Podcast 258: why are you coding in bed?

Supine software is the new normal.

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Paul explains why he secure-shelled in from his bed rather than walking the two feet to his computer. Sara digs into the history of the word software, which more than one person claims to have coined. Ben swears his allegiance to our AI overlords.

Episode Notes

Is there any more fitting end to a day of working from home, deep into months of a fully remote world, than using your smartphone to finish up a little Python code with your head resting on your pillow? Paul has no regrets. If you look at that big, bright, shiny computer monitor late at night, you'll never fall asleep.

Sara helps us trace the origin of the word software. It was originally meant as a joke, a clever play on computer "hardware" used in casual conversation, not as an iron clad piece of marketing. Over time, as it was used in correspondence - at public talks, and eventually in academic papers - it began to take on serious weight as a term of art for the product you produce with computers and code.

Ben would prefer to be Less Wrong, and is starting to use the podcast to put his deference to a supreme AI into the historical record, just in case Roko's basilisk rears its ugly head.

Our lifeboat this week is about an error in some non-standard syntax. Who among has not missed a paren, but hey, sometimes you just need another pair of eyes. Two kind members of our community answered this question, elaborated on how to improve the code, and earned a lifeboat. Congrats!

And finally, a bit of recommended reading on just how much power is consumed by the data centers that make cloud computing run 24/7, and what that means for our planet.


Paul Ford Microsoft is like the perfect name, right? Because it's like, oh, it's a tiny little soft thing. It's like, it's like a puppet. [yeaaah!] It's like a little kitten, and then rip your damn face off. It will kill you.

Sara Chipps It will enterprise you to death.


Ben Popper Hey everybody, welcome to the Stack Overflow Podcast. I am Ben Popper, Director of content at Stack Overflow here with my wonderful co-hosts, Paul and Sara.

SC Hey Ben! Hey Paul!

PF Heeeeyy Sara. Hey Ben. Hey, you know we were talking about before but you guys are in the news. You got an $85 million infusion.

SC Yeaaaah!

PF Congratulations!

BP Yeah, right into the old veins.

PF Congratulations. That's nice. Those are good.

SC That's nice!

PF Yeah, I like it. Oh, God, every time I've had $85 million infusion. I am like ready for the gym? I am so happy.

SC At least three days, yeah.

BP The high doesn't wear off for at least three days.

SC You know if anyone I've been thinking, if anyone could raise money during a pandemic, it's Stack Overflow. Very necessary.

PF Well, it's also it's a nice vote of confidence in the enterprise products. Like it's a good, you're seeing your advisors say, yeah, there's at your scale, there will be growth with your custom products, and what was it.. Stack for Teams?

SC Stack Overflow for teams!

BP Stack Overflow for teams.

PF There we go. There we go. So little little ad, even though I don't work for Stack, a little ad, their stack for teams. It's got the vote of approval of the venture capital community.

SC Yeah.

BP So I mean, it's pretty interesting Stack Overflow, we're on our Series E. And we've been...

PF So am I, personally. I'm also personally on my series E.

BP I'm on my Series G. And, you know, there's not a lot of companies that have been private for that long that are still sort of taking venture and you know, angling eventually to do an IPO. We're one of a small handful. But yes, Stack Overflow for teams the product didn't exist two years ago. So that decision to do that, and to make it the focus has definitely helped the company turn a certain corner and sort of re-accelerate into a good level of growth that is, you know, attracts venture capital so that's fun.


SC Yeah, nothing says party like the word enterprise.

PF Mmm that is true. Nothing says party like that.

SC Paul, I heard you're coding in bed last night.

PF Oh, this is sad. [Ben laughs] First of all, I just want to say I want I want to give my pro tip about enterprise software which is you cannot learn what it is or what it does from their websites. Because you go and it'll say, you'll be like, what is blah blah and it'll be like blah blah is the ultimate integrated synthesis tool for mid scale market marketers and you'll be like, I, somebody told me I had to check this out. And now I don't know what it is. You know, where you can learn about enterprise software and what it really is?

SC Where?

PF YouTube.

SC Wait, really?

PF Yeah, if you like, I bet you've said to yourself, what is SAS? [nope] Oh, Sara? Come on now. No, what is like you know, what is Salesforce enterprise cloud, you know. You can actually go see demos and people will do sort of tutorials and showcase all of that software to get the clicks and it's very useful.

BP That's the dark pattern, Paul. If on the on the landing page you sort of say what it is but it's confusing and then if you want to know more you have to put your email in so one of our salespeople can reach out.

PF They're doing the branding and the marketing and they know that your branding and the marketing and they know you're gonna have to get in there and ask them things and then they'll have you in the funnel right? So they don't want you to see...

BP Just download the ebook if you want to learn more. [Ben laughs]

PF If you see this pieces of software you will be, um, you might not be as excited for...

BP Tune in for the webinar! [Ben laughs]


PF Anyway, sorry. So just you know, you say enterprise and suddenly about 4000 synapses go off and I have to get it out before I can continue. The the thing that Sara is making fun of me for is that last night so my bed in this time of troubles is about a foot from my desk or actually they touched but I'm about you know a foot from my bed on this podcast in, I have a nice computer with lots of screens and I feel good about it. Well, two screens, but they're big. And I went to bed last night and I've been working on a little problem just like a little Python thing. And I was like, you know when I want to solve that, but it'll wait till the morning and then I got in bed and I couldn't quite get it out of my head. So what would someone who was three feet away from their computer do? Obviously I got up No, I did not. I instead was like, No, don't get up, man. You can't get up. But you can Secure Shell to your desktop from my phone from my Pixel 4, cutting edge Pixel 4. You can Secure Shell using the term UX software and open up Emacs on the desktop through SSH in you can solve a little problem that way. And so I did that and it took about three or four times longer than if I'd gotten up and just done it myself.

BP You know, this is both good and bad. It's extremely lazy that you didn't get up the three feet to just do it a faster way but nice that you could code from a bed or a hammock or outside right like you could if you had a little problem that popped in your mind and you found the solution you could Secure Shell and and just do it from the bus.

SC Yeah, that's kind of nice. But yeah, but the bed, I don't know.

PF See this is the thing. It wasn't lazy because I was like I could just get up and do this. Obviously it's two inches away. It was and I couldn't really sleep. I was having trouble sleeping. I was like, why don't you get up and get in front of that big screen? Cuz that'll keep you up for another hour and a half. It was already midnight.

BP Oh, yeah. That makes sense.

PF Yeah. So instead, I'm like, do something more complicated on a little screen with four point type. And But anyway, you know, I did it.

BP You know what I did, Paul, that I felt bad about. Also, I felt guilty, but it was a similar thing. I go to this like little swimming hole near my house with my kids. And that's the one place we have no cell service. So it's like you can't work there. You can't check Instagram, you got to be tuned out, right, like just hanging out with nature hanging with your kids. But I pulled a few documents into Google Docs offline and then you can work on them and then as soon as you get signal all those changes get made.


SC That's nice!

BP Yeah. And so that was kind of fun. I just like pull it up and I have an idea. Do a little type a few sentences. Leave a few comments. Go for a swim.

SC That's great.

PF See, that's what it was supposed to be. And then you would go back and you would facts from the beach. Like that was what we were promised. [Ben & Sara laugh]

SC Fax from the beach. Use your car phone.

PF Yeah, just perpetual kind of connectivity at this old, at Ben Popper's holler. That wasn't the dream. The dream was that you'd get, you'd actually be able to go into nature but still do things.

BP I met the ultimate tech nature man yesterday, Rob Kalin of Etsy. He was like an art student, he decided that it was really crummy that there was no place on the internet to sell things that were specifically like handmade and artisanal. He found a couple of engineers to like, make it with him. And he created a multi-billion dollar company. And then like, I think, 2015 or something, he left Etsy. And now he just lives up here in Catskill, and he's running a huge biodynamic farm, and he built a bakery, and it's like, oh.

SC Is it biodynamic, biodynamic, is where you have to have like a witch bless your grapes? Are you sure it's biodynamic?

BP Yeah, it's kind of like your ketamine shaman thing but it's for growing grapes. [Ben & Sara laugh] No, biodynamic farming is where like you don't you don't bring in like extra fertilizer and chemicals, you like have animals that you know make the fertilizer from poop.

PF Ohhh! Chicken tractor!

BP Yeah, chicken tractor, exactly. You do the natural cycle, you don't add artificial fertilizer chemicals.

PF So chicken tractor you make like, you make a kit for your chickens, but it's on wheels so that they can roll around and eat and poop in your on your farm. And that way No, it's like there's like, you know, it's like 10 chickens just like trotting around living their lives and they're in a relatively large cage like it's big. They're not...

BP I'm actually the proud owner now of of a chicken tractor. So I can tell you all about it.

SC Wait, do you have chickens or just the tractor part?

BP I just bought this new house and it came with eight chickens, two turkeys and three guinea fowl. And there's a big like, huge field out back full of grass and the woman we bought it from had a bunch of horses so that horses ate all the grass, but now it's just birds because we're not keeping the horses.


PF Gotta get the chicken tractor out.

BP Gotta get the chicken tractor. Exactly. So every day, they basically are on a new 10 foot square. They eat that up, they poop on that, which is good. And then the next day move on to the next 10 foot square, like little tiles and a SimCity game or something.

SC No, it sounds like what was that click to farm game on... Facebook?

BP Ohhh Farmville!

SC Farmville. Sounds very Farmville.

PF Yeah, but no, it's a little different in that it's a farm. [Paul & Ben laugh] It's a liiiiittle different.

BP It's pretty similar. The clicking and tiles.

BP Once the same. You know, just you know, Ben is arranging his entire farm into hexagons. Nobody's sure why, but it's cool. [Ben laughs] This is also this is the fantasy, right? The code farmer like the person who can go out in the woods and they have that one little room where that looks out over something where they do their coding and their Usenet posts like that. That's all that's another long standing dream.

BP I mean, it is amazing. I was saying this to Rob yesterday, but like, we just had this big company all hands and it was to discuss the funding. So that's an hour where back in the day I would have been sitting at my desk at the office, maybe, you know, listening to the call and looking at Twitter and yesterday, I listened to the call for an hour and like cleared a huge amount of brush. Like nobody needs me to speak on that call. But I got to listen. And so I'm like outside doing no labor under the hot sun, participating in the digital economy.


PF Sara, what do you been into lately? What have you been reading about?

SC So today I got deep into the universe of the word software and where it came from?

PF Oh, really, all the way back to the beginning. You're like, I need to know what what, how do they even name this?

SC How do computers work? Why do we call them that that kind of stuff?

PF Where did it come from?

SC So I was reading this guy, Paul Niquette's blog. And he mentioned that in October 1953. He kind of just said it as a joke.

PF Whoa. Okay. So Paul Niquette's blog. He was doing that he was around in 1953 doing software?


SC Yeah, that was a year my dad was born. So it was a while ago. He was writing programs for the SWAC at UCLA, which was one of the 16 digital computers in the whole US. He had an epiphany and he was struck by the word software, and he thought was really funny. And then he said it out loud at some point, and no one really got it. But he would usually everyone's like, Who is this guy talking about, but he would put it and like speeches, speeches and lectures, and it kind of took off.

PF I'll be damned.

BP Niquette gets credit, according to The Guardian for saying it out loud and using in speeches in 1953. And then John Tukey gets credit for being the first to put it in a paper so it printed when people could look at it.

SC Ohhh, fascinating, just really interesting stuff.

PF Yeah, no, I got it. Just like we're living history is just happening. What do you think? I mean, what could we have called that right? Like, it's like, they were just talking one day and now we're all living in the software industry.

SC Just like beep boop bap boop beep.

PF It'd be so cool if it was called like, Go Computer or Machine thingy. I mean, just like..

BP Right, computer speak, yeah.

PF Yeah, yeah, yeah!

SC This could go in lots of ways.

PF I'm a compu talker.

SC I'm a compu talker!

PF Oh, what else could we have? I'm a digi-thinker. Like, I mean, they're really, it just goes to show you it's never too late to rebrand, right? We could get away from software.

BP We all call them software programs, right, programs and files. And then when Steve Jobs came back around with the with the branding, that was his, like, magic, his magic. He called them apps. And now we now like, my kids don't know what a software program is. They only know what an app is.

SC Oh fascinating. So one thing we could talk about it is how a lot of the big tech giants had to go in front of Congress yesterday.

BP Mmmm yes.

PF This was, so I was yesterday busy yesterday. So I was only able to watch it through Twitter, which...

SC I mean, is there another way to watch it?

PF I have to say watching the tweets, it went very predictably. And then they said nothing and then they said nothing in another way and then everyone kind of gave up in the in the media world, it was like, let's talk about what's in the background at their houses.


BP I mean, the most important thing that happened is Jeff Bezos tried to talk and was on mute. So it was, it was a successful video conference. Somebody always has to try to talk and be on mute.

PF You know, that's what Congress gets for using Microsoft Teams.

BP Uh, Mr. Bezos, I believe you're on mute. Yeah, no, I mean, it was really weird because it was like it was the you know, Zoom panel tile, and they were all in different rooms. And each one of them had you know, a specific aesthetic that they were projecting to say like, you can trust me. I'm not a you know, Titan of industry crushing competition.

SC Yeah, I'm a nice, I'm a nice young man.

PF You know, I have to say to the news came out like a day before that basis, his ex wife, Mackenzie Scott had given away something like 1.6 billion?

BP 7 billion.

PF Yeah. To a list of charities that anyone with even a remotely bleeding heart, which I know includes me and Sara and Ben are just like, yeah. Okay, okay absolutely. She did it in a highly accountable way where she focused on you know if it's charities to support people of color, they're run by people of color if it's charities to support women they're run but really like she clearly got great advice as to how to achieve philanthropic impact, is pledging to give away most of her unbelievably vast fortune and then came out of the gate swinging. It's this is a strange this to say, it's surprisingly hard to give a lot of money away. In the course of my career I've met people who literally that's their job is to help a billionaires give money away and like start not for profit software enterprises zone because they the billionaires have so much money and it's occurring at such a rate that it's kind of boring to spend it.

SC Yeah. So it's just kind of a pain.


PF Yeah, they're like, I mean, another one of these charities out now and so like, so the smart thing to do is you just get like good professional advice in the same way that you would invest your money. You get good professional advice about impact for philanthropy.

And then you just open the floodgates she nailed it anyway, so I what I love is like in the background, you got people, people are going Jeff Bezos could could actually solve world hunger, which again, same problem. Like it's not like he could transfer $20 billion from a bank account to the world hunger bank account. Yeah, he doesn't want to deal with it, right. Like, that's just where he's at right now. But meanwhile, his ex is just like, everyone who's annoyed with him in the world is like, oh, the wrong one got control of Amazon. And, and now he's in front of Congress. And he's muted. There's an interesting character in all this too. There's Tim Bray, who was a VP at Amazon and quit, because he felt that Amazon was suppressing the unionization effort, especially around warehouses and he was really troubled by it. And he's, he's one of the co-inventors of XML like he goes really, really deep. He's, he's a good dude.

BP Was he there yesterday testifying?

PF No, that would be amazing. That would be, I would have stopped everything to watch that like if you tell me the code, one of the dad of XML is going on the stand. I'm there. That's, that's like my dream.

BPYeah. Jeff Bezos wrote this long statement to the Committee, which was about his life and like how he's the son of a single mother who had to work really hard. She like, had him in high school and did all this stuff to him while having a job. And then he had like an adopted father from Mexico and he lived with his grandparents was like the, you know, I pull myself up by the bootstraps...

PF And his biological dad is a professional unicyclist, I don't know if that ever. People don't talk about that very much. But that's real.

SC What?! That's crazy!

PF Yeah, yeah.

BP That wasn't in the letter.

PF No, no, I don't think they've ever met. It's one of those weird things. But anyway, it's just like that gets in your head when you read it.

BP So his story, you know, his story is basically trying to say like, Look, you know, I made it because America allows people to be entrepreneurial. And you know, I don't think any further regulation is needed here. I'm proof that you know, anybody could succeed. When when I left my job at the bank in New York, they were like, you're crazy. What's the internet? But I did it anyway. It wasn't preordained success. But I do think it's pretty clear from all the evidence...

PF Okay.


BP Looking at all the evidence that they gathered, because actually did quite a quite a deal of work on this, you know, to gather evidence for the anti trust is that in the age of the Internet, and every company has a tech department and every company is on the cloud. And you can launch an app one day, and it can be big in 75 countries around the world in a week. Like those network effects definitely amplify the issues of monopoly power that weren't true back when Bezos started Amazon and nobody knew what the internet was, right?

PF Look, I mean, you need when you have volatile systems, they are not going to self regulate, you need a government to step in and regulate. Unfortunately, I just think that when it comes to tech, an enormous amount of our government are just complete chowder heads and they can't advocate for classically democratic or classically republican strategies they don't even know.

SC It's so frustrating because it's it's like one of those things where it's funny, there's this old clip sensenbrenner, I guess. Who was like talking to Mark Zuckerberg and he's like, how did you take Donald Trump Jr's account? Why did that happen, down? Why did that happen? And Mark Zuckerberg was like, Well, I think you're talking about Twitter and I'm not that guy. But like come on like this. I feel like this joke happens every time there's one of these hearings like this series of tubes thing if you don't understand how the internet works or what the internet is, or any of those things, why are you leading the country? This is just insane. Like it's our chief export the chief export of the US is internet.

PF Well, here's what's real, right? You have your agriculture advisor, you know if you're in if you're in Nebraska or Iowa, like you have agriculture, people on your staff who tell you what's up, and I think what you basically what needs to happen is that every single elected representative, a certain level needs their internet advisor.

SC That guy trying to explain stuff to you. I mean, that's not that's not fun.


BP Also, plugged in your printer and resets your Wi Fi.

PF Yeah, yeah, that is the problem. Right? Is it You know, the internet advisor, it's like, Hey, I know, I know you have a degree from Stanford. But I cannot get my daughter's pictures on this iPhone.

BP If you could just print out those emails. So I can underline this, ya know, the thing that happens here yesterday with a Twitter, Facebook, this has happened literally before, there was a huge senate panel with like four or five of these big internet Titans. And somebody started complaining about how their little niece had gotten to a really nasty website on their iPhone. And they were talking to Sundar Pichai. And he was like, I think you're talking to the wrong guy. I work at Google like this is a repeat like a deja vu of another big internet hearing.

PF Well, we're in this very surreal zone where you've got four people who basically you've got all these people who basically control state level actors with their with their giant companies, and yeah, then you've got people who still think that they're there to fix the printer and it's just like...uhhh...It's really awkward because really what you're seeing is like this very it's this moment where this thing that everybody thought worked for them has come back and is now the boss. And like, but it's still because the government used to be your boss, the tech Titans or like, you know, I still I still kind of admire him like he helped me get my start by creating the internet like, and I respect this Uncle Sam, but let's be honest, I have a lot more money and power than any one of these people in front of me. It's just an awkward interaction. And you know, it's gonna end in rate probably incredibly bad regulation. That's ineffective. And I want to be more optimistic in that. But... beh...



BP Alright y'all, I just shared a lifeboat in our Slack chat. This seems like one of the most classic examples of how I think Stack Overflow is envisioned to work, somebody says, I wrote this code, it doesn't seem to work. Can somebody help? And somebody literally just like says like, here's what you wrote, try writing this. I think maybe it'll help.

SC What an angel.

BP Take a look at this question. Tell me if you think it's an interesting question or answer and then we'll shout out the lifeboater.

PF Non standards, if they're all interesting questions, every question at Stack Overflow.

SC Yeah, there's no such thing as a non interesting question, Ben.

PF They're all your babies. All of them.

BP Okay, well, since this is all Greek to me, I have to ask you if this is interesting, and let you...

PF I mean, it's just it's just a little C syntax. And you know, what, little little challenge about function call parentheses. I'm happy to see it. Non standard syntax use and to create an important point to remember.

SC Ohhh look at him.

BP Yeah, yeah. Tomer, who asked has only 83 reps so if a relatively new user.

SC Yeah, the nice thing about it is Julian just jumped in here was just like you missed some perenne and that I mean, haven't we all?

PF And then early on in survival machine came in on July 20. And took it all the way home. So really...

SC Took it all the way home.

PF This is community at its best. Oh, good lifeboatin'. Before we go I have a recommendation which is go to the Association for Computing Machinery is there. The Communications of the ACM there magazine, there's an article I read that actually is really like I really liked and answered a lot of very vague questions that I've had for a while. It's by Jess Roselle. And it's about data center.

SC She's an angel.

PF I don't know her, but I mean, it's I follow her on Twitter. But yeah, I'm glad to know. It's about data center power usage, which is actually one of those things that doesn't come up a lot in the tech industry, but it is this is a non green industry, right? Like, and yeah, the world's a mess. And it's just a primmer, right? You're just I just, you know, I read it and I went, Oh, okay. That's how the cloud services are using electricity and that's where the electricity goes. And it's stuff like DC to AC conversion and so on. But I have never I've tried to actually get a mental model about that stuff and I never been able to so power usage in your data center, a nice article that will help you understand what's going on in the world pretty good.


BP Very cool. Alright, we'll throw that in the show notes. I have one more GPT3examples.com is full of fun examples now of people put this to use. And if you guys missed it, Farhad manjoo let GPT3 right his column this week and asked readers if they can tell the difference.

PF I mean, maybe not for the first time knows well, we'll find out years later.

BP Yeah, exactly. So you can use it here to copy a bunch of texts and just let it generate a presentation for you with Google Slides. It can make a JavaScript API. It can write marketing copy, apparently, so I guess I'm in luck. You give it a few examples, and it'll start writing for you.

SC Wow, bye Ben.

BP Yep, I'm out of a job.

PF Careful when it gets. It's gonna get unleashed on Stack. Someone's gonna make some weird bot.

SC Oh, we have moderators. moderators won't let that happen.

PF But then your bots will be GPT3 moderators will end up being GPT3 too. It's so bad. Eventually, it'll just be GPT systems talking to GPT systems and we can get. Well factoring the humans out not a bad idea.

SC Maybe, yeah.

PF And then they can pay each other in Bitcoin.

BP Yeah, it's important to get on record with a podcast like this that we respect the AI and if it comes to dominate us all as a species that we we were first to say that it'd be okay.

SC Yeah, I've decided all the robots will have crushes on me and I'm gonna be fine.

PF I think they'll just make me they'll just make me write and explain things in like, in like a cave. There'll be the explain this. No, please. I'm so tired. My hands don't work. Explain it.

BP Yeah, they just yell at you about art. They're still trying to figure that out.

PF You know, they'll be like, you, journalist, explain this. No, I can't I don't understand how it works.

BP Right.

SC I love this dystopian futures. We're all the the journalists are alive and they just explain things.

PF That would be that's entirely real. They just resurrect us to explain things.

BP Yeah. The lifestyle journalists and the art critics. Yeah, yeah, exactly.


PF Turns out that that was the only career that mattered.

BP Alright, thanks for listening. We had a lot of fun. We explored a lot of territory, shout out to our life boaters and shout out to folks who are playing with GPT3. Again, if you have something interesting you want to share with us, you can always email us podcast@stackoverflow.com. Maybe we'll talk about it on the show or bring you on to chat with us. So I'm Ben Popper, Director of content here at Stack Overflow and you can find me on Twitter @BenPopper.

SC And I'm Sara Chipps, Director of Community at Stack Overflow. If you're a robot, I can tell you where the guy that keeps kicking over the Boston Dynamics robots live.

PF I'm Paul Ford and you know when shows up, I am ready you I always believed in loved you. Please, please don't resurrect my consciousness. Just let it rest. But if you need me, well check out my company. I'm the co-founder of Postlight, Postlight.com, that would be really cool if you check that out. Okay.

BP Thanks for listening, everybody.


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