Mar 08

How to change the world in Zen easy lessons

This morning I stumbled over a comment from last September that I somehow missed replying to at the time. I suspect it’s something more than one of my readers has wondered about, so here goes…

Edward Cree wrote:

If I’m really smart enough to impress esr, I feel like I ought to be doing more with myself than toy projects, games, and an obscure driver. It’s not that I’m failing to change the world, it’s that I’m not even trying. (Not for want of causes, either; there are plenty of things I’d change about the world if I could, and I suspect esr would approve of most of them.)

Obviously without Eric’s extroversion I won’t be as influential as him, but… dangit, Eric, what’s your trick? You make having a disproportionate effect on the course of history look easy! Why can I never find anything important to hack on?

There are several reasons people get stuck this way. I’ve experienced some of them myself. I’ve seen others.

If this sounds like you, dear reader, the first question to ask yourself is whether you are so attached to having a lot of potential that you fear failing in actuality. I don’t know Edward’s age, but I’ve seen this pattern in a lot of bright young people; it manifests as a lot of project starts that are potentially brilliant but a failure to follow through to the point where you ship something that has to meet a reality test. Or in an opposite way: as self-constraining to toy projects where the risk of failure is low.

So my first piece of advice is this: if you want to have “a disproportionate effect on the course of history”, the first thing you need to do is give yourself permission to fail – as long as you learn something from every failure, and are ready to keep scaling up your bets after success.

The second thing you need to do is finish something and ship it. No, more than that. You need to make finishing and shipping things a habit, something you do routinely. There are things that can be made to look easy only by cultivating a lot of self-discipline and persistence. This is one of them.

(The good news is that once you get your self-discipline to the required level it won’t feel like you have to flog yourself any more. It’ll just be habit. It’ll be you.)

Another thing you need to do is actually pay attention to what’s going on around you, at every scale. 99% of the time, you find important things to hack on by noticing possibilities other people have missed. The hard part here is seeing past the blinding assumptions you don’t know you have, and the hard part of that is being conscious of your assumptions.

Here’s my favorite example of this from my own life. After I described the many-eyeballs-make-bugs-shallow effect, I worried for years at the problem of why nobody in the hacker culture had noticed it sooner. After all, I was describing what was already a decades-old folk practice in a culture not undersupplied with bright people – why didn’t I or anybody else clue in faster?

I remember vividly the moment I got it. I was pulling on my pants in a hotel in Trondheim, Norway, idly chewing over this question yet again. It was because we all thought we knew why we were simultaneously innovating and achieving low error rates – we had an unexamined, unconscious explanation that suited us and we never looked past it.

That assumption was this: hackers write better software because we are geniuses, or at least an exceptionally gifted and dedicated elite among programmers. Our culture successfully recruits and selects for this.

The insidious thing about this explanation is that it’s not actually false. We really are an exceptionally gifted elite. But as long as you don’t know that you’re carrying this assumption, or know it and fail to look past it because it makes you feel so good, it will be nearly impossible to notice that something else is going on – that the gearing of our social machine matters a lot, and is an evolved instrument to maximize those gifts.

There’s an old saw that it’s not the things you don’t know that hurt you, it’s the things you think you know that ain’t so. I’m amplifying that: it’s the things you don’t know you think that hurt you the most.

It’s not enough to be rigorous about questioning your assumptions once you’ve identified them. The subtler work is noticing you have them. So when you’re looking for something important to hack on, the question to learn to ask is: what important problems are everybody, including you, seeing right past? Pre-categorizing and dismissing?

There’s a kind of relaxed openness to what is, a seeing past preconceptions, that is essential to creativity. We all half-know this; it’s why hackers resonate so strongly with Zen humor. It’s in that state that you will notice the problems that are really worth your effort. Learn to go there.

As for making it look easy…it’s only easy in the same way that mastery always looks a skill easier than it is. When someone like John Petrucci or Andy Timmons plays a guitar lick with what looks like simple, effortless grace, you’re not seeing the years of practice and effort they put into getting to where that fluency and efficiency is natural to them.

Similarly, when you see me doing things with historical-scale consequences and making it look easy, you’re not seeing the years of practice and effort I put in on the component skills (chopping wood, drawing water). Learning to write well. Learning to speak well. Getting enough grasp on what makes people tick that you know how to lead them. Learning enough about your culture that you can be a prophet, speak its deepest yearnings and its highest aspirations to it, bringing to consciousness what was unconscious before. These are learnable skills – almost certainly anyone reading this is bright enough to acquire them – but they’re not easy at all.

Want to change the world? It’s doable. It’s not magic. Be aware. Be courageous. And will it – want it enough that you accept your failures, learn from them, and never stop pushing.

May 03

With a little help from my friends

I had a great time at Penguicon 2016, including face time with a lot of the people who help out on my various projects. There are a couple of thoughts that kept coming back to me during these conversations. One is “It is good, having so many impressively competent friends.”

The other is that without me consciously working at it, an amazing support network has sort of materialized around me – people who believe in the various things I’m trying to do and encourage them by throwing hardware and money and the occasional supportive cheer at me.

Because I didn’t consciously try to recruit these people, it’s easy for me to miss how collectively remarkable they are and how much they contribute until several of them concentrate in one place as happened at Penguicon.

Where I thought: “I’ve been taking these people a bit for granted. I should do better.”

So here, in no particular order, is a (partial) list of people who are really helping. It focuses on those who were at Penguicon and are A&D regulars, so I may have left off some people that would belong on a more complete list.

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Apr 27

Where your donations go (#1)

Because people do in fact drop money in my PayPal and Patreon accounts, I think a a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that I occasionally update everyone on where the money goes. First in an occasional series,

Recently I’ve been buying Raspberry Pi GPS HATs (daughterboards with a GPS and real-time clock) to go with the Raspberry PI 3 Dave Taht dropped on me. Yesterday morning a thing called an Uputronics GPS Extension Board arrived from England. A few hours ago I ordered a cheap Chinese thing obviously intended to compete with the Adafruit GPS HAT I bought last week.

The reason is that I’m working up a very comprehensive HOWTO on how to build a Stratum 1 timeserver in a box. Not content to merely build one, I’m writing a sheaf of recipes that includes all three HATs I’ve found and (at least) two revisions of the Pi.

What makes this HOWTO different from various build pages on this topic scattered around the Web? In general, the ones I’ve found are well-intended but poorly written. They make too many assumptions, they’re tied to very specific hardware types, they skip “obvious” steps, they leave out diagnostic details about how to tell things are going right and what to do when things go wrong.

My goal is to write a HOWTO that can be used by people who are not Linux and NTP experts – basically, my audience is anyone who could walk into a hackerspace and not feel utterly lost.

Also, my hope is that by not being tightly tied to one parts list this HOWTO will help people develop more of a generative understanding of how you compose a build recipe, and develop their own variations.

I cover everything, clear down to how to buy a case that will fit a HAT. And this work has already had some functional improvements to GPSD as a side effect.

I expect it might produce some improvements in NTPsec as well – our program manager, A&D regular Mark Atwood, has been smiling benignly on this project. Mark’s plan is to broadcast this thing to a hundred hackerspaces and recruit the next generation of time-service experts that way.

Three drafts have already circulated to topic experts. Progress will be interrupted for a bit while I’m off at Penguicon, but 1.0 is likely to ship within two weeks or so.

And it will ship with the recipe variations tested. Because that’s what I do with your donations. If this post stimulates a few more, I’ll add an Odroid C2 (Raspberry Pi workalike with beefier hardware) to the coverage; call it a stretch goal.

Feb 15

Namedropping “ESR”

For at least fifteen years my name and its tri-letterization has been something with which you could conjure up a lot of attention among hackers and other sorts of geek. This fact presented the more clueful of my personal friends with a delicate problem: under what circumstances would it be proper for them to invoke this instrument?

I have actually been asked for guidance about this more than once. I developed some guidelines more than a decade ago. To the best my knowledge my friends have been pretty good about applying them. I present them here for your amusement.

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Jul 28

Victory is sweet

Ever since the open-source rebranding in 1998, I’ve been telling people that “open source” should not be capitalized because it’s an engineering term of art, and that we would have achieved victory when the superiority of (uncapitalized) open source seeped into popular culture as a taken-for-granted background assumption.

There’s a thriller writer named Brad Thor who I never heard of until he publicly offered to buy George Zimmerman any weapon he likes as a replacement for the pistol the police impounded after the Trayvon Marin shooting. What Thor was really protesting, it seems, was the fact that Zimmerman didn’t get his pistol back when he was acquitted; instead, the federal Justice Department has impounded it while they look into trumping up civil-rights charges against Zimmerman.

This made me curious. The books are pretty routine airport-novel stuff, full of exotic locations and skulduggery and firefights. Like a lot of the genre, they have a substantial component of equipment porn – lovingly detailed descriptions of weapons and espionage devices.

Amidst all this equipment porn the characters casually use “open source” (specifically of encryption software) as a way of conveying that it’s the best available. And the author writes as though he expects his readers to understand this.

Victory is sweet.

Jan 24

Charisma: a how-to

A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me how he could become more charismatic.

Because the term “charismatic” has unhelpful religious connotations, let’s begin by being clear what he was actually asking. A person is “charismatic” when he or she has the ability to communicate a vision to others in a way that makes them sign up for making it real. Sometimes the vision is large (“Change the world!”) sometimes it is relatively small (“Become as cool as me!”).

My friend asked me how he could become more charismatic because he has seen me do the charisma thing a lot. This relates to my previous blogging on practical prophecy. A prophet has to be charismatic, it’s a requirement to get people to actually move.

Before he asked me about it, I would not have thought charisma was something that could be explained in detail. But questions properly posed sometimes elicit knowledge the person answering was not consciously aware of holding. That happened in this case; I found myself explaining four modes of charisma.

Here is what I told him.

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Oct 27

On not being destroyed by travel

On G+, Stephen Shankland links to RMS’s travel rules. He faintly praises their transparency but finds them a bit bizarre. For contrast, here are my travel rules, from back when I was accepting a lot of speaking engagements:

Yes, mine are much simpler, but don’t be quick to judge RMS until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. The kind of constant travel and speaking he does, and that I used to do, is more psychologically exhausting than anyone who hasn’t done it will ever understand. Even the smallest details of comfort start to matter a lot after a few months of it; it’s like your nerves get scraped raw.

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Aug 12

The importance of being “ESR” – a sidelight on the G+ nym wars

This is not actually going to be a post about the G+ nym wars. Rather, it’s about something curious that I discovered while thinking about them.

I would like G+ to support persistent pseudonyms, so G+ users could say “+ESR” and have it point to my G+ profile. But here’s what’s interesting; I don’t actually want that capability because I want people to address me as “ESR” rather than my real name. I will cheerfully answer to either.

The reason I want a persistent alias as +ESR is more subtle. I want other people to be able to convey information about how they want to engage me by which label they choose. One might think of this as “aspect naming”, and it’s a slightly different phenomenon from pseudonymy or nicknaming, in a way I will explore in this essay.

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Dec 22

Taxonomy of the haterboy

Human beings being what they are, famous people attract fans. Human beings being what they are, famous people also attract haters, the dark obverse of fans. If you are famous, normally your fans are going to be more visible to you than your haters because your fans will have more tendency to seek you out; but the Internet changes that by lowering the cost of hater behavior.

Here at Armed & Dangerous we’ve seen our share of fanboys (and, though with regrettably lower frequency, fangirls). We’ve also seen our share of haterboys (hatergirls are far more rare). I’ve now seen a large enough sample over the years that some interesting patterns have emerged. There follows, accordingly, a taxonomy of basic haterboy types.

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Aug 11

A world without “ESR”

One of my commenters speculated as follows:

Perhaps I overestimate him, but I suspect that without Eric our choice would be Richard Stallman or Bill Gates without much in between. That isn’t a pretty picture. Maybe Linus Torvalds would have help fill the vacuum, or perhaps someone else would have stepped up.

Because I think at least part of the time like a historian/anthropologist, I’ve actually spent a fair amount of effort contemplating what the world might look like if I hadn’t affected it. The more general and interesting question this touches (and what makes this particular instance actually worth thinking about) is a familiar one in historiography: to what extent the times make the man versus the man making the times.

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Jul 21

Double Vision

Yesterday I discovered that Donald Knuth at least occasionally reads my blog. I only half-jokingly reported a vague feeling that I ought to be falling to my knees and crying “I’m not worthy!” In response, a “v. m. smith” popped up in my comments to say this:

Dude, you have written at least two books (that I have read) and possibly more. I have never read any of Knuth’s books, so I am forced to consider this hypothesis:

You might be worthy.

Of course, it’s only a hypothesis.

At this I laughed so hard that my eyes watered. That last line! I’m going to be giggling about it for weeks. But, you know, once I calmed down, I realized that “v. m. smith” had an actual point. Which led me to some interesting thoughts about fame, double vision and personal identity – how we choose to become what we are.

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Jul 20

Donald Knuth reads my blog?

Received in email from Donald Knuth’s secretary:

I know from your blog that you’re doing lots of real important stuff these days. So I’m sure you want a break; you clearly must be ready to hack INTERCAL just once more.

Huh…Donald Knuth reads my blog?

Um…Donald Knuth reads my blog?

Wha…Donald Knuth reads my blog?

Eric clutches the nearest piece of furniture as the universe spins dizzily around him.

Eric successfully resists a vague feeling that he ought to fall to his knees and cry out “I’m not worthy!”

Er. Well then. I guess I’ll have to ship another release of INTERCAL, won’t I?

Jul 11

Killing the Founder

During the controversy I described in Condemning Censorship, Even of Werewolves one of the parties characterized me as “nuts and in decline.”. This failed to bother me, and not because I’m insulated against such insults by my natural arrogance. OK, I am largely insulated against such insults by my natural arrogance, but that’s not the main reason I easily shed this one.

In general I’m much less bothered about people who think I’m crazy than they usually think I should be because I know a lot about the life cycle of reform movements. I studied this topic rather carefully in early 1998, just after Netscape announced its intention to release the Mozilla sources, when I noticed that a burgeoning reform movement seemed to need me to lead it. I was particularly influenced in my thinking by the history of John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Community.

Here is part of what I learned: There comes a point in the development of every reform movement at which it has to kill the founder. Or anathematize him, or declare him out of his mind. Or neutralize him in a more subtle way by putting him on a pedestal so high that he can’t actually influence events on the ground.

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Apr 08

You have ascended

Redoubtable hacker Chip Salzenberg wrote me last night with the subject line “You have ascended”. I quote in full:

Long time no chat. Hope you are well. In fact, I don’t have to hope, because I just read this in a book:

Raymond in his brilliant The Cathedral and the Bazaar [2001] …

That’s all well and good, and I know enough authors not to be excessibly impressed by publication.

Thing is, this book is by Fred Brooks. As in, Brooks’ Law.

Oh My Lack Of God.

Do you have a halo now, or maybe a relic to protect you from feature creep?

After boggling for a few minutes, I wrote back:

I can almost top this. Donald Knuth once sent me a bug fix. For INTERCAL.

Hmmm.. Now, where did I stash that Amulet of Yendor?

If you found the preceding exchange cryptic, you need to get out more are probably a normal human being with, like, a life. How sad for you.