Nate Dickson Thinks...

Small Thoughts for a Quiet World.

This is an article that I'm writing for me, but I'm using the second person “you” to make myself feel better. Just so you know. If you find this useful as well, great!

Okay, listen up. You need to actually get things out there. You need to really finish things. So here's what you're going to do:

Go to an online retailer of the thing you are trying to make. In my case, that's books. So go to some online bookstore. Don't bother with the best sellers, not right now. Right now go down the list a few pages, to the people who are all clearly self-publishing.

Find someone whose book you just can. not. Stand. Revel in how much you hate this book, in how much better you are at writing than this person. Then remind yourself of the following fact:

As of right now, this minute, that person is winning. Their book is up for sale, and people have purchased it. Yours is still in your head or in some rough draft form, and people have not. You are “losing” to that person because they have accomplished your dream, and you haven't yet. You know you are better than them. You know you “deserve” to have your book out in the world where people can see it more than they do, you know your book is better than theirs.

Okay, this is an ugly side of yourself, and you'll never reveal it to anyone else. It's understandable that you're a little ashamed of yourself for thinking this way about a fellow practitioner of your craft. But now it's time to take that shame, that anger, and that (self-)righteous indignation that they are “winning” and you are “losing” and turn it into motivation. Yes, your book still has that one chapter that isn't quite right, and that one section that could use some fine tuning. But look at their book! Their book is all weak parts! And they are selling it! People are reading it and posting positive comments about it! Don't worry about taking on the giants of your craft yet, that will come with time. For now set your sights on getting your book higher up the sales charts than that book. By getting it on the sales charts in the first place.

And when your book starts selling, when you finally get onto the list, quietly buy a copy or two of that book, as silent recompense for using that author as the scapegoat you needed to goad you into action. Put all those negative emotions behind you, they are unworthy of you. You've taken this step. Now you can take the next.

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My first day of high school I walked into Latin class. I had chosen Latin for my mandatory foreign language because I'm a stereotypical Gen-X guy: I didn't want to be in a popular class. I (rightly) guessed that there wouldn't be all that many people in Latin, they'd mostly choose “mainstream” foreign language credits like Spanish or French.

The teacher got up and said, “You're never going to need to speak Latin.”

Which...I mean, we all knew that.

“Not because Latin is dead, but because it's only used by a very few people in its original form. But what you are learning here is the why behind so many other languages. Learning Latin will make you a better speaker of English. And if you decide to learn French, or Spanish, or Portuguese, or Italian, you'll have an easier time with those languages as well.”

I spent three years studying Latin. My third year there were only two of us in the course, so we met at the same time as the Latin II students. I'm eternally grateful that our teacher had us teach them from time to time.

Fast forward to the early 2000s when I was a sole developer at a bookstore. The management team discovered that they suddenly had a software developer, and one of my first projects out of the gate saved the organization tens of thousands of dollars in manual computation time. So they more or less let me do my own thing, leaving me as the goose that laid golden eggs. I used that freedom to teach myself...well, lots of things. Since nobody else knew what I should be doing, I wrote apps in every language I wanted to learn. I wrote Ruby on Rails apps. I wrote an app or two in Adobe AIR (it seemed like a good idea at the time, okay?) I wrote a bunch of PHP and thus paved the way for a number of future jobs.

And I stumbled across SmallTalk.

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When I was young my father rented the '80's David Lynch version of Dune, you know, the one with Sting. I fell asleep a couple of times during the movie, and every time I woke up I would say something like, “is this movie still going?

I'd already read the novel, and enjoyed it. I even read the second one and...it was okay.

And somehow that version of the movie didn't ruin the book for me, nor did the sequels. Dune is an excellent novel. There are themes from that book that have stuck with me, that have shaped the way I think.

So I wasn't happy to hear they were making a new adaptation. I'm a little tired of the entire '80's being strip mined for nostalgia sequels.

So I was really resistant when one of my friends—who had never read Dune—told me it was a really good movie. How could it be?

Well, she was right.

Ironically the new movie is longer than the old one, and is only half of the story. But I found that I agreed with their adaptation. I loved the actors they chose for the roles. I re-read the book after watching the movie, looking for what they changed. And to be sure, the new movie changes a lot from the book. But overall, I find that I agree with their changes. They were in the service of making a good movie and didn't really ruin the thread or feel.

So yes. Turns out that you can make a good Dune movie. I'm excited for the second half as well.

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My employer recently planned (and cancelled) a few “white elephant” gift parties. I was casting around, trying to decide on what I might have in the house to give away when I realized something:

I have a 3D printer.

And white filament for it.

And Thingiverse exists.

So I decided to print some white elephants.

For reference, the one the middle is a Danish Modern Elephant and the other two are based on Elephant – Voronoi Style.

I don't love this particular filament, so I'm not too broken up about using a bit more of it on these experimental print projects. I added a base to the “Vornoi” elephant using OpenSCAD because I couldn't get it to print correctly without one.

But now I have a go-to for any white elephant gift exchanges!

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I'm a middle age cis-gender white male. the odds of someone mis-gendering me are low. If someone used they/them/theirs pronouns in reference to me I would not be hurt. If they used “she/her/hers” I would be a little confused, but not hurt. I haven't spent time and effort and frustration and pain establishing or defending my gender identity.

And that's why I list pronouns. Because it's a tacit acknowledgement that if you list your preferred pronouns I will take it seriously. I acknowledge that I haven't had people disrespect me by misgendering me, and I want anyone who is fighting that fight to know that they don't have to fight around me; I'm on their side. Be who you are and I will support you.

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I was a big fan of Opera back before there was a Firefox browser, back when it was all Internet Explorer as far as the eye could see. Opera was an interesting thing, and was also a source of real and sustained innovation. Tabbed browsing was their idea, as was mouse gestures and a few other fancy things.

Opera as a company has gone weird since then, but a few of the original people have splintered off and created Vivaldi , and I kind of love it. it's a deeply nerd-centric browser. Right now I'm writing this post in a sidebar, which lets me browse sites I'm wanting to reference in the main window. Add in things like “tab stacking” and a command palette, and —a signature Opera feature— a built in mail client, and you have a delightfully non-mainstream browser that I have fallen in love with more than once.

I tend to fall out of love with it because of compatibility issues with some of the sites I have to use for work, but hopefully as Vivaldi advances, and as web masters within my organization update their sites, that will be less of a problem.

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I was reading the wikipedia entry for the adage Festina Lente (as one does) and found this:

Slowly make haste, and without losing courage; Twenty times redo your work; Polish and re-polish endlessly, And sometimes add, but often take away. —Nicolas Boileau, The Art of Poetry

And this is so perfect. I just wanted to share it.

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It feels odd that we have to go back to this, but here we are. For a long time the mantra of the technological world was one thing well. Do one thing, do it well, and chain with other systems, so that each individual user can do what they need to do. the humble pipe symbol | is the champion of all this. Take the output from one tool that does its job well, and pass it as input to another system that can do its job well. Apple paid homage to it in the creation of their icon for Automator, the oft-forgotten GUI-glue program.

Auto, the Automator icon, holding a pipe

Now we're in a version of the internet where people, or rather, companies, would like to sell you a fully packaged version of the web. Videos that are only playable on a single app. Music that lives inside its own walled garden. Text behind paywalls. Each thing is doing all of it. Presentation, distribution, discovery, playlist management, the entire experience, curated and monitored by the service. Your activities are their new oil, feeding their algorithms so they can better target their ads to you.

And...well, people need to get paid. Servers aren't cheap to run at scale. Music and video aren't cheap to produce. Books take a long time to write and an even longer time to edit and get right. We should pay for what we use, so that people can make more good stuff and put it out into the world.

But we still have a vast amount of content that could be provided in an open and visible way. This blog for instance. It costs me very little to run. If you happen to have the right kind of payment system installed in your browser it will collect a few cents from you while you read it, but if not, no big deal. So here's my point:

We should deliver standards-based content, so that individuals can customize their own experiences.

If you hate my styling on this site that's fine. You can use RSS to consume the text in a nice reader app that styles things just for you. Or you can get it emailed to you, or you could even download the entire thing as an epub, if that's your idea of a good time.

Which leads to the bigger better point: we have all these lovely standards, and they're fully functional and useful. RSS is as simple as its ever been, and is still totally free, no matter how hard the big companies try to push their own walled-garden news aggregators. EPUB is glorious. There are many beautiful readers, both physical and software-based, that let you re-style a book any way you like, take notes, share sections, the works. But most people think eBook = Kindle. The walled library.

Support the open standards. Quietly, peacefully. Vote with your money and by witholding money. Find a way to consume the media you need or want without feeding back into the attention economy. It's not only possible, it's easier than ever.

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A lot of what I have tried to do my whole life is ignore fear and stress and pain. Push them away, and insulate my life so that they don't come close to me.

And some of that is reasonable, right? We should try to make our world good and safe, that's called being wise. We should seek to make the world better day by day.

But pain and fear and stress are part of it. We shouldn't be afraid of fear. We shouldn't try to close discomfort entirely out of our lives. We should accept them as part of the world and make space for them, tolerate them and let them teach us their lessons.

This doesn't mean we should dive into them, we shouldn't move all the way to depression and fatalism. But optimism can exist alongside fear. I can be uncertain about the future and still be hopeful about it as well.

We lost our old dog this year. It hurt. It was hard. But the pain of losing him in no way offsets the joy of having lived with him for all those years.

There are times and places where we simply need to make space in our hearts. We need to make room for grief to sit with us, and let it do its work. We don’t need to fear or loathe pain, though of course we needn’t seek it out either.

What stories are we telling our selves as we interact with others? Is there a way to moderate the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves as well? —Me, a few days ago, not sure when.

This entry is a potpourri of a lot of things that have been swirling around in my brain, so yeah, it's a bit disjointed.

I've been thinking about why I like Doctor Who and Harry Dresden. I mentioned to a friend of mine that they are similar in my mind; they fit in the same “slot”. And I wasn't sure why. I've been thinking about it more.

They are both characters that live almost permanently on the cusp of the disaster curve. But in both cases that constant fear and stress has made their characters kinder, not harder. The Doctor has two hearts.

It's hard to talk about the importance of an imaginary hero. But heroes ARE important: Heroes tell us something about ourselves. History tells us who we used to be, documentaries tell us who we are now; but heroes tell us who we WANT to be. And a lot of our heroes depress me. But when they made this particular hero, they didn't give him a gun—they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn't give him a tank or a warship or an x-wing fighter—they gave him a box from which you can call for help. And they didn't give him a superpower or pointy ears or a heat-ray—they gave him an extra HEART. They gave him two hearts! And that's an extraordinary thing. There will never come a time when we don't need a hero like the Doctor. —Steven Moffat (emphasis added)

So that's the lesson I'm trying to learn. If I'm going to be a “leader” or some kind of important person in other people's lives, I want to be the one with two hearts. The one that listens more, that accepts other people's stress and pain and turns them into kindness and understanding.

Dresden is a little different. He was always kind, but he has a hard edge. But the effect pain has on him is to make him able to tolerate it better. In the early books he's weak, he's almost human. In later books he accepts that he's taking a beating, and that it's okay, he can roll with it and keep going, keep helping. He never lets go of his principles, even if he has to twist himself to fit into a bad world. I can understand that world. I want to accept that. That I can get through things, and stop worrying about them when they come my way. I don't need to hide from hard things.

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When I first started my career as a software developer I found some little trendy piece of pop culture ephemera, a printed dictionary of “hacker slang”. I wish I could find it again, because even though it was instantly outdated, it still influenced my mindset for a while.

Anyway...

One of the terms it defined was “putting on the tie”:

Put on the tie verb: to transition from programming to management. “Did you hear about Jake?” “Yeah, someone told me he finally put on the tie. Poor sod.”

The concept being that programmers wear t-shirts and shorts and managers wear shirts and ties.

I have no idea if everyone has ever used that phrase, ever.

But I have just recently, officially, put on the tie. I'm moving from my comfortable roles close to software development into a “Directorship” role, a position of actual management instead of just overseeing a few fellow devs.

Clear back in the day, I was sure I would never make the move. but as I've grown older I've wanted to spend more time influencing people and less time fixing bad code.

I keep telling myself things like that. There is much that I like about management, there is much that I enjoy about being in a position of responsibility, and I have a lot of ideas about how to make things better.

But part of me is definitely sad to leave that other world behind.

It's been interesting, talking to all my developer friends, and seeing their responses to this move. Overall it seems to blank incomprehension: why would anyone want to be a manager?

My only real answer is that this is that I like working with people more than code. I still hack around on projects in my free time, but this is more my speed. So we'll see!

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