Campfires and lasers

There is a scene in the 2011 movie, Moneyball, where Brad Pitt, driving alone in a black pickup truck at night, silhouetted by streetlights, breaks the silence by muttering to himself: “What the hell am I doing?”

In one sense, that’s it, that’s the post. That scene on a loop fills in for a bunch of sentences started and then deleted over the past few months. I drive a hatchback manufactured in Korea, but lately I have been there in the darkened cab of that truck, driving around alone, pondering the “what-the-hell-am-I-doing-ness” of my life. Which includes this, what I’m doing right now, writing on the internet.

Robin Sloan had a post back at the start of this year making an analogy between writing and uncollimated and collimated light. Writing on the internet, he suggested, is uncollimated like a campfire (diffuses in multiple directions, fades fast, is simpler to produce); a book is more of a laser beam (the material points in a particular direction, is focused, is more durable, more difficult to create). I like the analogy.

How is the ability to build a campfire related to the skills necessary to construct a laser? In the broad sweep of history sense you can draw a developmental line between prehistoric campfires to a lab at MIT. But, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of overlap between the skillsets of the contemporary wilderness survivalist and a physicist in a lab coat.

So, what am I doing here. The problem with trying to produce collimated light is that you risk becoming a sort of mad scientist crank with a big hunk of metal in your basement that produces no light at all. On the other hand, being a weirdo setting off bonfires in the middle of your suburban street will just make people pull the curtains and call the cops. I have some hunks of inert metal in my basement. I have made some fires in the street.

There’s successful versions of both modes – the roaring fireplace around which friends gather during a crisp autumn evening; the laser that cuts a hole through the carapace of the buffered self (the whole axe to the icy sea thing). Do I need to be building a fireplace? Should I be diagramming circuits and diodes? Do I actually have the skills for either? How about the fires in the street? Continue with those? Keep connecting wires in the basement and seeing what sparks fly?

I am still driving around in that truck – no grand announcements or insights here other than that things may be even more haphazard than usual around here (and I am open to suggestions).