September 19, 2016

Seeing the forest for the dead trees

Recently, I was trying to trace the exact moment my enthusiasm died.

  • I started writing code well over thirty years ago. This was the obvious data point to look at first. Was it a product of time?

  • I've spent the last sixteen of those thirty plus writing business software. This is about as stimulating as cold oatmeal. Was it boredom?

  • After a particularly trying support call, I leaned back in my chair and realized that I have spent sixteen years not so much developing software as running a race I was destined to lose. Idiocy not only outpaces technology, it runs laps around it. Was it cynicism?

All of these are obvious explanations. But they don't answer the question. The question is, "When did it happen?"

Turns out, the answer is 2001.

I was writing a PalmOS application and I kept having to switch out of a buggy editor and read a PDF as that was the only format of PalmOS documentation I could get my hands on. I had tried printing it out once but trying to wrestle nearly 2000 pages of print-out was a no-go. For weeks, my life was..

  • Switch out of buggy editor
  • Search through a stupid PDF for what I was looking for.
  • Switch back to buggy editor.
  • Restart editor as it would more often than not crash or render chunks of code invisible.
  • Find my place in the code.
  • Repeat the process.

I was desperate for this documentation to be printed out and bound in volume I could plop on the desk beside me.

The more I thought about it, most of the irritating moments have involved electronic documentation. MSDN, I'm looking at you.

This lead to thinking about the happiest moments I've had coding.

Sitting with a mountain of books piled up next to me, pouring through each and making notes.

It's the damned books. That's what's missing. That's the big "Why".

Used to be, when you got a new compiler, it come with a mountain of manuals. Computers also came with a mountain of books or they were available to be purchased. Every nook and cranny of a system was documented. You could squirrel yourself away and pour over every word.

Yes, you can do the same thing now with e-books. Your entire library can fit in your hands. I bought my iPad Air largely for this reason.

But it's not the same.

The books leave traces of your journey within them. Every dog-ear, tear, coffee ring and scribbled margin note acts as a record of your journey.

I can grab one of my old reference manuals off the shelf, look at these things and remember exactly what I was working on at the time. Even if it was decades in the past. They're like the lines on your face. They tell stories.

A e-book reader is just a sterile device that will become outdated and tossed in a recycle bin. It's contents are equally impersonal.

It's this sterility, more than anything, that ruined it for me. No breadcrumbs left behind save a Kindle or two in a landfill.

I think I'm going to visit oreilly.com and put this theory to the ultimate test.