Nathan Dao

Tour de Babel - revisited

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The first time I read Steve Yegge’s post - “Tour de Babel” - was more than 2 years ago, and wrote a blog post about it.

Two things that stuck with me back then:

I needed to start using Emacs, and I did.

I was right for having Ruby as my favourite programming language. I think I still like Ruby now, although not as much as I used to.

Three things that stuck with me now:

“I sucked, and I still do, although hopefully less every year”.

Emacs is here to stay and remains as productive as ever.

and 3: Start questioning what I think I know about programming:

How much is from my experience?

How much are from others’ opinions?

How much are hypes and fallacies?

In 2004, Steve wrote this:

The problem with Java is that people are blinded by the marketing hype. That’s the problem with C++, with Perl, with any language that’s popular, and it’s a serious one, because languages can’t become popular without hype. So if the language designer suggests innocently that the language might not have been designed perfectly, it’s time to shoot the language designer full of horse tranquilizers and shut down the conference.

Languages need hype to survive; I just wish people didn’t have to be blinded by it.

This is still very much relevant today.

Simple vs easy

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In one of my most favourite software development talks of all time - Make software development simple, Rich Hickey (famously known as the creator of Clojure) drew a clear distinction between simple and easy.

“Simple” should not be correlated to “easy”.

“Simple” means having or composed of only one thing, element, or part. “Complex” means consisting of interconnected or interwoven parts. Simplicity and complexity are objective.

“Easy” means capable of being accomplished or acquired with ease. “Easy” and “difficult” are subjective.

In many cases, it is tempting to follow the easy path - throwing another expert at the problem, using a bloated product even when we don’t need all of its features, hiring more people, penetrating new market segments. The tradeoff is more moving parts over time, which Rich refered to as the Complexity Elephant.

The difficult path is working with constraints, bringing the best out of scared resources. This approach will unlikely to produce immediate returns, but will likely steer us away from the Complexity Elephant further down the road.

It is then important to decide if we are only running a short sprint or a marathon.

Maintaining simplicity is hard. Yet, since “easy” and “difficult” are subjective, the difficult path will turn easier as we get good at it.

On creating

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Our lives are spoiled with overwhelming information. Every moment is a constant search and scroll through glorifying achivements, breakthrough inventions, the latest gadgets and technologies.

All wheels have been invented. All crowns have been taken. There is always someone who does better than you do. The act of creation feels so paralising. Why bother?

I have been constantly revisiting the Debbie Millman episode on The Tim Ferriss podcast lately. There is no breakthrough nor ground-breaking revelation, but the passion and the way Debbie lived her stories made them special and inspiring.

What stuck with me the most is:

It is important to consider why you are doing what you are doing. Is it for fame, for money, or is it for the pure joy of doing it? If it is for the joy of doing it, why bother comparing?

Appreciation is not relative.

On ideas - what I learned from OK Go's TED talk

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Watch the TED talk here.

Ideas are cheap because they aren’t real. They’re intangible thoughts in our head.

The band OK Go, famous for their wildly creative music videos, described it does not feel like they created great ideas, but rather, they found them. Lead singer Damian showed a photo of his childhood bedroom filled with posters, articles, artworks and notes on the walls. He spent a large amount of time in his bedroom, switching between opened eyes, lining up random objects to see if they turn into something interesting.

Damian's bedroom

Opposing to creating ideas, finding ideas is a search for surprise and unexpected outcome by intertwining, perplexing and combining existing ingredients. Since the ingredients are real, your ideas become a little more real and a little more valuable.

The real work of finding great ideas then comes down to getting your hands dirty, filling up walls with doodles, useless side projects, knowledge that doesn’t fit the band-wagon and keep peeking, hoping a few of them would line up.

Creating great ideas out of thin air is hard and cheap. Finding great ideas is hardwork and expensive (in terms of time, effort and sometimes, money). Yet, in most cases, that almost always turns out to be a worthy investment if you follow through with it.

P.s. Also, their Mathimatical explaination of now often projects fail is a big revelation.

Beta

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Beta is a powerful word.

Beta means there will be bugs. The product is not ready, and is certainly not for everyone, but we ship it anyway.

It strips away the need to be perfect, exposes imperfections to early adopters and tinkers. Most people decide to try beta products because they believe in the ideas and promises - what the software will be capable of. Beta connects creators and users. It is only for those who dare - the brave explorers who want to help perfecting the product.

If you find yourself spending a long time trying to make something perfect before sharing it to the world, put a beta tag and ship it. It’s ok. It’s Beta, for now.

Cascara Chocolate and Vietnam Specialty Coffee

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James Hoffmann, World Barista Champion in 2007, author of “The World Atlas of Coffee: From Beans to Brewing – Coffees Explored, Explained and Enjoyed” shared a great recepie for making Cascara Chocolate on his blog.

Cascara is a type of tea made from dried coffee husk - preserved after the process of separating coffee seeds from cherries. Some of the best varietals of coffee have high sugar content in its cherry’s flesh, giving Cascara a harmonious balance between acidity and sweetness.

On a second thought, this video brings back memories about my trip to Da Lat in 2016, which turned into an long, unexpected journey about coffee, people, and the charming city of Da Lat.

Here are some of my favourite snapshots:

Pacamara coffee skin after depulping (separating seeds from skin) at Uncle Son's farm, Da Lat
Uncle Son test roasting some Pacamara
The 'coffee lab'
Yellow Bourbon farm at one of The Married Bean's farmer coops. Coffee flowers blossomed immediately one day after the first season rain. Occuring only once a year, this is the make-or-break period, when rain season peaks from June - October. Coffee flowers can self-pollinate, but require a high level of moisture to fully develop into cherries. The first rain triggers blossoming, but if followed by a prolonged period without rainfall and necessary moisture, flowers will not fully develop into cherries or fall off, hugely impact the season's harvest.
Another coffee lab - La Viet Coffee, Da Lat
Khanh from La Viet coffee showing us the basics of making a good espresso
Learning basic cupping techniques with my childhood friend - Hieu at La Viet coffee. Cupping is one of the most important skills of a coffee artisan. Similar to wine, Specialy Coffee is identified by their different notes of acids, florals, earth, wood, nuts, ... depending on the varietal, where and how coffee is is grown, how cherries are harvested, how coffee beans are processed, stored and roasted. Each step in the process contributes to the final cup of coffee.
Great shot of us by Khanh
Catimore cherriers in Pastor Thanh's coffee garden - Cau Dat Church, Trai Mat. He uses a small piece of land behind the church as a playground to share his cultivation methods with coffee farmers in the area.
Requiring balanced conditions that most of the time can only be achieved on moutainous areas (900m or higher above sea level) locating near the equator (called the coffee belt) where there is enough rainfall, moisture and stable temperature throughout the year, it's common that coffee farms are situated at steep locations, making the job of nuturing and harvesting coffee even more challenging. The best quality coffee cherries have to be picked at the correct ripeness. While cherries on the same coffee tree ripe at different rates and there are yet machines that can accurately handle this task, harvesting specialty coffee is a delicate labour and has to be done by hand throughout the harvest season. Photo of Bang's parents farm in Trai Mat, Cau Dat.

Fermenting and drying coffee beans at Vuong's farm - Da Lat. Photo by Ms. Minh - owner of Minh Tu JSC.

With the help of The Married Beans, we took leaves and soil samples from 2 farms and send them for nutrient and mineral content analysis. The result will reflect soil's depletion levels, help setting up next year's cultivation plans.

Here are contact info to my favourite coffee destinations in Da Lat. They are all young passionate men and women who are committed to raise awareness, educate and help building a different future for coffee.

Special thank to Will Frith for answering our emails and sharing contacts at the start of our journey.

Last but not least, this learning experience would not have been possible without, Hieu - who shared the whole journey with me and Bang - the coolest friend I have made in Da Lat.

Me, Bang and Hieu test roasting Ethiopia Yirgacheffe coffee at Choi's place. Choi is the most enthusiastic coffee lover that I have the pleasure to meet.
Bang, who owns the place, crafting leathers in a rainy day with Hieu at D.A.B Corner.
My favourite spot in Da Lat: D.A.B Corner. Expect surprise hiphop dance-off shows or insane skateboard skills from these talented kids.
Solitude at the Tea Hill - Cau Dat Farm
Hieu next to his bike in our camping night near Suoi Vang.
At the Langbiang's Peak, more than 2100m above sea level

P.S Coffee Roasteries in Ho Chi Minh City

If you happen to be in Ho Chi Minh City and would like to have some of the best coffee in town, do pay a visit to Shin Coffee and Bosgaurus Coffee. Besides coffee from Vietnam, they import and roast the best coffee assortments from around the world.

On Lists

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I love lists.

We encounter lists almost every day. An individual item on a list can be a word, a phrase or a sentence that when standing alone conveys little besides its descriptive meaning.

Orange = a type of fruit.

A list, however, expresses a different idea.

Orange, Toilet Paper, Milk, Eggs = grocery list.

Grocery list also implies action of going to the store, without using a single verb.

Besides, items in a list are usually filtered, condensed, and hence, should be paid equal attention to.

A list can also be ordered by importance or urgency.

I came across a great list today: “10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings”. My favorite is:

“Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as “Annie Dillard memorably put it”, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Other great lists are:

More and less

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This blog post from “Seth’s blog” basically sums up my goals for this year.

More and less

  • More creating
  • Less consuming
  • More leading
  • Less following
  • More contributing
  • Less taking
  • More patience
  • Less intolerance
  • More connecting
  • Less isolating
  • More writing
  • Less watching
  • More optimism
  • Less false realism

Embracing difficulties

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Extract from “Brainpickings”:

“In 1873, as he was approaching his thirtieth birthday, Nietzsche addressed this perennial question of how we find ourselves and bring forth our gifts in a beautiful essay titled “Schopenhauer as Educator”, part of his Untimely Meditations”

Any human being who does not wish to be part of the masses need only stop making things easy for himself. Let him follow his conscience, which calls out to him: “Be yourself! All that you are now doing, thinking, desiring, all that is not you.”

Every young soul hears this call by day and by night and shudders with excitement at the premonition of that degree of happiness which eternities have prepared for those who will give thought to their true liberation. There is no way to help any soul attain this happiness, however, so long as it remains shackled with the chains of opinion and fear. And how hopeless and meaningless life can become without such a liberation! There is no drearier, sorrier creature in nature than the man who has evaded his own genius and who squints now towards the right, now towards the left, now backwards, now in any direction whatever.

The "10 miles" trap

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I’ve been told a lot recently: “1 inch wide, 10 miles deep”.

How are “wide” and “deep” defined?

  • 1 inch Programming Languages, 10 miles PHP
  • 1 inch Software Development, 10 miles Web.
  • 1 inch Fiction, 10 miles Sci-fi.
  • 1 inch Book, 10 miles Fiction.

They all make perfect sense. Which one makes perfect sense to you?

Don’t forget the “1 inch wide”.

1 inch wide exists because you made the effort to look around before committing 10 miles deep. Without 1 inch wide, 10 miles deep seems more likely to be a trap hold.

Everyone starts blindfolded. 1 inch wide opens up your vision.

10 miles trap hole or 10 miles of impact - it’s 1 inch wide that makes all the difference.