The Stack Overflow Podcast

Two words for ya: networked spreadsheets

Episode Summary

We chat about Paul's return to the office and what our lives are like now that all your podcast hosts have been at least partially vaccinated. Plus, Lotus Notes, networked spreadsheets, and the biggest flight simulator update of all time.

Episode Notes

Dave Winer wrote a fun piece on the lost apps of the 80s. We explore the paradox of software that is "too good" to become popular among mainstream consumers. 

Microsoft has been releasing new versions of its flagship flight simulator each year for a whopping 38 years now. Now we know what makes it seem so very, very real. But just how big can that next patch be? 

Another day, another data breach. At this point, we've become numb to the notion that our identity is compromised.  Is acceptance better for your health than constantly being on guard? See for yourself.

Episode Transcription

Sara Chipps "I remember as a kid being really into paragraphs" is the most on brand thing I think you've ever said.

Paul Ford Look, we know we are at a certain point, you know, just this hair is grey. My last words will be like "paragraphs are interesting!"


Ben Popper Hello! Hi, everybody!

SC Hellooo!

PF Alright!

BP Welcome to the Stack Overflow Podcast. 

PF Hello friends!

BP Back to office, back to Brooklyn edition. We're all back in Brooklyn. This might be the first time in a long time. 

SC No, Paul's not in Brooklyn. Paul's in Manhattan.

PF I'm in Manhattan. I got on the bus today and went to work. I'm plus 14 on my Pfizer vaccine.

BP What is the new normal? What's it like to go back to that old routine?

PF Well, you know, the moment when you first enter a glass box with lots of other people, I mean, look, I took public transportation several times during the pandemic, right. But it was always like, you'd prepard, you would double mask, you would just kind of like overthinking and then kind of be scared for 10 days. So, you know, I feel that that is different. Like, you know, if you hear someone coughing as you walk down the street, you don't go okay, well, there, that could be me. I better reset my entire life. No, I dropped my daughter off at school I got on the bus, I looked at some programming blogs, and I was gonna look out the window and take in the beautiful city. But instead I looked at my phone. So back to normal. Whatever you do as you re enter expect a total 20 minute freak out.

BP I have not relaxed. I'm plus like one week on my vaccine. 

SC On your second dose?

BP No, just my first.

PF I mean, don't! You're not supposed to. Right? I mean, this is the weird thing. It's like, okay, I followed the CDC guidelines all year, I'm safe. And now I'm on the other side. And they are saying no, you're safe, you still need to wear a mask, and you can still transact the virus, but it won't kill you.

BP Kind of what you were saying, Paul about, like, you know, I come from a cohort of people who have been like, very religious about following the CDC guidelines and people who don't are taking risks, you know, with our sort of us as a society's health. But I also have plenty of people in my timeline now who are saying, look, the data shows one week after you know, the Pfizer, you are 80% protected. I'm having trouble letting go of the paranoia, the healthy paranoia, and maybe the scientific, reality scientific consensus that's emerging.

PF Well, I think in a weird way, I had this thought in the morning, which is like, I got that first those 21 days, two weeks. So it's five weeks, right? You've got five weeks or with with Moderna, I guess you've got six to adapt your brain to you know, how do you want to, how do you want it to go? You aren't powerless in this. I think, you know, when people say the new normal, they mean, just get back, get back to it. And I'm in the office today because I'm like, I felt nervous about it. I'm like, well, I gotta, I gotta open the seal. We've got to see what's going to happen. It's frickin weird. I mean, I have a suit jacket hanging over my over my chair from a year ago.

BP Oh wow, you gotta dust off the old loafers and everything. [Paul laughs]

PF It's Chernobyl.

BP Sara, I saw a picture of you having a nice outdoor drinks with friends. What's your like vibe these days? Are you wearing a mask? Not wearing a mask?

SC Wearing a mask, double masking sometimes. But I've had, I've had dose one of the vaccine. A lot of my friends are fully vaccinated. But it's still like a comfort game. When we went out, we had reservations to a place and the Maitre D was really trying to pressure us to eat inside and we just weren't like emotionally ready.

PF No, no, no. You shouldn't be inside, you're not fully vaxxed. Just follow the dumb rules. That's just you follow the rules. And we all did okay. A lot of people didn't, I have plenty of friends who got sick, people passed on. It's been a horrible year, but for the most part, following the rules kept you safer and it's sort of like well, you know, the Maitre D is doing something wrong. Don't push people, you know, just get the full vaccine. Oh, my God, it's been a year we don't have to screw it up in the clinch.

SC It's so funny to how like one thing you learn how like state by state things are so different and I imagine country by country things, I know country, but because we have a lot of people on the team in South America.

PF Canada is so pissed at us right now.

SC Are they? I bet they're fully vaxxed. 

PF Oh, they're so pissed. No it's the opposite! I have a Canadian friend. It's you know, they watched us absolutely soil our pants like toddlers. You know, they they have like a health system.

SC That can't be new for them.

PF Oh, no, but to see it at this scale. It's like, imagine if your next door neighbor who you knew had a serious drug problem just went off the rails for a year and you couldn't do anything about it. And like your houses are connected, and you just see fireworks going off on the second floor and not even on the roof. And like that's how Canada's been watching us. Yeah, they're just like, "Oh my god, they're doing it again. Oh, my God. Oh, my God, please, please, please. Do we call the cops do we call who we're gonna call you know, and it's like it is the cops right?" And it is the cops, right, so what are you gonna do? And no, now they watch us, you know, it's the terrible thing about America is when we get our act together. It's very, very impressive. 

BP I think it's so unfair. Yeah, we were totally irresponsible. They were like, but we still have all the money and we just we just bought our way out of it after all the really crappy behavior.

SC My parents who are over 60, can't get vaccinated there in New Jersey, there are no appointments. 

PF Ahhh, that's too bad. That's really frustrating. 

SC And here in New York, like if you're above 30, you're ready to go. But In Jersey—

PF Oh it's above 16 now.

SC Wow! Basically everyone.

PF Well, you know, New York got its infrastructure. I mean, frankly, because we were so incredibly impacted and blasted for those first six months. I feel that like, and also our governor is trying to unpack some personal stuff. [Sara laughs]

SC He's got some things going on.

BP Probably doing a really good job at the moment because he's probably trying to keep his job. [Ben laughs] There was a good piece from a great writer up on the webski that I wanted to drop in here, if it's from scripting, Scripting News.

PF Oh, boy, what's it saying?

BP It's saying we never should have let Lotus Notes fade away. And we forgotten how great it was, and how come nobody builds Lotus Notes anymore? And even though we think we've got low code, no code—

SC Lotus Notes was the original.

BP Yeah, exactly.

PF What was Lotus Notes? Can anyone describe Lotus Notes to me?

SC Yeah, it was like an email platform communication with macros.

PF Yeah. And it was a real knowledge base, I mean, they're famously the company McKinsey, the consulting firm, where this huge user ever like they kept all of their information in it for years and years. I'll tell you, first of all, it's not fully gone. Because every now and then a client will stumble in from the from the cold and be like, "IBM WebSphere. Lotus Notes. Where are you guys with that?" We're like,"if it's got an API..." or you know, they're like, "No, no, no, no!" So it is still out there but not beautifully supported in the way it used to be. I mean, I think Google Wave was another one. Look, I always think of these as kind of the 'everything engines'.

SC Mmm. Google Wave, man, that was a, RIP Google Wave.

PF Yeah, that was a good one.

BP So this is for people who just like want to bundle it, every productivity tool together, they want them all together. 

PF That's right. 

SC What do you think about this? I wonder if sometimes there is software, one thing we do not like, is software that does too much. Like Google Wave is a good example. Lotus Notes is another good example. What else? Excel is a good one. It's just like software that does too many things. We don't like it.

PF Well, you know what happened too? Like this would be in the late 90s, especially around the 2000s. The idea was like, oh, I'm gonna get Microsoft Office. And, but all the items can embed, like, everything can be nested into everything else. And, you know, an Excel document can just be dropped in the middle of a Word doc, and then you can go in and use it as if it was Excel inside of word. I still don't know if that works. [Paul laughs] We're on year 500 of that, it actually turns out people don't care. And this is also the fantasy with the BOS with object oriented programming.

SC Silverlight is another good one.

PF Yeah, Silverlight, like I'm gonna—and Flash. Remember when Flash went up a level and they had like their whole, they had like a whole programming environment and SDK, and I can't remember the name of it. I remember there was a prototyping tool that was built. Anyway, regardless, this is always the dream, I'm going to own more and more of the ecosystem. And I'm going to empower the users to copy objects, you know, the self programming language, which deeply influenced JavaScript have some of this, people are going to copy and paste things, and then they're going to be able to modify them as a programmer might. It just, this is an awkward truth.

SC Programmers always people want that. they never want. 

PF So a good example, Lotus Notes, brilliant product, knowledge, management, communication, everything all built in some database qualities to it. But the you know, who is the big user, the famous big smart consulting firm, right? Like, the actual thing that makes something into a consumer grade product seems to be that it's really kind of like something that was there before, like, oh, it's a spreadsheet. And I've used spreadsheet programs, and they're based on basic accounting principles, therefore, okay. Like and then, do you need to Excel, no I don't need to drop a table into my Word doc that is always infinitely editable, actually, actually turns out to be—I needed that personally, many times, never could quite get it right. You know, I wish word would just fix its tables too, right? They would always like kind of jump ahead, but not fix it. The thing that was really broken. You get those tables in Word, and like on that, you get that really narrow table. And now it's like 500 pages long.

SC The thing this article talks about a little bit too is like the sheer number of word processing applications that there were before for like any preference you want. I said this word processor., I remember this, this word processor. It was just like very visually beautiful, and just would play soft music to you. And like that was its whole jam.

PF Woah! Really?!

SC Yeah. It was amazing. It would just like play really ambient music. And it would just be like, visually beautiful.

SC You gotta you gotta dig that out for me, Sara. 'Cause I know every piece of word processor tomfoolery to the point that I, you know, I ran WordPerfect 5.2 for my das on my Mac for awhile. No, I but look, I think this is always a tremendous tension. I mean, look what works at building Google and Apple, how do you go and buy a new software experience? You go to the app store. You know, little bit of software that runs, comes on a floppy, downloaded here icon on my screen, for whatever reason. And let's not blame the users. That is what the users like. 

SC Yeah, single responsibility principle for apps. I think people really just like things that do one thing really well. Just the thing that they need.

PF A thing. And I think only computer people are like, oh, you know, it'd be awesome. If your digital audio workstation could embed a podcast session or a live editable podcast session directly into your Excel spreadsheet. It's like that, and you tell me that and I am like, Oh, hell yeah, let's have that meeting. Let's figure that out. We are going to have the most, because then we can do the accounting for the podcast platform right in the spreadsheet, don't have to switch programs! You can track minutes, you can you can figure out how you're going to pay people. Hell, we could wire that to API. And then you can have a chart of podcast performance, connecting straight to the podcast distribution network, and we could monetize this whole thing. This is gonna be amazing. 

SC Yeah, that's too useful. People don't like that.

PF Nobody wants that. Just too useful is so good, right? Like too useful.

SC I say that no one that the best and most innovative software in the world, no one's using. [Ben laughs] Like no one, like, people are building stuff like that all the like, like really brilliant software. And it's just like if it doesn't fit a niche, like people just aren't using it.

BP Over architected. Yeah.

PF Well, they're for power users, right? Like, I think Notion's a little bit like this. There's a wonderful tool called Tinderbox, that's like a hypertext exploration tool for the Mac, been around for forever. Lawyers use it, it does give you all sorts of different ways to look at your data. I've tried to build some of these, you know, I wrote my own blogging engine using XML and Semantic Web principles. So I could look at the data any way you want. It turns out there's tremendous virtue in the old forms that everybody knows. There is paragraphs, I don't want to tell you what it is because you learned it in second grade. In second grade, they sat down and said, "see one of these things with the like, the indent in the front, Sara, Ben, that's a paragraph" and you'd be like, and I remember, I remember being a kid being into paragraphs and being like are they two sentences or more? And they're like, "No, no, no sentences doesn't matter. Just kind of begins and ends. It's kind of on the page." And that's, it's in there, and you got that form. And so like, if you are a computer person, what is fascinating to you is the ability to connect all the information.

BP The scary combination that's using this blog several times is network spreadsheets. Whatever happened to the network spreadsheet?

PF Network spreadsheets! People like apps is the answer, right? They like little things that they can understand. 

BP And I do think that kind of misses the point, which is that. yeah, like there are developers who are taking Notion to the next level or taking it too far. Like, if that's what you want to do, you can take it too far. Nobody's telling you, you can't do that anymore.

PF Too useful. Too useful. Here's what I would say. The 'everything engines' to start to make more sense at the platform level, right? Like we can do everything with this. And the API is very flexible. What products would you like to build on it that consumers would actually want to use? Right, but the hard part is in this, it killed Google Wave, and it's killed a lot of stuff. People don't want to think abstractly. They want to get their job done in the moment, and then maybe 1% of them will get excited on the other side. And look, I mean, this is heartbreaking. Right? Gets in the way of the narrative of like, everybody is a smart person who just needs to learn how to use tools.

SC Yeah, everyone just wants something, whatever is the easiest thing right now. 

PF I mean, you guys were joking about it. Your April Fool's joke was I will cut, you know, people cut and paste from Stack Overflow. So we're gonna make an April Fool's joke about it. And like, because that's, that's really how people do perceive—like Stack without cut and paste and then modify the code is not—and that's for the smart users who are really into programming! Not even smart, just like the really skilled ones, the ones who are like, oh, I know what I need to do, I'll go on Stack Overflow. So I think we just asked a lot from people who mostly need to take, get their kids to school and maybe want to have like, some fish on Friday. Like, it's just like, they're not, and that's me 95% of the time. And then the other 5% I'm like, "What if everything was a node in at a network?"

BP Paul, the thing that I guess like it keeps happening, we talked about this, but like, it's like the internal the eternal war, you know, in this Marvel universe that we live in is between the bundling, and the unbundling. Like now we're going over to, which is just Trello. But it has the progress bar, it's just Trello. But like, you can put a progress bar on there. People like you said, some people are taking it next level. They're like, when I take an action in Monday, it imports that as a Trello card over here. And when I close that Trello card, the progress bar updates on Monday, and I'm just like, ugh, how did we get here?!

PF This is what's critical, right? This is a very specific end user. AirTables another one. First of all, using Monday to me is like, you ever going tubing and it just starts you're going down near, or no, like in the snow tubing, and you're going down and it's a little icy and it starts to go real fast and get real quiet. That's how I feel using Monday. You're like, oh, okay, and then you're like, woah! God I'm gonna die!

SC I've never used it!

BP It's really something.

PF It's an everything engine. Essentially, look, all these things are kind of ways to access relational principles. But with spreadsheet style interfaces. AirTable is a little bit too. AirTable struck me is a little simpler, conceptually, than Monday. Monday is just like, group and pivot everything. Who cares, man, live your life!

BP The central metaphor that makes Monday better than everything else is the progress bar. So that like let's say you're organizing anything you want to do, you're like watching it progress through the stages, and there's a little bar is filling out that's very satisfying. And then you can also be like, "I'm stuck" and it shows you where you're stuck and then you attack that problem or whatever. This is the thing that differentiates Monday as far as I can tell from everything else.

PF Well you know what these things I mean, they get bundled up under low code a lot and you know, what they do is they appeal to the person in the office who may not be a programmer, but is good. Is like, kind of an algorithmic thinker, is aware that things can trigger events, they're connected. And so it's actually for them, because then they go and build out the platform that everybody else is like, alright, it's a form, I don't care.

BP The person who is showing off their, their programming chops on this is our Director of Brand Design. He is hooking up workflows. He's jamming out on Monday.

PF No, that's right. And so it's actually and this is not a criticism of him in any way. It's a chance for him to develop mastery, share it out, it's a way to kind of encode some knowledge and some process. And then everybody else comes in and it's like, Okay, well, this is how this works. But it's that that super modifier, who is really into, who isn't going to write the code necessarily, isn't going to build like a whole new platform or use Ruby on Rails, but they will go in and they will kind of mess with things until it feels trude up and people can get their work done. There's a big part of me that's like, yeah, that'll be 90% of programming.

BP So taking it back to the Lotus Notes era. Sarah, you shared a great like this morning. It's funny that it's written by someone who participated, but in the creation of the 30th annual edition of Microsoft Flight Simulator, did I get that right? 

SC Yeah!

BP And I guess, you know, as always, what makes this one special, it's just how real it feels. But they took it to the like, if you're flying around Denver at 4:30 this afternoon, you will see the air traffic that is around Denver at 4:30 this afternoon. 

SC Flight Simulator is so cool!

BP Yeah, and the correct stars in the sky or whatever it may be. I find this Flight Simulator to be super relaxing. There's a bunch of them in Roblox, like Roblox is like, somebody rediscovers every great game idea or they just copy it or whatever. So like, Roblox has Flight Simulator. My kids have gotten really into it. But I do feel like this is one of those things where you're like, at a certain point, well, people really do spend more time playing video games than they do in the real world. But like this, one of the things you're just like, I could just get so lost in here. Like I could just really lose touch with the world if I was like flying through. I mean, like it's indistinguishable from the real world. You look out the window of a plane, everything's blurry. You look out the window of Microsoft Flight Simulator with a VR headset on like, you're flying the plane for all intents and purposes.

PF Yeah, except it also, like I got into for a minute. And first of all, I'm terrible landing. [Ben laughs]

SC Everyone is. It's the hardest part.

PF Just not good at landing. And then there's a part of you where you're just like, okay, well, I'm flying over the Middle East at night. And then you look down and it's just dark. But and you're like, I've been doing this for an hour, I'm gonna have some crackers.

SC Well I have friends that are getting their pilot's license. And they are, this is what they use. They have a little crew of people that are their air traffic controllers. So they like do training through the simulator. It's very cool. It looks very real. 

BP Yeah, it has all the buttons.

PF Yeah, it's like super. And it's super neat. Like it just it's great. Because it's open world and playful. And the planes are cool. And you learn stuff as you go along. But yeah, no, I mean, unless you're very committed or you want to fly it, I found myself drifting. Also, it is a 30 gig update every time I go on to play it. [Ben laughs] Unless you play it every day, the updates are so big.

BP The world just keeps getting more real. [Ben laughs]

PF It really does. I keep joking about a game called Flight Simulator Simulator, which just is you just log in and download updates for like a day. [Sara laughs]

SC I love that. That's great.

BP Yeah, I want to hear from your crew when they actually go to like, or maybe I guess maybe they're also doing real life training. But I want to know, like when—

SC Yeah, they're all gonna do real life training. 

BP Seem basically indistinguishable. Like, I want to know what if anything, the difference is.

SC That's a great question. I'll find out. I can't believe it's been around for 38 years, I imagine 38 years ago, it did not look the same.

PF Oh, no, you can go see screenshots. It is like extremely dos, like one circle, like just not good. Not good. The earth is like four lines. 

BP Couple pixels per cloud.

PF They focus on the landing strip. There's no sense of like seeing the world. 

SC That makes sense to me. That sounds right.

PF But in the 90s, once I got to CD ROMs, they're like, hey, check it out. Check it out, got some polygons for you. I find also, I mean, when you look at Flight Simulator, and you look at Microsoft, you start to see like, Oh, this is what a giant platform company can pull off. So it's like they hired a company to do it. They can use Microsoft imagery. They use their own machine learning classrooms to interpolate and create a lot of this like, and then now they know where everyone likes to fly around. It's just sort of like, they can upsell you on planes and gadgets. So you do this—

BP You think Bing Maps is monetizing that data? This is the only time I've ever heard about anybody using Bing Maps for anything. No offense.

SC Yeahhh, true.

PF But if you've ever actually tried to use Google Maps, pay for the API, it's, it would actually be easier simply to give everyone a plane than it would do to use Google Maps. So Google Maps Flight Simulator, it's gonna be amazing.

BP Alright, last one. Sarah, you shared a link to Have I Been Pawned?

SC I think it pwned.

BP Pwned. Sorry about that. 

PF I thought I was learning something there.

SC Yeah, have you been pawned? [Paul laughs]

BP I learned something.

PF "Please let me out of the, I'm in a haunted doll in a pawn shop, please!"

BP I always thought it meant like pawn, like the chess piece. No? Okay? I've been pwned. Like owned. 

PF No, it's p 0  w n 3 d. So it's it's leet speak. 

SC Yeah, there was a big leak from Facebook this weekend. A lot of folks, 500 million people, that's a lot of million. [Paul laughs]

BP Am I doing this wrong? But I just feel like at this point, it's like, I don't care. Because I've already been on this website. I know, it's already happened to me 17 times like.

SC 36 times for me, 36 times.

BP It's just like, it's all out there. If anybody cared about, it's just like, my anonymity protects me, like, nobody cares about me or thinks that I'm rich. 

PF Yeah, no, no, that's the thing. Nobody cares. And then you can, you know, you end up buying that, like, what is the name of the thing owned by Norton? Lifelock!

BP And like, going through here, it's like a sad graveyard of services that it's like Bitly, and E-vite, and Discuss, and MySpace and Zynga, like these are the companies that ruined me?

PF this site is an amazing public service, which it absorbs the leaks of private information, and then gives you the ability to see if you were in the leak without telling anybody else about that. You need to put your email address, and so on, so forth. And so blessings for that site. 


BP Here we go. I would love to get to that part of the episode where we shout out a lifeboat badge winner, that's somebody who took a question that had a score of negative three or less and got it up to a score of 20 or more, awarded 48 minutes ago to maaartinus, that says Lombok: How to specify a one arg constructor?. Do y'all know what a Lombok is? I don't.

PF Woohooo!

SC No, can you spell that?

BP L O M B O K. Using Lombok, is it possible to specify a one arm constructor?

PF It's better not to know sometimes. 

SC Yeah, it is better not to know.

BP Here it is. Project Lombok is a tool for reducing boilerplate code in Java through annotations and compile time code generation. There's a whole tag.

PF Well, Lombok.

BP Lombok.

PF There we go. We love you. We love you, Lombok!

BP Yeah, I think it's Klingon origin. Alright, I'm Ben Popper—

PF Ughhhh. 

BP You can find me on Twitter @BenPopper. And you can always email us 

SC And I'm Sara Chipps, Director of Community here at Stack Overflow. And you can find me @SarahJo on GitHub.

PF And I'm Paul Ford, friend of Stack Overflow, check out my company Postlight and we're definitely hiring product managers, engineers and designers. So tell your friends, tell yourself, everybody. Alright!

BP Alright, everybody. Thanks so much.