inessential by Brent Simmons

November 2008

Turkey Day

Happy Thanksgiving!

US officials flunk test of American history, economics, civics

Yahoo! News: “US elected officials scored abysmally on a test measuring their civic knowledge, with an average grade of just 44 percent, the group that organized the exam said Thursday.”

“Ordinary” folks did a little better — 49%. Still not good.

You can take the 33-question quiz here.

Polish polish polish!

I’ve been working heavily and steadily on iPhone code lately, and it occurs to me that writing iPhone apps is like writing poetry while writing desktop apps is like writing prose.

I’m sure it’s been said before, but the point is still good: in an iPhone app, everything counts so much — every design choice, every line of code, everything left in and everything left out.

I was 16 years old when I got my first job. I was a busboy in a seafood restaurant with a view of the Chesapeake and Delaware canal. Big cargo ships went quietly by, gliding along the short cut through the peninsula, watched by people eating crabs, oysters, and shrimp scampi.

Whenever things got slow — which wasn’t that often, actually — Neelai the manager would tell us busboys to polish the silverware. "Polish polish polish!"

She always said the same thing, with humor but also in a tone that said: this is non-negotiable.

Sometimes I hear her voice as I work on iPhone code. You can’t hear her voice in text, which is too bad — you’d know why I’ve never gotten "Polish polish polish!" out of my head.

In fact, it’s in the plain middle of my head, right in the center, where the oldest stuff that sticks stays.

Not a bad start for a poet — or an iPhone developer.

Thanks to Google, I’ve found that she’s a real estate agent now.

Advice for indies

I often talk to people who are thinking of going indie — Mac and iPhone developers who want to work for themselves, who want to write cool apps and sell them without having to answer to anyone but their customers.

Here’s the advice I usually give.

Have faith

I don’t mean be blind to reality. I don’t mean give in to wishful thinking. Don’t be delusional: be rigorously honest with yourself.

I mean to have faith in your ideas and abilities. Getting recognition — or even that first bit of feedback — can be slow. It can take a lot more work to get there than you think.

But you can get there. When it looks like nobody’s noticing, have faith that someone is, or soon will be, if you keep doing your best work.

There are those nights when you think you should burn it all up and go back to the quieting hug of whatever-you-did-before. Faith in yourself, and in the world’s knack for finding good things, will keep you coding.

Work hard

There are distractions every day and night. It’s worse if you live in a city like San Francisco: there are opportunities to hang out with your tribe every minute of every day. It’s easy to talk big about your big app.

But you have to actually build it. You have to work every day. You have to sit in the chair and stay seated. And sleep and come back to the chair. You need to wear out that chair and then buy a new one and then wear out that one.

Have plans B, C, and D

Your first thing might not work out. Despite your faith, despite your hard work, your app may fail.

Be ready to write another one. As an indie, that’s one of your best strengths: turning your ship around is as easy as creating a new project in Xcode. Getting going is just a menu command away.

Write a weblog

I shouldn’t even have to say it, but I will: you need a weblog. People in the village love toys, but they also like to get to know the village toy-maker.

That’s you, and it’s a great job.

Seattle Xcoders tonight: Objective-J/Cappuccino

Seattle Xcoders: “Scott Koon will be presenting this Thursday (Nov 13th) on Cappuccino — the Objective-J web framework for building applications.”

(Afterwards we’ll go to the Luau.)

Shark + iPhone

Just a tip, in case you didn’t realize — you can use Shark to profile an app running on your iPhone. It’s a little painful, but it’s do-able.

(Update 8:17 pm: Forgot to mention File > Symbolicate... You’ll need that too.)

Shark screenshot

‘The revolution’s just a T-shirt away!’

Music for pinko socialists.

“If you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it.”

Tab completion in Finder

It’s not a new feature of the Finder, but I think it’s cool and most folks probably don’t know about it.

In the Go to Folder... sheet, tab completion works. Makes it easier to type out a path.

We’re all dogfaces

When Obama called himself a “mutt” in the press conference today — well, I loved it. I thought immediately of Bill Murray in Stripes giving the graduation pep talk.

“We’re Americans, with a capital A. You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We’re the underdog. We’re mutts!"

Of course the classic scene is on YouTube.

That new sound

I was 12 years old when The Clash had their first big hit on American radio: “Train in Vain,” that weird hidden track tacked on to the London Calling album. (You know the song. Everybody thought it was called “Stand By Me.”)

That summer of 1980 it got heavy play on WIFI 92.5 in Philadelphia. I loved the song, took my allowance to the record store at the mall and bought the 45. And played it a bunch until it finally started to wear on me.

Eventually I got curious and listened to the B side. (To those who don’t know: 45s were small records with one song on each side. The A side was the hit; the B side was just some song from the album.)

I didn’t expect much — B sides usually sucked — but what I got was the song London Calling. I’d never heard anything like it before. Those driving drums with synced guitar chords. That growling bass that started in the underworld, climbed up, then climbed back down even lower. The raspy, pitch-approximate, yelling and howling voice detailing the end of the world.

“The ice age is coming!”

That guitar solo that sounded like machines breaking down. And, finally, the end: “I never felt so much alive...”

I had never, ever heard anything like it before. It changed everything for me. That was the sound I’d been waiting for, without even knowing it. I didn’t expect it; it seemed to come out of nowhere; and I loved it.

And I still do.

In 2004 we were watching the Democratic National Convention on TV, and were mesmerized by a speech from a state legislator from Illinois. “Why aren’t we voting for him?”

I feel like, this year, I get to vote for the new sound I’d been waiting for without knowing it. It seemed to come from nowhere. There was no reason to expect it.

I never felt so much alive.

Public Service Announcement

This year’s vote is Big History. You don’t want to miss out. You’ll kick yourself forever. Really hard, too.

If you haven’t voted yet, please vote!