5ab5traction5 - World Wide and Wonderful

For love of the underdog

Or, how to end up being able to legitimately say "I did that before it was cool"

Recently I've been exploring two programming languages that live well outside the current mainstream but which in past eras of computing have existed much closer -- or directly inside of -- a previous mainstream.

Despite of their decreased visibility today, these languages -- APL and Eiffel -- represent incredible and currently relevant achievements in language design. They also provide unique programming styles in a holistic fashion that my primary personal language Raku does not. 1

APL and Eiffel continue to provide significant value for their users today and thus are also of interest to me by fact that their continued existence is maintained through sheer commercial viability.

Without software companies supporting various commercial implementations, both of these languages would have "died" out years ago. And yet, they did not.

The experience of finding what I consider to be potentially priceless gems just hiding out in plain sight has reminded me of other moments in my life where I have followed my heart and ended up ahead of the curve.

So please, if you will, let me take you on a shopping trip for eyeglasses in the summer of 1999...

Some thick rims for perspective

I've always been terrible at conforming. Even during my not-so-non-conformist-after-all phase, those early teen years of Hot Topic and JNCO 32" cuff jeans, I was crap at fitting in with the other outcasts.

For me, buying a pair of the thickest black frames I could find in the shop the summer before my second year of high school was the punkest move I could pull at the time. Let yourk inner freak fly regardless of what anyone thinks, that sounds like it should be punk, right?

So, my reasoning went, wouldn't it be punk for me to embrace my dorky side?

Woman in futuristic-for-the-90s fashion sunglasses

It may surprise some readers today, but I was not the only one who thought that these and other "frameless" styles were dope in the late 90s.

This was at the very, very earliest phase of thick (or even plastic of any kind) glasses frames coming back into fashion -- and the word 'hipster' had not yet been revived as a label because the fashion and lifestyle that would become the stereotype was only just beginning. (Crotchety old man voice: "Back in my day, 'hipster' still referred to a subculture from the 50s and 60s who inspired the Beat poets.")

The reason I wanted those glasses: I wanted to physically embrace my decision to go full nerd my sophomore year (I failed spectacularly but that's a story for later).

During a re-watch of Apollo 13 at a farmhouse in Iowa after dropping my sister off for her second year of college, I noticed how dope all the dudes in the control center looked in their solid black frames. I vowed to pick the thickest pair I could find.

A photo from the real mission control of Apollo 13

Here is a photo from the real command center during Apollo 13. Look at those tough ass frames!

It really is not cool to do the thing before it's cool to do the thing

For those that don't remember or weren't there, the glasses aesthetics in the 90s were almost entirely about disappearing the frames. When I showed up on my first day of school as a sophomore, I got reactions above what I was expecting -- and not in a good way.

Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully looking wearing eyeglasses with thin frames

Special Agent Dana Scully with a "no-nonsense nerd" look that shows off the way the fashionable frame game was done in the 90s.

I never showed up to Henderson with a face tattoo or a mohawk but I think at least in those cases there would have been some degree of fear or respect in the looks of shock and distaste I encountered.

In just a few short years my choice would become the height of fashion but in those first trips through the crowded hallways between classes I can promise you that no one considered these glasses on my face to be fashionable. I remember my punkest friend at the time laughing behind his hand and pointing at me.

"But I don't get it," I would later ask him, "I thought that doing something so non-conformist would be a punk move."

I can't remember what he said, just his head shaking at my naivete.

Then again, hadn't it been me who wanted to put a big flashy nerd signal on my face in the first place?

"What did you expect would happen?", he asked, at some point during that conversation.

I realized I didn't know. I had definitely chosen those glasses as a statement and so reactions from people were to be expected.

I realized I wasn't so shocked or upset about the reactions from the people who hadn't respected me before that day.

It was getting shit on by the so-called non-conformists (and so-called friends, at that) that had been unexpected.

Doing something just because it is cool is stupid

Need proof? If you were able to stand on two legs on US soil at the time, I am betting you can still viscerally remember the year where everyone -- including you -- danced the Macarena non-stop. (No joke, there was no way to escape that year without some person or event forcing you to participate in a round of La Macarena.)

A still image from the music video for 90s dance sensation La Macarena

This post is already getting quite long so I will leave a deeper examination of this topic for another time. It may or may not involve juicy corporate failure analysis when it arrives.

Not doing something just because it is cool is stupid too

Just deciding to want thick black frames in 1999 didn't guarantee that you would have access to them. I visited half a dozen glasses shops before I found that first pair of jet black retro-60s Calvin Kleins.

I wasn't searching out these frames because I wanted to latch onto some upcoming or popular fashion, just like I wasn't following anyone else I knew in high school when I went searching out old classic albums in the local record shop. I'm not saying I was the only one buying records in that school of 1600+ students. But I can say for a fact that I was the only one with thick black rimmed eyeglasses in 1999. I still have the yearbook to prove it.

By the time the term 'hipster' came to life, thick frames were commonplace. This should have great for me because my lenses are so extra that sticking them in thin frames amplifies their Coke bottle nature to deafening levels.

But no, I had to be difficult about it.

Thick rim ubiquity, however, diluted the impact of letting my eyeglasses communicating an inner nerdiness. Eventually those magical Calvin Kleins turned gray and broke but by then they were only a backup pair. The popularity of thick frames led me to go move on to different -- and less attractive on me -- thin frames.

This was a stupid mistake but I promise you it was far from the only one I've made for similar reasons.

It is important to mention that dismissing something as unimportant or trivial or wrong just because it is popular has a long history of negative consequences too.

Just one non-spectacles example: I refused to start a blog in 2005 because I considered it to be a saturated space full of vanity projects and definitely too mainstream for me to be able to make an impact or "able to speak my real truth". (What an idiot! - ed.)

Great, but you haven't actually explained how to do the cool thing before it becomes cool to do the cool thing

Actually, I have. I just maybe haven't yet phrased it in it's most common manifestation: be true to yourself.

I liked records and discovering lost classics (and trash rock, so much dollar bin trash rock), so I bought records. I wanted to look like a nerd from NASA circa 1969, so I looked for the right pair of frames until I found them.

These are far from my only "early arrivals" in terms of fashion, book series, technologies, and the like. I land on these latent-but-soon-to-be-explosive gems for the simple reason that I could care less about whether they are currently perceived as cool.

I've been alive long enough to know that no new solution arrives without delivering the next generation of problems. Your hot framework or language today is going to peak and ebb away as a new generation rebels against your dominance and against the inevitable gaps and flaws in your generation's solutions.

It is highly unlikely that they will either be charitable in their critique or particularly informed about the historical dynamics that led to the constraints that they are now rebelling against. They will almost certainly throw the baby out with the bathwater, leaving themselves exposed to the flaws that will act as seeds of their own cyclical downfall.

What is new, what is cool, these are so transient as to be irrelevant.

If you get a job with a current hot tech stack and you actually enjoy that job enough to remain for five or ten years, when you decide to depart that hot stack will almost certainly be considered a hot pile of crap by a non-trivial segment of "cutting edge" programmers.

Don't take it personally. It is in fact a required aspect of marketing this new current hot tech stack that they paint your previously-viewed-as-revolutionary technologies as untrustworthy garbage.

This is what the old sage types mean when they nod knowingly and say "the blade's edge cuts both ways."

"That's that shit that I don't like"

It has taken me a long time to come to a place where I accept myself as capable of making a living on my own, pursuing only my own interests towards only my own ends.

It's an important realization precisely because the sense of all-encompassing despair that I fell into on my way into a multi-year burnout, that despair came from a place of irreconcilable differences between what makes me okay with life and fulfilled as a human being and what a day in a huge corporate office looks like (hint: Hell has an open floor plan).

So, do I want to "climb the ladder" and join some other enormous corporation to spend the major portion of my functionally useful life for the enrichment of a large pyramid of stakeholders that could care less about workers?

Amazingly, as little as these enormous companies seem to ultimately care about their employees (at least relative to the Holier-Than-Life-Itself Bottom Line), it often seems that they care even less about the products they put those workers to use towards.

And I'm supposed to live my life improving software objects, from functions to modules to entire systems, that will never receive the love and attention that they deserve?

A waking life of always either creating the next so-called "Minimum Viable Product" (deceivingly abbreviated as an "MVP"), or working on the un-loved guts of an MVP that was only intended as a quickly-replaced "Proof of Concept" that instead became an unchangeable bedrock of technical debt? -- this being the natural result of impatiently waiting business cases flocking to the "POC" "MVP" and essentially showing management's bluff that anything besides the most bare minimum viability of a product was going to land in production?

No. Thanks for your kind offer, but no.

Embracing my self

This moment of self-realization -- of realizing what I don't want -- is usually the first stage of a sequence of events that leads me to a new cool thing before the hype cycle arrives.

I don't believe in "discoveries" or "discoverers" so that's never been what I'm about. I sometimes remark on how I "did it before it was cool" but rarely in an unironic way (this essay outweighs any previous unironic expression by a long mile).

Put another way, I could care less about planting my flag somewhere unless that's a place I actually give a shit about being.

To that end, the programming languages that I will be blogging about are ones that I am using (Raku) and learning about (APL and Eiffel) with a great deal of thought and intention -- and with absolutely zero regard for what's fashionable in software development.

Instead I'm focusing on the many ways that our current approaches are based on largely unconscious choices that are steeped in would-be-comic-if-not-so-tragic cargo cult practices -- choices are made today within a narrow focus and to resemble the choices we made yesterday but this time we will try to do it without the choices we didn't like.

Will it actually solve the issue? Well, the fact that we already have good cause -- thanks to accumulated technical debt -- to patch the whole thing again tomorrow should tell us all we need to know on that front. (Code refactoring targeted at alleviating technical debt is a pinnacle form of crafting the structures of tomorrow to look and act exactly like the structures of yesterday, minus whatever annoyances that we can afford to fix at the moment).

Moments of self-reflection don't need to be rare. Right now I'm only even interested in a continued career in programming if it involves using systems that have a track record of not even being capable of encountering entire categories of problems that I've been facing with mainstream solutions. (These problems can be cultural as well as technical and I look forward to writing more about this topic soon.)

Only time will tell how well I have decided... but I have lived through several reasons to embrace and trust my instincts.

With any luck, this will be another wave of a lifetime.

  1. First-class array programming for APL and design by contract for Eiffel. Raku, the polyglot of programming styles, has plenty of syntax and semantics that are applicable and amenable to these styles -- but that polyglot nature keeps Raku from centralizing them the way they are in APL and Eiffel. I am not saying this is a mark against Raku._

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