Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 7:04 AM

How good is my mind?

In a discussion on Twitter a couple of nights ago, Farhad Manjoo asked if my ability to adapt to new things has diminished as I've grown older. As you can see in the thread, I did not like the question. I still don't, because teaching your mind to accept new things is something you get better at, if it's core to what you do, as it is for me.

And so many of the ideas I've had, and implemented, have been lying on the shelf because the opposite is true, the world doesn't adapt to new things very quickly. It's easy to get ahead of where the world is. And that's not a good thing if you want people to work with you. Usually what I say makes no sense to most people, but ten or fifteen years later they're all doing it.

It's also frustrating because it's Farhad's job, as a columnist at the NYT, to accelerate the understanding of new technology. He's still new there, so we don't know what he's going to do with that power. But in his previous work at other publications he's been very good at that, so he's worth arguing with.

My challenge has never been to get my mind to adapt to new things, rather to package the things it notices in such a way that others will see them and understand. (That's why my focus these days is on software snacks -- little chotchkas that enter the mind easily and lead you to ideas you might not have thought of before.)

The story of blogging and podcasting and RSS is like that. As is outlining, idea processing, organizing what you know in malleable structures on a computer. That's something most people haven't a glimmer that they can do it on a computer. But it's really good at it. I've had commercial quality software that does this since 1984. If there's one thing I want to accomplish is helping people use computers to add to their intellect. The rest of it is all peripheral to that.

Basic answer: Yes, I'm very good at adapting to new things. If I've lost any capacity there, I'm still far ahead of most other people in this area. It's not something I worry about, even a bit, because I work on it all the time. I'm constantly checking myself, playing Monday Morning Quarterback on my mistakes, and learning how to keep my mind more open so I don't miss things as often.

Adventures with JavaScript

All this occurred to me as I'm writing a new river displayer that hooks into the Twitter API and a Node.js server (that I wrote), that's doing all this shit asynchronously, and before I ran any code I realized that the call to the API would fail because the object it's supposed to operate on doesn't exist yet. "I'll have to use a queue," I said to myself.

Why is this interesting? Well I've learned something new in the last couple of years -- how to think like the JavaScript runtime. And ask anyone who knows, nothing in 40 years of programming in Algol-like languages could possibly prepare me for this twisted way of thinking! I remember my surprise, awe, and abject horror and even rage when I first learned that the system couldn't manage to wait for a call to return before returning to me. That I would have to manage this myself. But over time, I've come to love it, in a masochistic sort of way, the way someone loves to be tortured in just the right place with just the right touch.

Humor in programming

There is humor in programming culture, because that's all we have sometimes. Early in my career I had a programming job working on the 39th floor of the Empire State Building in Manhattan, a few blocks from where I live now. It was late at night and I had no idea where the problem was in the system I was working on. We had a timesharing facility in New Jersey. The problem could be there. It could be in the communication link between us (this was 1977, that was an function that programmers had to worry about). Or it could be somewhere in the office on the 39th floor. I eventually figured it out, but while I was fretting about it, I was thinking they shouldn't let programmers work in tall buildings with windows that open.

Programming humor is fatalistic. It's like Jewish humor, dark, pessimistic, but that's what makes it so funny. You know, "it's even worse than it appears."

So when Farhad asked the question I got frustrated. How do I even begin to answer this question when he has no idea what it's like to do what I do. Maybe the thing I have to do is to explain how I do what I do. That's going to take some time. And the trick is going to be getting anyone to read it. :heart_eyes_cat:

It's not a nice question

One final thought to Farhad. Would you ask a person in your own profession if they had a lesser ability to adapt to new things? Do you ask that of Walt Mossberg, for example? Seems central to what he does, no? How about Dan Rather, who is in his 80s. I don't think you would ask him that, and if you did, it probably wouldn't be in public. It's a pretty embarrassing question.

Last built: Sun, Mar 22, 2015 at 5:51 PM

By Dave Winer, Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 7:04 AM. When in doubt, blog.