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Get rolling

Yesterday, on an internet forum, I saw someone’s signature, which translates to

Don’t even get started if you know you can't know from the beginning that you won't make it to the very end.

This seems justified — persistence is the key to success; why even bother if you know you’ll fail? However, I have to profoundly disagree with this, and even dedicate a blog post to discussing this problem.

The problem here is, the real world is much more complicated than the idealized world found in various quotes about persistence. Most of the time you have absolutely no clue where which road is leading, unless you embark on the journey, clueless. As for me, fortunately I knew I was gonna be a mathematician/physicist ever since elementary school, so the roadmap is sorta clear on the grand scale. Still, all those tiny building blocks for the ultimate goal are confusing, and even more so for things hardly related to the ultimate goal, for instance, coding, which is just a hobby and a way to simplify life — it has simplified my life in some sense, but has itself complicated my life in other ways (your life inevitably becomes more complicated when you know more and want to find out even more).

And sometimes you are bound to fail — I know my code is shitty, for instance, but if I don’t get rolling, I won’t even have a working (albeit shitty) version that barely meets my needs. As another example, I was looking for a way to share and archive some photos. I started with WordPress, which turned out to be more formal and tiring than I’d thought. Then I ran a Tumblr microblog, which was great, but has certain limitations that in the end prevents it from being damn useful for myself, so in the end I went onto “indefinite hiatus.” In both cases I never declared that the thing was permanent — I was careful to say that the blogs were experimental, and I moved on when I found something better, or when they were no longer helping me. Yesterday I started yet another experiment, a Tistory blog. It is a random move triggered by something unexpected; the South Korean blogging platform is not that great, but at least it provides acceptable API access, and more importantly, I’ve got complete infrastructure built around the API to scrape photos, so it’s easy to build on top of that to automate things. It is also experimental. Again I’m not sure I long I can keep it up, but at least I’m happy with it for the time being. Being happy at the time being is the most important goal for hobbies.

Choices are hard. Especially in today’s world, tools in every discipline are constantly improving, be it math, physics, programming, photography, blogging, or whatever. If you research over and over until you find “the perfect tool”, or “the perfect platform” (hint: the rank is constantly changing), you’re stuck on the first step to anywhere. In fact, reading other people’s blogs, for example, are not enough to learn what is the best — you need to at least have some working knowledge to even decide which tool or platform is more suitable for you. Therefore, the most sensible thing to do is to do a little bit of research (combined with your gut feeling), pick up something that makes you feel good at the moment, and immediately get rolling. Well, of course you need some research, otherwise you’re just kidding yourself; doing >>> import this in python tells you:

Now is better than never.
Although never is often better than right now.

Then, when you have more experience and know what’s wrong with your original choice, correct it or trash it. There’s nothing wrong with abandoning dated crap, hopping bandwagons, or whatever; that’s the nature of change and improvement, and the most sensible thing for someone as busy as you are.

Up till now I've been talking about tools and platforms, so maybe it seems that I'm attacking the straw man — you may argue that the original quote is not about what tools or platforms you use, but rather, what you try to accomplish with the tools or platforms. Okay, what about the grander things in life, like mathematical research, like the final theory? Well, similar. I’ll quote Ravi here,

…mathematics is so rich and infinite that it is impossible to learn it systematically, and if you wait to master one topic before moving on to the next, you’ll never get anywhere. Instead, you’ll have tendrils of knowledge extending far from your comfort zone. Then you can later backfill from these tendrils, and extend your comfort zone; this is much easier to do than learning “forwards”.

Ravi is always hinting at “you should get started with actual research rather than ‘prepare’ yourself”! I can’t reckon that since I’ve yet to follow Ravi’s advice, but the thinking here is crystal clear. You shouldn’t be afraid of failure; you shouldn’t be afraid of being “not prepared enough”; you shouldn’t be afraid of getting started. Speaking of a final theory, I’m pretty sure I’m bound to fail, I’m pretty sure I won’t see a satisfactory one in my lifetime — the inconvenient truth is that, I have the gut feeling that the ultimate explanation is unfortunately intertwined with consciousness, and we are still far from having the right tools to understand consciousness. According to Feynman, really knowing something is hard. It’s hard, so failure is not shameful at all. Those who won’t even get started due to fear of failing or making the wrong choice won’t fail again, since they’ve already failed at the very beginning. So, get rolling.

Yesterday I read Fire and Motion on Joel on Software. Joel’s metaphor is really nice, but he’s essentially conveying very similar ideas.

By the way, I wrote this post in Emacs. I don’t know why but I seem to type much faster in Emacs than in Mou. (For Markdown editing markdown-mode, and typo-mode, a minor mode I found today which is useful for inserting smart quotes and smart dashes seamlessly into md articles).