2021-and-done

When the year fails to acquit itself well, it is my self-appointed duty to compensate with witticisms and clever observations. (Previously.)

  • Not everything in 2020 was bad.

    Not everything in 2021 will be good.

    Also, it's foolishness to assign credit or blame for events to the calendar.

    Still happy to have 2020 behind us. Happy new year!

  • Continue reading “2021-and-done”

The Dudley

When I started high school, my dad gave me his old combination lock to use on my locker: a vintage Dudley. It stood out among the identical modern Master locks that most of my classmates had, and I was proud of it.

That lock followed me to college, where it sat mostly unused until I decided, some time in my senior year, that I was getting flabby and needed to start exercising. At that point I began swimming laps regularly, and I used the lock to keep my swim things in a locker at the gym.

I graduated, but I remained at college for work, and I started dating Andrea. (Today, that woman is my wife.) She took more and more of my attention, of course, and I got to the pool less and less often. Still I kept my swim things in the locker there.

At the end of the spring semester, 1989, everyone had to clear out their lockers for the summer. It would have been easy to do − my office was just on the other side of campus − but not yet having learned how to balance work, girlfriend, and other responsibilities and pursuits, I kept putting it off. When I finally got to the pool I discovered I was too late. The lock had been removed and the locker emptied.

I didn’t care about the swimsuit or the towel. But I was devastated to have lost the lock. I thought of it like an heirloom and was consumed with guilt. I live with the echoes of that feeling even today.

The good news is that that lesson is part of what helped me shape up into a more responsible adult.

Trying hard, and failing, not to make a 2020 hindsight joke

Seldom has a year been more unloved
Or with such relish on the trash-heap shoved.
(Previously.)

The spirit of the season

‘Twas the night before Christmas
In, I think, ’82
And for once, the day came
With no things left to do

The gifts had been bought
And been wrapped in advance
To relax and be still
We at last had the chance

We sat in the living room
Candle-lit, calm
And chatted like grownups
Not a boy and his mom

The Christmas decor
Caught the flickering light
It sparkled and gleamed
As we talked through the night

Our tone, as we spoke
Was hushed and subdued
Neither one wishing
To spoil the mood

It’s my perfectest mem’ry
Of how Christmas could be
I wish peace like this
To my friends and fam’ly

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.

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

RMS, titanic

One afternoon in 1996, as I worked with my partners at our software startup, the phone rang. I answered it, and a voice on the other end said, “Richard Stallman?”

This was disorienting. Richard Stallman was the legendary technologist who had created the Free Software Foundation, dedicated to freedom from corporate and government control for those who program computers and those who use them. He founded the GNU project, dedicated to creating an alternative to the Unix operating system unencumbered by patents and copyrights. He was famously ensconced in an office at MIT, not a house in a northern California suburb doubling as office space for our startup. Why would someone call us looking for him, there?

Or did the caller think I was Stallman??

The moment was even more baffling because I was then at work (as a side project) on a book about Stallman’s other great creation, Emacs, the text editor beloved by programmers. So there wasn’t no connection between me and Stallman. But he wasn’t involved in my writing project; he had merely invented the thing it was about. That was a pretty slender thread. How do you get from that to expecting to find the great man himself in our humble headquarters?

Three years earlier I did work briefly with Stallman, after a fashion. The GNU project was releasing a new file-compression tool called gzip. Stallman wanted files compressed by gzip to have names ending with “.z”. In an e-mail debate with him, I argued that this would make them too easy to confuse with files created by “compress,” a predecessor to gzip, which used a “.Z” filename suffix. The distinction between uppercase “.Z” and lowercase “.z” would be lost if those files were ever stored on, or passed along by, an MS-DOS computer, which permitted only monocase filenames. Stallman, in his typical mulish way, refused to allow any consideration of how Microsoft software behaves to influence what the GNU project should do. But I was insistent, not least because I believed that the potential for confusion would harm the reputation of the GNU project, and I wanted GNU to succeed. I was on Stallman’s side! I was joined in my opinion by a couple of others on that thread. In the end Stallman relented, and as a result gzip used (and still uses) the filename suffix “.gz”.

This was a rare concession from a man whose primary goal with the Free Software Foundation was the repudiation, on principle, of the entire edifice of intellectual property law. The creation of actually useful software was only ever secondary to that goal.1 To the extent that Microsoft owed its existence to intellectual-property plunder, Stallman would have seen it as a moral obligation not to allow it to affect the design of GNU gzip.

Stallman was never one to allow pragmatism to overcome principle, an outlook that extended far beyond his professional pursuits and into all aspects of his public persona, with results often off-putting and occasionally problematic. In principle, why should anyone object to an impromptu solo folk dance in the middle of a fancy restaurant (as recounted in Steven Levy’s recent Wired article)? No one should, of course — in principle. In practice, most of us would agree there are good reasons to keep your spontaneous folk-dancing inhibitions in place. But Stallman is not most of us. In principle, it’s merely being intellectually honest to engage in a little devil’s-advocate hypothesizing on the Jeffery Epstein scandal, and how Stallman’s colleague Marvin Minsky might have been involved. In practice, for a prominent public figure — one with authority over others — to do so at this moment, and in that way, betrays at best a cluelessness that’s just this side of criminal. It’s what forced Stallman to resign recently from the organization he’s led for over three decades.

But in 1996, when the phone rang at my startup, Stallman was, to me and my colleagues, simply a legendary hero hacker and fighter against oppression. When I said, “Hello?” and the voice on the other end said, “Richard Stallman?” the effect on me wouldn’t have been too different if it had said, “Batman?”

I stammered something along the lines of, sorry, this is Zanshin, in California; Richard Stallman works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The voice said, “No, this is Richard Stallman.” What I had taken for a question mark was really a period. (Or possibly an exclamation point.)

In principle, it makes perfect sense to shorten, “Hello, this is Richard Stallman” to “Richard Stallman.” Those four other syllables seem superfluous; might as well save the effort it takes to utter them. In practice, of course, it is decidedly odd when placing a phone call simply to declare your own identity and expect your intention to be understood, especially when you leave off anything like, “May I speak to Bob Glickstein please?”

Stallman was calling me, it turns out, because of the book I was writing. He wanted to know if I would consent to giving the book away for free. (A few years later Stallman would put the same pressure on his biographer, Sam Williams, as recounted in the Salon.com review of Williams’ book.) I said that I was not unsympathetic to his request — after all, Emacs, the topic of my book and the output of many programmer-hours of labor, was distributed for free by the FSF. But how could I consent, when my publisher had production and marketing costs to recover? What about the value of all the time I had invested, couldn’t I reasonably expect some compensation for that, especially since I was not yet drawing any salary from my startup? I additionally thought, but did not say out loud, that unlike Stallman himself I had not earned a MacArthur genius grant to fund my writing and programming whims.

Stallman had no answer for the questions I posed, other than to reiterate a few times his certainty that the book should by rights be free. We ended our call, and (as it turned out) our professional association, at a stalemate on this topic.

As with the gzip episode, I was nominally on Stallman’s side. I would have given serious consideration to his request if he could have compromised somehow, or if he could have spoken about the prospects for earning revenue from a product even when it’s given away for free, or, hell, if he could simply have articulated some understanding of or sympathy for the objections I raised. But he was doctrinaire. The principle was the one and only consideration for him.

The paradox of Richard Stallman is that this single-mindedness made him remarkable and allowed him to achieve remarkable things; but his disregard for pragmatism in favor of an insistence on principle cost him the goal of freely distributing my book, on this occasion — and, on another occasion twenty-odd years later, also cost him his career.

  1. Ironically it’s that secondary goal at which the FSF has been more successful by far (despite the many who have rallied to Stallman’s anti-copyright banner — myself included, with varying degrees of conviction over the years). Intellectual property law is as constraining to individuals and organizations as ever. But you and I and everyone we know and, not to put too fine a point on it, our entire modern information economy, depend daily on infrastructural software created by the FSF. []

Just got it, part 4

I saw Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid when it came out in 1982. In it, Steve Martin, as a 1940’s-era film noir private eye, is cleverly intercut with scenes from actual film noir classics from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.

At one point he visits Burt Lancaster in a scene from The Killers and finds him apparently hungover, so offers to make him a cup of his “famous java.” He goes to the kitchen, gets a saucepan, and shakes coffee grounds into it from a bag. He shakes and shakes and shakes and shakes and it goes on so long it becomes hilarious.

Finally he tosses in two whole eggs, breaking them open with a fork and stirring them into the coffee grounds, shells and all.

I always thought that the eggs were a bizarre little comic button on the coffee-making sequence. He stirs whole eggs into coffee grounds, haha, the weirdo! But as I learned just recently, this is in fact a common practice in some places.

What’s more, this is often referred to as “Swedish coffee,” and Burt Lancaster’s character in The Killers is “Swede Anderson.” I get it now!

(Previously.)