Happy 10th Blog Birthday!

My blog is turning 10 this month[1]. Happy birthday, blog!

(It also happens that my High School 10th year reunion was within a year ago, but it is difficult for me to care about it.)

Let’s take a look at what I posted in June 2008

Oh no. What is this, using WordPress as unlimited character Twitter? Stream of consciousness meta-jabbering about how I was setting up the blog I was posting on? WHO WOULD WRITE SUCH CONTENTLESS DRIVEL?


So there have been some changes in the last 10 years. To note some of the larger ones:

  • Then, I was still at least nominally Christian. Now, I’m about as atheist as they get without foaming at the mouth.
  • Then, programming was a fun side hobby. Now, programming is my full time job.
  • Then, my most serious endeavor was playing the violin. Now, I haven’t played in months and haven’t practiced in years[2].
  • Then, I didn’t belong to a community. I had friends, I hung out at school and church, but I didn’t fit with a flock of people[3]. Now, I’ve found my people[4].
  • Then, I was just starting college in a small suburban city downwind of a sawdust mill. Now, I’ve been out in the working world for years in the middle of New York[5].
  • Then, I was absolutely awful at normal person things, like taking care of my personal appearance[6], shopping for clothes[7], socializing[8], and seeking out new experiences[9]. Now, I’m (somewhat) better at all those things.

If we really wanted to sum it up, I grew up. I got my shit together[10].

But this is all cocktail party level retrospection. Let’s dive in a bit deeper.

On the violin

For a large portion of my life I ostensibly cared about getting better at the violin, but I always had motivational problems carving out time to do any practice, much less practice that was hard or smart[11]. I got better at the mundane art of forcing myself to practice as I racked up years, but eventually I just didn’t have the will to keep it up after moving across the country[12].

In retrospect, I didn’t even have the patterns of thought to start tackling the problem of “how do I become a world class violinist?” I knew practicing was difficult for me, and the only thing I could do was try to practice harder, and then feel bad when I would once again procrastinate well into the evening, past the time people would put up with me practicing[13]. I didn’t think about changing my environment, about changing my drive and motivation, about how I could improve my feedback, about cultivating the habit of practicing. For example, if your practice time sheets aren’t motivating, maybe you should try something else!

Hell, I didn’t even alieve that “becoming a world class violinist” was a thing I could try. I could utter the words “I want to play in Benaroya Hall[14]”, but it was pie in the sky. How did people usually get to the pie? Did the pie taste good[15]? Did the pie have any money in it[16]? Didn’t know, didn’t bother finding out, it was just the sort of thing you said to signify an acceptable direction of “I’m-not-just-coasting-along”.

I think there are a few contributing factors: first, modesty norms prevented me from seriously pursuing a goal as immodest as “be the best in the world at <anything>”. Second, I seemed to naturally shy away from striving, from fully committing to doing something. In an article I might have read more than 10 years ago[17], not giving it everything leaves room for uncertainty: if only I had gotten a bit luckier. If only I had tried a bit harder. If only.

As I ventured deeper into college, my awareness of my performance inadequacy paired with my growing love of technical things. The clincher came when I auditioned for the Columbia student orchestra, and was rejected. Up until that point there had been a continuous stretch of orchestral work from 5th grade to the junior year of college[18], and it’s telling once any obstacle at all was placed in the path of that train it immediately derailed.

(At least it derailed onto a track with material outcomes better than those of the starving artist path.)

On gaming

Let’s go back further than 10 years ago, around 15 years ago. I would play strategy games like Age of Empires and Starcraft, but I didn’t understand how to play. That is, I could move units around, but I didn’t know how the game expected me to win. I didn’t grok simple concepts like macro and micro and logistics[19], to the point the only way I could win was with lots and lots of cheats[20].

So we skip ahead a little, and by the time I hit college I have discretionary funds; more importantly, I also no longer have the paralyzing fear of spending said funds. So I bought The Orange Box, a bundle of great games (Half Life 2 + Episode 1 + Episode 2, Portal, Team Fortress 2 (TF2)) from back when Valve actually made games. I’m not sure, but I think TF2 might have been the spark: it turned out I was bad at FPS games. No, I was absolutely awful. If I didn’t pick medic and get points by assisting someone else racking up kills, I would sit at the bottom of the leaderboard, and routinely experienced the ignominious distinction of being forcibly switched around when teams got unbalanced.

But, I was having fun, which was good, because otherwise I might not have learned, deep down in my bones, that I was absolutely awful at something. Sure, I unambiguously flunked a college course[21], I didn’t get into MIT or Caltech, I was a pretty mediocre violin player, but I could spinthose failures as temporary setbacks. I’ll show them. I’ll show them all!

Neal Stephenson (through Snowcrash) remarked that “Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world.”[22] In matters of WASD and joystick, I was clearly not the baddest motherfucker, I was just the baddest. I couldn’t even avoid getting wiped by my freshman roommate in 1v2 in Call of Field or BattleDuty[23].

So fast forward a few years, after I graduated, when I finally pick up another computer capable of gaming. I picked up Civ V, and muddled my way through understanding the game, picking up an understanding[24] of game economics through a simple simulated economy. I cycled through getting my ass handed to me (Bismarck betraying me still stings), and learning how to avoid the obvious problems, which grew less obvious over time.

Perhaps even more instructive was seeing how different Civ games implemented different mechanics, and seeing how those changed the game. Much like how I only got a sense of how science fiction worked by reading enough books that the differences stood out from the tropes[25], was seeing how Civ IV and Alpha Centauri and Beyond Earth handled similarly and differently from Civ V[26].

Then cue a coworker getting me into the new XCOM, which eventually led me to beaglerush and getting into the optimizing mindset.

(Running parallel to this was delving into a community that celebrated finding hacks and snowballing. More on this in the next section.)

And eventually, the circle completed: I picked up the HD remake of Age of Empires II, and played the campaign on Hard. I understood the use of space, the offensive potential of a good economic base, rock-paper-scissors army composition. And I could win, no cheats needed[27].

On community

I didn’t really belong[28].

Don’t get me wrong, I had friends, good friends. But, I didn’t have a larger group of people I fit with: I drifted on the edges of social circles at church[29] and school, hanging out with the orch dorks and math geeks and fobs, but not settling in. Orchestra was instructive: sometime in high school I had hit a no-mans-land between decidedly mediocre school orchestras and the ambitious youth orchestras. It was a lot like when I was hiking when I was in the Boy Scouts[30]: I was too fast for the younger kids, but not fast enough to keep up with the older kids. I would routinely find myself hiking alone, alone with mother nature[31].

So that was longer than 10 years ago. Around 10 years ago, I joined the university physics club. It felt different: unlike a lot of high school, we weren’t thrown together as a social group to survive the prison that is secondary education. Instead, we were there by choice to nerd out. We hung out, we built a coilgun with big ole’ capacitors. It was probably one of my first tastes of being part of a group of competent peers[32], which was amazing.

(The aluminum reprap I started with the physics club was another stepping stone, an early time where I decided that I wanted to do something, and then I made it happen. Thank you, Alan Thorndike, for helping me become a more agenty person; I’m sorry we couldn’t save you.)

Then I transferred schools. I thought finding a few competent people was great, but finding a dozen was even better. ADI (Application Development Initiative) was my first foray into having dozens of people that all cared deeply about something with lots of energy. Let me emphasize: it was absolutely astounding to me that there was a veritable buffet of people that all cared about the same thing (building things and getting better at the craft of code), with around the same level of skill and prioritization of the thing we cared about.

It was my first taste of not feeling like I had to do everything myself. Group project in high school? People were incompetent or uncaring. Group project in physics club? There was one other person that was competent and cared, better hope they didn’t get sick. And in ADI, people went out and got things done, and I didn’t have to do them[33]. It’s a glorious feeling.

But still, something’s missing. Ivy league go-getters got things done, but it took a Harry Potter fanfiction meetup to put me in touch with my people, the rationalists.

My people aren’t much better on the execution axis: the ivy league kids win with vat-bred conscientiousness. They’re not more charismatic, don’t have better parties[34], don’t have more fun. No, what they have is visionKardashev 1 and abovethe vector space of possible mindshacking together a cycle of infinite wishes. Sure, they are a little wild in eye and beard, but fishing around for tomorrow’s out of context problems requires a bit of madness.

And maybe more importantly, they have spirit. We sing “Tomorrow can be brighter than today”, knowing perfectly well the Nash equilibria that might swallow us whole. We sing “Where we wanna go, who we want to be, in another, in five thousand years?”, a reminder of where we’re going when we’re drowning in elbow grease. We improve the self, because our challenges are poorly designed and don’t scale well (almost like they weren’t designed at all…) and losing isn’t an option.

For challenges shorter than 5 years, give me the ivy leaguers. For challenges further out, such that even Phillip Tetlock has hazy vision, give me my people.

The Future

That was a brief snapshot of where I’ve been, and how I got here.

Now, where am I going?

I could rattle off my project list, but experience tells me it’ll change within a year. If we take an impressionist approach, within 10 years I hope that I’ll have completed something that has reach and is something I’m proud of[35]. Or, at least if Hamming sits down with me at lunch, I might have an answer to his questions. And, there’s the strong possibility that alien priorities will take hold of me and warp me into another person[36]. So either through forging or biology, I expect to be a different person.

Well, thanks for joining me in the last 10 years, and here’s to next 10!

[1]  It might not actually be 10 years old: an early post indicates that I lost some posts in a hard drive crash.

[2]  Later I mention that I’ve grown up, but I might consider this one of the clear casualties of doing so, the sort of thing that warrants a camera pan to me staring sadly out at the sun setting into the ocean while sad violins play in the background.

[3]  I empathize with Scott’s description of not knowing just how atomized suburban life can get.

[4]  The post does point to me complaining about them, but it’s gotten better, and I’m more confident things will work out in the 5 year time frame.

[5]  To be fair, this is mostly due to inertia, which I tell myself is because NYC is great, despite the dirty streets. Also, fuck driving.

[6]  I’m sure if you dig really hard you may be able to find a picture of high school me with a crew cut.

[7]  I will admit this is debatable, since right now all my socks have holes in them.

[8]  It is true I’m usually socializing with bigger nerds than I, but surely we can ignore that minor point.

[9]  Example: back then, it took me at least a few months to go check out the university pizza shop in the basement of the student union building, precisely because there were tons of people, I hadn’t done high speed ordering before, and I wasn’t familiar with the dive bar atmosphere. Now, I get irrationally annoyed when people in front of me in line spend more than 10 seconds deciding what to order.

[10]  I also enjoy Ray’s description of the same getting-his-shit-together phenomenon in Sunset at Noon.

[11]  See the book Peak for more on practicing smart.

[12]  You can see me maintaining the fiction that I still cared in my earlier blog posts.

[13]  Note that part of this was being excessively nice: I didn’t really probe the boundaries of what I could do in pursuit of greatness, instead I used other people as an unwitting excuse to get out of putting in work.

[14]  Funny story, I’m certain I did, but I forget if it was with the Mahler Festival or some special youth symphony event, or maybe both. But that was never the intent of the phrase: soloing or at least being a regular orchestral member was.

[15]  The intermediate pies at least were somewhat delicious: I remember a friend telling me finishing performing a symphony was one of the handful of times I looked happy.

[16]  As it turns out, the pie sounds beautiful but has little money in it.

[17]  The original article got nixed, but the gist of this article is still the same.

[18]  Minus the obvious summer vacation when everything slumped over, but plus the week long summer orchestra camp that happened when nothing else was.

[19]  Looking back, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to just have access to MineCraft or the like. Maybe I would have eventually figured out how to game the economy, but it seems unlikely given my arc.

[20]  Show me the money.

[21]  There is a truly marvelous story about this occurrence, which this blog post is too small to contain because otherwise it would be too fucking long. The important thing is that it was clearly my incompetence that caused the flunking to happen.

[22]  Keep in mind that writers don’t necessarily endorse everything they write, for purposes of creating villains and flawed protagonists.

[23]  The nerds in the back can stop screaming, I meant that demonic mish-mash.

[24]  These days, once I get into a game, I devour it through wikis (RimWorld, Stellaris), discovering the mechanics of a game through bare stats and cold meta-gaming (alpaca or dromedary? Muffalo 4 lyfe). However, I think it was important that I muddle my way through organically grokking a game at least once.

[25]  Again, a bigger story than this footnote can hold.

[26]  If you want specifics: policies leading to more heterogeneous play styles (Alpha Centauri factions), the existence of doom stacks vs forcing local tactics with stack limits, different country boundary mechanics leading to different tactics.

[27]  That said, I did lean on some AI behaviors, like a reluctance to harass villagers.

[28]  I recognize this is exactly as emo as this could sound.

[29]  Church was weird, since I lived far away from the center of congregational mass, and was far on the Americanized side of most of the Asian churches I attended.

[30]  The Boy Scouts were another place I didn’t fit: I got to Life, but Eagle just didn’t seem to matter once I had gotten within striking distance.

[31]  It occurs to me now that the situation is probably something the scout leaders were trying to prevent (buddy system, etc) but whatever, I came through fine. And, it’s quiet in beauty.

[32]  Admittedly, the group was really small; I don’t know if we ever got more than a handful of people in a room at once.

[33]  Entering the workforce was also a bit like this: I suppose it helps that doing things is your entire job.

[34]  Although I hold that pi day is a perfectly good holiday for parties, let no one tell you otherwise. Just keep tau day as a twice as good perfectly good holiday.

[35]  I realize the irony between this hope and my earlier realization that I am not the baddest ass.

[36]  I know that version of me would be happy, but seeking maximally happy versions of myself without regards for anything else leads to wireheading.