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Month: March, 2012

Changing lives with lines of code

There was one day I was feeling particularly inspired and grateful for the work I do, so I tweeted out:

Isn’t working in tech potentially so powerful? You have an opportunity to change someone else’s life with lines of code.

Wnat resulted was a somewhat intense debate on twitter with a friend, who argued that there are other professions that can change people’s lives too (I was not discounting other professions with my original tweet); that it was my sort of thinking that led to initiatives like the OLPC, that “code has no influence on the majority of the world”.

I really wanted him to see my point of view – that I am not saying that we should distribute PCs to poor children with no access to electricity or water, nor am I asking people in poor remote villages to learn Microsoft Excel – but I truly believe that we can be more imaginative with how we choose to use software to make lives better, even for people with no access to electricity. 

Perhaps I err on the side of being naive here, but there is no point lamenting about our first world snobbishness – that we do not understand the real problems poor people without electricity face. 

If that is truly the case, then to me, all the more we should bring awareness to these issues. Let’s admit that most people would not care, but there will be a rare few who would. And what would help bring awareness to these issues? Unfortunately or fortunately, the internet is really helpful in this area. Powered by lines of code. 

I know of people doing quick fund raising for the third world just simply through emailing their personal network alone. To me, the existence of email is so powerful, just the speed of dissemination is like magic. Imagine having to ask for help through traditional means. And this is all possible because some geeks decided to sit down and write some code.

So poor people cannot use the internet but perhaps we could use the internet to help them ease some of the problems. Or at least use the internet to debate on what is the most effective method to try and solve these issues. At the very least, can we use the internet to mobilize possible volunteers or resources?

I am not saying absolutely that it will help but just the mere possibility equates to hope.

Just look at initiatives like Kiva – I wonder how many people’s lives have been impacted by Kiva. Or the many online fund raising platforms. Yes, we know that some initiatives have questionable agendas, but I think it is really important to count each and every blessing rather than look at the ugly. 

It is all about hope, and continuous improvement. Baby steps are better than none.

It used to be that you will need a powerful publisher to get your software out to the masses. Or that computers were only toys for the rich. My own parents couldn’t really afford to buy me a computer until I was 15. But my life was changed when I first got my computer. I cannot imagine my life without a computer. I would have been sweeping the road by now. And I can proudly say, because I am not sweeping the road, I may in a better position to care about the less advantaged.

Change one person’s life and the very same person could change millions’. I wonder what would Bill Gates be doing without software. For all the causes he is involved in now, it is only made possible by lines of code which gave him his wealth. 

Conventional success used to be skewed to the elite’s favour. But today, if you hustle hard enough, with talent, hardwork and with the current software ecosystem, the odds of success are much higher than what it was ten, twenty years ago. I know plenty of people who used to come from disadvantaged backgrounds but because they were talented with computers, their lives dramatically changed. It is an ecosystem with a low barrier of entry. You do not need to be able to afford a college education to have a good shot at improving the quality of your life. Someone with a computer and minimal resources (compared to many other industries) can release an app.

I have no grand delusions that code can change *everyone’s* life. But to me, even if it is like 1% of the world’s population has had their lives enchanced through software, it is still a step forward. That is like 60+ million people. 

And don’t get me wrong, by software I am not only talking about Internet companies. Software powers planes, postal systems, logistics, tax systems, medicine, research and analysis, construction, I can go on and on. Remember those days when we had to handle our accounting and taxes through pen and paper? Remember how it used to be with no online banking? Or *gasp*, remember how we needed to buy stamps?

So I cannot agree that code has no influence on the majority of the world. Even if it is not the case now, it will eventually be. We have the power to change people’s lives with lines of code. Even if the influence is just on people around you or just your industry, I think that is enough.

(I used to use this time-tracking webapp letsfreckle, which was so well thoughtout in its interactions that it made time tracking delightful and it saved off precious seconds off my workflow, not to mention lessen the frustration I have with my paperwork. That to me, is meaningful.

There is also this guy who was a javascript evangelist in his local area, he was so passionate about javascript that he regularly held meetups out of his own effort and will. I remember him telling us that it was very much worth it, because there have been cases whereby he introduced something like node.js to his meetup group, and that changed the careers of a few people. That to me, is powerful.)

Overhyped? I don’t think so. Even though plenty of companies out there are just out to gain a quick profit through any means possible, there are always some that are geniunely trying to better the human race.

Sometimes I don’t think we fully understand the potential we have. Or the impact we could possibly have. That’s why it seems like we are overhyping the software industry. That is because of what we choose to do with those lines of code. We can choose to write code that will be meaningful, or we can choose to create software that prey on the psychological deficiencies of the masses. 

It is not code that is not powerful – but our choices that render us less hope than we could possibly have.


Life is a delicate balancing act

Time flies and I have been in Vancouver for a month. There is still a lot of Vancouver I haven’t seen, but whatever spare time I have I am either resting or travelling across miles to get to a specific restaurant I want to try out.

I get funny looks from wait staff when I tell them I need a seat for one person. Probably it is a combination of me looking young, being chinese and female. Being alone forces me to be really introspective sometimes, because there is nobody to divert my attention. It is just me, alone with my thoughts. It is something like one of those 7-day silent meditation retreats whereby you know you cannot escape from yourself.

There are pros and cons. I think a lot and I am training myself to observe my thoughts in third-party mode. Sometimes having the time to think equates to conjuring up ten thousand scenarios for yourself to worry. However, that gives me the opportunity to tell myself to focus on my objective.

For example, I feel guilty of being far away from my family. I don’t know is it my Asian conservative upbringing but it almost feels wrong to want to do something for myself and not think about how my family would feel. When I start to feel this way, I remind myself why I am doing this. Because it is not going to make everyone happier if I stay behind for the sake of my family but I let my life stagnate. 

I am very sensitive to the fragility of life and that is the reason why I have to be this intense in pursuing my dreams. I do not want to wait till it is too late. Yet on the other hand, as people I love grow older, I am paranoid that I will not have enough time to spend with them until it is too late. 

What gives?

Life is a delicate balancing act. I am constantly learning how to be relentless in my pursuits and yet cherish what I have back at home. We just have to try what we think is our best and really hope for the best. We can only pick certain priorities at any given time.

For me, I constantly remind myself what it means to be in my situation and for the most part of it, I am still very blessed. To have a shot of what I am experiencing right now compared to having not even the room to maneuver. I know I have been lucky, even if I had the courage to forge my own luck. For certain opportunities in life, you just have to take a gamble. 

In trying to achieve our own goals, we sometimes forget to appreciate little things. The ability to taste, to walk, to see. The beauty that surrounds us everyday that we may take for granted. I pass by snow-capped mountains *every single day* in Vancouver and I almost forget it is such an awesome magnificent sight to behold:



Comfort, travelling, tradeoffs, Vancouver

So here I am again – new city, new people, new food, new experiences. I made the decision to come to Vancouver for reasons I cannot reveal, it is something that I have to do as part of a much longer-term plan.

I don’t know but it may sound exciting to other people, which it is to a certain extent, but it is also filled with times of uncertainty and discomfort.

There are moments when I feel like I want to be back at my 40in tv, memory-foam bed, consistent hot-water shower, complete with my dog and partner.

But I remember this excerpt of someone’s blog post on the “Life of Pi“:

“Comfort is a a menace though. It reminds me of the oasis island Pi came upon in the middle of the Pacific in the book The Life of Pi. The one where sweet fruits weighted down the tree branches and furry little beasts approached to offer their company and occasionally ended up in Pi’s belly when he craved for meat. At nights he slept on big branches hugging a couple of his furry pets. All was dreamy.

Until he found the teeth. The teeth of the others who lived on the island before him. The island was actually a living organism that slowly eroded away anything that lived on it, every hair and every bone. Until, only teeth were left.

That is what comfort does.”

And I agree. That comfort is poison. Once you only want to be comfortable, once you resist change, you try to live your life pursing that comfort and trying not to lose it.

There is something romantic and profound about the process of transformation. Like the phoenix which burns and rise from the ashes. I guess for me, this is what represents life. Going through the process of re-birthing over and over again.

I keep remembering the war reporter who served as a muse in one of Paulo Coelho’s books – she keeps on returning to war zones to do journalistic reporting because it is only then that she feels truly alive.

While it was indeed very tempting to remain in my comfort zone, the desire to feel alive is stronger, but it is a constant battle to remind myself over and over again why I am doing this. I am only human sometimes.

In life, it is really all about making tradeoffs. Knowing what you truly want and the willingness to give up certain things for it. But it is easy to get confused between what you think you want and what you really, truly want. 

When things get really hard, I ask myself – would I rather be doing something else? I guess not, because I am a hopeless romantic and being romantic means tolerating zero degree temperatures and foregoing material stability in order to be closer to where I hope to be. 

Pursuing what you believe in is hard. But that is why only a select few get to walk the talk. I can only continue trying. I remain comforted to know that despite all my apparent weaknesses, I am still not giving up and that is all that matters.

I make it sound all drastic and grey in this post but all serious issues aside – Vancouver is really growing on me. I have never felt any urge to seek out Asian places or people when I travel, but I feel strangely happy when I am in one of those hongkong-style cafes with old people speaking in Cantonese. It is ironic what makes me feel comforted is not something that reminds me of my home country, but rather the Cantonese culture. It was also heart-warming and nostalgic to be discussing 90s’ Cantopop with Canadian Chinese.

Apart from the apparent asian-ness of Vancouver, hippie cafes, organic markets and old-style diners make me happy too. Notice the food theme everywhere? 😉

For the first time in my life – I saw snow, I experienced zero degree weather, I saw trees without leaves. I also successfully unclogged a bathroom sink by doing a search on google. That made me feel strangely proud of myself for some reason.

I’ll be here for a few more months and I look forward to feeling alive – over and over again.