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01:22 – Jamey’s Superpower: “The Fharlanghn Sense”
02:40 – Working in Agriculture
04:03 – Theories on Automation
05:56 – Pivoting Into Computer Science and Software Development
10:35 – Feeling Like You Need to Know Everything
15:47 – ‘Zines and Being a ‘Zine Librarian
27:50 – The Beauty of Art and Technology and Forming Emotional Connections to Things
35:26 – The Death Star => Ethics in Technology and Taking Responsibility/Being Accountable for your Code
“I think the more powerful a tool is, the more respect you have to have for it.” ~ @jameybash on Greater Than Code
— Greater Than Code (@greaterthancode) January 8, 2018
49:42 – Brilliance and Learning From Others Without Consent
54:49 – Advice for Channeling Your Own Inner Fharlanghn Sense
SAM: Hello and welcome to Episode 62 of Greater Than Code. I am Sam Livingston-Gray and I am here to introduce my good friend, Jessica Kerr.
JESSICA: Good morning. Thank you, Sam. I am excited about this episode of Greater Than Code because this is our first episode wherein we don’t have an extra guest and we get to grill one of our fellow panelists. So, thank you very much to Jamey Hampton for being the first panel target. I mean, guest.
Jamey is a non-binary adventurer from Buffalo, New York, who wishes they were immortal so they can have time to visit every coffee shop in the world! They’re an artist who turned into a programmer after one too many animation classes that was a Computer Science class in disguise. Currently, they’re working as a professional plant-liker and software engineer for Agrilyst, a data analysis platform for indoor agriculture. They’re also the zine librarian at Sugar City Arts Collaborative and, bet you wouldn’t have guessed this, a permanent panelist on the podcast, Greater Than Code!
JESSICA: Jamey spends most of their free time camping and thinking about Star Wars, sometimes simultaneously. Jamey. So, the other day you came to St. Louis and visited me and it was fun and I learned about your superpower, which is to magically find the best place to go on a given night in a city you’ve never been in.
JAMEY: Yes. I call it my Fharlanghn sense where Fharlanghn is the god of travel and roads from Dungeons and Dragons.
JAMEY: It’s a good superpower to have. It makes me very fun to travel with. So, if anyone ever wants to go on vacation with me, just hit me up.
JESSICA: Yeah, if you’re adventurous, I guess. If you don’t like surprises, don’t go with Jamey.
JAMEY: That’s true.
JAMEY: I’ve thought about it. I’m like, I wish I could offer my superpower as a service…
JAMEY: To other people, like have an app.
JAMEY: That’s like me giving people advice on what to do. But I’m worried that if I tried to exploit it in that way, maybe it wouldn’t work the way I want, because it’s kind of fickle.
JESSICA: It sounds like you would have to be there.
JAMEY: I don’t think I could automate it. I think I would have to have a personal consultation with someone. I could do that. I’m quitting my day job. Hard pivot.
JAMEY: Just kidding. I love working at Agrilyst. I like plants. And I like working with plants. And I like working with farmers and growers because they’re very interesting.
JESSICA: I’m curious. So, I used to work at an agriculture-related company, too. And one thing I observed about the growers in that particular very corn-dominated agriculture segment is they’re all white males. Is that true in your customer base?
JAMEY: That’s a little bit true. Agrilyst is actually, the founder of our company, her name is Allison. She’s the CEO, Allison Kopf, and she’s awesome. And she used to be a grower. She was an agronomist for an indoor farm and she actually did very similar to what I was just saying about my superpower where she was like, wow, not every farm can afford a me to have a personal agronomist to do this for them. So, what if I created myself as a service? And [chuckles] that’s kind of how Agrilyst happened. And so, she had this whole idea for how you could do the kind of management that she did with software. And I think that’s really cool. But also, the reason I brought it up is because she is a minority, for sure, in the agriculture industry. So, it’s an honor to work with her.
JESSICA: Sweet. So, she is also in the process of automating herself.
JAMEY: Yeah. It’s going well. [Laughs] Now every farm can have an Allison. It must be nice to be so important. I like that.
JESSICA: Ah, that’s an interesting point. But the part about whether we’re important, that’s our decision, right? Is my work worth automating and spreading?
SAM: You have to have the ability to do so as well, right?
JAMEY: Yeah, I think…
JESSICA: Yeah, not everything works.
JAMEY: Some things need the personal touch, I think. Automation. There’s a lot of discussion about automation and what’s going to get automated. And we’re not going to have people doing jobs. I remember the first time I ever thought about that question. I used to work… when I was in high school I worked at a TV studio and I was really, really into it. And we got to tour a local news TV station one time. And I was so excited. And so, we show up there and we met the newscasters and it was super cool. And we watched as they were doing one of the news broadcasts and they had these really cool cameras that were on these robotic tripods and they moved around the studio on their own and focused on different things. And we were like, “These are so cool! These are amazing. We wish we had these in our studio.” And my boss was like, “I’m not saying that they’re not cool. But think about this. Because this is doing your job to the point where they don’t need you to do your job anymore.” And I was like, “Oh.” And that was the moment I first thought about that.
SAM: [Laughs] Right.
JESSICA: We think of… your job was to move the camera, but there’s so much of your job is deciding how and where to move the camera.
JAMEY: That’s true.
SAM: And somebody still does need to at least punch a button to tell it which move to make. But yeah, maybe you go from three camera operators to one.
JESSICA: Or three and you just do more camera movement.
JAMEY: That’s true. It freaked me out at the time because I was planning on going into TV production for my career at that point. And I was like, “Oh, it’s going to be so hard to find a job in TV production,” which was true. And it’s not what I do now. So… [Laughs]
JESSICA: Yeah, so tell us about how you made that switch.
JAMEY: I went to school for digital art, which was the closest that I had to film and TV production at the school that I went to. And because it wasn’t an actual film and TV production major, I took a lot of other miscellaneous art classes. They were basically like, “Take animation.” I’m like, “I don’t want to take animation. I don’t want to be an animator.” And they’re like, “Well just take one. One is required. And then if you hate it, you don’t have to take any more, ever.” So, I took some graphic design classes and I took some animation classes and some game design classes. And I found that specifically in animation and game design, there was a lot of actual strict writing code involved. [Chuckles] I learned ActionScript at that point. And everyone else in all of my classes was like, “This sucks. Why do I have to do this? This isn’t art. This is math. It’s stupid.”
SAM: [Laughs] Wait, there’s a difference?
JAMEY: [Laughs] Some people think so. But so, I was like, “This is great. I love writing ActionScript.” And everyone else seems to hate it, which makes me special for liking it, I guess. At least, in my digital art classes. So, I started studying computer science. And I got a minor in computer science. And then I decided that’s what I actually wanted to do instead of trying to move to the big city and make my big break or whatever I would have had to do to go into film production.
SAM: So, I really want to ask you about that. But first, I have to mention that we have a surprise bonus panelist. Astrid Countee has just joined us.
SAM: Welcome, Astrid.
JESSICA: Thank you for coming.
JAMEY: We’re glad you’re here.
ASTRID: Yeah, I had to hear all about you, Jamey.
JAMEY: That’s a lot of fresh [inaudible]. Sorry.
SAM: So yeah, I had it on my list to ask you how you got into tech. And so, it sounds like you sort of discovered a love for it during college. What happened after you graduated? How’d you get your first tech job?
JAMEY: I found my first tech job on Craigslist. That’s a true story. And it was this tiny startup, like locally to me, that did QR code generation and text message marketing using it.
SAM: Oh yeah, I’ve seen one of those.
JAMEY: I was the only developer. I learned Ruby on Rails while I was working there. So, they hired me. They were paying me $10 an hour to basically teach myself Ruby on Rails to the point where I was capable of running this software by myself. And I worked there as the only developer until essentially they ran out of money to pay me and they started cutting my hours. And I found another job at that point. But it was really, really interesting being the only developer at my first tech job because I did a little bit of mentorship because one of the owners is a very talented developer. He just wasn’t writing code for this project. So, he was there to answer some of my questions sometimes, although this was kind of his side-gig. But I learned a lot from him because he was really brilliant. But I worked for about a year on a codebase that I was the only person who touched, which was really interesting. Because I knew how everything worked and that is the last time I’ve ever worked on a project…
JAMEY: Where I knew how every single piece worked.
JAMEY: I was the one who built everything. That’s not true, because it did work before I joined. But I touched everything in that year and I updated everything in that year. But also, then if something breaks, I didn’t learn that, “Oh, who broke this?” It was always me.
JAMEY: If something was great, I could pat myself on the back. And if something was broken, I could blame myself because there was nobody else. [Chuckles]
ASTRID: I once went to a talk with somebody who was in a similar position where they are the only developer. It was a Rails app. And they had done it for, I think at that point, three or four years.
ASTRID: And the talk was titled “Galapagos Rails” and they were talking about like…
ASTRID: When you’re the only one and it’s only you and everything that breaks is your fault and you have to just figure stuff out. And how it made him into a better developer but that it also made him had way less patience for people who don’t fix their own problems.
SAM: [Laughs] Yeah, because I guess in one year you could potentially make a bunch of problems and then leave and then let somebody else deal with them, or at least some of the bigger problems that you made, you could leave to somebody else. But in three years, you’re really going to have your face rubbed in it, huh?
ASTRID: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah. He talked about that, about the really lonely nights where it’s all broken and you just can’t do it anymore. And you have to come back the next day because the whole company is depending on you.
ASTRID: So, do you think it changed anything about your attitude about being a developer, Jamey? Like, having to do it by yourself?
JAMEY: Yeah, I do. I think the hardest thing about going from being the only person to working with other people, and in fairness I’ve never worked at a big company. I’ve never worked on anything with more than a handful of developers, really. My next company after that, at our peak, there were about 10 of us. And at Agrilyst right now there’s, at our peak, there were probably five or six people touching the codebase. But even just from that jump from one to a few, the hardest thing was that I feel guilt about not understanding how something works. And if someone’s like, “Hey, do you know how our application does this?” and I have to be like, “No, I didn’t write that and I’ve never looked at it,” I feel guilt about saying that. I feel like I should know everything. And so, that’s kind of hard. And I still feel that way a little bit. I recognize that it’s kind of silly and that it’s reasonable not to know everything.
JESSICA: It’s more than reasonable.
JESSICA: It is literally impossible to know everything. And if you try to know everything, you won’t get anything done. These systems scale bigger than our heads. Actually, there’s a paper on this in the [inaudible] report. It talks about our software systems are sufficiently complex that every model is always incomplete and out of date.
JESSICA: The best we can do is collectively have enough accuracy over enough of the system to be able to keep it running and change it.
JAMEY: I would agree with that. And I think the other thing that I got from being the only person is that a sense of, “Well, but I’ll figure it out,” because I was in a position where I had to figure it out. There was no other option. And so, that was kind of empowering. Because I remember, and that was my first job and I was very new. And there were a lot of times where I was like, “This is impossible. I don’t know how to do this. I can’t pawn it off on anyone else. [Chuckles] I just got to do it.” And every time I started a new big feature I’d be like, “This is impossible. I’m never going to be able to get this to work.” And somehow, I always did get it to work eventually. I’d have to learn new stuff. And I’d have to figure it out. But I did it. And so, after this cycle happened a few times, I started to be like, “Okay. I’m feeling that feeling where it feels like it’s impossible. But the last six or eight times I said that, it was possible. So maybe, that feeling is wrong.”
JESSICA: So, one of those things that you learned at that first job where there wasn’t really anybody else was that you could figure it out?
JESSICA: And it is. [Sighs] I still feel that every day. I have this urge to understand the whole system. And I just have to let it go because if I try to keep up, it’s changing so fast and there are six other devs working on it. It changes so fast that if I tried to just keep up with what’s going on, I don’t have time to do anything. So, I’ve had to force myself to narrow my focus, not know how most of the backend works, and just move forward on relative frontend stuff.
JAMEY: That makes sense to me. I think the two things are related. Because if you have confidence that you can figure it out if and when you need to, then you can let it go for now.
JESSICA: That’s a good point, yeah.
SAM: Yeah, my strategy for that is to try to leave the code in a legible enough state that when I come back to it, some way down the road, that I’m confident that I can pick it back up again. Or whoever else touches it can pick it back up. And that’s why refactoring is important, kids.
JAMEY: Code politeness.
JESSICA: Lately I find that the limiting resource is based in my head. So, I’ve become really stingy with what I keep in my head and started writing more stuff down and letting go of it.
JAMEY: I write everything down. And I write it all down on paper. Everything has to go on paper. It’s like I don’t even know something until I write it down on paper. Because I can type without thinking about what I’m writing or reading what I type. [Chuckles] But I can’t do that with paper.
SAM: Right. Well, the trade-off is you can search typed stuff easier. But writing it down with your hands on paper helps cement it more firmly in your brain.
JAMEY: Yeah. A lot of times I don’t even go back and read the stuff I wrote. But just having written it down is so helpful.
ASTRID: I’m totally like that. It’s like by writing it, now it’s in my brain so I don’t need it.
JESSICA: Yeah. It’s almost like that. That puts it in a more built-in form of memory instead of some active memory that I feel like I’m expending RAM to remember this, until I write it down.
JAMEY: I like that.
JESSICA: Like deeper storage or something.
JAMEY: I didn’t know you were a droid. But now I know.
SAM: Yeah, actually I think possibly a better metaphor would be registers in the CPU for working memory. Because I think most people have seven plus or minus two slots for holding onto things in their head.
JESSICA: Yeah. Today I feel like I have three.
SAM: That’s my usual.
ASTRID: So Jamey, you’re a librarian. Can you tell us about that?
JAMEY: I am. I get a little nervous about using the word librarian sometimes because there are actual librarians that had to study and learn a lot of things to be a professional and that is not what I do.
ASTRID: Well, was is it you do that they’re not doing, or that you’re not doing that they are doing?
JAMEY: I don’t know what they’re doing. I feel like they’re doing magic and I’m doing, I don’t know, volunteer work. But I work at a local collaborative art space called Sugar City and we have the zine library that people can donate zines to. And I take care of them and I keep them nice on the wall and I put them in the database. And I meet people who want to donate to us and I get zines from them. I take in donations from the mail and I keep track of all of it. And I love all the zines in our library and I take care of them lovingly. So, if people read them and they get ripped, I fix them.
ASTRID: What kind of zines are they?
JAMEY: We have any/every kind of zine you can imagine, because we take any kind of donations that anyone wants to give. So, we’ll often get someone donating their entire library because they’re like, “I’m moving,” and, “I don’t collect these anymore,” whatever.
JAMEY: So, we’ll get a whole box of art zines or queer zines from the 90’s, which is cool. We have a ton of anarchist political zines because we’ll get full collections of those. So, it’s really cool. And then we put them on the wall. There’s no order or anything. So, you just have to browse. We do have a list of what we own and people can come in and read zines. And it’s very exciting and cool. And I run zine fairs where people can sell zines.
JESSICA: Define zine.
JAMEY: A zine, well it’s short for a magazine. This is like a 90’s thing that’s… I feel like it was very popular then and then it got less popular and now it’s research, which I’m really excited about. I feel like zines are very popular again. But it’s basically self-published magazines.
SAM: So, I’m guessing something like something that a person would type up or draw and then take down to Kinko’s and make 20 copies of?
JAMEY: A lot of them are like that. There as some that are a little bit more well-put-together than that. But that’s what I like so much about zines, is that anyone can do it. If you want to go big and do this whole production and do bookbinding and stuff, I know people who do that and it’s really cool. But if you don’t want to do that or you don’t know how to do that, or you don’t have the time or the skill, you can still do zines. There’s really no minimum skill required. If you have an idea that you want to put on paper, you can put it on paper and make it. And I love all zines. Some of my favorite zines are just these crappy Kinko’s copies that you can barely read. But the content of them is so important that I’m like, “Yes! I’m so glad that I have this on paper.” And it’s so different from the internet in some ways. Because the internet also has that extremely low barrier of entry. You don’t have to have any measurable skill in anything to go on the internet and post something. So in that way, it’s similar. But in every other conceivable way, it’s different.
SAM: Yeah, it’s funny. You were talking about how they were really popular in the 90’s and then less so and then they experienced a resurgence. And being the sort of nerd that I am, I want to correlate that with a technical story about how in the 90’s publishing to the web kind of sucked. And then we got sites like LiveJournal and then later Tumblr and somewhere along the way WordPress. But that doesn’t really account for their recent resurgence. And maybe I’m totally off-base. What do you think? Why did they come back? Why did they go away?
JAMEY: I think that they went away because people were like, “Oh, we can use the internet for this, but better.” I would agree with that. I’m not sure why they came back. I was doing zines in 2010-ish and people were making fun of me. And now, half the artists I know locally do zines. And so somewhere in between there it’s become a thing.
SAM: Is the answer hipsters?
JAMEY: I don’t think the answer is hipsters.
JAMEY: I think if anything, the answer is like the punk scene. And I think the punk scene has, not that like… I’m not accusing punk of being dead at any point. But I think the punk scene has been more culturally relevant lately because of the political climate. I think that’s part of it. I think there’s been a nostalgia factor. Not just to, “Oh, remember when we had zines?” specifically, because I think some of these people are doing zines for the first time now. But like, the idea of holding something in your hand is very attractive to me and very different from the internet.
One of my favorite things about zines is that they travel organically and they can’t be censored or searched. So, they can’t be censored is kind of obvious. You make them yourself and you hand them out to people and nobody can stop you from doing that, which is cool. But I also think that you get very personal stories in zines that you wouldn’t get on the internet, because you have a lot more control in some ways about who gets that story. You can control who you pass these zines to. You can make 20 and then never make them again. And now it’s out there and maybe it was cathartic for you to do. And maybe you shared it with someone who really needed to be shared with, but nobody can go on Google and be like, ‘Jamey Hampton this, this, and this’, and get these personal stories that I’ve written in zines. Because they’re just not on the Internet in that way.
JESSICA: So, you’re sharing your story and you have some control over who sees it but not full control. You don’t know where all those zines will end up but you have some idea how many. And it’s more localized?
JAMEY: I like sending zines through the mail. Someone recently asked me if I would put my zines on Etsy and I was like, “No.” And they’re like, “Well, can I buy one?” And I was like, “Yes.” PayPal me money and I’ll mail it to you.
JAMEY: But I’m not going to put it on Etsy. And I think that the reason that I’m against… I’m not against Etsy in theory for other people, but zines used to be like you would find an address on the back of another zine and you would mail them a dollar through the postal service. And they would mail you something hopefully, or they would steal your dollar. I don’t know. Hopefully they’ll mail you something. I don’t steal people’s dollars. I do mail them out. People are like, “Well, that’s kind of sketchy.” I’m like, “Well, you know what? It is a little sketchy but that’s how we’re doing it. So…” [Chuckles]
JESSICA: Your two dollars are not PayPal-insured.
SAM: Yeah, so back in the 90’s I actually had a physical copy of a book that think was called ‘Weird Stuff by Mail’. And if I remember correctly, it was actually written by the same person who did the whole ‘Church of the SubGenius’ thing.
SAM: It was a printed book. So, by the time I got it, some of the stuff was already obsolete. But it was a list of just places that you could mail a couple of bucks and get back random, weird shit.
JAMEY: I love that. I want to get that book and mail to people and see if any of them still exists.
SAM: [Laughs] Right. Well, good luck finding the book. I’m sure it’s out of print.
JAMEY: Even the book doesn’t exist. It’s an enigma. Out of print is also another thing I think about with zines. Because a lot of them are really low printing numbers and I have zines. I got a zine when I was in France and it was four out of 15 on the back. And I was like, “15 copies of this exist.” And in France. And somehow I had one in Buffalo. Just the sheer randomness of the universe that put this zines into my possession. I love that.
ASTRID: I also think, it seems to have something to do with art. The whole it started and then it moved to the internet and then now it’s coming back again because… I was just at the art museum this past week over the holiday break which was awesome, because I forgot how much I love going to art museums, because I’m always at science museums because I love science. But when you go to the art museums and you realize some things you just can’t experience the same unless you are holding, touching it, looking at it in person. It’s just different. Especially because part of the purpose of things that are creative and made to be artfully done are that you want to experience something. You can’t just always experience it online in the same way.
And I kind of feel like things that first moved to the internet like blogging, when that first moved there, it was a small community. It was like you could actually talk to people. And then it got to a place where everybody was online so, it’s like you’re shouting in a crowded room. It’s not the same intimate personal feeling, which is part of the reason why I think there’s starting to be a resurgence of the more tactile experience of things. And then there’s people like me. I love to buy Kindle books because I have a Kindle. It’s so easy to read that way. But then books that I really want or things I want to read again, I want the real book, because I want to touch it and smell the pages. And I think that’s happening with a lot of things.
JAMEY: I’m a little bit materialist, too. I used to be very self-conscious about it. I wanted to be like, “I’m not materialistic.”
ASTRID: Okay. [Inaudible]
JAMEY: But I kind of am. And it’s because I feel safe when I physically surround myself with things that I really love.
JAMEY: And so, the idea of I really love this book and I want to put it on my bookshelf so it’s there is comforting to me.
ASTRID: Yeah. It’s like when you see sci-fi movies that are supposed to be set in the near future. And everything is very sterile and there’s no personal or clutter-y because everything is just perfect, it feels so lonely. It doesn’t feel like a life you want to have.
JESSICA: Yeah. There’s a quantity of information here, too, just like with our programming systems. You can’t read all the blogs but you can read all of the zines that are in your hand.
JAMEY: At first I got a little overwhelmed by the fact that things were so limited edition. I was like, “There are so many that I’m never going to see.” And I’m like, “I mean, true. But there’s also so many that I am going to see that other people aren’t going to see. And I can share them, the ones I like.” I also collect cassette tapes from local bands and stuff, because I just really like things that other people made that I can hold and read and listen to and be like, “Somebody spent time doing this.” And they made creative decisions about how this is going to be. I listened to a cassette tape recently that was literally just static-y noise with beeps.
JAMEY: And I loved it so much, because I imagined the person who made it sitting there and changing the frequency of the beeps and being like, “No, this is wrong,” and then changing them and be like, “Yes. This is it. This is what’s going on the tape.”
JAMEY: And I thought about, what feeling were they having that they were trying to evoke in me? It’s probably not the same feeling I’m actually feeling. But this idea of putting something together and being like, “Yes. This is it. This is the feeling and now I’m going to give it to someone else and see what happens.” That’s what art is to me. And it just makes me really happy. I feel like I have a connection with whoever this was that put the beeps on the tape.
JESSICA: Yeah, that’s beautiful. And we are physical beings, so we do have a connection to physical objects that the interwebs can’t satisfy. You talked about the beauty of this art that’s created by someone and passed down. Do you find any beauty like that in your work?
JAMEY: Because [chuckles] I think it’s really funny to present things that are useful in a context where they are useless.
JESSICA: Yeah. You can get code embroidered, right?
JAMEY: I cross-stitched a QR code, once.
JESSICA: Oh, cool. Wow!
SAM: I actually saw something like that on Twitter yesterday.
JAMEY: I saw something like that recently, too. But I used to do urban exploration. It was my big thing. And I ran a blog about urban exploration. And I had a backpack that I took with me. And so, I cross-stitched a QR code to my blog and put it on my backpack. [Chuckles]
SAM: [Laughs] Nice.
JESSICA: Oh, you just said you used to do urban exploration. And you didn’t tell us about that when we asked where your superpower came from?
JESSICA: It does seem like…
JAMEY: It does seem related.
JESSICA: Doing urban exploration would enhance your, what did you call it? Far-fig-newgan? No.
JAMEY: My Fharlanghn sense.
ASTRID: So, Jamey when you were just talking about the beauty in code, it sort of made me think about something, this book I had to read when I was doing anthropology graduate study. And it was this book about why we buy. And there was this anthropologist who would watch people in the supermarket and see what they purchased. And some of the people, he would go home and see how they distributed their food items. And there was this interesting that he noticed where some people would purchase something, especially parents, and let’s say like a box of goldfish crackers. And they would go home and they would take it out of the box and they would put it into other little baggies or something for their kids. And he talked about how functionally, that doesn’t really do anything. But that it gave this impression that these are not the brand crackers. Like, these are mom and dad’s crackers for you. It created a connection to it that was beyond what it was purchased. It was about this function of somebody putting the time to put this into a small enough package for you to have so now it’s specialized for you.
And that might be a big leap, but it just made me think about how you were saying it’s not about… you’re not making code for someone. You’re making this program, but that’s what programs do. They have some sort of thing that they are supposed to complete or finish or do. And it’s almost like it’s a similar concept where it’s not about the thing. It’s about how well that thing was made, who it could have been made for, and how that affects someone, and what that could mean. It’s more abstract but when something is well-built and you’re using it, you feel that as a user. You feel like someone thought about what I was going to do. Someone thought about this choice. Someone gave me an option that I’ll always have. And it means something. And it reminded me of that same scenario where he noticed that it’s not really… it’s a strange thing to do functionally, to take something out of a box and put it in another box basically, but it’s being done to create a connection.
JAMEY: I think that how we feel about things emotionally changes the meaning of them really profoundly, too, in the way that we form emotional connections to things. When I was talking about how I feel like I’m kind of materialistic, I’ve forgiven myself for it, I guess, because I form these really intense connections to things I own. But it’s not because like, “Oh, I have this valuable thing.” It’s like, “Somebody gave me this. And now it has meaning beyond what it just is, because it makes me think of this person or this thing that happened or this place I was.” It’s almost like you can take emotions about people or memories about the past and trap them in these things that you own.
JESSICA: Oh, because even though it’s a thing, itself doesn’t contain the memory. The thing in combination with your brain has the memory.
SAM: Yeah, because our brains are highly associative.
JAMEY: It’s like cryptography, almost.
JAMEY: Like your brain has this key…
JAMEY: That makes these random letters into words. And your brain also has this key that makes these objects into like…
JESSICA: It’s like we’re living in augmented reality.
SAM: But it’s only augmented for you.
JESSICA: Now if only we realized that.
JAMEY: It’s personalized. It’s like the crackers.
JESSICA: So then, if the beauty of the code is in what it does, and I completely agree with you there, then your work satisfaction is going to be less about what language you’re writing or how well-factored it is than what the software accomplishes?
JAMEY: To me, the moment that makes me writing code is the moment when something that didn’t work before suddenly works. And I’m sure that other people feel this way. Like, they must, because it’s so satisfying.
SAM: There is definitely a magic in that moment.
JAMEY: I remember the first time I ever really… I don’t work with a lot of hardware. But I was doing consulting and I was doing a project where I was working with printers. And it was a huge pain. It was just the worst. And there were all these restrictions. And so, I ended up sending information to printers via… I opened a bytestream from an Android phone and sent it directly to the printer via Bluetooth. It was such a pain. And it didn’t work for a long time and I was just days of, “Oh, I sent it and it didn’t work. It printed gibberish. Oh, I sent it and nothing happened.” And the first time that a piece of paper came out of that printer with real words on it I was like, “Oh my god.”
JAMEY: “I am the master. I control. The technology. I have so much power. I felt so powerful.” And I was like, “Ah, this why people like working with hardware.
JESSICA: Right, right. It’s that changing the physical world thing.
SAM: Oh my god, I made an LED blink. I’m so great.
JAMEY: I’m a powerful technomancer.
JAMEY: I can make the LED blink whenever I want.
SAM: And of course, at this point I absolutely have to share one of my favorite YouTube videos.
SAM: Which is of somebody who programmed two floppy disk drives to play The Imperial March from Star Wars.
JAMEY: Oh my god.
SAM: And I will drop a link to that into the show notes. Because, oh my god, it is awesome.
JAMEY: I have a tattoo of the Death Star. Fun fact. Fun to me.
JESSICA: Really, Jamey. Is that ethical?
JAMEY: It’s not at all. And that’s literally why I have it.
SAM: [Chuckles] Yeah, because did you pay a copyright fee for that tattoo?
JAMEY: That’s not why.
JAMEY: George Lucas doesn’t need any more of my money. I promise.
JAMEY: He has so much of it. [Laughs] No. I think about the Death Star all the time. I think about the Death Star whenever I think about my career, to be honest. It sounds like a joke, but it’s actually kind of true. Because when I started thinking critically about the Death Star for the first time, which happened the first day that Rogue One came out, when I went to see Rogue One. I went to see this movie and I’m like, “Yeah, Star Wars. I love it. I’m going to go. I’m going to see this movie.” And I went with my fiancé and we were just like, “Yes, a Star Wars movie. We’re so excited.” And we got out and he was like, “What did you think of it?” And I imagine that I went super pale and I was like, “I’m worried about my career.” And he was like…
JAMEY: This is what you want to talk about? Don’t you want to talk about Star Wars? I’m like, “I am talking about Star Wars. I don’t know.”
JAMEY: Because it really freaked me out to watch that movie and see the backstories of the engineers that worked on the Death Star. Because everyone wants to go to the movies and be like, “I’m the good guy. I’m a hero. I’m an action hero.” And I was like, “Oh, I’m like an old white man in a white coat that works for the Empire.” Like, that’s who I relate to in Rogue One, because they didn’t know that they were building a super-weapon. They were just engineers who want to build something cool. And they did. And then it was the Death Star. And they all got killed. Spoilers.
ASTRID: I feel like that’s so relevant to our current life and times in technology.
JAMEY: Yes, yes. I think about it a lot and it’s like, if you don’t think about ethics when you’re building something, that’s dangerous. Because I was like, “I wouldn’t work on the Death Star. No way.” But you can’t prevent yourself from working on something like that unless you stop to consider what it actually is. I’m lucky because I’ve worked on projects pretty much my whole career that I actually do feel really strongly like, “This is a good thing.” But there’s a lot of stuff that seems just not immoral but amoral. Like, unrelated to morality. And I think if you are too quick to be like, “Well, my work is amoral. It has nothing to do with morality,” you put yourself in a situation where you could be doing something that’s really immoral actually and you don’t really realize it. And I think that’s what happened in Rogue One.
ASTRID: Or it could be used in a way after the fact.
ASTRID: That is not the way it was intended when it was being built.
JESSICA: Or have effects that it wasn’t designed for.
JESSICA: What if you get really good at growing indoor plants and then the plants take over and eat you?
ASTRID: Little Shop of Horrors.
JAMEY: I’m not as worried about that as other things.
JAMEY: But I’m glad we’re talking about it.
SAM: I feel like a lot of us look at the Volkswagen thing where they were deliberately spoofing emissions tests. We look at that and we think, “Well, I wouldn’t ever write something like that.” But a surprising number of us might write something like that if it’s where money was coming from, if that’s how we’re feeding our family. And [sighs] there are a lot of other cases in our industry that are a lot less clear-cut even than that is. And that I think a lot of people just don’t really think about, because they don’t really want to think about them. Because you don’t really want to face the possibility that you might be even to some small degree a monster.
JAMEY: I’m working on a talk about this right now actually. And I was researching the other day people who regret their inventions.
JAMEY: Because I was talking about… like a well-known example is Einstein’s contributions that ended up being related to the atomic bomb, even though he wasn’t personally the person who did that. He was very regretful of his involvement. And I was looking up other examples. And the person who developed pepper spray didn’t do so to make it a biological… it was supposed to be a weapon. It wasn’t something that wasn’t going to be a weapon. But now, the way people are using it, the way that police use it and stuff, he’s like, “This is just so… I’ve never seen such irresponsible uses of chemicals.” So, he has regrets about that. The person who invented the AK-47, there’s a really interesting quote that I found where he was debating, “Am I responsible for people who died with this gun or not? Sometimes I think I am. Sometimes I feel like I didn’t force anyone to do this.” But, on his deathbed or something, he had this quote where it was like, “I wish I just could have used that energy doing something else. I wish instead of inventing the AK-47 I could have invented something that could help people do their jobs, like farmers or something.” And I read that and I was like, “That’s what I do.”
JAMEY: But another example I used is the person who invented the cubicle, because he was like, “Yeah, the cubicle is great. It’s going to be flexible. It’s going to let people have a better work environment than offices,” and then people used it to just pack people in because it was cost-efficient. And he was like, “No, that’s not what I meant.” But it’s too late.
JAMEY: Because he already invented it.
SAM: But it was in many ways better than what came before, which was a giant, open, floorplan with a bunch of people at desks just making noise.
ASTRID: You mean like now?
SAM: Well, but now it looks different.
SAM: Now it’s IKEA furniture, right?
ASTRID: Exactly. So, there’s this talk that Malcolm Gladwell does in a similar topic and it’s about the Norden bombsight. Have you seen that, Jamey?
JAMEY: No. Tell me about it.
ASTRID: Okay, so you’ll probably like this for the research you’re doing. It’s about a person who was, he makes this device to make bombing more accurate. Because what he’s thinking is that if we can make the bombing more accurate then we can have less death and then war can be over faster. Because he assumed, “I’m not going to stop war. But maybe if I can make war more efficient, then we won’t lose as many people.” And he tells a very interesting tale about how it works. But at the end of the day, it ended up being used to drop the atomic bombs. So, even though his intention was to try to make the loss of life as small as possible, it ended up being used completely outside of its intention of being accurate, because you don’t have to be accurate so much if you’re dropping an atomic bomb, to hurt and kill so many people.
And that’s like what we’re talking about where sometimes you’re building something because you think it’s going to do something that could be good. But then it could be used in a completely different capacity in a way that you never expected or intended. And unfortunately, especially with science and technology, oftentimes the money that you get to build things, when they will fund you to build all kinds of things and let you learn all kinds of science, it’s usually to be used in some way that’s going to exert power from one people over another people. And it’s like, how do you deal with that Faustian bargain of we’re going to advance science but it’s going to be at this cost that we may not be able to quantify? And it seems like it always happens that way.
JAMEY: It’s hard because once you’ve put something out there, you kind of lose control over it and how it’s used. And I think that’s what a lot of the stories that we just told are about. And I also think that as programmers, we’re at a particular risk of that, because code doesn’t know what it’s doing. So, repurposing code is very easy in many ways. The example I like to use of this is AR technology, which is really interesting, and like facial recognition. So, people are like, “Yeah, AR video games.” It’s a big thing. And it’s cool and it’s interesting and it’s new and it’s futuristic or whatever. But if you write facial recognition software, the software doesn’t know whose faces it’s recognizing or why. And then if they repurpose that code to say, try to find protesters to arrest them; that would be easy to do with that code. And if you wrote it, there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t stop them from doing that once they’re doing it.
[Sigh] So, I think it’s just really hard because there’s no way that we can anticipate all of the ways that our code could be repurposed. But I do think we have to take some sort of responsibility for what else could be done with it that isn’t what we originally meant. And I’m not sure where the line is between, “I’m afraid that my stuff’s going to get repurposed so now I just can’t write anything, ever,” which is also not realistic.
JESSICA: Yeah. The world is a complex system and when we create something or learn something, we change that system. And we can’t know how that’s going to affect things. But we can influence the system in various ways to hold people in power accountable for their pepper spray actions.
ASTRID: You know Jessica, sometimes I wonder if maybe we could just start thinking about… like, I try to think about code like a tool. In anthropology, especially when you’re learning about hominids, what you learn is that the tools that we make are extensions of us. So, an axe is an extension of our ability to use our arm with force. And cars are an extension of us to be able to run. Something like that. So in that case, then code is like an extension of what we could use our brain to do, or use a connection of brains to do, in one instance. And so, it’s like you wouldn’t give young kids sharp objects and then leave the room. Because you would expect that something bad could happen. So maybe it might be possible for us to think more about, “Okay, this type of code could be utilized in a bad way or in a destructive way by those who are uneducated about what to do with it or not capable of understanding how to use it.” We should know that. And maybe there are things we can do around that to help it be used properly.
Because I think it’s not so much that you can make things without any type of morality. But, tools are tools. They’re just there until somebody picks them up. And you can use hammers to build a house for somebody or you can use them to destroy something. So, it’s really not, should you not make a hammer? It’s like, how do you teach people to use hammers and why would you have hammers? And who should be around if somebody doesn’t know how to use a hammer so that they can teach them the right way. And maybe we should be thinking around those questions and less so about, should we make this or not?
SAM: I feel like there are some tools that are a little bit more single-purpose than others. Like it’s hard to imagine a use for a gun that isn’t destroying something. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t make guns, but it’s maybe a little bit less balanced of an example than a hammer.
ASTRID: I was just reading a book about somebody who was doing research in the rainforest and having a shotgun was really important because there was anacondas and there were jaguars. And you needed it. That’s totally different than if you take that same gun and point it towards a person in the rainforest.
ASTRID: Because you don’t need to shoot a person unless they are seriously [inaudible]. So, it’s really about understanding… you know a gun is a powerful tool. So, you should understand when you’re using it, what the implications of what you’re doing with it could be.
JAMEY: I think the more powerful a tool is, the more respect you have to have for it. And I think the tough thing here is I can control how much respect I have. And I can try to encourage and teach other people to have respect. But I can’t force other people to respect something the way I respect it, or think it should be respected. You know what I mean?
JAMEY: I like what you’re saying though. And I think that with software, what you’re describing, we already do a lot in a… not a moral way, but in a mundane way. When we build something as engineers, we say like, “Okay. How are users going to break this? How are they going to screw this up and do it wrong? And what safeguards can I put in so that they don’t do it wrong?”
JAMEY: I think that’s a huge part of our jobs. But I think you’re right. I think extending that to be about morality and not just usability is important. I just have to figure out how to do it. It’s not just my job to figure it out. We can all think about it.
ASTRID: Well, I think it helps to just ask the question.
JAMEY: I agree.
JAMEY: I think getting people thinking about it is a huge thing. Because I had never thought about this, really, before I saw Rogue One, like I said. And it was scary, because I’m like, “I’m a good person. I wouldn’t purposely do something that I think is wrong.” But until you’ve asked the question and thought about it, you never know what you’re going to do, I guess. And at that moment, I felt like I didn’t know what I would do in that situation. And now that I’ve asked the question and talked to people about it and thought about it, I feel like I do know what I would do. And so, I feel much less anxiety about it now. And I feel like the more I talk about it, maybe other people will think about it, too. Hopefully.
JESSICA: I had two things I wanted to follow up on. Your first job. You said one of the owners was a developer and even though he didn’t have a lot of time, you said I learned a lot from him because he was really brilliant. Does brilliance cause someone to be able to learn from you? Or is there some intermediate step? Or something different?
JAMEY: I think brilliance does allow someone to learn from you. I think being a good teacher definitely, obviously, helps someone to learn from you, even if you’re not a genius, which this person was. But I think if you really want to learn from someone who’s a genius, you can learn from them without their consent. [Chuckles] Like if you just observe things that they do that are really brilliant and think about why are they doing these things and how can I emulate these things? There’s stuff to be learned there. Obviously if someone is also a good teacher, that’s a great combo. And he did teach me some stuff. It wasn’t that he was a bad teacher. It was just that he didn’t have the time to devote to me all the time that I would like. But I think picking out people who you look up to in that regard and just watching them very intently and observantly, you can learn things from them, even if they’re not trying. If you’re trying. At least one person has to be trying.
JAMEY: Do you agree with that?
JESSICA: Yeah. At the time you were inexperienced. So, there was an infinite amount of stuff to learn. And you had the energy to devote to that careful learning. I wonder if there are some people that we think are brilliant that if we put the effort into learning from what they do, we’d find out they aren’t.
ASTRID: I agree.
ASTRID: I think we slap that label on people because they’re doing something that feels like we don’t know how to do that. And then we miss the people who are doing what they’re doing so amazingly that it’s so seamless we can’t even see it, unless you’re really looking.
JESSICA: Yeah, the real genius makes it look simple.
JESSICA: But then if you look closely, you will learn.
ASTRID: Yes, of course. But I think part of it is just, I feel like sometimes our culture has this idea about genius, like some people have it and some people don’t. And genius are these people that do things that nobody can do. And I think sometimes it’s like, when you see them, it’s the combination of a lot of things they’ve gotten really good at and that’s why they seem so otherworldly. And then we kind of confuse that with people who are just loud about what they do.
ASTRID: You know, like, “I’m awesome. You have to love me.” And then we’re like, “You must be a genius.” And then they’re really not.
JAMEY: I think if you want… I agree with you. But I think that if you want to be critical about that, that’s a pretty easy thing to be critical about. I think that kind of genius façade that you’re describing is a façade that kind of crumbles pretty quickly once you look closer at what someone is doing.
ASTRID: Yeah, I agree. I just don’t know how much time we spend to look for those little things anymore.
JAMEY: That’s true.
JESSICA: That is the limitation, the time we have to process the information. There’s so much more that we… more zines than we can possibly read. [Chuckles]
JESSICA: And yeah, and more blogs and more people that we could possibly learn from than we can possibly learn from.
JESSICA: There’s one other thing you said early, Jamey, that I thought was important. You were in your animation classes and there was a lot of code. And you said you loved it and everyone else seemed to hate it. So, you recognized that that made you special and ran with it.
SAM: Yeah, that’s not a reaction that a lot of people would have. They would think, “What’s wrong with me? Maybe I shouldn’t love this.”
JESSICA: Yeah. If you can see that thing that is different that makes you different from other people, then that’s where you can find your special job that’s actually fulfilling.
JAMEY: I think there are some kinds of people that are afraid of being different from other people. And then there are some kinds of people that are afraid of being the same as other people.
JESSICA: That’s so true. That’s like welcoming of difference is easier for some people than others.
JAMEY: But I even think, originally I was going to say some people are afraid of being different and some people like being different. But I decided to… I think it’s even more than that. I think that some people who like being different are actually afraid of being similar. And I feel that in myself, sometimes, I think.
SAM: I feel like there’s a Portlandia sketch about that.
JAMEY: There’s a Portlandia sketch, I feel about everything, every episode we talk about. We could just… in fact, you could just watch Portlandia instead of listening to Greater Than Code.
SAM: You could, but please don’t.
JESSICA: No, no. Our podcast is good.
JAMEY: I’m just kidding. Don’t do that.
JESSICA: So, I wanted to bring it back to your superpower. And how can you share your superpower which does not transfer to an app. What is one piece of advice that you would give people who find themselves in a new city with options about where to go that evening?
JAMEY: Okay. I’m going to give away part of the secret.
JESSICA: Ooh, goody.
JAMEY: And it’s great because it’s related to what we were talking about. But the way that the Fharlanghn sense works is being very observant. I’ve had people say to me something like, “You’re cheating. You’re not really using the superpower. You heard about this place from someone else who went to Montreal four years ago and that’s how you know about it.” And I’m like, “Yeah. And the fact that I remember what somebody else said about a place in Montreal four years ago and remembered it enough to look it up and go to it, that is what the superpower is.” [Chuckles]
SAM: Right. To somebody like me with memory problems, that is a freaking superpower.
JAMEY: But like I catalog information about places that I’ve heard people say are cool or read about or a stranger told me about. I catalog that information and I’m observant about what sounds like it would be fun. And then I remember it. And I think that what Astrid was saying about, are we observant about things in our lives? Do we have time or whatever? You don’t have the time and energy and mental RAM to be observant and catalog information about everything that you ever hear from anybody. You have to prioritize what’s important to you. And to me, this is what’s important to me. And so, I categorize it. And then it coagulated into the superpower.
JESSICA: So, to turn the question to our readers, what do you want to be a genius about?
JAMEY: And what kind of information do you have to catalog to get there?
JESSICA: We can’t all hold it all so we each get to be special with the piece we…
JESSICA: Focus on. What do you love that other people don’t love quite as much?
SAM: And thank you listeners. We’ll end it there. We will be back at you soon with a new episode. Meanwhile, if you like the sort of things that we do, the conversations that we have here, please support us on Patreon. We all as panelists do this show for free because we love it. But the production costs are not insignificant. It takes money to pay Mandy to do the wonderful editing that she does so that you get the interesting bits without all the uhm’s and ah’s. And it takes a bit of money to pay for transcriptionists so that our show is searchable and accessible. So, if you’d like to help us with those costs, go to Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode and help us out. And any donation will get you into our Slack community as well where we have a couple of hundred people being really, really nice to each other. Anyway, thanks very much. We’ll be back at you soon.
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