In defense of sillyness

A few weeks ago I was reading some XKCD comic about ninja turtles:


I won't embed the comic itself the content isn't terribly important - he presented some wikipedia pages which could be sung to the tune of the teenage mutant ninja turtles theme song. Ok, cute. Sure.. But it got me thinking about mental states. Here's a question:

What mental state do you need to be in to come up with something like that?

Its not a simple question - would it be possible, in your day, to come up with an idea like that? If you did, would you then actually find the wikipedia articles in question? (How long would you spend before giving up?)

Until recently, for me the answer was no, no, and maybe I'd give it 5 seconds of thought. And I think thats really sad. And worse, I think if I polled my friends in the tech community, most of us would say the same thing.

Its sad because while Randal Munroe is clearly a clever guy, I don't think he's unique in his creativity. I think most (all?) of us are capable of coming up with new and interesting ideas. Many of us probably do, but its sad how few of them end up gracing our blogs and our halls. There's been a lot of hackernews parodies over the years because frankly most of the things you see or read about on hackernews are either old ideas, or they're ideas that are only the smallest step away from what we're already thinking.

There's certainly value in those small steps, but something programming often reminds me is how little work it can sometimes take to do a prototype of a silly idea. The first boilerplate implementation was only a few hundred lines of code - and that was enough to let us build all sorts of crazy machines. But how often do we let ourselves run away with some silly idea for a week or two and see where it takes us?

I feel like life has a tendency toward tunnel visioning us. Our careers are a train ride and when we first get on its peaceful and exciting that the train is moving us along. You'd expect that as we get more empowered (more skilled, better paid, more respected) we'd be able to use that surplus to make space and time for ourselves. We should be so good at what we do, and so efficient that our jobs should need less and less of us to roll along. But weirdly, the opposite seems to happen. As the train goes faster, instead of using the momentum to carry us along, we find ourselves spending ever more time shovelling coal in just to keep it running.

And then, where's the space to find wikipedia entries which you could sing to the opening tune of TMNT? I think its really sad - its a loss, a death by a thousand cuts that strips away our silliness and our sense of wonder and adventure.

Sometimes at work I've felt like I'm besieged from all sides, and I have to keep fighting off the invaders. No matter how hard I work there's always so much to do. I don't know if its the same thing as burnout, but I find that if I do that for too long, I stop being able to properly relax. When I stop work, I just kind of space out. I'm not using those precious moments to write harry potter fanfic, or learn an instrument, or whatever. And if I am, I feel like I have to think of it as another fire to stay on the radar. "No, I booked this weeks in advance - I can't move it." "Its just something I do every thursday - deal with it". We read webcomics and watch movies to have vicarious whimsy in our lives - pretend for a moment that we're adventurers rather than frantic defenders of our little castles.

Sorry, but I don't want to live like that. Its a life of little deaths. Again, at what point this year will you be in the mood, with the time, to find TMNT-compatible wikipedia pages? Or whatever it is for you? Is it never? Is that ok with you?

I often come back to the idea of building a clearing in my life. A place where the world is ok, and all the sounds of urgency compete poorly with the sounds of the birds, and the feeling of sun on my skin. If I decide to do something, I want it to be out of genuine interest rather than obligation.

No, doing something for the money isn't good enough. I'm sure its very pretty, but your accounting software isn't going to save the world. If I start caring about it, when will I get around to that book I've always wanted to write? Or when will I finally read all the books on Alan Kay's reading list? And if I'm not doing that, when will I get a chance to come up with creative ideas which aren't just the smallest possible step outside of hackernews's usual dredge?

I honestly can't remember most of the last 2 years. I feel like time has passed so quickly lately.

Anyway, this has gotten way more ranty than I expected. I suppose what I'm really trying to say is, go have an adventure. But don't have an adventure if you just want to sit at home and space out. If you want to do that, you should do that until you get so bored that you start wanting to make your own CPU or get curious about learning French. Life is too short to be frantic all the time.

And I'm trying to say that I'm seriously planning on writing a harry potter fanfic story, and I don't care what you think. I want to make Harry a programmer, and make magic really just programming. (Most spells are just function calls - but Harry can do better!) Its going to be fun - it better be, or I'll play around with something else instead.