Turning n/2 + 1

When I turned 27, I wrote the following in my birthday post:

I don’t need stuff. I just need time. Of course, that’s the bittersweet part of one’s birthday. That even as you come to realize the importance of time, the day acts as a reminder of how our time on this earth is limited. 1 day passes, and only n-1 left to make a difference.

The average life expectancy for a US male born in 1984 is 75. I just turned 38 today. Therefore, it’s fair to say, I just turned n/2 + 1.

That is perhaps a bit too fatalistic and reductive. The number n is not guaranteed to be 75. “Don’t be so morbid!” someone might exclaim to me. “After all, many people live to 80, 90, even 100. And medicine improves all the time.”

Well, yes, this is true. But, it’s also likely — and increasingly so — that I might die any minute. Freak accidents, a late-discovered birth defect. Or, just losing the medical lottery in middle age. So, I return to the wisdom of my youth: “I don’t need stuff. I just need time.”

But, toward what end? That has been the interesting riddle of approaching n/2 with the following undeniable privileges:

  • good health
  • professional satisfaction
  • financial security
  • confidence in my irreversible life choices

Many approach this same milestone with none of the above, and many would love for any one of them to be squared away.

The honest truth is, I find myself heavy with the weight of these privileges. History is, as Harold Bloom once put it when describing literature, “a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is […] survival.” Here, he was referring to well-crafted stories. “Survival” meant their perpetuation through the ages via timeless literary relevance, something he referred to as “canonical inclusion”.

But what of my field, software?

Equally ethereal as literature, software is a swirl of ideas with a utilitarian streak pervading the craft. Yet, as a field, it is seemingly much less interested in a canon of historical influence (vs chasing “the new new thing”).

Steve Jobs, at his most philosophical, riffed on this once in 1988 (incidentally, 4 years after I was born):

This is not a field where one writes a Principia which holds up for 200 years. This is not a field where one paints a painting that will be looked at for centuries.

This is a field where one does great work and then in ten years it’s obsolete, and will not even be usable [by most people] within ten or twenty years.

You can’t go back and use an Apple I: there’s no software for it! In another ten years or so you won’t be able to use an Apple II. You won’t even be able to fire it up and see what it was like.

It’s sort of like sediments of rocks. You’re building up a mountain and you get to contribute your little layer of sediment to make the mountain that much higher. But no one on the surface (unless they have X-Ray vision) will see your sediment. They’ll stand on it — and it’ll be appreciated by that rare geologist — but nah, it’s not like The Renaissance at all.

Thinking on this from my 2020s vantage point, though, I realize some layers of sediment are more visible than others. Linux in our cloud data centers and C as an unkillable systems programming language come to mind. Rapid developments in the Python and PyData worlds more recently. The common thread seems to be the historic combination of the internet and open source code distribution. This has made it possible to lay down a layer more akin to a house’s foundation, and keep building other layers upward. I also suspect the parts that will last the longest are those that have the strongest culture of openness and sharing. Example: Macromedia Flash is a footnote in the history of the web, whereas JavaScript simply is the web.

Yet, this is all beside the point. I ask myself again, “time… for what?” Time is limited, and I am not so egotistical to believe that I can solve the world’s problems. Nor can software in the large.

This question has an element of absurdity. When you go out dancing, you don’t ask, “what’s the point of dancing?” Dancing is the point. You just dance because it’s time to dance.

So I land at the birthday reflection: what’s the point of hacking? For now, I have to settle for the flippant reply: hacking is the point. You just hack because it’s time to hack.†

You have the time (and the health, and the skills) to do it. If not you, who? If not now, when?

With a little luck, the hack will stick.

† Incidentally, I watched a fascinating film that ties together a few of my interests to make this point. It weaves a narrative around philosophy of mind, ethics, computer science, and the psychological study of “flow”. It suggests that humans are at their best when they are rapt in a craft at which they are skilled and to which they can make a contribution. The film is 80 minutes long and on YouTube, and is called “Being in the World”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *