A change of pace

« Back to writing :: February 3, 2017 :: Categories: meta

A change of pace

When I first created this blog – almost six years ago, somehow – I planned to fill it with technical posts about projects I was working on and tips I’d discovered. It only recently occurred to me that I, despite being a programmer by occupation, could use my blog to write about things other than programming. Which is silly, because it’s not as if I had been born with a fully-formed .vimrc file and an inability to form opinions on things that don’t involve code.

So let me remedy that.

I was born in China, and spent most of my childhood in Canada, but I’d always wanted to move to the U.S. I’m still not entirely sure why. I do know that the U.S. has always felt like the center of the world from where I was, and that I had a naive admiration for what I thought of as American ideals. I’ll even confess to a belief in American exceptionalism despite having no real link to the U.S. Even after gaining a more nuanced and critical understanding of American history with the help of writers like Howard Zinn, even after I moved back to China and found myself halfway across the world from U.S. soil, I still identified more with the U.S. than I did with any other country. I followed American politics with such zeal that I was probably more informed than most actual Americans. Culturally, and politically, I was American; the fact that I wasn’t one de jure was just a small obstacle to overcome.

Like many others in my generation, the first election season I remember following was 2008, when a young Senator from Chicago threatened to upset the political order by becoming America’s first black president. Imagine that! In a country whose legacy was stained – from the very beginning – with the blood of black slavery, in a country that had ended segregation only a generation before mine, there he was: a symbol of progress made, and of progress to come. Even now, knowing that Obama’s immediate legacy will forever be associated with the rise of Donald Trump, I still get chills when I watch his 2008 victory speech. If there’s any validity to the idea of American exceptionalism, the election of someone like Barack Obama might be its most powerful testament.

It may have been naive, but I believed in the America whose strength came from the enduring power of its ideals: “democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope”. And so when his term limit came around and there was the chance that his successor would be a woman, one who was admittedly flawed but still progressive and certainly better than the alternative, I was thrilled. Not just for pragmatic reasons, although she clearly would have done a better job of protecting women’s rights and making life easier for immigrants like me. But because it fit the narrative of the America I knew and loved, the America that was slowly but steadily becoming more equal and just.

Now I understand that this America only ever existed in my head.

Over the last few days, I feel like I’ve lost so much time to the endless loop that is my Twitter feed, knowing that each scroll will only bring fresh horrors to deepen my misery but still unable to look away. If there’s any consolation to be found amidst the suffering, it’s that it has ignited the capacity for resistance in millions. That so many have been able to break through the despair and start mobilising, fighting for the world they want rather than accepting the one they have, gives me hope.

So maybe the America I fell in love with isn’t that far off. It might not come easily, but I suspect that the next few years will see an outpouring of grassroots resistance. Stuck between a party that wants to roll back civil rights and one that has a reputation for being ineffectual and even corrupt, those who heard Obama’s promise of change in 2008 and are still wanting have an chance to build something new. It won’t be perfect, but what is? Better incremental progress than a step backward. Better to light a candle than to enable fascism in the dark.

Even if I no longer believe I will be part of it – for immigration-related reasons that will be the subject of another post – America’s inevitable rebirth will be nothing short of spectacular, and I will feel so privileged just to be able to witness it from afar.

For better or worse, this blog is the best embodiment of my digital self. Certainly better than Twitter, because there’s only so much you can communicate about yourself in 140 characters. If I look back on what I’ve written over the last few years, I don’t see much to be proud of: some obscure technical tips; descriptions of silly vanity projects I’ve worked on; a data-driven foray into electoral politics in which I tried very hard to erase all traces of being a human being with opinions. Lots of self-deprecating asides. Using irony as a shield against the fact that I was not writing about anything worth being earnest about.

I never actually planned to go into software development. Throughout high school, programming was a hobby I picked up because I liked the idea of having something to work on in my free time. I never really thought of myself as particularly good at it, though. Certainly not good enough to pursue it full-time. When I applied to colleges – and boy, do I regret spending so much time applying to colleges; I lost an entire winter break answering a seemingly neverending array of essay prompts – I did so as a Physics major for every school except McGill, which had a Physics and Computer Science major that seemed reasonably interesting. The Computer Science part was the product of convenience, more of an afterthought than anything else.

The thing that I liked most of all was writing. An early love of reading gave way to an infatuation with words – the way they sounded, the way they tasted, the way you could arrange them in just the right way to make the reader see the world as you do, if only for a brief, tantalising moment.

But even teenaged me, I-only-know-PHP me, I’m-going-to-major-in-physics me would soon see the way the wind was blowing. Software developers were the future, not writers. The hard drives of laptops past are littered with stories, poems, essays, plays. Whole worlds that I had created. Abandoned to time and the pre-Dropbox digital ether.

Sometimes I miss it, you know?

There are some things about my adolescence that I regret. Hero-worshipping people like Paul Graham and Eric S. Raymond. Revering The Fountainhead to a level surpassed only by the likes of Paul Ryan, which, as far as I can tell, is a quasi-universal experience. Skipping school so I could stay home and play RuneScape (and I didn’t even max out any stats). But the time I spent writing isn’t one of them. If anything, I wish I had spent more time reading, and writing, and seeking feedback on my work so that I could be better today.

I’m not quitting the tech industry just yet, but I no longer believe that my greatest contributions to the world will be limited to writing or discussing software. Especially given everything else that’s been happening recently. And I don’t just mean in the White House, either. People all over the world – myself included – are realising that a global order based on neoliberalism might not result in the stable and just world we’d been promised; the question, now, is what to replace it with, and how. Writing about something I learned while using MongoDB seems very small and insignificant in comparison.

So here are some things I plan to write about over the next few months.

One major theme I want to explore is the idea of understanding complicated concepts by breaking them down and approaching them from first principles. You’ll almost always end up with a deeper understanding of the original concept that way. This is something I learned from physics, but you can apply this to a variety of subjects: computer science concepts like regular expressions; mathematical logic; social and economic concepts like capitalism, universal basic income, and pensions. What I’m talking about is a bit like how Paul Lockhart wishes math would be taught in A Mathematician’s Lament, and a bit like the “click” that David Foster Wallace mentions to describe his mathematical epiphanies. You don’t need to learn automata theory to be able to use regular expressions, for instance, but if you do, you’ll have such a much more fundamental understanding that can come in handy sometimes.

So many people walk around with very shallow understandings of important ideas because they were taught to memorise their definitions, not to critique or unpack or even think about for more than a second. Which is tragic, because the result is often a set of erroneous conclusions. My plan is to write up as many of these from-first-principles posts as I can. With any luck, I’ll gain a better understanding of the topic myself in the process.

Some other planned topics:

Now, I’ll acknowledge that my blog isn’t exactly a hotbed of activity. You may be wondering (“you” being hypothetical here, as it’s not clear that anyone will ever read this post) why I would bother writing this post, much less any of the other posts described above. I’m not an expert on any of the things I want to write about. I don’t even have much of a platform, as I’m pretty sure most of my site’s traffic comes from bots.

The simple answer is: sometimes you just need to write. And that’s all the reason I need.

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