A Liminal Event

At 36 years of age, as of March 7th, I have just become gloriously married.

You know those times at school when the teacher or a counselor would have you write down your 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year goals?  For as long as I’ve been an adult, marriage has been one of my key goals, since I value stability and a strong base as extremely helpful building blocks towards a better, unique, independent, meaningful future.  This has been a wondrous achievement, to become married to my wife!

It took me a while, and I was woefully ill-prepared for any form of marriage up until just recently despite wanting it, having incurred some hefty life experiences that forged my Ben-ness: training, war, official mistakes, transitions between cities and schools, finding a fulfilling career.  Fortunately, I also hadn’t found the right woman yet.  In retrospect I think I’ve dodged some bullets in life and I safely made it to this happy point; healthy and happy and intact to be able to recognize it in another and now I’m very lucky to have met but also deserving of my wife.  My Best Man wanted it clear to me that I was fortunate to have met her, whereas I countered that I also put in my time and effort to earn that chance.

And now we’re here.  I must confess; I’m a pretty even-keeled guy but our wedding was amazing.  Even better than we could have expected, better than all the fantasies and cliches.  Our friends and family, all holding court in their own ways, keeping the party on lock, the wedding vows themselves touching, the pacing and pre-wedding rituals, the smiles on family who have given us so much but we have not quite given much back to yet.

The honeymoon as well was what I would call a true honeymoon.  While I am loathe to engage in goofy grinny sugar, the honeymoon in Costa Rica (a bit in a secluded rainforest resort where we could sleep and eat the best food, a bit in a beach resort full of sun and surf) was almost fairy-tale like.  The best part was to share it all with a true equal, someone who is equally dedicated and invested in us — perhaps the most valuable thing one can find in life as well as one of the hardest and rarest things to find.

Prediction: Anniversary Weddings

As a side note, after having seen what the wedding culture is like, how the TV shows portray weddings, how our own planning went, I think if you wanted to create an extremely effective long-term marketing campaign, you would push for anniversary weddings as a major new event.  Think about what couples go through: their first wedding is probably going to be at least somewhat on the cheap since they’re either on the hook for it and/or they have no disposable income.  So a bride is not necessarily going to get her dream wedding when she’s so young, unless someone’s parents are loaded.

But imagine: after 5 years or so, the couple will probably have more money and will want to throw a more lavish wedding.  Perfect opportunity to market a second wedding.  Then the longevity wedding at 10 years or whatever, before a couple starts to get old and the glamour of the wedding’s superficialities fade away.  This would create several more opportunities for wedding industry folks to cater to couples and to create narratives out of multiple weddings.  It would also create more excuses for families to gather (which in the grand scheme of things is immensely important, overlooking the pettiness and jokes that surround having to deal with the in-laws and crazy uncles and whatnot).

Anyway.

Introspection

This is one of those moments in life where I take a knee at the top of the hill, look back at the path I’ve come from, and sigh and reflect on all that’s happened.

And then look further up the ridges and ranges to see what’s coming next.

I can definitely feel the strong pull of crossing over from one stage of my life into another.  For the first time, that journey is not alone, my decisions are not solely my own, and instead of destructive creation, there is now only creation, at least for the fortunate time being.  The teens and 20s are pretty destructive years but they chip away at your character and you end up in your 30s and 40s as the type of person you have chosen to be.

We love our little place in the East Village, but we have our story to write and we wonder where we go next.  For once it’s nice to share that decision, that conscious choice.

A developer’s job as a crash course in multilingualism for coding languages, organizational principles and methodologies for projects, and building applications rapidly — I feel this work has deepened my appreciation and respect for the creator and the builder and the artist, a continuation of my studies in art/tech school.  Writing code has in some ways taken the place of writing for me; I no long blog so much unless some large sweeping societal issue has me particularly wound up to write.

I was writing finger .plans in high school and college because I saw John Carmack doing it.  I wrote blog posts through the rest of most of my life thus far, even while in the Army.  Nowadays I think my conversation with the internet, and therefore with you, the reader, has contracted into more private communities.  In fact I think the most interesting communities will become smaller and more niche — it’s already happened on reddit where the subreddits are still positive, informative, and overly open to each other.  I would love to see local intranets for residential buildings or mesh networks that require some form of test in order to gain entry.  When I want to converse, I want to talk about what can be built, not why things shouldn’t, which has become the norm for discourse in most public forums.

Negativity

If I had to say what I hate most, it’s probably negativity.  I’m a pretty conservative person in my own assessments, probably a product of both my Chinese mother’s caution and my sergeant’s training to hope for the best but prepare for the worst, but this should not be confused with negativity.  Negativity is debilitating, demotivating, draining.  Those who find the inner strength to build and create and love need to be supported by the rest of us, not brought down.  And when it comes to examining what is possible, I’m usually overly optimistic.

LOOK AT THIS SHIT.  I PULLED THIS CLASSIC SLATE EXAMPLE UP ON THE FIRST TRY. LOOK AT THIS SHIT. I PULLED THIS CLASSIC SLATE EXAMPLE UP ON THE FIRST TRY.

Cranks and haters have always been a part of online and intellectual discourse, but it’s run rampant now that we have what is somewhat of a critic’s internet buffet. The Twitter community I used to enjoy, journalists and reporters and analysts and policy folks, once encouraging of a naive eagerness for new information, has become TMZ-like (in that it loves gossip, the less true the better) and pompous in its derision for anything and anyone.  No one is safe, in the end, from being torn apart for whatever reason: the idea won’t scale, this or that person is a fraud, etc.  The Atlantic, Slate, these are publications that your liberal news junkie loves to read.  And the writers they hire at those places are absolutely TERRIBLE in their negativity or insinuations of impending failure.

Facebook buying Oculus Rift, Amazon studying the use of drones for delivery, Google making a HUD interface in Google Glass.  What I want to be a part of is a community where those achievements are exalted, not ripped to shreds, as they have been by people I might have respected at some point.  I grew up in an idealistic proto-internet time of downloading MP3s and playing Quake online and Napster was a giant; anything was possible even if it was all insane.  Unless you tune all the negativity stuff out, you wouldn’t know.  You wouldn’t marvel at all the amazing work, such as the people who have contributed research and proofs of work towards, say, NP-Complete math problems.  Louis CK would say “everything is great and no one is happy”; I mean the research and consideration going into those Facebook and Amazon drones and balloons is just a beautiful thing to behold.

As the internet has passed through most of its adolescence and begins its maturity, the rest of everyone who plugged in were stuck in a status quo where it seems none of those critics and cranks have really advanced or improved at their own crafts.  To see the amazing achievements announced daily, and then see them shit on, well, it’s frankly infuriating.

Jason Collins coming out as a gay NBA player.  The quickest response: “But he’s a horrible player.”  Sports, one of the worst refuges of the shitbag critic.  A dude makes the NBA and instead of people showing him respect, they’re quick to point out he’s not a perennial all-star.  I’m sure even in Jackie Robinson’s day, people were slagging on him for something.  Some petty something.  As another sports example, what could be worse than this upvoted rant against watching sports?

The Snowden affair has made everything absolutely toxic.  The government lurks behind every piece of electronics now, in the minds of Snowden’s supporters.  It’s the same kind of paranoia I’m sure most of those people would make fun of the Republicans for in their loathing of Obama, or of conspiracy theorists for their suspicion of anti-gun, anti-religion, etc. liberals.  When John Schindler is pointing out how Glenn Greenwald is one bad day away from appearing on Alex Jones’ show, everything seems absurd.  My liberal peers now make blase jokes about the NSA but barely bat an eyelash at unprecedented expansion of corporate personhood.

SXSW just happened and I’ve never been, but I know people who seem to go regularly.  How do they afford it?  It’s expensive as fuck.  Do their employers pay out for it?  How much are people really getting out of SXSW?  So many people who go aren’t even creatives or builders.  I’m definitely not against a flashy party, but I do wonder when it seems like the B-players are being sent.  E3, SXSW, and other conferences are now meetups for the elite and rich, those who can either afford to go or who are paid to go.  And what are they contributing back as a result?  This is why conferences lose their magic.  This is why, most notably, TED tanked.

Wonder why communities stagnate?  Because they have more cranks than dreamers and helpers.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to love watching the Grammy’s and Oscars more.  For me it’s bewilderment at the complexity and sheer market size of their industries.  The amount of resources, attention, and output generated by dresses, producers, talented artists and directors, the entertainment and happiness that they bring.  I love the process.  Studying how films are cast, the bonding the cast goes through for the film, the pushing of boundaries in the technical areas of the film, the representation of songs off an album into powerful videos, live tours, and performances for award shows, the biographies written up in Rolling Stone and whatnot.

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But the pettiness of the crowd drags it all down.  All the slagging on Macklemore even though him and Ryan Lewis were by far the most interesting artists of the year in terms of touching all aspects of the industry and affecting culture.  I actually thought Lorde’s album was incredibly powerful for such a young person but I’m happy with all the results.  The same goes with Oscars.  I try to make a point of it to see as many nominees in as many categories as I can, because those picks represent a curation by the industry.  Hence it drives me nuts to hear people completely destroy films in their critiques — the labor going into a project is admirable, even for lesser quality films.

Negativity.  I can’t stand being around it.

Elite Self-Loathing

One story I really hate seeing is the condescension towards Silicon Valley startups who seem to be creating fluff products when, you know, there are people dying in Africa and stuff!  Why can’t those engineers work on actual important problems?

Of course, who’s writing those stories?  Well in the case of the latest NYTimes story, it is written by none other than a Columbia computer science grad student who lives among the gilded engineer community being called out.

Man, where to start.  The insanely awesome advances in open source software, particularly in the promiscuity of excellent language features being shared among the major coding languages such that they’re all beginning to share a lot of commonalities, these are created by developers and coders and hackers and engineers, people who actually do enjoy spending a whole weekend by themselves indoors in the dark pushing characters around on the screen.

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You don’t have to wait around too long before you hear people say, “We must teach the kids how to code!”  Chances are, the people saying it can’t code.  And they won’t go learn how to code beyond tutorials.  This is fine — I certainly don’t think everyone needs to code — but I am definitely a believer that if you tell others they should do something, you should have done it yourself first.  Now, code as a gateway towards solving problems that kids might be interested in, this is a great addition to a school syllabus. (having them design a database to catalog what they own, or a double-booking ledger system to keep track of what little money they make, etc.)

Anyway, my point was that engineers are good at primarily one thing, which is writing very specific code that can test the limits of what was previously possible.  Criticizing Facebook for focusing on creating end-of-year videos?  That’s an immense computational task and it had to be done using tons of peoples’ disparate datapoints.  But the knowledge of how to pull that off is now going to be passed along to successors, to schools and research facilities, and eventually to grad student theses and private products.  As a former student of international development practices, that shit is hard enough as it is and most everyone in that world barely has the statistician’s background enough to be able to make informed decisions about whether this or that program or measurement is actually helping the people who need it.

So it’s the height of arrogance for people who don’t know how to build or measure things to tell others who can do one or the other that they should not only do that task but also design, fund, scale out, and deliver onto the ground solutions to improve society.  Some mercenary blog-quality writer for The Atlantic decides that this or that project is worth slagging because he was clever enough to think of holes in the project’s design while he sips his morning coffee.

I saw this at ITP — while the community itself is immensely supportive and open towards nonsensical, wildly over ambitious ideas, when it comes to critiquing others’ work, the feedback often comes back to blowing huge holes through someone’s work just to sound smart about it.

Getting back to those life goal write-ups.  I never really did them very seriously but when I think back to them now, they were immensely informative and helpful.  When I was in college, I think my short-term goal was to be a full-time daytrader, since I was doing fairly well trading the dotcom boom.  I didn’t have the perception and experience to realize that market volatility would dry up, that the system’s regulations would be gamed so that small-time daytraders (less than $25k in their account) would be locked out of the practice because of restrictions on the number of trades one can make.  If you want to know how Wall Street has changed, beyond the infamous “quants”, then you should look at how daytrading restrictions have locked out regular folks from trading actively, and also look at how IPOs, buyouts, and other mostly stock market-related business deals are all about cashing out and not adding value.  The stock market’s investment and negotiation deals handled by the big finance firms are not too far off from nobles trading title and land for reputation and power.  Their employees get little.  The only way normal folks can win in the market anymore is to just play for the long-term.

My Flaws and Strengths

Flaws
  • not “great”
  • too stoic
  • too serious
  • not close with enough friends and family
  • no natural ability
Strengths
  • relentless
  • high tolerance
  • courageous
  • top caliber friends
  • respectful
  • reverent of the process
That’s my list.  I might also add that the part I probably think the most about is that I know that positivity and being enthusiastic and empowering others to be happy with things is the most fulfilling thing one can do day in and day out, but for me what I lament is that I am by my nature just not that person.  Having met some powerful leaders, wonderful motivators, and just all-around badasses in my time (many of whom were at the wedding, if only for a few hours before they had to return home!), I have witnessed what they can do for others, and that’s just their natural state.  In the world I’m more of a defensive-minded person, more of a guardian, more of a sheepdog.  It’s just the way I am, and it’s what I’m best at.  How will I integrate that into being successful and truly great?

Taste

People fight so strongly for their opinions.  What for?  How about this quote?
“Good taste is a myth. A story our rider creates to serve the needs of the elephant. And the sooner you kill your good taste idol, the sooner you’re going to give yourself a chance to be a better designer. It frees you up to add taste as another tool in your designer’s toolbox. Consequently, instead of focusing on good taste, your focus becomes the right taste for the problem at hand. There’s a subtle but profound difference.”

The magic moments of online forums or of hobby-based communities are that in most of the growth stage, the conversation is dominated by doers and builders, people who are curious about the implications and who love to share positive aspects of it all.

And then I’m sorry to say but the “intellectuals” then bandwagon on, having read about it all in this or that magazine or on a prominent blog.  This is around the time when communities start becoming caustic, full of cynical comments enforcing behavior of entrenched, mature communities elsewhere.  The doers mostly get drowned out.  I saw it happen on HackerNews, and to some degree on reddit.  Those amazing comments you go to read when you first joined are replaced more and more by negative comments (and by memes, but I love memes).

These folks are full-time consumers: of culture (which they did not live in), of art (which they could not possibly create on their own), of popular culture (which they foster animosity towards but can’t help but indulge in).  A community of fast-food binge watchers.  I am an avid consumer of pop culture myself but I do feel a certain pressure to need to contribute something back: to try to find artistic outlets for my more pragmatic views, or to attempt things that are somewhat subversive.

The full-time consumers are up against the people who believe in doing, as referenced in this hackernews comment section on ageism in tech:

“I have a ton of cultural criticisms of the current tech industry, but the one thing that it is absolutely getting right is valuing creation. The damage that could have been caused by the Google/Apple cartel has been limited largely by the startup industry that, for all its faults, has as a crucial belief that the act of building things is valuable, and that people who make things are the ones who create the most value.”

Strengthening a Community

To me it seems like it would take very little actual effort to maintain the positive tone of a community and avoid the police that have made Wikipedia and StackOverflow so abhorrent to contribute to.  Active enforcement of positive messages would be a given, but bigger than that, I’d prefer a whitelist system where your reputation precedes you.  Do you have a good online history of being helpful, of encouraging others and of sharing lots of content?  Then you’re in.   Admittance is earned.

One major piece of Galapag.us that I hope to implement eventually goes along with the theme of different islands.  The islands have their own cultures, wildlife, climates — and their populations should have culture and personality that reflects it.  So each island would have its own rules for communication and culture.  For example, a welcome island would have strict rules against hurting new players, whereas another island may be a free-for-all.  But I think most islands would be somewhere in between, capped mostly by having formula requirements to gain admittance, based on a person’s stats.  Perhaps an island requires a very high reputation with very low negativity and an innate nature for helping others, so one would need to have very useful posts as well as have an “angelic” alignment.

I like anonymity, pseudonymity, and verified identity all at once.  I think they all have their place.  But I also think that one’s reputation should be compatible with a community.

So here I am.  Here we are.  Starting a new family, a new chapter in life.  I think I’ve definitely become more of a homebody as I’ve gotten older; saving money, disliking the quirks of others more, understanding which types of events are never that entertaining yet knowing which ones are really key.  I’d like to think I’m stressing meeting up with friends more now.  I definitely cherish that time.

And, to conclude, my goals:

1 Year:

  • get a substantial raise to pay off more school debt and begin having children
  • plan on where my wife and I might like to move to and live
  • crash-course on C/C++ and algorithms

2015 (37 years old):

  • fluency with computer science algorithms, data structures, searches, and sorts
  • west coast driving trip
  • scouting trips for places to live

5 Year (41 years old):

  • children
  • Galapag.us as a command-line/search box-driven game

10 Year (46 years old):

  • at the age when I should expect to create a life’s work or project that is “great” and “glorious”

 

Note: I’ll probably be adding to this, as I had trouble expressing what I wanted to say in a cohesive manner and worked on this over several nights.  I know I’m leaving tons out, and need to think more about future plans.

But hell, it’s so good to be in a state of strengthening and building now.