It feels to me, sometimes, as if our gadgets are on a journey towards infinity: first, the walkman allowed us to take an hour of music with us on each tape, then the iPod let us squeeze in 20GB, 40GB, 120GB of music, and now the Spotify app has every recorded track of all time. At least the ones that have rights negotiated. Lawyers, not spool-lengths, are the limiting factor now.
The word gadget, to me, has always suggested physicality. James Bond’s watch and Wallace and Gromit’s automatic toast butterer are indelibly stuck in my head. But as gadgets evolved from household tools, with a single purpose, to consumer electricals, they became quasi virtual. Rather than mechanical cogs and levers and sprockets, they are sheets of aluminum and glass without moving parts.
The smartphone has replaced the Swiss Army Knife, for now at least, as the ultimate gadget. Small, compact, fits in your pocket. But although it contains a virtual world, there is a long list of physical things it has replaced too, including those that were prime fodder for tiny keyrings: flashlights, compasses, cameras, stopwatches, thermometers, spirit levels, clocks, notebooks, calculators, pedometers. All of these sit digitally within the bowels of our ineffable smart devices.
All of this is to say, I have been thinking about gadgets and wrote a piece about them in Debugger, a new spin-off publication and part of the expanded universe of OneZero.
My dad had the opposite feeling about gadgets. And actually the opposite definition as well. For him, gadgets were gimmicks that did one thing, usually badly. Why have a device for chopping avocados when you could use a knife and a spoon? I wanted one device that could do many things, he was happy to use many devices to do one thing if it avoided buying something else (and then having to wash it up). But I suppose we at least agreed that gadgets did tasks badly. I wasn’t so blinded by love for my Swiss Army knife to realize that the kitchen scissors were a better option for cutting things.
There’s a genre of articles of the type “falsehoods programmers believe about…” - names, addresses, and so on. These falsehoods aren’t really limited to programmers - they’re falsehoods all of us believe about concepts. That is to say: we tend to think things are simpler than they are. In fact, it is often only developers who have worked in one of these areas that realize how complex pretty much everything is.
The latest “episode” I’ve found is Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Time:
The machine that a program runs on will always be in the
Ok, that’s not true. But at least the time zone in which a program has to run will never change.
Well, surely there will never be a change to the time zone in which a program has to run in production.
These “Ok, but…” ones always have the feel of a developer, desperately trying to find a way through the logic to get their code written. I know that feeling all too well. Further down the list are some falsehoods that are real head-scratchers:
There are always 24 hours in a day.
Months have either 28, 29, 30, or 31 days.
Non leap years will never contain a leap day.
There are 60 seconds in every minute.
What these lists actually are, is a set of incorrect assumptions that programmers make based on a shallow understanding of the domain. They highlight how a large part of software development is thinking through edge cases (the title of this mailing list - which isn’t a coincidence.) But also, they highlight just how deep every domain is. Even something a simple as a name - down to how many names people have and what characters make up a valid name. I keep coming back to the same thought: the reason coding is hard is not because writing code is difficult, but because thinking through the ramifications of every line of logic gets explosively more difficult.
A fun read in the New York Times about someone growing a mustache.
The reviews were predictably mixed and predictably predictable. “Porny”? Yes. “Creepy”? Obviously. “ ’70s”? True (the 18- and 1970s). On some video calls, I heard “rugged” and “extra gay.” Someone I love called me “zaddy.” Children were harsh. My 11-year-old nephew told his Minecraft friends that his uncle has this … mustache; the midgame disgust was audible through his headset. In August, I spent two weeks with my niece, who’s 7. She would rise each morning dismayed anew to be spending another day looking at the hair on my face. Once, she climbed on my back and began combing the mustache with her fingers, whispering in the warmest tones of endearment, “Uncle Wesley, when are you going to shave this thing off?”
It’s not really about the mustache though. It’s about racism:
That’s when my friend chimed in: “You look like a lawyer for the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund!” […] My friend had identified a mighty American tradition and placed my face within it. Any time 20th-century Black people found themselves entangled in racialized peril, anytime the roots of racism pushed up some new, hideous weed, a thoughtful-looking, solemn-seeming, crisply attired gentleman would be photographed entering a courthouse or seated somewhere (a library, a living room) alongside the wronged and imperiled. He was probably a lawyer, and he was likely to have been mustached.
I have a real soft spot for articles that take something seemingly trivial and pull history out of it. One more quote:
During the later stages of the movement, a mustached man opened himself up to charges of white appeasement and Uncle Tom-ism. Not because of the mustache, obviously, but because of the approach of the sort of person who would choose to wear one. Such a person might not have been considered radical enough, down enough, Black enough.
You may complain about your work laptop, but working as a “federal employee” is something else.
The Dell ran Windows 10 Enterprise and a suite of security and firewall protections. The computer ran a limited set of software (mainly Microsoft Suite, Adobe Acrobat, and whatever comes with Windows), which all run very slowly, and the computer was prone to crashing if you have more than three windows open. It is unclear if this sluggishness was because of the security requirements or the management of them, or if it's because the government is mandated to procure the "lowest price technically acceptable" product (see FAR 15.101-2)
I often dip into Uses This. Sometimes the way other people use software gives me ideas, sometimes it’s nice to see behind the curtain at what different professions use. Other times I find it relaxing (honestly) just to read about other people’s experiences with computers. This one, though, was painful. Government regulations, information security, and general policies have crippled their software. As Williams says at the beginning:
I wanted to focus this post on what limited tools had been available to me as a federal employee to give folks a snapshot of what it's like to, as my roommate put it, "work while having one hand tied behind your back."
Until next time,