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Show Notes

Why Go In?:  On today’s episode of Track Changes, Rich and Paul sit down with Andrew Smith, a journalist and writer who recently learned to code. We talk about following curiosity, and learning to program in a world where almost everything we interact with is mediated by code. We discuss Andrew’s pivot from writing about music and culture to technology and high-finance, and dissect what that says about our lives today. We also get some insight into Andrew’s most recent research into the kids who ran the internet through 1995 – 2000 (Spoiler: the reasons behind the dot-com crash are a sham!).

Transcript

Paul Ford After—it took us about a half hour to get Skype to work because they’ve updated the application 450 times.

Rich Ziade But that’s another podcast.

PF Nah, it’s—or maybe it’s this podcast [Rich laughs], let’s see.

Andrew Smith Good, yeah, we should talk before they take away my—my—[stammers] authentication and we end up in silence—

PF It’s true. I think we’ve only got like five minutes before Microsoft realizes—

RZ [Chuckles] Pushes an update on us [laughter, music fades in, plays alone for 18 seconds, ramps down].

PF So, Rich?

RZ Yes, Paul.

PF I guess about a year ago, a very nice, British gentleman came into the office and said, “I am learning to code and I’m writing about it and I wanna talk to you a little bit about what’s going on,” and that was a very—it was an hour well spent! I liked talking to this person. Turns out—

RZ So, wait. Just to understand the framing: a non-programmer, this wasn’t a college student—

PF No, this was—

RZ—learning to code.

PF—this is an adult. This is an experienced person [ok] who’s been around for awhile. Said, “I wanna—I wanna reboot. And I wanna figure where to go and I wanna—I wanna write about it and talk about it,” and it turns out that this is a—a well known, widely regarded writer named Andrew Smith.

RZ Ok.

PF Who’s written a number of books, we’ll put the links in. So he, as I’ve gotten to know ‘em, is on— he’s both someone who really reports and studies and tries to understand technology but has also really gone in deep to become a practitioner and figure out what that means in 2019.

RZ Ok [exhales]. And now he has a job?

PF Well, I think we should talk to ‘em.

RZ Ok.

[1:39]

PF Let’s rope him in via—

RZ Wait, is he here?

AS I am.

PF Let’s give people a little background here: you are a journalist.

AS Yeah, so that—I mean start at the beginning. I started out—and I played in bands and stuff like that when I was in my twenties and then I started—I went back to my first love which was writing and wrote in the British music press which was immense fun in those days. It was great move to the face and all that kind of stuff up through the national press.

PF I mean these were some of the great publications in the world at that time.

AS Yeah. I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time for those things. And then I could sorta see, as I suspect you could, in the early 2000s you could see that things were changing, the internet happened, and there wasn’t the kind of money around in the publications—or there wasn’t gonna be—to the the sort of heavily researched things that I like to do. So then I switched and went to books and I wrote my first back was about the guys who walked on the moon.

PF So, now, from there you went on to do a lot of research and write quite a bit about internet culture.

AS Yeah, it was funny. There’s —there’s a guy called  Doug—Douglas Rushkoff who’s a New York sort of [sure] legend writer and I remember I interviewed him for the—the last book, the one that’s just come out, and I remember sitting in a—in a diner uptown with him and we just looked at each other and went, “You know we both started out writing about music and popular culture and just general—about stuff in our lives.” We both ended up writing about technology and finance. And I thought that was really interesting because it—it seem—in, when we’d started out, the exciting place was to be were those ones, that we started out in, whereas at this point you cannot understand anything about the world without really understanding, I think, finance—high finance, and technology. It’s sort of—these are the things that define our lives right now.

[3:32]

RZ So now you’ve gone in, you’re one of them [yeah] but you’re—

PF One of us! [Andrew chuckles]

RZ One of us. Welcome. Welcome to the fold.

AS I’m not quite there. I want to be one of you. Put it that way [yeah]. I’m not quite [chuckles] I’m not quite one of you yet.

RZ So why go in?

PF I mean that’s—help us get from the moon [yeah] to the early internet and its self-destructive tendencies to wanting to—

AS Well—

PF—learn to code.

AS Do you know—you know they started at the same—in the same point? This is one of the things that I found  that was most interesting. That—that in actual fact the internet and the space program—the, you know, of the sixties and seventies, the exciting space program—have their origins in the same thing which was Sputnik went up in 1957 and Soviet—the technology of the Soviet Union seemed way ahead of American technology. There was real panic and  there were politicians out there who were saying, “Oh my God! The Soviet Union has the ability to just drop bombs on us from space now. This is terrible.” Now all the scientists said, “There’s no advantage to that. You might just as well launch it from the ground. Just drop it from space. It’s not—[chuckles] there’s no—there’s no need for that.” But. There was a real panic going on and Eisenhower who have come to believe is the most interesting president of the twentieth century, a republican but he loved scientists and kept most of the new deal policies as well. He had his generals—who he didn’t trust, being a general himself, that’s extraordinary but it was true—and they were trying to take control of space and science and he did not want that to happen. So what he did, he took out—he took space and science and he put them in the hands of civilians. So he created ARPA and he created NASA, and in that moment but, you know, NASA went and made the space program and ARPA went and made the internet ten years later, in ‘69, the same year, in fact, that the first moon landing happened.

PF Now this is—this is Eisenhower’s distrust for his . . . military.

AS Yeah. In fact, the internet—they tried to up it—we’re gonna—it was the ARPAnet, of course, in—in ‘69. And a few years later they went, “Well, ok, we’ve got it up and running now, let’s privatize it.” And they tried to sell it to telecommunications companies—or give it, actually [chuckles], to telecom companies. And  and they all just looked at it. I think AT&T was the best—they kind of debated it for six months and they just came back and went, “No, we really don’t see much future for this thing [Rich chuckling], you’re gonna have to keep it.”

[5:58]

PF Well, to them it probably like, you know, telegraphy. Like, I mean, you’re never gonna—who’s gonna have a computer?

RZ Right.

AS Yeah.

PF They’ve already got a wonderful switching network that they can use to connect people via voice.

RZ And hear each other’s voices!

PF Yeah! Why—why these horrible big, bulky machines?

RZ Yeah.

AS Actually, given our experience with Skype, I can kinda see where they were coming from [Rich laughs].

PF Well, this is the thing! I mean, actually, you know [chuckles], technology is increasingly making technol— making communication worse.

AS It actually is, isn’t it?

PF Yeah.

AS I know, it’s a really odd thing. It’s never straightforward anymore.

PF No, you used to pick up a phone and you would call another person, and it sounded really good.

RZ Yeah.

AS Yeah.

PF You’d hear every word. You could speak back and forth at the same time.

RZ An audio conference call is still under threat to this day. It’s still not the—Video! I’ll give ‘em pass cuz I get to see you and I couldn’t see you ten years ago or 20 years ago. So that’s—

AS True. True.

[6:53]

RZ I’m ok with the—with the burden there. But the fact that we’ve taken three steps back on the—on the conference call is really amazing. It’s the running joke in tech sho—

PF Right.

RZ Like even—even in like sophisticated tech shops like ours we still fumble through the calls.

AS Yeah. Well, it’s—there’s something interesting about that, you know, and telling too because . . . the chief difference is that it’s free now. Pretty much.

RZ Yeah.

AS And one of the—one of the choices we’ve made as a society, it seems to me, over that last 20 years, without ever really making that choice, it just sort of happened and we’ve encouraged it because people have put free stuff in front of us which isn’t as good as the stuff we were paying for and we could’ve carried on paying for the old stuff but we didn’t because the free stuff is just—you naturally gravitate towards it. So, in a lot of ways technology has done fantastic things for us and has given us all kinds of gifts, some of which we’re not even aware of anymore. We just take them for granted. But one of the things that I think it has done is that it would probably—we’d do well to start thinking a little bit more about is that we’ve gone for free stuff which is inferior. And makes our lives harder. And probably costs us more money in the end.

RZ Oh. I mean.

PF But I like free stuff.

RZ Free stuff!

PF Yeah!

AS Well, who doesn’t? Who doesn’t?

PF No, you know, it’s terrible. So I pay for a lot of things now because it’s just easier and [hmm interesting]. I think I’ve been on the other side of trying to get people to pay for things, so I’m like, “You know what? I’m just gonna subscribe to this here newspaper. And not think about it anymore.” But. My dad. The moments of pride when he’s able to shove through the paywall and just be like [in gruff voice], “I’m not givin’ ‘em a penny!”

RZ Yeah.

PF It becomes [Andrew laughing] a game. Like, “I’m not doing it.” And then there’s another thing going on where it’s like, “I don’t really wanna subscribe to that magazine. I just wanna read this one article.” And then they’re like, “Well, you know, you have two left.”

RZ Yeah.

AS Yeah.

PF So, tell us a little bit about your more recent book around the internet and then let’s talk about how you became a coder. What—what is this book though?

AS The—the sort of end point of the book it’s about the DotCom crash.

RZ Mm hmm.

AS In 2000. Basically web one point oh. The first iteration of the web.

PF And this is Totally Wired. We should tell people the title.

AS This is Totally Wired—it’s called. Yes. And it’s a mysterious thing because the story at the time was that all these kids who were running the dotcoms, through the second half of the 1990s, chiefly cuz they were the only ones who understood the internet, and there weren’t very many of them, even the young ones who did at that point—the narrative has been that they—it went to their heads; they got stupid; they started spending all this money on Aeron office chairs and first class travel and they just tanked the whole sector. This turns out to be really not true. This is not what happened at all. That did go on. But that doesn’t account for the fact that it—basically an entire industry just disappeared in the space of a few months. So it’s about that. And it’s about that wild first phase of the web where no one knew what it was gonna be. From between about 1995 and 2000. 1995 being that point at which Netscape went public and the money started to—to really come in and people were setting up companies, and it’s about this extraordinary period. It was likened to the 1960s, a lot of the time, the second half of the 1960s in that . . . there were no rules. Everyone was making it up. You could try things and . . . people would let you. And there was, in this instance, there was investment money pouring in, mostly from people who didn’t really understand what the internet was. So it meant you could—you could take it and you could run with it. And so the book’s about these kids who basically found themselves in that position they’d arrived in New York . . . and there was a massive recession on in the first part of the nineties. So they were all working in bars, doing ramp [sic] poetry; playing in bands. You know, those sorts of things. And they all gradually discovered the—the internet, and the web. When it—when it arrived. And so they thought is was interesting. The joke was this is gonna be bigger than CB radio.

PF Right.

[10:50]

AS And then suddenly the Netscape IPO happened and billions of dollars just poured in cuz everyone wanted a piece of this. It was clearly gonna be, you know, the future. And they were the only ones who knew how it worked. So, all of a sudden, people were just handing them money. Saying [chuckles], “Just do something. We don’t even care what it is. Just do it.”

PF You know what’s fascinating, too? When you look at the lists of the big early sites and it’s some of these players, right? It’s DEN and Sudo and—and these very young, creative, very full of themselves. I remember it.

AS For sure.

PF The young people. But the prototypes that they were putting down were the things that later became the multi-multi-multi-billion dollar businesses. Like it was video experiences. I mean you can see like the—the DNA of Netflix, YouTube, all the different mail services, you know, all those—all those sort of like—those experiences that now are starting, I mean, you know, as we were recording there was just a huge Apple event where they’re talking about how they’re gonna become a—more and more of a content and storytelling company. And it [yeah]—that universe was really well predicted by the early  by the mid-nineties.

RZ Ah. I think people didn’t give a shit, right? They were like, “You know what? Here we are: the world is—the world is ours,” and everybody overshot. Everybody was like, “Of course you’re gonna watch a movie on your phone.”

PF You asse—well, there was no phone.

RZ I know but they were still saying. They were walking around saying, “Oh that’s gonna change. The whole game’s changing.”

PF It’s funny what you can’t predict. Cuz they predicted accurately that like people will watch stuff on—on, you know, You—digitally [yeah] but they couldn’t predict how long it would take for high bandwidth.

AS No.

RZ Do you know what I think about sometimes?

AS That was the problem.

RZ Alone?

PF What do you think about, Rich? [Andrew laughs]

[12:27]

RZ  RealPlayer.

PF Mm!

RZ Ok. So—

PF Well, west coast.

AS Yeah.

PF That’s a west coast thing.

RZ No, but still RealPlayer just kept trudgin’ along. It was like [labored], “But this is coming! We got this!”

PF Remember when you’d get that RealPlayer—

AS Yeah.

PF—video too and it’d be like six pixels [Rich laughs wheezily] and it would be like, “Oh cool! A Sarah McLachlan song!” You know? [Andrew laughing]

RZ And they worked so hard on like down sampling as—if your connection wasn’t as goo—I mean, it was—

AS Yeah.

RZ It was really tryin’ to—cuz they—they saw it. And they—what they saw was real. It was the real thing.

PF So why—why did it implode, though? It’s not just bandwidth, like what?

AS Well, there’s a bunch of things. The—the book focuses on this guy called Josh Harris who was a really fascinating character, and had a six-storey warehouse at sort of Broadway and Houston. And  which turns out to be a block away from where I was born, in fact, on Bleecker Street. And [sucks teeth]—and he was trying to—they were trying to make one of the vid—you know, video-TV-radio portals. Which was amazing because, of course, TV had such high costs associated to it whereas if you were online you could have 30 channels that cost you almost nothing to make. So it was—it was radical and they did see all of this coming. Broadband took much longer, I think, than most people thought [mm hmm].

RZ Yeah.

[13:40]

AS But the reason it fell apart was not really to do with the young people doing it. When I—when I dug down—cuz it was a mystery to me, I couldn’t see why, you know, the things—the things that the kids running the companies were doing. I couldn’t see how that added up to just destroying this whole sector, I mean it’s trillions of dollars that was wiped out from the economy at that point. Except that as Douglas Rushkoff pointed out: money is never wiped away, someone sells on the way—you know, someone has sold stuff on the way down. So the money just goes somewhere else. But. Essentially. The investment bankers used the dotcoms much as they would use subprime mortgages later on. They used them as investment vehicles. When a company went public— and most of the young people running the companies really didn’t understand the IPO process at that point but in 1999 there were hundreds of IPOs. You know, we get excited about there being four a year now [yeah]. But there were—

PF I remember that. It was wild because the tombstones would show up. The little picture—the little  announcements and there were so many.

RZ Yeah. Sure.

AS That’s right. That’s right. And these were companies—in the—in the past it was expected that a company would have a certain nber of—amount of time. I can’t remember if it was a couple of years of profits. I think it might’ve been three years worth of profits or something. It was—there was a—there was a process that went—and at this point people were forming companies and six months later they were being taken public. It was kind of mystifying, right? And what was happening was the investment bankers who were organizing the IPOs were just slinging these things at market.  there was a pattern to the IPOs that year, too, which is that they would start with a low price, say 17 dollars a share; there would be this huge demand; and often the—the opening of trading would be delayed. And then through the first day, the price would just escalate, so it might end up with 90 dollars a share, right? And then it would come down again. And then the company would be stuck with this massive valuation. It would mean that they could never borrow money again because anyone who was thinking of investing would look and go, “Well, that share price is—looks so high. And that valuation’s so high. We can’t—we can’t invest more.” What was happening was the investment bankers were giving shares at the low opening price to friends and family and  and to favored clients, and they were agreeing—this process called laddering where they were agreeing to buy and sell amongst themselves through the afternoon. And so the price would be driven up and up and up, eventually the public would get to pile in. So they’d all pile in at the higher level, at which case all the insiders would get out, and so the public would end up losing money. It ended up—there was a big overhang because, of course, the people who worked for companies, and friends and families of the people who worked for the companies, there was a thing called lock in which, I think, I asse there still is where you couldn’t sell your—your own shares for about six months.

PF Mm hmm.

[16:42]

AS Now the investment bankers and their favorite clients could. They could sell on the same day but if you worked for the company you couldn’t. And there ended up, at the beginning of 2000, being this massive overhang where there were a whole lot of shares which were suddenly going to be available to be sold coming out at the same time, by which time most of the insiders had got out. And then, of course, the—the market crashed. So there was transference of money from the public through their pension funds; mutual funds; and—and investments to the finance industry of trillions of dollars. It’s a scandal that I cannot believe hasn’t been more widely publicized.

PF Right, cuz the thing—the thing you’re describing is stealing.

AS No! It’s legal! That was perfectly [Paul sighs heavily] legal. There was a—there was a class action case afterwards which went on for years, as these things do, and the banks case was not, “We didn’t do this.” The banks case was, “We did but it’s not illegal.” And in the end, there was settlement into—around about 2008 because it looked like some of the banks were going to go down so the plaintiffs did settle for a paltry amount. And most of the money came out of the dotcoms and guess what it went into . . . real estate.

RZ Sure.

AS So, there you have the subprime mortgage [Rich crosstalking inaudibly]—basically it was a dry run for the subprime mortgage crisis which happened in 2008.

RZ What’s the next cri—what’s the next crisis, Andrew?

AS The next one?!?

PF Yeah.

AS Oh God. I mean who knows? I don’t even know what they’re doing now [laughing].

PF It’s not tech. Tech is—parts of tech are overdone.

AS I don’t think so.

RZ No.

[18:14]

AS No, I think tech’s been done.

RZ Tech’s been done.

PF I think the raw, speculative energy around blockchain has sort of seg—segmented off into the rest of the economy.

RZ Yeah.

AS Yeah.

RZ That’s it’s own island.

AS Agreed.

PF I mean it’s always real estate.

RZ Yeah.

PF It’s so big. Real estate [yeah], you know, but wait, hold on a minute. So you—you saw that people went to the moon and became sad. Or—or had unusual experiences.

AS Yeah.

PF You saw that the tech industry was utterly vulnerable to every kind of manipulation, and then you thought to yourself—

RZ And then they became sad.

PF And they became sad [others laugh]. You—and then you thought to yourself, “I should really learn how to code.”

AS Yeah. Make me sad! [Laughing]

RZ Yeah, he’s seeking out sadness again!

[18:56]

PF What was—what was the motivator there?

RZ Yeah.

AS Well, the motivator there was kind of like most of the things I do, I guess, and it’s curiosity, isn’t it?

PF Mm hmm.

AS And what—what I tend to be looking at if I’m—if I’m looking around at the world and there’s something that I think I don’t understand—say in 2008, one of the things—one of my motivations for Totally Wired was because I looked at the stock market and I thought, “This makes no sense. I cannot see how this makes sense.” And I looked at it a bit deeper and still thought, “Oh it doesn’t make sense.” And then I looked at it a bit deeper and thought, “Actually no one else seems to understand this either, so clearly something’s gonna happen here.” And with code it’s the same thing, I mean there’s almost nothing we do now that isn’t mediated by code. As you guys know, I don’t need to tell you, but it turns out to be such a fascinating world which, like most members of the public, I really didn’t understand anything about [mm] and, you know, just to be able to—I remember the first time I was able to just look at a line of code and understand what’s going on, it was so exciting. It was like being able to be play a line on a guitar for the first time or a song.

PF You’re seeing what makes the machine run. I mean it’s a hell of a thing.

AS Yeah! My own interest stemmed, actually, from something I wrote when Bitcoin, you know, was just beginning to make waves amongst the people who follow these things and knew about them, but it was still very, very much occult. And I thought, “That looks fascinating!” And did, in the end, manage to persuade someone to let me  write an article about it and one of the things it was about was, of course, who is this Satoshi Nakamoto character. And when I was looking at the evidence, there wasn’t much evidence, but there was a lot of code. And I was talking to  programmers saying, “Well, you know, here—we’ve got all this code. Is there anything we can learn from this?” And they all started discussing it like literature and I thought that was so interesting. The language used and why, you know, he/she/they, we don’t know still. Why would you use different languages? How are they different? What are—you know, all the things that someone said they thought it was in C++ and someone said, “But we don’t think he’s a native to C++, it doesn’t write—and the way that—the way that the code is written suggests that maybe he learned in 1980s so not—not—not really young.” And I just thought that was fascinating.

PF Well that’s gonna trigger all the journalist part of your brain. Right? I mean it’s just sort of—

AS Oh sure.

[21:25]

PF Especially as a writer, as a thinker. So, wait a minute, now, a year ago, you know, or thereabouts, I talked to you and you were really figuring it out as you went. You were—you were early days, maybe some Python, not sure about language. I think I told you like, you know, “Figure out how to build a website. Figure out how to build something.”

AS Yeah, yeah.

PF Where’d you end up? Where are you now?

AS Well, well—I made some forays at that point into JavaScript when I first saw you [mm hmm], the first time I saw you, and  I didn’t love JavaScript. And—and so I realized after a while that the aesthetics of it does sort of matter to me, it probably shouldn’t but it does, and I ended up with Python which, in fact, I think you initially suggested Python and I ignored you [laughs].

PF Sure.

AS I can’t remember why! I think it was because that I’d got into my head that if I was going to try, you know, web development then JavaScript would be the thing which—which—

PF Don’t worry. We run a company. I’m very used to being ignored.

AS [Laughs] [Rich chuckles] But what I realized was once I—once I kind of crashed out of  JavaScript or decided that maybe that wasn’t for me, I—I realized as I was doing that that almost all of the experienced programmers and developers that I had spoken to had been gently trying to steer me—no one said—cuz no one ever does say  which I think is kinda nice, actually, no one ever says, “You must learn this.” They just—you’d all been trying to sort of steer me towards Python and [yeah] the moment I tried it, I really liked it. I—I love Python. I went to my first PyCon last year. And just adored it. It was like going to Woodstock for me.

PF It’s a very sweet, positive community for the most part.

RZ I call it a very empathetic language. It just it—it doesn’t throw that hurdle in the beginning that—that makes you, like, “You gotta climb over this first and then you can get going.” Like it wants you to get going. I think that’s what’s interesting.

AS Yeah, it feels like that. You’re right. And  I’ve often wondered if it was because , you know, Guido is Dutch and [Rich laughs wheezily] there’s [Paul guffaws] something kind of seems quite Dutch to me about that language. It’s not a language you’re showing off in, is it?

RZ No, no.

[23:33]

PF No, in fact, they’re very—it’s been very—new features and exciting new things don’t land in Python very often because [mm hmm] you’re supposed to be as explicit and obvious as you can in your coding style.

RZ Yeah, yeah.

AS Right, right.

RZ But there’s some very sophisticated stuff in Python.

PF No, you can do all the real work in it [yup], it’s just not like—

AS Yeah.

PF It’s intended as a communication tool as well as a programming language.

AS Yeah. Which is probably what appealed about it. And I love the community. I—I—

PF It’s unusual. A lot of the listeners won’t know this but like the languages have their own worlds and their own cultures around them and—

AS Oh God. Yeah.

PF Yeah, like Python is—is—is very, it tries to be friendly. Like it’s anything, it’s a bunch of nerds, including me, so people can be prickly. So, Andrew, what—what are you doing now? Are we gonna hire you? Should we—should we hire you now?

RZ Yeah.

PF Are you ready to come work?

RZ [In high pitched, mocking tone] “Where do you see yourself in two years?” [Snort laughs]

AS I can make a really good cup of tea, if that—if that helps [hosts laugh]. I’m seriously—I’m still very much a beginner and  one of the things I—I really liked is it’s forced me to understand my own computer, my own machine a lot better. How everything is structured; where it goes; I can use the terminal now, and I know how to find things that I’ve lost, and I know how to—how it’s organized and how to organize it better, to make it—little things like that which you—I think partly because the manufacturers and software developers are all trying to make it as easy for us lay people, you know, civilians.

RZ Sure.

[25:01]

AS As possible. We, a lot of the time, we don’t really ever need to learn to use something really well. So we use it really badly.

PF Mm hmm.

AS And I think until you—until you start learning a little bit about code, it’s hard to motivate yourself to make that little step.

RZ You know we’ve got a listeners on here that aren’t programmers.

AS Right.

RZ Designers, product managers, business people, business—and what’s interesting about, you know, the world of programming is there are—the demand is so high and other industries or other sectors aren’t, you know, as attractive. People pivot. People pivot in their twenties, in their thirties,  I have [yeah, sure] a friend who’s an architect. And it’s a really steep hill and the upside isn’t that great. So, he’s exploring. Actually changing jobs entirely, changing professions, effectively. Based on what you, you know, dipping your toe into this and I’m sure you hit some walls, what—what advice would you give someone who’s thinking about taking that leap cuz it’s a scary leap, right? I mean you did it for research and—

PF Well, and also, I think, as a humanist, you did it to understand the world.

RZ Yeah. Yeah.

AS Yeah. Yeah. That—that was a part of it. And I sort of think—cuz there’s a lot of discussions going on at the moment about what our software’s gonna do and it—I wanted to be able to understand it well enough to participate in those discussions.  so I think that—that in itself is important. But I’ll tell you what was what I tell people when—when they say, “Oh God, yeah, that I dunno—I’d like to do that but it sounds—it sounds too difficult.” And it is difficult. I don’t wanna sugar coat that. To learn to [chuckles] program is difficult. But there are—there are simple things that you can do that will just give you enough of a sense that you can feel like you understand what it is and how it works; and why, you know, this line of stuff that looks like algebra but actually is nothing like algebra in most cases, how that line of stuff makes something happen in the world, and one good way is there’s a guy called Quincy Larson who started a thing called Free Code Camp [mm hmm] and it’s an online resource and it’s—and you can go on there and they make it very easy which has a downside because then when I remember the first time I had a blank screen and my task was to design a small website and my mind just went blank and it was terrifying because I realized that I’d gone through these easy steps of being able to manipulate the [all chuckling] simple code and suddenly didn’t know how to apply it. But if you wanna get a sense of it, just go on there.

[27:38]

RZ Yeah, the resources out there are amazing.

PF It’s worth noting, too, like the only laboratory you need is the desktop computer in front of you.

RZ [Sighs] Everything’s out there. Everything is there. I mean—

PF You don’t need to go buy some special device or yeah.

RZ Anything. Any corner of it. Yeah.

AS I live in the Bay Area now and so a lot of these conferences and things are quite  accessible to me and—and some of the—some of the organizations that are now trying to recruit developers to do good civic work, there’s one called Open Oakland which I’m—I’m involved with where we meet every Tuesday in the city hall and the city kinda says, “Well, look, this part of our website sucks.” Or, “This—wouldn’t it be great if we could do this thing about knowing where political party contributions were coming from and taking the information which is all publically available but not very easy to read and parse,  make that accessible so people can see it.” So there’s all those things happening. But I went to a thing called DevCon a little while ago and there was an organization that was recruiting high—very high-end developers to—from all over the world, for companies who needed them. And I went and said, “Where—where are they coming from at the moment? Where, you know, where are you finding them?” And they said Djibouti is a big one. And Cambodia is another one.


RZ Wow.

AS And Vietnam.


RZ Wow.

AS And I thought that was fascinating and that speaks to what you’re saying that [mm hmm] really if you—as long as you got access to a computer, you can do this [yup]. So in some ways it’s a very levelizing, you know, democratizing force in the world.

[29:13]

PF So, two books. Totally Wired which is—is out and then  Moondust which is coming out in a new edition. And then if you could, if you had infinite time, what’s the thing you would program?

AS There seems to be a thing at the moment for making password generators, and  one of the—one of the things I wanted to do for the website is to have a password generator so I can feed the text from Moondust in, so that it’ll generate pass—passwords from that. So every, you know, every 400th one or something you might get Buzz Aldrin 1 or something like that which would be kinda fun. So—

PF 10,000 security researchers just exploded [Rich laughs wheezily] as you said that [all laugh].

AS I know! This is part of my learning cur—learning curve. And there’s something I wanted to do with music as well cuz one thing—one thing I’d [stammers] I probably shouldn’t tell you this cuz someone else might do it except that we’re all open source here, aren’t we? So this is—

PF It’s all about execution, Andrew. It’s never about the idea.

AS I know. But I’m gonna be worse at the execution [all laugh]. So—so I need to protect the ideas otherwise I’ll have nothing. [Stammers] I don’t know if you—do you listen to music when you work?

PF Constantly.

AS What I’d love to do, for my own website, is to have a sort of page and an app where I could share that and where other people could share it and we could all—we could all be bringing in the music we like to work to [mm hmm] and with, and what works, and then if I could somehow connect with the Spotify API which must be possible, I couldn’t do that now probably without it taking me a week, but then we might be able to have a way of sharing and then sampling it, and listening to it, so it could be this little community of people who use music when they work and share it. And I think that would be a lovely thing. And the reason I like that is because I wish someone did that. I wish there was a site that I could go to where that would happen and there isn’t, as far as I know.

RZ That’s usually the best reason. Chasing an idea.

PF It’s a true motivator.

RZ When you want the thing is—it’s the best motivator.

AS Yeah!

PF Well, look, we’re here to help. So when—

AS Well thank you very much. I will very happily [laughing] take you up on that!

[31:30]

PF Yeah, [it’s] and everyone who’s listening needs to go and—and buy some Andrew Smith books.

AS No, you don’t need to.

PF You need to.

AS I can just tell you what they say. Just send me an email, I’ll tell you what they say, you don’t need to—

PF [Chuckles] Don’t—that’s—that’s very British of you but we’re, you know, let’s [all laugh]—let’s sell these books!

AS My publisher is just making a note right here to—ok. Get rid of this guy [music fades in].

PF Andrew, thank you for coming on Track Changes.

AS It’s a total pleasure. Thanks for having me.

RZ Thank you, Andrew.

PF Hey, Rich?

RZ Yes.

PF Nice to see people learning new things.

RZ I—it’s a dream. If I can—

PF It’s fun, right?

RZ There’s nothing, I mean, I love being a novice.

PF It’s fun to play.

RZ Yeah. The previous episode we talked about Blender. It was just fun.

PF You always end up using it somehow. You use the knowledge somehow.

RZ Oh yeah! It’s great.

PF Alright, well, you know what? If people need us, they know how to get in touch: [email protected]

RZ Yes, we’re hiring. And we can be hired.

PF That is correct! [Rich snickers] We are growing this company! So get in touch.

RZ Get in touch, [email protected] Have a great week!

PF Let’s go! [Music ramps up, plays alone for five seconds, fades out to end.]