linux news. With the recent addition of many columnists, Linux Magazine has expanded its coverage of open source from the datacenter to mobile computing. (Disclaimer: You know I write for Linux Magazine.) The magazine continues its tradition, too, of commissioning editorial from project leaders and founders.

    The Linux Today Newsletter is also essential reading. Delivered daily, it aggregates stories from print and the Web, selecting a healthy mix technical articles with critique and analysis.

Bazillions of bytes flow through the tubes and pipes of the Internet every day. Hopefully, some of the sources mentioned here will help you make sense of it all.

Happy tinkering!

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