— Henry Miller on getting older (source: Brainpickings).
The thing is, I really like saying yes. I like new things, projects, plans, getting people together and doing something, trying something, even when it’s corny or stupid. I am not good at saying no. And I do not get along with people who say no. When you die, and it really could be this afternoon, under the same bus wheels I’ll stick my head if need be, you will not be happy about having said no. You will be kicking your ass about all the no’s you’ve said. No to that opportunity, or no to that trip to Nova Scotia or no to that night out, or no to that project or no to that person who wants to be naked with you but you worry about what your friends will say.
No is for wimps. No is for pussies. No is to live small and embittered, cherishing the opportunities you missed because they might have sent the wrong message.
There is a point in one’s life when one cares about selling out and not selling out. One worries whether or not wearing a certain shirt means that they are behind the curve or ahead of it, or that having certain music in one’s collection means that they are impressive, or unimpressive.
Thankfully, for some, this all passes. I am here to tell you that I have, a few years ago, found my way out of that thicket of comparison and relentless suspicion and judgment. And it is a nice feeling. Because, in the end, no one will ever give a shit who has kept shit ‘real’ except the two or three people, sitting in their apartments, bitter and self-devouring, who take it upon themselves to wonder about such things. The keeping real of shit matters to some people, but it does not matter to me. It’s fashion, and I don’t like fashion, because fashion does not matter.
What matters is that you do good work. What matters is that you produce things that are true and will stand. What matters is that the Flaming Lips’s new album is ravishing and I’ve listened to it a thousand times already, sometimes for days on end, and it enriches me and makes me want to save people. What matters is that it will stand forever, long after any narrow-hearted curmudgeons have forgotten their appearance on goddamn 90210. What matters is not the perception, nor the fashion, not who’s up and who’s down, but what someone has done and if they meant it. What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.
I say yes, and Wayne Coyne says yes, and if that makes us the enemy, then good, good, good. We are evil people because we want to live and do things. We are on the wrong side because we should be home, calculating which move would be the least damaging to our downtown reputations. But I say yes because I am curious. I want to see things. I say yes when my high school friend tells me to come out because he’s hanging with Puffy. A real story, that. I say yes when Hollywood says they’ll give me enough money to publish a hundred different books, or send twenty kids through college. Saying no is so fucking boring.
And if anyone wants to hurt me for that, or dismiss me for that, for saying yes, I say Oh do it, do it you motherfuckers, finally, finally, finally."
— Dave Eggers response when asked the question in 2000: “Are you taking any steps to keep shit real?” Worth reading in its entirety by anyone who has ever been in a discussion (or been the subject of a discussion) about “selling out.”
Mike Moritz, “What the New York Times Could Have Been”
If you see this kind of unproductive infighting in your company, figure out how to capture it and turn it into positive forward movement or watch your company slowly die.
The project begins in the programmer’s mind with the beauty of a
crystal. I remember the feel of a system at the early stages of
programming, when the knowledge I am to represent in code seems lovely in its structuredness. For a time, the world is a calm, mathematical place. Human and machine seem attuned to a cut-diamond-like state of grace. Once in my life I tried methamphetamine: That speed high is the only state that approximates the feel of a project at its inception. Yes, I understand. Yes, it can be done. Yes, how straightforward. Oh yes. I see.
Then something happens. As the months of coding go on, the irregularities of human thinking start to emerge. You write some code, and suddenly there are dark, unspecified areas. All the pages of careful design documents, and still, between the sentences, something is missing. Human thinking can skip over a great deal, leap over small misunderstandings, can contain ifs and buts in untroubled corners of the mind. But the machine has no corners. Despite all the attempts to see the computer as a brain, the machine has no foreground or background. It can be programmed to behave as if it were working with uncertainty, but — underneath, at the code, at the circuits — it cannot simultaneously do something and withhold for later something that remains unknown. In the painstaking working out of the specification, line by code line, the programmer confronts an awful, inevitable truth: the ways of human and machine understanding are disjunct.
Now begins a process of frustration. The programmer goes back to the analysts with questions, the analysts to the users, the users to their managers, the managers back to the analysts, the analysts to the
programmers. It turns out that some things are just not understood. No one knows the answers to some questions. Or worse, there are too many answers. A long list of exceptional situations is revealed, things that occur very rarely but that occur all the same. Should these be programmed? Yes, of course. How else will the system do the work human beings need to accomplish? Details and exceptions accumulate. Soon the beautiful crystal must be recut. This lovely edge and that are lost. What began in a state of grace soon reveals itself to be a jumble. The human mind, as it turns out, is messy.
Gone is the calm, mathematical world. The clear, clean methedrine high is over. The whole endeavor has become a struggle against disorder. A battle of wills. A testing of endurance. Requirements muddle up; changes are needed immediately. Meanwhile, no one has changed the system deadline. 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 white boards 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.
Soon the programmer has no choice but to retreat into some private
interior space, closer to the machine, where things can be accomplished. The machine begins to seem friendlier than the analysts, the users, the managers. The real-world reflection of the program — who cares anymore? Guide an X-ray machine or target a missile; print a budget or a dossier; run a city subway or a disk-drive read/write arm: it all begins to blur. The system has crossed the membrane — the great filter of logic, instruction by instruction — where it has been cleansed of its linkages to actual human life.
The goal now is not whatever all the analysts first set out to do; the
goal becomes the creation of the system itself. Any ethics or morals or second thoughts, any questions or muddles or exceptions, all dissolve into a junky Nike-mind: Just do it. If I just sit here and code, you think, I can make something run. When the humans come back to talk changes, I can just run the program. Show them: Here. Look at this. See? This is not just talk. This runs. Whatever you might say, whatever the consequences, all you have are words and what I have is this, this thing I’ve built, this operational system. Talk all you want, but this thing here: it works.
— Someone asked me recently, “Why are engineers so cranky sometimes?” I emailed this excerpt from Ellen Ullman’s Close to the Machine. It’s the best thing I’ve read on what it feels like to struggle against the machine when coding (and at 17 years old, still timeless).
If you live in NYC, you by necessity have a favorite bodega (what some call a “corner store”). My favorite bodega changed hands this week after 20+ years being owned by the same couple that I had become fond of. Like most bodegas in NYC, they had a “bodega cat” that was always around. Bodega cats are well-loved in NYC, and it is expected when one makes a late-night run for beer, toilet paper, or diapers that you pay your respects to the bodega cat with a nice word and sometimes an ear scratch. (For the uninitiated, more about the love of bodega cats here and here.)
In no time, the entire interior of the place changed, but on my first visit with the owners there, I noticed that the same cat was still in the store. I asked the new owner if the bodega cat came with the store. He shrugged, smiled, and said, “Smokey’s been here for 18 years. He came with the store.”
Bodega cat photo from this Buzzfeed story.
— “The No-Stats All-Star,” a profile on Shane Battier. In business as in basketball, you need people on the team who make everyone else around them better, and sometimes those are the people who don’t put up big numbers.
The research reported in this book … shows that in the cases of well-managed firms… . good management was the most powerful reason they failed to stay atop their industries. Precisely because these firms listened to their customers, invested aggressively in new technologies that would provide their customers more and better products of the sort they wanted, and because they carefully studied market trends and systematically allocated investment capital to innovations that promised the best returns, they lost their positions of leadership.
What this implies at a deeper level is that many of what are now widely accepted principles of good management are, in fact, only situationally appropriate. There are times at which it is right not to listen to customers, right to invest in developing lower-performance products that promise lower margins, and right to aggressively pursue small, rather than substantial, markets. This book derives a set of rules, from carefully designed research and analysis of innovative successes and failures in the disk drive and other industries, that managers can use to judge when the widely accepted principles of good management should be followed and when alternative principles are appropriate."
— From the intro to Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, which remains an incredibly provocative read after all these years.
Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.
It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.
It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.
It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."
— Robert Kennedy address at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968, noting the deficiencies of GNP as a measurement of success. (now generally referred to as GDP)
On April 13, 1994, I was a 21-year-old with long hair and a fresh English degree working in a low-wage clerical job at a newspaper in Raleigh, NC about a week after Kurt Cobain died (low-wage enough that I qualified for a low-income housing loan while there and delivered pizza at night to pay the rent). I posted a quote from Sartre’s Nausea on the Usenet group alt.society.generation-x that day in memoriam: “The disc is scratched and wearing out, perhaps the singer is dead. . . But behind the existence which falls from one present to the other, without a past, without a future, behind these sounds which decompose from day to day, peel off and slip towards death, the melody stays the same, young and firm, like a pitiless witness… . “
Looking back, it was at least a little pretentious at the time but amazingly pertinent now as I sit here 20 years later listening to Kurt’s voice from Nevermind. Remembering that moment now brings back that feeling of being 21, new in a job, not knowing how things might turn out in general in your life, only $50 in your bank account with a $75 check in the mail, feeling torn up about the death of a rock star you’d never seen nor met.