*** RYAN TATE: Shocking secrets--revealed! ***





Professional bio

Media appearences



Weblog archive



Contact info

RSS feed

PGP key

415.640.6119 mobile

415.288.4968 office

510.548.4576 home

Home address and map

My building

AIM: ryantatedotcom

Recent San Francisco Business Times stories

Table set at Ferry Building (Jun. 6)

S.F. out to rattle chains (May. 30)

S.F. plan sets goal of 10,000 homes (Jun. 27)

Stanford's new senior class (Jun. 13)

Is San Francisco's housing crisis over? (Jun. 20)

Stanford Shopping Center on block (May. 23)

Insurers locking up condos (May. 23)

Developer makes bold housing play (May. 16)

Williams-Sonoma revs web (May. 9)

Residential Real Estate Deals of the Year (May. 9)

More ...

Recent personal essays

Private property (Oct. 8)

Blogs I read

Anne and her Cheese Diaries





David Warsh

Dave Winer


Philip Greenspun

Joel Spolsky

Monday, November 17, 2003

It's a loopy time for me. There's so much going on this month. I have been trying to write a novel again, and making more progress, but this past week have fallen way behind. Will I rally, start pounding out 3000 words a day and catch back up? I don't know.

That's the sort of month it is. Loops come around again, and I am reminded I'm in them. Sometimes you are closing a loop, it's over, and sometimes you know it's just another iteration. If it sounds like programming, it is. Dave Winer  told me in 1996 and 1997, on scripting.com, which I read daily, and still do. A daily loop.

I don't think it's any accident that, after reading enough Dave Winer, and talking to Thomas Oh, a really great late night buddy, someone who could be called at 1:00 am to get eggs at Denny's, I started to program, and to want to get good at it. That's when I was staying up all night in Eshleman Hall, at the Daily Cal office, learning to code Winer's Frontier scripting engine and object database, learning AppleScript, learning Perl, learning javascript, working night after night until it was nearly Christmas.

I was pregnant with websites and voraciously hungry for knowledge, technical knowledge of how to actually accomplish something with a computer. What is a newspaper reporter? Someone without the patience for the long loops of law or academia. And computer programming is the ultimate tight loop. Write, compile, test. Lather, rinse, repeat, as they say. No need to even wait 12 hours for something to be printed and distributed. Did you fix the bug? Just try running the program again, you'll know. It's addictive.


Loops are critical outside of programming. The past is the context for the present, and the context is everything. Just let me try and quote you in one of my stories just a little bit out of context, you'll be yelling at me how important context is. Anyway, the point is that since the past defines the context for the present, the past doesn't ever really go anywhere. You can add new history and go in new directions, but the old history is still there, and it's critical. It has the inertia. How did Bob Dylan put it? "She says, 'You can't repeat the past.' I say, 'You can't? What do you mean, you can't? Of course you can.'"

But it never feels the same, and that is the blessing and curse of the past.


I did some math the other day. It occurred to me that next August, I'll have been in Berkeley ten years. So it's been nine years and three months. Before that I was in San Diego for eight and a half years, and before that in Houston for the same amount of time. So this town is where I am from. I have never lived anywhere else as long as I have lived here, in this place I chose. I came to Berkeley when I was 14, with my mom. She said I saw a man in the free speech circle on Sproul Plaza, ranting and raving, and my face lit up with a quiet wonder that stayed with me all day. That sounds about right.

So my inertia is here, and it is history of my own making. There is no one to blame. I made my way out here with my family all in Texas, except for mom and dad, ten hours by car south. I had their money and support but I had to, and I got to, start something fresh. In programming there's something called legacy code, which is an old program that works, and does useful things for people, and so you have to support it. Which means before you program one single new cool thing, you have to make sure it works with every single existing thing that came before it and which other people are relying on. 

I have had friends whose families seemed, to me from the outside, at times like big messy clumps of legacy code. They would be obligated every weekend to attend one or two family banquets , to drive down to uncle's house or grandmother's house and say hello to the cousins, to have tea with mom, to attend a graduation or recital, to take mother or father out for mother or father's day. Any one of these outings was warm and fun and spoiling in and of itself. But added up, time after time, they became, in my eyes at least, weighty obligations, holding down my friends with the weight of their family and their family's needs and history. Sometimes I envied their close-knit families, but more often I felt happy to be free of all that, to be stationed at a distant outpost in a city and state most of my kin consider strange and bewildering.

But being free from family guilt and time commitments is not a compete break from the past. There is no fleeing the historical context of your family experience any more than there is such a thing as a truly fresh and original computer program. Big pause there. I take some time to figure out what I mean, which is: I still wrestle with so many of the same old issues, about communication, about fear, about alcohol, about what I'm "allowed" to say and be, and, guess what, we all do. A few years ago I sent something personal to someone, a note, a piece of what you might call poetry, and the one thing she came back with most strongly is, how can you say I'm dealing with issues concerning my family? She felt attacked, a former best friend of mine. It didn't matter I said I was doing the same thing. And all I could say is, to me, I don't know that I have not met a single person who does not struggle with their family history in some way, to some extent.


Two weeks ago I walk onto a BART train with some coworkers, on the way to dinner in Oakland, and someone calls my name. It is an old friend, the sister of an ex-girlfriend, and someone who I have not seen for two years. She kept saying how different I looked, which I suppose is true. I was wearing a suit and I've lost significant weight in the last two years.

But I thought later it was sort of like a loopback, two years almost to the day after a breakup with her sister, and I had to ask to what extent am I different and to what extent am I the same. Because I know that despite a lot of work, the context doesn't just lose all of its power and fade into nothing, the weight of history is still there, the problems of the past are still embedded somewhere inside me, and will always be there.

I can't say precisely how I have changed, although it feels like a lot. But one thing that has changed is I have developed more tolerance for my own humanity, which includes my failings and weaknesses, fears and insecurities. Tolerating this within myself means getting closer to it, which means understanding it better. It also means talking more about this stuff, in small and big ways, in serious and funny ways, with the people I love and care about, which in turn draws them closer.

The first step in changing the future is acknowledging the present. That's how loops change or end. Any newspaper reporter or computer programmer can tell you that.


I don't know if all these generalities mean much from the outside. It's hard to know how specific to be, whether to be salacious or spare with personal details. I know Justin has struggled with that issue for nearly a decade, what goes online and what stays private. As a newspaper reporter, privacy is supposed to be my enemy.


I hope I haven't made the present sound glum. That's the thing: sometimes you see something come around that you've seen before, that maybe you've struggled with in the past, or were not perfect at. Like, this year was my second year swimming from Alcatraz, but I was really low ranked in my age group. And the thing I have to remember to keep in mind is that incremental improvement is perfectly fantastic. Two years ago I had no Alcatraz ranking because I wasn't swimming it. And in a few years hopefully I'll be complaining about my finish in some other swim, maybe something longer.

A few years ago I could be an insecure person, and this year I can be an insecure person. Is it zero progress? Of course not. It's actually amazing how much can change in two years. That some things stay the same, or that there is no wholesale revolution, is not surprising. It's actually fun going around in elliptical spirals and fractal-looking loops, and even the boring circles sometimes, especially when you have someone amazing on the journey with you.


More updates