Programmer Justin Frankel on Winamp, AOL, and Llamas

What makes a great software developer? Legendary programmer and designer Justin Frankel says the most productive programmers have an ability to cut through to what’s really important, focus on that, and then know when they've gotten stuff right. He says it's not true that all developers are anti-social, but that "it’s very easy to spend a great deal of time focusing in on something and then forget to call you friends and that sort of thing."

In his Big Think interview, Frankel talks about what it was like to be bought by AOL just ahead of the company's disastrous merger with Time Warner.  While he describes the deal itself as "awesome" and "life-changing," he admits that the internal politics at AOL began to take a toll once he joined. He ended up rankling his bosses when he released the peer-to-peer file-sharing program gnutella, which allowed users to swap the same media that his parent company was trying to monetize online.

He also talks about the birth of Winamp, one of the first popular MP3 players, and about how online music software has evolved since.  Frankel thinks Apple's widely popular iTunes is "very dumbed down," saying that when he was working on Winamp his team always tried to make the software "straightforward enough so that someone who wasn’t very technical could use it and not be confused, but also exposed tons of power so that if someone wanted to just completely customize it to be exactly their own, and change the behavior to be what they expected, they could do that."  He also talks about why the original Winamp player app that came with a default MP3 that said "Winamp. It really whips the llama’s ass."

Frankel also talked about software patents, asserting that they were essentially just tools for people seeking money in lawsuits. He says the biggest problem is that "you have people patenting things that are essentially math, which is what patents are not supposed to be even about at all. ... They are a big problem largely because you can infringe on them without knowing that you do and as a small company you have like very little—you don’t have resources to go and research whether or not you do.  I could write a 100,000 lines of code and for all I know, 50,000 of them infringe on various things.  And I wouldn’t know that."

Justin Frankel's interview is the first of a new Big Think series, "Shadowy Nerds: The Unsung Architects of the Digital Age." In the coming weeks we will feature more interviews with some of the top designers and programmers behind the internet technology we use every day. If you want to be notified when our next video interview in the "Shadowy Nerds" series is posted, please subscribe to the What's New at Big Think RSS feed.

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

Photo credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
  • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
Keep reading Show less

Banned books: 10 of the most-challenged books in America

America isn't immune to attempts to remove books from libraries and schools, here are ten frequent targets and why you ought to go check them out.

Nazis burn books on a huge bonfire of 'anti-German' literature in the Opernplatz, Berlin. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Culture & Religion
  • Even in America, books are frequently challenged and removed from schools and public libraries.
  • Every year, the American Library Association puts on Banned Books Week to draw attention to this fact.
  • Some of the books they include on their list of most frequently challenged are some of the greatest, most beloved, and entertaining books there are.
Keep reading Show less

Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

(Photo by Andres Pantoja/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
  • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
  • Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws effectively extending the Civil Rights of 1964 to gay and transgender people.
Keep reading Show less