Forever Unemployed

I recently interviewed for a job in Boston, in which I would get to work with Shae Erisson (shapr) and Edward Kmett, which would be a wonderful treat, of course. But I turned it down after it was described to me. My reasoning at the time was that it was too formal and there were not enough hard problems for my taste. But after a little reflecting, I realize that that’s not the reason at all:

I believe now that I am deeply and fundamentally an artist. At a job like that, I’m just an engineer building products for customers. I am not cut out for engineering as an industry.

I’m currently making a game with my friend Max about gravity and the universe, which we plan to enter into the independent games festival at GDC. In the process of making this game, we written and scrapped three large-scale gravitational simulation algorithms, and are developing our fourth. We have learned and are simulating a fair amount of cosmology. We even tried to use some general relativity to solve the simulation problems. Our gameplay will probably not be intuitive to the naive player, but that’s because the naive player doesn’t really understand gravity, and we believe that showing the true nature of the universe trumps pandering to ignorance to flatten the learning curve. Clearly, our hearts are in this: this isn’t just a game to take to the bank. We’re trying to show people something about the beauty of the universe.

Dana is also a work of art. That’s why I’m having trouble understanding what it is as a clearly-stated engineering goal. It is evading the usual engineering practices, because it’s not trying to solve a specific problem. Really what Dana is trying to be is advanced technology. I want it to do whatever it does, and when the code pop culture sees it they have the sense that they are looking at alien technology: it is compact, unfamiliar, but obviously very elegant, whatever it is. When you dig into its subproblems and put in the effort understand them, the response will be “Oh! Of course that’s how you do that!” The realization that Dana is art has convinced me to try to reduce it’s scope. It is more important that it do one thing in the most beautiful way, than for it to be a complete foundation for arbitrary software.

And I have always been an artist with my music. My friend Eric Shapiro bought a piano for me to play on the Pearl Street mall, in exchange for 25% of my earnings. It is going great: I often attract crowds of 20 or more watching me improvise and make about $40/hr doing it. Eric helped me see that my music can be valued. So I’ve decided to be more industrious about it — after all, the music industry is about supporting artists (even if it is mostly corrupt); in contrast, I don’t know anyone who would pay for something like Dana. I’m developing a solo album to sell on the mall and approach record companies with. I’m trying to think of a pseudonym (my name is pretty lame). During the winter I’ll make my money with teaching and shows. Essentially, my plan is curiously “I’ll use music to support myself, so I have time for my art.”

It’s harder to make good money with music than with engineering. But I think this plan will lead me to a happier lifestyle than wasting my half my life on an engineering project that I couldn’t give a rats ass about, just so I can have a surplus of money in the other half.


22 thoughts on “Forever Unemployed

  1. re: lame names

    round it out with the middle one david foster wallace did quite well luke expialidocious palmer

  2. Strangely enough, it’s precisely that kind of an attitude that puts you in the crosshairs of employers. Recall that Gates doesn’t sleep well at night worrying about the next two guys in a garage.

    So how much will it take to buy your soul, Luke?

  3. Much the same conclusion I have come to. Having made about the most any engineering employee can hope to make, I have recently given it all up to pursue research interests as well. As you say, a surplus of money in the half of life (or less) where you do what you want can never be enough to pay for the other half lost on something you’re not interested in. Furthermore, if you are anything like me, your brain won’t really engage on something you’re not interested in, so it is a wholesale waste.

    I came to the conclusion quite simply: I asked myself how large of a check I would write to be able to do what I want. Eventually I realized the answer was unbounded.

    P.S. I have heard you playing on Pearl St. (I Live just up the street). Fantastic stuff, please keep it up.

  4. re: lame name

    since you like to improve and though the name is cheesy, I think Johnny Jazz would be good, its an obvious pseudo-name and it caters to what you may sound like as an artist of the piano, well at least in my head.

  5. @DavidNcl

    You know, it IS possible to do things like research without someone else paying your way. Live simply, avoid debt, be creative. You’d be surprised how little you really need.

  6. @PoorStudent

    You say live simply, avoid debt and be creative? I bet you don’t live that way. People who dish this advice, or blogs that talk all about being frugal, never practice what they preach… so they wouldn’t really know. Ask the people who are too poor to even have credit, who live extremely simple lives, and who have to get creative with how they live and eat so they don’t die or get ill. Ask them if it’s such a great life.

  7. I have also had quite a few “JOBS” (cause that’s what they were) and though they did keep my head above water, I was miserable. The only reason I didn’t pursue a writing career right out of high school was because my parents (my dad was a graduate of the U of I college of journalism) said there was no money in it. I finally decided to do what I wanted to do and am enjoying every minute of it.

  8. @ DavidNcl,

    I wonder the same thing. Who pays for all this? Then again I realized it’s probably none of our business. There are some very fortunate people in the world who don’t have to work at jobs they hate and get to do what they love all day. I think most people aspire to be one of those people. I admit I am jealous of this kid, but that is my issue not his.

    The sad truth is most of us have to pay bills. However, if he ever wants to have a wife or kids he might change his mind. Until then, live and let live.

    I am still in the process of deciding whether or not crappy jobs are necessary. I have seen many a man grow old and tired and grumpy after years of working at something they hates. My father was one of these people. Sure he made a fortune as a research scientist, but I am not convinced it made him happy.

    I would rather not see Luke become one of those tired burnt up, burnt out old souls with no passion. They say passion belongs to the youthful, but I sure as hell hope not. It’s his adventure, and it’s his own fault if he crashes and burns. If he is lucky he won’t. God bless him.

  9. Sorry for scaring you off. =)

    I had a good time talking to you though and appreciate your candor.

    Regarding reducing Dana’s scope, I can empathize, I’ve recently begun doing the same thing with my pet language project, Kata, in the interest of getting a full end-to-end interpreter and compiler out there for people to start using, so I can get more productive feedback.

  10. Hi Luke. I’m thrilled with your commitment to live your own vision & passions — to “be self indulgent” with such integrity.

    “We are all born originals – why is it so many of us die copies?” – Edward Young

    “If I try to be like him, who will be like me?” – Yiddish proverb

    “The moon could not continue shining if it had to pay attention to all the dogs barking at it.” – Unknown

    Best regards, – Conal

  11. Nice post, I believe that work should be fun. Recently ran across this:
    on the psychopathology of “work”. Maybe work = Just play?

    The tripalium is an instrument of torture. The Latin word labor means “suffering”. We are unwise to forget this origin of the words “travail” and “labour”. Raoul Vaneigem

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