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Clones FAQ

posted on 2022-06-21 09:30:00

An Update on Clones

Even though I've been finding less time to work on it, I've enjoyed the process of hacking on clones and things are going pretty well. Input handling and background rendering are finished and with any luck it will be another weekend until sprites are working. I do expect to need some tweaks for fine scrolling to be implemented correctly so it may be another week or two still until more advanced NROM titles like Super Mario Bros run. It should be a hop, skip, and a jump from there to MMC1 titles like Mega Man 2 though. 🙏

clones-progress

Commonly asked questions

There are 3 questions that have come up pretty regularly though, either on stream chat or elsewhere, and I'd like to jot down some thoughts about them while it's fresh in my mind.

Why are you building clones?

Because it brings me joy. I feel compelled to work on it as a vehicle to try to create something that I find aesthetically appealing and that indulges parts of my curiosity.

Why are you building clones in lisp?

Because it's my favorite language to work in. I don't think the feature set of Common Lisp is critical. Macros, CLOS, and conditions and restarts are all great but the motivating factor for me remains the interactive development workflow with Emacs and SLIME/Sly. When I was young and not yet a programmer, I imagined that at some point working on software or digging into the internals would be more like having a conversation than working out a math problem. Our tooling remains far from those (naive) visions, but Common Lisp is closer to what I imagined and so it feels more comfortable to me. Mikel Evins has written some great posts about this.

What are your goals in building clones?

This is the toughest part to answer. Initially, I'd just like to be able to have a functioning emulator and play childhood games that I loved, like Mega Man 2, tolerably well. Once that piece is completed though, I'm very interested in trying to add tools for debugging and reverse engineering games.

This isn't so much about the games themselves as it is about having better tools for investigating software without access to source code. An emulator is a great place to experiment with approaches to that. Now I admit I have not spent a lot of time doing reverse engineering or security work and am not familiar with the state of the art around static analysis or disassembly tools like IDA Pro.

I'm limited in my ability to express what I imagine. So since I can't tell you exactly what it should be, here's a sketch:

I would love it if I could build a graph of the control flow of the game as I play it. I would love it if I could later annotate the graph, name segments of assembly, and receive hints around what specific parts might be interacting with graphics data, or the APU, or handling player inputs.

The code is an artifact, the leftover cocoon of the program being written. The interesting pieces are in the constraints of the level design, the physics, the musical score, the artwork. I would like, as much as possible, to have tools for exploring the shape of a process as it lives, exploring the data it operates on, and understanding the constraints of the problem, rather than relying on code to understand one specific approach to solving that problem.

In the abstract, this isn't a solvable problem and I will never have a proof of correctness or confidence in completion. But it's worth striving to see how software in general could leave breadcrumbs behind it, given how much of our ideas and culture are being poured into it and fossilized in amber.

Staycation

posted on 2022-04-03 21:15:00

Norma and I are at the end of a lovely week on vacation at home. It was extremely welcome, quite relaxing, and over all too soon like any vacation. I often struggle with breaks but I think a few things conspired to make this one feel different.

  1. I had about an hour of work or chores each day to give me a little structure.
  2. Norma was also off so we could hang out together.
  3. I was able to alternate between friends, Hollow Knight, and streaming emulator hacking.

Historically, Norma's work in non-profit means she gets less vacation, or has a harder time taking it, than I do. Streaming has also been an interesting experiment. For most of our relationship, I have struggled to pull myself away to work on coding projects. I spend so much time sequestered with my computers, I hardly want to do it more when I could be with her. But then I can get frustrated or down on myself because I haven't made more time to learn or experiment. Streaming helps me feel like I'm not just wasting time alone in the garage.

I'm going to try to continue streaming every Sunday and see how it goes. It's also been interesting to work on an emulator again. I'm reminded that the workflow with Common Lisp and Sly or Slime is as good as any I'm familiar with. I still love the language. But I was disappointed today to realize that after almost 20 hours of streaming, I wouldn't finish the CPU of my emulator this week. I don't think it's the fact that I'm not finished ultimately. I think I'm surprised that I still haven't been able to solve the problem to my satisfaction. Sure, I haven't gotten scrolling working on previous attempts. More than that though, the code still feels awkward and messy in various parts and the hard bits are still hard. Writing a reasonably accurate and efficient emulator in a high-level language is still fairly tricky it turns out. Or it is for me anyway.

I don't entirely know why this task continues to be something I want to tilt at. But until it isn't, I'll keep trying. Cheers.

Back to Clones

posted on 2022-03-20 20:34:00

Ancient History

When I last wrote about clones, I was 32 and still working at Showcase IDX. I never got around to finishing clones and in fact worked on rawbones with my dear friend James Dabbs for a spell while teaching at the Flatiron School. By my count I have something like 4 half-finished NES emulators now.

  • famiclom - My original half-hearted attempt in CL when I had no idea what I was doing.
  • nescavation - A NES emulator I hacked up while learning to teach Javascript.
  • clones - A better thought out attempt in CL.
  • rawbones - The ReasonML version I wrote with James.

I seem to write one whenever I get bored and with any luck I'll wind up finishing one of them sooner or later. Nescavation and Famiclom really never got close to running games, clones and rawbones both got much closer to playable territory but I never got background scrolling right. I still find it a bit funny that famiclom gets more attention than my later, improved efforts like clones or rawbones. (Probably because cl-6502 mentions it and achieved a little notoriety.)

Getting to a playable state has never been the point though. These projects have been part learning exercise, part avenue for exploring literate programming, and often just a fun project to noodle with for my own entertainment. I still like the idea that a fast and reasonably accurate emulator can be written in a concise, clear way with a garbage-collected language.

Present Day

Recently, I got the itch again and so I decided to start fresh with clones. There are a few interesting changes this time around. When I made cl-6502, creating a readable document from the program was a primary goal and resulted in a literate book. This ethos never quite made the transition from the CPU stage to the full system emulators. This time I'll be leaning heavily into that spirit using mgl-pax. I'll also be testing with try and relying as heavily as I can on CPU and PPU test roms.

This is all happening in the "once-more-with-feeling" branch on sourcehut. So far there isn't a lot there though I'm on vacation starting in 6 days so I'm hoping to get ROM parsing and a basic structure for stepping the CPU in place to crank through NEStest. I do have some nice automation set up though. Every push runs the test suite and deploys the docs. I also have a very basic twitch stream working in case I want to indulge in the silliness of coding on camera.

For now, here's a look at the .build.yml file that powers the CI on sourcehut. It really isn't harder to set up an automatation pipeline for a CL app than anything else. Here's to working on fun projects again. More soon. 👋

image: alpine/latest
oauth: pages.sr.ht/PAGES:RW
environment:
  site: clones.kingcons.io
packages:
  - sbcl
sources:
  - https://git.sr.ht/~kingcons/clones
tasks:
  - install-quicklisp: |
      curl -O https://beta.quicklisp.org/quicklisp.lisp
      sbcl --non-interactive \
           --eval "(load \"~/quicklisp.lisp\")" \
           --eval "(quicklisp-quickstart:install)" \
      mkdir -p ~/quicklisp/local-projects/
  - test: |
      ln -sf ~/clones ~/quicklisp/local-projects/clones
      sbcl --non-interactive \
           --eval "(load (merge-pathnames \"quicklisp/setup.lisp\" (user-homedir-pathname)))" \
           --eval "(ql:quickload '(clones clones/test))" \
           --eval "(unless (try:passedp (try:try 'clones.test:test-all)) (uiop:quit 1))"
  - build-site: |
      cd clones
      echo 'Building site'
      sbcl --non-interactive \
           --eval "(load (merge-pathnames \"quicklisp/setup.lisp\" (user-homedir-pathname)))" \
           --eval "(ql:quickload '(clones mgl-pax/document))" \
           --eval "(clones.docs::build-site)"
      mv ~/clones/site/clones.html ~/clones/site/index.html
      tar -C site -cvz . > site.tar.gz
      acurl -f https://pages.sr.ht/publish/$site -Fcontent=@site.tar.gz
      rm site.tar.gz

Advent Reflections

posted on 2022-01-23 18:00:00

It's been a busy start to 2022. I'm working as an Engineering Manager for the first time and enjoying it but it's been easy for other things to slip through the cracks. For example, I told myself I would write a post on Advent of Code several weeks ago. So I'm sitting down to write about it now before I forget any more details.

Background

This is the second time I've attempted Advent of Code. The first time was in 2020 and I enjoyed it a lot but ran out of gas around day 10. I was pretty distracted with a Flamingo Squad project I can't recall and probably a bit burned out. Both years I've written my solutions in Common Lisp.

Advent is interesting. I get enjoyment from different things on different days. Some problems I just enjoy seeing how much I can optimize Common Lisp, or writing solutions in a few different styles if the problem is simple and seeing the differences in how they are compiled and allocate memory. Other problems I'm much more satisfied by trying to see how "pretty" a solution I can write, either using constraint solving tools like Screamer or a pipeline using threading macros and so on.

I enjoy the social aspect of AoC and having a leaderboard with some mutual friends and coworkers. It's nice to chat about something besides production code with other talented programmers. That said, I have to be pretty careful to avoid judging myself. I have to consciously remind myself that my goal isn't to "win the race" and not worry too much if I struggle to solve a problem elegantly.

Advent 2021

There were two things I wanted to try and do differently this year from last year. The first was just to go as far as I could and not worry about racing. The second was to experiment with literate programming tools and try to do a better job documenting my work.

I think the results were a mixed bag. I got through day 11 so I powered out at around the same point. I mostly worried less about the race but I still cared a lot about finishing each problem on the day it became available and definitely got discouraged once or twice when I didn't like my approach. On the other hand, I had a good time and learned a few things so it's a good investment overall.

Here's the current state of the generated site. You can see I didn't wind up embedding the source for the different functions so it can't properly be called literate but the [function] label (or equivalent) next to all the exported symbols can be clicked to jump to the source on github.

Takeaways

MGL-PAX

I have been meaning to play with mgl-pax for a long time. Like ... probably several years? There are blog posts about it as far back as 2014 and it's been on my radar a long time but I just never seemed to make time for it. Advent seemed like a good opportunity to dive in.

I like the idea of an environment where prose and code are intermingled, so I have a natural attraction to literate programming. This shouldn't surprise you if you've been here before. It also seems important to me that such an environment for authoring programs should be rooted in the development tools and support the prose as a secondary feature (like MGL-PAX) rather than rooted in the prose and supporting the code as a secondary feature (like org-babel). I.e. tangling one or more files to produce my program seems like the wrong way to go to me.

In terms of Advent of Code problems, I'd ideally be able to do the following:

  • Keep the prose and code for a given day/problem in a single file
  • Easily export the entire project with all days to an easily navigated, well designed web page
  • Make it easy to show different versions of the code as well as disassembly or evaluation examples

Editor's Note: The issues I bring up below were resolved before I could ever make a PR or ask the author about them. It seems making PAX more flexible about transcription was in the plans all along.

I think MGL-PAX excels on the first two points and struggles more on the third. It has a feature called transcripts which could plausibly support it but they are an awkward fit. Transcripts allow for including examples that are evaluated when the documentation is generated but there are two issues I have with it:

  1. The results are actually embedded in the source code. The argument for this is that they are parsed and checked to ensure the code and docs don't get out of date. I'm interested in embedding details like disassembly though and things like the memory address will change from run to run. The output could also easily dwarf the code for the function itself so shouldn't be directly embedded. (PAX now supports not checking consistency, allowing me to simply dump the output of a form.)
  2. The second (much more minor) issue is that there isn't a straightforward way to ask the source definition of a function to be embedded in the doc. MGL-PAX assumes that symbols listed in the doc should be an exported part of the public API and links directly to the source on github at the relevant commit. It's a neat bit of hackery but makes more sense in the case of medium-to-large projects rather than Advent of Code exercises. (Similarly, PAX now has a way of adding "includes" via transcript.)

My only remaining concern is that the navigation and transcription functionality is tied to slime and swank. Hopefully I'll have an opportunity to try them with sly soon and can dig in or report it if there are issues.

In the advent project, the site-building and deployment was trivial. Hacking together a way to generate an overview of all solved problems with performance measurements involved some fiddling but I'm happy with the results.

Evolving my style

For a long time, I've been writing small projects in common lisp, writing a handful of tests, and relied only sparingly on libraries. A little alexandria here, a little cl-ppcre there. There's a place for that but I'm ready to try and cobble together the utilities and extensions to the language that I'm comfortable with. For now, that's alexandria, serapeum, iterate, mgl-pax, and try. Clingon, trivia, screamer, and fset wait in the wings for the right problem.

There are plenty of talented lispers around. Two people whose code I've enjoyed reading during advent are death and Steve Losh (aka sjl). They feel like opposites to me if only because sjl has a project dedicated to advent and an assortment of dependencies, macros, and utilities to make advent hacking pleasant. Death by contrast almost always just relies on the language standard and throws his code unceremoniously in a gist. His solutions are often faster than mine but don't sacrifice elegance.

Conclusion

It all boils down to this: I still like lisp, I miss hacking it, and I should read and write more code. My algorithms chops aren't as good as I'd like and I have to make an effort to not get discouraged by my limitations. All the more reason to keep doing advent, even out of season, and learn a few things.

8 Good Games (since 2013)

posted on 2022-01-01 13:40:00

Since Last Time

A long time ago when Norma and I had just started dating and I hadn't ever taught anyone to program, I wrote a post. In it, I talked about some of my favorite games. It was mostly just a list with a little added color here and there. But it's time for an update, and this time I hope to do just a little more than list some favorites. I'm also a little aware of how I weighted things last time. When I wrote Beloved Games, I wanted to make sure the times in my life with the most gaming (middle school and high school) had the bulk of the entries. I also wanted to show that the gaming experiences that had been managing to pull me back into the fold and affect me at that time were small downloadable indies, a relatively new phenomena. Those games offered new experiences more regularly than AAA titles so I also was careful to not include more than one game from a particular genre or series (which were relegated to honorary mentions).

The List

So, what really struck a chord with me in the last 8 years? I'll just list the titles first and then delve into more detailed thoughts and justifications. These are arbitrarily in order of least to most long-term impact on me personally.

The Last of Us

The Last of Us is an incredibly compelling story and one of the best games of its generation. The value it has to me has less to do with the gameplay though, and more to do with the quality of its presentation, the rapport it builds with its cast, and the more serious themes of its plot. In some ways, The Last of Us reminded me of when I first played "Metal Gear Solid". The themes it dealt with were more mature than what I expected of games at that time and it pushed the envelope of how to tell a story in games compared to its contemporaries.

The interesting thing about such games is that they make a big impact at the time of release but wane later. By pushing the medium forward, if you miss them when they came out it becomes notably harder to appreciate their qualities many years down the line when the lessons they teach are internalized by other works in the medium. (The same thing happens in film, of course.)

The reasons I started disconnecting with games in the late aughts and early tens was two fold. For one, I was really starting to grow up. I had a lot of opportunities to do fun things IRL that weren't available to high school me. I was being social more, studying more, working more. I was living more. That focus made it harder to justify lots of time spent on gaming experiences.

The fact that AAA games increasingly were just rehashes of existing series or well-formed genres was just the nail in the coffin. The Last of Us is an amazing title. But it is a continuation of the established mold of "story-driven 3rd person action adventure". That's not to undersell its accomplishments at all, but I think there are limits to how much that can impact me now.

Skate

There isn't a ton to say about Skate. It should've been on the original list and it wasn't. I can clearly remember spending the night at a friend's house in 1999 and his insistence at Blockbuster (really dating myself here) that we rent a skateboarding game. I thought it was the dumbest idea I'd ever heard. Why on earth would that be any fun at all?

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater got me into skateboarding in real life. It is the first ~~physical~~ athletic activity I remember really liking. It was also the first hobby I picked up and really enjoyed despite knowing I wasn't particularly talented at it.

Tony Hawk as a series has always been an arcade game rather than a Sim though. I discovered Thrasher's Skate and Destroy in high school and eventually favored it because it was closer to how I would really want to skate than the mindless combo fodder of THPS which was better for playing with friends.

Skate came out in 2009 and was probably the first PS3 game I was really hype about. That or MGS4. Skate took a great budget and the notion of a Sim skateboarding game and nailed it. I loved the whole series and eventually started playing it more than really skateboarding. Whoops.

Breath of the Wild

What was the first "Open World" game? Do we count GTA 3 and Vice City or do we wait until Assassin's Creed and Skyrim? Is 3rd person perspective required? I realize Elite was a thing but I wasn't alive for that. Breath of the Wild is probably the first so-called open world game that I gave a damn about it and that's the least interesting thing about it to me.

Ocarina of Time feels like the first open-world game that I played and was really captivated by. It comes down to the same crucial thing: an insane dedication to compelling world building. There are tons of open world games that just feel like endless content with no soul, no hidden inner workings, just the result of needing to fill a virtual space rather than a thing that has a logic of its own. In a game like GTA where most people play by just causing chaos and trolling authority in a controlled space that's fine. But in a game like Zelda, it makes all the difference.

I don't remember if I played Breath of the Wild in 2017 or 2018. I never finished the story. I just enjoyed exploring a well-crafted world until I'd had my fill. I don't know that it changed how I thought about games or what they could be. It was just the perfect way to relax and enjoy Hyrule.

Persona 5

Final Fantasy convinced me I liked JRPGs but I never managed to break into the genre more broadly. I really enjoyed FFVIII (my first) and FFX. I never played 1-7 (I know, I know) and started but never finished 9 and 12. It mostly came down to an enjoyable world to explore, an interesting (or at least tolerable) cast, and great art and music. Persona 5 was the first JRPG I managed to play outside Final Fantasy and I think the only reason I didn't finish it is my wife got impatient. I enjoyed watching the rest of her playthrough. One day I'll finish my own.

JRPGs often have an adolescent feel to me and I think it's probably essential that they do. I was a shut-in during high school even though I'm pretty extroverted. I had close friends but still managed to doubt that I'd figure out life: jobs, relationships, a future. JRPGs are great providers of "safe freedom" and a coming of age setting. They build faith that you can figure things out and win, often in a style that suits you.

Persona 5 nails this more than any RPG I can think of. It has incredible art and worldbuilding, an engaging story, and genuinely interesting relationships. It is the only RPG where I've been compelled to micro-optimize whether I study, work, build a friendship, or fight demons after school. How they made it both fun and relaxing, I'm not sure.

Hades

You've probably already heard about Hades. (And most of these games, in fairness.) It won Game of the Year from many publications. It is the first roguelike I have loved. Roguelikes are tricky for me. It's interesting to separate the games on my lists between an attraction for worldbuilding/story vs mechanics/gameplay. While there is definitely a spectrum, games are fairly even dividied as to what the big draw is for me but it is exceedingly rare for me to like a game that doesn't have strong art and storyline to rope me in.

Roguelikes as a genre promise variation from randomly generated elements in a playthrough and multiple ways to win but often struggle to have the same draw for me as games with more linear stories and higher production values. It's hard for randomly generated worlds to have a soul. Call me shallow but there are exactly 3 games on my lists that I would say don't matter to me at all in terms of story and characterization: Mega Man 2, Super Stardust, and Melee.

Lots of indie roguelikes (and metroidvanias too) struggle to not just be fun to play but also compel with their characters and sense of place. Hades brokethrough for me by having a very strong sense of meta-progress across runs, a very engaging story, beautiful art, and an amazing capacity to build enjoyment through more options the longer you play. It's hard to explain but it's magic. I remember saying the same thing about Persona 5 at some point, "It just keeps opening up".

Celeste

I love platformers. The last few years have really driven that home for me. Celeste took me a while to get around to because, well, the art didn't quite impress me. And I was fresh off playing Hollow Knight so my bar was probably a little high. It also didn't have combat and I wondered how the gameplay would develop to keep me engaged without it. That was a foolish mistake.

Celeste is one of the best platformers I have ever played, has a memorable and moving soundtrack, and one of the most thoughtful treatments of mental health in video gaming. It is brutally challenging while also encouraging the player to push onwards. For all its difficulty, kindness is somehow in its design. I am not one of the people who completed all the optional B and C-side content and probably won't be. I am immensely happy I took the time to pick it up.

Hollow Knight

We're really getting into the heavy hitters at this point. I loved Hollow Knight. Really loved it. I've been eagerly awaiting their follow-up game Silksong for the better part of 2 years, clinging to any news at all and hoping for a surprise release announcement constantly.

Hollow Knight is the complete package. A new IP from a formerly unknown developer. Just enough story and lore to have you curiously driving forward while retaining an air of mystery. Absolutely stunning artwork and animation combined with a fresh setting. A beautiful soundtrack to accentuate exploring. A sense of perpetual "opening up" as new mechanics and abilities are unlocked. And most important of all, beautifully tight physics and controls. The kind of game where it "just feels right".

It's been years since I've played it and I regularly entertain thoughts of playing it through again (which I don't really do with games). I'm sure I'll love it for years to come. Here's hoping 2022 is the year for Silksong.

Melee

I ... probably should stop the article now. Melee is a force. I played Super Smash Bros for N64 and Wii in college and really enjoyed it. Few things are better than beating up your friends with Nintendo characters. It's just a fact. But Melee is something else. You can play it the way you play the other smash games. It can be chaos with friends, random items and silly stages full of hazards. Or you can turn off the most chaotic random elements and stages, practice movement with your character, and turn it into possibly the most interesting competitive game I've ever played.

I started playing at the end of 2013 and I haven't stopped. I've traveled out of state with my friend Max to compete in national tournaments. It is the only fighting game I know of that has multiple tournaments with prize pools in the tens of thousands of dollars 20 years after release with no backing from its developer. I am closer to understanding fans of real sports because of how many times, how many seasons, I've watched twitch streams of major tournaments with tens of thousands of other spectators, rooting for pro players I think can break through to the next level of play or conquer their demon.

There are at least three high quality documentaries I can think of off the top of my head chronicling the game's competitive history and the stories of its players. There are countless sets I've loved watching. The melee I see played today has evolved from 2 years ago, which has evolved from 2 years before that, all the way back to when I started playing eight years ago. I have recordings of me playing in 2014 and 2015. I can't express how different they look to when I play now.

When does a game become more than a game? I think it's when the dedicated, long-term efforts of thousands and thousands of people force it to continue to grow and change until it no longer resembles it's humble origins. Every time I think the game has been pushed to its limits and all its secrets have been revealed, I'm proven wrong whether it's at the next tournament or the one after. It won't surprise me if Melee is still being played seriously 20 years from now. And even if it isn't, it's been one hell of a ride. Some good links below if you're interested.

Video Essays:

Documentaries:

Grade A Youtube Content (from entertaining to educational):

One very good recent set:

Compilations and Combo Videos:

Deliberate Action

posted on 2021-12-31 15:15:00

2 years in a blink

I hardly know how to count the time. In the past ~2 years, I left Flatiron after helping start the Atlanta campus, started working at Calendly, been a best man, got married myself, weathered a global pandemic, and recently became an Engineering Manager.

A tremendous amount has happened, but I feel like I've lost the boy I remember from college a little. He was excited about things: video games, music, common lisp, poetry. This blog has also atrophied for nearly a decade, torn between being an outlet for personal interests and reflection and a more serious place to cultivate a professional(-ish) voice.

Focus on Habits

I was talking to my close friend James recently about working in tech. James is probably the sharpest engineer I've had the pleasure to work with and he was discussing getting better. I asked him what it mattered, or more precisely, what he would be able to do if he got better that he couldn't do now. His answer surprised me. He said, "I really don't think about outcomes."

There was a little more to it than that but the short version was, he keeps an eye on how much he's learning and places bets on what will be interesting and provide good opportunities to grow. Then he just walks in that direction.

By contrast, I have an almost total inability to pursue things without thinking about the outcomes in advance and evaluating my progress after every minute step. I doubt I'll ever be able to suppress those urges completely, but picking a direction and moving without so much analysis paralysis is something to work on.

Rather than worrying about the past or where a certain choice will take me, I hope to pick a direction and just walk. I'll form a habit, live with it for a while, and try to feel it out. I'll know soon enough if I want to continue.

Goals for 2022

With that in mind, these are some things I'll pursue in the coming year. There are two overarching themes: allow myself to goof off when needed, and pick just a few things to chip away at instead of debating 100 projects. I.e. Do more, deliberate less.

Waste Time

It's time to pursue the childlike joy I remember that college kid having. I'm not sure exactly what form this will take. One thing I'd like to try is getting back into video gaming again. I haven't allowed myself to play many (single-player) games for the last few years. I make up stories about how they're a waste of time and I "should" do more productive things. But then I waste time in other ways to avoid being productive. Games are good. Maybe also some things like trying to learn Chess or mess with emacs.

Use the Internet Less

Social media is a wasteland and it's all too easy to simply fritter away time. I've read the internet enough and while there are some high quality blogs I enjoy, my time would be better spent reading books, writing code or prose, or goofing off with games or Norma or friends. So, use the internet for work, pushing code and blog posts, getting new music, and chat/slack. The end.

Write More

I used to blog more. I blogged about all kinds of things. I was (and am) a culture nerd. I wanted to talk about Music, Movies, TV, Games. It wasn't just code all the time. I also wanted to talk about code and, in particular, I relished in things that seemed cool but I really knew nothing about. And that is one of the uses of my computer that I've never regretted. Writing somehow always winds up feeling like an at least decent use of time. (I probably just like the sound of my own voice too much. I did teach after all.)

I hope to keep experimenting without aspirations, without outcomes, and writing about what delights me and what I take away from my dabbling. I hope I write more here in general about everything! To preserve a record for future me, or for anyone else who might be interested.

Crafting Interpreters and then other technical reading

I've got such a long list of programming or CS texts I've meant to work through. And it's hard! After working at a software company all day, even though I still want to know more about various aspects of computing, it's just not appealing. However, I'm pretty disappointed that I still haven't written a toy language implementation, finished an emulator, worked with C more, etc etc.

Crafting Interpreters is a great place to start in terms of technical topics I'm interested in and I have a friend who is also interested in working through it. Community always helps. After CI, there are certainly other things I'm interested in. I don't have a strict list of priorities but a proper algorithms book (Vazirani/Dasgupta or Erickson probably) or a good "systems" book like CS:APP would likely be next on my list. I'd also consider a look at Software Design for Flexibility or Lisp in Small Pieces of course. :)

I'd also like to read some non-technical books. The Elegant Puzzle would be good to get a better grasp on engineering management and I've got a few books on Chess that might help improve my play as well. But Crafting Interpreters first, then I can worry about "what's next".

Wrapping Up

I can always list plenty more I'm interested in but if I can focus on these three things, I think I'll have a lovely year ahead. Here's wishing for a return to normalcy from the hell years of COVID and joyous new discoveries for us all.

Reboot

posted on 2021-08-30 16:07

This has been an incredibly full and difficult year. Norma and I got vaccinated. Her mother had a serious and ongoing health crisis for several months. During that period, we both had unusually busy quarters at work. I applied for a promotion at the encouragement of both managers and peers and narrowly missed it. My product manager got hired away to be a CPO and several engineers left the product section I work in. As a result, the squad I started is being re-absorbed into the other squads in our product group. Management hopes to restart it at a later date. Finally, the long discussed garage renovation on our home is completed. Now it functions as a climate controlled office and synth dungeon.

At the end of all this, I'm deeply exhausted. I'm very thankful that lately I have been able to enjoy much more human contact thanks to being vaccinated. Seeing friends in person and giving them hugs goes a long, long way. I'm trying to get back in the groove on pursuing creative projects but it's very hard.

Lately I've been thinking about how if I don't choose to enjoy my days, then I am likely to stress myself out. Work can't make me happy, relationships can't make me happy. I care deeply about relationships and community but I have to choose to enjoy my own experience. I have to choose to validate who and where I am. I deserve to feel good. If I don't choose to let myself feel good, and pursue the things that excite me without judgement, then I will find a reason to be hard on myself or stress myself out.

I've been having to remind myself that neither money nor work nor relationships are inhibiting my ability to lead the life I want. It's all me at this point. I just have to start living more fearlessly and letting myself be me in the way that feels right. Damn the consequences. Something to keep working on. Step by step.

Feeling Stuck

posted on 2021-03-07 22:15:00

It's been a year and I'm still thinking about Halt and Catch Fire. I haven't started my 3rd rewatch but it'll probably happen soon. I wrote a bunch of toots about it recently but it may not capture how I feel as well as this infovore article.

The reality is, I love the show because it's about people learning to have healthy relationships with work and to love themselves. I tend to form great bonds with coworkers but my relationship with the work itself and my ability to love myself is just damned fraught.

I feel unbelievably drained lately. I'm in a weird place at Calendly where I'm sort of in between being an IC and a Manager. I'm convinced I'm doing less work than ever while receiving good reviews and "Top Performer" recognition. I just find it insanely hard to praise myself. I've thought a lot about it and one reason I've struggled so much (and sought a Team Lead position) is that I don't know how to praise myself for writing software.

I had to think really hard about that to realize that I don't like much software. People use computers in all these ways that just don't make sense to me. The software I get the most excited about is small and personal. An emacs configuration. A 1000 line blog engine in Lisp. A handcrafted website conveying intimacy and joy.

It's okay that professional software isn't about that. But I have a very hard time figuring out what the "best way" to architect large systems is because I don't want them to exist in the first place. I can speak up when I see an obvious way to improve what we deliver but I actively avoid ownership because it's not the software I want to see in the world. Or at least that I want to use.

That's left me in a tough place trying to figure out what I want to do next professionally but it's been an important step. Maybe moving to a more managerial side will be good. I'm also aware that I am much more able to praise myself for my efforts as a teacher than as an engineer. Teaching is, in many ways, more congruent with my values. For better or worse, teaching examples are usually small applications that can eschew most of the thorny aspects of production software.

It also hasn't helped that I've struggled to commit to hobby coding. I've struggled with depression a lot throughout the pandemic. I get a ton of my energy from my sense of community and sharing experiences with close friends. It's been very difficult to keep a good perspective stuck in the house all the time. I'm also aware that coding all day has taken a lot of the desire to joyfully explore a computer in the evenings away from me even if I did have collaborators handy. I turned a hobby into a career and I definitely have some regrets about it lately.

One thing I have enjoyed in the last few years is listening to a lot of electronic music and starting to dabble with synthesizers myself. With Norma and I both working from home though, the former pseudo-studio space has become a home office. We started remodeling the garage to be a hobby/office space last November, but that work still isn't done.

So here I am. Coming up on the 12 year anniversary of Dad's death, the 10 year anniversary of my entry into the workforce, and my 35th birthday. I'm having a hard time forming healthy habits for managing my stress and not sure what I want to do next. I don't feel I can complain because, well, I'm extremely well off! Calendly is doing well and treating me quite well, I'm safe and at home, in a supportive relationship, my family and friends are safe.

And yet, the urge to pull the plug and change my circumstances is so powerful. I might consider it if only I was certain about what I thought should come next.

Heaven is a Place

posted on 2020-04-14 14:35:00

NIM

Songs of the Day:

  • Pixies - Velouria
  • The Sea and Cake - Four Corners
  • Blood Orange - You're Not Good Enough
  • Soccer Mommy - Circle the Drain
  • Wild Nothing - Midnight Song

It's been a bit of a week. I'm on vacation from work, thank goodness. I had really run out of steam on my projects. It was difficult to focus and I was berating myself a lot which only makes things more exhausting.

There's so much I want to work on.

I have a really, really hard time making myself happy. In a lot of ways, I think I don't know how to play by myself. You would think as an only child that it would come naturally, but it really doesn't. I mean, I can list things I think I'd like to do: read books, play video games, write code, etc. I just struggle to do any of those things or feel good when I actually do them. I think this is why the quarantine has reminded me of what summer break felt like as a kid. There was an initial elation at this sudden freedom in your schedule ... and then a gradual despair as nothing seems to matter without someone to witness it.

I've been rewatching Halt and Catch Fire and very emotionally attached to it. I think one of the reasons is that it's about these characters who obsess and get fixated on projects but really struggle in their relationships. I feel like I'm pretty happy with my relationships but hate myself for not moving forward on the projects I fixate on. I identify with multiple characters on the show and I think I struggle emotionally because they wind up alone, both romantically and in terms of collaborators. In many ways, the show is about failure and how the characters deal with it. And after seeing them grow as people, work so hard, and love so fervently, it's heartbreaking to me to see that failure.

I've been struggling with a need for external validation my whole life. I think there are a few components to that:

  1. I don't really trust my own evaluation of myself and my contributions. This is mirrored in HCF when Joe asks Cameron "What is it that I do?". He honestly can't convince himself that his contributions make people's lives better rather than worse.
  2. Because I get very fixated on what interests me or how I think things should be done, I need to have a fair amount of autonomy or executive function to be happy and have fun. But if I'm doing anything (project or recreation) purely alone I lose steam and belief that it's worthwhile. The need for both structure and validation from collaborators while choosing not only the activity but also most of how it's carried out makes it really hard for me to find people that will come along on adventures with me.

Two different relationships in my life stand out as being unusually good for me by playing to these challenges.

  1. The Iron Yard was probably the happiest I've been at a job ever. I had a tremendous amount of freedom and responsbility in how I ran my classroom. But thanks to the other staff and the students, I never really felt like I was "on my own". I rarely got into that crazy "does it matter, is it really worth anything" headspace. I had external validation (mostly students), collaboration and friendship (staff), and autonomy in how goals were pursued. There was some tension because I sometimes wished I could change the broader educational goals or thought we weren't honest enough with our students about the challenges they would face, but this was dwarfed by the rest.

    I think this is one of the reasons teaching has often been a good job fit for me. Quoth the showrunners from Halt, "I think teaching is a way to spread your love of a thing without needing to be the victor in that particular arena." In a lot of ways, I struggle to to be an engineer instead of a teacher because I either genuinely don't think the technical problems at the company are interesting or because I think I need to be the victor to prove my worth. In teaching, the problems aren't the important thing, getting people to connect with themselves and their curiosity is most important. Tech is just the setting. That feels almost perfect to me.

  2. Ben Minor was my roommate both in college and after and is one of my dearest friends. Ben is a very easygoing guy and happy to do most whatever you want to do all the time. It helps that we have some overlapping interests (aside from code) but in 15 years of friendship, he's rarely not been open to doing whatever I feel interested in doing.

    I often have a hard time working on things on my own. Even if I'm legitimately interested in them, I struggle to make myself believe that they matter or generate forward motion pursuing them. I desperately want collaborators. But frankly, I'm pretty difficult to collaborate with because I have both pretty specific ideas about what we should do and how we should go about it. This makes me relate to Cameron from Halt and Catch Fire because she is genuinely terrible at working with others even though she would love to. She needs to be the special brilliant child a bit too much.

    But this also extends to how I relax and have fun. In an interview with the actor who plays Joe Macmillan, he said: "He wants his friends to play his game. I guess that's his flaw. He wants to be in the sandbox with his friends, but he wants his friends to be building the same sandcastle."

I don't know how to fix this, or even how to work on it really. Norma mentioned recently that when something makes me unhappy my reaction is to stare at it until I feel I understand or can move past it rather than to be avoidant. It results in a lot of unhealthy feeling "stuck time" where I feel anxious and spiral into my unhappiness. Hopefully one day I can find a little more peace, knowing that I'm valued in the world for loving people in spite of being a little hard to work with. I'm still a bit worried that I'm not a great software engineer because I'm more interested in studying, learning, and sharing, than building things. But one thing at a time.

So sure, this week I would love to:

  • Work through Crafting Interpreters
  • Rewrite the graphics layer in Clones
  • Work through more On Lisp, SICP, CS:APP, or Algorithms
  • Investigate tools for literate programming / publishing programs
  • Start using org-mode
  • Make a great mixtape

But I have to take care of myself first. And today, that might just mean doing laundry, missing dad (and wishing I could listen to music with him), cuddling the dogs, and writing. Maybe I'll spend some time in the hammock. All for now...

In Praise of Unfocus

posted on 2020-02-01 22:45:00

De-emphasizing output

I often tend to judge myself, at work and outside of it, on my output. Old habits are hard to escape. But there are a lot of reasons this is an instinct to be resisted. First of all, if you're tackling suitably interesting projects it may be hard to predict progress or even define good stopgap goals. Many people experience cultural pressure to measure themselves in terms of their output or to be efficient in all things they pursue. That distortion in what we value often leads to a lopsidedness in our goals and pursuits. There are two defenses that have stuck with me lately against such ideas. So I want to tell you about them in the context of last Sunday when I was unfocused and then anxious about having spent my time that way.

Breadth over Depth

In a single Sunday I got excited about: 90s techno (Tri Repetae, Hard Normal Daddy), new techno (Djrum, HVL, John Talabot), Smash Bros Melee both for its depth to competitors and my choice to be only a semi-serious player, a study group I started at work to go through Crafting Interpreters, making music with Modular synths, making music with Renoise instead, Open hardware efforts like Pine Phone and MNT Reform, Grammatech's open source SEL project for doing Binary Analysis and modification with Common Lisp, InterimOS, and a slew of other odds and ends.

Even if these cluster around nerdy themes, that's an awful lot to enjoy in a single day. It's easy to lament that nothing was produced, that there is no output to share, but that ignores the fact that being plugged in to so many things often means forgoing total immersion in a single piece of subject matter. And there are network externalities at work too. Discovering music means I can play it next time I co-host The Mobius on GA Tech radio with my buddy Matt. Being aware of software and hardware projects means I can share resources with other hackers.

People over Performance

But all that wasn't enough to keep me from worrying that I don't focus enough. Or I focus on the wrong things. I had a performance review coming up at work so that might have had something to do with it. Even though the company has a relaxed culture, I'm a worryer and a catastrophizer by nature. I was getting worked up over the fact that I don't ship as much as some other members of my team. I was trying to imagine exactly where the bar was and what objective, quantitative measures would be used to evaluate my performance. I was thinking about how I had never felt like I was the developer doing the most challenging or glamorous work at my past jobs and I still had a slower rate of shipping tickets than those taking on that challenging work.

After a little while, I thought especially about Emcien. Emcien was a great opportunity for me and a cool Ruby/Rails shop to work at. I was there from early 2013 to late 2014. More so than other jobs I've held, I think of things at Emcien as having gone sour even though I left in decent terms. I got into a negative headspace about the value of my work and its perception in early 2014 and that re-inforced until I was dragging my feet constantly. I wound up putting in my notice because I was unhappy, but the work environment didn't do it, I did it to myself. So, did it end in failure?

Here's the really interesting part. After I left that job, where I assumed I was a waste of money and possibly resented for not being a bigger contributor, I wound up becoming the best man of one of the engineers and a good friend and confidant of another. There were 5 devs total, including me. The 2 jobs I got immediately following Emcien were working with those two individuals and they both had positive things to say about me during the interview process.

Probing for Answers

How do we explain this? There are a few possibilities I can think of. One is that I actually was just as productive as everyone else. Another is that even if I was less productive I was working on things others were not excited to work on and that freed them to do what they were passionate about. But the explanation I like is that while I shipped less code than my peers, I made sure they felt great every day. As much as I was able, I shared energy with them and supported them in their efforts while still making progress on my own tasks, even if a bit slowly. I just loved on them.

It's easy in software to get fixated on people working on the most impressive or high profile projects. I can get tunnel vision thinking about career growth as only coming through huge expertise. But even as a software engineer you can be as valuable for how you support others as for your individual efforts. It could be more important to your career goal to be energizing and well liked than productive. Which isn't to say you should go be popular and ignore your work, just that focusing only on output distracts from a more realistic view of how people function as part of a team.

I sometimes struggle with my instinct to be unfocused, or am ashamed I'll be thought of as a dilettante or dabbler, as if the only respectable option is to be myopically focused on one area of knowledge. To have one project of grand scope. I need to remember, and I imagine I'm not alone, that embracing my varied interests both nourishes me and is a valid choice that can enrich the communities I particpate in.

And that's enough of my soapbox for one day. Happy Hacking.


Unless otherwise credited all material Creative Commons License by Brit Butler