Mathematica, Bing vs Google, Web Hosts

Mathematica
Mathematica 9
just came out and it has a bunch of new features, such as a suggestions bar which helps you perform various actions after you enter a query, and support for units, like “centimeters and gigabytes”. I think math education should make much greater use of computers, and Mathematica is the most powerful tool to do so. In addition, it has many beginner-friendly features, such as the ones above or the ability to enter input in English if you don’t know the Mathematica syntax for something. Perhaps math education should be based on figuring out how to turn real-world problems into a format Mathemtica can understand.

Mathematica Suggestion Bar

Bing vs. Google 
A while ago Google changed their shopping search from being free like their regular search to paid-only inclusion, like PriceGrabber and Nextag.  Microsoft just launched a campaign against Google, calling them Scroogle. It attacks Google for not stating more prominently that the results are paid, and that they even partially base their sorting by how much much a merchant pays.

I don’t know if it’s such a big deal. Google Shopping used to be filled with all sorts of low-quality sites, and now it’s much easier for them to keep it high-quality. However, they have lost Amazon from their results, which makes a pretty big difference. Also, it would be better for the user to not factor in pay when you initially display an item. They don’t seem to do that though for a general search, and for a more specific one, you can always sort by price, which wasn’t useful when they had low-quality results.

Web Hosts
I made a couple of small changes to the Web Host chart, including adding another free static web host. More of those services should be coming out soon with the announcement of Google Drive support for web publishing. To keep on top of updates and add additional details, I created a Webpage version of my web host guide. This should be the one-page stop for people to find the right web host.

The Zappable Guide to Finding a Web Host

I decided to update the Zappable Guide to Finding a Web Host. This guide is intended for a newbie who is would like to find out about different hosting options, though I think others can find helpful stuff here too. Most people just Google for information and get results based on SEO instead of what’s most helpful. While Google’s results have improved, you still won’t get a helpful review of the many different options possible. In the chart, I try to explore many different free options, and a couple of paid options too. (Note: I made some of the links into affiliate ones.)

The basic categories I explore are Static Hosting, Cloud Hosting, Cpanel hosting and regular dynamic hosting. I provide recommendations for in each category that I think are good and reliable. This chart should help people quickly find a good web host choice. If you want some more background info and specific details, see finding a web host. The chart is embedded below and a PDF is available here.

Updates:
I created a webpage version of this chart, which will be able to contain more info and be updated more frequently. For example, see the Dreamhost coupons.

Google, Wireless & Posting Too Quickly

Yesterday, The Next Web and other tech blogs reported that Google had purchased a Wifi hotspot company for $400 million. I had written previously in SeekingAlpha about how Google might expand into wifi, so I quickly wrote another article on the topic based on the breaking news.  When I finished, I went back to check on updates and it turned out the whole story was false. The tech media wants to get out their story first, so they end up taking a “publish first, ask questions later approach”. I guess I did the same thing by relying on them.

Anyways, most of what I had written is still likely to apply in the future, so I edited my article and re-submitted it to SeekingAlpha. Might be a bit lame, but I think the basic points are true. The Big Cellular Carriers will face increased competition in the future from companies like Google or Dish Networks, and users will have more choice, either through cellular service or even wifi. Click on the article to find out more:

seekingalpha.com/article/1030591-more-wireless-choice-may-affect-the-big-cellular-carriers

 

Writing with Less Writing

Ideas discussed:

  • People think all writing needs to be paragraphs, but that’s not always the best way to express something.
  • What’s the Appeal of Twitter? + Idea for new platform
  • At least include an outline in your article!
  • Bonus: What writing can learn from programming

My recent chart on learning programming did quite well and got upvoted on Hacker News and Reddit. I realized that one chart was able to encapsulate the important information from 3 previous blog posts. This makes me think there might be too much of a bias to write content in a specific form and style with paragraphs and connecting sentences, when sometimes another form would work better. A chart or diagram can display certain information in a faster and clearer manner than long paragraphs, making the paragraphs unnecessary. Different diagrams and styles can be used for different types of information.

Ways of presenting content

Content Format Good for this type of content Zappable Example Benefits for reader Extra stuff that get stuck in
Paragraphs of Text Long connected arguments Maybe Google and the Future of Search Easy linear read Connecting sentences, stylistic phrases
Table Repeated categories of information Resources to Learn Programming Fast to reference Certain cells just to match others in row. (Maybe use NoSQL-style instead ~)
Flowchart Simple decision guide Picking a Programming Language Can quickly reach relevant decisions Random Jokes
Outline-Style Hierarchical content of separate points Attempt below Can easily skip subsections Hopefully nothing

Even if content doesn’t fit into a chart, it does not mean that standard paragraphs are necessary. Sometimes an Outline-style could do the trick.

Outline vs. Paragraphs

  • I often start with ideas in note-form before writing a post
  • Before publishing notes, need to refine and clarify ideas.
  • Also includes “textification” into paragraphs, which consist of things like:
    • Keeping to a writing-style (varying words, paragraph format)
    • Putting in filler words to build and connect sentences
  • This turns writing into nice essay, but it can obscure points for both the writer and reader
    • It becomes harder for the writer to revise essay when each change affects the continuity of the sentences and paragraphs. (Maybe writers should also aim for looser coupling!)
    • Certain articles (e.g. academic ones) may be so complicated, readers may feel need to create their own outline or diagram to follow it
  • Notes need to be refined before being published, but they can still be kept in an outline style, with several benefits:
    • Often quicker to write than figuring out how to “textify” content.
    • Easier for reader to follow overall flow of argument
    • Lets reader skip certain sections or examples and still follow argument (In fact, maybe the reader should be able to understand the argument heading without even reading the implementation!)
  • Outline-style can be better for reader and writer, though not sure about this example

Obviously, people know that concise writing or charts are often helpful. However, I think people still feel constrained by standard style expectations. That’s why they need things like Twitter and even Powerpoint to permit them to write in shorter form.

While Twitter’s limits may be overkill in cases where you actually want to say something, the fact that its so successful shows the power of letting people get to the point. Maybe someone should create a blogging platform that enforces a posts that are concise and include a diagram, outline or chart. This could help popularize a new style of writing.

I’m not arguing for eliminating essay-style text, I just think it might be worth putting more outlines and charts within writing. Even if much of an article needs to be in paragraphs, perhaps some of it would be clearer or more effective as a chart. And more articles should come with short outlines (or diagrams) that says what their main points are. This would let people decide if they want to read it or review what it said afterwards. Why should some one need to construct their own outline or argument diagram to analyze an argument?

Charts and outlines are really just a minor step. For more challenging material, one can go beyond such static content and create more interactive content. But that’s for another post…

Stay tuned by following me on Twitter, RSS or Email. 

Chart for Learning a Programming Language

Note: An updated version of this chart is now available on Learneroo.com.

The previous chart helped beginners pick a language, this one shows them what resources to use to learn it. It’s better to spend time doing things than to passively read or watch content, so I selected interactive websites, books and courses. Start by going through an online tutorial, and then either read through some of a book or watch an online course. Personally I think a book is better than a video since they’re more concise and easier to reference, but most videos below are short and to the point. The chart is based on these posts: Picking a LanguageGeneral TipsJava and PythonWeb: HTML Javascript and PHPLearning Ruby and Rails

Free Resources For Learning a Programming Language

Java Python Ruby Javascript
Good For Kids / Game Programming Greenfoot Invent Your Own Computer Games  Hackety-Hack, Games: Ruby4Kids CodeAvengers
Interactive Tutorial – Codecademy? No, You can try Programr Yes Yes, there’s also
TryRuby
Yes
More Practice and Help CodingBat Problems Visualize Python executing
(also CodingBat)
RubyMonk*
(1st part is free)
Use Firebug or Developer Tools.
(See Waterbear for visual coding)
Good Free Book for Teaching Programming How to Think Like a Computer Scientist How to Think Like a Computer Scientist Learn to Program
Humble Little Ruby Book
Eloquent Javascript
Interactive Video Course Intro to CompSci -
Programming methodology
(Warning: full Stanford course)
Udacity – Intro to CompSci – Building a Search Engine CodeSchool’s RubyBits* .AppendTo Javascript 101
Advanced Book Effective Java* Dive Into Python 3 Pickaxe Guide* JavaScript: The Definitive Guide*
More Training / Bootcamps See Local / Online colleges See online courses or corporate PythonTraining Most Bootcamps are for Ruby on Rails Catalyst.
For kids: CodeHS.com
* Not free. Update: added affiliate code to Amazon links.

Picking a Programming Language – Chart

Note: An updated version of this chart is available on Learneroo – Programming.

Now that I finished the series on programming, I figured I would make some charts for it. This flowchart will help people pick a language. Click below to enlarge, or view it on Scribd. For more info, see the original post.

Update: After you pick a language, you might want to know how to learn it or how to find a web host.

Learning Ruby and Rails

Note: This post on Ruby and Rails is the final one in a series on Learning How to Program. Previous posts were: Picking a Language, General Tips, Java and Python, and Web: HTML, Javascript, PHP

Say you don’t want to edit old PHP scripts, but instead want to create your own new web application. A good choice would be Ruby on Rails, the ‘cool’ framework for creating websites. It contains various tools and elements that are common to most web applications so you do not need to re-create them from scratch in your own website.   For example, most web apps have forms that take user data and place them in a database. Ruby on Rails lets you create such forms quickly and securely. Rails is written in Ruby, so to code with Rails, you will need to know some Ruby. While you don’t actually have to spend that much time coding with Ruby before starting Rails, I think it makes more sense for a beginner to get comfortable with programming basics before taking on a complex web framework.

Ruby
As always, it’s good to jump right in with an interactive tutorial, which there is no lack of in Ruby. You can spend a few minutes on TryRuby and then look at Codecademy or go through slightly more advanced material on RubyMonk, which has 1 free course and additional courses for $10/month. If you like videos, you can pay $25/month and get access to CodeSchool’s courses, including RubyBits.

You should have a book also though. Learn to Program is geared at teaching programming concepts to beginners, and they aso have a more recent paid edition. The Humble Little Ruby Book is good for learning Ruby, though if you prefer more attitude and random cartoons, there’s the famous Why’s Poigant Guide to Ruby. If you have more experience and really want to get experienced at Ruby, there’s the Pickaxe Guide.

If you want to download something to teach kids Ruby, there’s Hackety-Hack, and if they’re just interested in games, there’s Ruby4Kids.

Ruby on Rails
After learning the basics of programming and Ruby, you can start learning Rails, which also has interactive tutorials. CodeLearn recently launched to let people learn Rails by trying out things from within their browser. If you like learning by watching zombie videos, check out CodeScool’s famous RailsForZombies. You can then signup to CodeSchool and get access to the sequel.

The ‘official’ free text to learn Rails is the Ruby on Rails Tutorial, which goes through all the details on how you would create a Twitter-clone, from getting things installed to version control, from “rails-flavored” ruby to nice CSS styles, and of course, all the fundamentals of Ruby on Rails.
The book places a strong strong emphasis on writing test code, which is code that tests out your main code to ensure it does what you want it to. It follows the TDD and BDD processes, which means you write the tests before you write your actual program’s code. Sometimes you will spend more time writing the tests than actually writing the rails code, but this way you will know your software always works. You can always skips some of the test-parts if you feel its too much.
The issue with a step-by-step tutorial book is that you need to make sure you think about how to do things, and not just copy what the book says. It might be helpful to try to figure out what to do before looking at the code in the book, though that won’t always be possible.

If you have a little experience, you might like Agile Web Development with Rails, which goes through how to create a shopping-cart application in part 1, and contains a rails reference in part 2. To learn how to do specific things, you can watch the screencasts on Railscasts. There’s also the official Rails Guides, which cover various aspects of Rails.

Of course, to actually learn Rails or programming well, you need to work on your own projects. As mentioned, you should find someone to help you work through a project. If you have a couple months, you could consider signing up at one of the Rails bootcamps that sprung up recently. Devbootcamp pioneered the bootcamp approach in SF, AppAcademy  claims they’ll only charge you if you get a job, Starter League is well-established in Chicago and Flatiron School recently started in NY. They charge $8k – 12k, but many give partial refunds if you take a job with one of the companies they’re connected with.

With all these resources, it’s easy to try out programing and then pursue it further if you like it.

Creating Websites – Programming Required

In a previous series, I discussed how you can build websites – no programming required. While you don’t need to program to setup  you’re own blog or wiki, you will need to program if you want to create or customize things beyond what your software has options for. In recent posts, I gave some tips for getting started with programming, and linked to some resources on Java and Python. This post will focus on the web languages – HTML, Javascript & PHP, and the final post will be on Ruby.

Before learning actual programming languages  you’ll want to get familiar with the basics of the web. Web pages are structured with HTML and styled with CSS, so you should quickly learn how they work. If you were editing pages before using a WYSIWYG tool like Expression Web, its time to start editing the actual HTML and CSS code. You can either do this in a simple program like Notepad++, or within Expression Web from the “code” view so you can still use some of its tools. To start learning HTML, you can go through a tutorial, such as one of the resources here from Mozilla. W3Schools often comes up on Google searches, and they have some useful interactive resources, but beware that they may contain a few inaccuracies. To get an idea of how HTML and CSS is used, you can view the source of any webpage you visit by clicking on “view source” in your browser. You can also play around with the HTML and CSS from within the Chrome developer tools or with Firebug on Firefox. This will let see how many different websites use CSS styles.

HTML on modern websites are not created by hand or by an HTML editor, but by web applications, such as a CMS. Web apps are written in programming languages, such as PHP or Ruby. As discussed, many web apps are written in PHP. So if you want to develop new components for your WordPress blog or wiki, you need to learn PHP.  W3schools has a fair amount of info on PHP, and I don’t think it has too many errors. WebMonkey looks like it has a good tutorial for beginners.  There aren’t many new interactive tutorials on PHP, but there are many books you can purchase.

If you’re more interested in front-end development (such as visual effects on a page), you need to learn Javascript. Unlike PHP, it is growing in popularity, so there are a ton of resources online to learn Javascript. Previously-mentioned Codecademy created their first tutorial for Javascript, and they have many courses on the topic. They have a bunch of competitors now, such as CodeAvengers, which seems geared at kids. Its good to go through a book too, and Eloquent Javascript is a great interactive resource. The key is to not just read, but to practice and build things, which is easy to quickly do in Javascript. Firebug and Chrome’s developer tools have great features for trying out your own javascript and exploring other website’s scripts also. After you know the basics of Javascript, you will be able to not only customize web pages, but also create other things like Chrome extensions. In fact, Javascript can now even be used to run the server-side of a website with Node.js (though its not for beginners). This means that you could conceivably create entire websites with javascript only. If you really want to learn Javascript well, you could consider attending Catalyst which is a new bootcamp that opened to train beginners.

Stay tuned for the next post on Ruby and Ruby and Rails, the most popular modern framework for creating websites.

Top Posts on Zappable

Although I have a top posts section, I thought it would be helpful to provide links to some selected content, organized by topic. (Note: I put an asterisk by posts that are first in a series.)

Education

Web & Programming How-To

Articles on SeekingAlpha and LifeHack

Miscellaneous

The Complexity of Online Shopping

Technology can make life easier, but frequently it also makes things more complicated. It is easier to buy things online than going to a store, but one faces a dizzying array of choices. People want quality items at the lowest possible price, but it is hard to figure everything out. Shopping searches return too many results, and Amazon always has thousands of items for every category.

One way to get a smaller subset of lower prices is to check out a deals site like Dealnews or Slickdeal. (Especially around this time of the year.) However, it’s hard to know whether the item is good-quality or whether the “deal” is actually such a great price. Dealnews tries to provide some information about the normal pricing of the item, but it still doesn’t answer whether the price is a good one. It may be that those earphones are normally $20 and are now $10, but it’s not really relevant if I can get better earphones for $5.

It would be pretty useful if a website was able to provide data not just on the price of the item, but on similar items also. If the site could measure in some way the features and quality of an item, it could help users recognize what’s a good deal. For example, if the site was able to say that these type of earphones are hard to get for under $15, one would know $10 is a good deal. The hard part for the site would obviously be getting and analyzing the data in a way that allows these comparisons. A site could use various sources, such as Amazon reviews, but it would need to see what’s really reliable and gives clear information about a product. If a website could do a good job in this area, it could really help people deal with all complexity of online shopping.

Choice and Innovation In Education

Goldman Sachs recently sponsored an essay contest on the following topic:

What should we do to create a strong US education system that works for all, that improves student outcomes and enables our country to regain its leadership position in the field of education?

Below is the beginning of the essay I submitted.


In a famous parable, a group of animals get together to establish a school for their young:

[The animals] adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easy to administer, all animals took all the subjects.
The duck was excellent in swimming, better in fact than his instructor, and made excellent grades in flying, but he was very poor in running. Since he was low in running he had to stay after school and also drop swimming to practice running. This was kept up until his webbed feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school, so nobody worried about that except the duck.

Other animals fared no better than the duck. Each animal had its own strength and weakness, but the one-size-fits-all approach of the school wouldn’t let the animals focus on their strengths. Real schools suffer from a similar problem. Every child is unique, with his or her own interests, capabilities and style of learning. However, the schools lump everyone together into one system, with one curriculum, one pace, and one style of teaching. This prevents students from studying the subjects they enjoy in the way they learn best. The American school system needs to diversify its approach to education. Schools should offer more subjects outside the standard curriculum, teach in new ways besides the traditional lecture, and make greater use of technology in learning. This will ensure that all students will be able to learn the subjects important to them in the way that works best for them…

Learning How to Program with Python or Java

In the last post, I discussed some steps for learning to program, and ended with a few general resources. This post will provide some specific links and free books for learning programming with either Java and Python, and the next post will go into web development languages.

Python
As discussed, Python is a great language to learn programming with, and there are tons of learning resources online. A good path would be to start with a simple tutorial and problems, and then go through a more advanced resource that teaches fundamentals of programming.
Codecademy recently expanded to offer Python tutorials, and they have a well-designed site that’s good for beginners. There are many other places you can practice problems, such as CodingBat or PythonChallenge. To get a better understanding of what the code does, you can visualize your Python executing.
To learn computer science fundamentals, How to Think Like a Computer Scientist is a great interactive book to go through. After you get through that (or if you already have programming experience), you’ll want to look at Dive Into Python 3. If you want a video course, Udacity offers short videos combined with coding problems. You can start by building a search engine in Introduction to Computer Science, and then move on to either Algorithms or Web Development.
Also, If you know a kid who wants to create computer games, Invent Your Own Computer Games is a free eBook on the topic (see also the PyGame modules.)

Java
There aren’t as many free Java resources, but there’s enough to get started. There’s a Java version of How to Think Like a Computer Scientist available online. There’s also a free version of Thinking in Java, though you may want to buy the most recent version instead. If you like lots of pictures and attitude, Head First Java is a good book. Once you have more experience, the recommended Java book is Effective Java. You can also go through the official Java tutorials.

Since Java is a different kind of language than Python, there aren’t as many interactive resources online. To practice problems, you can go through CodingBat and some stuff on Programr. However, to benefit fully from Java’s “safe” features, you will want to do most of your programming in an IDE. I used to recommend against using a beginner IDE like BlueJ, since it lacks features that are also useful for beginners. However, their IDE has improved so that it contains most beginner-friendly features, such as built-in documentation. A good IDE to use later is IntelliJ, and Google recently came out with a version of it for Android. However, if you know a kid who wants to learn programming, it might be worth checking out the Graphics-focused IDE, Greenfoot.

Android
Since app-development is very popular, I’ll briefly discuss it here. Due to Android’s complexity, you shouldn’t try developing apps before you’re comfortable with Java. One you’re ready, Google provides a fair amount of training resources. You can also buy a book like Programming Android. If you’re impatient to start creating apps, you can use the visual programming tool AppInventor, which should help teach some programming concepts.

 

Learning How to Program – General Path

In the last post I discussed picking a programming language; this post will discuss a a general plan for learning programming. The next post should link to some language-specific resources.

Basics - The first step is probably to find a good online tutorial that teaches the basics. I don’t think long video lectures are a good way to learn programming, since one needs to focus on doing things, and they are also hard to refer back to. Instead, one should find a good interactive tutorial that lets you practice as you go through it. You should practice with small additional problems on your own, either ones you make up or problems you find online.

Reference – Make sure you know where to lookup stuff. You don’t want to immediately do a general Google search for every question. Each language has official documentation that you should be able to search quickly to find out how to use something. It might also be helpful to have a specific book or site you check to get more info. It can also help to keep your own code samples organized so you can quickly refer back to previous work you’ve done.

StackOverflow – StackOverflow.com is a free Q&A site for programming. Once you know your programming basics, if you have a question on how to do something, you can search StackOverflow to see if its been asked. (Often it’s easier to search StackOverflow through a Google site search.) If you can’t find an answer, you can ask the question yourself on StackOverflow, but make sure you spell out the specific issue your’re having. Well-written questions on popular languages often receive very fast answers on StackOverflow.

Bigger Projects – After you’ve gone through the basics and worked on small coding problems, you’ll be ready to take on a bigger project. You should now pick a project that you really want to work on, and learn more as you work on building it. When you get stuck, searching the web (and StackOverflow) will sometimes help you figure things out. However, it helps to have a more experienced programmer to turn to when you’re really stuck or for general feedback and guidance. You can either find someone you know, hire a mentor, attend meetups, or even enroll in a programming bootcamp.

Stuff To Learn - Besides learning the specifics of your language, you should also learn the general basics of programming. This includes topics like object-oriented programming, algorithms and data structures. You don’t need to cover everything that’s done in a college algorithms class, but there are certain topics everyone programming should know. Some algorithms tutorials are available on TopCoder, and if you want a fuller treatment, Coursera and Udacity seem to have decent courses on the topic. Its also important to (eventually) learn good programming practice, such as using version control, debugging techniques, and writing test code (Udacity). Once you’ve learned these topics, you’ll have the experience to help beginner programmers!

Google Listens Again

Google is actually a big reader of the Zappable blog, as evidenced by all the Googlebot visits to my site.~ This helps Google figure out what features to develop for their products.   In the past, Gmail only took one week to implement my suggestions, but this time they took a bit longer. Seven months ago, I posted some Suggestions for Improving Google Products, and Google finally got around to implementing an important one. In June they announced offline Google Docs editing, and they now announced an update to Gmail: A new compose box.  Google’s explanation of the new feature even sounds similar to Zappable’s suggestion:

There are many different tasks people switch between while using email, i.e reading, writing and searching. For example I might be writing an email to someone, and realize I need to do an email search to check a previous email I sent. Gmail should allow people to do these different tasks within one Gmail tab so they do not need to  perform these 3 steps each time: create a new tab, go to Gmail.com, and then go to the task they want. [Zappable]

 

How many times have you been writing an email and had to reference something in another message? Saving a draft, opening the old email, and then reopening your draft wastes valuable minutes. The new compose pops up in a window, just like chats (only larger). This makes it easy to reference any other emails without ever having to close your draft. You can even do a search or keep an eye on new mail as it comes in. [Gmail Blog]

Learning How to Program – Picking a Langauge

Lately, learning how to program has become quite popular, so I figured I would put together a quick guide to help people get started. As I discuss in The Future of Education II, I think many people should learn some programming. Even if they don’t want to do it full-time, they’ll still be able to use it for various smaller things in life. In part I of this guide, I’ll discuss the different popular languages that one can learn.

The first step is to pick a language. You shouldn’t worry to much about this choice, since you can learn the basic programming fundamentals no matter what programming language you choose. However, you might as well pick the language that fits best with your goals. Since the web is the main area of action nowadays, I’ll quickly review how websites work before going through different languages.

The webpages you view have been sent over by a server. Sometimes, its just a static page that was just sitting there on the server, but on modern sites, the page is often dynamically created for you. That means some code was being run on the server (the “back-end”) to generate the page that it sent over to you. Websites can use any language on their back-end that is supported by their web host. The page that gets displayed is formatted in static HTML (a markup language), but it can contain Javascript that runs in the browser which allow it to do many more things.

Javascript
Since Javascript runs in all browsers, it can be a good choice of language to learn. No installation is required, since it can immediately be tried out in the browser. Javascript can be used for visual effects, but also for doing things without having to update the entire webpage. Modern web apps require Javascript for many of their features. (For example, try loading Gmail without javascript.) Javascript is also used in many web-related areas, such as creating browser extensions. It is often used for other areas that beginners might be interested in, such as creating AppScripts to work with Google Apps, or On(X) to automate things on Android. If you are interested in any of these purposes, javascript may be a good language to learn. However, Javascript has certain confusing parts, so if you’re not planning on using it for one of the above purposes, you can try a more elegant language  such as Python.

PHP
PHP is a language built for creating dynamic web pages, and it runs on the server-side. Let’s say you just finished building websites without coding and now you want to be able to customize things further. You want to learn how to program the brains of the website, i.e. the back-end. A large number of websites and scripts are built using PHP, and web hosts often come with a list of one-click-install scripts. If you want to create a plugin for WordPress or work with the same script that runs Wikipedia, then PHP is for you. Practically all dynamic web hosts run PHP, and its very easy to get started with it. However, PHP has some issues, such as a messy syntax and certain inconsistencies and quirks. This means it might be better to learn a different language if just want to learn programming or you want to create an entirely new web app. However, PHP has improved over time, and if it fits your purposes, go ahead and learn it.

Python
If you just want an easy and elegant language to learn programming, Python is a good choice. Unlike PHP and Javascript, which are made for the web, Python is a general-purpose language that can be used outside of websites. Python tries to be a very readable language, so even a beginner should be able to figure out what a sample of Python code accomplish.  Python has the unusual feature of using indentation to mark different parts of code. This makes the code look less cluttered, but can sometimes cause issues when copying code. If you don’t have a specific goal that fits with one of the other languages  Python is a good choice to go with.

Ruby
Ruby is similar to Python in many ways. It is a general-purpose language which is focused more on programmer productivity than running-time on a machine. This ‘slowness’ isn’t really an issue for most cases a beginner will deal with. Ruby has become very popular recently due to the website-building framework written in it – Ruby on Rails. Rails developed certain principles (such as “convention over configuration”) that let programmers built websites quickly. If you are interested in creating websites with Rails, then it obviously makes sense to learn some Ruby. While Rails can be used without that much Ruby knowledge, I think a beginner should first learn a simple language before taking on a complex framework.

Java
Java is different than the other languages listed here in a number of ways. All code created in Java needs to be “compiled” into another code before it runs, and all variables need to be “declared” with their name and type. Java also enforces a methodology known as “object-oriented programming”, requiring all code to belong to an “object”. While there are various benefits to these decisions, they can make it take slightly longer to play around with code and test things out. Java is a heavy-duty language that runs quickly on machines, and it is taught in schools and used in many big companies. People who program in Java use an IDE for programming, which can provide various features to help with programming, such as auto-completion suggestions while they code, and automatic highlighting of certain errors. Java is also the language that Android and Android apps are written in, so if you want to code such apps, you need to learn Java. Java’s rules will help you detect certain errors before even running the code, so it does have certain benefits as a first language. However, Java is not the language to pick if if you are interested in quickly creating dynamic websites, or in writing quick scripts for various purposes.

Summary: 

Pick:__      if you want to:__
Javascript – Program front-end webpages, extensions, Appscripts, etc.
PHP – Work with existing PHP scripts
Python – Use a easy general-purpose language
Ruby – Create sites with Ruby on Rails
Java – Program Android apps, Strict rules prevent errors

 

Dwolla, Tesla, Math Education and Earthquake Prediction

Everyone now and then I post a few recent interesting tech links with some comments. Most of the links usually come from Hacker News. Today, I was able to paste in the 4 links quickly due to Email All Tabs, a life-saving (or second-saving) extension. I may be a bit biased about this extension, since I recently made it and submitted it to the Chrome store. Future version of the extension may include more features (such as the ability to include many long links). Anyways here are the links of the day:

blog.dwolla.com/masspay-launces-with-10-new-partners
Dwolla, the practically free payment provider, announces a new product for mass-payments. I always thought the fees Paypal and the credit companies charge seem somewhat high. They often take around 3% + transaction fees just for handling the money. I wonder if money changers in medieval times charged that much for providing a similar service that also included currency conversion:

In the market, most large transactions were done not by cash/coins, but by transfer order of funds on the books kept at the local money changer(s). After a market/fair ended, merchants gathered at the local money changers and withdrew their deposit in their own different currencies. The rate of exchange between different foreign currencies and the local one were fixed between the opening and the closing days of the market.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Money_changer

teslamotors.com/blog/tesla-approach-distributing-and-servicing-cars
Tesla Motors does not feel its sufficient to invent a new class of electric cars, they also want to create a new model for selling them. They have managed to completely skip the standard car-dealer controlled sales process. Car dealers have too much legal protection from competition, so it’s nice to see someone challenging them. In this post, Tesla’s CEO diplomatically explains that he understands the protectionist car-dealer laws, but they do not apply to Tesla, which does not deal with car-dealers. 

refsmmat.com/articles/unreasonable-math.html
Obligatory link about math education.~ This somewhat long post says math is about rules that can be used as Lego blocks to build things, while schools just get people to memorize things that have been built. Its true that math education often just consists of memorization, though its often the rules that are memorized. It may be difficult for many people to learn how to wield math, so the educations system just settles on getting them to act like machines (see my early post on this). I think math education needs to be taught in different ways to different people, depending on their aptitude and inclination. 

bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-20025626
Italian scientists convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison for incorrectly predicting that an earthquake wouldn’t be so bad. Seems pretty crazy, but I didn’t look into the details.