Thursday, November 23, 2017

Sleeping Where I Fall: A Chronicle, by Peter Coyote

book cover Sleeping Where I Fall is an autobiographical book from Peter Coyote. You might know him as a Hollywood actor, a man with a stern face, playing congressmen, detectives and conservative dads or other such people in authority. What you probably don't know is that before he was 40, when he decided he would try his hand at an acting career on the big screen, he was a "live off the land" hippie, a fervent believer in alternative cultures that eschew capital and personal property and value human connection and respect of the land and of the spirit, a man who chose his last name as most representing of himself. The guy on the cover is Peter Coyote, too. This book is an amazing recounting of those times, one of the works that I believe need to be read, whether you like them or not.

Personally, I found it amazing. It's not the writing style or how it played with emotions, but the information buried within that makes it a valuable experience reading it. In fact, if I was to critique anything about it, it is that is so packed with anecdotes and mind blowing ideas and descriptions of people, groups, ideologies and places, but does little to bring the reader to the emotions of the writer. It is too intellectual, trying so hard to be accurate and objective as to make the reader numb. Everything else, though, is top notch.

I don't think I would do the book service to summarize it in this review, but it goes so many different and interesting places: hippie communes, motorcycle gangs, famous artists, drugs, politics, road trips, changing the world, personal stories, psychology, acting, music, environment, native American culture, Wall Street, Easy Rider and so on. I do feel that the man who wrote this book is a great human being, but I have the nagging feeling that he misrepresents some of what he describes. Perhaps it is the somewhat neutral tone, the elevated language to render heart wrenching moments or just the fact that I find it so hard to believe a man could go through all that in just under two decades. I don't want to read Emmett Grogan's book Ringolevio on the same period, but you might want to, in order to cross reference and get a more accurate picture.

I recommend this book to just about everyone. It is one of those things that open your eyes a little to what was lost and what could be different and what you never thought about.

As additional resources, you might want to look at The Digger Archives online, where the site is terribly out of date, but the information there is (as is the Digger way) free. Frankly, I am disappointed to see that neither Sleeping Where I Fall or Ringolevio are offered free on that site.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Advice for software developers and other human beings

Growing up I always had this fantasy of writing a journal. My sense of privacy - being sure someone would read and judge it - stopped me from pursuing that, as well as the simple fact that I didn't need a journal, I just saw it as a cool thing I should do. Little did I know that in my older years I would want some sort of record of my forgotten youth and find none. Yet the idea persisted.

I started an actual journal as soon as I had a computer and I understood the concept of encryption. It didn't really work, either. It was full of self serving bullshit and it described a person that I really wasn't. One could (and should) read between the lines in order to understand the smug and ignorant state of mind of the author. Later still, I started to write a book, something called The Good Programmer or something of that sort. Phaw! Even if I could have gotten past my chronic impostor syndrome, being a good programmer is nice, but not my goal in life. If it were, I would have made other life choices. And again, it was full of self serving bullshit.

You may detect a pattern here and it might inform your reading this blog post. Anyway, its point is to generalize my experience as a programmer, as fast and as clean as possible. Hope it helps.

Every time I write software - that I care about and have influence over its technical quality - I tend to generalize things: reuse components, refactor duplicate code and so on. In other words, find similar problems and solve them with the same tool. It is not Golden Hammering problems away, that's a different thing altogether, since it is I who is shaping the tool. So how about doing that for my life? I should care about it and have influence over its quality.

First time I started writing code I was actually writing it on paper. I didn't have a computer, but I had just read this beginner's book and I was hooked. The code wouldn't have worked in a million years, but it was the thought that counted: I played around with it. Later on I got a computer and I started using the programs, understanding how it works, not different from getting a smartphone and learning how to phone people. Yet, after a while I found issues that I wanted to solve or games that I wanted to play but didn't have, then I made them myself: I found a problem and solved it. But writing code is not just about the end result. As soon as I explored what other people were doing, I started trying to emulate and improve what they did. I played around with compression and artificial intelligence, for example. And I was a teen in a world of no Internet. I went to the British Council and borrowed actual books, then tried the concepts there a lot.

It was years before I would become a professional programmer, and that is mostly because the hiring process (in any country) is plain stupid. The best HR department in the world is just looking for people that have already done what is required, so that they do it at the current company as well. But that's not what a developer wants. Software is both science and art. The science is a bit of knowledge and a lot of discipline, but the rest, a very large chunk, is just intuition and exploration and imagination. People who want to do the same thing over and over again are not good developers; instead they are probably people that just want to make a buck with which to live their "real" life. For me, real life has been writing code - and I still think I am being paid for putting up with the people I work for and work with, rather that for doing what I love.

Professional work is completely different from the learning period. In it you usually don't have a say on what you work on and the problems that software is supposed to solve are at best something you are indifferent to and at worst something you wouldn't understand (as in will not, even if you could). Yet, the same basic principles apply. First, you are required to write good code. By this your employers mean something that works as they intended, but for you it is still something that you feel pride in having written, something that is readable enough so you understand it a few weeks later when you have to add stuff or repair something. You are expected to "keep up to date", by which they understand you would keep studying in your spare time so that you do work that they don't know they need done, but for you it is still playing around with things. Think about it! You are expected to keep playing around! As for the part where you see what other people do and you get to emulate or improve on that... you have a bunch of colleagues working on the same stuff that you can talk to and compare notes and code review with. Add to this the strong community of software developers that are everywhere on the Internet.

Bottom line: Just keep doing three things and you're good. First play around with stuff. Then find a problem to solve (or someone to provide it for you) and write code for it. Finally, check what other people do and gain inspiration to create or improve your or their work. Oh, did I say finally? This is a while loop, for as long as you are having fun. Hey, what do you know? This does scale. Doesn't it sound like a good plan, even if you are not a software dev?

Friday, November 17, 2017

Madness, madness everywhere

It seems to me that there are more and more crazy people around me. They are relatives, friends, colleagues, random people on the street and I have no idea where they came from. I don't remember as much insanity from when I was a boy, but then again I was even more oblivious then than I am now, and that's saying something. Yet, since then the population of the planet grew from 4.5 billion to 7 billion and, more importantly to me, the population of my home city of Bucharest grew from about 1.5 million to a city where just as many people come from outside the capital to find opportunities. But the percentage of mentally afflicted seems to have more than doubled. But what is crazy?

I mean, I just saw an old lady, looking like she was chronically homeless, shouting obscenities to no one in particular. Who else was she to talk to except herself? She can't even trust another human being enough to talk to them, even if the thought came to her mind. And if she has an audience of one, just as sane as she is, who is to say she's talking crazy? Or when you see some company executive make stupid after stupid decision, then boldly coming on stage and presenting it as the best idea since fire was invented. Do they know they are sociopaths? Does anybody else know? Do they even care? There is a quote in the Mindhunter TV series: "How does a sociopath become the president of the United States?", asks the young FBI agent. "How does one become president if they are not?", responds the psychology professor. And I am reading this book, that I am going to review in a few days, about the counterculture in America, during the 60's. If those people would appear in front of me right now, foraging through mall trash and explaining cosmic truths while loaded with speed and LSD, I would probably catalog them as insane.

Maybe insanity is not a state, but a perception. It's just a socially unacceptable behavior. It does hurt the person using it, but that's mostly because they can't fit (or maybe they fit too well). Have I become more sensitive because of the carefully constructed shell that protects me from hardship? Anything going through it hurts like hell because I am not used for stuff to come through. I have thin skin covered by layers of callousness. Maybe society is more exclusive now? It is easier to become crazy, as you only have to fall a little bit before you get into an unstoppable spiraling decline. Certainly you can't experiment now with personal freedom; it's almost gone, taken away bit by bit, not (only) by repressive governments, but by our willingness to waste time and resources until there are none left. Open relationships? Life on the road? Chemically expanding your mind? Forget about it! You get homeopathy and holotropic breathwork and feel enlightened.

There is another hypothesis worth exploring. Maybe people are not crazy at all. Perhaps I am the mad one. At every stage I expect the full weight of social scorn to come over me and crush me like the bug I am. How dare I? I wouldn't even know what I was guilty of - which, paradoxically, would prove I am even more guilty. They would come at me with carefully crafted smiles and expressions taken from shows or movies they have all seen and burn me alive, giggling all the way, like they are making the greatest joke in the world while providing me with the help they know I desperately need. All these people that apparently speak only to themselves, yet somehow communicate with others by methods unseen, they would suddenly all turn towards me, pointing their fingers and letting out inarticulate cries. Then, of course, I would know that I am insane, because I would never be able to do any of that.

I just don't know. Where does this vomitous mountain of madness come from? Maybe more importantly, where is it going?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Star Trek Continues ... ends

Star Trek Continues, a fan production which started in 2013, ended with the eleventh episodes. As so many others, they are ending a perilous enterprise (pardon the pun) through CBS legal issues and moving to other, non Star Trek related, productions. And it's too bad, because you can see that this series had quality rivaling official Star Trek franchises. I have embedded the playlist with all the episodes. Enjoy!

Here is what Vic himself had to say about the ending of the production:

Friday, November 03, 2017

Drown, by Junot Díaz

book cover Drown is a tiny collection of 10 stories about Dominican people, written from the viewpoint of an adult talking about their childhood. Up until the end of the book I was convinced I was reading the story of the same family, written in some weird ass way, and I am sure the stories were changed a little to reflect a similar point of reference; however in truth the 10 stories have little in common other than the fact that they are about Dominicans and that I liked each and every one of them.

It is so interesting to see a good writer pour out his heart on paper. I felt like a greedy vampire, drinking on the lifeblood of the writer. Junot Diaz is, of course, Dominican and the stories are partially autobiographical. I find fascinating how sure of themselves and focused are underprivileged people, as compared to my own experience of ever doubting myself and never feel like I am good enough. In a perverse way, the stories show how liberating it is to know and to be constantly reminded that you are not good enough. You handle rejection well, you always try, because any success, not matter how small, is a victory. No character in this book is ever happy, but they are rarely unhappy. Discontent? maybe. Rebellious and angry against the shit cards they have been dealt? sure. Not giving a shit about anyone but themselves? unfortunately so. But at every step we are reminded of the struggle of the characters to get anywhere in life.

Bottom line: to me it was a refreshing subject, with great writing style. I don't think I will actively pursue any other work from the author, but as a first contact, it was nice, short and to the point.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within, by Elif Shafak

I've vaguely heard about Elif Shafak before, but she only came to my attention when she did a TED talk that I really liked. I mean, it was a little on the feminist side, but the speaker was both articulate and correct - not to mention cute, so I wondered what she wrote about. So I started with Black Milk. And it was as much feminist as they get, discussing women writers in the context of the author's own challenges as a woman and a mother affected by postpartum depression. Therefore, if you don't like these kinds of books, don't read it.

Personally I liked the writing a lot. I didn't really feel interested in the subject so much, but that's also a plus for the book: if you can make people like reading about something they don't care about, then you are doing it right. I find different viewpoints on life interesting, as well, so all in all I enjoyed reading the stories. Yet, the feminism bit threw me off a little. Shafak identifies a lot not only with being a woman, but being a feminist middle East female writer, and she doesn't let anyone forget it. It is difficult to feel connected with the author when she's constantly reminding you of the differences between you. Even the thumbelinas in the book (thumb sized representations of the facets of her personality) are all female. It is true that you hear a lot more about the feminine side of guys rather than the masculine side of women, but still.

What I thought was a little bit misleading was the description of the book as a memoir. In fact, there is little of the author's actual experiences in the book. Instead, there are short anecdotes of her life, strongly dramatized and fantasized, followed by longer analogies with other female writers and their own stories. The book does present a very personal viewpoint on all it describes, but it reveals the author just through comparison rather than through confession. It does not feel intimate, it feels pretentious, an intellectual treatise on things Shafak claims very personal and emotional.

Bottom line: while I liked it, as something very different from what I read and a well written book by a very imaginative author, I think it would have benefited more from a more personal and less argumentative touch.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017