Great stories don't rely on spoilers

Published:

by

Not too long ago, I was watching Jurassic Park on TV. The one that came out in 1993. To this day it is a fascinating movie. It was just as impressive to watch when I was 6 years old. What if you have never heard of the movie and I tell you the story line. Would you stop me and ask me not to reveal any spoiler? Chances are you've already seen the movie and, well, you know that there are no spoilers.

The story can be told, and it is still a fascinating movie to watch. Can't say the same thing about all movies, not even the latest Jurassic World.

When a story only relies on a punch line, it becomes the joke that we heard one too many times. A good story is one that you can immerse yourself into. One you can relate too. Even if it is a fictional one about dinosaurs, our minds can wonder and explore.

Memory intensive Software and Expensive Hardware

Published:

by

When I started programming, I used a defective Power Book G4 to build websites. I would launch BBEdit, and fly through the HTML and CSS. I ran MAMP in the background to interpret the PHP parts of the script. For less than a $100 in investment, I was able to make a living.

Today, the beginning programmers starting their career are encouraged to get a hefty MacBook Pro. This sets them back between $1,299 &ndash $1,999. Even though websites still use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, the tools to develop them have changed. Creating a new website means creating a new docker image with yarn, npm and jetpack. Good luck trying to install all those in one run.

If this was my barrier of entry, I'd stay in school and become an electrical engineer and make my family proud. But in 2020, if a new programmer got an under $200 computer, could they even program?

The short answer is no. The tools people use to create websites require a lot of processing power and RAM to be usable. Try running docker on a cheap machine, or even npm install. The code will freeze for a good moment before you can get anything done. You won't be running npm, jetpack, yarn and whatever it is they teach in programming boot camp. In the Olden days of 2009, MAMP was enough to run a website on my 512MB RAM machine.

There are more tutorials than ever on the web, lowering the bar of entry for programmers. But the bar has been raised when it comes to hardware and tooling. I find myself lucky. There is no room for a poor person to learn programming any longer.

We never see it coming

Published:

by

When your job becomes obsolete, you don't see it coming. The last time I saw a horse was close to 6 years ago. Two police officers were saddled on their horses while children admired the majestic animals in the parade. These horses were a showcase, not a mean of transportation.

When the car was invented, people weren't worried that their horses will no longer be needed. They didn't even connect the dots until the stable was transformed into a gas station. The horse went from being the de facto mean of transportation, to a luxury animal enjoyed by the very rich. Or a novelty in a parade.

The paperboy was not replaced by a bigger and faster automated android boy. The change first came when wages stagnated and grown-ups were forced to take those jobs. Labor laws also killed the tradition of underage kids delivering paper. Now these grown-ups have seen their paper route taken away by the ruthless robot that threatens to take all jobs away. The Email.

Today, J. Crew, a giant in retail with 450 stores in the U.S., has filed for bankruptcy. A great number of people will lose their jobs. But where is the faster horse replacing brick and mortar stores? It's right there on your phone. In your inbox. You order your clothe online, and you get a nice email to confirm your order.

A friend of mine worked in medical billing. She went to business school, and got a certificate in medical billing. She got a stable job in her field until one morning they added a new software to their stack. It collected bills from all agents, and sent a nicely formatted email at the end of the job. She lost her job.

The jobs that disappear are not the easy and repetitive one. For one thing, a pandemic has showed us that the a grocery bagger is more essential than a parking enforcement officer. The jobs that become obsolete are the ones you went to school for. The one you once thought was your calling. It's the one that feels important.

It's time to decouple ourselves from our jobs. The years to come will call us to be more flexible in our careers.

Well planned, and rehearsed

Published:

by

When asked about the worst fear people have, one of the most common is public speaking. Yet, we love to watch public speakers deliver an address without missing a beat. How do they do it? How can they do the thing we fear the most? The answer is, they practice.

Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, arrives late to an event, where he is supposed to speak. He gets there 4 minutes before his time with disheveled hair, joins a random table then asks "Where am I exactly?"

The people at the table are just as worried as him, they tell him he is to speak next. He asks for a piece of paper and a pen, he scribbles some notes. Everyone is just as stressed as him. "How is he going to do it?" Boris gets up and heads to the podium. He forgets the piece of paper on the table.

Boris entertains the crowd with what seem like a half-baked speech. Boris brings the house down. It's a success.

18 months later, Boris is invited to make another speech. And of course, he arrives a few minutes before his time, with the same disheveled hair, and asks "What is this?" On the table, a person who was present in the earlier speech, see's it happen the exact same way it happened before.

Boris asks for a pen and paper, he squiggles the same thing, forgets the paper, entertain the crowd with the same jokes.

What looks like chaos is a perfectly rehearsed choreography. You can read the full story here.

No one shows up to a talk unprepared. No movie is shot in one take. No one delivers an address unprepared. All videos on YouTube are shot multiple times until the speaker can make a full sentence. All audio versions of articles I record are 1 hour long, before I edit it to 10 minutes.

What seems spontaneous is well planned and rehearsed.

Computer Metaphors

Published:

by

One day, my father was trying to copy a text into a Word Document. He tried many times to no avail. He called me up to help him. I sat at his desk and sized the problem. I immediately turned to him and said it was not possible.

– "How come it's not possible", he asked me.

– "Because, this is an image, not a text", I answered. But right then, I understood why my answer didn't make much sense.

What we were looking at on the screen was text. It had the usual white background, and the black 14pt text written over it. It looked no different from any of the other PDFs he was trying to copy. But internally, this was a JPEG saved in a PDF file. As far as the computer was concerned, it was an image and you can't select text between pixels. As far as my father was concerned, he was looking at text on the screen. My job was to help him copy the text to his document. I used an OCR and we corrected the few mistakes and that was that.

But it got me to think about the metaphor. Is an image a text if it displays text? Or is a text an image if it is displayed on a screen? Knowing the difference helps you manipulate the information better. But what new metaphor my children will understand and I will have a hard time seeing through.

My father was a smart guy, he asked me to explain to him what makes one an image, and what makes the other a text. We spent a good hour talking about File types in the Windows OS. I can't wait to have my children explain to me new metaphors I cannot grasp.

Writing

Published:

by

We come up with our greatest ideas is when we have no means of jotting them down. My ultimate challenge is the shower. When the water is running and I’m away from electronic distractions, my mind is finally in its elements. Here, it gets to think without any interruption. But these great thoughts are fleeting thoughts.

The moment I come out of the shower, I try to write them down. Then, of course, I immediately forget them. My means are digital so remembering is not a problem. It often takes a couple of days before I am reminded that I have had a fascinating idea in the shower. When I consult my records, I’m always disappointed. The essence of the thought I wanted to capture is no longer there. I have words, sounds, meaning. But it feels different.

That’s the problem. Converting thoughts to readable or audible words is a lossy transaction.
’ I think about it every time I write on the blog. The idea I have in mind is rarely the one that ends up on the page. For example, I’ll see a fascinating red car, and think about the beautiful paint job. When I open up my laptop to write about it, I’ll say many things, but I’ll forget to mention the red car.

Every time I write, I scrutinize myself. I ask, “Is this what you were trying to say?” Most often than not, the answer is “No”. So I start over, until I finally say exactly what I was trying to say.

Writing your ideas down is not as easy as writing them down. The brain always gets in the way.

1 hour meeting or 1 summary email

Published:

by

As soon as I disconnect from a conference call, my mind goes blank. "What was the call about?" In a pandemic, it has become the popular/fun way of communicating for companies. The idea of a group of people all communicating together in a call is a technological feat. But when it comes to practicality, it is a mess.

With a video feed of each member of the team, you can see people popping in and out, muting and un-muting, connecting and disconnecting. It's easy to zone out when one person is talking, especially when they are talking about something that doesn't relate to you. Many times, I hear my name on the call, I have to shamefully ask to repeat the question because of... connection issues.

I can't help but think that, the conference call is about the conference call. It's not about solving a problem. If meetings are hard to argue for, then the conference call is the thousand dollars HDMI cable. It's shiny, it looks important, but it adds nothing to the conversation.

The same way the internet turned conversation into smart and witty comments with the proper GIF, the conference call turned meetings into appearance competition.

You can argue for meetings or conference calls. But if a one hour call can be replace with a single bulleted list email, then the argument is weak.

Before starting a meeting or a conference call, check if you can summarize the point you are trying to make in an email.

Working with broken software

Published:

by

It always comes as a surprise when you see someone use the software you wrote. The intuitive handcrafted UI leaves them confused. The main feature doesn't work. A specific order of clicking on buttons crashes the application.

But this isn't a cause to give up. It's only the first step. The next step is to improve it. Not adding new features, but improving the ones you have.

When we only have a blank canvas, it's easy to make assumptions on how things will work. You think the architecture you came up with is unbreakable. The application framework is versatile. The code will be reusable. But, once you have another person test it, you will start seeing the flaws. And you will also realize that you are stuck with some flaws. Changing the architecture might mean drastically rewriting the application.

The solution is not necessarily to put everything on pause until you can rewrite it. Instead, it's to learn to work with the broken system.

At every job I had, the breadwinner application was broken in fundamental ways. But it didn't stop developers from working on it everyday, and get paid. The question is not whether the application can be rebuilt better, but it is how we can use it in its current state.

WordPress powers more than a 3rd of the web, it is at version 5 now. At version 3, the developers had 1,217 bug fixes. They knew that they had made ground breaking architectural changes. They created something 1217 times better. But then there was version 4 where 250 bugs were fixed before adding any features. No matter what the code says, there are still bugs to fix.

The only perfect application is the one you haven't written yet. The moment you type, you introduce a bug. You just have to make peace with building broken software.

We forget about the reward

Published:

by

There is a beautiful Chapter in the children's book The Little Prince. Chapter 13, if you want to read it. Here, the little prince arrives on a planet where a businessman is working:

Business man, the little prince

The Business man

The businessman's job is to count the stars and enter them in his ledger. When the child asks him what he will do with the stars, he doesn't want to answer. When the child insists, the man answers:

Nothing, I own them

The prince asks what it does to own a star. The man answers:

It does me the good of making me rich.

The then businessman continues to count the stars.

The reward of owning the stars is the thought of being rich. You don't get to have the stars, or do something with the stars. It's the thought that counts.

I'm reminded of Steve Jobs who worked so hard to become the greatest innovators of our time. What did he do with his riches? He fell sick, and the cancer ate at him for years until it consumed him. According to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, he hated most food. He didn't have a good time eating, didn't have a good time drinking, he didn't have a good time with his family. Instead, he worked. He may have loved working, but it did not seem that the work itself was the reward.

Personally, I think his real reward was the yacht that he wanted to design at the end of his life. It had nothing to do with work. It was purely for the joy of it and to be in it with his family. He died before the yacht was ready to ship.

He has worked, he has changed the world, but he never got his reward. Only when it was too late he thought about it. Work is important, but let's not forget about the rewards.

It takes time to form an argument

Published:

by

In 1958, then presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln debated his democrat opponent Stephen Douglas in what is now dubbed the The Great Debate in 1858. The notable thing, other than the content of the discourse, was its length. It lasted 7 hours.

Douglas delivered a 3 hours address. He presented his ideas and arguments for his candidacy. Lincoln listened quietly while taking notes and pondering. When Douglas finished, Lincoln asked the audience to go home, have dinner and come back refreshed. He warned them that his rebuttal would take at least 4 hours.

Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, contrast this with modern political debates that last only a fraction of the time. Here is what they asked the President:

President Bush, what is the problem in the Middle East and how can it be solved? You will have two minutes to answer.

No matter what his idea to solve the problem is, it is fair to say that it should take more than two minutes to come up with a plausible answer. Of course, the rebuttal by the then Governor Clinton, was just one minute long.

The age of television shrunk the debate into a one-sitting digestible form. And Neil Postman thought this was too fast. But what would he have said about the Internet age?

The internet reduced politicians to delivering their plans for the country in a single tweet. In comparison, that's enough time for a glance. This is not enough for any thing meaningful. TV gave us soundbites. The internet gives us a the meme.

It also affect regular people. We start to think complex problems have simple solutions. In the length of a tweet, you can only say things are good or are bad. There is no room for deeper understanding. There is no room for an argument.

The more I take part in social media, the more I have the impression that I understand different problems. But the moment I try to open my mouth to give my two cents, my argument falls apart. All I have are memes, soundbites, and the first result on Google.

It takes time and effort to form an argument. It requires absorbing information, and then thinking about it. When you see a one liner online that makes sense, take the time to understand it. Most often then not, it doesn't make much sense in the grand scheme of things.