In Spite of Everything, I Still Like My MacBook

My current computer setup is a MacBook Air and a Thelio desktop. I arrived at this point while trying to create a setup that would be both useable for writing (which is what I mainly use my home computers for) and some dev work and tinkering, which laptops still tend to be a little bit too wimpy for.

The best computer I’ve ever owned, was a 2011 MacBook Pro:

I bought this computer in 2011 and it served me well into 2018 when it began to struggle to cool itself. I probably could have kept it running for another year or two, but Apple kept pushing out OS updates that appeared to tax the little computer beyond its ability to keep up.

Note that I was able to do two upgrades on the 2011 MacBook Pro during the course of its life which made a significant difference in extending the life of the machine. The first was switching out the HDD for and SSD. This was by far the most impactful change. The second was upgrading the RAM to its maximum capacity of 8 GB.

I liked the MacBook Pro, but it was a little heavy and a little hot toward the end of its life. I’d always wanted to try an Air, after using one at work for a couple of months. The Air struck me as the best possible portable laptop, and indeed, people seem to be very loyal to this little notebook.

In 2018, the Air also had the notable benefit of no touchbar. The touchbar epitomizes what is wrong with Apple’s decision making these days. It is a flashy tool that looks like a convenience to casual computer users, but to anyone who is a power user, who knows the value of a responsive and accurate keyboard, the touchbar is a nightmare. I was determined not to have the touchbar, so I got a 2018 MacBook Air.

I think there are two categories of computer users: those who type for a living, and those who don’t. I’m very much in the former camp. I need my computer(s) to be, primarily, a conduit for my thoughts – and the keyboard is the transmission medium for those thoughts, either in the form of English sentences, or lines of code.

I didn’t mind the butterfly keyboard initially, but then I started to have the familiar problems of missed keypresses and double-presses that are so commonly reported. I’ve even had keys get stuck which I’ve never seen on an Apple keyboard before this. The occasional spray of canned air seemed to clear out any debris that may have been causing stuck keys, and I installed a program called Unshaky which works pretty well to debounce key presses, but it’s ridiculous that we need to use software to fix Apple’s hardware mistakes. Now, several years later, I’ve gotten to a point where I barely notice the keyboard issues anymore… and though it pains me to admit it… I actually somewhat like the butterfly keyboard!

I will say that the way I type on my 2018 Air is different from how I type on other keyboards. I have two mechanical keyboards, plus a work-issued MacBook Pro 16″ which has the traditional keyboard. I find that on the mechanical keyboards, I tend to slam the keys pretty hard. This is referred to as “bottoming out” in keyboard nerd lingo. I think the appeal of mechanicals is supposed to be that you don’t need to do that when you’re typing, but I seem to do this reflexively, either out of habit or… I don’t know… maybe I’m just an aggressive typer. When I get into a flow of writing I find that I slam a bit less, and start doing more touch typing, as my fingers go where they know they need to be. By contrast, on the traditional keyboard on the 16″ MacBook Pro, the keys do feel a bit more “mushy” and I don’t find myself slamming them quite as much.

My typing style on the butterfly keyboard is like a mix of mechanical and traditional laptop keys. I find myself really slapping the keyboard on my Air. I think I may have trained myself to do this in the early days of my use of this laptop when I was frequently running into problems with the keys sticking or double-pressing.

The MacBook Air itself is a total wimp from a hardware standpoint. It has only a two core Intel CPU. Comparing the Air to my desktop which has a Ryzen 9 5900X is like comparing a Yugo to an eighteen wheeler. MacOS has also gotten progressively worse over the last 5-6 years, adding tons of bloatwear. Linux is certainly better as an OS, and definitely more secure.

Even so, the little Air manages to multitask pretty well for most of my usage. I use the Air mainly for writing and a bit of web browsing. That’s really about it. As an investment, I can’t really say that the Air is the best use of your money in terms of raw computing power, but if you’re mainly looking to use your computer to write, it works quite well.

Are Cities Still Going Away?

About six months ago, I posted on Facebook (when I still had an account) asking the question: are cities still going to exist in the future?

My case for the possible demise of the city was the observation that companies were adopting remote work so readily, that it seemed almost inevitable that the experience would fundamentally alter the office of the future. Without business centers of office buildings full of workers, I wondered if cities would start to lose their economic basis, and thus slowly lose their relevance in the culture.

Some loyal urban dwellers took this quite personally, arguing that there are reasons why people live in cities besides work, and that cities will remain cultural centers because people like living among one another and in proximity to cultural attractions.

I think this misses the point entirely. Cultural attractions, everything from museums to music festivals, tend to be clustered around the downtown areas of majority urban centers for reasons which all boil down to economics.

Let’s take the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago as an example. Lollapalooza used to be a traveling festival in the ’90s until the city of Chicago paid them (in the form of breaks for the use of Grant Park) to stay in downtown Chicago. Why? On face value this makes no sense, and is easy to write off as a stunt by the city government. Yet there is method to the madness. Grant Park is next to a region of downtown that was generally speaking not very nice at the time. The entire South Loop area was semi-industrial and a long cry from the neighboring River North or the Gold Coast. In “buying” Lollapalooza, Chicago changed the image of the neighborhoods in the vicinity. Now at least in the summer, they would be home to a major cultural attraction. This makes the area more attractive for condo developers, and indeed, many of the old industrial buildings have turned into condos since. Hotels in the area would also provide additional tax revenue to the city from all the tourists and music fans visiting the area for the festival. Additionally, having the festival as a permanent fixture of the city raises Chicago’s profile a bit for real-estate developers who might consider investing in the city. In other words, the cultural value of Lollapalooza also translates into economic value for the area.

Chicago is not the most hip city in the country, but it has an enduring position as a “big city” because of the downtown area and the large number of employers in the region, which keeps many workers tethered to Chicago through its vast ring of suburbs. If those employers were to vanish over night, however, so would the economic basis for things like Lollapalooza and the museums and the storefront theater scene.

In a sense we can view a city like Chicago as a worker in the broader world. Chicago must have some set of skills to sell to the world… those skills come in the form of the skills and capabilities of its denizens. If you need to get something done, you go to a city like Chicago instead of, say, Carbondale, Illinois. Carbondale is a lovely town, but it’s small and lacks a large supply of skilled workers. The function of a city is to function as a center of such skilled workers. People with skills tend to flock to cities where their skill and ambition can join up with other people who have skills and ambition. Employers are trying to hire people with skills such that they can be put to work creating value for the company. So the aggregate effect is that people who have a choice in the matter (so we’re not really talking about public employees, school teachers, police/fire, and so on) tend to prefer to near a city center.

If reading the preceding paragraphs prompts you to object, it is likely because you object to the notion that ordinary people with useful skills are the ones that really determine how our society is shaped. Most of the resistance to this argument comes from public sector employees, i.e. public school teachers, who don’t really participate in the labor market in the same way that most of us do. For the average person, however, being in possession of some useful labor skill is the only way to earn a living. This is the overwhelming majority of society, and so most of the shape of our world is determined by these economic forces.

Let us return now to the initial question of the impact on cities following the remote work experiment. If the shape in terms of infrastructure and real-estate development of our society is determined by where skilled workers prefer to live, it then follows that if workers determine that they can earn the same (or more, adjusting for cost of living expenses) in another location, there would no longer be an economic pressure for those workers to live in a place like Chicago.

For evidence of this principle, you need look no further than the suburbs. Suburbia developed as workers with economic mobility discovered that they could live further from the city and its multifarious problems while still retaining a similar purchasing power to their urban colleagues. In time, real-estate developers caught on, and some employers followed as well. It’s common in our casual historical mode as Americans to assume that the suburbs constitute an abandonment of the city, rather than viewing it as a development of the automobile, which is probably more accurate. The social strife of the era only accelerated the inevitable.

If the automobile opened up miles of undeveloped land to suburban commuters, then the internet has been promising since the late 90s to do the same for many workers. While remote work has been on the rise for a while, the last year has certainly accelerated the process of more companies embracing — or at least, grudgingly accepting — remote work.

I for one tend to prefer remote working, but with a lot of caveats. I’m an introvert and so being able to control my work environment is a huge boon during my working hours. However, effective communication over video chat requires a great deal of discipline. Calling a colleague over video chat is more akin to standing over their desk and demanding their full attention. You must do some prep work to know what questions you’re going to ask in order to gather enough information to then return to your independent work. On the whole, it’s a less collaborative style of work, which of course lends itself more to certain professions than to others. I also think that remote work would be extremely difficult at the beginning of your career. I don’t think I would have had the self-motivation and organization skills necessary to work from home back when I was fresh out of college.

But I have a suspicion that whatever the downsides of remote work, it’s not going away. The way the world appears to be heading, we’re going to be working remotely for a lot longer than we think.

If the “experiment” in remote work continues on for years, it will be difficult to convince some workers that coming into the office is a necessity. Indeed, it’s impossible for employers to argue now that in-office work is necessary to be productive. If this drags on long enough, we may start to see real-estate development moving even further out from the ‘burbs into exurbs and smaller cities hours away from the nearest large economic center. The long-term effects could be a radical change to the shape of America.

(As a side note, I once turned down a job offer here in Austin because the office location would have necessitated that I either move or accept giving up my after work activities. When I spoke to the hiring manager about this concern, I suggested that, given the length of the commute, I could work remotely part of the day and so skip the heavy commute time. This was deemed unacceptable — they insisted that the work could only be done in their fairly generic office, from 9am – 5pm. I turned it down, citing the commute. I hear that the company has since changed their tune!)

Some Low-Rent Wisdom

I don’t feel I’m old enough to start making wise pronouncements, but I can summarize what I’ve learned so far, presented in the most starkly drab Midwestern prose I can muster.

Life is uncertain, but fortune favors the persistent. The world is chaos, and it will knock you down again and again. The people who prosper in the end are not the most talented, or the strongest, or smartest, but rather the most stubborn. Stubbornly refusing to quit is a shockingly effective life strategy.

Each of us enjoys some advantages by accident of birth. For those to whom advantages fall, do not neglect to develop character — it will be that much harder to prove to yourself that you’re worth a damn. For those without advantages, never betray yourself by coveting the advantages of another don’t place others on a pedestal, as you may enjoy an advantage they don’t. Fortune is random. Don’t take life personally.

Rich or poor, good or bad, we all end up in the ground eventually. We are not guaranteed to make it to retirement. We are not guaranteed even one more day of life. Everything is urgent.

People come and go. You likely have far fewer friends than you think. When the shit hits the fan, you’ll find out who they are. Try to develop friendships with people you admire. Mutual respect is the only foundation for friendship.

You’re always the warden of your own prison.

Why I’m Betting On Oil

The promising of a ‘green’ future has been over-sold, over-anticipated, and is no where near viable in the short term

1. Tesla

Last week, Tesla’s stock crashed from a peak of about $880 share to its current value, where it is hovering around below $700. At its peak, the market believed that Tesla, a relatively small and untested luxury car maker, was valued at more than every other car maker on earth combined.

Tesla getting crushed by oil, Oct ’20 – Mar ’21. Not pictured: Elon Musk spitting out champagne while relaxing in his Scrooge McDuck style swimming pool full of money.

Does that sound over-valued to you? It did to me. A year of lockdown madness and fluctuating bond yields has pumped up a number of tech stocks to unsustainable highs. Tesla also has an army of hype-men touting it as not only a maker of popular products, but as a sort of corporate savior that will rescue the world from the supposed threat of “catastrophic” climate change. Tesla also enjoys the headwinds of being part of the ‘green’ corporate movement, which the federal government is now trying to push in order to remove sales of all gas powered vehicles on the extremely aggressive an impossible deadline of 2035 – a mere fourteen years away. If a child is born today, they will – supposedly – never drive a gas vehicle.

I find this extremely unlikely. Not only are electric vehicles going to take a long, long time to catch on with consumers, but even if we did somehow pull off this hail-mary and rebuild 100% of the U.S. infrastructure in under two decades, oil would still be required for our ‘green’ civilization to function.

Promoters of the 2035 deadline seek to force their own consumer preferences on the entire population. Choosing to buy a more expensive, and less useful electric vehicle instead of a normal car is being promoted as a sort of moral failing. Yet the last I checked, the cheapest available Tesla was still a solid $25k more expensive than a basic economy car. Tesla profits from this false moral indignation, as seen by its soaring valuation.

Meanwhile, consumers – other than the high-end Silicon Valley types that Tesla is catering to – don’t seem to even want electric vehicles. Sales are low compared to gas vehicles, despite all the marketing push. The reason is quite simple: electric vehicles are inferior products. Most people do not think of their car as a vessel for their politics. For 99% of the population, a car does one thing only: it gets you from point A to point B. Therefore, cost and operation are the main factors. Economy cars sell the best because most Americans are just looking for a dependable way to get to work or pick up their kids from school. Additionally, gas vehicles are quick and easy to recharge at one of the approximately 10^90 gas stations across the country. Gas vehicles get a far better range than electric. Even the high capacity Tesla is limited to about 300 miles range as of this writing. It is not only feasible but trivial to rely on a gas vehicle to get you to work, or drive halfway across the country to visit your grandma. No need to make plans to stay overnight at a motel while your car recharges. Gas vehicles are better vehicles from the point of view of a normal person who just needs to use their car to get around, instead of using it as a vessel for their politics.

In short, electric vehicles today are simply inferior products, held aloft only by investor hype and government spending. The only way to make the ‘revolution’ happen, then, is to force consumers to buy inferior products at higher prices. Hence, the 2035 deadline.

I’m all for electric vehicles and reduced emissions if it translates into better quality of life for common people. Under the moral indignation of averting a “climate catastrophe” , however, we are masking the act of coercion being promoted here – the act of forcing ordinary working-class Americans to buy products they don’t want to buy.

The great irony is that in our zeal for cleaner cities, we’ve accepted this coercion. If I were to tell you that your money is better spent at a children’s charity to feed starving children in Africa, rather than a nice $100 dinner with your wife, I doubt that you could counter the moral weight between these two purchases. In a free society, I would be free to make such an argument to try to compel you to give up your $100 dinners in exchange for helping a village in need – and you would be free to change your mind or not.

But imagine if I pulled a gun on you and robbed you of that $100, and then donated the money to that charity, while justifying the robbery as necessary to correct your moral failing. This is effectively what the 2035 mandate is trying to do.

2. Oil Is In Everything

So Tesla is enormously over-valued and EVs are going to take a hell of a lot longer to catch on with the public than the pundits may lead you to believe. But as I said above, even if we somehow either a) make EVs better products to compete on fair terms with gas vehicles, or b) force everyone at gunpoint to buy them anyway, we still are not going to get away from oil.

The main reason for this is simple: oil is in everything, Namely, plastics are in everything.

Plastic is a miracle substance developed in the 1950s from petrochemicals. Prior to the invention of plastics, products were clunky and expensive. Imagine the old-timey cars from the 1940s. Chrome and glass and steel were the material of the day. Plastics brought an extremely lightweight, durable material that could be molded to fit into almost any product.

Today, plastics are a vital component for everything around you, everywhere you go. Hell, I’m even typing on plastic keys right now. Plastic is used in medical supplies (yes, PPE included), home furnishings, vehicles (including electric!), household appliances, books and educational materials, construction, consumer electronics, the space shuttle, networking infrastructure…

I could go on.

My point is that our society is built not on driving around gas-powered vehicles. It is built on plastics. To borrow a promotional phrase from my youth, “Plastics Make It Possible®.”

So I am betting on oil. We are going to need oil for a long, long time. We’ll either have to pump it ourselves (and the U.S. has plenty of oil, despite what you may have heard) or we’ll have to buy it from someone else.

3. Avoid Utopian Thinking

What is the point of going to EVs? If it is to move to a utopian society with NO reliance on petroleum, then that is extremely unlikely to happen in our lifetime, because we rely so completely on petroleum byproducts like plastics.

If, instead, we decide that our goal is to reduce emissions, that might be a more achievable goal. Drivers are a source of emissions, and reducing emissions will improve air quality and have reduce runoff, which damages our parks and waterways. I’m all in favor of controlling these known factors.

I’m skeptical about EVs because when people talk about them, their eyes light up. They’re imagining an advanced ‘city of the future’ powered entirely by solar panels. Birds are chirping and there’s a blue sky. It sounds like a nice place to live. It also reminds me of these utopian images of the future produced in the 1950s, at the height of the nuclear age, which is how people at the time imagined the year 2020 would look.

The future, according to the past. Note the conspicuous lack of advertisements

How close are we to this vision? Compare it to reality. Now imagine your EV-powered utopian dream city and try to apply the same transformation – that’s what the future will very likely look like. Grubby and not at all what you predicted.

Remember that ‘utopia’ is Greek for “no such place.” When we cling to these utopian visions, we can overlook the real problems in front of us. Utopian thinking also tends to veer toward the coercive mindset exemplified by the 2035 deadline.

Texas: The Land of Frequent Water Outages

I’m now on my third day without water in Texas. I mean, I have zero water. Nothing at all comes out of my tap.

Even worse, there is nothing to buy because stores quickly sold out due to the detestable Texan habit of panic buying water whenever a major storm comes through.

This sort of thing has happened once before, but this is the first time I’ve ever lost all water. In October 2018, we lost water filtration for a week after the county’s water treatment plant flooded. In this case, we still had water in the tap, though – it just wasn’t treated, so we had to boil the water first.

I moved to Texas for work and better economic opportunities. Many millions have chosen to relocate here for the same reason, leading to huge growth in the state, especially in metro areas.

But it seems that this growth has outpaced modernization of infrastructure. Any area will experience growing pains as population increases, but it isn’t common for basic services like electric power and water to become unavailable.

What Would Socrates Do?

For better or worse, I’ve modeled my own life on the Greek and Roman philosophers I grew up reading about. Socrates, of course, is the grandfather of them all.

Socrates was annoying. He asked lots of questions, constantly, of everybody. He rejected traditions, even the most deeply held traditions of his own home country.

Socrates was humble. He did not believe he knew the truth. He only believed that he possessed a simple tool which could find truth.

That tool is what we call now a syllogism.

A syllogism is a funky name for a pretty simple equation:

if a implies b and b implies c => then a implies c

His goal, if we are to believe him, was to go around the country applying this equation to everything to test whether or not he was the wisest person on earth. His tests seemed to indicate that he was – not because he knew many things, but because he knew exactly one thing that nobody else knew: that he knew nothing.

Socrates did not worry too much about arguing with people. Yet he effortlessly took down some of the biggest blowhards of his time. Instead of opposing their bogus arguments, he simply asked questions until their reasoning fell apart. Like a judo master, he used the blowhard’s own momentum against them.

Socrates was an individualist – possibly the original individualist. He believed that a person’s virtue could not be harmed by another. Rather, a person can only harm their own virtue.

Socrates believed that the blowhards cannot harm us, unless we decide to harm ourselves at their behest.

Furthermore, the development of our own virtue is our own responsibility. If we feel upset, fearful, angry, we must look no further than ourselves for the culprit.

Let’s Have Some Fun Securing Our Home Network With pfSense

As I alluded to in a previous blog post, I’ve been beefing up my home network security as it’s become apparent we are now living in the midst of a cyber war.

I use a VPN and have for many years now, but I have had all kinds of problems with running the VPN connection on all of my devices. The iOS support for VPN connections is especially terrible. So I decided to instead get a firewall device to sit between my network and the internet. I configured a Protectli device with pfSense, a FreeBSD-based open source OS for firewalls.

Diagram of my network configuration.

pfSense is configured with a VPN connection that “tunnels” my network traffic to another server somewhere on the other side of the internet. This is important because it prevents my ISP from reading my network traffic. To the ISP, any traffic coming from the pfSense firewall looks like static — it is indistinguishable from noise. In effect, this allows all the devices attached to my network to appear with the same phony IP address (that of the VPN server).

Hiding your IP address is a good idea if you care about privacy. Ad tech companies, including the big hitters like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, use your IP address (or a hash of it) to identify you online. Using your IP address, a company like Facebook can connect your activity across browser sessions, devices, and so on. Additionally, your ISP knows your IP address and can, if compelled by a court order or DMCA request, hand over your name and identification in association with your IP address.

In short, here’s what you’ll need for this setup:

  • A physical firewall device that can run pfSense (I recommend Protectli) [about $300]
  • A USB thumb drive, which we’ll use to install pfSense [$10 or less]
  • A speedy WiFi router that does not run your ISP’s modem connection (if you have a separate device for the router from the modem, you can probably use that device, but my instructions here assume your ISP’s WiFi device cannot be trusted) [about $100]

This isn’t a home security panacea. Next, I’ll need to configure my own DNS to avoid DNS leak. I may try to get DoH setup, but I’m not sure if pfSense supports encrypted DNS yet. Once I have that setup I’ll also be able to block all advertising inside my network, as a nice bonus!

Finally, my eventual goal is to have this network function as a sort of “home lab” setup. I want to be able to VPN into my firewall from anywhere on the internet, effectively allowing me to establish a secure connection for file sharing between friends and family. My pfSense adventure is just beginning! 🙂

The Only Kind of Learning Is Autodidacticism

It may take years or a lifetime to become aware of our own biases, and how these biases are informed by our position within our society with regards to material production– sometimes referred to as one’s “socio-economic class.”

One of the most persistent biases among my own “class” is toward formal education. Formal education is derived from early industrial era schooling which can be concisely explained by the sender-reciever model:

  • Person A has knowledge k.
  • Person B is without knowledge k.
  • Person A sends k in small chunks ki to person B, who receives it and stores it in their brain-meats. This is referred to as “teaching.”

This is the standard rote memorization education method favored by public education and the majority of schools. Others, such as Montesori, coexist alongside the formal rote-memorization model but require substantially higher resource investment per student. It is telling that our public system selects for the least expensive option.

Note that the sender-receiver model definition omits an important and understated aspect of its program: homework.

Homework has always seemed to me like a tacit admission by the formal education system that the send-receiver model doesn’t really work. It admits that class attendance isn’t enough to put all that knowledge into their brain-meats. They also need to spend a good deal of time on their own reading the material, completing problems to test their knowledge, and re-phrasing the lessons given by the teacher into terms that make more sense for the individual student.

In my own experience, all of my real learning takes place during these homework sessions. When I’m trying to learn a subject, I have to “play around” with problems relating to that subject. The analogy of play is not inappropriate because I think this process is analogous to a child taking wooden blocks and stacking them and knocking them over again in order to learn motor coordination. Learning comes from failure — we have to try and fail to solve problems in order to learn the underlying concepts, since we do not at outset know where the holes in our understanding lie.

It used to be that people were educated in little school houses where one teacher would be hired for the entire area. Gradually these rural environments were replaced with more dense urban environments, but the model was retained. Scarcity of instruction was inherent in the send-receiver model — only so many teachers were available per pupil, and we could compute a metric of educational quality based on this ratio, assuming that fewer students per teacher would yield better results. Again note that this ignores the homework aspect of the model — a lot of learning is going to actually take place outside of the school, in the student’s home.

Given that homework accounts for a great deal of our actual learning, it is interesting to look at the sender-receiver model of formal education and ask: why do we do it this way? The goal seems to be getting students to a base level of self-teaching after which we presume that their homework sessions will provide the majority of their learning.

The question of 2020-21 that I think many are processing is: why do we need all these teachers?

Everyone is “remote learning” anyway, right? If remote learning works, then shouldn’t it be possible to replace an entire school worth of paid full-time staff with a set of video lectures, purchased in bulk by the school district from a third-party? This is a radical heresy, not because it doesn’t make sense — I contend that it is, in fact, perfectly consistent with the sender-receiver model — but because it contradicts our feelings about the formal education system.

Remote learning represents an existential threat to the teaching occupation itself. Teachers are often portrayed as underpaid, overworked martyrs, but in fact they have quite a bit of power in many places, and are sometimes quite well paid. The Chicago Teachers Union, for example, regularly shuts down schools to lobby for pay increases, essentially holding the children ransom in a hostage negotiation. It takes to the streets then, resorting to aggressive, hostile protests in order to force the city into capitulation to its demands. The CTU is viewed almost universally with derision by Chicagoans. This sort of “negotiation” might be seen more favorably if Chicago public schools were not routinely failing to produce graduates that can read and write at an adult level — according to an adult literacy non-profit, some “30% of adults in Chicago have low basic literacy skills.”Now the CTU, like many other teachers’ unions across the country, is a proponent of keeping schools shut down in favor of remote learning. The teacher-supported remote learning systems, however, don’t make use of economies of scale — instead it is a simple replacement if in person interaction with Zoom calls. It is claimed that teachers are interacting with students over Zoom, but the reality looks a lot more like a very small freshman lecture hall.

Today teachers favor these remote learning software solutions, but I predict that at some point in the near future, unions will realize that the remote learning “solution” represents a threat to the very existence of their profession. Then there will be a sudden heel-turn toward getting students back in schools. This will be pitched based on child welfare, but will really be done to protect the sender-receiver model which justifies the current class sizes in the public education system.

I’m certainly not opposed to teaching as a profession, but we have to examine our biases. Is learning happening in schools, or do schools amount to a series of overly small lecture halls? We already expect most learning to happen at home anyway, which is why we place such emphasis on homework. Completion of homework requires some base level autodidacticism. If students can reach a base level of self-teaching, enough to learn with homework, and if we are relying on homework anyway, does it not follow that we can do without so many teachers?

As an educated adult, I no longer require face-to-face instruction at all. I’ve completed fairly rigorous courses through Coursera in the last few years that required a significant amount of work on my own to understand the material. The instruction materials were produced by world-class instructors, the best in the world. Should not the goal of education be to get every person to this base level of self-education, as quickly as possible?

Why Tech People Can Work From Home So Easily

Media outlets have reported that tech workers are among the least impacted by “lockdowns” and workplace closures over the last year. This is ostensibly because we can work remotely.

But can’t anyone with a white-collar job work remotely? Unless you need to be physically doing something in proximity to your workplace, most modern office jobs can be done over a video or chat application.

I will submit to you that there the real reason tech people are having such an easy time transitioning to remote work is that we have already built all the tools to do our jobs remotely. We have been so far ahead of the curve, that our industry is already built for remote work.

Consider the problems of remote work, broadly:

  • Workers may be working from different timezones. Timezones may have significant overlap (e.g., New York and Chicago) or they may have little or no overlap (e.g. Mumbai and Texas). Thus, being able to work independently is necessary to maintain productivity.
  • Workers must be able to work independently, but eventually their work needs to be integrated together. How shall this be accomplished? If workers A and B are both going to do 50% of a project, how can we divide the work so that both are contributing their fair share, without significantly impacting productivity?

These are the very problems that source control systems are designed to solve. The popular Git system works as follows:

  • Work is sub-divided into “commits.” When worker A has completed a task to their satisfaction, they then “commit” that work to their local copy of the project. Note that the work is still not integrated with worker B’s work.
  • Commits should be small. Large commits are harder to integrate, and are thus discouraged. Thus, worker A and B plan their contributions accordingly so that they produce many small commits.
  • There is a “master” version of the work, similar to a multi-track master for an audio recording, which contains the sum of all past commits. When a worker begins changing the project, he updates his local copy of the “master” branch, and then creates a new branch off of this local copy of master where he will do his work and create commits as he completes it.
  • master is not a stable, static thing – it is changing constantly as others complete work. When worker A is done, he will integrate or “merge” his changes back into the master branch. Here he must fetch whatever other commits have been “merged” by worker B, C, D, E, F, etc. This may trigger an event requiring him to consider how his changes should be integrated with everyone else’s work before it will be pushed out for distribution to the rest of the company.

All of this is accomplished through a clever use of a graph data structure and hashes. If you’re interested in learning more, I suggest getting a book about how Git’s internals work.

Taken together, Git’s features allow worker A to work on a small piece of the total project without coordinating with worker B, and yet also ensures that worker A’s hard work will be integrated into the project. Hopefully you can see why this system is ideal for remote work.

Software people, I think, underestimate how powerful source control really is. I greatly doubt that lawyers, accountants, or civil servants have a similarly sophisticated method of working independently.