Life

This page collects images and trivial stuff that might be of interest to friends and relatives. ;-)

2021-09-17 Writing to learn

The sun is shining but the air is cooler. Autumn has come. I feel anxious because I should be doing taxes.

I’ve been using the phrase “writing to learn” a few times and what I mean by it is that the simple act of writing things down by hand is helping me to remember things. I’m not sure of there’s a scientific basis to this.

This article talks about the various scripts people use. I was mostly interested because the old cursive script is no longer being taught in Swiss schools. We’re now teaching a “basic” script and the kids then slowly learn how to connect the letters. The focus seems to be on learning to read and write, however, not on retaining other information.

Mit der Hand zu schreiben, nutzt Motorik, Rechtschreibung, Merkfähigkeit und Kreativität. Doch nicht jede Schrift ist dafür geeignet, das erfolgreiche Lernen zu unterstützen. – Von Hand gelernt, von Stefanie Reinberger, für Spektrum der Wissenschaft

One of the links leads me to an article that’s more to the point. The key seems to be a study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer from 2014. I really need to find it. Apparently the study participants were better able to recall complex issues if they used pen and paper instead of typing up their notes.

Bei Verständnisfragen zu komplizierteren Zusammenhängen jedoch schnitten diejenigen deutlich besser ab, die Block und Stift benutzt hatten. – Merken wir uns von Hand notierte Dinge besser als getippte?

That paper is 10 pages.

Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning. – The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking, by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer (2014), in Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797614524581

But! But! If you look for the article on PubMed, you’ll find others that cite it. Including this one, which doesn’t confirm the finding.

In this direct replication of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s (2014) Study 1, participants watched a lecture while taking notes with a laptop (n = 74) or longhand (n = 68). After a brief distraction and without the opportunity to study, they took a quiz. As in the original study, laptop participants took notes containing more words spoken verbatim by the lecturer and more words overall than did longhand participants. However, laptop participants did not perform better than longhand participants on the quiz. Exploratory meta-analyses of eight similar studies echoed this pattern. In addition, in both the original study and our replication, higher word count was associated with better quiz performance, and higher verbatim overlap was associated with worse quiz performance, but the latter finding was not robust in our replication. Overall, results do not support the idea that longhand note taking improves immediate learning via better encoding of information. – Don’t Ditch the Laptop Just Yet: A Direct Replication of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s (2014) Study 1 Plus Mini Meta-Analyses Across Similar Studies, by Heather L. Urry et al, Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797620965541

So perhaps it’s all in my imagination.

I still think that the intent do something with whatever you’re seeing or hearing changes our stance from passive receiving to active digesting. We need to look for and extract the things that are valuable to us, right here, right now. In a comment on photography I said something similar:

I definitely agree with the eye of a photographer changing the experience. It’s like writing as learning: taking pictures puts us in a particular frame of mind when looking at things; it changes everything. Structure, colors, subjects, lines, horizon, colors, the sky, reflections – everything is interesting and different if you are thinking about taking pictures. – 2021-06-17 The Smartphone Camera

Anyway, all of that because I read a blog post about writing, and it offered a different point: instead of arguing that it was easier to retain information, the argument was that picking up a pen forces you to slow down, and that helps against anxiety.

Going first to paper helps me slow, to treat the information I’m working with as something more sacred. To seek out the details. Then, because many times that information is something I must share, I can then use my hand-written notes to capture a digital version, and share that version. The paper notes, at this point, become disposable. They are an incarnation of my process of synthesizing, but that synthesis now exists in me and in the shared digital version. – Writing it Down to Quell Anxiety, by Jeremy Friesen

Inspired by this post:

“Calm down, breathe, and write something, Arit” I told myself. – Handling Anxiety’s Destabilizing Impositions, by Arit Amana

Ah… Perhaps I had trouble doing my taxes when I was younger because I could fill in some paper forms with a pen instead of filling in forms online. Or perhaps there simply was less to fill in. 😼

Comments on 2021-09-17 Writing to learn

Makes me think a lot, thanks for sharing! - eaplmx

– 2021-09-17 23:23 UTC

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2021-09-13 How to love

It’s dark outside. We’re sitting on the red couch. She’s reading a book. I’m typing on the laptop. Somewhere outside, cars growl. The city is falling asleep.

I’m reading replies to a post about work and love and people not talking to each other.

In the evenings, I’m usually watching TV in the background with a laptop on my lap as I start off some tasks for tomorrow and wrap up the days events with a nice typed up reflection of what was done and what needs to be. My partner chats with me, draws out some sketches on her pad, and we mumble about the program we’re currently watching and I’m silently tapping away at the same time basking in the her warmth as well as the glow of the TV. – Work, Life, and Love, by ~tetris

It’s not working out. They fight. It breaks my heart. There are good replies to this post, on the same page, and elsewhere on the net. I wish programmer person tetris all the best. This is not easy. I think everything I could have said has been said in one of the replies.

The post did make me think about me and my wife and how we spend time together, and the things we want from a relationship, a life together.

Claudia and I have been together nearly 30 years. We met in high school. We grew up into adults together, adapted ourselves to each other. It wasn’t easy at first. I’d say the first two years were the hardest. We had to let go of ideas we had brought into the relationship from our families and the stories we read, the movies we watched. There is no telepathy; communication requires words. How to talk, how to argue, how to express feelings. Nothing came naturally.

I remember her calling me after school, wanting to talk for an hour. I couldn’t understand it. Hadn’t we seen each other in school? What was there to talk about? I understood so little.

We lived apart from each other for the first fifteen years. We liked our independence. We spent a day or two per week together; that was enough. I thought of it as spending “quality time” together. We would not spend time with each other unless spending time with each other was the entire point. There was no “let’s each do our separate thing in the same room”.

When we moved in with each other, that was something we had to learn. One of us was restless. What’s the plan, she’d ask? One of us was happy with books and computers. I need some time for myself, I’d say. We had to learn to spend time alone, together.

As I’m typing this, she sits next to me, reading her book.

We need both quality time together, and time alone together. We need to talk about work. It’s not quality time, but this is how we know each other. We need to know what worries the other; the people they spend so many hours with at work; the things they are doing. We need to talk about the news. If we don’t, I fear we’d drift apart. Sometimes we talk while we cook; sometimes we talk while we eat; sometimes we talk while we water our plants. We have a lot of plants.

I often think about the end. When the end comes, will I go in peace? The list of the top 5 regrets of the dying keeps haunting me.

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. I wish I had let myself be happier. – The Top Five Regrets of the Dying

To be true to myself. To not work so hard. To express my feelings. To stay in touch with my friends. To let myself be happy. I’m working on it. I’m doing pretty good on the first half, I’m struggling with the second half. Let’s talk about the middle part: love.

For me, love is everything. Without love, I don’t know what I’d do. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. All I know is that I’m prepared to struggle for our love. It feels strange to say this because we have been so extraordinarily lucky, I haven’t had to actually struggle for love. Perhaps it’s an indication of my fear that all things must end. The number of couples we know that have managed to keep their love alive for decades is forever dwindling. We are surrounded by divorce and separation, and in my bones I feel that this is what I want to avoid at all costs – without actually knowing how to do it. So I focus on the small everyday things. I tell my wife that I love her, that I love to hold her. If there is a simple way to make her happy, I do it: I prepare breakfast for her, I walk her to the station in the early morning hours. I listen to the things she tells even though I might not care too much for the topics because I want to know what she’s thinking. I want to listen to what she tells me no matter what it is. And when she asks me what’s on my mind, I tell her, knowing that she doesn’t actually care about programming and computers, but trying to convey a picture of the things that trouble me, the things I’m trying to do.

I often feel our relationship is a careful dance on eggshells. We are both easily hurt by careless words, easy to anger. Therefore we are always careful when we speak. We avoid shouting and fighting because we are both so touchy. It works out to our advantage, I guess.

As you can tell, I’m not great at giving relationship advice. I hardly know what I’m doing myself. Perhaps the most important point is that I care, even if I don’t know what I’m doing. When the going is easy, when things are coasting along, I sense the fear inside me, and I try to make sure that we’re good. I don’t want to be caught in stormy waters unprepared.

I suspect humans have a tendency to explain their luck with talent. The rich did something and now they’re rich, so obviously the thing they did has made them rich. They earned it. We made an effort to keep this relationship going, so obviously our efforts have made it possible. We earned it. Or perhaps it’s all about being lucky and there’s no explaining it.

I have no idea. I hope it all works out for you.

Comments on 2021-09-13 How to love

thank you for writing this post. these subjects are sometimes difficult to talk about, particularly for us computer types who like things to be properly specified. affairs of the human heart rarely are, but peering through the mist together, collectively, and with one’s other half can help us see what is there.

– luke 2021-09-14 06:13 UTC


Yes, indeed. I also appreciate reading diverse perspectives.

I sometimes feel that I might have benefited from talking to people half way between me and my parents, or maybe a more talking and listening culture for me and my parents. So that’s my contribution: approaching fifty, I speak with the benefit of hindsight. 😀

– Alex 2021-09-14 16:56 UTC


I found your post and it really ressonated with me. It made me reflect on my life, and the things I could to live it to its fullest — how can I be happier, how can I be a better friend and better partner? Thank you so much for writing it.

– Beto Dealmeida 2021-09-14 18:57 UTC


Thanks for sharing. You gather here a lot of what I feel during introspection. In my own experience I worry about “time alone together” being in effect too much time alone.

– anonyth 2021-09-19 05:28 UTC


Yeah, we need both time alone together, and quality time together. Generally speaking, I’d say worrying about is a good sign. It’s a sign that you care. And talking about it often helps. Perhaps your partner will say, “Hell no! I love this. What gave you this idea, have you been taking relationship advice from the Internet again?” Then you can both laugh and keep on doing the things you do. Or perhaps your partner will say, “Hum, yeah, maybe. I don’t know. I do sometimes feel like we’re both living alone together, each in their bubble.” And then you can make plans to set aside time for a trip, a concert, a hike, a game, some activity you both enjoy, give yourself the opportunity to spend quality time together.

– Alex 2021-09-19 10:53 UTC

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2021-09-06 Reading books

The window shutters are down and a yellow lamp is burning. The doorways lead into the dark, but here I am, reading a book. Somebody is moving around in the apartment. My eyes race across the lines; I need to finish this before bedtime!

This post is about reading books, growing old, and needing glasses.

One part of my brain is in charge of looking at the letters, figuring out what the words are, and sending them to the bit that handles meaning. But sometimes the meaning part loses interest, and I start thinking about something else. – I can't read 📚, by JBanana

In senior high I was reading a book a day most days, maybe not every day but say more than fifty books per year. Then years of screens and blogs happened and then I found myself being unable to read books, a few years back. – Sandra’s reply, on Idiomdrottning

I’m in a similar situation. When I was in high school, I read a ton of books. Not a book a day, but still. I did not know anybody who read as much as I did. Then years of screens and blogs happened and then I found myself being unable to read books, a few years back.

Now, it started slowly. In university, I had to read a lot of papers and non-fiction books. I learned about USENET. I read voraciously, online. I posted a lot of messages. Then I learned about wikis. I read voraciously, online. I edit a lot of wiki pages. I had a static one-person wiki that I wrote using an Emacs mode I had created some m4 macros to generate the web pages. I spent hours and days in multi-user text environments (Lochinver MUD and Elendor MUSH, mostly). I read a lot and I wrote a lot. Blogs happened and I used my wiki for blogging. I read even more, and wrote more. I re-discovered role-playing games and the Old School Renaissance and its blogs. I read a lot, I wrote a lot. Google+ came and went. More reading and writing.

But no reading of books. I grew old and didn’t notice. My ribs hurt if I read in bed, lying on my belly. My back hurt when I read at the table. Increasingly, my head hurt. I decided that I just didn’t like reading books. All the fantasy novels seemed to be pastiches of each other. The cyberpunk books seemed to be cool vignettes with barely any plot. I liked the Uplift novels. I liked the Malazan novels. Game of Thrones was cruel and I dropped it. The Witcher was bleak and I dropped it.

Increasingly, I bought books and didn’t finish them. Then my wife told me that perhaps I should finish the books I had rather than buy more. I stopped. I didn’t want to order books from Amazon any more. Plus, I was buying books because I imagined the reading to be great, but then the stories weren’t great, the plot elements seemed familiar, my mind started wandering, and I got a light headache.

It took me a few years to realise that perhaps the headache was due to my eyes deteriorating. I just needed some reading glasses! And no more reading in bed. No more reading on the floor. Just sit on the couch like other adults.

Wearing the glasses also gave me a headache, but it was a different kind of headache. I would get used to it.

And recently I decided to pick up and finish a series of books that I had on my bookshelf, largely unread. “The Black Company”, by Glen Cook. Four omnibus editions, about 2800 pages in total. I just finished them. Those were good books.

The Black Company is a series of dark fantasy books written by American author Glen Cook. The series combines elements of epic fantasy and dark fantasy as it follows an elite mercenary unit, The Black Company, through roughly forty years of its approximately four-hundred-year history. – The Black Company, on Wikipedia

Spoilers in this paragraph! ⚠ You start reading and think it’s a military fantasy but then you realise that it’s about growing old. What keeps it interesting is that story changes seem random and not dictated by traditional expectations, so at first you think: huh, random! But then it turns out the book is also about how to deal with the vagaries of life.

It ended up being a good read; a page turner to the very end.

Recommended.

Then again, if you want to read my current take on growing old, I have a blog post about that, too.

Hey, just wanted to let you know: If you’re around 30 right now, remember that this is as good as it gets as far as physical health is going. – 2018-01-30 To The Young Ones

Comments on 2021-09-06 Reading books

There’s also all the other stuff we read all the time nowadays. To quote my recent Teleread article:

Why it matters? Because, frankly, book publishing these days looks tired and adrift. Maybe people read more, assuming we can trust surveys, but I’m not sure they read books. Indies struggle to sell; big publishers report moving fewer units (yet making bigger profits, go figure); and don’t even get me started about what can be found in Romanian bookstores. Certainly most of my own reading time is spent online, jumping from blog to blog, going back, opening more tabs.

And like you, I’m conditioned to think we’re supposed to read Intellectual Stuff. But the world has changed and so have we. It’s time to stop feeling guilty.

Felix 2021-09-07 15:00 UTC


Working on it. I still feel guilty! 😂

– Alex 2021-09-07 15:31 UTC

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2021-09-06 Back in the Home Office

My summer break is over. I’m back at work. Luckily I can still work from home, away from the constant chatter of coworkers, project managers, sales people and cafeteria goers.

my desk my background

Comments on 2021-09-06 Back in the Home Office

I absolutely love the shelves! Did the place come with them or did you purchase/make them? I want the details!

😉

presgas 2021-09-06 13:06 UTC


Haha, these are simple Ikea shelves with acorn veneer. There is no book list available, sadly.

In Switzerland, people rarely rent with furniture, you always bring your own, though it never includes kitchen or bathroom, everything in there is provided by the landlord. Thus, we brought the shelves and the books with us from the last apartment.

– Alex 2021-09-06 14:24 UTC


I know that view. That is not your home office; that’s your home playground!

– Björn Buckwalter 2021-09-06 18:40 UTC


😅

– Alex 2021-09-06 19:11 UTC


So is Ikea huge over there? I really have never been to one, but you are the 2nd person I know where I found myself drooling over their cabinetry (the other person was over a visit here on this side of the pond...).

I have heard people poo poo Ikea, but I am starting to wonder if I need to go on a quest to find one and explore.

presgas 2021-09-07 13:15 UTC


Ikea is huge because it’s so cheap. I think the consensus is that it’s good enough. We usually say that you can move the furniture once, but after two moves it’ll start falling apart. We also like the thought of massive wood instead of the mix of glue and wooden chips coated with a veneer of wood, but optically, it doesn’t make too much difference. It really depends on whether you come at it with a long term perspective. All I can say is that buying a wooden table from Ikea would probably cost you 500.- where as a solid wooden table from a fancy small scale manufacturer that has a set of models and will adapt them to your specs will cost around 3000.- to 5000.- depending on the wood. I’d say Ikea is perfect for most people, which is why almost everybody I know starts out with Ikea furniture and then might start buying new things from other manufacturers slowly as they earn more money, a rare luxury.

This is where I got the table and benches:

– Alex 2021-09-07 14:51 UTC


Oh wow! I really like Reseda’s bedding options. Very simple. May have to find something similar over here.

presgas 2021-09-08 12:07 UTC

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2021-07-28 The underbelly of university

I was recently talking about university with @susannah, remembering…

I remember finishing my master’s degree with great grades and an informal PhD offer, and yet sitting on my bed, crying, feeling like a terrible loser, and my girlfriend being confused: why this breakdown? It was hard to explain that I could not be proud about work done in an environment full of cheating, lying, overlooking, creative statistics. I had realized in my last year that way too much of it all was fake. I wanted no part in it. That’s how I experienced it, in any case. I’ve heard different experiences, later. But mine was not cool in a weird way.

I remember being part of a “gifted students” program. A professor involved in the program suggested that I apply, and so I did. I had to bring two or three recommendation letters. The professor making the suggestion wrote the first one. I remember asking one of the quiet and unassuming professors, a real nerd, with an office at the far end of a long corridor. I looked up to them because they seemed entirely unconcerned about the publish or perish craze that was starting to pick up at the end of the last millennium. In the end, they did what I felt was right: they told me they weren’t going to write that letter because they felt that where as I was a good student, they didn’t feel like I was exceptionally talented. I knew they were right. The professor that had made the suggestion, however, decided to ask the department head, who had spoken to me maybe once or twice. And without actually knowing me, they wrote that letter. Yay? I definitely felt like a gifted student impostor.

I remember writing an excellent introduction for my masters thesis, then doing my research, failing and not finding anything convincing, and my advisor telling that no, this wouldn’t do. I would have to rewrite it. And so I did. Same results, but now it was a success story. I had proven the trivial thing that somebody had already postulated, with the name that obfuscates the fact that still nobody knows what’s going on. I so desperately wanted it to be over. I wrote day and night, eyeing the deadline I had set myself. I got an excellent grade. Perhaps my advisor was right? It didn’t feel right.

I remember the final oral exam with the department head. I had answered a bunch of questions but was struggling with the last one, then time was up. I waited outside. After a while, they call me back in. I get the best grade: “With a little more time, I’m sure you would have answered that last question as well,” he said, smiling. Yay! I might have deserved a good grade, but this strange admission that they were giving me the best grade because they believed in me, not because I actually answered all the questions? I guess their point of view makes sense if you’re a professor and don’t believe in grades, either. But back then, I believed in grades. I believed in the impartiality of tests. Stupid, but impartial. But that’s how it was. Some of the professors believed in me, but I did not believe in me.

Would it have been possible to accept a PhD position without losing my integrity? It might have been. It’s not the easy way, that’s for sure. Perhaps the difference is just the illusion that academia would be different than everything else. But there, as everywhere: narcissism, careerism, power abuse, sweeping failures under the rug, sweet talking. Sure, the ideals are shinier. Sure, a good life is possible, with a small circle of friends, mutual support, a networks of trust, by treading carefully. I guess I wasn’t up to it.

Now that I’m older I often think that perhaps I shouldn’t have dropped the ball. Perhaps I might have stuck around, found a niche where I might have set up shop. Now work is about churning out code for clients and none of it is going to save the planet, either. So I guess if you’re in a position where you’re feeling like an impostor in academia, I wish you the best of luck. May you succeed where I failed.

Think of that PhD comic where one of them stands before the group, saying: “Someone in our group … is an impostor!” And then they all confess to being one.

May you avoid it! Live long and prosper. 🖖

Comments on 2021-07-28 The underbelly of university

It’s depressing, I hear very similar sentiments to what you’ve written a lot from people in academia, but like you say towards the end, at least in academia there is the potential for self-directed work, meaning in theory and at some point you can work on what you believe in, instead on what the market demands of you.

– Karim 2021-07-28 20:02 UTC


I can relate to your experience. I have already been sick of academia after 2 or 3 years. The bureaucracy, the intrigues and the all important fight to get tenure... all these frustrated PhD teaching as assistant professors that were very talented sometimes... and the tenured professors without any clue or merit, but that were obviously good at marketing themselves or networking. There was also a lot of statistical cheating or dressing up of results in my field of psychology. So it become very clear for me that academia is not my world and it was quite a struggle for me to bring up the energy to finally get my master’s degree. I never had any regrets of leaving academia behind. I very much prefer a client and results oriented field of work in a small business in the free market than the totally self-contained world of academia (or big corporations)... not to speak of all the political correctness and thought control that was already rearing its ugly head in the late 90s... I still remember one seminar in German literature, where we talked about a text of Derida and its statement that human beauty is a pure cultural construct. I made the counterargument that there might be a biological component to what humans find beautiful and with reasons anchored in reality and survival. And the professor became totally mad at me and silenced me with the notion, that this remark was “borderline facism.”

– Peter 2021-07-29 15:03 UTC


I guess the professor was thinking Max Simon NordauDegeneration (1892, dt. Entartung) → Entartete Kunst.

I remember a conflict during a philosophy seminar on life after death where the professor postulated that the spirits of cows were obviously less developed than the spirits of humans, and I challenged that, asking him how he proposed to support that claim, suggesting that maybe we could use the complexity of behaviour as a proxy? But he didn’t want to spend time on that, it was simply a given. And me being a zoology student and a natural scientist with relentless enthusiasm for Karl Popper – I couldn’t listen any more. I ended up dropping philosophy as a minor and wrote up the missing lab reports I needed for my physical chemistry to count as a minor. Too young to struggle for philosophy, I was.

– Alex 2021-07-29 16:40 UTC


I think it was more of the usual premise of academics in humanities like sociology/literature/philosophy that everything is learned and cultural. From their view, arguing about biological factors of behavior or preferences is “biologism” or “fascism”.

Norbert Bischof, the best professor I had, was teaching evolutionary psychology and was a former pupil of Konrad Lorenz. He was obviously sick of all these discussions, but nevertheless always emphasized that many people in humanities become victims of the Moralistic Fallacy: “Men and women have to be equal so there can’t be any biologic differences by birth.” Whereas many biologists (and obviously some true fascists) might be victims of the Naturalistic Fallacy: “Men are biologically better made for fighting and women for child care, so men have the obligation to make war and women have to stay home and raise children.”

– Peter 2021-07-29 17:48 UTC

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2021-07-01 How to make conversation

How does one make conversation? It’s something you have to learn, for sure. It’s tricky both offline and online. Here’s an example I’m running into sometimes: I post about a thing, something with multiple facets, multiple points of view, layers of understanding – and most interesting things out in the real world seem to be like that. Think of it as survivor bias: all the boring things, all the things with easy answers, all the things with obvious solutions – they are already answered, these problems are already solved. The interesting things that remain are either very new, or they require nuance.

Therefore, the first rule of replies is this: this is a thing in the real world, there’s probably some nuance to it. There are probably more layers to it than fit into the words and sentences the author wrote. If you’re assuming that the thing is dumb, and the answer is simple, then you’re probably doing it wrong.

Also, if your first thought when reading the previous paragraph was, “but some people really are stupid and their posts are wrong,” then imagine me nodding happily. Yes indeed, things are more complex than they seem, when things are claimed, the opposite is often true as well, but it depends on context, and exceptions exist, and on and on. If you cannot make conversation while juggling all these complexities in your mind, I suspect I won’t be interested in talking to you. It would bore me to tears.

When talking to other people, we have to assume that they have a point. They might be able to say the right things, or they can’t find the right words, or the distance in class, in language, in culture, in time and space has made understanding difficult. It happens.

The second rule of replies is to read benevolently before replying. There must be empathy. The other person was trying to say something but it makes no sense. What were they trying to say? We must try and find out, and then continue the conversation. To pick on the obvious mistakes makes for boring conversation, and I hate boring conversations. It’s like pointing out typos in an interesting argument. You may be right – but you also disqualified yourself from the conversation. Nobody wants to talk about typos except teachers in primary school trying to teach you about typos.

Anyway. All of this to say that we need to imagine positive outcomes for the things we say. It’s a bit like chess. There’s a thing somebody said. There’s the thought we’re holding in our mind. We’re ready to give that reply. Now, quick: imagine how the other person is going to react. Is this going to turn into an interesting conversation? If not, I’m already bored. Talk to somebody else. At the very least, ask a question. If you’re going to produce insults, or implied insults, or trying to score points on technicalities, I’m not interested. Learn about interacting with people, first.

I’ve been thinking about how people talk to each other for a while. I’ve written this down because something just happened to me on Mastodon. I’m sure thousands of these interactions happen every single moment, so I know I’m not alone. I posted a thing. It was an interesting comment by Sacha Chua on IRC, and so I posted the following:

Sacha Chua just shared a link to “M-x Research is a community of Researchers and Research Software Engineers … We meet virtually every 1st and 3rd Thursday of every month to discuss and share Emacs experiences, tips, tricks and tools useful for researchers and research software engineers.”

I got back something like the following from a stranger:

MSWord Emacs users hosted on GAFAM (github) and meeting over Zoom/Slack? Did any of the MSWord Emacs users actually read the GNU Manifesto? Try codeberg, notabug, bbb, jitsi, ...” switching software, etc

And I’m wondering: should I block this person? What are they trying to achieve, here? What did they imagine my next action would be? That I’d thank them because I did not know all this? That I’d see my errors and delete my post? That this would reinvigorate my struggle against proprietary software, strengthen my back, maybe lead me to write them an email, letting them know that they are doing it all wrong, helpfully pointing out what is already plastered everywhere to see for anybody who cares to know?

Sometimes I get replies to posts – I just don’t know what to do with them. It just doesn’t seem to be an opening to an interesting conversation, and I hate boring conversation. So here’s the interesting part: why answer with such a comment? I just don’t understand.

I asked them. If I get an interesting answer, I’ll add a comment.

If you can’t see it, let me point it out to you:

  • insulting the people involved with the strike-through Microsoft Word
  • disagreeing with their choice of software other than Emacs
  • rhetorical questions implying that these people did not read the GNU Manifesto, implying that it was mandatory reading, and demanding complete agreement with it
  • suggesting alternatives for the services used that aren’t Emacs even though this is about Emacs
  • also telling me about it, as if I was responsible for their choices
  • also telling me about it, to point out how many things they did wrong
  • thereby implying that my posting about it was a mistake
  • not talking about the main point, which is researches trying to use Emacs helping each other

I’m assuming that people just don’t know how to talk to each other. I can’t imagine being friends with people like these. There’s a German word for this kind of person: Rechthaber – somebody who’s right, but nothing else. That is to say, yes, technically they are right, but socially, conversationally, they’re doing it wrong. There’s also another good word: Besserwisser – somebody who knows better. They know better, but they’re still doing it wrong. Perhaps this is not a teaching moment. Perhaps the facts they know better are not pertinent to the interesting discussion that we could be having.

I guess if I’m drinking coffee at the office, reading a magazine, and coworkers are there, and we’re sharing cookies, and I’d get such a reply, I could just say “You are such a Besserwisser!” and we could all laugh, because everybody understands, they were trying to pull my leg, distract me with a triviality. But at the same time, maybe I’m thinking to myself: what a shitposter. If all they can do is make fun of the opening statement, then clearly they don’t want to have the interesting conversation I want to have. Time to fold up that magazine, put away the coffee cup, and go. This is not the company I want to keep.

Comments on 2021-07-01 How to make conversation

The answers I got:

We should join a session and then suggest this ...

And this:

Because this is a public thread and some people - such as the Emacs people - don’t seem to have thought about these problems. People reading the message might not have been aware of switching.software.

I think my problem is that it seems so condescending. The wording. The jab at Word. The pointer to the Manifesto. The Slack alternatives. As if M-x Research people didn’t know all these. And as you say, you think they don’t know, did not make the right choices – even though these are people trying to learn about Emacs, you think joining their meetings and telling them about the non-Emacs things they are doing wrong. I don’t understand how you can think this is a good idea.

– Alex 2021-07-02 06:46 UTC


I think that very often people don’t post replies because they want to have a conversation with you, but simply because they want to advertise their opinions. This may even make sense, as it can then attract people with similar opinions and/or scare off people who disagree. You could view this as a community building effort. Of course, if you wanted to have a conversation about the link you posted instead, this is against your agenda.

– deshipu 2021-07-02 08:50 UTC


An interesting point of view, yes. Something to consider – I need to figure out how I want to handle such sidetracking comments.

– Alex 2021-07-02 09:36 UTC


Some people troll. Some people do not know how to argue, a bit like I don’t know how to operate a sailboat. At least I know that I don’t know how to operate a sail boat, but I bet some people don’t knon that they don’t know how to argue.

– White_Rabbit 2021-07-02 12:00 UTC


I blocked them… I guess we’re just too different.

On the website, I see no hint of any awareness of the ethical inconsistency. On the contrary, … the usage of Zoom, Slack and Google calendar … is stated as if it were perfectly acceptable without any hint that these are temporary compromises. Zoom/Slack promoters should expect criticism.

When I read a reply such as that, all I can think of is that this is what I didn’t like about my interactions with Richard M. Stallman. I accepted the pedantry, thinking to myself, yeah, somebody has to fight this fight, but not I. Perhaps one needs that kind of dedication to a cause in order to stay in the fight. But at the same time, that makes ordinary conversation impossible, for me. At least with Stallman I knew what I was getting. If I didn’t want to hear his opinions on software freedom, licensing, and the ethics of this or that, there simply was no point in interacting.

That’s the feeling I am sometimes getting with people such as these. If they treat me like a politician trying to make a point, and I want to have a conversation between human beings, then I guess there just is no point.

I’ll have to remember that next time I try to make a point, though! 😆

– Alex 2021-07-02 19:18 UTC


There is an odd trend I’ve noticed - though I can’t say for sure if this is new or the way things have always been, and I’ve only noticed it recently - that people seem to think that just because they’re correct (or at least think they’re correct) everyone else owes them their complete and undivided attention and obedience. Or worse, that they can be actively aggressive and insulting to someone, because they must be a terrible person because they’re wrong.

They think that because they’re right, they deserve easy success in convincing other people they’re right, so anyone who doesn’t immediately agree with them is either dumb (which is why they start getting condescending) or a bad actor (which is why they get sarcastic and insulting). And if it’s something they assume is easy to understand, they also assume that anyone who hasn’t already come to the same side as them must have seen their arguments before and decided against them, and so they start being aggressive right away.

I think your two rules of conversation sum it up very nicely. They assume there is no nuance (so people have to be dumb to not agree) and have no space for empathy (so if they aren’t dumb but still don’t agree, they have to be malicious, not just their own person with their own conclusions and opinions).

(Which is a very long way of saying I agree with you 100%. Also I love the word Rechthaber - I’m definitely going to be using it in the future.)

Malcolm 2021-07-03 05:57 UTC


I like how you think, Alex. The point you bring up, assuming that someone has a point (at least for them) before they say something, is a novel idea, and from there, conversing in a matter that is engages both the one posing the question and the one answering. It reminds me of Socrates’ dialogues, where an entire philosophical discussion can be built upon such questions and answers.

We must also consider those who use communication not as a tool to convey an idea or an opinion, but just as means of self expression. When I say self-expression, I don’t mean the same way most people (probably) think of it today. I mean truly self expression, when one just desires to express themselves without interest in the expression of others. This can be of malice intent, a comment that uses the original content as a vehicle (like in the case you have here) or without, just someone advertising an opinion which they don’t want to break down and dissect further.

The kind of conversation you’re speaking of is a true conversation. One person has a point, something important, and they pose it as an opinion. When posting such an opinion on a public platform one would assume they also invite a discussion - but we must remember that’s not always the case. We must always keep in mind that there are trolls out there. A “troll,” by the way, is not an absolute: one person can troll a comment you made, and be perfectly happy to discuss something else at a different time. You can argue that these trolls can also be asked questions and perhaps invited to a discussion. I do not have the patience for this.

I remember learning my first steps in Linux, asking questions and getting the familiar RTFM answers, and now I do that myself, to an extent. Linux is just an example here. I do not have the patience toward folks who don’t have the background material to discuss what I’m discussing. This sounds arrogant, I know, and it is. But if I already made my research and at a point where I want answer on the level of research I’ve made, I need to filter others out so I don’t get overwhelmed by the same entry-level answers that don’t help further the discussion. Of course, I’m more gracious toward those who I’ve spoken before who I know done their research on their on topics.

What I’m trying to get to I’m afraid is that there’s a “class” system in conversation. Everyone can talk (well, not everyone, but most), but there are few who can converse. Those who can usually tend to be more patient, curious, and open their mind even to values and opinions they didn’t before. Perhaps thinking of this as the levels the speakers are at can help too. Conversation is something that should be treated like other skills. It should be practiced.

Which reminds me: thank you for the delightful morning practice you gave me here. I enjoy your diary and reading your thoughts.

JTR 2021-07-03 11:56 UTC


I have been wondering of late about my capability to make ‘normal’ conversation as well as my ability to understand, or rather how easy it is to misunderstand somebody else based on the prevailing frame of mind and also perhaps be blinded by a desire to be ‘right’ and stand for something.

I think your question to his comment and the subsequent comment by Sandra were instrumental in making that thread a better ‘conversation’. It’s weird - I don’t think I am arrogant but there are times when I want to take the easier route and behave in an unkind manner towards some perceived idiocy with the firm belief that ‘I am absolutely right about this’ and I owe it to my knowledge and all these years of effort to make this point in the most direct, ‘smart’ and condescending way possible. I think it is not an internal change, but a reflection of the kind of behaviour I have often seen around me even outside the corporate world and a growing fear that ‘nice guys finish last (if at all they do)’…. Perhaps it is just an illusion that appearances of such faux ‘strength’ is rewarded more as such things will not stand real tests over time? Well, Even if they are rewarded more …. I think I am not willing to pay the cost of being ‘less human’ for lack of a better word. Incidentally this article also popped up on my RSS feed today: Leo Tolstoy on Kindness and the Measure of Love. I guess sometimes you receive answers if you are actually searching the alchemist style

Thanks for your post! I enjoy your style of writing and reflection.

shrysr 2021-07-03 22:31 UTC


I enjoyed reading this post and the comments, if only because you all so eloquently expressed my own thoughts 😉 I’m reminded of the wisdom of Baruch Spinoza:

“I have labored carefully not to mock, not to lament, not to execrate human actions, but to understand them.”

(Some style advice, should you want it: I thought this article would be quite different based on the title; in my native UK, “making conversation” (using ’make’ specifically) refers more to small talk or socialising, than it does to more motivated discussion or debate.)

– Tom 2021-09-05 19:32 UTC


Thank you all for the kind words. I should read Spinoza one day.

I agree with the point JTR made up above: in a gathering of people only tied together by a topic and not a level of expertise, it’s hard to have a conversation with everybody. You need to find the people close to you, and that’s not always easy; and you need to filter them in some way, if you don’t have the time, or the spoons, to engage on a level that is not your own. If you do, of course, a teaching or learning moment when all participants are on the same page, in the same groove, can be positively electrifying. At work, for example, I like it when people don’t know a thing that I know, and I can tell them about it. They get the help they need, and I get the validation I like, it’s great and I love it.

Perhaps the social problem I mentioned in the last paragraph of the blog post, me standing in the cafeteria at the office and trying to open a conversation about something that I find interesting is at odds with other people coming to the cafeteria trying to chill out and goof off. Of course I’ll get replies that sound more like shit-posting and technical nitpicking. These other people just aren’t in the cafeteria to talk about the same things, and they aren’t even in the cafeteria to talk about things the same way as I wish to. Similar to the previous example with different levels of expertise, we have a situation with different levels of “seriousness” or “small talk”. I guess I should learn to avoid these mismatches by avoiding some conversation starters.

Perhaps my inner drive to “challenge” them with serious conversation in a “making conversation” context is part of the problem. It’s a setup, a trap, and I’m luring them into it, then feeling smug about it.

I’ll have to think about this some more.

– Alex 2021-09-05 20:29 UTC

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2021-07-01 Answers to Christina's Questions

Christina keeps posting monthly questions to her phlog.

List five items you are most likely to buy at a convenience store. I had to look it up. What is a convenience store? Can I buy convenience? Apparently it is what we would call a “mixed goods store” in German. Well, when we’re pretty structured in what we buy for food. But how to limit it to five items? We buy several things all the time. I guess the give things I make sure we have at home are flour, butter, cheese (and with these three we have cheese sandwiches taken care of!) and then perhaps cereals and yoghurt (which is what she prefers for breakfast). I actually eat my bread with butter and honey or butter and jam in the morning, the cheese is for every other time of the day. I don’t like cereals too much. I eat Müesli when I forgot to bake bread. The Müesli house mix I prepare for my wife is equal amounts of oat and spelt, some almonds, some sultanas, and some linseed.

New year resolutions are common, but do you set monthly, quarterly, semi-annual personal (not career development) goals for yourself? Every year I have a big summer break and I try to prepare a list of things I’d like to do for that summer. This summer, I wanted to make more music, and I wanted to create more photo albums. I’ve bought some musical instruments, and I’m dabbling with music every day, but I haven’t reached that goal of spending more time making music than programming. That’s something I’m still trying to do.

Have you ever written or read fan fiction? Never. I haven’t written much fiction. I suspect that I’ve done the most writing for our role-playing campaign wikis. All those session reports! A strange form of derived fiction, one might say. There’s the author of the rules, the author of the setting, the author of the adventures, the referee running it all, adding their own world, their own maps, their own characters, their own plots, and then there are the players, running their own characters, making their own decisions, and dice being rolled, and somebody writes it all up in the end. How strange.

Whom do you miss the most? A difficult question. I love my wife, and she’s my best friend. We understand our foibles, we share our humour, we have opinions that are similar enough so we feel comfortable with each other, and different enough so we have things to discuss. I don’t miss her because she’s not gone. Perhaps I miss the shadow people, the imaginary friends and family I didn’t have. Do you ever get that feeling that things are perhaps not quite right buy you can’t say what’s wrong? That feeling when you miss a soulmate and you wonder: is it my fault? What makes this so bloody hard for me? I mean, I’m lucky: I found a soulmate. Is there just one? Can there be friends that feel like lost halves? Are the more people to tag team through life, having each other’s back, joyous, boisterous, gregarious, with that wordless understanding? I was so lucky to find my soulmate as a teenager: if we’re ever separated by that pearly gate, can we turn around and will we ever be that lucky? I fear I’m a melancholy person, and a loner. Happy to be alone, and still missing something, sad about something, not knowing what it is.

Who was the most famous person you shook hands with? The Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philipp… I was with the American Boy Scouts at the English School in Portugal. They shook hands with all of us and asked us a short question or two. It was a long time ago. I must have been twelve or so.

Comments on 2021-07-01 Answers to Christina's Questions

@takeonrules talks about missing their children. I sometimes wonder what we gave up when we decided not to have children. I once heard my mother say something to the effect that she and her brothers suffered because their parents loved each other so much and there was not a lot of love left for their children. That’s how I feel towards the children I might have had: I’m sorry there was no place left in my life for you. My heart I gave away, my time I filled with computers and books. I did not want to take the time. I used to say: perhaps in a world without contraception, I might have been a good father. But I could never get myself to make the choice: to give something up for children. This entire business seemed way to risky to me. I am a child of the Cold War. I thought about nuclear fallout a lot when I was a kid. Then I thought about the War on Drugs, and the ongoing climate catastrophe. There just wasn’t ever an opportune time window. I am much too pessimistic about the future.

– Alex 2021-07-03 06:54 UTC


With my children, I did some sharing of games and books with them; and it sparked some interest, running just a few 5E games for my daughters was a highlight. Listening to their fresh approaches gave me the deepest insights into who they each were.

That was one moment in a complicated balancing act of having 3 children (then a step-daughter). As each child developed their own passions, I found myself spread thin. I was also coping with the depression of divorcing. And now, I do what I can to keep connections which have frayed in the twisting and untwisting of knots that are blended families.

My heart aches because of my children; the knowing that I could’ve done better, paired with the knowledge that I did the best I could.

Jeremy 2021-07-03 12:33 UTC

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2021-06-23 Summer Break

It’s that time of the year again! ♡ ♡ ♡ The first three weeks my wife had holidays as well and we went to Locarno to see the lake and hike in the Verzasca valley, and we went to Nyon, to enjoy French, to see another lake, and to walk along the “toblerone trail” towards the Jura mountains – tank barriers. The locals called these tank barriers “toblerones” because of the chocolate (1909). The barriers were erected in the years leading up to the Second World War. Originally the were erected along the German border from Sargans to Basel, later – in order to claim neutrality vis-à-vis the Germans – also along the French border through the Jura mountains down to lake Geneva, which is where Nyon is. The Jura mountains are much smaller than the Alps, running from the north to the west. What lies between the Jura and the Alps is the “midlands”.

I ended up buying some synthesizers, hoping to dabble in some music: a Moog Matriarch, a Moog Subharmonicon, and a Moog DFAM. I had started looking into this about a month ago, and here we are. My goal is to spend more time making music than programming this summer break. It seems impossible but I really want to make an effort to move away from typing on that keyboard all the time. 😅

The COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing, but the numbers have dropped sharply. It’s the vaccinations, it’s working from home, but also summer: friends and family spend more time outside, the ultraviolet light of the sun is destroying the virus… We’re back down to 130 new daily cases in the 7-day average. A while ago I decided that I would have to make a decision ahead of time on when I’d consider it “safe” to be out and about. I mean, I am vaccinated, but we’re still slow: about two million people have a COVID certificate but we have nearly nine million people… I made the arbitrary decision to consider below 100 new daily cases in the 7-day average as “safe”. That’s when I shall consider going back to Aikido after nearly two years of absence.

Image 1

In other news, the summer is hot after all and the climate news is as devastating as ever, but life seems to continue as always.

In case you are wondering: I have a part-time contract for a 60% position. During work weeks, I don’t work on Fridays (but working four days per week would make for an 80% position), and then I take a long summer break every year with the remaining days.

As you read the rest, remember that I can only talk about the world I see. It pains me to write this because I think it should be obvious, but a number of times I got some pushback from people who felt that what I wrote did not apply to their world and that’s exactly true. I have no clue about your world. I live in Switzerland, in Zürich, in one of the most expensive cities in the world, I work in software development, my wife works for the government. Most importantly, I know nothing about the US except that the situation seems to be pretty bad. I can only write about the world I see. Anyway, with that out of the way, let’s continue this train of thought. Where was I?

Right. Working part-time and summer break! I’m in a privileged position to be able to do this, for sure. But what can I say? The people I know are also well off. This is the world I know. My wife also works. We have no children. We have no car. But then again, many people in a similar position as me are not working part-time.

They tell me, “you have done the right thing, Alex!”

I tell them, “you could be doing the right thing, too!”

I guess the lure of money is always there. And I fear the possibility of losing everything, too! What if I run out of money in old age? I try to tell myself: the possibility of running out of money in old age should not force you to live a that makes it increasingly unpleasant to actually reach old age.

I’m also motivated by the economy and the climate. Yeah. I’m not too optimistic about the climate. But then again, I remember reading ‘Alive In The Land Of The Dead’ and deciding that I’d try to think in public some more. So why is working part-time good for the economy and the climate?

Part-time is good for the economy because there are a ton of people without a job. I’m happy to share my job with them. More jobs! This is great.

I think there’s a particular madness popular around here: the well paid people work long hours and earn a lot of money, where there are many working poor with part time jobs.

Particularly women are badly hit by the wage gap. They are still the primary caregivers for the whole family: ageing parents, children, the sick – whenever somebody has to reduce the work load, couples look at their pay-checks and decide that it’s going to be her who works less. Doing it the other way would be financial foolishness. Also, everybody else doing it this way makes it an easy decision. So men drop all this extra responsibility in the women’s lap and earn all the money, and if the couple separates, she’s poor. Sure, the legal framework has improved a bit, it is now compensating for the injustice in society, but the problems aren’t solved. More well-paying part-time positions is great to bring women back into the workforce, and it’s great to keep women in the workforce.

Perhaps even more importantly, having men in part-time positions makes the trade-off many couples make less lopsided. If men are already working part-time, they can handle household chores, child education, care for the old and the sick.

As for the climate: having more time and less money means that your relaxation doesn’t have to be energy intensive. You won’t be flying to Thailand for a few days, nor to the Canary islands, nor will you be golfing in Scotland or cruising in the arctic circles. You have all the time in the world and you can relax. You can go hiking, you can take the train instead of the plain, you can take the bicycle! You can make music. It takes time but now you have time.

Comments on 2021-06-23 Summer Break

For me - living in another well off, privileged country - the problem I have with working 60%, or even 80%, is to find an employer willing to let me do that.

I once asked for a 6 month unpaid sabbatical and was told in no uncertain terms that the company doesn’t do that.

How did you get your agreement set up?

Adam 2021-06-23 21:15 UTC


A long time ago, I was offered a 20% teaching gig for a winter semester in “Oracle Performance Tuning” which at the time related to the job, so I asked for a reduction by 20% in order to teach for a semester, and got it. As far as I remember, come summer I said that since the last few months had shown how me working 80% did not have a negative effect on daily business, I’d continue working 80%, and got no pushback. After the second winter semester the school wanted to switch from Oracle to Sybase and that was not related to the job, so I told them that they should find somebody else, and I stayed at 80% with the main employer. A few years later they didn’t want to give me a raise and asked what else they could do for me and I told them I wanted to work less. They didn’t want a 60% week, nor a 60% month, so we agreed on a 60% year, and that was that.

By now, we have multiple people with this kind of setup, but I think these days they make you take a 10% pay cut. 😒

– Alex 2021-06-24 05:42 UTC

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2021-06-16 Programming for Money

A post by @jalcine had me think about programming for money. This topic is dear to me because I program for money. After highschool I did not do the mandatory military service in Switzerland because back then I was a foreigner and I had managed to avoid the French military service by telling them that I was planning to do the Austrian military service but then I never went to Austria so I had a few months off. My friends at the time were also foreigners or otherwise unfit for the military and thus the whole bunch of us spent a few months as interns at ABB, programming for a weird kind of “operative reporting system”.

I learned SQL on the job, and I learned a programming language on the job, obscure stuff nobody knows anymore: SQLBase and SQLWindows, both by Gupta Technologies. You can read about it on Wikipedia. It was a long time ago. The development environment was installed from more than thirty 3½-inch floppies. Remember those? They were so much better than the old 5¼-inch floppies. Now I feel old.

Anyway, towards the end of my stint I had decided to study biology and I did a major in zoology, with a focus on the navigation of ants and bees. I still love plants and animals more than anything. Sadly, it turned out that there were hardly any jobs for zoologists. At the same time, this was the dot-com boom or bubble. There were programming jobs to be had and I had some experience.

While I was at university, the department that was responsible for the “operative reporting system” did a management buyout; the manager got the rights to the software and the OK to take all the clients with him, because ABB felt this weird reporting thing wasn’t their core business. And when I went back to work for the same people, the software transformed into “customer relationship management” (CRM) and I’m still there, working for them, more than twenty years later. We’ve branched off into many things, written all sorts of business software, but the same old CRM is still central. We started using version control software, eventually. We used Visual Source Safe, then we switched to Subversion, now we’re using Git. We used all the Oracle versions from 7 to Oracle 12, sometimes we used DB2, but now we like to use PostgreSQL. We moved to Java in the early years, and we still use it. Who remembers Java Web Start? Our framework got rewritten multiple times. We moved from AWT to SWT to Swing to a web UI. We added Struts and then we removed it again. We added OSGI and then we removed it again. We were totally into Eclipse and now we’re moving towards IntelliJ. Twenty years is a long time.

Currently, our framework is a quick way to create business software that consists of a database layer to store data, a server layer to handle the data, a UI layer to handle the presentation, and the browser to actually present the user interface. The lowest layer of our framework is free software, too.

I like using it at the office. It gets the job done. I’d never set up the necessary infrastructure at home for my own private projects, though. Working as a programmer is hard. I’m still on my first job, more than 20 years later, but I’ve also learned to do whatever is necessary at the job without listening to the online crowd. Lisp is better! Haskell is cool! But business software is boring, it uses Java, which is considered to be very uncool. I recently heard somebody say they’d rather use COBOL. I guess we’re playing in the same league, now. Business software has millions of lines of code and more layers than developers on the team. It takes many weeks of full time engagement with the code to get into it. And there are so many tangents. The build system itself needs a specialist to set it all up; there’s Ant scripts and Maven files; there is a company-wide cache; there’s Jenkins and automated tests; there’s GitLab and how to hook it up for Merge Requests and Pipelines and all of that. Forget everything they say about lightning speed and innovation. At this size, the framework is like a supertanker. It moves in the right direction and it’s expensive to change course. So many projects depend on it. Millions of dollars are bound up in it. If it’s done well, it can quickly spit out new business software that looks more or less the same, uses more or less the same architecture, that’s more or less easy to adapt to a customer’s requirements. The joy of programming does not happen, here. The joy I find in my job is talking to new customers, learning about new industries, translating new requirements into solutions, finding the right trade-offs. Programming itself is the work that enables it all.

But really, the complexities of the framework, of the build system, it’s an endless headache and heartache. This is not the programming most of us dream of. This is business software! Imagine me, with a beard, screaming this at foreign emissaries. And there’s more: since we program for money, we don’t do extra programming for free. Under capitalism we make the code as good as necessary for the client to accept it but no better, since they’re not paying for it. If they thought it was important, they’d pay for it. It’s very different from programming for myself. Everything is done for money. Is this meeting worth it? Scrap it if we should be doing something else instead. Is this feature worth it? Scrap it if we should be working on something else instead. Is this thing nice to have? Not if nobody is going to pay for it. It’s a weird mindset where we don’t strive for perfection but for the best trade off.

All of that to say that at the office, I might sometimes make a comment about our code quality, or some disparaging remarks about Java as a language, but I don’t get angry, and I don’t get sad, it is what it is and I do it for money, not for love. I don’t know if that helps? This thought is what kept me from quitting all these years. When I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, I started working part time. Luckily, we live in a small apartment, we don’t have a car, we don’t have kids, we both have jobs that pay well, so I don’t need to dedicated my life to it. I’m never 💯 about the job. I just do it for the money.

Sometimes people at the office are shocked when I put it that way. Of course I enjoy working with good people, friendly people, funny people, I feel good because we are lucky and there don’t seem to be any narcissists in the company. That alone is one of the best aspects of the job. But think about it: if I weren’t paid, I wouldn’t show up, no matter how nice my coworkers are, no matter how interesting my projects are. I’m giving away years of my life in order to get paid, and that’s it.

And finally, after all of the above, think about this: what makes a good programmer?

I have no idea.

Comments on 2021-06-16 Programming for Money

Related: The Mediocre Programmer, by Craig Maloney. I mentioned it a while back: 2020-05-25 The Mediocre Programmer.

– Alex 2021-06-16 07:51 UTC


Some comments by Jeremy Friesen on this blog post, Amplifying the Blogosphere.


I enjoyed reading this.

what makes a good programmer?

I have no idea.

Does it even matter?

– Alok 2021-07-10 08:10 UTC


Haha, yeah, I guess it matters if in your heart of hearts you doubt that you’re fit for the job. This self doubt, this acceptance that maybe there are superstar programmers out there and you’re not one of them, this is something many people struggle with, e.g. Craig’s book in a way is about dealing with this, I think.

At the same time, it’s also something that benefits bosses and owners: it keeps programmers small and their it keeps their salaries under control. Which is why we must dismantle the argument. As you say: who cares? It might not matter as long as jobs get done.

– Alex 2021-07-10 08:57 UTC

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2021-06-01 The Office

Summer break is here. Four months of not doing much. Certainly nothing “productive” or “efficient”. It’s all going to be chill, it’s going to be done leisurely, and there won’t be any “point” to it. I bought myself a musical instrument and I want to get better at music stuff.

And then… who knows. Is the pandemic over in September? I just read Employees Are Quitting Instead of Giving Up Working From Home, by Anders Melin and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou, for Bloomberg Wealth.

The recruiter that approached her … asked what it would take to get her on board. She replied that she would prefer something 100% remote. “They said, ‘we can do that for you immediately.’”

Right on.

I get so much more done at home. No babbling, no phone calls by other people, no discussions at the next table. Ugh, dreadful! I understand people preferring the office life, perhaps they have small children at home, or they live with other relatives. It can be distracting at home as well!

The office wants us back for two reasons, I think. The first reason is that project managers feel more in touch with their teams if they can see them. Then again, many project managers aren’t sitting right next to the table every day of the week. Also, I’m suspecting many project managers did not change their interpersonal routines. What steps have they taken to replace the physical proximity and activity awareness they used to benefit from in the past? If the answer is, “uh… what?” then I’d say the problem is theirs, not mine.

The second reason is that management feels working with clients is good for business. We see how they work, they see how we work, we get to know each other on a slightly more personal level, and all of that is good. Then again, what steps have they taken to replace the physical proximity and activity awareness they used to benefit from in the past? If the answer is, “uh… what?” then I’d say the problem is theirs, not mine.

I recently told somebody at the office the simplest, most basic step I’ve taken: show up a few minutes early for every call. If other people are there, waiting for a meeting to begin, don’t just mute yourself and keep on working: act as if you’re sitting in that meeting room and start small talk. The weather, the weekend, family life, simple stuff. Get to know other people, make yourself vulnerable and let them know about you, too.

I discovered that physical presence in an open plan office is a very high price to pay for little gain.

I keep thinking about that quote in the Bloomberg Wealth article:

JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon said at a recent conference that it doesn’t work “for those who want to hustle.”

Good riddance, hustlers!

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