Brian Kernighan’s new book D is for Digital has arrived. As the subtitle says, it is, “What a well-informed person ought to know about computers and communications” (sort of like “Physics for presidents”). As you’d expect, the writing is crisp and clean; my only complaint is that it isn’t longer.
Years ago, a musician I knew had a studio near King and Bathurst. He wasn’t an early riser, so we made a deal: two or three mornings a week, I went in around 8:00 in the morning and wrote for two or three hours. It had a small desk with a comfortable chair, my old laptop, a kettle, a key for the washroom down the hall, and no Internet connection, so once I was there, all I could do was write (or talk to myself, or stare out the window, but mostly write).
I’d like to find a similar space so that I can start writing again. (I’ve given up trying to do it at home…) I’ve got an old computer with no wireless card and a small monitor; all I need is a place to put ‘em, and a key for the door so that I can get in between 8:00 and 9:00 two or three mornings a week on my way to work. It needs to be somewhere between Queen & Coxwell in the southeast and Gerrard & Greenwood in the northwest, and I’m happy to help with clean up and maintenance in exchange. If you can help me out, I’d be grateful for a ping.
I just sent the following to email@example.com; please add your voice.
Damn birthers are everywhere these days…
To whom it may concern,
I was very disappointed to hear that you have decided to deny Fauja Singh the record for being the world’s oldest marathon runner . His age is well enough documented to satisfy the British Home Office (grantors of his passport) — surely that is as reliable as anything else he could produce? On behalf of everyone inspired by his courage and determination, I ask you to reconsider.
Dr. Gregory V. Wilson
I just signed the “Research Without Walls” pledge: effective today,I will assist in the peer review process (as a reviewer, board/committee member, chair, editor, etc.) only for conferences, journals, and other publication venues that make all accepted publications available to the public for free via the web. If you believe that sharing ideas is the heart and soul of science, please sign up as well.
I was talking with a friend Wednesday evening, grumbling a bit about how short life is and how many things I’ll never get to. He asked me, “Well, what do you like doing?” It’s a good question for a rainy Friday, so here’s my list (and the reasons I’m not actually doing the ones I’m not doing):
- Writing fiction. I’ve wanted to be an author ever since I was a little kid, and the three or four times I’ve been able to arrange my life so that I can really get into it—get two or three half-day sessions every week for months at a time—have been tremendously rewarding. My circumstances haven’t permitted that for many years, though, and probably won’t for many more years to come; without that feeling of flow, it’s actually more frustrating than fun to write.
- Explaining things. Teaching and writing non-fiction are almost as rewarding, so I’ve done a lot of both, and expect to do more. Teaching inside a large, slow-moving institution whose primary focus is something else didn’t work out for me, but I’m still hopeful that I can find other avenues. The catch, of course, is that in order for it to be sustainable, someone has to pay me, and I have to find a way to combine it with learning new things myself so that what I’m teaching doesn’t go stale.
- Playing music. Doesn’t pay, and I was never particularly good, but I’ve always loved it. I’ve tried to pick up my sax again a couple of times in the last year, but as with writing, I haven’t been able to do it steadily enough to satisfy myself. Perhaps when Maddie is a bit older…
- Playing games. Whether it’s Ultimate frisbee or Homeworld, I like the combination of “with” and “against”—really, I play so that we have something to talk to people about afterward . This is a big part of music for me too—I don’t enjoy playing on my own nearly as much as playing with people. Time, though… always time…
- Working out. I was surprised to discover that I actually enjoyed this, back when I had to be in the gym three times a week for physio exercises—I was about as unathletic a kid as you could imagine. At the risk of repeating myself, making time is the obstacle: if it’s a choice between an hour with my daughter or an hour pushing weights around, it’s no choice at all.
I haven’t listed “spending time with family” or “spending time with friends” because I think they’re too big (or too deep, or too something) to fit into a list like this. They’re the base for everything else, though; as I said last week, we’re all looking for running partners, and I think the reason I’m not making time for writing or music or exercise is that they’d take time away from the two people I love spending time with most. It’s frustrating, like all either/or choices are frustrating, but if publishing another children’s book really was more important to me, I’d be doing that rather than making tea for Sadie when she has a cold or getting the kitchen floor wet doing “experiments” with Madeleine. So yeah, I grumble, but honestly? Given that there are only 24 hours in a day, and that nobody else can do my sleeping for me, I think I’m doing pretty much what I actually want to be doing.
An article that Jorge Aranda and I wrote for American Scientist about empirical studies of software engineering is now up on the web. We hope it’s a good introduction to the area, and we look forward to your feedback. If you’d like to know more about the area, please check out our joint “neat results” blog at http://www.neverworkintheory.org/.
I spoke last week with a woman in her mid-twenties who is working at her first start-up, and would like one day to start a company of her own. I asked her why: why start your own company when there are so many good ones out there to join? Her answer was that she likes starting things—always has. “Yes, but why?” I asked, several more times. Is it that you like being in charge? Is it the echo-of-creation thrill that comes from making something out of nothing, or the social cachet that is attached these days to being a founder? I said then that knowing why you enjoy certain things is as important to your life and career as knowing why people buy your product is to your business. If Steve Jobs was right, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do, then shouldn’t your number one priority be figuring out what you actually love?
I had a similar conversation the next day with a former student who has become one of the best young programmers I know. He has been working for one startup, is transitioning to another, would like to do some teaching, and would also like to—well, that’s what he wanted to talk to me about. He’d like to get into a larger, long-term project of some kind, but wasn’t sure what. After kicking around a few suggestions (humanitarian open source, extensible programming systems, et cetera), we came to the conclusion that what he really wants is the coding equivalent of a regular running partner: someone he won’t have to slow down to keep pace with, someone who’ll be out there rain or shine to keep him going. What he really wants is to find a bunch of people who enjoy the same kinds of things he enjoys, for the same reasons, who will go as far and as fast as he will. Right now, I think that means he should go off and explore functional programming, but that’s not what really matters. What really matters is the sit-by-the-fire warmth that comes from knowing that you can pick up the conversation where you left off, and that if you’re out there in the cold and wet, someone else will be there too.
In the end, the search for that feeling is the common thread through almost everything I’ve done. Grad school, teaching programming to scientists, running student projects at the University of Toronto, editing books, organizing music classes for kids—they’re where I was looking, not what I was looking for. And as my sister’s time draws to a close, I’ve realized why. We are none of us long in this life, and I think we all want to believe that when we have to run our last lap, we won’t have to run it alone. I think we all want friends to keep pace with, day after day, while we’re alive, so that we can be sure that someone will be out there, still running, when we’re not.