Archive for the ‘Autobiography’ Category

Dad and Shig

I was comforting a friend the other day. Our conversation got me thinking of my father. Dad was born in 1925, and joined the Navy before he even turned 18. To join, he had to track down a wayward parent to sign his enlistment papers. His father being well hidden in the Idaho woods, he found his mother under the glowering, rain-soaked pines of Northern Oregon. His enlistment would take him to the Pacific Theater, where he would sail on fast, fragile PT boats and spend his time ashore climbing coconut palms.

Shig Murao should be a national hero. He sold Ginsberg’s “Howl” to an undercover cop and was arrested for obscenity. He was born in Seattle in 1926. He had a twin sister. Both were sent to Idaho during the war to hide their tan faces under blue pine. They huddled there all throughout the long winter of the early 1940s, released only by the radiant nuclear sun.

My father hated the internment. He said it was the greatest stain on our nations honor since the Confederacy. He defended the bombs, since they saved lives. Both of his comrades, stuck in torturous Japanese POW camps, but also the lives of GIs and Japanese soldiers and civilians. Downfall and Coronet would have seen millions slaughtered. Young men, ink still wet on their enlistment papers, blown up by grenades delivered by uncomprehending school children. Or young Japanese women shot down by scarred Marines because they couldn’t take the risk of what they hid beneath their kimonos. Two bright flashes and a few hundred thousand. That my father understood with his heavy, serious brow. But not the internment.

Shig was saved by a flash of judicial sanity. Nine minds, not justices but literary critics testified in his defense. Society was redeemed for angel headed hipsters and honest store clerks. After his time locked in Magic Valley, to again walk free down Broadway to the Embarcadero must have felt like victory over an implacable enemy.

After the war, my father worked with men who had been POWs. They’d known the death marches and the certainty that they would be executed. And yet one morning they awoke to empty guard towers and open gates. That bright, nuclear morning after the surrender.

I wonder what conversations my father and Shig could have had. A tepid Cold Warrior, who built a career out of mines and missile silos, and a radicalized book store clerk. I imagine them drinking coffee in the Sunset, looking out over the Pacific, quietly toasting Shig’s freedom as the nuclear sun sinks into the ocean.

“It hasn’t been my day for a couple years”

Been on a Jawbreaker jag today. Forgot just how easily this song can slay me. Reminds me of everyone I’ve ever known on a crash course of their own devising. As the old toast goes:

“To the lost and the damned; may we all find our way home.”

“But I’m free to answer, so yes, we’re free.”

No one ends up in Norwich by accident. If you’re here, it’s because you’re meant to be. There’s no other reason, no way anyone can happen to be just passing through. Located as we are in the bump of Norfolk that juts out into the North Sea, we stand alone, we stand apart. Some might say that makes us insular. I disagree. When you are the only city for miles and miles around, you attract the different ones. The ones who never really fitted in with their town or village. They come to the nearest city and they find their place here.

I was last in Norwich just a few months ago. It seems, though, a lifetime away at the moment. My friend Meagan and I had first gotten to know each other in Norwich over a decade ago. Happening to be in Europe at the same time, we spent a few days there together.

It truly is an odd place. I think one reason I’ve always felt at home there is its isolated, rebellious nature. It embodies something that I cherish in myself: a stray-dog sense of self-possession and independence. A notion that going one’s own way is the only way.

Christ how I love that stony, meandering city tucked out in the broads. I love it out of proportion. I love its rivers almost as much as I love the Columbia, though they’re one twentieth the size. I love its cathedrals, though I’m an avowed Atheist. I love its cramped little pubs and its winding go-nowhere alleys.

It’s an unaccountable city. There’s no clear reason for it to be as enchanting as it is. Nor for the enmity and derision it receives. No one throws shade quite as assuredly as a Londoner who learns you’ve just returned from Norwich.

The time before that that I was in Norwich, I was with a girlfriend who, I think, was trying to Figure Me Out. We laid on the castle green, closed our eyes and drifted a moment under the Anglian sky. We were only there for a day and we spent most of it walking a lazy circle around town. It felt a little like reserving my place. Or like checking in with a friend.

Before that, there’s a long gulf back to when I attended the university for awhile. The University feels like a very different world from the city itself. Which might be why I walked into town every opportunity I got. I lost forty pounds in six months, I reckon, just from the constant long walks, either into the town or out towards the broads. When in town, I used to like to walk through Tombland, or down near Bishopgate and the Cow Tower. I spent hours tracing a track by the river, trying as hard to know myself as to know the city.

I don’t know when I’ll get back that way. But it’s a matter of when, not if. And when I do, I expect to find it much as I left it. Peculiar, slightly insular, and entirely its own.

Brief Reflections on Five Years at Amazon

As of Sept. 7th this year, I’ve worked at Amazon for five years. I’ve heard people say that a year at Amazon is worth two at most other companies, and while I’m not sure the exchange rate is correct, the principle is. I’ve learned more in the past five years than in over a decade of programming that came before it. I’ve worked with some of the smartest people in the world, and gotten to work on some amazing projects, only a few of which actually worked out. This is my half-assed attempt to distill those five years full of work and learning into a bulleted list.

Like all such endeavors, it is doomed to failure. That’s never stopped me before.

  • Strive to be afflicted with more important problems. Always seek out problems you don’t know how to solve. Eventually you’ll end up working on problems that no one knows how to solve.
  • Seek out people who know more than you. Learn from them, but don’t be afraid to challenge them. You’ll usually be wrong, but you’ll always learn. And sometimes you’ll be right. And then they will learn.
  • You are a terrible judge of your own abilities. Instead of wondering how far you’ve come, focus instead on where you’re going next.
  • Even the best make mistakes. Hold people to high standards, but be empathetic and forgiving of fallibility. And don’t be surprised when the people you idolize turn out to be less than perfect.
  • Have guts. Any group that punishes you for fighting the good fight isn’t worth being part of.
  • Figure out what you want to work on next before you’re ready to lay down your current project.
  • Admit that your works will be there long after you leave. Don’t let them hold you back. Build them with others in mind so that they don’t hold others back after you leave.
  • Don’t fear failure. Anyone who always succeeds is either a liar or is straining to hold themselves down in the bush league.

I don’t know how many more years I’ll choose to stay at Amazon. But I am absolutely certain that those years will make me a much better hacker.

Disclosure Notice

That NYT Amazon Story

I’ve had a lot of folks ask me about that Amazon “exposé” in the New York Times. All I can say is that I’ve never seen anything like what was described in that story and have every confidence that the leaders to whom I’ve reported at Amazon would never tolerate anything like it. Which isn’t to say those individual cases didn’t happen, necessarily. But current and former Amazon white-collar employees is a pool large enough that anyone would be able to cherry-pick a few examples to prove any point. I feel bad that those unlucky folks had such horrific experiences, and I hope that the people responsible for them have, as the Amazon saying goes, been “promoted to customer”.

But the Amazon described in that New York Times story is not the Amazon I know and have happily worked for the past five years.

Obligatory Disclosure Notice.

Back in the World

Back from a month abroad and finally getting caught up. While I tidy up around here, enjoy the stylings of the masterful Go Yama.




“Wake up, it’s time to die”

I hadn’t been to the Comet since it closed down fairly suddenly a few months ago. The Old Comet was the haunt of aging metalheads and semi-pro alcoholics looking to move up to the “dying in a gutter” phase of their careers. In a way, the fact that they hosted local shows on a dilapidated stage gave the joint a thin veneer of respectability. Without earnest Seattle-area rockers stomping away in the back on second-rate equipment, the Comet’s only selling points would have been dim lights and cheap Rainier.

Since then, the bar has been closed, ostensibly for good, haggled over, refitted, and reopened. It says something about the tone and tenor of the Old Comet that when the previous owner changed the locks suddenly in the middle of the night (not even telling the people who were scheduled to work shifts the next day), the only thing they took was the sound system. They didn’t even bother to pull down the hundreds of one-dollar bills stabled to the ceiling.

They were probably afraid they’d catch something from them.

So it was an interesting experience stopping in to the Comet last night while I was waiting for a show to start at Neumo’s. The place has changed significantly. For one thing, I could see clearly, due both to sobriety and adequate lighting, two phenomena with which the Old Comet was completely unfamiliar. There were what appeared to be actual booths installed around the place and I even saw a few people eating what appeared to be palatable food. The old stage (that I once had to help physically haul a drunkard off of when he decided that the bassist in my friend’s band “really wanted a hug”) was gone. In its place was more seating and some arcade machines.

I would imagine the lifespan of an arcade machine in the old Comet would be measured on the order of hours, if not minutes.

The clientele had changed, seemingly over night, as well. Staggering, shouting crustoids had been replaced with what appeared to be a collection of models from a University Student Handbook. One or two even looked like they might have seen the boring end of a steady job.

All around, people laughed and enthused, and generally appeared to be the sort of people who had a life outside the orbit of the Comet. A life that contained goals more worthy than “try to get totally wasted off this $10 I found in a boot out back of Dick’s.” It seemed like it had turned into a genuinely nice place.

Next to me, at the bar, two impeccably assembled women groused over their microbrews. Two locals of the sort I’d never seen in my dozens of nights watching local metal shows in the Old Comet. “I miss the old Comet.” Said one. “It was so much more…” the second said, searching for a word, not even needing to raise her voice over the sounds of Classic Rock. “Real.” She finished.

In Memoriam, William F. Ryan, S. J.

I attended a memorial service today for perhaps the most important teacher I’ve ever had. Fr. Ryan was not only phenomenal scholar and instructor, but one of the kindest, funniest men I’ve ever had the honor of knowing.

He taught me many important lessons, but one that has stuck with me most keenly has been his warning against the existential vacuum of purposeless life. Man must have meaning in life. We must, each of us, have something towards which we orient ourselves, and for which we strive. I know that for Fr. Ryan, the education, development, and flourishing of his students was one such goal. And for that, I am immensely grateful, and deeply humbled. His dedication to education (along with his charm, wit, and incisive intellect) were incredible to behold.

I say with absolute certainty that the world will never see his kind again, and that we are all poorer for his passing.

But we’re all richer for his having been on Earth.


“I said kiss me, you’re beautiful and these are truly the last days”

This was our weather today in Seattle. In July.

It seemed eerily appropriate, given I’m still listening to “Dead Flag Blues” on repeat.

(Timelapse credit goes to /u/acidmonkey on Reddit.)

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.