Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Calculating Your Manliness in MS Excel

Half of programming is meditative, spiritual work.

The teachable parts of programming are its languages and concepts, with their syntaxes, constraints, and best practices.

But the greater, unteachable part has to do with looking at a task that humans are not accustomed to thinking about quantitatively--like playing a game of checkers or recommending a good movie--and perceiving the algorithmic truths beneath it (or at least good approximations.) There is no formal method for this. This process relies entirely on the programmer's ability to contemplate the true nature of things. This is an awesome skill. That's why it's on my manliness spreadsheet.

Three years ago, I was thinking about my personal shortcomings and the people I wanted to be more like, and I resolved to draft a plan of action. I would make a spreadsheet that would take various quantitative descriptors of me as inputs, and tabulate a composite "greatness" score, allowing me to track my progress on the way to becoming more worthwhile. I called this "The Good Man Spreadsheet."

I quickly found out that in making this spreadsheet I would be confronted with the mother of all Programmer's Vision Quests: discovering what I thought made a man a badass, and then putting that into numbers.

Here's what I ended up doing:

  1. I made a list of all of my heroes. If you don't have people of whom you can say "he/she is better than me", you can't work on the the Greatness problem. (If you can't think of anyone better than you, you're also probably a self-deluded jerk.)

    Anderson Mills is a pretty enviable dude, with his abs and his French and the physics research. Gramps is definitely up there, with his stoic discipline and his work in Chiapas.

  2. I lit a cigar and started pacing on the street outside my house and talking to myself. (Half of my billable hours when I'm contracted to do anything are spent pacing and muttering. One doesn't truly program in the cubicle; the cubicle is just where you sit to put things down in code.)

    What do the men I admire have in common? I found that diversity in competencies seemed to correlate well with what I thought of as greatness; being able to do calculus AND create masterworks of art, for example. I made mental notes about this.

  3. I drafted a spreadsheet, incorporating my provisional insights. I sent it to my best and nerdiest friends. We added stuff and took stuff off. We argued philosophy. We tinkered with the variables.

  4. I calibrated. If my model of greatness was right, the spreadsheet should give good scores to good people, and lower ones to mere mortals. I should be either a mere mortal or something mediocre. A spreadsheet that says I'm as good as Anderson is wrong.

Finally, I produced a functioning model which assigned a plausible score to every hero and mortal. The spreadsheet worked. It ranked people's badassity in the way I intuitively would (with very minor exceptions.)

This is not the functioning model. This is my departmental budget.

I can't show you the functioning model, because I have real life friends who read my blog and it would weird them out. Anyhow, it wouldn't be useful to you. This model approximates my view of greatness.

I can tell you that in the end there were several Boolean categories, denoting sharply defined capacities and attributes in everything from programming acumen to domestic skills. I can also tell you that I'm 42% great. Quite more towards the mortals on the scale than I am towards my role models.

But now I have a plan of action.

And "a grand goal of living is the first component of a philosophy of life."

And what you measure improves.

Since the last posting, this blog received $3 from Tina Gunnarsson of Redwood City, California. Tina, you are a patron of the fine arts, a true soul, and my hero.

 Give me a buck to support posts like this.
(If anyone gives me a dollar this time, I'll send them some weird digital artifact, like a dumb chart I've made, or an embarrassing song I wrote when I was 18. Really useful stuff.) 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Someone should make a site like this for real. I'll give you the domain.

Most of my posts are all overwrought and long and serious. This one is not.

Today, all I have to say is that I'm very, very tempted to re-skin and reboot my blog to be like this:

Please, someone, invent this site. I'm too tired.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

The Rabbit and the Mastodon: An Ancient Dilemma of Work and Wealth

Killing a mastodon probably made you pretty popular.

The guy who buys a round of drinks for the bar has got nothing on the guy who buys breakfast lunch and dinner for everyone he knows for a week. "Hey town - take the week off of work. Don't worry about it. It's on me."

That's roughly what I would've done with the Netflix Prize money. Every time I feel I'm on the tail of a big score, I start to divvy the money up in my mind. This much for mom and dad, that much to put Nathan through seminary, etc. I'm such a nice guy. People are going to love me.

An archaeologist named Hugh Robichaux once excavated a mammoth kill site on a campus close to mine when I was in undergrad. He got to learn a lot about Pleistocene megafauna, and he'd tell our class. He said that a mammoth kill was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, if that. The odds were bad, and the task was hard. But the glory was probably intense.

People didn't live on mastodons and mammoths. They lived on things like rabbits. Killing a rabbit is not a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It's an everyday thing. And it sucks. You go out every day, and you run around chasing something small and fast, wearing yourself out, and what you get in the end almost isn't worth the calories you burned to catch it.

That's why I've never been a Nine to Five man. Screw that. I'll hunt a few rabbits to keep me alive, but somewhere out there, there's a mastodon with my name on it. I was born for this. Aren't there some people who are just born for glory? That's what I would have told them in the Wired interview. You know, after the Netflix prize.

I imagine the paleolithic world had plenty of types like me. The modern world does too. Some pre-sedentary urge tells us that big game, with its slim-chance and big-payoff, is the only game in town if you want to be a hero. Rabbits just aren't as good for making everyone love you.

Or they weren't, until the sedentary shift.

One fine day, some anonymous demigod did something that changed the course of human history like nothing ever had or perhaps will again: he built a pen.

You put the rabbits inside. They breed. You eat. The running and sweating stops. It's like permanent mastodon week.

Our unsung Hero of Old and his village probably sat for months, shocked, after that. Will the gods be cool with this? What do we even do now?
Once having marched
Over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence
    Then man came
To the deeper rituals of his bones,
To the time for thinking things over,
To the dance, the song, the story,
Or the hours given over to dreaming,
    Once having so marched.
Culture was born. And philosophy. And the professions.

And now we, in our own professions, can again chase mastodons. We can go for the Olympic tryouts, or the big record deal, or the Netflix prize. Or we can hunt rabbits, day in and day out, and make ends meet.

Or, we can take something small, and let it grow. We can be entrepreneurs.

It looks a lot like hunting rabbits at first. Stocking a pen is hunting rabbits at first. But eventually, the sustenance begins to flow at a level completely incommensurate with one's effort.

And then comes the time for thinking things over.

And your chances are a lot better than they are with a mastodon.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Stoic Meditation on Not Having the Internet

The practice of Stoicism (at least in William Irvine's modern recapitulation) involves deliberately setting aside time to visualize and make peace with all the horrible things that could happen to you. This serves a two-fold purpose:

(1) You prepare yourself psychologically for the caprices that Lady Fortune may indeed have in store for you,


(2) You wake up from your self-imposed nightmares with a kind of survivor's euphoria, to the effect that you cherish the opportunity to change a diaper, and the river of brake lights in five o'clock traffic is just, well . . . beautiful.

This practice works for me. (Though I do have a particularly weird and cheesy constitution: one of my early childhood memories is of being reduced to an almost tearful thankfulness over having been born a man and not a raccoon.)

So today I found myself thinking about who I would have been if the internet never existed. You should ask yourself too. It's fun. But me first:

  • Without the internet I would have never discovered the art, music, and books that I live through. Holy Lord. If I hadn't found Danny Schmidt, would I know what a poem was? My local bookstores and libraries don't carry Schmidt. They also don't carry out-of-print hedonistic commentaries on Chuang Tzu. And nowhere, ever, have I seen a poster of this:

    The internet's ability to enable profitable business models catering to geographically dispersed long-tail customers created a world in which I could be me, and not just some grown-up extension of one of the five locally available stock models of high school personae (prep, jock, stoner, geek, cowboy.)

  • Without the internet I wouldn't be able to do much. My high school didn't have courses in computer programming. They also didn't teach me that you can make Arabic sounding music with Phrygian scales.

  • Without the internet I would have never gotten jobs. When I gigged as a textbook writer, I'd send thirty emails a day to folks in various countries offering my skills. I made the process semi-automatic with form letters and a craigslist-to-OPML program. I've been told by my workmates that the resume bullets from that season in my career are what got me out of the dark mire of adjunct professordom and into college administration. How on earth did people find gigs before? By looking only at their local papers' listings?

  • Without the internet I'd be missing out on some amazing friendships. When you first meet someone, even if you really like them, it's just plain weird to say "Hey dude, I click with you. Wanna be lifelong friends?" Calling someone days after an introduction and a 30 second conversation to propose hanging out is even creepier (unless you're making a romantic advance; then it can be cool and gutsy.) But friending someone you barely know on Facebook is easy. And then commenting. And then corresponding. And then hanging out...

  • Without the internet I wouldn't be able to write. In the realms of pre-internet media, one either comes to the publisher/editor/gatekeeper with mad skills and gets published, or he gets a generic pink slip with a one-line apology. You can't use this system of rejection to make yourself much better. But with blogging, things are different. If every time you write a more sarcastic post you get double the pageviews, you know that the sarcastic thing is working for you. You can try out different voices, registers, and angles, and see what happens. You can literally chart the effects of your different approaches. And when five guys on Hacker News call you an ass, you're probably being too much of an ass.

The sum effect of it all? I think that without the internet I would be less inspired, less skilled, and certainly bereft of the life-drunk night-swimming absinthe posse. And it's not an absurd thing to think about. Most people on earth don't have the internet.

We're lucky. Know that.

And tell me about who you would be. Your turn.

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Using Your Journal to Become More Objective

When I started my first volume, I belonged to a cult.

My diary was intended to be something beneficial to historians. Here they would find that there were sages, even at the cusp of the century, who knew all along of the significance of Hale-Bopp, the impending fall of the Roman Catholic Church, and the ascendancy of its true successor. 

I made predictions. I laid it all out boldly, not wanting some sort of half-ass, subjective, Nostradamus fame. In my awful pettiness and vanity, I also made some pretty sure bets on myself, and some pretty good bets against my enemies. Joe's obviously wrong about the stock market. Jane's kids are going to turn out to be spoiled monsters.

You'll probably be shocked to know that it didn't work out. So was I.

I was more shocked, though, to see my cult-mates re-imagine their own past expectations when their (space)ships didn't come in. They had all, in their most recent telling, always expected things to go exactly as they went. I became pretty depressed and disgusted with those life-long friends, but I also noticed they weren't the only ones re-imagining. Everyone does it. Almost as often as someone switches jobs, they begin to say that they had never intended to keep the original one, but only used it as a strategic stopover. Almost as often as a man is rejected in love, he begins to say that he was never really in love with the girl anyways. Because I had written so much--made myself so utterly falsifiable--I didn't have this luxury. Perhaps my journals would be of the utmost import after all. Well, at least personally.

So I kept at it. I still make predictions. I force myself to. Constantly. And they seem to be getting better. I credit this discipline with moving me, politically, spiritually, intellectually,  and interpersonally, to turbulent waters into which I would've never ventured if all my former selves hadn't been laid so bare in their cluelessness.

Still, though, in moments of weakness, I think of scrapping my journals and re-writing them, deliberately revised and plotted like a good novel. I justify this to myself by saying I want to type them up, and "make them prettier", "correct the prose", or "add context." So humbling and grueling are the gifts of reckoning honestly with being so wrong.

Recently though, while squinting,  I do think I've caught a glimpse of my new country. It is a place of honesty and irony, vulnerability, and a good appreciation for how ridiculous we all are. It's a place where it's a lot easier to sleep.

I predict I'll make good friends there.

Time will tell.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bitcoin, Wikileaks, and the Rise of In-Spite-of-Archy

To vote, or not to vote. That is the question.

Well, it is if you're an anarchist.

The syndicates in revolutionary Spain forbade it. Voting was the tool by which the majority oppressed the minority. No real revolution could come of ballots. Real revolution would come from smashing the ballot box, and setting up an opt-in government. Pay your dues to the union, and they shall be your chosen government. Don't pay, and get out of the way. That was how it was supposed to work. You know, before the whole priest-killing thing got started. Oh, and Hitler's opposition. Well, and that final decision to start voting anyways . . .

I wish for the sake of Holy Knowledge Herself that anarchism would have had a longer go in Catalonia before Franco put it down. The experiment of parallel organization--not revolution, but evolution; a new abiogenesis of social order--deserves to have its results known, whatever they would have been.

I used to tell my wife I was born in the wrong century. I would have totally gone all Orwell and fought to see that one through.

But I'm starting to think this century's not half bad.

Kickstarter started it. Well, at least it started me thinking. Here, it seems, is a solution to the age-old problem of justly pooling resources. Not taxation, but an all-or-nothing drive for free-will financial commitments.

Nowadays, I see the black flag everywhere.

But let's rewind.

Some anthropology, first.

The reason that government is everywhere is that government wins. It's a Darwin thing. The reason that government wins is that a bigger ship is more seaworthy, and a big enough ship needs a thousand builders, and a thousand builders need an organizer to deal out paychecks, and sooner or later the organizer's paychecks become more important than the ship. The ship is still made, of course, and it crosses the world conquering savages for loot. But in the end, the organizer is a king, and we all swear the pledge of allegiance. The original reason for building the ship? Shit, no one remembers. Anyways, here we go. (Ever watch Cube?)

(Ok, that was a sloppy seven-sentence caricature of the pull factors leading to the universal adoption of government, but anthropologically it's right in its essence.)

The take-home: oppression exists because we need organization. No way out of it. I sure accepted it. Then came Megatrends. Its punchline made me stagger.
“The Computer will smash the pyramid. We created the hierarchical, pyramidal managerial system because we needed it to keep track of people and things people did; with the computer to keep track, we can restructure our institutions horizontally.”
In '88 that sounded like an awesome plot for a novel. Now I think it sounds like an awesome plot for a newspaper.

In my own lifetime, the anarchic ferment of the internet has at least delivered one hell of an encyclopedia. It also gave me a great place to stay in Puerto Rico (via airbnb), sans the exorbitant fees that normally accompany travel so that the organizers can be well paid.

But even these promising endeavors are still centralized, and still nipping at the heels of big business and not Big Brother.

Enter Bitcoin.

Some people don't like that the world's monetary policy is controlled by unelected elites. Other people think that these unelected mandarins are our best, safest bet.

Under the paradigm that's governed civilization thus far, this would ultimately culminate in a vote fight. If you want to abolish the Fed, you vote for Ron Paul, and if you win, the supporters of the old way lose.

Bitcoin changes everything.

If you want an alternate currency, you buy in. If you don't, you don't.

Still history suggests that if Bitcoin ever got to be a big enough challenge to the Powers That Be, they'd undo it. But in these brave new days of non-hierarchically organized networks, that looks to be impossible.

"The Computer will smash the pyramid . . . "

Bitcoin doesn't need to be legal to operate. And it's encroaching on the sort of grand scale project space that first gave governments their legitimacy. I think this is significant.

"Where to? What next?"

I don't know.

But the black flags don't stop there.

Wikileaks has made a forward assault on the governments of the world, and as of yet seems immune to their prosecutions, in part because of their "insurance" file, distributed on non-hierarchical networks, and encrypted using methods that the government once sought to make illegal, eventually giving up in the face of unenforceability.

Perhaps in our days, we will see our cyber-syndicates rise. Perhaps we will have nations without coercion of compromise.

Perhaps Romer's charter cities will take off, or the seasteading movement will swell, and offer us our first physical buy-in cities.

Whatever the case, the question of voting will again be asked.

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