This is Junkhead. Watch it. Read this. Then ask yourself, what’s your Junkhead?

This is Junkhead. It started four years ago as some Japanese dude’s obsession.

His name is Takahide Hori. He’s a white collar worker. A salaryman. But every night he went home and built upon this. It has the marks of an obsession. It’s layered and strange and gritty.

It reminds me of the Book of Chairman Don, a 20,000 page sci-fi memoir written by a guy that I used to know. The two of us guarded an abandoned water treatment plant together. He drove a white van with with a fake, seven foot long missile affixed to the roof rack. Once he was a Marine. By the time I met him, he had transformed himself into the typical guy that you don’t want to run into in a dark alley. And although he was always very nice and extremely respectful, I still don’t suggest running into him in a dark alley.

What do Junkhead and Chairman Don have in common? Well, Don wrote just because he was in love with the story. I don’t think he ever intended to get it published. If he did, he might have made an attempt about 19,700 pages ago. I’m not saying that Takahide Hori isn’t afflicted of all of those typical filmmaker ambitions, but ambition alone isn’t enough to make you do something, every night for four years. He had to know that there were no garantees that anyone would ever see, or give a damn about Junkhead. He had to know that there were quicker, easier ways to do it. Did he ever wonder if there were another team out there, working on the same story but doing it more effectively? Maybe that’s just me.

He did it because he was in love with the story and the process. After all, this is stop motion. As you watch it, think about the fact that every single movement was the result of a bunch of micro-adjustments, on a miniature set, with Hori towering above it like a god. I think that inside of Hori, there is more than a little bit of Chariman Don.

I told my cousin that I was going to learn Ruby. At first his response was generically positive. After all, who doesn’t love learning? Weeks later he asked, “Why?” It’s a good question. I wish my answer didn’t keep changing.

I told him about the growing demand for coders. He painted a picture for me of legions of men and women overseas who practice coding for more than eight hours a day, everyday. They were hungry. Desperate. And they were willing to work for a fraction of what coders are paid in the states.

“You can’t compete with that.”

No. I wouldn’t want to.

I countered that, I might not be able to out code them, but I can out write them. And every industry needs writers. Otherwise, the world would be swallowed up in a sea of industrial jargon. “You want to be a technical writer?” His voice had a thin sneer on it. It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. “You don’t want to be a technical writer.”

But I do. I remember managing the audiotour equipment at the High Museum of Art. Their tours were on iPods. It was super slick, with interactive video. Kids loved them; mostly because they looked forward to the challenge of bypassing the tour and watching TwoChains on Youtube. But then we would get in the older patrons. The ones who grew up on rotary phones and drove Packards. No ammount of polished steel could overcome their distrust of those things. They’d use them for a few works of art, and then return them. They said they didn’t work. They said that they were worthless.

I began to wonder exactly what kind of tutorial we could give them. It wasn’t just about explaining it. It seldom is. It was about getting them to trust it. Getting them to suspend disbelief and play around with it. That was the challenge. It didn’t always work. But when it did,  they loved it.

The opportunity to help bridge a gap between technology and the user is my humble Junkhead. It’s what all of those hours spent learning Ruby, and Java, and whatever comes next, will one day stack up to. After that, I’ll start working on my science fiction epic. I will pack it into the corners of my life, between the wife, the kids and the paycheck. But until then, this is it.

What’s your Junkhead?

 

 

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Lessons in Coding, Pt 1. I Found Terminal, but Where is Morpheus?

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This is what Morpheus would tell me, if I ever found him on Terminal. But I’m too old to be taken from the Matrix. And he’s a work of fictionl.

Two weeks ago I told the entire world that I was going to teach myself to code. Then I disappeared. I went down to Florida to eat gumbo and pepper pot, and find out how fat I was. There were gifts to be given. Eggs to be nogged.

My routines were firebombed. Yeah, once, a long time ago I was a responsible and relatively disciplined citizen of the Earth. Then we put some lights on a tree and I turned into Caligula, but with less debauchery and more food.

But now I’m back. I found, “Learn Ruby The Hard Way” (RTHW). It’s free online. Free is great! And I love to do things the hard way. Just ask my parents, or guidence councelors, or past girlfriends or my wife. Life just isn’t worth living unless I am throwing hurdles in my own way.

Let me caution you about this book. Its title is “Learn Ruby the Hard Way”. Do you understand? This isn’t hype. It’s not a marketing ploy. The authors, Zed Shaw and Rob Sobers, are the kind of people that enjoy seeing the vein in the center of your forhead throb with frustration.

Before Christmas ruined me, I was skipping through the online Ruby tutorials. They give little badges when you complete your exercises. If you stick at it for more than a couple of days in a row, they give you a virtual medal. It’s like a gold star for grownups.

Sound like a cheap ploy? You obviously don’t remember how cool it was to get gold stars when you were a kid. I loved them. I loved the look of them, and even the smell of them. Gold, silver, blue and red stars are the only things that stopped me from dropping out of Glenwood Elementary School in the Third grade. That, and the thorough ass whupping that my father would have unleashed upon me if I had even whispered something so stupid.

RTHW doesn’t give stickers. They don’t reward you for just showing up and shoving buttons around for a few minutes a day. The kids on their little league team don’t get trophies at the end of the season, either. They get pep talks that devolve into foam mouthed rants about how their little asses need to start hustling if they ever want to be taken seriously in the little league.

Since I began RTHW I downloaded Terminal and TextWrangler on my Mac Mini. I discovered that Ruby is already on it. Who knew?! And then I spent about two hours poking around the dark hole that is Terminal. No Ruby. Not yet. The Hard Way guys don’t think I’m ready. After doing their “Hello World” exercise, I think they’re right.

What is Terminal? Well, if you’re as old as I am, you remember how computers used to be. The wierd letters on a screen as black as the cosmos. Back then, computers didn’t do anything on their own. You had to coax them. Beg them. Or say fuck it, and spend about 20 minutes uploading a video game using a cassette recorder. My favorite was Hunt the Wumpus. Anybody remember that one? Anybody? 

If your younger, and a lot of you are, then Terminal is like the screen shots on the Matrix, but without any hope of rescue from Morpheus or Trinity.

If your operating system is a TV set, then Terminal is back stage. It’s got all of the stuff that you need, but don’t know what to do with. And it’s boring as hell. Computer purgatory. And I’m stuck there until I figure out why the stuff that I put into my first Ruby tutorial don’t show up on my Terminal screen. Could be days. Weeks.

I’ve never been a detail oriented person. After all, the devil is in the details, and the devil is bad, right? The RTHW guys don’t got time for that sugar honey ice tea (SHIT. I’m trying not to curse.) Coding and “not detail oriented” are two mutually exclusive things, so even though I really only wanted to learn Ruby, I now have to figure out how to pay attention to boring things, like the Terminal. Yuck.

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That, minus everything interesting equals the Terminal. Enjoy, future coders.

I’m Learning to Code. Blame that Homeless Guy

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Leo Grand, computer programming ex-homeless dude. Photo: New York Newsday.

I’m learning to code.

Blame this guy. His name is Leo Grand. Until recently he was on the street. Then guy walked up to him and offered him  a choice between $100 and a laptop and coding lessons. He chose the latter.

Let’s be clear. As homeless go, this guy was a model citizen. Until about two years ago, he was a MetLife agent in Manhattan. Then he lost his job, and soon afterwards, his apartment. In other words, life happened to him. Hard. But the thing about being homeless in America is, it really doesn’t matter what you did before you got there. The streets wipe the slate clean. Homeless is homeless.

This is what Leo said about it in an interview in the New York Post.

It’s really hard to convince people that you are not a bad person, or a drug addict or a crazy. How are you gonna do that when you are homeless, and that’s how the homeless are depicted.

He was tutored every morning at 8am by Patrick McConlogue. He practiced throughout the day, clocking three or four hours writing code and studying. “What else am I going to do?” He asked. And now he’s got an app called Trees for Cars. It’s available for iPad, iPhone and Android. You should check it out.

He’s probably not homeless anymore. If he is still unemployed, I suspect it’s because he wants to build his own thing.

It’s not just him. Two weeks ago My Facebook feed hit critical coding mass. Between this guy and the Year of Code initiatives, and the Code Academy…All of those short videos of rich and famous champions of nerdliness… I’m surprised I’ve resisted for as long as I have.

So I’m learning to code.

You should know I don’t like programming.

Remember Basic? I do. I can make my name fill up the screen from top to bottom, or left to right, or even diagnal. I took a course in Basic in High School back in 1988.

If Basic is capable of doing more than making your name print out over and over, I must have slept through that. I wanted it to. I wanted to make a video game with little x’s and o’s having a street fight like that movie, “The Warriors”. It was going to be “sandbox” back when sandboxes were things that you had in your back yard.

Basic wasn’t a total loss. If you need anyone to make your name print out over and over again, for either business or personal reasons, you can send me and email and I will quote you a fair price.

Yeah. High school basic in a classroom with no computers. Because, why the hell would you want those big heavy computers in a computer class?

In college I took one of those classes that scratches the surface of about a dozen different computer disciplines. The class was hot and dry like a toaster oven. The professor was obsessed with a book called, “The Cookoo’s Egg.” I remember the soft, languid pull of slumber. That place was the educational equivilent of a thick, warm comforter on a cold winter day. I slept. A lot.

Journalism Camp at Kent State in Ohio. Some guy from the Cleveland Plain Dealer comes in and tells us how we need to get a firm grasp on technology because new media was going to be a game changer. This was 1993, I think. I was like, “Psshyeah right…” Yawn.

Later I was working at the Philadelphia Art Museum. My manager says to me, “Have you heard about this new thing called blogging? You can write about whatever you want…” He had a blog, and he wasn’t even a writer.

And I said to myself, “He has a blog, and he isn’t even a writer!” Which, according to my rapier quick reasoning, meant that blogging was for people who couldn’t write. Hmmmm.

Those guys were technological harbingers. They tried to warn me. I blew them off.
Not this time. I get it. There may not be another time for me to actually be an early adapter.

But I don’t like programming.

But I like communicating. and the writing game is changing so quickly that I can hardly keep up with it. Coding is going to catapault me to that sweet spot in front of the eightball. Besides, I like feeding my children. Like, every night. And if Ruby will help me put those fish and grits on the dining room table, then I’m down.

But I don’t like programming… only, I used to. When I was a kid, science was my thing. I was sure that I would attend MIT and invent things. (MIT)

Elon Musk? His whole life was my idea. Electric cars and trains that go in vacuum tubes? I thought of that in the 80’s.

There was a time when I thought that computers would crack open the sky like Thor’s hammer, and bestow my generation with riches untold. And they did; only, I was too busy acting totally unimpressed and meh to appreciate how excited my world had become.

So I’ve bookmarked tutorials on Ruby and HTML/CSS, and I’m studying. I’m going to learn to code. Trust me.