Ursula Le Guin wrote a line in The Left Hand of Darkness that’s quite striking. “Joy, which is so different from laughter.” That’s true. I laugh a lot but joy is rare recently. It’s making me rethink my life – what it should be doing is making me act to change. But, too human, I find I have ingrained defenses against change.

I also have a particular habit of laughing when I hurt. Le Guin has another line, that we should find our selves moved to “cry as easily as laugh”. This doesn’t feel right. People will use your laughter against you but far easier and far worse to use your tears. We don’t cry because we don’t want our problems to get worse because crying is a signal that we’re near the brink. Crying let’s your opponent know that you are more tired than them. There’s an awful trust in tears.

If I believed the Internet were a safe place…

Morning Thoughts

I woke up this morning feeling worthless. There was a hole in my life that I couldn’t ignore. The curious fact that I produce nothing of value and no one would really miss me if I were gone. Perhaps for a while but they’d get over it. I told myself it wasn’t true but that didn’t feel very convincing. I told myself that it didn’t matter but it felt as if it did. I told myself I could change and do many things of great worth and it felt, skeptical, a worn out formula covering for the inescapable truth that none of us really change. We just keep treading the same ground and making the same promises and, look, you’re a few years older. The hole in your life will always be there.


I woke up this morning with a particularly neurotic obsession. For some reason, pieces of my mind were trying to convince me that people have ‘worth’. Despite being relatively easily dismissed as a childish fear, it incessantly returned. The notion is absurd, what measure could reduce any person’s life to a single metric of value when doing so must necessarily compress all the myriad values of life into one form? It doesn’t mean anything to say the life of a 12 year old Bavarian school girl with good grades is worth more than a Canadian pilot who enjoys cooking Bolognese. That’s the grand lesson of existentialism. So the correct approach to my obsession is to deflect it like an annoying dog, offer it neither love nor hate and it will go away.


Value is a legitimate output of your social-moral framework. If you’re proportion oriented then you believe that we can compare any two objects and probably believe that money is the ideal tool for the task. If I could calculate how much money would be paid for my life, I could know my value. To the hierarchy oriented then my value is my status. To feel better about myself, I should contemplate the group with whom I hold the greatest status. To the unity oriented, my value to my main group is the most important. This is different from rank in a hierarchy as the value tracks how well I carry out the rituals of the group and police its boundaries. Perhaps my feelings of worthlessness stem from being apart from my family and weakly obtaining social approval from a comparably tight knit group. To the equality oriented, value is meaningless! I don’t have to justify anything here. That’s implicitly what I’m invoking above and, you’ll notice, the only framework that I could have done so in. Lucky for me that my culture doesn’t encourage the other frameworks more aggressively.

It’s all broken

There are two things you should get out of these links and three very reasonable critiques of the software industry that can be made.

The most common complaint I see in the news is the lack of diversity. This is true. The pathologies in the demographics of its population are well known. It’s not quite a mono-culture but it’s certainly less internally complicated than the metal scene. The citizens are defensive and still unready for it to be eternal September. Others can talk about this, I find it mostly uninteresting.

A better complaint is that everything built with software is broken. Talk to anyone involved and they will have a horror story. You barely have to go looking, it’s right in front of you. The drive for new features that you can sell trumps the solid work of fixing bugs and improving stability. Old code survives but the people who understand the it age out. Can’t replace it, can’t shut it down, can’t do anything but keep running the same rituals to buy as much time before the eventual end. New bugs will continue to appear, security holes will proliferate, but software will continue to spread and assume more control. I have little trust that the future will be significantly different.

Consider, at last, that there’s no union for software engineers. There’s no coherent professional organization with any great clout. Instead, it seems that everyone is out to grab as much money for themselves as possible and screw the rest. Perhaps not surprising given the amount of money being thrown around. If you’re expecting to find any great solidarity, forget it. There’s only the solidarity of the trenches and when everyone moves every two years, even that is thin. The kind of cultural coordination I’m looking for is not cheap. My guess is it only appears under extreme stress applied from outside but my imagination does not extend to picturing the particular beginnings of that kind of scenario.

Opposites Reinforce

Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say opposites polarize the context by compressing potential many important dimensions of information into a reduced set that characterize their conflict. Dimensionality reduction can be a powerful tool for cutting through the noise, no doubt. Like most data compression, it is lossy so use with open eyes.

CGP Grey


Sorry originally meant full of sorrow. There was no presumption of guilt as in the modern interpretation – that requires context to determine. Consider the following two sentences.

“I am sorry [that I stole your bike].”
“I am sorry [that your bike got stolen].”

There’s no way to tell the difference from the stated words. It’s a simple demonstration of how worthless “Sorry” can be as a standalone phrase. Fault ought to be an important component. There’s this persistent legend of various languages with no word for sorrow-with-fault, one must perform an act of repentance in order to apologize. While I’m more than happy to consider such claims apocryphal until proven otherwise, there’s something to it. Consider the Catholic requirements for absolution: genuine regret, a firm desire to avoid repeating the crime, and an act of sacrifice to demonstrate your commitment. There is no room for empty or insincere apologies. Though if you need an insincere way to apologize without admitting fault, stack exchange has your back.

For that other meaning of sorry, sorrow-without-fault, I rather prefer the Spanish. Lo siento, “I feel it”. Rather cuts to the heart of it. From the comment thread of another post comes a beautiful expression of some of the range for the term that I wish the English possessed.

“I always found the English word ‘sorry’ very limiting. To put things into context, in Amharic we literally have different words to convey the different sentiments that morph into the single word ‘sorry’ in translation. ‘Ayzon (feminine ‘sh’)’ translates to sorry for your sorrow, it is said to indicate solidarity and in its extreme sense to convey hope. For instance, if someone stumbles in front of you- it is common to instantly say ‘ayzon!’ With my English speaking friends, literal translation of this gets me incredulous look and the inevitable statement ‘but it is not your fault’. The second word ‘Eikerta’ literally translates to ‘let bygones’ with the ‘ta’ inflexion. This is the word you would use to say I am sorry for wrong doing. Third word ‘aznalehugn’ translates to I am full of sorrow. Interestingly, this embodiment of sorry has a popular usage in heated conversation, the English equivalent to ‘Sorry to say this but…’”

-Mezida Saeed

If the nuance of language is not fascinating enough to you in it’s own right, at least consider that the wording of apologies has consequences.

Math is Patterns

If you’re walking 2 laps while a friend is running 3 laps around the same track and your speeds are synced up just right so you both begin and end at the same time, then at what point in your set does your friend pass you? What if you’re doing 4 laps and your friend is doing 5? Or 2 and 4?

I was surprised by the answer: your friend will not actually pass you. Despite doing more work, they’ll catch you at precisely two points, the beginning and the end. This applies any time your friend is doing one more lap than you. In the general case where you do m laps and your friend does n (w.l.o.g. n strictly greater than m) you will be passed (n-m)-1 times.

One way of seeing this is to fix your frame of reference to your position by imagining that you do not move but rather that the track is revolving around you. Your friend is running their 3 laps but the track is moving them back 2. So relative to you they are only running 1 lap while you stand still at the start location. This is the sort of model that makes the general case intuitive.


There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story that has Jean Cocteau at home being interviewed. Looking around the interviewer sees many objects of priceless value and, in journalist fashion trying to provoke an emotional response, asks “If the house was on fire, what would you save?” Cocteau answered, “Je sauverais le feu (I would save the fire)”. Pithy perhaps but doesn’t it just speak to a very human sentiment? I can’t say whether the sacrifices necessary to maintain that fire in your life will be worth it. It’s certainly painful to live with the compulsion of a strong passion. I can tell you that if you give up the passion, there’s a pain of emptiness. And a deferred passion is no better than a dead one.

That man was certainly a source of good quotes.

Worry Selectively

It’s well documented that we worry about dangers without regard to their likelihood of occurring. Shark attacks and terrorism are two examples of low likelihood events that receive disproportionate attention. Suicidal feelings should receive much more attention than they do. The risk of dying by your own hand in the modern world is ridiculously high.

One of the expected features of a democracy is that the politicians express the desires of the the people. So these disproportionate fears will find their way into law and, I’m guessing, since there is limited time to debate and consider each law then many legitimate fears will get zero notice as they are pushed aside in favor of the more lurid but less likely. Not that I expect any other form of government to do better except perhaps Plato’s impossible enlightened civil service.

Seriously though, wear your helmet on your bike. It’s cheap, effective, and until those inflatable hövding helmets get more testing, they’re the best we have. I’ve cycled my entire life and expect to cover many more miles before I die and I know that it’s only a matter of time until I get hit by a car and need that helmet to protect my head.