inessential by Brent Simmons

March 2009

Comments theory

I could easily be wrong — but I think the trend is that people are moving away from comments that appear with articles on websites, since the comments are usually not that interesting.

They’re at best not interesting; often they’re bad enough to make you wonder if we wouldn’t be better off with parakeets or wolves as the dominant thinking (or “thinking”) species rather than us monkeys.

Instead people are following other people on FriendFeed, Facebook, Twitter, delicious, etc. – they get to hear what people they think are interesting say, instead of what just anybody says.

It’s not the same thing, but it is the same thing in the sense that it’s listening to other people’s voices.

My thinking is that there’s a certain amount of attention for that, and things like delicious take attention away from on-site comments.

I’d rather hear what any of my friends says on any topic, rather than what people I don’t know say about a specific article. And I think that’s more and more true for more people, now that we’ve all seen what on-site comments are like, and how they’re getting worse.

(Not all comments everywhere are awful, of course. And my theory could just be me projecting my own thoughts on the web-at-large.)

Two more pictures

Me and my pinewood derby car. Around 1976.


Christmas 1969.

Christmas 69


Happy Birthday to Josh Lucas, to Nicholas Riley, and to me!

And of course to Leonard Nimoy, who taught me that logic can be cool.

Here’s my first birthday. 1969. I can’t figure out what the food is. It’s entirely possible that there are mashed potatoes in the red bowl. (I love mashed potatoes.)

1st Birthday

Two felines



Heart of lion.

Papa the cat

InternetWorld Spring 1997

I wish I remembered this guy’s name.

In early March 1997 I attended Spring InternetWorld in Los Angeles. I was working at UserLand Software, for Dave Winer. We were attached to Apple’s booth at the show; we were demoing a new piece of group web publishing software — that ran on Macs — called Content Server. (The basic idea: drop a text file or graphic into a folder on a shared drive, and the system would do the right thing: render it as HTML and upload it to the website.)

Gil Amelio was still CEO — he even gave a keynote at the show. But Steve Jobs had just come back, and the announcement that the NeXT OS would be the next Mac OS had been made. (We were a little freaked out that the new OS would require an astronomical 128 MB of RAM.)


Dave and I were talking to some guy — a smart guy, as I recall, older than I was, who’d been around the industry for many years — and this guy told us that we were wasting our time with website-building technology. By the year 2000, he said, there would probably be only about half-a-dozen websites.

He said: you know PathFinder, right? With that and a few other sites like it, there is simply no need or demand for anything else.

Dave and I didn’t agree, of course. We expected an explosion in small websites, from individuals to small companies to small publications. It seemed like the problem was that it was still too hard to make websites.

But this guy said: no, that’s not it at all — it’s that nobody wants to make or visit those websites. It’ll just be a few giant sites that survive.

I wish I remembered his name, because it’s so much like that famous (but perhaps apocryphal) statement from Thomas J. Watson: “I think there is a world market for about five computers.”

The thing is, this guy wasn’t alone. Picture 1997. There were even people who thought the web itself was a fad, and that there’d be zero websites by the year 2000. But the idea that it would follow the path of other industries — with tons of small players at first and then consolidations and mass extinctions — sort of made sense, if the web was like anything else.

But it wasn’t.

Nobody knew that for sure, though.

Bonus memory

One night at the conference Apple held a party at the Whisky A Go Go on the fabulous Sunset Strip. (I always have to say “fabulous” because of the opening to X’s live album at the Whisky. “Hellooooo, everybodyyyyyy, and welcome to the Whisky A Go Go on the fabulous Sunset Strip!”)

Steve Jobs had just put a bullet in OpenDoc’s head, and there were some OpenDoc engineers at the party. I remember talking to one, whose name I didn’t catch or don’t remember.

I was glad about OpenDoc going away, but I didn’t say that. (OpenDoc made Java apps look slim and fast and stable.)

We were standing, drinking pints of beer. I asked him what he thought, and he said it was a shame, because there was so much great technology in OpenDoc, but he understood needing to cut costs.

“What are you going to do?” I asked.

“Who knows,” he said, and then stared down into his beer. “I’ll think of something.”

I don’t know what he did next. It’s likely he was laid off. It’s also likely he’s had another couple tours of duty at Apple since. Or went on to found a startup and make millions — or lose millions. Who knows.

I remember thinking how brutal the tech industry can be. One minute you’re working on technology you think is great, and the next minute you might be wondering where to sign up for unemployment checks.

What was his name? What happened to him?

Another bonus memory: fast-forward to 2000

In late 2000 Dave and I attended eDevCon in New Orleans. I remember some of the people I met there: Tim Bray, Dori Smith, Nat Torkington, Steve Gillmor.

The conference was put on by Fawcette, and Dave and I met one of the Fawcette guys in the hall — he had invited Dave to speak, and I was there for the ride.

The guy — with a huge smile, talking very quickly, on his way to somewhere — says, “It’s so great to meet you! I love you guys’ blogs, how you write every single day. I could never do that!”

This guy — well, I remember his name, and I do know what happened to him. Turned out Robert Scoble could write every single day.

Final bonus memory

At the end of eDevCon I spotted Jeffrey Zeldman in the hotel store. I went and introduced myself to him — as he was, I don’t know, looking at the mints or magazines or something. I told him what a big fan I was and how much I admired his work for open standards.

Right at first he had the exact look of someone who had a lot of fans at these kinds of things and wanted to just buy a thing in the store and be left alone for just one goddamn minute for a change. But there was me, another fanboy. And then he was gracious and nice.

I remember thinking: how weird it must be for him, to be interrupted by fans at random times at these things.

And I remember thinking it’s not something I would ever have to worry about in the future.


Here’s Pixie looking at my source code. Whenever I use it, it distracts me. I especially like turning it on itself.

Pixie screen shot

Software + zealots + personalities

One of the things that kept me away from Git for a while was the evangelical stuff — and that Linus Torvalds is its daddy.

I don’t mind advocacy, and I absolutely, completely love it when people write with passion about cool stuff — but there’s a border. On the other side of that border are the zealots.

Git, like Linux, has more than its share of zealots, and I’ve always had the impression that Torvalds is not someone I would like very much in real life. (I’m probably wrong — I tend to like most everybody I meet, and I’d probably like him tons.)

I hate that personalities can get in the way of looking at technology. I admit, I had to make myself take a look at Git. That’s a shameful thing on my part. (But at least I did it!)

Thought experiment

I’ve been using Apple computers for 29 years. But what if I hadn’t? What would I think?

I’d probably look at Steve Jobs and think he was precious and over-rated. Arrogant and fiddly. The kind of guy who’s so lonely because he’s the only person in the world who’s always right.

I would have to make myself take a look at Macs and iPhones, the way I had to make myself look at Git, despite not wanting to be in that guy’s world.

I’m not saying I actually do think that of Steve Jobs. I’m imagining an alternate universe.

But it points out the trouble of taking personalities into account too much when considering technology. It would be a shame to miss out on iPhones and Macs just because of that stuff — and it would be a shame to miss out on Git for those kinds of reasons too.

Cool stuff is cool, despite the source, despite the behavior of some of the people who like it.

Theory: zealotry == nil

I’ll try this out: The absence or presence of zealots indicates absolutely nothing about the quality or lack of quality of a piece of technology.

It’s like weather. Not random, but close enough. You can ignore it completely. Zealots are wasting their time.

Similarly: the perceived arrogance of a leader indicates nothing about quality.

However, there does seem to be a correlation between certain types of leaders and the presence of zealots.

What’s a zealot?

A fanboy is somebody who really, really, really likes something.

A zealot is somebody who really, really, really likes something — and thinks it will change the world, and that everybody who doesn’t like it is living their lives wrong and hurting everybody.

Zealots like to apply the phrase “just doesn’t get it” to people who differ. (Beware that phrase! But beware even more when people say of you that you “get it.”)

How to develop a cult of personality

If you want your own corps of zealots, first you need some truly great technology. Don’t skip this part.

Then you need a philosophy that people adopt as a cause.

Then you need to state your opinions boldly. Make them as simple and direct and uncompromising as possible. The impressions of deep intelligence, candor, and certitude are key.

Your goal is to turn off the skeptical and analytical gears and ignite the pack-following engines.

It’s nice, but not essential, to actually be right, or partly right, much of the time.

(I think that’s it, but I might be missing something.)

Beta dogs

The ambition of every pack follower is to be the beta dog. They can’t be alpha, because fearless leader is alpha — but they can be second-in-command.

The surest route to beta-dog-status, our instincts wrongly tell us, is to be the best zealot.

(I want to get in a literary reference here about Paradise Lost and Lucifer saying it’s better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. But, of course, I’m slightly afraid that religious zealots will take it the wrong way. So I’ll skip it — I’ll just stick it in this parenthetical note, knowing full well that while parentheses look like shields, they’re really not.)

None of the above matters

I could go on and on. But the thing is, none of it says anything about how good is any given piece of technology. I still have to look and decide for myself.

It’s tough, because my personal tendency is always to hate Top 40. I’m always suspicious of the song that’s rising up the charts with a bullet.

Cable news channels complaint

The cable news channels are obsessed with Twitter these days. And of course they read feedback from Facebook and email too.

I wish they wouldn’t. I hate it. It wastes my time.

This on-air stuff proves that people have strong opinions that they can express succinctly — and that contribute nothing to the dialog or understanding of an issue. Nothing new there.

And it shows how desperate the news channels are to appear young, or plugged-in, or open, or whatever. I’d rather they did a better job of news reporting.

Still looking for a version control system

A few years ago I switched from CVS (ugh) to Subversion. I’ve been largely happy with it. (As recently as last summer I had no plans to switch.)

I use version control just for me: I’m not collaborating on a source code level with other people.

I have two machines: a desktop, my main development machine; and a laptop, where I like to work sometimes or where I work when on the road.

(The benefits of version control for the solo developer, even one using just one machine, are well-known and I won’t rehash them.)

How I work

When I feel like working on my laptop, I make sure everything is committed on my desktop, then do an update or pull to get my laptop up-to-date. Then I work on my laptop for a while, then commit back to the desktop.

Trying Git

A little over a month ago I switched to Git for my fastest-moving project. There’s a lot to like about Git.

But what I don’t like is that it’s more work for me than Subversion.

When I’m finished working on my laptop and I commit my changes, they’re not available on my desktop. I have to take the extra step of pushing the changes.

And then, back at my desktop, I have to figure out how to update the working copy to reflect the changes from my laptop. Which for some reason I have to figure out anew every time: I can’t remember it and I haven’t made a note of it. (Because, every time, I’m dumbly convinced that this time I’ve remembered it.)

To make matters worse, I’m really not sure if I’m doing it right. And uncertainty regarding your version control system is a bad, bad, evil thing.

I fully admit that this stuff is figure-out-able, and I suspect that any Git users reading this are wondering if I’m bright enough to be a software developer, or even to tie my shoes reliably.

But it is, still, verifiably more work. That’s just the nature of distributed version control in cases like this.

Tool philosophy

My philosophy is that programmers should spend most of their time in their text editor. It’s where you write code.

You have to spend time compiling and building, of course. Looking at the bug tracker. Gathering feedback. Designing. Debugging. Thinking. Testing. And you have to spend some time with version control.

But you’ve got to write code, mostly. Everything else is marginal. Important, but not the central activity.

People talk about how wonderful are features like re-writing history — and I read that stuff and think, “Wow, Git’s really cool and powerful.” But then I know it could suck me in and take away time from real work. It’s already more work — for me — than when using Subversion.

Ideally, my version control system does two things:

  1. Makes it easy to use two different machines.

  2. Saves my bacon.

Bacon-saving is, obviously, the most important of the two, but it’s a rare thing. In day-to-day use, using it to sync two machines is the far more common use.

Something simple and easy-to-use that did both would be great. As fun as it is, I don’t really want to let myself futz with my version control system: I want to write code.

(I don’t want to build my own PC, either. Or endlessly tweak a Linux installation. Or comparison-shop for subwoofers. Or use Office.)

My problem with Subversion

When I leave the house with my laptop and want to do some work, I can’t get to my Subversion repository, since it’s at home on my desktop.

So that leaves me coding without a net. Which I hate.

It hasn’t cost me any bacon yet, but I worry about bacon loss — which is just plain not a good feeling.


I might try out Bazaar. I did some reading about it, and apparently it can be used, Subversion-like, with a central repository. In that configuration it doesn’t work like a distributed version control system.

But it also has bind and unbind commands, which would allow me to go local when I’m traveling with my laptop, then go centralized when I get back home.

No conclusion

If I switch one project over to Bazaar, I’ll still be using Git and Subversion on others.

It may be that I’ll figure out a good Git workflow that works for me. There are things Git does better than Subversion, after all. (They just haven’t become important to me yet.)

Or I’ll just go back to Subversion, but use Git when traveling (and check back into Subversion on return). Or maybe Bazaar is really the system I’ve been waiting for, and I’ll love it.

I don’t know. Still looking.