Sometimes, The Point Is To Have No Point

It occurred to me last night, as I examined the calluses and blisters on the fingertips of my left hand, that I’ve been playing the guitar for thirty years.

This is an approximation; I don’t remember exactly when I started, but it would have been around age 12 or so. The fact that I don’t remember starting probably means that it snuck[1] up on me and gradually became, at first, something I did and then later, a part of my self-definition. Interestingly, it would have been around the same sort of time that I began to see myself as a programmer, and then an engineer. Thus are sown the seeds of one’s own self-limitation, or something along those lines.

Part of what interests me about music is the complexity. It’s like trying to understand a fractal; every part of it that you open up reveals yet more to learn. On the other hand, as Sid Vicious said You just pick a chord, go twang, and you’ve got music, so it’s both complex and accessible in one easy measure. It slices and it dices. That fractal complexity[2], though, can be intimidating. It’s a sort of endless challenge, a mountain range that always has a higher peak. Nobody can be best at every single aspect of music; for all musicians, there is always someone else who is better than you at some part of what you do. You can become dispirited by that, or you can learn to set your own goals and measure your progress by them.

To do that, I think it’s important to understand who it is you’re playing for. Most of us have our own internal critics (and when I played in bands I wished, on occasion, that some people had more of them) but it can take a degree of introspection to work out whether those critics are worth impressing. For example, at some point in my twenties I became aware that I was judging my playing by whether my father would be impressed. As soon as I realised this, it was evident how ridiculous it was: my dad’s an talented, intelligent man of towering achievements, but he can’t play a note on the guitar and our tastes in music overlap only slightly at best. The worst internal critic, though, is myself, at around age sixteen or so. For him, what matters is being able to play better than someone else; faster, using fancier fretboard tricks, and so forth. It’s taken much longer to get rid of him than it should, and to accept, finally, that the only person who need judge how well I can play is me. The same me who sets myself goals to achieve, for no other (or better) reason than I think that they would be fun to do.

Which lets me segue towards some sort of point; the reason that you’re doing something, whether it’s playing the guitar or building software, is easy to forget and yet vital to keep in mind. This is a simple and obvious truism, captured in the endearingly bluff American aphorism When you’re up to your ass in alligators it’s difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp. Simple and obvious, yet there are still those moments, usually at a pause in the meeting, when someone[3] says “hang on a minute, let’s get back to why we’re doing this” and thus short-circuits a deep and inwardly-spiralling argument (which is usually very technical).

Anyway, getting back to playing the guitar (which is far more interesting than actual work); since I realised that there is actually no point to it, that there is no final grade to be given or accolade to be awarded, it’s become far more enjoyable. My latest goal is to be able to play the guitar parts from Pink Floyd’s Money, Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2), including the solos, to my own satisfaction. In this I will be ably abetted by the excellent backing tracks available from LickLibrary[4]. Should you also be of a guitar-playing frame of mind, you may find it a Good Site To Visit.

Let there be Rock…

[1] A far nicer past participle than “sneaked”, even if it is American.
[2] An excellent name for a geek jazz band, if anyone fancies it.
[3] Occasionally this someone is actually me, but not often enough for me to feel superior about it.
[4] Anyone else get a frisson of Spinal Tap when you hear that name?

It Lives, Igor!

It’s been a while since my last entry, but there have been reasons.

The job of writing a technical article lands on my to-do list every so often. Between occurrences, I manage to forget about the need to do these so that each time a new one pops up it comes as the same surprise: a mix of anticipation at the chance to do some writing and worry about where the time to do it will come from. Anyway, in order to bolster my usual mix of weak reasoning and doubtful conclusions with some half-baked evidence, I turned to Google. In the recesses of my memory I seemed to recall that someone had once combined a PC and a Sega Megadrive[1] in one unit; a spectacular example of the misplaced faith that will lead to a convergence disaster. Googling for combined pc megadrive found me what I wanted… and also, ninth entry on the first page was a blog posting by some lamebrained pontificator who seemed to think that using eight words where one would do was somehow admirable or witty. Of course, it was me.

When I’d raided my own half-forgotten rambings for some vaguely relevant and nearly true “facts” for the article, I noticed that the last entry was back in November 2005 and decided that, come coffee-break, it was time to blog again[2].

The reasons for the break are several:

  • Back at the end of last year, I had to change jobs, quite suddenly and not out of choice, having been made redundant. It wasn’t a pleasant parting of ways, and it turned legal (you should read that phrase as roughly equivalent to and then it turned gangrenous). During times like that blogging is neither fun nor advisable: you don’t want to say anything that might get quoted out of context against you. All the legal stuff carried on until a couple of months ago.
  • My new job (like many) started off fairly undefined and has only recently evolved to the point where I could say for sure what it is I’m responsible for and where we’re going. During times like that, blogging is tricky, since finding your feet in a new organisation is difficult enough without potentially revealing all your incorrect assumptions to everyone you work with 🙂
  • I just flat out haven’t had the time or mental bandwidth to come up with anything worth writing about.

Well, anyone who reads more than a couple of entries here will know that the last point shouldn’t really have been any barrier: there’s not an entry in here that’s ever been worth the time. However, as ever, I shall quixotically endeavour to say something worth saying, knowing that my continual failure will annoy others far more than it inconveniences me. Hooray for the Internet 🙂

So now I’m working for the company who built a good part of The Mobile Phone Project; an excellent bunch of engineers. And despite entries like this I’ve been involved in something that’s remarkably heavy on C++. Which has confirmed some predjudices. Other predjudices about C++ have remained unscathed at the very least.

A large part of what I’m doing is concerned with the way in which a services organization develops products. It’s fascinating and rewarding to start reusing the same insights gained and lessons learned (the hard way) about the vast gap that lies between the unsullied, tender idea, newly conceived, dew-fresh and trembling with antici….pation[3] and the eventual product: buttressed with user guides, FAQs, installation (and deinstallation) scripts and ready to face the cruel, unforgiving world of actual users. Which leads me, finally and via a deliberately circuitous route, to what might actually be a useful link for this entry: Finance For Geeks, where Eric Sink summarises a number of basic business principles in a way that makes sense to yer average techie. I think he does a cracking job (in that and other articles) of wrapping up stuff that I learned the hard way in the dim and distant days when it began to dawn on me that the world did not operate by the same sort of rules as computer systems. But that’s another posting…

[1] That’d be a Sega Genesis, for Americans. To save you the tedium of looking, it was Amstrad, a British company who have often displayed a flair for producing items that are so high-tech they’re ahead of the market and yet so cheaply made that they’re beneath the contempt of even the wildest early adopter.
[2] “Oh, baby, I’ll try to blog again but I know… the first post is the deepest”. Etc. Well, it was in my head, now it’s in yours.
[3] It’s a Rocky Horror reference. Either you’ll get it, or you won’t.