Thought for the New Year: Step Away from the Computer

Lambert Strether is an old-school blogger at Corrente.

Here’s the video of Rich Hickey’s classic experience report on “Hammock-Driven Development” (where development is solving problems).

When was the last time you thought about something for an entire hour? How about for a whole day? What do you think it takes to become confident in something you’ve never done before? How do you start doing that, and not feel incredibly at risk?

I can testify that when I’ve disciplined myself to sit and think, the return has been tremendous. Often, however, the tyranny of the urgent prevents this.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

29 comments

  1. Ralph Musgrave

    I can testify that frequently when I’ve been lying in the bath, I’ve suddenly had an idea. I’ve then jumped out of the bath and run back to the computer in the nude shouting “Eureka” and typed out the idea.

  2. Fraud Guy

    Consciously leaving problems for the unconscious to solve is difficult, because the desire is very strong to meddle in the process once it starts.

    But when the answers come…it often is a revelation from beyond the bounds of left field.

  3. jake chase

    Here’s a suggestion for the new year. Stop voting. One of the striking things about this blog is the persistence with which apparently intelligent people believe in government as a force for positive change. Yet, the most cursory glance at our Nation’s history shows our federal government as a retrograde and indeed reactionary force for the greater part of our two hundred thirty-six year history. Time after time after time, our Government has enriched speculators, impoverished debtors, liquidated farmers, stifled dissent, bludgeoned labor, marched workers across the ocean to pointless slaughter. Its tax system punishes effort and rewards speculation and inheritance, its regulatory system destroys small business and ignores both predation and looting from the top. In more than 200 years its only reforms can be encompassed in a sentence. It created social security and medicare and a few civil rights laws. That’s it. If you aren’t old or Black our federal government has never had your interest in mind in two hundred odd years, except for purposes of extraction or conscription.

    Forty-seven years ago, I realized the Government’s plan for me was to be a target in Viet Nam. Since then I have been increasingly persuaded that the Government’s only plan for any individual is the role of victim. I do not vote because it only encourages the scoundrels who are running. I do not believe a single word out of the mouth of a single politician or bureaucrat. I regard all of them as two faced mendacious bastards, and for the last forty-seven years I have not been wrong about a single one of them.

    If enough people stopped voting Government might change for the better, although I doubt it. We need nothing so much as to role back the power of elected and appointed swindlers. Without their consistent help the people identified as the plutocracy would have an exponentially more difficult job fleecing the rest of us. Instead, intelligent people remain persuaded of the reverse. It makes you wonder just what evidence would convince them.

    1. oops my wrench fell in

      +1000. If voting could change anything it would be illegal. Lucky for us, there’s more to civil society than electoral politics. Judging by the state’s repressive response, the gun-waving assemblies of the tea party are less threatening to this state than a bunch of people talking to each other in the park.

      1. lexicon

        A citizen’s duty is to periodically scare the crap out of the government.

        It’s the only way to change how they act.

    2. craazyman

      I think you’re right Jake. It seems to me that each is worse than the one that came before.

      A bigger swindler, a bigger liar, a bigger megalomaniac, a bigger craving and hungry human lying empty zero so debased it needs to fill itself with the soul energy and life energy of others. Like something out of Homer’s Odessy. Like a one-eyed cyclops eating flesh in a cave.

      This is cynical, and it’s not fair to them all, at all, but it’s just the way I feel emotionally right now. Every one of them. The desire to lord yourself over your fellow man, the desire “to rule” — it should be a fundamental disqualification for any form of political office, anywhere.

      There should be a process where the quiet ones, the unassuming and unambitious, the sane, the self-possessed, the ones who have mastered themselves and their demons, and who care nothing for fame or for glory or eternity, that they somehow get found out and appointed and empowered, and then they speak amongst themselves in quiet rooms without the photographers and the TV bimbos and the cameras. And they figure it out. And it all just falls into place like a lazy afternoon.

      And you just smile because they’re out of your life and that’s where you want them and that’s where they want to be. And things work just the way they should work, on earth as they do in heaven.

      I almost sound like a libertarian, but no, I’m not that dumb or delusional. I’m just dreaming, but I know it. LOL.

      1. jake chase

        I think the way may be to stop making it legal to bribe them. Politics should not be a career but a duty imposed on those who have already accomplished something. It should pay nothing; it should be very very short term; it should involve unscripted appearances at which the audience does all the talking without talking head intervention. Of course, we would have to make television illegal too, but what sane person would oppose that?

    3. wunsacon

      As much as “voting” has solved very little in what seems to be a long period of time, “not voting” will likely “solve” even less.

    4. Fraud Guy

      My dog agrees that if both of us stop voting, it won’t matter, as our votes would have cancelled each other out, anyway.

      Wait a minute…

      (h/t Scott Adams)

  4. required

    I’ve noticed some of my best solutions have come during my long hot shower in the morning or during the drive to work with the radio off.

  5. Susan the other

    Thank you Lambert for Rich Hickey’s rant on the luxury of time. All of us are always fending off the theft of time. And when we are confronted with big problems which demand time which we do not have we resort to something akin to instinct. It is amazing: Instinct informs us by our sub-unconscious. I love it because I trust my subconscious mind more than my conscious one (if indeed I even have one). I’m not a software engineer, but always, in my hubris, thought I would be able to do good software. Yes – No. In – Out, Up- Down, Good – Bad …. ad infinitum.

    But Hickey might translate this epi-intelligence into all of life. Take the problems we face with atomic energy pollution. Let’s call this problem “TEPCO.” And we must all admit it is almost defeating to even think about it. Clearly it is NOT a quick software solution in waiting. It is a physical poison so powerful it will rot all our brains. So there is the “tyranny of urgency.”

    Maybe the solution is bacteria along the coast lines; maybe even in mid-ocean, as F. Beard suggests.

    I have noticed a very luxurious thing about dreaming (which we cannot afford to indulge now). How many of you have also noticed something like deja-vu in your dreams? Where evolution has conserved previous insights – however mute – some of them going back decades, maybe even 50 years? With my dreams these snippets are picked up like fragments of some previous “problem” and they spark a brand new dream which goes on, as if no time had passed, like a serial soap opera, solving daily problems. It certainly has to do with deja vu, it just happens when we sleep. Maybe it is the beginning of Alzheimers – but I doubt it because it has been happening to me for my entire life. My point being we need our scientists to dream, and think and find good solutions that persist. And if these solutions come from the deep, they will be closer to the quick.

    I think I’d take a page out of Hickey’s book. The one about understanding the problem. Let us write it down: Let us write all the dangers down. Let us write down all the awful consequences of our superficial plans gone haywire. Let us account. Then let us fix it.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Susan: Hickey’s presentation is about problem solving, of which software development is a subset; not sure I’d call anything that low key a rant!

      I just think there’s so much useful common sense material in that video. If one believes, as I do, that horizontally scaling forms of decision making are going to be a big feature of human interaction in 2012, then this video has lots of techniques that will help with that. Since there will be an awful lot of shills and messiahs peddling nostrums, it’s going to be especially important to think for ourselves (plural).

      1. Otter

        Hickey calls it a rant, at least twice.

        Although, it seems to me, some people think “rant” means “ill-prepared” or “unrehearsed”, and others think it means “heated” or “disputatious”. Hickey also made a remark, perhaps self-referential, about preparing slides at the airport.

        Some people think “dispute” and “refute” are synonyms… a error encouraged by corporate media “balanced coverage”. And by authorities, left and right, who train their flocks to believe (or act as if they believe) that truth is revealed when the dogma of the day has been posted.

        It is difficult to discuss, even to think, when our symbols are in disarray. We waste time. We cultivate illwill. Our words are important, doubly so if when we try to share them.

        Who among us has not been abused by parent or teacher or politician or preacher twisting words until they rip and tear our reason.

        Lambert, your reply looks, to me, like you disagree ungracefully with Susan. I don’t think you disagree. Or, at least, I think you would accept Susans’s comments as useful related ideas for further consideration. I think you bounced off her use of “rant”, and threw back a response, possibly agreement with rest of her comments, in the grammatical form of dispute.

        As ‘oops my wrench’ says above, “the gun-waving assemblies of the tea party are less threatening to this state than a bunch of people talking to each other in the park”.

        Whether we allow misunderstanding to persist, or forcefully correct unimportant details.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          I was keying off “I’m not a software engineer.” But software engineering is a subset of problem solving, which all of us are going to have to do a lot of in the next few years (not a bad thing). And which Susan was in fine form doing, in fact. Sorry on “rant.” Some of us have had “rant” thrown in our faces a lot, so it was a minor trigger…

          1. EconCCX

            Lambert, since you’re on a tech problem-solving beat and have moderation privs, any chance you could look at whatever WordPress routine is generating the “All Comments” feed? Stuck on November 13th since, well…

            How do non-mods keep up with comments? Refresh the site again and again? Subscribe/unsubscribe to 8 or 9 “Post Comments” feeds at a time?

          2. Otter

            Lambert, I wish I recovered so gracefully more often.

            True, we need software engineers with the persistence and skills to discover what it really does. And language engineers to discover what it really means. And psychology engineers to discover what we think it really means. And all kinds of not engineers willing to engage, suspicious of our strategies and our tradeoffs, and of the way our eyes wander to another corner of the room when we claim to be looking outside the box.

  6. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    I am usually hit with uninvited ideas while driving.

    unfortunately, by the time I stop, I am lucky if I remember one.

  7. MIWill

    Well, I really enjoyed that, except for the requirement of going to sleep sober. Doh!

    One more item for the resolution list.

  8. Stephen Nightingale

    This is why they taught us to program using punch cards and overnight batch jobs – even after the passing of that era.

  9. LucyLulu

    There have been times when I have been stuck all day on a difficult programming problem only to suddenly wake in the night with the solution.

    It’s settled then. I need to sleep more.

    1. escariot

      bur….but….but….I might miss something!

      seriously, this is precicely why texting is so counter intuitive for me. It is not a means of communication that promotes reflection. And why I still journal by hand.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        I’m embarrassed to admit that I use a Moleskin and a mechanical pencil. But the chisel-ish point of the mechanical pencil actually makes my handwriting look elegant, and the Moleskin… Well, if you pay for it, it’s important, right? Plus I like the surface texture of the paper…

  10. Jim Davey

    About solving problems in your sleep: My father is old .. almost 89 .. in the early 1960s the President or CEO of AT&T shared a problem with all the employees of AT&T in a memo … he wanted ideas how to help paraplegics use the telephone (then a rotary manual dial device). My father working in the field (not the development labs) took the well defined challenge. I remember well him working day and night to solve the problems both electrical and physical. He worked on both, first deciding a pencil in the mouth to press buttons would work, then he needed to design the circuits to make a phone work both ways “tone” and “pulse”. I recall how he kept the note pad by the bed … woke up and drew the final part of the circuit and went back to sleep. (A supervisor told him when he had designed the unit on paper the company would not accept an idea, only a working model.) He physically built the phone. It had a speaker and microphone in the desk top unit, and another speaker and mic across the room connected by a wire. We used it one year before giving it to AT&T.

    Keep a note pad or speak into a recording device … capture the idea before it escapes the awake mind!

    My father got a few hundred dollars for the phone, the transistors/parts of which cost about $200.00 at the time. You can go to Google’s patent section and look up the patent in his name, Donald L. Davey … it is NOT under the name “first push button speaker phone” … it is a circuit. When he passes he says I can have the phone …. the phone is special, but dad is more special. Hope he inspires you too.

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