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The Internet Changed My Life

I’ve seen multiple discussions online as to the negative effects of the internet on society. There’s definitely harmful content online. It makes me sad to see the internet being used as a tool to spread anger and hate, and to further the political divide, but today I’m going to share a personal story about how, in the late 90s and early 2000s, the internet changed my life.

When I was a kid, my mother worked as a journalist. She would often bring me to book launches and events of the sort. I distinctly remember being offered Perrier water to drink and hating it (how could anyone drink this?), and being bored out of my mind. Book launches were one of the worst places you could possibly bring a kid, but she often didn’t have a choice, being a single mom with no father in the picture. She was well connected and had a wide circle of friends. Her income was modest but we were doing alright. We lived in a fairly roomy two bedroom apartment in a co-op smack in the middle of downtown Montreal.

Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse. My mother started to complain about the neighbors being too loud. Just a little at first, but eventually, it became quite obsessive. My mother was complaining but I never heard any noise. At first, I couldn’t understand what was going on or why she was so upset. It turns out these were just early symptoms of the development of her mental illness. Over the course of two painful years, she lost it all: the job, the connections, the friends, the apartment, the little savings that she had. Even her own sister decided to cut contact with her.

Fast forward to the start of high school, I was 12 years old, and my mother was working as a cook. Unfortunately, even though she was way overqualified for that job, she lost it too, and we ended up on welfare, living in a much smaller apartment with no windows in the living room, and a black mold problem. On a social level, things weren’t going too well for me either. The other kids at school would pick on me and I’d often get into physical fights. I got suspended twice and was nearly kicked out of school. I can’t say for sure why I got into trouble so much more than my peers. Part of it was probably just that I was a nerdy kid, and teenagers are assholes, but another part of the problem is likely the belief system I grew up with. My only parent would repeatedly tell me that the world was full of bad people who are out to get you and can never be trusted. Being raised with that kind of belief system doesn’t exactly help you make friends.

Sometimes, I’d get home from school and my mother seemed to be doing alright that day. I’d settle down, sit at my desk and get started on homework, but then I’d suddenly jump, surprised by a loud shriek. My mother would suddenly become angry, and loudly shout back insults at the voices in her head. She was subject to extreme, unpredictable mood swings. One moment she’d be kind, the next she’d be angry. I tried to explain how disruptive and painful this was for me, but no amount of explaining seemed to help. I couldn’t find peace anywhere. Not at home, not at school, sometimes not even in my sleep. I felt truly alone.

After my first year of high school, the summer came. I had few friends, and the friends I did have were much wealthier than me. I didn’t have an allowance so I couldn’t ever go with them to shop, or to the movie theater or even to eat at a burger joint. I had to wear clothes purchased at the Salvation Army which mostly looked ok but other kids occasionally made fun of. I felt like living in poverty contributed further to my isolation. I spent most of that summer alone. I’d get out of bed and just lie on the couch, feeling bored out of my mind, with no energy to do anything. My mom became worried about how apathetic I’d become and took me to see a doctor. We did some blood tests, and everything came back normal. Looking back on it, I think what I was experiencing was a major depressive episode. I was still just a kid, and I had hit rock bottom.

I was very interested in computers, but our aging 386 PC had just died, which contributed to my feelings of despair. We were poor, but as tortured and dysfunctional as she had become, my mother still deeply cared about me and always did the best that she could to be a good parent. She knew I loved computers, and she knew they were useful for school work, so she took some of the little money that was left in her retirement account and bought us a brand new Pentium computer. We couldn’t afford any software for it, but that was a solvable problem.

Around the same time, my best friend got internet access at home through AOL. He was nice enough to share his access information with me and I started logging in through his account. I was instantly hooked. There was so much content, so much to read, chat rooms with so many people to talk to. Soon enough, I got an angry phone call from my friend. I’d used up his 100 hours of monthly internet access and his access was cut out until the next billing period. Oops.

I started doing the leg work of convincing my mom that we should get our own unlimited internet access subscription. The cost was 28 dollars a month, which, out of the $800-900 welfare cheque she was getting, was a lot of money. I told her this would be very useful for school, we’d have access to so much information, and I could play video games online, I’d finally have something to do. It took a lot of convincing, but I think she saw how passionate I was about the whole thing, and she eventually accepted.

In 1998, I got internet access at home, and I feel like this was a genuine turning point in my life. From that point on, my life started to gradually improve. It wasn’t all uphill, there were lots of ups and downs, but I was never bored again. There was always something to read, something to learn. I could play video games online and quickly started making online friends. My feelings of loneliness were alleviated because I always had people to talk to. English was my second language, but I became almost fluent very quickly. As silly as it might sound, through online chats and by making friends online, I also started to develop some much needed social skills and a better idea of what normal, healthy human interactions could look like.

I’m not sure how old I was exactly, but not that long after I got internet access, I decided to do some online searches about mental illness. I found a webpage that described the symptoms my mom had. She was a textbook case of paranoid schizophrenia. She matched the description perfectly. I took it upon myself to have a conversation with her and try to explain, as gently as I could, that she needed to go see a psychiatrist to get some help, for both of our sake. Unfortunately, that conversation went about as poorly as you can imagine. She got extremely angry, screamed at me, and locked herself in her bedroom. In her world, it wasn’t her that was crazy, it was everyone else.

I was at my wits’ end and I thought about reporting myself to child protection services, but a few days later, on the evening news, I heard a story about children in foster homes being molested for years and living in horribly abusive conditions. I made the cold calculation that as painful as my life was, it was probably better than rolling the dice with the child protection services. I had food, shelter, clothing, access to a decent education, and most importantly, internet access. Devil you know, devil you don’t. I realized that the only way forward was stoicism and hard work. I’d need to succeed in life so that I could be independent.

Through the internet, I learned various computer maintenance skills, eventually buying new hardware and upgrading our home computer. I started to learn about programming. I connected with a guy who went by the nickname SteveR, a tech professional who became my friend slash mentor, and answered many of the questions I had about C++ programming and video game development. My passion for computers, technology, and all the things I could learn about and people I could meet online are a big part of what kept me going. I always had something positive to focus on and fill my time with.

Fast forward a few years, around the time I was 15, and I was running a side-hustle of sorts. I’d learned enough IT skills that I was starting to become a competent computer technician. My friend’s parents were paying me $20 an hour to do tasks such as hardware upgrades, installing newer versions of Windows, backups, installing wifi routers and troubleshooting various problems. I didn’t have a car, so they’d either come pick me up or bring their computers to our apartment. I often got to keep the spare parts after computer upgrades, which I’d either use to upgrade my own machine or go trade at the nearby computer store. I bartered my 14” monitor and a graphics card for a 17” monitor. I don’t know how realistic it would be to do that today, you certainly couldn’t barter computer hardware at Best Buy, but I think the store owner had a soft spot for me, he respected the hustle.

As soon as I reached age 16 and was legally old enough to be employed, I decided to look for a part-time job. My mom suggested that I should drop off my CV at the local computer store. I thought that was a bit silly (who would hire a 16 year old for this?), and I felt even more silly when, after dropping off my CV, the owner told me he wasn’t looking to hire anyone. However, a few weeks later, the next time I came by hoping to barter some parts, the owner said that he was now looking to hire someone, and I could have the job if I wanted it. I didn’t have an allowance, but it didn’t matter anymore. I earned my own money, and with that came a little bit of freedom and hope that I could build myself a better future.

We were never able to afford cable TV at home, but eventually, my mom grew tired of the phone line being constantly in use, which gave me good ammunition to argue that we should get high speed internet. We eventually got DSL and with that, I was able to download movies and TV shows. This gave me access to more entertainment, but also helped me become even more fluent in English, which I knew would be important for a career in technology.

As I progressed through high school, my mental state improved, but I still felt very lonely. What I lacked in terms of real-world interaction, I tried to make up for with online friendships. I spent some time hanging out on various IRC channels. One of the channels I hung out in was simply called #montreal. It was mostly an endless torrent of stupid jokes and shitposting, but one night, I noticed something strange. Among all the stupid comments, one message stood out. A woman had written “I’m about to kill myself and I’d like to talk to someone before I go, message me”. The other IRC users ignored her, and she repeated her message one more time. I messaged her. She explained how she felt lonely, alone and unloved. I told her that I very much could relate, and that whatever she wanted to say, I was there to listen. I tried to say nice things to her, to explain that things were probably not as hopeless as she thought, but it was no use. She said she had just swallowed a bunch of pills, and she quickly logged off.

It was a distress call, but she didn’t really want to hang around and talk. I didn’t have any information about her, not her name or her phone number or address, but when she had logged into the chat, the IRC server displayed her IP address. I felt very awkward and was afraid of not being taken seriously, but I dialled 911 and explained the situation to them. I gave them her IP address (which I had them repeat back to me), the name of her internet service provider and the time when she was logged on. I told them that if they called the ISP and they gave them the IP address and the time, the ISP would know her home address. The woman on the phone said that they would take it from there.

The next day, I had the TV on in the background and the evening news program was just starting. At the start of the bulletin, they gave a quick outline of the stories they were going to cover. Among those stories, the news anchor read something to the lines of “an internet user saves the life of a young woman in distress”. Then they cut for an ad break. I was very excited to hear the actual news story, but suddenly, my mother called out “dinner is ready!” and insisted that I come and sit down to eat. I got distracted, and I never did hear the full news story (ha!). Where is that woman now? How is she doing? Is she still alive? I’ll never know, but in that moment, I was able to be present, and to do something to help somebody else, and I felt proud of that. It gave me hope that I could make a positive difference in the world.

In high school, I was a B+ student at best. I was never particularly motivated, and most probably too (di)stressed to thrive, but by the time I made it to university, I’d been programming in C++ for three years and had a huge head start on everybody. I had gotten accepted into a computer science program at a local university, and I decided that since computers were my turf, I was going to show everyone what I could do by getting the best grades. I was going to beat everyone without getting into a fight. I completed my undergraduate degree with a 3.97/4.00 GPA. Out of 30 courses, I received 27 As and 3 A-minus grades.

I don’t want this to read like a story about how I overcame every obstacle alone and pulled myself up by bootstraps with no outside help. I struggled a lot along the way but the reality is that as challenging as my life situation was, as lonely and misunderstood as I felt at times, there was luck in my misfortune, and I did receive help. My mom was mentally ill, but despite this, she didn’t suffer from alcoholism or any other addiction. She was always able to cook, pay the bills, and perform the most basic functions a parent needs to do. The situation in my home was often very tense, but there was never physical violence. My mother, being university educated herself, cared about my education and genuinely wanted me to succeed. She invited me to keep living with her during my university studies to save money. I sure wanted to get the hell out of there, but it made financial sense to stay a little bit longer.

Right around the time that I was starting university, after a few years on a waiting list, we got access to a subsidized apartment with more sunlight and no mold. This apartment was a 30-minute walk away from the university which allowed me to get some exercise every day. Thanks to Canada’s low tuition costs, I was able to earn enough from summer jobs to pay for tuition and not have to work during the school year, which allowed me to better concentrate on my studies. The classmates I had who were forced to work during the school year understandably struggled with the heavy computer science curriculum.

On the internet, I was able to access resources about psychology and how to cope with trauma, which I also found helpful. YouTube became available in 2006, and through YouTube, I’ve watched many lectures from leading psychologists about depression, PTSD, meditation and many other interesting topics. I opened up about my suffering and received support and valuable advice from friends I’d met online. I’m not going to pretend that being your own DIY therapist is the key to better mental health. I was lucky, through my university, to get access to professional therapists at discounted rates, which helped me begin my own healing process.

This is part of the story of how the internet changed my life for the better. I’m an early millennial and I was raised online. Through the internet, I found friends, support, and the human connection that I was lacking in real life. I also found valuable information that helped me help myself and sometimes help others. The key with information is always to effectively filter the good from the bad, which is a genuine life skill unto itself. My life today isn’t perfect, but it’s better than it’s ever been. My message to all the people out there who are struggling is to believe in yourself. If you help yourself and you let others help you, things are never hopeless.

What’s Could You Use Tesla Bot For?

Like many of you I’m sure, I watched the TeslaBot announcement and felt that this presentation was premature. They didn’t even have plastic mockup of the robot to show, just some guy dancing in a costume. I’m very excited about the potential of general purpose robotics, but it seems like Elon Musk is once again underestimating the challenges in this problem space. Tesla’s Full Self Driving project is barely getting to the point where it might become useful, and now they’re going to attack a problem 100 times harder. Well, okay then.

That being said, as an investor in Tesla, I’m still excited about the project. Tesla is profitable and has 16 billions in cash on hand at this point, which means they can throw more money at the problem than individual company or research group ever has. The company also has their own lightweight, low power neural network accelerator, and they’ve successfully designed high efficiency motors and battery systems. Their extensive manufacturing expertise also means that, if they were to mass produce such a thing, they really could bring the cost down.

My own belief is that the only way to ever build general purpose robotics is to have engineers working on the problem. It’s one thing to have academics working on toy problems in simulation, but real-world robotics is where the rubber meets the road. In my opinion, there is great power in incremental improvements. The way to bring forth general purpose robotics is build robots that can perform some basic tasks in a narrow real-world domain, and then gradually extend their abilities and circle of competence. A lot can be achieved through trial and error, and iterating on a design to keep improving it.

Most engineers would probably tell you that building the Tesla bot, the physical component of it, is not the hard part. We know how to build the hardware, or at least, we can figure it out fairly quickly. The hard part is building the software that drives it. A general purpose humanoid robot will have to have a detailed understanding of the real world around it, and be able to handle many more special cases than a self driving car. Even the “simple” problem of teaching a robot how to reach and grasp teacup without spilling the tea or breaking the cup is a hard problem. Brewing the tea is even harder. Doing that in a house you’ve never visited before is harder than rocket science. So where does that leave us? Where do you start? What could you do with a Tesla bot?

In my opinion, there are simpler, easier, better defined problems to attack before you try and put a humanoid robot in a home or office environment. It so happens that Tesla is looking at building an automated network of so called robotaxis, the self-driving equivalent of Uber and Lyft. In order to build something like that, you’ll need a workforce to perform tasks like routinely cleaning both the inside and the outside of the self-driving cars. This is a simple, repetitive task that requires only limited communication, which makes it an ideal real-word use case for the first humanoid robots.

Tesla could build a Tesla car wash which would gradually expand into an automated robotaxi service station. The problem domain of cleaning the inside and outside of Tesla’s robotaxis is interesting because it’s both challenging but also fairly repetitive and predictable. You can perform the task with a limited number of basic tools, and it’s unlikely to put anyone’s life in danger. The environment in which the task is performed can be somewhat controlled and the tools can be standardized, but there’s also going to be an interesting amount of diversity in the scenarios encountered. Lastly, it should be fairly realistic to have humans provide a decent amount of demonstration data by remotely piloting the robot or through video footage.

This thought experiment has me optimistic that even though fully general purpose robotics could take another 20 years or more to materialize, it’s not impossible to think that something like a Tesla bot could start to become useful in less than 5 years. It’s a narrow problem domain, but it’s easy to think that you could start by having the robot wash the outside of the car, and then expand to having it clean the inside. You could start with just one model of car and then expand to more. You could gradually add new features such as inspecting cars for damage, charging cars, and eventually changing tires or even performing more advanced maintenance. You could even laterally expand to other similar domains such as cleaning Tesla’s cafeterias or factory floors.

This is a hard problem domain, but it’s not impossible to find a starting point that we can realistically tackle, and once the robots start to become useful, a virtuous cycle can begin. As Tesla begins to mass produce and iterate on the robot’s design, the cost can come down. This can allow academic partners and various startup to buy them at affordable prices and begin to do research of their own. The sophistication of the robot’s understanding of the world can improve, and its circle of competence can expand. The most important part is to get the ball rolling.

NoiseCraft: a Browser-Based Visual Programming Language for Sound & Music

I’ve recently resumed work on a side-project I started back in 2019 to create a browser-based visual programming language for sound synthesis and music. I was initially hoping to make this a commercial SaaS product, but I got discouraged when I realized that running and promoting a business could easily become a second job on top of my full-time day job, and suck all the fun out of the project. Thankfully, about six months ago, my motivation to work on the project came back. I decided to build an improved version of this software and make it open source.

NoiseCraft is a node-based visual programming language, loosely inspired by Max/MSP and PureData. The main goal of this project is to provide a way for people to explore musical ideas, and to enable people to share these ideas easily. It’s designed to be easy to use and approachable for beginners. There’s only one type, every connection has a floating-point value that changes over time. It runs in a browser and uses the Web Audio and Web MIDI APIs. This means you don’t need to install anything, and you can share links to your projects just as easily as you can in Google Docs. The user interface is minimalistic and designed to be as simple as possible to facilitate learning. No cryptic shortcuts, no submenus, no esoteric terminology.

I want to set realistic expectations. This is something I’ve been working on in my spare time. It’s not trying to be Ableton Live or Reason. It’s definitely not perfect and you could run into bugs. It’s designed with desktop and laptop computers in mind. It might eventually work on tablets, but for the moment, it probably doesn’t (unless you connect a keyboard and mouse to your tablet). It’s been tested in Chrome and Edge. However, it doesn’t yet work in Firefox because we’re waiting for a bug to get fixed. It also doesn’t yet work in Safari. However, despite its limitations, NoiseCraft has many interesting features:

  • Easy to use sequencer node with multiple patterns
  • Audio is now rendered in a background thread to avoid glitches
  • You can copy and paste, even between different browser tabs
  • Colorful, curved edges that are easier to follow visually
  • Undo and redo
  • Projects can be shared in the cloud in a few clicks
  • Projects can also be saved to local files to a simple JSON format
  • Ability to play notes from MIDI keyboards and devices
  • Ability to map virtual knobs to knobs/sliders/mod/pitch bend on MIDI devices
  • New clock divider and sample-and-hold nodes

I started this project to improve my understanding of synths and sound synthesis. NoiseCraft is ideally suited to explore the possibilities of additive, subtractive and FM synthesis. Most nodes are simple building blocks with a low level of granularity so that it’s easy to understand how things work. By connecting oscillators, filters, delays and other basic components you can create your own synth or groovebox. I’ve linked some fun example projects below to showcase various possibilities:

Many more examples can be found on NoiseCraft’s browse page and some instructions are provided in the help page. With this project, I hope to create a community for the open sharing of musical ideas. If this is something that interests you, I’m also hoping to find skilled, like-minded collaborators to help me improve the software. I’ll keep gradually improving it on my own, but there’s a limit to what a single programmer can do in their spare time. NoiseCraft could use testing, bug fixes and various improvements. Constructive feedback as well as contributions to the help page and documentation are also welcome. If you report bugs, please try to provide details on how to reproduce the issue and please be kind. The project is available on GitHub :)

YJIT: Building a New JIT Compiler Inside CRuby

The 1980s and 1990s saw the genesis of Perl, Ruby, Python, PHP and JavaScript: interpreted, dynamically-typed programming languages which favored ease of use and flexibility over performance. In many ways, these programming languages are a product of the surrounding context. The 90s were the peak of the dot-com hype, and CPU clock speeds were still doubling roughly every 18 months. It looked like the growth was never going to end. You didn’t really have to try to make your software run fast, because computers were just going to get faster, and the problem would take care of itself. Today, things are a little different. We’re reaching the limit of current fabrication technologies, we can’t rely on single-core performance increases to solve our performance problems, and because of mobile devices and environmental concerns, we’re starting to realize that energy efficiency matters.

Last year, during the pandemic, I took a job at Shopify, a company that has a massive server infrastructure powered by Ruby on Rails. I joined a team with multiple software engineers working on improving the performance of Ruby code in a variety of ways, ranging from optimizing the CRuby interpreter and its garbage collector, to the implementation of TruffleRuby, an alternative Ruby implementation. Since then, I’ve been working with a small team of skilled engineers on YJIT, a new JIT compiler inside CRuby.

This project is important to Shopify and Ruby developers worldwide because speed is an underrated feature. There is already a JIT compiler inside CRuby, known as MJIT, which has been in the works for 3 years, and while it has delivered speedups on smaller benchmarks, it has, so far, been less successful at delivering real-world speedups on widely used Ruby applications including Rails. With YJIT, we take a data-driven approach, and focus specifically on performance hotspots of larger applications such as Rails and Shopify Core (Shopify’s main Rails monolith).

YJIT is an attempt to gradually build a JIT compiler inside CRuby such that more and more of the code is executed by the JIT, which will eventually replace the interpreter for most of the execution. Our compiler is based on Basic Block Versioning (BBV), a JIT compiler architecture I started developing during my PhD. I’ve given a talk about YJIT in March of this year at MoreVMs 2021 workshop if you’re curious to hear more about the approach we’re taking.

I don’t want to oversell YJIT. Our results have significantly improved since the MoreVMs talk, but are still modest. We’re very much at the early stages of this project and there are known bugs in our implementation. That being said, according to our benchmarks, we’ve been able to achieve speedups over the CRuby interpreter of 7% on railsbench, 19% on liquid template rendering, and 19% on activerecord. YJIT also delivers very fast warm up. It reaches near-peak performance after a single iteration of any benchmark, and performs at least as well as the interpreter on every benchmark, even on the first iteration.

Building YJIT inside CRuby comes with a number of limitations. It means that our JIT compiler has to be written in C, and that we have to live with design decisions in the CRuby codebase that were not made with a high performance JIT compiler in mind. However, it has the key advantage that YJIT is able to maintain almost 100% compatibility. We are able to pass the CRuby test suite, comprising about 30,000 tests, and we have also been able to pass all of the tests of the Shopify Core CI, a codebase that comprises over 3 million lines of code and depends (directly and indirectly) on over 500 Ruby gems, as well as all the tests in the CI for GitHub’s backend.

We believe that the BBV architecture that powers YJIT offers some key advantages when it comes to compiling dynamically-typed code, and that having end-to-end control over the full code generation pipeline will allow us to go farther than what is possible with the current architecture of MJIT, which is based on GCC. Notably, YJIT can quickly specialize code based on type information and patch code at run time based on the run-time behavior of programs.

Currently, only about 50% of instructions in railsbench are executed by YJIT, and the rest run in the interpreter, meaning that there is still a lot we can do to improve upon our current results. There is a clear path forward and we believe YJIT can deliver much better performance than it does now. However, as part of building YJIT, we’ve had to dig through the implementation of CRuby so we could understand it in detail. In doing so, it’s become obvious that one of the main performance challenges in implementing a fast JIT compiler in CRuby, is that key elements of the architecture are optimized with an interpreter in mind, and not a JIT compiler.

For instance, in CRuby every object instance variable read or write requires multiple pointer indirections and dynamic checks. In order to read an instance variable (ivar) from a Ruby object, one has to:

  1. Check that the receiver is a not an immediate value
  2. Check that the receiver is not Qnil
  3. Check that the receiver is a T_OBJECT
  4. Check that the object class matches our inline cache
  5. Read the serial number from the class (extra pointer indirection, memory access)
  6. Check whether the object stores its ivars internally or on an external table
  7. Potentially: read the pointer to the external table (extra memory access)
  8. Potentially: check if the ivar index is within the bounds of the external table
  9. Read the ivar from the object or external table

Note that at the moment, only 3 instance variable slots can be stored directly on the object itself, so instance variables are almost always on an external table in the vast majority of accesses.

As you can imagine, even though some of these checks can sometimes be optimized away, generating efficient machine code for instance variable accesses in CRuby is very difficult. It doesn’t have to be this way. This problem was solved by Self, the successor of Smalltalk, in the early 1990s. Self used what they call “maps”, but nowadays are typically referred to as object shapes (see Section 3 of An Efficient Implementation of SELF). This is tested and proven technology, used by Chrome’s V8 , Firefox’s SpiderMonkey, and TruffleRuby. If you are curious, this excellent blog post by Mathias Bynens and this great talk by Benedikt Meurer explain the concept of object shapes and shape trees in more details.

# Optimized ivar reads can be as short as three x86 instructions
# ebx = pointer to the object
cmp [ebx + <object shape offset>], <cached object shape>
jne <inline cache miss>
mov eax,[ebx, <cached ivar offset>] # load the ivar value

Thanks to object shapes, V8, SpiderMonkey and TruffleRuby are able to implement instance variable reads in as little as one single dynamic check, giving them an enormous performance advantage. We believe that with a coordinated effort that involves the Ruby Core developers, key technologies such as this could be implemented inside CRuby, and would benefit MJIT, YJIT, and any other future attempts to implement a JIT inside CRuby, and this without significantly impacting the performance of the interpreter.

Matz has stated in his recent talk at Euruko 2021 that Ruby would remain conservative with language additions in the near future. We believe that this is a wise decision as rapid language changes can make it difficult for JIT implementations to get off the ground and stay up to date. It makes some sense, in our opinion, for Ruby to focus on internal changes that will make the language more robust and deliver competitive performance in the future.

I believe that, through incremental, targeted changes, CRuby can be gradually re-engineered so that it can eventually have a true high-performance JIT compiler. Doing so must necessarily involve both JIT compiler experts and the Ruby Core developers. One key area of potential improvement would be the inclusion of object shapes. There are other things that could help us, such as rewriting some C methods in pure Ruby, such as Array#each and Fixnum#times, so that JIT compilers can inline through them. I may expand on such things in a future blog post. What would also be greatly helpful to JIT implementers is to have some commitment to stabilizing the internal Ruby bytecode format, or at least, to not add extra complexity and special cases to existing bytecode instructions. Currently, CRuby implements 11 kinds of method dispatch, which, as you can imagine, makes optimization and inlining very challenging.

If you’re interested in contributing or simply trying YJIT, it is available on GitHub under the same license as CRuby. The caveat of course is that we are at an early stage in this project and it’s very possible that you could run into bugs, or that you may not find the current performance particularly impressive. If you do want to help, YJIT could use more testing. Tracking down small regression tests for bugs is very valuable to us. We could also use more, larger benchmarks that better reflect real-world Ruby usage.

Investing is a Social Phenomenon

I first started trading on the stock market back in 2016. I had been curious about stock trading before that, but up until that point, I did what most people my age did, which is to simply put money into a regular savings account without really thinking about it. Things changed when I took a job at Apple in Silicon Valley. Part of the compensation was in Apple stock, and so, my new employer opened a stock brokerage account in my name where the shares would be deposited every six months. All of a sudden, I had access to a website where I could log in and place trades, and a whole new world was opened to me. I could own a small piece of some the greatest companies in the world, and that seemed really exciting, but which ones should I buy, and how much? What strategy should I use? I did what any responsible adult would do, and turned to YouTube and Reddit to look for answers.

This probably sounds laughable to many of you. I’m sure it would sound laughable to most Wall Street professionals, but there’s a lot of valuable information out there on YouTube, Reddit and other social media platforms. The key is knowing how to filter out valuable insight from terrible advice. Furthermore, investing fundamentally a social phenomenon, and as the GameStop saga made clear, social media is changing the game. Suddenly, ordinary folks with a computer or cellphone have access to an incredible amount of information, and huge online communities where they can exchange ideas. This is levelling the playing field to some extent.

That’s not to say that there isn’t anything dodgy happening on these platforms. I follow multiple YouTubers who post videos about stocks, and I noticed something both interesting and frightening. A YouTuber I won’t name, with over 600,000 followers, would often post videos where he would praise some specific stock. Often these stocks had relatively small market caps, about one billion dollars. Without fail, in the day following his videos being posted, the price of the stock discussed the day before would raise by something between 10 and 30%. This guy, simply by having a large online following, could easily manipulate the market in real time. The potential for abuse there is obviously enormous. Sven Carlin, another YouTuber I follow, revealed that he and many others had been offered money to promote certain stocks. This kind of scam is nothing new, I’m sure that Wall Street stock analysts have been paid to promote stocks for as long as there have been stock analysts, but again, social media is changing the game. People you assume to be trustworthy regular folks just sharing their personal opinion might actually be paid shills, it’s just much harder to tell because they’re not wearing suits.

Why is it that the stock price of some companies, like Amazon or Tesla, seems to rise exponentially? It’s because investing is fundamentally a social phenomenon. Investing is about trust, and the stock price of a company reflects our collective belief in the future potential of that company to succeed and grow. For many years, the stock price of Amazon didn’t move very much. People questioned their ability to succeed, and the fact that they weren’t profitable, but some time around 2010, that view shifted very rapidly, as if some threshold had been reached. The idea that Amazon was going to succeed, that it was an unstoppable behemoth, became the dominant one seemingly overnight, and from that point on, the price of its stock never stopped rising. The same thing seems to be happening with Tesla. The company’s stock price has risen about 700% during 2020, and I don’t think that a rapid fundamental shift in the underlying business explains that. Rather, I think the rapid fundamental shift has been in the public perception of the company’s ability to deliver on its promises. That shift has been caused, in large part, by a large online community of unrelenting fans praising the company on social media. With social media, anyone can have a voice, it becomes possible for individuals to shift collective beliefs, and in doing so, we can make companies succeed or fail, and to some extent, reshape the future.

Investing is, or should be, about allocating capital to ideas you believe in, and it can be a beautiful thing, a force for change. Back in 2016, I started investing in multiple companies in the renewable energy space. I chose to do that because I was part of a growing online community of investors that believe in the potential of renewable energy, and its necessity for a better future. What I’ve been seeing, since then, is that as Tesla succeeds, more and more capital is flowing away from oil stocks and into renewable energy stocks. Starting in December 2019, before everyone was broadly aware of the pandemic, the price of oil giant Exxon Mobil took a sharp drop, while the price of Tesla started increasing steeply. Tesla has shown that renewable energy companies can succeed, and the rising tide lifts all boats. There’s more to it than just the stock price going up though. Like I said, the stock price, or more accurately, the total valuation of a company, reflects our collective belief that a company can succeed.

When a company’s stock price goes up, it suddenly becomes very easy for that company to raise money by selling more shares. This means there’s never been a better time to start a renewable energy company, because it’s easy to raise money to make that company grow. In some ways, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because we believe that green energy stocks can succeed, people buy the stock and their stock price goes up. Because people are buying green energy stocks, these companies can raise money easily. Since they can raise money easily, it’s much easier for them to grow, and to succeed, which also leads to a higher stock price. In many ways, our collective belief that these companies can succeed is making it possible for them to succeed. Are electric vehicle and green energy stocks in a bubble? Maybe, but it shouldn’t matter. Among these companies, those with competent management teams have already taken advantage of the current climate to raise money, and give themselves enough runway, even if there is a temporary pullback. Some of these companies will undoubtedly succeed, and the market will reward them for it. Don’t believe me, just watch.

On Insurmountable Technical Obstacles

John Carmack gave a great talk in which he explains why, before spending time working on an idea, he spends time trying to poke holes into it. Sometimes, it’s easy to get overly excited about an idea and get carried away. However, it could turn out that this idea has some fatal flaw, and if that’s the case, it’s probably be best if we can find that fatal flaw early, before spending hours, days or even weeks and months trying to implement a solution that was ultimately doomed to fail. There is wisdom in examining your ideas with an adversarial lens.

On the flip side, sometimes you have a problem that you need to solve, and you know it should be possible to solve it, because there’s no fundamental reason why the problem can’t be solved. I would say it’s been my experience that many people are often too quick to say that something can’t be done and dismiss all possible solutions you might suggest without doing due diligence. There’s often someone who will give you 100 reasons why your idea can’t work, and often, these people just lack imagination.

One example that has been on my mind recently is that of electric cars. Multiple jurisdictions have set the ambitious goal of completely ban the sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2035. Many Electric Vehicles (EV) advocates including myself believe that electric vehicles make up be the majority of new cars sold by 2030. Yet if you read discussions online, some vocal individuals will tell you that this is impossible. They will give you many reasons why electric vehicles can’t succeed, including range, a higher price tag, and that people living in apartments have nowhere to charge their vehicles. I would say that these people clearly lack imagination, and they’re failing to understand that reality is not static, it evolves over time as we adapt the world to our needs.

As technology progresses, the range and charging speed of electric vehicles keeps improving. As adoption increases, the price tag keeps coming down, and the amount of investment into EVs increases as well. I don’t live in a house, so I don’t have a garage, but at the last meeting of my condo association, the issue of installing EV chargers was brought up. This year, it should be possible for everyone who wants a charger installed to pay to add one at their parking spot. What about people who have to park their car on the street, you ask? You couldn’t possibly put a charger at every parking spot? Well, what if you could? Siemens is working on converting lamp posts into EV chargers. If you thought that charging on the street was an insurmountable technical obstacle, I say you lack imagination.

In 2020, Norway became the first country in which EVs took the majority of the new car market, with 54% of new vehicles sold being electric. You can argue that it’s easy for them, because they are wealthier than the rest of the world, but the reality is that electric vehicles are already coming down in price. There’s now a lot of competition, and Tesla has reiterated plans to produce a 25,000$ EV within a few years, with mass production inevitably bringing down costs.

The bottom line is, if there’s a problem that is really worth solving, trying to poke holes into potential solutions so you can dismiss them as quickly as possible isn’t always the right approach. You should do due diligence and give each potential solution a fair assessment, because you could also be shooting down ideas that would actually work. You should also ask yourself how you might actually go about overcoming the difficult obstacles that seem stand in the way, because some seemingly difficult obstacles might not turn out to be real issues in practice. The challenge to bring that idea into reality then becomes how to find a feasible path to your goal, and how to optimize and shorten that path as much as possible. Envisioning that path takes patience and some measure of imagination.

Combatting Pessimism: 3 Keys to Innovation

I strongly believe that in order to innovate, it’s important to be able to play with ideas. When you’re attacking a problem, it’s useful to be able to brainstorm, come up with multiple alternative solutions, and weigh the pros and cons. It’s also useful, in order to weigh the pros and cons, to try and imagine how a hypothetical solution can be integrated into an existing system, or how it could be extended, and what possible problems might arise.

It’s also very hard to innovate, to do something really new. Let’s face it, the total world population close to reaching almost 8 billion people. In every field, there is competition on all sides. Whatever you’re working on, there are likely other people working on it as well. Maybe someone else has already tried what you’re thinking of doing. It’s hard to stay relevant. If we just think about movie storylines, it almost seems as though every theme has been explored, and we’re just being fed the same clichés over and over again. Why even bother?

You Can Do It Better

I think the first thing to remember is that while a lot of ideas have already been thought of, many of them haven’t really been implemented properly. There are a lot of ideas that have been explored before, but poorly implemented. Coming up with an idea is the easy part, good execution is much harder. Most people give up without even trying. Some give up after they reach the first real technical obstacle. If you truly believe in the potential of an idea, you can separate yourself from the pack by going farther than the others who previously gave up.

Back in 2002, young Elon Musk founded SpaceX, with the goal of perfecting reusable rockets and sending people to Mars. Many people laughed at him. He had made a few millions with Paypal, but only an arrogant and narcissistic Silicon Valley entrepreneur could possibly imagine that he could launch a rocket company and take on established players like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Yet, here we are, 18 years later, SpaceX has perfected reusable rocket boosters that can land themselves, they’ve sent astronauts to the ISS, they own most of the satellite launch market, and they’re now working on a fully reusable rocket.

SpaceX weren’t the first to work on reusable rockets. The idea wasn’t remotely new. The earliest concepts date back to the 1960s and there were many abandoned or failed projects. The competition was out there. There were a few multi-billion dollar companies already building rockets. If you’d asked me back in 2002, I would probably have said that Elon Musk had near-zero chance of succeeding. How did SpaceX manage to win? Probably, in part, because the existing players were overly comfortable. They had been fed secure government funding for decades. Why try to reinvent rockets when you can just keep doing the same thing and charge several hundreds of millions of dollars per launch? SpaceX won by executing an innovative vision to reduce cost with unwavering discipline. They went farther than everyone else, and built something much better.

On a smaller scale, if you’re an app developer, for example, you might be able to innovate over your competition by building an app with a simpler or more intuitive user interface. Maybe your app does nothing more than the others in terms of functionality, but it’s much easier to use. Your UI doesn’t require a user manual, users can figure out what to do quickly, and you reduce friction in a way that leads people to adopt your software.

Context Changes

The second thing you should know about ideas and innovation is that the world is always changing. It’s not the same place that it was 30, 20 or even 5 years ago. That makes it worthwhile to re-explore old ideas and adapt them to the modern context. In fact, there is this commonly known concept of the right idea at the wrong time.

There is a great documentary on a company called General Magic, who tried to build a smartphone with a touch screen too soon, before the technology was ready, and with poor, unfocused execution. There is also the story of the Apple Newton, which was also a flop. Many people knew that there was a clear future for Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), but believing wasn’t enough, to make an idea come true, you need both good execution and an appropriate context.

Context is always changing. Sometimes very rapidly. Hardware becomes cheaper and better. The internet of 2020 is not the same as the internet of 1998 or even that of 2015. The people of today are different from the people of 10 or 20 years ago. You yourself are also changing and learning new things. Sometimes it’s worth re-examining old ideas. It’s not because others tried and failed that something is inherently impossible. Maybe they didn’t have the right skillset. Maybe they just weren’t in the right time, place or mindset.

Iterative Refinement

If there’s one thing you should believe in, as a software developer or as an engineer, it’s in the tremendous power of iterative refinement. You should believe in your own ability to learn from mistakes, be they your own mistakes or those of others, and refine a concept over time. By testing a machine again and again, you can identify flaws, and eliminate them, one at a time. You can go from a system that is broken and unusable to one that is fast and reliable. You don’t have to be fast, you don’t have to burn yourself out, you just need to keep at it.

SpaceX needed many attempts to figure out their rocket landing technology.

Sometimes it feels like we take two steps forward and one step back. I think that in the software industry, it helps to spend time building a solid suite of tests to avoid regressions. The most important ingredient though, in order to keep refining a solution, is strong belief in the final vision that we are ultimately trying to reach.

Conclusion

The most important strength that you have is your belief in your own ability to learn and succeed. You also need to be able to filter out good ideas from bad ones, and to judge whether the context is right or not. Sometimes though, you also have to find a way to quiet your inner critic, the pessimistic voice inside yourself that is deeply afraid of failure. It’s easy to come up with 1000 reasons why some idea might fail, but you’ll never know if you don’t give it a proper shot, and the best way to learn is by doing.

With the current ongoing pandemic, it’s very easy to be pessimistic right now. We’re lonely, isolated, and it’s easy to despair, to believe that the world is going to shit. That we’ll never leave this behind. However, multiple vaccines are completing human trials with positive results. Tens of millions of doses have already been fabricated, with billions more to be produced in 2021. Vaccination is already underway in some countries, and set to begin in the US in about two weeks, and in Canada starting in January. It might feel hopeless right now, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. I choose to believe in human ingenuity.

The Need for Stable Foundations in Software Development

My employer was kind enough to provide me with a top of the line MacBook Pro. It’s a beautiful machine with 6 CPU cores, 32GB of RAM and a 4K display, the most powerful laptop I’ve ever owned and a valuable tool in working from home. However, unfortunately, the slick machine suffers from a number of software problems.

For one, you can charge it using any of the 4 USB-C ports, but you really should only ever charge it from the right side. Another issue I frequently run into is that I have an external monitor, and despite configuring this as my primary display, the dock will randomly jump back to the MacBook’s monitor, until I go into the settings and move the dock to the right, and to the bottom again, at which point it goes back to the external monitor, until the next time it decides to randomly jump ship. A third issue is that whenever I reboot, it stays stuck early in the boot process, displaying the white Apple logo, and does nothing. It doesn’t complete the boot process until I unplug my USB-C devices. There are more problems, I could go on.

Apple isn’t the only one with these kinds of quality assurance problems. I recently installed Windows 8 on an older desktop computer I wanted to give to my mother (she unfortunately couldn’t see herself using Linux).  The first thing I did after installing the new OS was to try and run Windows Update. However, it didn’t work, and I was appalled to find that on this version of the OS, Windows Update is broken out of the box. I learned that there was a patch to fix the issue, but the patch didn’t work, it displayed a progress bar that remained perpetually frozen. Online searches revealed that in order to get the patch to work, I had to unplug the ethernet cable.

Why is it that we live in a world riddled with bugs? I think there are a few reasons for this. No doubt, part of the issue is that our competitive capitalist economy makes major software and hardware vendors want to move at breakneck speeds. Technological progress doesn’t nearly justify a new generation of smartphones being released each year, but, fuck the environment, a new product needs to be released in order to maintain interest and keep sales numbers high. We move fast, and in the process, we break things.

I’ve been a user of Ubuntu Linux for over 10 years now. I chose this distribution because, at the time, it was the most popular, and that made it easy to find software, as well as online help if anything ever went wrong. Originally, when I discovered Ubuntu, it used the GNOME desktop, and things worked fairly seamlessly. However, around 2011, Ubuntu began shipping with a different user interface which they called Unity. This new user interface was riddled with bugs, and the reception was horrible. My understanding is that this user interface change cost Ubuntu its spot as the #1 most popular Linux distribution, where it was replaced by Mint, and now MX Linux.

Why did Canonical choose to replace GNOME in the first place? Probably because the first iPad was released in 2010, and at the time, people couldn’t stop talking about how tablet computers were the future. Canonical wanted to capitalize on the latest trend and make Ubuntu more appealing to tablet users. This necessitated a UI redesign with large buttons, something that looked more like iOS. In the process, they seemingly forgot that at the time, there were no tablets to run Ubuntu on, introduced many new bugs, and quickly alienated their existing user base, overwhelmingly running Ubuntu on laptops and desktops.

As of 2020, Ubuntu is back to running GNOME, and the most innovative feature to have been introduced to tablet computers is a detachable external keyboard, effectively turning said tablets into laptops. I don’t want to sound cynical and overly conservative. I love building new things, and I think that reinventing the wheel can be a valuable learning experience, but it seems obvious to me that sometimes, there’s a lot of value in stability and predictability. Some things should be reinvented, but in other cases, things don’t really need to change. We badly need electric cars and green energy, but maybe we don’t need that user interface redesign.

In software and hardware design, the things that we should be the most wary about breaking, are the interfaces that people rely on. APIs are an obvious area where stability is particularly valuable, and backward compatibility is crucial. Linus Torvalds is known to have vehemently defended a policy that the Linux kernel should never break user space. This policy makes sense, considering that the interface that the kernel exposes to software is one of the most basic and foundational APIs there is. If the kernel routinely breaks programs and libraries, that makes it very difficult to build anything on the platform.

It’s not just APIs though, it’s also programming languages. Many languages add new features all the time, and in the process, break existing software. It’s hard to build something when the ground is constantly shifting. Companies large and small, as well as individual developers, spend a huge amount of effort simply reacting to change and fixing what was broken. This has made me think that, when developing and growing a programming language, you’d probably be doing your existing user base a favor by prioritizing, stability, bug fixes and performance improvements over the constant addition of new features.

I think that what motivates the constant new feature additions we see in JavaScript, Python and Ruby and other languages is not purely a desire to help programmers be more productive, but also a drive to keep up with the Joneses and maintain some competitive edge over other languages. Language designers are worried that new users will flock to whichever language has the newest, trendiest features.

There is probably some truth to the idea that many newcomers will go for the latest features. However, on the flip side, I’ve been wondering if there can’t be a competitive edge in designing a language that is minimalistic, stable and slow to evolve by design. My personal preference is for languages that avoid hidden, complex, automagic behavior. I also think that there is value in choosing a syntax and semantics that uses broadly understood primitives. After all, the main value of a language is in being understood.

Maybe Planets are Overrated?

Torus_Cutaway_WEB

If everything goes according to plan, 2020 should see the US finally regain the ability to launch humans into space, thanks to the Boeing Starliner and the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. That’s exciting, but what’s even more exciting is that, thanks in part to NASA’s decision to fund private space ventures, we’re witnessing the beginning of a new space race with some ambitious goals: Elon Musk has announced plans to use SpaceX to begin colonizing Mars within the coming decade.

You have plenty of reasons to be sceptical of Elon Musk’s ability to start colonizing Mars within 10 years, but I think that competition to be the first to land humans on a new planet could inspire a new generation of scientists, engineers and dreamers to a degree that no other technology has done in the past several decades. I know that the new space race, and TV shows like The Expanse, already have me thinking about the next step, and the technological feasibility of humans colonizing planets outside of our solar system.

There are some bad news in this area. The closest star system, Alpha Centauri, is 4.37 light years away from Earth. That means it would take you over 40 years to reach this place if you could travel at an amazingly fast 10% of the speed of light, and it looks like it’s probably not going to be possible to travel faster than light in this universe (sorry). Alpha Centauri has three stars, making it factually awesome, but only one confirmed planet, which is unlikely to be habitable due to proximity to one of the stars and stellar winds blowing away any atmosphere.

Thankfully, there are other nearby star systems besides Alpha Centauri, but they’re farther away. We might need 50, 60 or 80 years to reach them. Because the journey will take so long, with current technology, we would need to build massive starships, on which we’re able to grow food, recycle water and other waste, provide entertainment for a large crew, as well as raise children. The minimum number of people needed to maintain sufficient genetic diversity for a space colony is somewhere between 80 and 160. However, if you want to avoid psychological distress, minimize risks due to accidental deaths or murderous psychotic episodes, and bring many specialized experts, you may want to send at least a few thousand people along. Since you also need to bring propellant, food, water and equipment, we could be talking about a spaceship the size of a city or small town.

In terms of equipment, if your hope, once you get to another star system is to land everyone on a foreign planet, plant a flag and setup a little base in which you will grow food, you will likely need to bring thousands of tons equipment. That will make your interstellar spaceship even bigger and heavier. Landing on a planet can require a lot of heavy equipment (heat shields, propellant, engines, space suits), and it’s also very dangerous. How do you feel about riding a space capsule that’s been in storage for 80 years through an unbreathable alien atmosphere at 28,000 kilometers per hour on rocky alien terrain? There are worse news still, which is that if anything goes wrong on the surface, your capsule doesn’t have the propellant or ability to take off again, because weight had to be minimized.

I’m sure that plenty of space nerds and technophiles will make the argument that maybe in 300 years we’ll have much more advanced technology than we do now, and some of these problems will be alleviated. That’s possible, but these problems can’t be completely eliminated. What I want to suggest is something simple: wanting to colonize alien planets upon arriving to a new solar system might be a nearsighted idea. You might be thinking you would want to do that just because you’re just used to living on planet Earth, and you’re lacking the perspective of someone who’s used to living in space.

If you imagine that a group of 3000 people traveled from Earth to an alien solar system for 50 or 80 years aboard a large spaceship, and children were born on that spaceship during the journey there, then maybe you can also imagine that these people are actually pretty used to living in space. What if that spaceship had artificial spin-gravity created using centrifugal force? What if it had indoor greenhouses with fields, trees, flowers, gardens and animals? What if was its own little city with houses, movie theatres, bars, workshops, bumper cars, dance floors, romantic spots, waterfalls and zero-gravity gyms? What if there were musicians, dancers and all kinds of artists living there? Maybe it could be an ok place to live. Maybe, when you got to an alien star system, you wouldn’t really want to risk your life riding a minimalistic space capsule to a cold rocky plane so you can go live in a space-tent and farm space-potatoes.

I think that if we can develop the technology to sustain humans in space for 50+ years, we would also be capable of actually living in space without needing to land anywhere. Our own solar system, past Mars, has an asteroid belt, as well as very many moons. Landing on asteroids and taking off afterwards takes much less energy than landing on an Earth-sized planet, because asteroids have much weaker gravity and no atmosphere. Most asteroids are space-rocks, but some of them are rich in metals, silica and even water ice. The composition of asteroids can be evaluated from far away using fancy technology we already have such as radars and lasers. We’re already be capable of building probes and sending them to the asteroid belt to catalogue and tag asteroids.

Interestingly, it could also be possible to land a ship on an asteroid, attach engines to the asteroid, and turn said asteroid into a spaceship or space station. Once on the asteroid, you can begin drilling to build tunnels and homes inside. This concept has been explored in the science fiction novels and TV series The Expanse, in which a human people called the Belters are native to the asteroid belt.

Once you’re living in space, some things also become a lot easier to do than they are on Earth. Think about manufacturing for example. In space, with zero or very low gravity, you don’t need massive cranes to lift concrete or metal beams. You don’t necessarily need energy-hungry vehicles to carry people either: in zero gravity, you could conceivably fly inside a large space station by holding onto a USB fan plugged into your smartphone (or you be less lazy and use some kind of fan-bike). It’s possible to create artificial spin-gravity by rotating a large ship or space station fast enough to push people to the edges (think merry go round, minus the head injuries). However, in a few centuries, we might not care about recreating gravity anymore. It’s conceivable that humans could be genetically modified to live in zero gravity without health risks (explored in the Hyperion series of novels).

Maybe, just maybe, we could save a lot of weight, save energy energy and save lives by going to other solar systems without bringing terraforming equipment and landing gear. We could instead, once we’re there, build bigger, prettier, cozier space stations instead. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t eventually decide to colonize the local planets, but I think there’s a case to be made that it could make the journey easier, safer and more comfortable for everyone involved to embrace living in space instead of making planetary colonization the priority.

You might be tempted to tell me that space radiation is dangerous, and so is mining asteroids, but I’m going to respond that you might not be really thinking this through. Space radiation has to be addressed for any kind of planetary colonization, even if you’re only going to Mars, since Mars has a very thin atmosphere which won’t protect you. Space mining could be done using a variety of relatively safe techniques. You could park your space station 500 kilometers away from the nearest asteroid, and have robotic probes fish asteroids back by securing them with giant nets and slowly reeling them in, without any humans needing to leave the space station and without needing to accelerate the asteroids to dangerous velocities. I’m going to argue that landing humans on an alien planet and surviving there with minimal equipment and no backup is much more dangerous than having a well-equipped, trained crew mine asteroids using robots.

In the near term, I believe there’s a legitimate argument to be made that instead of thinking about colonizing mars, it could make more sense to think about building space stations that are completely self-sufficient and appropriately shielded from radiation. These stations would just as well, if not more effectively than Mars colonization, achieve the purpose of “backing up humanity”, as Elon Musk put it. As an additional benefit, once we are able to build space stations that can fully sustain themselves long term, then we will be much closer to being able to build spaceships that can travel for decades without stopping or being restocked with new supplies, or self-sustaining Mars colonies.

It’s Been Done Before

I’m someone who comes up with a lot of ideas. When I was a teenager, I used to constantly get excited about new projects, and I found myself often getting sidetracked, ditching existing projects before they were finished so I could start something else. It took me years to learn the discipline to choose and stick with a limited number of projects. They say that ideas are a dime a dozen, but I would say that some ideas are definitely worth much more than others. Your strongest asset, as a creative person, is to develop the ability to recognize which of your ideas have real potential, and are truly worth spending your time on.

Nowadays, when I have an idea, I often write it down and set it asides. If it’s a really interesting idea, I’ll come back to it later, and maybe flesh it out a bit. I think it’s important to figure out the details, but also to criticize your own ideas a bit, by thinking of them in adversarial terms (how could this fail?). This is a gradual, iterative process. The more fleshed out an idea, the more layers of adversarial testing it passes, the more it becomes worth spending time on. Ultimately, before you invest any real effort in a new idea, it’s also worth thinking about whether you have time to do so, and how this would affect the other projects you’re working on, and the people you’re working with.

Once I’ve sufficiently fleshed out and tested an idea in my head, if I’m still excited about it, I’ll want to discuss it with other people. That will help me get useful advice, outside perspectives on how to improve the idea, and maybe even recruit some help. At this point though, the same thing always happens, I’m inevitably going run into one or more people who give me a variant of “it’s been done before”. These people will point to some existing project that they believe is similar to what I’ve just described. Sometimes they mean well, and are just trying to help me differentiate my project or help me avoid spending effort on what would be a dead end. Sometimes it seems like they are cynics who can’t stand to see that I’m excited about something. I try to avoid working with the latter kind of person.

The most cynical among us would tell you that in movies, literature, and music, there are no more new ideas. It’s all been done before, “what’s old is new again”, all possible thoughts have already been conceived, and we’re doomed to forever rehash the same old ideas over and over again. There’s some truth to it: how many songs and movies are about boy meets girl, or the feelings that follow a bad breakup? The more songs and movies are written, the more various concepts and ideas have been explored, and the harder it becomes to come up with something truly groundbreaking and innovative. There is one caveat to this, however, which is that the world is changing constantly. What will love be like in the year 2073? It might not be quite the same as in 1982.

Your idea isn’t novel. Any software-related idea that you’ve had, someone implemented it on a Lisp Machine at MIT back back in 1977. Unfortunately, the backup tapes have been lost in a fire and there’s no evidence left, I have no material proof, so you’ll just have to take my word for it, someone did beat you to the punch.

It’s happened many times that someone told me that “it’s been done before”, without being able to actually provide any reference to a similar idea. It’s happened that, after I did some digging, I found that whatever idea the person cited was only superficially similar to what I had suggested if you squinted really, really hard. There’s also been times where someone pointed me to an existing project that was a very poor execution of my idea and basically told me that because this project had failed to take off, the idea would obviously not work.

Before you embark on a project and really invest yourself in a new idea, you should do some research and look at what’s already out there. It’s quite possible that you’ll find that your idea is not as novel as you thought it was. Still, I think that in the world of software, the worldwide context is always changing. It’s quite possible that as you start doing some research, you’ll find that others have tried to do something similar to what you want, but they didn’t execute well, or they simply had the right idea at the wrong time. Just think about electric cars. There have been many failed attempts (dating as far back as the 1890s) before there were successful commercial products. Finding such failures will provide you with an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others.

Ultimately, having a truly novel idea might not even matter. If you have an idea for some kind of accounting software, and you find that your would-be competitors are raking big profits selling something completely broken, you might be able to eat their lunch just by executing reasonably well. It can also be a fun learning experience to recreate an existing system without necessarily looking to innovate on its design. If you have an idea that really has you excited, go for it. It’s important to have realistic expectations: you may not succeed, but you will definitely learn something along the way. One thing is for sure, which is that you’ll never succeed if you don’t even try. What’s the point of living if you’re not having any fun? Explore.