Thursday, November 7
I’ve owned a bunch of notebooks over the last decade or better. I’m rarely without an active one, and I start to get worried when I know there’re fewer blank pages left than I could fill in one sitting. Early on in the course of this addiction, I tended to treat individual notebooks like singular, precious objects: I was so careful about what I wrote in them that I rarely wrote anything. I had few regular habits, and seldom wrote the same sort of thing twice. What I did write was usually cryptic, compressed, and terribly overwrought.
These days, the primary notebook is for me as much a recurring idea as it is a particular, physical object. I look for the same qualities every time I buy one, and treat each much as I did the one before: The inside cover gets a starting date (an end date will be appended once the notebook is full). Pages are numbered. Individual entries are dated (including name of day and year). A back pocket is for important scraps of paper; the back few pages accumulate phone numbers, addresses, airline confirmation numbers, other bits of metadata. I write whatever I feel like writing, and mingle day-to-day trivia freely with “serious” work.
These habits are, at least in part, the product of 21st century American material culture. This is a wealthy society with no shortage of nice paper notebooks. I can use up as many as I feel like - a really good notebook is about the price of one and a half six-packs of good beer, and will last considerably longer even if you’re writing at a truly feverish pace. (And even if I didn’t have a lot of spares stocked up, an industrial supply chain of truly staggering scope and complexity is slowly eating the world to ensure that affectations like these will remain viable for me and people like me for years to come.)
That said, I’ve been setting up a new ThinkPad for the last few days - an item which is certainly not priced like a consumable - and I’ve noticed a more general pattern to my behavior, one that I think probably transcends rich-world consumerism. I’ve lost count by now of the general purpose machines I’ve owned or borrowed since I first got into computing, but in some important sense the last half dozen or so have basically been the same machine. An individual computer used to be a singular, precious object. Now it’s something more like the notebook I keep buying and refilling: The embodiment of a particular idea of a computer that serves as my working environment.
A good laptop will be durable. It will have a high-quality keyboard without a lot of stupid monkey business and a reasonable pointing device. It will connect to standard peripherals, networks, displays, etc., without extra hardware or much hoop jumping. It will run an open OS and host a generalized toolset. If lost or destroyed, the bulk of the work it contains will already be safely stored elsewhere, its credentials easily revocable, and the particulars of any UI configuration easy to reproduce on a replacement machine.
A good folding knife should clip securely in a pocket. It should have a real blade without being so large as to render the user socially suspect. It should be sharp, and should be safe to open and close with one hand. When open, the blade should lock reliably in place. At no time should the user have to pause and think in order to avoid serious injury.
A good hooded sweatshirt is warm without being stifling, well fitted without being confining, suited to wear over a shirt or under a serious jacket. It has a hood large enough to provide social cover on public transit and accommodate headphones or a hat. It has big, reinforced pockets. Zipper hoodies trump pullover hoodies in almost all circumstances.
I think there’s something in all of this about the experienced approach to tech, and indeed to most material goods: Past a certain point, what you have that’s useful isn’t just an accumulation of material wealth; it’s a mental model of the things that are needful and pleasing. A collection of habits and practices. The stuff you already own is useful in part because it catalogs the good ideas somewhere outside of your fragile brain. Owning bad stuff is a liablity because bad tools fail at mapping reality and occupy space that could otherwise map to good ideas.
When you’re in the habit of appreciating concrete things, and when (like me) you have a weakness for attaching sentimental weight to pieces of material baggage, this can be a useful lesson: That what lasts, if anything does, isn’t the Thing. It’s the Pattern of the thing, and Patterns may be re-instantiated.
Programmers must, as long as we hope to be effective, sustain a dispassionate awareness that all we do is dust in the wind: That entropy is destiny, disorder is law, and futility is the architecture of existence. We succeed, to the extent that success is possible, only as long as we remember that our efforts are but brief disturbances in the ordinary course of time’s certain triumph over the integrity of all built systems. Everything you make will surely die, and unlike the children of your body or the structure of a great city, the code you write will probably die long before you do.
And yet, in the process of making things with all the temporal durability of a sandcastle, you discover that it’s fatal to abandon what you’ve learned about the structure of needful things. That it will always be preferable to have certain basic functions ready to hand, whatever code implements them. Many of the specific tools you learn to depend on in the early years of your working life will vanish into historical obscurity, sooner or later, but you will carry with you notions of their desirable properties for decades afterwards. The refinement (and occasional overthrow) of those notions will be one of your permanent tasks.