Love the process

Love the process. Sure. Why not? There's a reasonable chance that that's all you'll get out of it, whatever it happens to be.

It's a direct line to a goal by aiming at something other than the goal and, maybe, being satisfied without reaching it. Writing something here every day this year doesn't produce the best writing—how could it, rarely does anything get a real second draft, let alone a final draft, which would typically be part of a multiday bit of writing. It's the process that's important—sitting down and doing it. For myself. Same thing for the weekly newsletter. In the sure there's a measurable return working on it—actually I'm sure, I'm sure there is a negative return—but the reward is the work. "The reward is the work" is either insanely naive or a belief that something somewhere is compounding the investment of the effort.

Maybe nothing is compounding. Maybe nothing is an investment, only a cost. Maybe accounting only works with things that fit in tables. Maybe it's enough to enjoy the effort. Maybe some muscle you can't see is getting worked day after day by the resistance. Maybe a day will come when having that one particular muscle ready to go will be the difference. Maybe having the muscle ready without using it is good enough. Maybe there is no muscle. Maybe it doesn't matter if no one else recognizes the sense of growth you feel.

A line from Walden by Thoreau that comes to mind:

For a long time I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their own reward. For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms, and did my duty faithfully; surveyor, if not of highways, then of forest paths and all across-lot routes, keeping them open, and ravines bridged and passable at all seasons, where the public heel had testified to their utility.

The right job for the tool, 2

Previous: The right job for the tool

There's one more thing about an impulse to use manual tools over power tools: It takes more effort.

(I had to avoid using the word "tendency" instead of "impulse" when describing which tools I use. Although in the garden I use manual tools, in the garage I use power tools. If there is a tendency, it is towards the latter.)

So, I've gotten to the point of why we actually use power tools to begin with. It is easier. It is supposed to be easier. Use the magic of electricity or hydraulics or combustion or whatever to provide more force or speed or power or whatever. It is a luxury to not have to use power tools and instead rely on something slower or more difficult. It says "I have time to burn".

The luxury, though, can also take a bit of personal force—picking things up and putting them down, running a spade into the (clay) dirt repeatedly, breaking up the clods with a garden hoe and then flattening out the resulting turned (clay) dirt. I haven't been to a gym since March 2020. This is my gym now. I get work done, and work gets me done.

There is even one more thing: quiet. A handsaw versus a power saw? A hand drill versus a power drill? A whisper in my ear versus an explosion.

That's why wood joining seems so appealing—quiet time with a mallet and chisel.

The right job for the tool

Given the choice—and time, lots and lots of time—I tend to fall back on hand tools for doing work. I have power tools like drills, saws, grinders, etc., but they're only the first choice when they're the clear choice, and I've only bought them after working my way up from other tools.

In the backyard I'm using a spade to break up the dirt where I'm going to plant the tomatoes. This is the same area where we planted them last year, however, this area has been compressed quite a bit because this is where I was storing the crushed limestone base for the retaining wall and several pallets of retaining wall blocks. (Another recent manual job: moving the rock six or seven meters to the south.) The area isn't that big—maybe it's five meters by eight meters or so—but it took several hours to break up. Some of it is clay that hasn't been broken up since the house was built in the 1960s, some of it is clay that was broken up last year for the garden, but wasn't necessarily broken up to the whole depth of the spade head.

Maybe next year I'll use a power tiller. I'm tired. I still have one more small area to turn over tomorrow. I don't know. After that, maybe even the tiller won't be enough. Maybe I'll just accept that dirt is sacred and it is where it should be.

Manual tools are an atavistic impulse. There are better—faster, at least—ways of doing work. But hand tools have a better... feel.

It's too dark to get a good photo now, but there is one section of the backyard retaining wall that shows an evolution from hand tools to power tools. There is a right angle where the wall under the steps intersects the wall the runs parallel to the deck. At the bottom, the joint is rough, the block cut with a hammer and chisel only. Then it gets a little better going up—an angle grinder purchased to make the work better (faster). Then it gets better after I got the Skilsaw.

Then it gets even better once I used the Skilsaw to make the straight cut, and used the hammer and chisel to modify the straight cut to fit the rough edge of the cut face of the block that it mated to. Perhaps that's the final evolution: a mixture of manual tools and power tools selected for what they do best, for what they're needed for.

A memory from the past: watching Peter Follansbee working on 17th century furniture reproduction in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 2009:

Peter Follansbee at work, 1

Possibilities aren't a curse

Despite the tone of yesterday's post, I don't actually play many games. When I do, I don't really keep them long—they're fine when they nibble at the edges of my life, but once they start taking bites from the middle they have to go. (As if the games are the ones doing the biting, not me.) I read more about games than I play them. I stand on the outside of the arena and let other people explain to me what is going on inside.

Most of the games I read about are older ones anyway. I read all of Aaron Reed's posts on 50 Years of Text Games. Text games take me back to a Commodore 64 and Zork and being young in the 1980s. The nostalgia angle is obviously what keeps me reading.

But there's one more thing: each of these text games seems like something I could write. I don't mean that to sell short what the best authors did (the mediocre and bad ones, well...). Rather, I can't imagine what it would take, as an individual, to craft any of the technically amazing games that exist now—and obviously I don't mean text games, but whatever contemporary game best exhibits the contemporary wizardry that is available. Text games feel small enough to get my arms around. Technically they seem like they would be easy to code, leaving story crafting as the hard part.

So, several of the stories in the 50 Years series are about side projects and afterthoughts—things that started small and popped. I've never heard of the game Curses. I don't even want to play it. (I would play it, but I'd rather do other things.) The interesting part is that Graham Nelson wrote the game to simply test that a game could be written for the Z-machine interpreter (the old software that let Infocom text games run on various computers) that he had reverse engineered. The game itself wasn't the point, but it's memorable.

The lingering thought is of possibility. There are many different things a person could create in many different media. Possibilities aren't a curse unless you try to optimize. Pick one. See what happens.

Freedom of action

Trailhead: Tom Chatfield. "Ending an endless game: an interview with Julian Gough, author of Minecraft's epic finale". Boing Boing (2012-01-09).

TC: It always seems to me there are two approaches to stories in games. The first is where the story is a linear thing, albeit with many branches, and you trot along making decisions and progressing through a plot that has been scripted in advance. And the second is what I call environmental story-telling: where everything is simply there to be discovered, and rather than a plot progressing as you take actions, the real narrative occurs as you piece together how the world you're in came to be like this.

Most games have a mixture of these things. But I always worry that there is something fundamentally bogus about the first type of story-telling in a game, because it betrays the power of games as a medium: you're squandering the chance to build a truly exciting, coherent other world based on allowing a player freedom of action.

Again talking about Minecraft... sorry, I'll grow up tomorrow or next week or next life, I don't know.

I don't have much interest in the question "are games art?" They can be. I guess. I don't play many games. Or make much art. I'm not who you to give an answer.

The distinction in the quoted bit above is interesting though: a good game can allow the player to be free to make art. A linear model is just completing a task, like work. An open model gives some rules for how things work, but what you create, and when, and why, and how much, and on and on, is up to the player. What does it mean to win? To play?

I found the freedom hard to deal with. I aimed for a conventional metric: collect as many resources as possible. Then I gave that up because it was boring. Dig dig dig smelt smelt smelt repeat repeat repeat. Scale things and wait until some voices Congress from the (game) sky to say "yes, you win, you have so much stuff". Later it became more interesting to build things, and repair things, and train the villagers to do things, and other boring tasks that were... well, about making the (game) world better. There's no logic to it. No rationale. It's not even a real world obviously. That was simply the goal or ethic that emerged while playing.

On the way out

On way out of a job, what would you want people to say about you?

(This is not about me.)

There is still a slow cascade of single-company lifers leaving. That itself is such a crazy concept, one company, so many years—although I guess in aerospace each major project is bigger than many companies, so it's only crazy of you read the label without looking in the box. But that's not the point.

Some people leave, and you just think, "ok, bye". It doesn't matter much—a semi-horrible thing to say, but no one can be significant to everyone. Some people leave and there's an emotional gap for a while, and it's difficult to cover their work, but it all smooths over after some time.

Some people leave and you think, "uh oh, we are screwed".

Again, everything smooth over after some time, but that time is not fun or interesting or desirable, it's just a terrible slog to recreate poorly what someone else was doing with one hand and half attention. There is an obvious gap without an obvious solution. It's like a monument inverted—a person memorialized in absence.

You want the thanks and congrats and good lucks and so on as you leave, but a few uh-ohs are an unintentional compliment you could raise your glass to.

Now reading: Peopleware

Now reading: Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (2013).

Today at work I was talking—remotely, as ever—with an experienced software engineer. By "experienced", I mean that he said he's been working in software development for 50 years, which is both unbelievable and astounding. For all the magic that we see conjured by software, it seems like it could never be more than five or ten years old, even though we know better.

Fifty years? All of the funny lines and analogies seem insulting, and they get away from the underlying feeling: anyone with that much experience should be drawn from like a well. A deep, deep, deep well. Even if you decide later that you don't want or agree with what you get from that well, the direct and personal experience is worth the trouble.

Anyway, he recommended a few books to me while we were chatting on IM. One of them was this one. He suggested this one, out of the various suggestions, should be first because it deals with the human element of organizing projects with software and, most importantly, people. Somehow, people get treated like objects in projects, to the detriment of all.


Trailhead: Ian Leslie. "Before You Answer, Consider the Opposite Possibility". The Atlantic (2021-04-25).

I've heard of the concept that if you take the summary of a group's individual estimate about some objective measurement, e.g., the number of beans in a jar, that the average of the group is better than any of the individual estimates, even the estimates of an expert bean estimator. That phenomenon seems simple, or at least it makes intuitive sense. Getting a pile of different estimates means that you're also getting a pile of different assumptions and biases. "Pile of biases" sounds problematic, but if you take a single individual's estimate, you're still getting an assumption or a bias. However, you're only getting that one person's biases—more biases will be more diverse and will likely distribute themselves about a better value.

Can you do that in your own head? Maybe.

"Eliminating bias" or "total objectivity" sound like fine ideas, but it's nonsense to believe it's possible or true or even desirable. What you want are those biases being aligned in a way that give you multiple vantage points on what you're trying to understand. Maybe "alignment" is better when randomly distributed, but that sounds like some Monte Carlo business in a model, not a way to think in your head. What you can do in your head is consider what happens if the opposite of what you think is true, or how someone with an opposite view would think. This gives you some of the benefits of tapping into the distribution of biases that you would get from a group of people.

Keep yourself on your toes and don't grasp on to an approach too soon—especially don't take your own approach too soon. Eventually you'll have to decide what to do, and you still might do what you would have done in the first place, but considering alternative approaches will help you cover blind spots.