Two Years of Lambda Island, A Healthy Pace and Things to Come

It’s been just over two years since Lambda Island first launched, and just like last year I’d like to give you all an update about what’s been happening, where we are, and where things are going.

To recap: the first year was rough. I’d been self-employed for nearly a decade, but I’d always done stable contracting work, which provided a steady stream of income, and made it easy for me to unplug at the end of the day.

Lambda Island was, as the Dutch expression goes, “a different pair of sleeves”. I really underestimated what switching to a one-man product business in a niche market would mean, and within months I was struggling with symptoms of burnout, so most of year one was characterised by trying to keep things going and stay afloat financially, while looking after myself and trying to get back to a good place, physically and mentally.

Luckily that all worked out, and during this second year I’ve managed to find a steady, sustainable pace. I’ve been recharging, I even managed to take some holidays this time, and I’m slowly rebuilding my previously depleted savings.

I’m still not able to live off Lambda Island completely, but it provides a good bit of income. One lesson I’ve learned first hand is that the greatest product is worth nothing without good marketing, and of all the hats I wear the one that says “Marketer” is perhaps the one that suits me least.

Still, I have gained some recognition for my efforts in Clojure’s community and in Open Source development, as well as for creating content of exceptional quality, and so there continues to be a steady trickle of new signups. This year has also seen more teams signing up for company plans, which I think is a great development.

It makes a lot of sense, Lambda Island has always focused on the kind of things you’d need to know and use in an actual job, rather than on what’s the latest hotness, and so teams are finding it a great way to quickly introduce people to Datomic, teach people foundational Clojure concepts, or improve their approach to testing.

Coaching and Training

Hiring and onboarding Clojure developers isn’t always easy. There is only a limited amount of senior Clojurists in any given locality, and so companies have to train and mentor more junior profiles, as well as experienced devs coming from other languages. Lambda Island can be an excellent resource for this.

I’ve been helping one company with this process directly. Nextjournal is building an ambitious product using Clojure and ClojureScript, but most of the devs are coming from Erlang and Elixir.

Over the past year I’ve helped them figure out issues with their tooling to make sure everyone can work comfortably. Through one-on-one coaching sessions and code reviews I’ve helped people to grasp Clojure’s guiding principles, adopt a REPL-based workflow, get better at writing idiomatic code, and generally get over the uncertainty of “are we doing this right?”.

From talking to people at conferences and meetups it seems there are more companies that could benefit from this kind of personal coaching, and so I’ve been talking with some talented Clojure people to see if we could start offering this as a general service. I’m very excited about this possibility! If you think your company could benefit from any kind of training or coaching by experienced Clojurists, or if you want to be the first to know when this service becomes available, then please drop me a line (arne at lambdaisland dot com). We’re still figuring out the specific, and any concrete input at this point would be extremely valuable.

Lambda Island

Lambda Island will continue to regularly publish new content, the next episode will be a follow-up episode to Episode 38. Transducers. While that one taught you how to use the built-in transducers, the new episode will dig deeper into how transducers work, and look at some powerful transducer librarier like xforms and kixi.stats.

Year two has seen fewer new episodes than year one, only about a dozen versus the 30 episodes I crancked out in those first twelve months. This has turned out to be a more sustainable pace, and while I would like to increase the frequency a bit again it will remain closer to once a month than to once a week.

You may have noticed that the title screens have started looking a lot nicer though, that’s because this work is now done by the talented Lubov Soltan, who also created the branding for the Dutch Clojure Days. This has been a big step for me as it’s the first time another person has been involved in producing episodes.

Buying episodes

Something else I’ve been working on is making it possible to buy individual episodes. So far the only way to access premium content has been through a subscription. This made sense at the beginning, as there wasn’t much content yet, and new videos were coming out regularly. Subscriptions were offered cheap, and what you were really buying was the promise of future updates.

Now that there’s a substantial catalog new subscribers get instant access to 40+ episodes, about 9 hours of content. Subscription prices have gone up a bit, but not nearly as much as they should considering the value you’re getting. On the other hand consumers have become more price conscious about recurring charges for online services.

So the plan is to sell individual episodes instead, they’ll likely be priced around the ten dollar mark. There will still be subscriptions, but they will be marketed more as premium “all access passes” aimed at companies.

This will also make it more rewarding for me to create new content, and to do better marketing, as I can more directly correlate my efforts to sales. I’ll also be able to see more clearly which topics work well and which don’t. In the end there’s no better way to figure out what people want than by letting them vote with their wallet.

Of course all existing customers will be “grandfathered in”, you can keep your existing plan as long as you like, even those that signed up for ridiculously cheap yearly plans all the way in the beginning. You’ve supported me from the start, this is the least I can do to say “thank you”!

Privacy

Finally I’ve been shipping various improvements and fixes for long standing bugs to the site. Part of this has been to make the site GDPR compliant. Email notifications are now strictly opt-in, and there’s a Privacy Policy that complements the existing Cookie Policy.

I’ve also removed all third party JS and other assets, with the exception of the Vimeo player, which unfortunately also injects some analytics tracking of its own. We might add back some server-side analytics in the future if it makes sense for marketing purposes, but as it stood the analytics were rarely looked at, so no need to let BigCorp track you because of it.

Community and Open Source

It has been part of Lambda Island’s mission to support the Clojure community and ecosystem, and plenty has happened on that front this year.

The big one has been that we relaunched ClojureVerse. This forum had been up and running for several years, but few people actually knew about it. We figured there was a need for an alternative online space, one that’s less formal than the Clojure mailing list, and less noisy than the Clojurians slack. A warm and welcoming place for thoughtful discourse, and for sharing what you’re learning and working on.

On the 2018 Clojure Community Survey over 17% of respondents mentioned using ClojureVerse, which considering it was only a few months since the relaunch is a really nice result.

We’ve also replaced the Clojurians slack log with a proper Clojure app (github and announcement). The old kludge of Python and Node scripts had become a nightmare to maintain. By moving it to a Clojure web app it has become a lot easier for people to submit contributions. Message parsing and rendering has much improved, and we’re properly showing threaded messages, a Slack feature that didn’t exist when the old site launched.

There is still work to be done. So far we’ve focused on getting the thing run smoothly and render things properly, and to make sure the site stays accessible when half a dozen indexing bots are crawling it at once. It’s all taken a bit of time, but this is a long term effort, and eventually we’re getting there.

The main thing that’s still missing is to automate the import of new logs into the database. This is currently still a manual process, which means that the site is often quite a bit behind. This too will get sorted out in time though.

Lambda Island picks up the tab for the hosting and the domains for both ClojureVerse and the Clojurians log, and does the bulk of the system administration and development for these projects.

Open Source

In terms of open source it’s also been a good year for Lambda Island. We’ve released new versions of lambdaisland/uri, Chestnut, lambdaisland/ansi; contributed to the Emacs world with Chemacs and parseclj; submitted patches to clojure.tools.cli, integrant, rewrite-clj, matcher-combinators, cider-nrepl, lein-figwheel, sparkledriver, and toucan. These are often small patches, but integrated over time they have likely made many people’s lives just a little easier.

I’m currently working on a project that could have a real impact on how people structure and run their test code, but since that’s not quite ready for prime-time yet I’ll save the details for a next installment.

Conclusion

Looking in from the outside it may seem like not much has been happening here this past year, but nothing could be further from the truth. Several things have been brewing behind the scenes, and you’ll get to taste the fruit of that labor before long.

The biggest development is that Lambda Island is no longer a one-man venture, I’ve started collaborating more with others, both formally and informally, and you’ll be seeing much more of that in times to come, which is why I felt I could already dish out a royal “we” a few times in this post.

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More blog posts

D3 and ClojureScript

This is a guest post by Joanne Cheng (twitter), a freelance software engineer and visualization consultant based in Denver, Colorado. She has taught workshops and spoken at conferences about visualizing data with D3. Turns out ClojureScript and D3 are a great fit, in this post she’ll show you how to create your own visualization using the power of D3 and the elegance of ClojureScript.

I use D3.js for drawing custom data visualizations. I love using the library, but I wanted to try one of the several compile to JavaScript options, and I decided to look into ClojureScript. It ended up working out well for me, so I’m going to show you how I created a D3.js visualization using ClojureScript!

What we’re visualizing

Reloading Woes

Setting the Stage

When doing client work I put a lot of emphasis on tooling and workflow. By coaching people on their workflow, and by making sure the tooling is there to support it, a team can become many times more effective and productive.

An important part of that is having a good story for code reloading. Real world projects tend to have many dependencies and a large amount of code, making them slow to boot up, so we want to avoid having to restart the process.

The Bare Minimum, or Making Mayonnaise with Clojure

Making Mayonnaise

Imagine you have a grandfather who’s great at making mayonnaise. He’s been making mayonnaise since before the war, and the result is truly excellent. What’s more, he does this with a good old fashioned whisk. He’s kept his right arm in shape throughout decades just by beating those eggs and oil and vinegar.

Now he’s bought himself a handheld electric mixer after hearing his friend rave about hers, but after a few tries he gives up and goes back to his whisk. He says he just can’t get the same result. This seems slightly odd, so the next time you go over you ask him to show you how he uses the mixer.

Clojure Gotchas: "contains?" and Associative Collections

When learning a programming language we rarely read the reference documentation front to back. Instead someone might follow some tutorials, and look at sample code, until they’re confident enough to start a little project for practice.

From that point on the learning process is largely “just in time”, looking up exactly the things you need to perform the task at hand. As this goes on you might start to recognize some patterns, some internal logic that allows you to “intuit” how one part of the language works, based on experience with another part.

Developing this “intuition” — understanding this internal logic — is key to using a language effectively, but occasionally our intuition will be off. Some things are simply not obvious, unless someone has explained them to us. In this post I will look at something that frequently trips people up, and attempt to explain the underlying reasoning.

Dates in Clojure: Making Sense of the Mess

You can always count on human culture to make programming messy. To find out if a person is a programmer just have them say “encodings” or “timezones” and watch their face.

In Java, and hence Clojure, there are half a dozen different ways to represent dates and times, which can lead to confusion, needless type coercion, and inconsistent code. In this post I’ll give you a quick lay of the land, and some tips to make it all a bit easier to deal with.

Representing Time

Clojure Gotchas: Surrogate Pairs

tl;dr: both Java and JavaScript have trouble dealing with unicode characters from Supplementary Planes, like emoji 😱💣.

Today I started working on the next feature of lambdaisland/uri, URI normalization. I worked test-first, you’ll get to see how that went in the next Lambda Island episode.

One of the design goals for this library is to have 100% parity between Clojure and ClojureScript. Learn once, use anywhere. The code is all written in .cljc files, so it can be treated as either Clojure or ClojureScript. Only where necessary am I using a small amount of reader conditionals.

Simple and Happy; is Clojure dying, and what has Ruby got to do with it?

The past week or so a lot of discussion and introspection has been happening in the Clojure community. Eric Normand responded to my one year Lambda Island post with some reflections on the size and growth of the community.

And then Zack Maril lamented on Twitter: “I’m calling it, clojure’s dying more than it is growing”. This sparked a mega-thread, which was still raging four days later. A parallel discussion thread formed on Reddit. Someone asked if their were any Clojure failure stories. They were pointed at this talk from RubyConf 2016, which seemed to hit a lot of people right in the feels, and sparked a subthread with a life of its own.

Meanwhile Ray, one of the hosts of the defn podcast reacted to the original tweet: “I’m calling it: Clojure is alive and well with excellent defaults for productive and sustainable software development.” This sparked another big thread.

Loading Clojure Libraries Directly From Github

Did you ever fix a bug in an open source library, and then had to wait until the maintainer released an updated version?

It’s happened to me many times, the latest one being Toucan. I had run into a limitation, and found out that there was already an open ticket. It wasn’t a big change so I decided to dive in and address it. Just a little yak shave so I could get on with my life.

Now this pull request needs to be reviewed, and merged, and eventually be released to Clojars, but ain’t nobody got time for that stuff. No sir-ee.

Lambda Island Turns One, The Story of a Rocky Ride

One year ago to date I launched Lambda Island, a service that offers high quality video tutorials on web development with Clojure and ClojureScript. It’s been quite a ride. In this post I want to look back at the past year, provide some insight into how this experience has been for me, and give you a glimpse of what the future has in store.

This story really starts in December 2015. After three years of doing contract work for Ticketsolve I decided it was time for a change. I have been self-employed for many years, but I knew that sooner or later I wanted to try my hand at selling a product, rather than selling my time.

In January and February I took some time for soul-searching, and recharging. I went to speak at RubyConf Australia, and got to hang out with some old friends around Australia and New Zealand. Once back in Berlin I got busy creating Lambda Island.

Writing Node.js scripts with ClojureScript

In the two most recent  Lambda Island episodes I covered in-depth how to create command line utilities based on Lumo, how to combine them with third party libraries, and how to deploy them to npmjs.com.

However there’s a different way to create tools with ClojureScript and distribute them through NPM, without relying on Lumo. In this blog post I want to quickly demostrate how to do just that.

To recap, Lumo is a ClojureScript environment based on Node.js, using bootstrapped (self-hosted) ClojureScript. This means the ClojureScript compiler, which is written in Clojure and runs on the JVM, is used to compile itself to JavaScript. This way the JVM is no longer needed, all you need is a JavaScript runtime to compile and run ClojureScript code, which in this case is provided by Node.js. On top of that Lumo uses nexe, so Lumo can be distributed as a single compact and fast executable binary.

Announcing lambdaisland/uri 1.0.0

I just released lambdaisland/uri, a pure Clojure/ClojureScript URI library. It is available on Github and Clojars.

This is a small piece of the code base that powers lambdaisland.com. It’s inspired by Ruby’s Addressable::URI, the most solid URI implementation I’ve seen to date, although it only offers a small part of the functionality that library offers.

It’s written in pure Clojure/ClojureScript, with only minimal use of .cljc reader conditionals to smooth over differences in regular expression syntax, and differences in core protocols. It does not rely on any URI functionality offered by the host, such as java.net.URL, so it’s usable across all current and future Clojure implementations (Clojure, ClojureScript, ClojureCLR).

re-frame Subscriptions Got Even Better

Up until recently, to use re-frame subscriptions in Reagent views, you had to use a form-2 component.

A form-2 component is a function that returns another function, which does the actual rendering of the component to hiccup. In contrast, a form-1 component renders the hiccup directly.

;; form-1
(defn todo-item [todo]
  [:div.view
   [todo-checkbox (:id todo) (:completed todo)]
   [:label {:unselectable "on"} title]
   [:button.destroy {:on-click #(dispatch [:todos/remove (:id todo)])}]])

;; form-2
(defn todo-item [todo]
  (fn [todo]
    [:div.view
     [todo-checkbox (:id todo) (:completed todo)]
     [:label {:unselectable "on"} title]
     [:button.destroy {:on-click #(dispatch [:todos/remove (:id todo)])}]]))

Game Development with Clojure/ClojureScript

This weekend it’s Ludum Dare again, the world’s longest running game jam. The idea is that, alone or with a team, you build a game in a weekend based on a certain theme.

We got a little team together here in Berlin, and so I’ve been reviewing what options there are for someone wanting to build a game in Clojure or Clojurescript.

The good news is there are plenty of options, as you’ll see from the list below. You can do desktop games, browser based games with canvas or webgl, and you can even create Unity 3D games, all from your comfortable Clojure parentheses.

Union Types with Clojure.Spec

Elm and other statically typed languages have a great feature called Union Types (also called Sum Types or Algebraic Data Types).

Here’s an example taken from Elm. Suppose your system used to represent users as integers, maybe just an auto-incrementing primary key, but then switched to UUIDs represented as strings.

To correctly model this situation, you need a way to create a type that can be either an integer or a string, that’s what union types give you.