by Brandon Rhodes • Home

Essential Reading

Each of the following articles and essays (the list is still under construction!) stuck with me after I first read it, becoming part of how I look at the world. I’m listing them here in one place so it’s easier for me to find them.

“So you want to be a consultant...?” — The foundation of my career: it’s this article that gave me the confidence to quit my day job back in 2008 and become a freelance programmer, like the independent programmers I’d met at Python and Plone conferences. How did it instill confidence? By explaining the customer relationship and the operation of the small business in such detail that I could imagine trying it out myself. Its advice on how to treat customers offers sterling guidelines for simply how to treat other humans in general.

“Choose Boring Technology” — “Let’s say every company gets about three innovation tokens.” Starting from this premise, a veteran of Etsy’s early startup years explores the risks of building new projects on new and unfamiliar technologies. Even my personal projects are often improved if I remember this article and weigh the benefits of novelty versus the benefits of boring!

“A Note About Git Commit Messages” Tim Pope — The quick essential guide to writing commit messages so that git’s features are as friendly as possible. This highlights the danger of using a tool without inheriting the practices of the culture that produced it. Yes, technically, you can make the first line of your git commit message as long as you want; but starting the message with a one-line summary of around 50 characters will make all your subsequent git operations so much more sleek and satisfying.

“Files are fraught with peril” Dan Luu — It’s hard to choose which Dan Luu essay to include here; I hope you will go read them all. My favorites follow the same approach as this article: they start by quoting some highly-voted answers from a programming forum, then dig into the issue to discover how spectacularly wrong the conventional wisdom is. (He writes very pure HTML, so I recommend hitting Ctrl-+ a few times, or better yet applying your own styling to his blog.)

“The Tau Manifesto” — This delightful essay explores a facet of modern math notation for which tradition has stranded us with a sub-optimal solution: the use of 𝜋 for the irrational circumference of a circle instead of the far more natural 𝜏 = 2𝜋. It’s a masterwork in how to evaluate rival notations when seeking clarity, economy, and meaning.

“A Whirlwind Tutorial on Creating Really Teensy ELF Executables for Linux” — A delight! Starting with the question of why even the smallest C program compiles to a Linux file nearly 4k bytes long, this deep dive into the ELF executable format is at first admirably clever, then startlingly clever, and finally fiendishly clever in its quest to create the smallest viable Linux executable. Several useful tools are introduced along the way.

“The Really Big One” The New Yorker — I enjoyed re-reading this article several times after it was published, and was delighted when it won the Pulitzer. After an opening that perfectly blends tension, humor, and science, Kathryn Schulz brings the energy of a mystery novel to a recent advance in seismology. I always get a shiver down my spine when the year that the trees drowned winds up matching the date from Genroku Japan! More broadly, the article reminds us that scientific consensus — no matter how often we enjoy wielding it against each other in debates — can be dead wrong.

“The play deficit” Aeon — An amazing article that draws on cross-cultural anthropology to trace the baleful effects upon children of replacing their freedom and play with structure and regiment. It diagnoses specific skills that children will lack in adulthood—deficits that I recognize in myself.

“Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace” Stephen Wolfram — “To some she is a great hero in the history of computing; to others an overestimated minor figure. I’ve been curious for a long time what the real story is.” A deep dive into the printed and handwritten evidence of the collaboration between Babbage and Lovelace, copiously illustrated with both. Conclusively demonstrates that, of the two, Ada was the real programmer: the first member of our species to experience the joy of hacking a general purpose computing engine to do things that even its inventor didn’t realize it could do. Babbage comes across as a somewhat impractical startup founder and Ada as the hacker who really understands the technology.

Inessential reading

A few articles that aren’t important enough to warrant inclusion in the above list, but that I enjoyed and remember.