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.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.

Image source: Ernst Haeckel
Surprising Science
  • An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
  • Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
  • Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
Keep reading Show less
Videos
  • Facebook and Google began as companies with supposedly noble purposes.
  • Creating a more connected world and indexing the world's information: what could be better than that?
  • But pressure to return value to shareholders came at the expense of their own users.
Keep reading Show less