April 28, 2024 12:22 PM

On Remaining Relevant as We Age

This morning, I finished reading How a Script Doctor Found His Own Voice, about screenwriter Scott Frank. Late in the piece, there's a bit on "how difficult it can be to remain relevant as a screenwriter as you age". Frank took caution from the experience of one of his mentors, director Sydney Pollack:

After decades of success making such movies as "Three Days of the Condor" and "Out of Africa", Pollack had "a way of working," Frank said. "And it stopped working." Suddenly, Pollack was out of step. Frank urged him to do "something different, something small, something that's not a love story where they end up together." He even tried to get Pollack to direct his thriller "The Lookout". But Pollack couldn't change. To Frank, the lesson was clear: you can't "just double down on what you used to do." The only way to remain vital is to take chances.

That called to mind something I read earlier in the week, a short blog post by Jessamyn West, on how the intersection of an LLM chatbot tool and a newsletter called "The Soul of a New Machine" made her laugh. She closes with a paragraph that felt familiar:

I'm now what folks might consider later-career. I'm faffing about with this newfangled technological stuff knowing both that it's a big deal and also that I only sort of care about it (at my peril? perhaps.) ....

I, too, am late in my career. As an academic computer scientist, "newfangled technological stuff" is my line of work, but... I can't think of many things less interesting for me to do than figuring out how to prompt an LLM to write code or text for me. My lack of enthusiasm may portend the sort of irrelevance that befell Pollack, but I hope not. Unlike Pollack, I feel no need to double down on what I've always done, and indeed am open to something new. So I'll keep poking around, enjoying what I enjoy, and hope to find a path more like the one Frank followed: taking a different kind of chance.


Postscript: If you think this post seems like an aftershock to a post from the turn of the year, you are not alone. Still searching.

Whatever you think of this post, though, I heartily recommend the New Yorker article on Scott Frank, which was engaging throughout and full of interesting bits on writing, filmmaking, and careers.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, General, Personal

April 21, 2024 12:41 PM

The Truths We Express To Children Are Really Our Hopes

In her Conversation with Tyler, scholar Katherine Rundell said something important about the books we give our children:

Children's novels tend to teach the large, uncompromising truths that we hope exist. Things like love will matter, kindness will matter, equality is possible. I think that we express them as truths to children when what they really are are hopes.

This passage immediately brought to mind Marick's Law: In software, anything of the form "X's Law" is better understood by replacing the word "Law" with "Fervent Desire". (More on this law below.)

While comments on different worlds, these two ideas are very much in sync. In software and so many other domains, we coin laws that are really much more expressions of our aspiration. This no less true in how we interact with young people.

We usually think that our job is to teach children the universal truths we have discovered about the world, but what we really teach them is our view of how the world can or should be. We can do that by our example. We can also do that with good books.

But aren't the universal truths in our children's literature true? Sometimes, perhaps, but not all of them are true all of the time, or for all people. When we tell stories, we are describing the world we want for our children, and giving them the hope, and perhaps the gumption, to make our truths truer than we ourselves have been able to.

I found myself reading lots of children's books and YA fiction when my daughters were young: to them, and with them, and on their recommendation. Some of them affected me enough that I quoted them in blog posts. There is so many good books for our youth in the library: honest, relevant to their experiences, aspirational, exemplary. I concur in Rundell's suggestion that adults should read children's fiction occasionally, both for pleasure and "for the unabashed politics of idealism that they have".

More on Marick's Law and Me

I remember posting Marick's Law on this blog in October 2015, when I wanted to share a link to it with Mike Feathers. Brian had tweeted the law in 2009, but a link to a tweet didn't feel right, not at a time when the idealism of the open web was still alive. In my post, I said "This law is too important to be left vulnerable to the vagaries of an internet service, so let's give it a permanent home".

In 2015, the idea that Twitter would take a weird turn, change its name to X, and become a place many of my colleagues don't want to visit anymore seemed far-fetched. Fortunately, Brian's tweet is still there and, at least for now, publicly viewable via redirect. Even so, given the events of the last couple of years, I'm glad I trusted my instincts and gave the law a more home on Knowing and Doing. (Will this blog outlive Twitter?)

The funny thing, though, is that that wasn't its first appearance here. I found the 2015 URL for use in this post by searching for the word "fervent" in my Software category. That search also brought up a Posts of the Day post from April 2009 — the day after Brian tweeted the law. I don't remember that post now, and I guess I didn't remember it in 2015 either.

Sometimes, "Great minds think alike" doesn't require two different people. With a little forgetfulness, they can be Past Me and Current Me.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Personal, Software Development