The theater

One day, while I was working at Transmeta, the company announced its new President and CEO. A few days later, we found out what his first order of business was: to lay most of us off.

This was just fine with me. Going to work for Transmeta was a mistake. It was much too long a commute and, as should have been obvious from the start but was now crystal-clear, the company wasn’t doing very well. In the scant few months I worked there, they neither used me well nor taught me anything useful. In the end, the main things it did for me were to provide some security and stability while Andrea and I awaited the birth of our first child, and allow me to say that I was Linus Torvalds’ coworker for a while.

Anyway, at a surprise all-hands that morning, they asked us all to go back to our offices and await our turn to be called into a room to find out whether or not we still had our jobs. One by one I watched glum coworkers carrying boxes of their belongings out the door. When my turn came and I got the “bad” news – including that my being laid off was accompanied by a generous severance package – it was all I could do to conceal my glee.

I packed up my things, put them in the trunk of my car, and left. But it was still early in the day, and I was now facing weeks or months of homebound childcare as Andrea and I swapped roles and she became our main breadwinner for a while. I figured I’d better take this one last chance for a little time to myself. So on my way home I pulled off 101 to take in a movie at the Century Cinema 16 in Mountain View. It was K-19: The Widowmaker, of which the best that can be said is that it gave Harrison Ford the chance to replicate the dubious feat that his “movie dad,” Sean Connery, had achieved a decade earlier: portraying a Russian submarine commander, unconvincingly.

Fast-forward six years. I wrap up my (much more rewarding) tenure working at Danger when the company decides to sell itself to Microsoft, and I decline to come along for the ride. Danger wasn’t quite as far a commute as Transmeta had been, but it was still far enough that the same movie theater was only a stone’s throw away. So after I surrendered my security badge on my last day, I returned there for old times’ sake. The movie was better this time too: Cloverfield.

Seven years later, and my time at YouTube draws to a close. YouTube is even closer to home, but my work there does occasionally require me to be at the main Google campus in Mountain View – just a few blocks’ walk (or ride on a multicolored Google bike) from the Century Cinema 16. As I figured it, that movie theater helped launch me from Transmeta into a better gig at Danger, and again from Danger to a still-better gig at YouTube. If I broke this new tradition it would clearly be at my peril. So I arranged to be down at Google HQ in my last week and, before leaving for the last time, stopped at the theater for Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck (which was great).

And the theater did not disappoint: soon after, I began what turned out to be the most-rewarding job of my career to date, becoming a blockchain expert at Chain.

Chain lasted in one form and another until January of this year. (That’s another story, for another time.) And although the geography no longer made sense, I wasn’t about to miss a stop at the theater to mark the final day of Pogo. This time I saw 1917. And I once again credit this with landing me my current job at Coinbase.

Lei(a)tmotif

Listen to this beautiful piece of music.

It’s a concert arrangement (as opposed to an actual film-scoring performance) of the theme music that John Williams composed to represent Princess Leia in the original Star Wars. It appeared on the original 1977 double-LP and was the only such piece included. Actual film-score music was sacrificed to make space for it.

I can still remember the vague bafflement I felt listening to this track at age ten, getting my first inklings of both the depths of emotion that existed and that music could move you to them.

It is tender, it is haunting, it is sweeping, it is achingly romantic. It is, in short, everything that Princess Leia herself—pragmatic and hard-edged—is not.

Star Wars is inarguably a towering achievement in film-music composition. So how did John Williams get Princess Leia so wrong?

One possibility is that it’s not Princess Leia’s theme per se, but rather the theme for Luke’s adolescent romantic idea of her.

Another possibility is that George Lucas wanted Princess Leia to be more traditionally feminine than the script or Carrie Fisher’s performance allowed, so the music does the extra lifting required.

But the real reason, I suspect, is that John Williams was working through the recent sudden death of his young wife, Barbara Ruick, and the composition is his public expression of love and grief.

Now listen again. I won’t judge you for choking up.

[Informed in part by The Soundtrack Show podcast.]

Yegging him on

It is a good day when Steve Yegge has a new rant to read.

Yegge is a veteran software engineer whose career runs strangely parallel to mine. We overlapped for a short time at Amazon in the early 2000’s, and a few years later at Google. More recently we both worked for companies enabling mobile payments in Asia. We’re both opinionated bloggers (each of whom has name-dropped the other), we’re both Emacs partisans, and we’re both anguished by how Google’s technical superiority is matched by utter cluelessness in product design and marketing.

Where Yegge outshines me by far is in his entertaining, informative, impassioned, and dead-on-accurate rants. His most famous one is probably his Platforms Rant, which was meant to be Google-internal only but made headlines when it was posted publicly by mistake. In that one he implored Google to invest more effort into making its products, which were increasingly “walled gardens” with inflexible feature sets dictated by competitors, into platforms that would allow others to build onto them, the way Amazon was doing. This rant came in the early days of Google+, when many of us within Google were expressing concern over its product design and the lack of any useful APIs that would allow an open ecosystem to develop around it. Ironically, his rant was a Google+ post, and it was the product design, in part, that led to its being misposted publicly. Also ironically, Google+ is now dead—arguably from the very causes Yegge and I and others identified back then—taking his Platforms Rant post with it. (However, it’s preserved in other forms around the net; just google [yegge platform rant].)

In his latest rant he again improves on one of my own frequent refrains: that Google keeps giving you shiny new things and then keeps yanking them away. Like me, he’s a user of Google Cloud Platform products; like me, he is increasingly frustrated by how often those products require you to rewrite your own code to adapt to Google’s changes; and like me, he is entertaining abandoning Google Cloud Platform for this reason, in favor of the more stable (if less technically excellent) Amazon Web Services platform.

Dear Google Cloud: Your Deprecation Policy is Killing You

The jig was up

It was the summer of 1986 and I was in the middle of a one-year suspension from college.

I was the kind of kid with enough natural aptitude that I managed to skate by in school without ever seriously needing to apply myself. I was so good at it, in fact, that I skated right into a high school for gifted students (admission to which was by citywide exam), and then continued to do well enough, if not quite distinguish myself, even though I was now surrounded by some of the brightest and hardest-working students from all five boroughs. There were a few close calls where a research paper or some other assignment actually required prolonged, hard work, and I’d spend weeks with little idea of how even to get started, and then scramble as the deadline approached to produce something terrible that might at least manage to be somewhat acceptable. More than once, making the terrible thing be somewhat acceptable required me to wage a charm offensive on a teacher, talking my way into a passing grade.

By the time I got to college, my lack of work ethic and time-management skills came home to roost. I stayed afloat for a couple of semesters but, by the end of my third, had such poor grades that the Dean’s office suspended me for a year.

I stayed in town during what should have been my fourth semester. While my friends continued to attend classes, I got a job and an apartment, neither of which was very good. I was lonely and unhappy.

Luckily my friend Julie, who was taking the same classes I should have been taking that semester, asked me for help with her schoolwork. And now something changed: although they were challenging, second-year-of-college-level assignments, and although they required applying myself, I did apply myself, and took pleasure in the hard work. I wrote to the Dean about my newfound interest in the material, and my renewed dedication, and arranged an interview with him, in which I convinced him to let me back a semester early.

Still, that might only have been another successful charm offensive, talking my way out of trouble without addressing the underlying problem, if it hadn’t been for what came next.

Summer break arrived and everyone prepared to leave town for a couple of months. My crappy sublet ended and I lined up a new apartment for the fall — a nice one. I rented a storage unit to hold my stuff during the summer and a U-Haul to get it there. Both the storage unit and the U-Haul were too big for my few worldly possessions (my modern clutter-encumbered self recalls wistfully), so I invited some friends — two roommates from a nearby dorm — to share my storage space, and the cost.

Somehow it worked out that they accepted my offer and paid their share without our ever agreeing to also share the work of loading the truck, driving it to the storage unit, and unloading it there. With little more than a “thanks, bye!” they handed me the keys to their dorm room and left town. When I let myself in, I found that in their eagerness to hit the road they hadn’t even bothered to pack up — and dorms had to be vacated by the end of that day.

If this story took place today, I would have simply texted “WTAF!” to my friends and gotten them to return, and help. But in 1986 when you were gone, you were gone. Everyone else I might have enlisted or bribed to help me was gone, too. After an impotent little tantrum — during which I briefly entertained and rejected the spiteful idea of leaving their things in the room and letting the university confiscate them — I realized there was just one thing to do, and no avoiding it: the hard work.

Trying to maintain a modicum of respect for their belongings, I packed up their room into what boxes and bags I could scrounge, and carried them one by one by one to the truck in the rising heat and humidity of an early-summer afternoon in Pittsburgh. Books, papers, clothes, shoes, bed linens, toiletries, beanbag chairs, desk lamps, wall hangings, and more were left to my care. I muttered to myself, and swore, and promised myself that when we all returned in the fall, I would make them do the work. By the time I had their room cleaned out it was late afternoon and the sweat was pouring off me. I knew I had only until 7pm to get everything into storage and return the rental truck, but I felt like I couldn’t lift another thing.

A 30-minute air-conditioned ride to the storage unit revived me, but once I resumed clambering in and out of the truck, hefting unwieldy boxes and bags with the clock ticking, I was quickly back to the edge of despair. Finally, after forever, overheated and underhydrated, I finished. I locked the storage unit, closed the truck, returned it to U-Haul, and collapsed in my denuded apartment, where I slept the sleep of the righteous ahead of my own departure the next day.

Over the summer, I told that story a few times — indignantly at first, at having been left on my own by my thoughtless so-called friends — but shifting after a few retellings to pride at having buckled down and done the work.

When the fall came, I emptied the storage unit by myself and (not without a certain amount of self-satisfaction) brought my friends’ belongings to their door.

My main memory of the months that followed is of hour after hour spent sitting at the desk in my apartment, working through difficult assignments in abstract algebra and digital circuit design and, when I was through with those, contributing articles and cartoons to the school newspaper. I started getting regular exercise, doing laundry before it became a crisis, and cleaning my bathroom ever. I got off the Dean’s shit list and onto the Dean’s List. And I impressed one of my professors enough for him to hire me for a summer internship that turned out to be the start of a decades-long professional career, a career that contains performance review comments like this one: “Bob demonstrates total persistence on the most gnarly tasks.”

To this day, whenever I’m trying to power through some difficult bit of work, I think of a sweaty summer afternoon in Pittsburgh, and the appealing new sensation that was born in me that day, when I had no other choice but to apply myself: self-respect.

The “Empire Strikes” wayback

In 1980, the Jewish holiday of Shavuot fell on Wednesday, May 21st.

On that flimsy premise, my friend Sarah and I managed to convince her understanding mom to let her skip school. We didn’t do anything Shavuot-related. Instead, we hopped on the subway in Queens and emerged in Manhattan on 86th Street to wait in line at the Loews Orpheum theater for the first show of The Empire Strikes Back.

We Star Wars nerds had subsisted on a single two-hour movie for three years (not counting a certain very forgettable Holiday Special), with no hint that there’d ever be more — not, that is, until the preceding August, when the news of a sequel consigned us to as many months of anticipatory vibration as I would later experience waiting to become a dad. (But in 1980, that was a much larger fraction of my life, thus many times more interminable.)

The movie began and I was breathless. An article in Time magazine had unfortunately spoiled the small surprise about Yoda’s identity, but not the big surprise about Darth Vader, and I can still recall the sensation of my heart skipping a beat.

When the lights came up, Sarah and I were determined to sit through another screening. The ushers came through to shoo everyone out, but we hid in the bathrooms — along with dozens of others who’d had the same idea.

When it was safe to come out, and the next show’s crowd started filing in, I spotted Mr. Rosenberg, a fellow Star Wars nerd and my music-appreciation teacher. He had all my classmates in tow. He’d been using John Williams’ film score to teach his class for the past few weeks, just so he could justify this field trip to the movie on opening day.

I was such a Star Wars nerd that liking The Empire Strikes Back was a given. It took me decades to figure out that I didn’t, actually. When I finally figured that out, I wrote about why: The exegesis strikes back.

In response, plenty of people helpfully informed me that Empire was the best film in the series. I always asked what made them think so. No one was ever able to tell me. That didn’t make them any less sure they were right.

I may not have changed any minds with my contrarian article, but at least now I finally know I’m not alone: BBC journalist Nicholas Barber gets it too.
Why Star Wars should have stopped at just one film
Why The Empire Strikes Back is overrated

Shark

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Stories

[This story, dated 7 July 2013, is the third of three that I recently rediscovered from when I was hoping to set an example that would inspire my kids to write their own stories.]

“I want to be a shark for Halloween,” Davey told his parents. So a couple of days later, Davey’s dad came home with a shark costume from the Halloween store.

“This looks fake,” complained Davey, standing in front of the mirror while trying on the shark suit. “A real shark doesn’t have legs that stick out.”

“Well your legs have to stick out,” explained Davey’s dad. “How else will you get from house to house?”

“Swimming, like a shark,” said Davey.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Davey’s dad. “There’s no water between the houses in our neighborhood to swim through.”

“Anyway, a shark’s skin isn’t fuzzy like this. And my face shouldn’t be poking out between the shark’s teeth. I want to be like the sharks in the aquarium.”

“Well that’s the only shark costume they had,” said Davey’s dad. “If you don’t like it, think of something else so I can take this back for a refund.” He left the room, muttering something about “constant unreasonable demands.”

Davey’s heart was set on being a shark for Halloween, and on being a more realistic one than a store-bought costume would allow. He sulked at his father’s brusque dismissal. Davey’s mom saw this and turned to Davey with a reassuring smile. She told him in a low voice, “Your dad’s having trouble at work. But don’t worry. We’ll figure something out.”

Several days passed. Davey’s dad didn’t notice how busy Davey’s mom was in the garage. Didn’t notice the length of tubing she brought back from the hardware store, or that the lawnmower was lying half-disassembled in the back yard. He was too distracted to think about Halloween. He had had an argument with his bosses at work. He felt like a hard worker and asked for a raise, but they said no, explaining that he always did the least expected of him and never went “the extra mile.” Davey’s dad was frustrated. He didn’t understand how he could get everything on his list done, on time, and still be told he doesn’t do enough.

Before he knew it there was only one day left. He turned to his wife and asked, “Did Davey ever choose something else to be for Halloween?”

“He wants to be a shark,” she said as she walked through the room smelling of hot-glue.

“I know that’s what he wanted, but he didn’t like the costume, remember? I told him to pick something else.”

“No, he still wants to be a shark,” said Davey’s mom as she disappeared through the doorway on the way to who-knows-where.

“Poor kid,” said Davey’s dad to himself. “Eh, we can always stick a cap on his head and call him a baseball player.”

The next day was Halloween. Davey’s dad got home from work a little late. Trick-or-treating had already begun. He wondered what costume Davey’s mom had put on him. He shrugged and put some dinner in the microwave, waiting for Davey and his mom to return.

As he ate he noticed the sound of a lawnmower engine in the distance, which was unexpected. Who mows their lawn while trick-or-treating is going on? A moment later he realized the sound was coming closer up the street, which was even odder. Davey’s dad got up and looked out the door. What he saw astonished him.

There was Davey’s mom, pushing what looked like a shopping cart whose large wire basket had been removed. In its place was a clear tub filled with water, and in the water was a shark, about the size of Davey. The water must have made the cart enormously heavy, because a lawnmower engine was attached to the wheels of the cart to help Davey’s mom push it.

The shark was sleek and shiny, made from a sheet of rubber cleverly folded and padded. It had a fin that stuck up above the surface of the sloshing water. Looking closely Davey’s dad could see that a clear plastic tube ran from the tip of the fin down into the shark’s body: an air tube that allowed Davey to breathe. The shark had black glassy eyes, gill slits, and pectoral fins that moved around. Davey’s dad guessed that Davey’s hands were in them. With a small movement of his head Davey could make the shark’s mouth open, showing a row of pointy triangular teeth.

As Davey’s dad watched, Davey’s mom wheeled the contraption up to a neighbor’s house, killed the lawnmower engine, set the brakes on the cart, and rang the doorbell. A moment after the door opened and the neighbor shrieked, Davey pushed himself up to his knees with his pectoral-fin hands, sticking up out of the water and pulling open a seam in the shark’s belly to reveal himself. “Trick or treat!” he shouted with glee.

Davey’s dad backed into the house, mouth agape, and sat down at his half-eaten meal, now totally forgotten. He finally understood something important. “The extra mile,” he said to himself in wonder.

Amphibian

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Stories

[This story, dated 30 June 2013 and recently rediscovered, is another of a few that I wrote for my kids when they were in grade school in the hope of inspiring them to write their own stories.]

I have a secret power. I’ve never told anyone, but in the summer I sometimes like to show it off, just a little. Not enough to freak anyone out, just enough to impress them. When my friends come over to play in our pool, I challenge them to breath-holding contests. One by one they submerge, and one by one they come back up gasping. Twenty seconds. Thirty. Forty-five. Then it’s my turn. I stay down for sixty seconds or seventy. After that people start to get scared, so I don’t stay down any longer than that. But I don’t really have to come up. I can stay down as long as I like. I’m an amphibian.

I know that sounds impossible. I’m obviously a human boy, and everyone knows humans are mammals, and mammals are not amphibians. Some mammals can stay underwater for a very long time, but only because they can hold their breath. I don’t hold my breath, and I don’t breathe the water through gills like a fish. I don’t have gills. But I never feel the need to come up for air. Amphibians can breathe through their skin, and I guess that’s what I do.

Of course when I do my holding-breath trick I make sure to gasp for air when I come up even though I don’t need to. It would be too weird for everyone if I didn’t.

One day a new girl moved into the neighborhood, and to help the new family feel welcome my mom made me invite her over with my friends for a pool party. She didn’t know anyone, and I’m a little ashamed to admit my friends didn’t include her in things as much as they should. Neither did I.

Inevitably my friend Billy insisted we do the breath-holding challenge again. He’s the one who can stay under the longest, besides me, and he always thinks he’ll beat me someday. Maybe one day I’ll let him, but on this day I didn’t plan to. I guess I wanted to show off a little bit for the new girl.

Once more we took turns going under the surface. Once more we compared times as we came up. I stayed under extra long this time, seventy-three seconds. When I came up, I was a little self-conscious about my fake gasp, maybe because of the new girl, and maybe I didn’t quite do it right, because the new girl gave me a curious look. After everyone congratulated me as usual, the new girl blurted out, “Let’s have a long-jump contest.”

That was a new one on all of us. We’d never tried a long-jump contest. But the side of our pool deck was the perfect spot for it, and I had chalk to draw a jumping line, and to mark where everyone landed. One by one we jumped. Some jumps were far, some weren’t. Mine was somewhere in the middle. Poor Billy, who wanted to be best at something, wasn’t best at jumping either.

Then it was the new girl’s turn. Since the rest of us were boys, and boys are stronger than girls, we didn’t expect much from her jump. But she sprang from the ground right at the jump line and sailed right over everyone else’s marks! At the last instant before touching the ground she seemed to… glide a few extra inches, stretching it out, as if she’d stopped falling back to earth for an instant.

There was a lot of wounded pride, and some of my friends tried jumping again to beat her mark, but they couldn’t. It was my turn to give her a curious look.

A short time later the party broke up and everyone went home. I couldn’t stop thinking about the new girl. Had I imagined that extra little float of hers? Had anyone else noticed it? Could she be concealing a secret like mine? I have amphibian powers. Could it be that she’s hiding… bird powers?

I never thought much about girls before, but none of them were ever special before. I want to find out a lot more about the new girl. Maybe we can be friends. Maybe I can tell her my secret.

The cat and the hat

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Stories

[This story, from 2 June 2012 and just recently rediscovered, is one of a few that I wrote for my kids to model creative writing for them and to whet their appetite for doing it themselves.]

Once upon a time there was an old cat. The cat was so old that he was losing some of the fur on top of his head. “Meow,” thought the cat, which meant, “I wish I had a nice hat to cover my bald spot.”

As it happens, there was a nice hat that the cat’s person sometimes wore. But it was high on a shelf — too high for the old cat to jump.

“Meow,” thought the cat, which meant, “That hat would look great on me. I wish I could reach it.” But try as he might, he couldn’t.

At that very moment, the cat’s old enemy, the mouse, appeared from his hole. “Meow,” thought the cat, which meant, “A nice mousey meal will make me feel better.” The cat pounced at the mouse, but being so old, his pounce was very slow, and the mouse had plenty of time to disappear back into his hole. “Meow!” shouted the cat in frustration, which meant, “Not only am I going bald, but I can’t even catch a mouse anymore!”

The mouse heard the cat’s “Meow” and understood it (because at mouse school they teach cat language for self-defense). Even though the cat had been trying to eat him for years, the mouse felt bad for him. Then the mouse had an idea. Maybe he could cheer up the cat. Maybe then the cat would stop chasing him!

“Squeak!” said the mouse from his hole, which meant, “If you’ll promise to stop trying to eat me, I’ll help you get that hat.”

The cat (who understood mouse language thanks to an after-school mouse-language class he once took) laughed and said, “Meow!” meaning, “If I, a cat, who’s an expert at jumping and climbing, can’t get that hat, how can a mouse possibly get it?”

The mouse poked his head out of his hole. “Squeak,” he said, which meant, “Oh I can get it, alright.” He added, “Squeak?” meaning, “Do we have a deal?”

“Meow,” the cat nodded skeptically.

The mouse disappeared back inside his hole. For a moment, the cat heard nothing; but then there came the sound of tiny mouse feet marching up through old tunnels he’d dug in the walls over the years. Then silence again for a moment; and then to the cat’s astonishment, a tiny hole appeared in the wall just above the shelf, right behind the hat. A moment later the mouse’s nose appeared through the hole, and as his tiny claws dug the hole wider, the rest of the mouse emerged.

“Squeak,” called the mouse from high above the cat, meaning, “We have a deal, right?”

“Meow,” agreed the cat admiringly. So the mouse gave the hat a push and down it tumbled from the shelf — right onto the old cat’s head.

The mouse re-entered the wall, scampered down his tunnels, and came back out through the hole near the floor. “Squeak,” he said to the cat, meaning, “That hat looks nice on you.  You should go look in a mirror.”

The cat went to a nearby mirror and took a look at himself. “Meow,” thought the cat, meaning, “I look years younger! I’ll bet I could catch that mouse now!” And with one quick pounce, the mouse was trapped beneath his paws!

“SQUEAK!” said the mouse, meaning, “HEY! WE HAD A DEAL!”

The cat brought his face closer to the trapped mouse. Terrified, the mouse watched the cat’s mouth open and thought, “Squeak,” meaning, “This is the end.”

And then the cat poked out his tongue to give the mouse a grateful kiss.

“Meow,” said the cat, and meant it.

Decade done

Another year, another silent prayer that next year’s social-media utterances are less fraught and more fun. (Previously.)

  • [A friend made a “time to make the donuts” post.]

    “Time to make the donuts” is my first waking thought most days.

    The weird thing is, a different Facebook friend made a “time to make the donuts” comment (to which I made the same reply) a year ago, as one of the very first posts of 2018.

    So a new year is now “time to make a time to make the donuts” post.

  • Continue reading “Decade done”

All for nothing?

See Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in 3D. When it begins, and the title and opening crawl recede into the the starry backdrop, the depth effect is amazing. It is the best part of the movie.

The second best part of the movie is five seconds near the very end: a wordless look that passes between Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron and another character. You’ll know it when you see it. That Oscar Isaac — he can do more with a look than the rest of the movie can do with $XX million in special effects. It’s worth the price of admission.

The third best part of the movie is the subversiveness of casting Keri Russell, a famously beautiful woman, as a character whose face we don’t even see.

The fourth best part of the movie is that they never mention midichlorians.

The fifth best part of the movie is that John Williams gets a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it on-screen cameo.

The sixth best part of the movie came after it ended. As my wife and I drove home, there was a long stretch of baffled silence while we separately mulled over what we had both just seen, and she suddenly exclaimed, “What?!” in a way that caused us both to laugh and laugh and laugh.

The relationship of The Rise of Skywalker to Star Wars is the same as that of the modern-day Church to the original teachings of Jesus: the result of generations of people with opinions and ambition troweling layers of ponderous meaning and import on top of something that once was compact and simple and wonderful.