alex gaynor's blago-blog

Posts tagged with thinking

Being negative

Posted September 22nd, 2013. Tagged with thinking, community.

From time to time I joke that Bob Knight stole the title of my autobiography with his, which is titled "The Power of Negativity". I've never read the book, but it's very easy for me to imagine how it could apply to me. Many people who know me would immediately identify me as a negative person. They're not wrong, and it's a constant source of struggle for me.

To be clear: I'm sarcastic, I'm critical, I'm a perfectionist and impossible to impress, and I have a capacious ego. As a result of which I almost universally have a problem with any technology I come across, I have a critique to offer of nearly everything, both social and technical.

Some of this is probably my "personality" [1], but a lot of it is intentional. I'm deliberately negative about many things. There's a few reasons for this. First, I'm good at it, I seem to have an ability to identify and articulate problems with things. I also think it's important, when things are not perfect (and they so rarely are), we have a responsibility to speak honestly about them, and to discuss their flaws with the same prominence we discuss their features. Finally, articulating problems with things is one of the ways I learn best. Much of my philosophy about software, and the world, has been formed by identifying problems with the things that exist today.

The conflict about this negativity for me comes from two places. First, the effect it has on other people. For many people, when they see this negativity it has a demoralizing effect on them, they lose interest in something as a result. In particular I'm concerned that my attitudes could be an discouraging to people getting into software development; James Coglan wrote a thing about this, and I certainly don't want to be part of the problem, particularly given how much I've invested in trying to make the tech community more, not less, welcoming . The second conflict comes from the fact that I am, at heart, a boundlessly optimistic person. A strong complement to my negativity is an unyielding belief that we must and can fix all of these things.

Where does this leave me? Uncertain. It is truly important to me that I continue to cast a critical eye on everything, including playing the devil's advocate; it's part of how I learn, and learning is very much something I want to continue to do. But I don't want to ever be why someone is afraid to get involved in programming, in open source, in speaking, or in anything else, because they're afraid I'll do nothing but critique their work. I don't know how to resolve this tension. For the past few months I've been trying to be less negative and angry on Twitter, I don't know how successful I'm being. I hope you'll try to help by letting me know when I've got over the line.

[1]This isn't to say it's intrinsic, or immutable, but simply that it's not a conscious thing.

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Posted April 16th, 2013. Tagged with thinking.

I've been reading Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In". It's a good book and I recommend it. One passage recently caught my attention. Writing about her first day at a new job: "'I can't believe you've gotten this far, or even how you can understand basic economics, without knowing how to use Lotus.' I went home convinced that I was going to get fired." (p62)

A number of years ago my college roommate and I both had summer internships and we were discussing them. One thing we both noted, while looking at who some of our coworkers would be, was that all of them went to better schools than we did. RPI is not, by any means, a bad school, but our coworkers had gone to Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, etc., the best of the best. In light of this, he commented that he was concerned that he might not be qualified.

In retrospect, that's the completely obvious reaction that nearly everyone would have to that situation. It wasn't the one I had. My reaction to seeing that every single coworker went to a better school was: they must have thought I was qualified based on something else, since my school didn't count as evidence in my favor.

Instead of being unnerved by the situation, I was positively reassured. Were I in Sandberg's position, my first thought would probably have been, "Gee, I probably got this far in economics because I kick ass at something other than Lotus Notes".

The lesson I take from this is, whenever humanly possible, try to take a positive, actionable lesson away from a situation or criticism. When that fails, the person you're talking to probably doesn't want to help you, they just want to make you feel bad. And don't ever let anyone make you feel bad about not knowing Lotus.

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Why Open Source Works

Posted January 27th, 2010. Tagged with thinking, open-source.

Open source works for a lot of reasons, but there is one that stands out. Open source is basically an application of democracy to a programming community, in fact it's the most perfect implementation of democracy yet.

The central idea of a democracy is that the governing party draws it's authority from the willing consent of the governed. In most modern democracies this is more or less true, but not exactly. In the real world it's often very difficult for a citizen to withdraw their consent to be governed by the governing: they have to wait until elections to formally enact change, violent rebellion basically doesn't exist in first world countries, and there are many barriers (economic and otherwise) to just picking up and leaving. Because of the difficulty in withdrawing consent, modern democracies are not (and probably cannot) perfectly embody this spirit.

But open source communities can. In the open source world forking is often considered to be a nuclear option (ignoring the use of the term in the DVCS sense of forking for collaboration), a tactic designed to fragment a community. But it's also the perfect equalizer. Authority in open source communities is derived from the community's willingness to stay under the leadership of that authority, at any point any member of the community can decide to exit the community: to use a different piece of software, or to fork it, and continue development however they please. Because there are practical options to withdrawing consent to the governance open source is probably the most perfect application of democracy.

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I Have Talent

Posted January 15th, 2010. Tagged with thinking.

I read a blog post the other day titled "I Have No Talent", and I found it to be pretty interesting, and what the author says probably resonates with a lot of people. But not with me. I disagree with the article on a basic premises, that perseverance is less of an innate ability than talent.

If you read the post in question, the author argues that he doesn't have any innate ability to program, or use Ruby, but he does have a good work ethic, and this makes it possible for him to still get stuff done, as long as he's still willing to put in the time. Perseverance, and the willingness to work hard are just as much talent as the ability to program, and it's probably more innate than almost anything else. You can create a good work ethic for yourself by setting patterns, or providing yourself intensives, but the willingness to do that work is something that is innate (after all it'd be way easier to just give yourself a reward, instead of forcing yourself to spend the extra 30 minutes learning something new).

I say this because I think I'm exceptionally lucky to have been born with an above average intelligence, and that I can hardly take credit for that. Whatever combination of genetics and luck gives someone their start, I drew a decent hand in the IQ department. The author says that anybody can be good at this stuff if they put enough practice into it, and I think that's probably true, but the amount of practice it takes will vary wildly depending on intelligence (and probably a bunch of other factors). It's not uncommon for me to be working on a problem with a friend, perhaps one of us is helping the other with some homework, and we'll reach some point where we need to get to the next step, and the path for us to take will be completely obvious to me, but not to them. Whatever it is that makes those steps obvious, intelligence, instinctiveness, whatever the name for that attribute is, I don't think it's something that can be learned. It would be like someone telling me that if I practice hard enough I can learn to play basketball like Michael Jordan. I could get a lot better than I am with more practice, but he's got a gift (genetics, something else, whatever) that means it takes a hell of a lot less work for him. I know Michael Jordan put in insane hours practicing, but I also know that if I put in the same hours I still wouldn't be as good as him.

Now that I've said all this does it mean I think people shouldn't practice? Absolutely not, it's the only way you'll get better than you are now (no matter how good you are). But if people are complimenting you, that might be a sign that you've got more going for you than just your hard work, that perhaps you are somehow predisposed to it.

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