Too close to the machines

The programmer, who needs clarity, who must talk all day to a machine that demands declarations, hunkers down into a low-grade annoyance. It is here that the stereotype of the programmer, sitting in a dim room, growling from behind Coke cans, has its origins. The disorder of the desk, the floor; the yellow Post-it notes everywhere; the whiteboards covered with scrawl: all this is the outward manifestation of the messiness of human thought. The messiness cannot go into the program; it piles up around the programmer.

~ Ellen Ullman

“The messiness cannot go into the program.”

I’ve never thought of it quite that way before. Every once in a great while, you feel the ground move beneath your feet. That sentence moved the ground for me.

I spent an enormous amount of time being a thorn in people’s sides as I clamored to get them to resolve the messiness so I could then manipulate the machines. I tried explaining the machines. I tried explaining the messiness and what I thought might be ways to resolve it. None of that turned out well for the machines, the people or me. Along the way, I realized that dealing with that every day has fundamentally changed how I think. Up until that sentence at the top, I didn’t have a good way to explain my predicament. I only had this fuzzy idea that reality is one thing, computers work this other way, and here I am stuck in the middle.

The messiness cannot go into the computer.

Maaaaybe, I can use that to remind myself that some particular bits of messiness are ok to ignore?


On reading

In this age, which believes that there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest. All that is set forth in books, all that seems so terribly vital and significant, is but an iota of that from which it stems and which it is within everyone’s power to tap. Our whole theory of education is based on the absurd notion that we must learn to swim on land before tackling the water. It applies to the pursuit of the arts as well as to the pursuit of knowledge. Men are still being taught to create by studying other men’s works or by making plans and sketches never intended to materialize. The art of writing is taught in the classroom instead of in the thick of life. Students are still being handed models which are supposed to fit all temperaments, all kinds of intelligence. No wonder we produce better engineers than writers, better industrial experts than painters.

~ Henry Miller

This reminds me of how moving seems to be the only way to sort myself out. Studying movement won’t do.

I often remind myself to always “deploy forward.” Assess. Make a choice. Move. (That would be a move “forward” by definition, since “assess” and “choose” are how I figure out which way “forward” is.) Except in the most extreme cases—so rare as to be almost not worth mentioning—never try to undo (what programs would call “roll-back”) a step. Simply assess, choose and move from the new position.


Fear of failure

But, as it often turns out, author Oliver Burkeman argues for a much more sensible proposition — namely, that we’ve created a culture crippled by the fear of failure, and that the most important thing we can do to enhance our psychoemotional wellbeing is to embrace uncertainty.

~ Maria Papova

There’s been enough global discussion of the ‘fear of missing out’.  You understand what it means and why it is that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.  What are you going to do about it?

Are you going to talk to others about these ideas, (Maria’s above, Oliver’s being referenced, mine)?  Are you going to work to be the change you want to see in the world?

…AND WHEN YOU FAIL, what are you going to do then?


Existential boredom

Toohey argues that boredom, unlike primary emotions like happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust, takes a secondary role, alongside “social emotions” like sympathy, embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride, jealousy, envy, gratitude, admiration, and contempt. He delineates between two main types of boredom — simple boredom, which occurs regularly and doesn’t require that you be able to name it, and existential boredom, a grab-bag condition that is “neither an emotion, nor a mood, nor a feeling” but, rather, “an impressive intellectual formulation” that has much in common with depression and is highly self-aware, something Toohey calls the most self-reflective of conditions.

~ Maria Papova

In that article, there’s an interesting list of self-assessment statements—one of those self-assessments where you rate your level of agreement with each statement, total your points, and see where the Sorting Hat places you on a spectrum of total scores. There was a time not so long ago when I would have immediately answered the questions, totalled my score, and investigated the implications of where I had been sorted.

It would have gone like this: For each question, “here’s my current level of agreement to this statement, …what should it be? …how do I move in that direction?” For the total score, “here’s where I am on this spectrum [of resistence to boredom], should I and could I move along the spectrum?” There would also have been enormous effort to consider the statements themselves, the methods used to compose them, are they the right tools to evaluate sorting within the spectrum, does the spectrum make sense, and so on. It would have all been very much analyze-then-act, all very much forward-looking—I’m at situation/position ‘A’ and how do I move towards ‘B’?

But when I read this article I had a completely new experience.

Novel. First time. Startling.

I read the statement, “in situations where I have to wait, such as in line, I get very restless.” My reaction was not, “score, 0, strongly disagree.” I had a flash of a feeling. A moment where I felt transported—not metaphorically speaking, but rather I felt myself standing in line at the post office. I could see it, hear it, the people, the employees, etc.


Pleasant in the way laying in a hammock in afternoon sun dappled through a tree’s leaves is pleasant. Pleasant, as in I felt a tiny pang of regret to realize my feet are currently chilly [winter, wood stove, hardwood floors; it’s not unpleasant, just visceral] and to be standing up on them would be nicer. Pleasant, as in it would be interesting to hear the small slices of Regular Life—yes, even the ill-behaved children and adults distracted on their phones—you get standing in a queue. Pleasant, as in…

Wait wat? “zero, strongly disagree” …and I was snapped back into at least vaguely gauging wether I was disagreeing or agreeing with the statements [I was all over the map by the way] as I skimmed the list before I moved on from the article.

‘Curiouser and curiouser,’ said Alice.


Personal judgement

Embedded in White’s point about language I find a reflection of one of my core beliefs about life in general: that rules are excellent organizational tools and efficient reducers of cognitive load, but they are no substitute for contextual sensitivity and personal judgement.

~ Maria Popova

Looking back a decade or so, I know that my working on self-awareness was the turning point. What did I discover, through my new-found skill of self-awareness? …an alarming lack of judgement and sensitivity.


The malady of content

When there is communication without need for communication, merely so that someone may earn the social and intellectual prestige of becoming a priest of communication, the quality and communicative value of the message drop like a plummet.

~ Maria Papova

I find “creative culture” an alluring idea. What have I wrought with my own two hands? I find most competition pointless. I find observing others compete unequivically pointless. But creating—or even just watching others create, or observing the fruits of their labor—provides me endless pleasure and opportunity for growth.


Loneliness in Time

It seems to me that in a country so fundamentally shaped by immigrants, a societal sentiment so suddenly unwelcoming to them can only be the product of an absurd narrowing of perspective — an unthinking self-expatriation from history, a willful blindness to the cultural legacy of the past, and an inability to take the telescopic perspective so vital to inhabiting the present with lucidity, integrity, and a deep sense of connection to the whole of humanity.

~ Freeman Dyson

Well, regarding trying to understand “the other.” I initially agreed with her characterization and then I thought, “How much of it is spin?” and “How w/could I begin to unravel some of it?” Answer: By talking to people in the other camp.

Dyson adds a wonderfully generous and optimistic counterpoint: Not that I dislike the Americans on the whole; it is probably in the long run a good thing that they live so much in the present and the future and so little in the past. The fact that they are more alone in the world than average English people probably accounts for their great spontaneous friendliness. I had heard this friendliness attributed to the size of the country and to people’s loneliness in space, but I think the loneliness in time is more important.

~ Maria Popova

This strikes me as amazing. (As in, “I am amazed,” not, “wow, this is awesome.”) “Friendly” is not a word I’d choose to describe Americans. Hell, I don’t think it would make my top 3 list of such words. If I was being kind when selecting my words, I’d say, “motivated,” “inspired,” and “principled.” If I was being unkind— well then I’d hew to the old, “If you’ve nothing nice to say, say nothing.”


Michelangelo’s private papers

What makes Michelangelo: A Life on Paper all the more intriguing is that, by extending an invitation into Michelangelo’s private world of words written for his eyes alone, it raises the question of whom we create for — ourselves, as tender beings with a fundamental need for self-expression, or an audience, as social creatures with a fundamental desire to be liked, understood and acclaimed.

~ Maria Popova

I have reached the point of no-return on books. The first, undeniable demonstration of my mortality is the stack of “to read” books. Every year I read more than in the previous year. And every year the stack of books gets taller. I am saddened when I find books such as this, and know that I will never get around to reading them.



Those of us accustomed to making life livable by superimposing over its inherent chaos various control mechanisms — habit, routine, structure, discipline — are always haunted by the disquieting awareness that something essential is lost in the clutch of control, some effervescent liveliness and loveliness elemental to what makes life not merely livable but worth living.

~ Maria Popova

I spend significant time swerving between the two extremes of schedule-and-organize “all the things,” and running around like a dog fascinated by everything. New item #1 on my list of 42 things (all numbered “1”)…