Programming as a societal roadblock

Thursday, 3 April 2014, around nine at night.

Graham Lee, Programming as a societal roadblock:

Ultimately people who make software are arbiters of interactions between people. The software is just an accident of the tools we have at our disposal. As people go through life they engage in vastly diverse interactions, assuming different roles as the situations and their goals dictate. When we redefine “making good software” to mean “helping people to achieve their goals”, we can start to think of the ethical impact of our work.

While the Power Was Out

Friday, 8 February 2013, around ten at night.

While the power was out, we weren’t strangers. Talking to the neighbors became obvious and normal, bound together as we were by the sudden uselessness of nearly all our possessions. For a while you’d ask or be asked just what exactly was going on, and sometimes you’d hear that the radio said this or that. But after a while people let it be. The power was out, basically everywhere, and it was probably going to be so for a while. What did the details really amount to?

As the sun started to set, people started leaving their homes and standing around in small groups on the sidewalks and in the parking lot, for no other reason than that it felt too weird to occupy an unlit house. At least outside it was supposed to be dark at night. And everybody had lots of beer and wine and liquor to drink, which probably goes without saying.

In the course of that evening outside I learned that the yappy dog around the corner belonged to Marcello, Puerto Rican by birth and employed in some manner related to air traffic control—I didn’t really understand that bit, which is fine, because he didn’t really understand ontology. We politely settled for the half-truths that he does airplanes and I do computers.

It got late. The moon was nearly full, and as it came over the horizon, some were shocked at how bright the light it gave was. That they could have shadows at night was something surprising, like the people around them, like the novelty of everything.


Saturday, 31 March 2012, around two in the afternoon.

Found in the margin of a notebook, written by a classmate to me, all context lost and forgotten:

So… You misunderstood me because you require an absurd amount of direction, and came up with something weird. Neat.

Story of my goddam life.

My Eternal Fast Food Soul

Saturday, 31 March 2012, around one in the afternoon.

When I was in the 11th and 12th grades, I spent my weekends working the opening shift at Carl’s Jr. It really kind of sucked, so to pass the time, and because I was an arrogant snob and an ass, I would write tanka—Japanese short-form poems—on paper napkins, and sometimes stick them in the bag with peoples’ drive-thru orders.

This morning, going through some boxes of papers, I came across a loose sheet that had a couple of those poems preserved on it. For posterity, I guess? Anyway, good for some younger-me lolz.

The Head Cook Is Stoned
The head cook is stoned,
I observe from the front-line.
He’s burnt the bacon.
Veronica’d fire him
If she knew, but she’s on break

Love Tanka
Paddle by its side
My eternal fast food soul
Watches while you eat
Ketchup dripping on your shirt
Marks the passage of the years

The paddle referenced in the second poem was an oar I carried around with me at the time, hoping that a girl would call it a winnowing shovel and then we’d make out or something. Yeah, I know.

Revisions of Cody

Sunday, 25 March 2012, around five in the afternoon.

Every few years I dig out the notebooks and journals I kept when I was 18 and trying to be Jack Kerouac, hoping that time will have helped me get over how bad the writing is, so that I can see what I thought was worth writing down when I was driving to Bolinas on weekends, or traveling with my sister in Europe.

And every few years I cringe. Oh, how I cringe.

Maybe next time.


Friday, 2 March 2012, around midnight.

Maybe one of the best things I learned in high school (apart from the C programming language) was how to think about depression.

It was one of those annoyingly frequent adolescent episodes where an adult tells you something you think you already know and don’t need to hear again, and then years later you realize, oh, that’s what he meant. It really was very simple. My health teacher was trying to impress upon the lot of us that there is no shame in mental illness, and that there should be no stigma attached to seeking help. He said (something along the lines of): you go to a surgeon to get surgery; you go to a doctor to set a broken arm; you go to a psychiatrist to treat depression.


In my experience, there are all kinds of good reasons to not get treatment. You’re a kid, and you don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about the particular way that you feel bad. You’re in high school, and there’d be something wrong with you if you weren’t full of angst. You’re in college, and it’s normal to feel isolated when you live away from home for the first time. All true.

I don’t remember what finally got me to retrace my steps past all the rationalizations and look at myself the way I’d look at anyone else. My dad probably figures into it, but I don’t really want to unpack that right now. Point is, or was, no, it’s not “normal” to nearly fail your afternoon class because you never feel like getting out of bed. It’s not “normal” to have to go hide in a bathroom stall for a while just to be where people can’t look at you. It’s not “normal” to be hungry all day and not want to eat. People have to eat. It feels weird to even write any of that, because I have never thought of myself as a person who does weird, unhealthy stuff. But I do, sometimes, and it sucks.

So one day, after sleeping into the afternoon and missing calculus, I thought, if I had a flu, I’d feel like shit and stay in bed and miss class and fall behind. Sounds familiar. But a flu goes away; I should be doing something to make this go away too. I thought, I have a flu in my head, and instead of dealing with it I’m just sort of sucking at everything. That’s no good! I should see a doctor.

When I started taking Wellbutrin, things got better, but in a way that is hard for me to explain. What I think people sometimes don’t see clearly is that the cost of depression is not the feeling bad part. I consider myself something of an expert on feeling bad, and let me tell you, there is a lot of comfort to be found in prolonged, self-indulgent melancholy. It can have all the nuance of a really nice wine, it’s easy to project, the people around you respond by trying to take care of you, and it provides a rationale for just about anything you want to do but know you really shouldn’t. Feeling bad can be so good that it becomes a habit—but breaking that habit is what counseling is for. At least in my experience, the worst part of depression is the enormous opportunity cost of not wanting anything. That’s what the Wellbutrin is for. It doesn’t make me happier, it makes me more motivated to do things that make me happy. It isn’t a panacea, but it sure as hell beats staying in bed all day.

With Apologies to the Nice Woman Who Wanted to Talk About Star Trek

Wednesday, 8 February 2012, around midnight.

You think, man, I don’t know anyone in this town.

Facebook made putting your identity on the Internet less weird, and now the whole idea of a dating site seems like a much better option than it used to. And hey, the personality questions are kind of fun to answer. You’re not doing anything better at the moment, so what the hell.

Now there’s a pretty lady trying to chat with you about the nerdy stuff you wrote in your profile. Awesome.

But five minutes after saying hello, you beat a hasty retreat, slam your laptop closed, go do literally anything else because, you just realized, my god, looking for strangers to talk to on the Internet is just no way to spend a Friday night.

The Class of Speculative Schemers

Monday, 12 December 2011, around eleven in the morning.

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley, in an 1882 opinion:

It was never the object of [patent] laws to grant a monopoly for every trifling device, every shadow of a shade of an idea, which would naturally and spontaneously occur to any skilled mechanic or operator in the ordinary progress of manufacturers. Such an indiscriminate creation of exclusive privileges tends rather to obstruct than to stimulate invention. It creates a class of speculative schemers who make it their business to watch the advancing wave of improvement, and gather its foam in the form of patented monopolies, which enable them to lay a heavy tax upon the industry of the country, without contributing anything to the real advancement of the arts. It embarrasses the honest pursuit of business with fears and apprehensions of concealed liens and unknown liabilities to lawsuits and vexatious accountings for profits made in good faith.

(Via Buzz Andersen)


Wednesday, 12 October 2011, around midnight.

As in, the expletive. Jesus.

After what I wrote earlier, I now find myself dreary, and maudlin, and seriously considering writing a love-letter to Mac OS 8’s popup Finder window mechanism.

Now there was a woman who understood me.


Tuesday, 11 October 2011, around six in the evening.

The closest I think I ever got to meeting Steve was in 1999, at the Macworld expo in San Francisco. I spent a lot of time on the showroom floor that year, and it is very likely, statistically speaking, that Steve and I were in the building at the same time at some point during the week.

So yeah, not very close.

It was a good trip all the same. I was there with my stepdad on a kind of geek vacation—we got a cool hotel room near Moscone, and I got to wander around on my own for a few days, looking at all the neat stuff people were making for the beleaguered world of Apple computers. The morning following Steve’s keynote address, I remember sitting in the hotel restaurant and reading the Chronicle, which had run an article on the just-announced candy-colored iMacs—or as they put it, Mac’s Life-Savers. I had a notion that it was a Good Thing, and that I definitely wanted to collect them all.

Among the enormous amount of loot I gathered that week was a glossy poster advertising the new iMacs. It went up on my wall the minute I got home.

Figure 1 | Yep. Hanging right over my bed.

I find the memory of 14-year-old me plastering my walls with advertising kind of cringe-inducing—but to be fair, the same can be said for basically every other memory I have of my adolescence. More to the point, Apple kit in the nineties just wasn’t that good, so I have been wondering where all the emotional attachment and identity issues came from. It could simply be that I needed a team to root for, given how completely I ignored sports. But even back then I think I had the sense that there are basically two approaches to technology: you can make a thing and try to sell it, or you can see a problem and try to solve it. Doing the former is respectable; doing the latter, and doing it well, is admirable.

I’m about to start an engineering career at post-Jobs Apple. When I interviewed with the company, Steve had already formally resigned as CEO; when I start, they will have already held his memorial service. He is gone, and I am sadder about it than I expected to be, but I am also excited. A few weeks ago, Guy English wrote a piece called Not About Steve, and I’ve been turning it over in my mind since. Here’s what gets me:

One of the first things I remember reading in the news when Jobs first returned to Apple was that he had the Icon Garden mothballed. At the time, around 1997, Apple had pixelated sculptures of Mac OS icons on the campus grounds. Once Steve returned they had to go — appreciating history is one thing, enshrining it is something else.

To me, dismantling the icon garden speaks of a remarkable combination of pragmatism and imagination. For fourteen years, Apple’s ethos has been a statement and a question: what we have done is good; how can we do it better? That’s not just good business, that’s people aspiring to greatness.

So with that in mind: thanks, Steve, for making what I have done possible. I can’t wait to see what I’ll do next.