Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Programming Support by Google

For the last several weeks I've been in crunch-mode for four different programming projects, all of them coming due (or overdue) at the end of this month. Collaborating with others to solve technical problems was the first true application of the Internet, back when it was chummy fraternity of DARPA wonks and university researchers, so it should come as no surprise that it's still the best place to go for solutions to programming problems.

I've been experiencing the Wikipedia Effect, the ultimate paradox that:
  1. No matter how obscure your problem is, someone else in the world has asked the same question before and often already found the answer.
  2. No matter how seemingly common your problem is, often nobody has found a good solution for it.

This paradox is what stokes the blogosphere and inspires millions of programmers (yes, and I mean that literally -- there are millions of programmers in the world) to sit down and share their knowledge. Many of us pull up instant answers to questions five times a day: "How do get the process ID for your program? How can you validate an email address?" But then you hit a question where the answer is not forthcoming. You find post after post in newsgroups where geeks concede defeat, in various states of panic or resignation: "Yeah, I ran into that problem, but no, there's no really good way to handle it."

So when you struggle with that problem, and after days of struggle, frustration, and pain, and you finally come up with the solution, you feel like the king of the world. You have something that you know hundreds, maybe thousands of people want to know. So it's no wonder that they climb to the top of their imagined turrets and bellow, "Behold, ye legions of hackers in distress! I, your hero, have found the Way!"

It's happening just often enough to me right now that even I am tempted. I have so little time for the things that matter in my life, and even I am just dying to show the world that I know the best way to have a single instance of a program running in a given user's Terminal Services session. It's not even entirely clear why the ego is so gratified with such an achievement. Others might benefit from your knowledge, but nobody will remember you for it. (At this moment, I cannot recall the name of a single person from whom I've glommed code online.) Mostly it's a vain attempt to get recognition for something that no one else will probably appreciate. Certainly your boss or your customer will never appreciate the amount of effort that went into solving the problem; all they know is that it was broken, and now it works, and you might have spent five minutes or three days solving the problem, and they really don't care. So you turn to your peers, hoping that for a small handful of people, you will be a lifesaver, a godsend, a hero, a saint.

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