The Universe of Discourse

Sun, 17 Apr 2022

Let's go find out!

I just went through an extensive job search, maybe the most strenuous of my life. I hadn't meant to! I wrote a blog post asking where I should apply for Haskell jobs, and I thought three or four people would send suggestions. Instead I was contacted by around fifty people, many of whom ran Haskell-related companies and invited me to apply, after it hit #1 on Hacker News. So I ran with it.

I had written:

At some point I'll need another job. I would really like it to be Haskell programming…

One question that came up in several interviews was “why do you want to learn Haskell?” I had a lot of trouble with this question, and often rambled about the answer to some other question instead. A couple of times I started by saying “well, I've been interested in Haskell for about twenty years…” (does not answer the question) and then I'd go on about how I got interested in Haskell in the first place (also does not answer the question).

Sometimes this did touch on some deeper reasons. By the time I learned Haskell I had been programming in SML for a while, and it was apparent that SML had some major problems. When I encountered Haskell around 1998 it seemed that Haskell at least had a story for how these problems might be fixed.

But why did I get interested in SML? I'm not sure how I encountered it but by that time I had been programming for ten or fifteen years and it appeared that strong type systems were eventually going to lead to big improvements. Programming is still pretty crappy, but it is way better than it was when I started.One reason is that languages are much better. I'm interested in programming and in how to make it less crappy.

But none of this really answers the question. Yes, I've wanted to know more for decades. But the question is why do I want to learn Haskell? Sometimes these kinds of questions do have a straightforward answer. For example, “I think it will be a good career move”. That was not the answer in this case. Nor “I think it will pay me a lot of money” or “I'm interested in smart contracts and a lot of smart contract work is done in Haskell”.

I'm remembering something written I think by Douglas Hofstadter (but possibly Daniel Dennett? John Haugeland?) where you have a person (or AI program) playing chess, and you ask them “Why did you move the knight to e4?” The chess player answers “To attack the bishop on g5.”

“Why did you want to attack the bishop on g5?”

“That bishop is impeding development of my kingside pieces, and if I could get rid of it I could develop a kingside attack.”

“Why do you want to develop a kingside attack?”

“Uhh… if it is effective enough it could force the other player to resign.”

“But why do you want to force the other player to resign?”

“Because that's how you win a game of chess, dummy.”

“Why do you want to win the game?”


You can imagine this continuing yet further, but eventually it will reach a terminal point at which the answer to “Why do you want to…” is the exasperated cry “I just do!” (Or the first person turns five years old and grows out of the why-why-why phase.)

I wonder if the computer also feels exasperation at this kind of questioning? But it has an out; it can terminate the questions by replying “Because that's what I was programmed to do”. Anyway when people asked why I wanted to learn Haskell, I felt that exasperation. Sometimes I tried using the phrase “it's a terminal goal”, but I was never sure that my meaning was clear. Even at the end of the interviewing process I didn't have a good answer ready, and was still stammering out answers like “I just wanna know!”

(I realize now that “because that's what I was programmed to do” sometimes works for non-artifical intelligences also. When Katara was small she asked me why I loved her, and I answered “because that's how I'm made.”)

Now that the job hunt is all over, I think I've thought of a better reply to “why do you want to learn Haskell, anyway?” that might be easier to understand and which I like because it seems like such a good way to explain myself to strangers. The new answer is:

I'm the kind of person who gets on a bus and takes it to the last stop, just to see where it goes.

This is excellent! It not only explains me to other people, it helps explain me to myself. Of course I knew this about myself before but putting it into a little motto like that makes it easier to understand, remember, and reason from. It's useful to understand why you do the things you do and why you want the things you want, and this motto helps me by compacting a lot of information about myself into a pithy summary.

One thing I like about the motto is that it is not just metaphorically true. It's a good metaphor for the Haskell thing. I am still riding the Haskell bus to see where it ends up. But also, I do literally get on buses just to find out where they go.

In Haifa about twenty years ago, I got on a bus to see where it would go. I rode for a while, looking out the window, seeing and thinking many things. When I saw something that looked like a big open-air market I got out to see what it was about. It was a big open-air market, not like anything I had seen before. It was just the kind of thing I wanted to see when I visited a foreign country, but wouldn't have known to ask. Sometimes “what can I see that we don't have where I come from” works, but often the things you don't have at home are so ordinary where you are that your host doesn't think to show them to you. At the Haifa market, I remember seeing fresh dates for the first time. (In the U.S. they are always dried.) I bought some; they were pretty good even though they looked like giant cockroaches.

Another wondeful example of something I wanted to see but didn't know about until I got to it was Reg Hartt's Cineforum. Reg Hartt is a movie enthusiast in Toronto who runs a private movie theatre in his living room. Walking around Toronto one day I saw a poster advertising one of his shows, featuring Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons that had been banned for being too racist, and the post was clearly the call of fate. Of course I'm going to attend a cartoon show in some stranger's living room in Toronto. Hartt handed me a beer on the way in and began a long, meandering rant about the history of these cartoons. One guy in the audience interrupted “just start the show” and Hartt shot back “This is the show!” Reg Hartt is my hero.

In Lisbon I was walking around at random and happened on the train station, so I went in and got on the first train I saw and took it to the end of the line, which turned out to be in Cascais. I looked around, had lunch, and spent time feeding a packet of sugar to some ants. It was a good day.

In Philadelphia I often take the #42 bus, which runs west on Walnut Street from downtown to where I live. The #9 bus runs along the same route part of the way, but before it gets to my neighborhood it turns right and goes somewhere else called Andorra. After a few years of wondering what Andorra was like I got on the #9 bus to find out. It's way out at the city limits, in far Roxborough. Similarly I once took the #34 trolley to the end of the line to see where it went. There was a restaurant there called Bubba's Bar-B-Que, which was pretty good. Since then it has become a Jamaican restaurant which is also pretty good. I have also taken the #42 itself to the end of the line to learn where it turns around.

I once drove the car to Stenton Avenue and drove the whole length of Stenton Avenue, because I kept hearing about Stenton Avenue but didn't know where it was or what was on it.

I used to take SEPTA, the Philadelphia commuter rail, to Trenton, because that was the cheapest way to get to New York. Along the way the train would pass through a station called Andalusia but it would never stop there. The conductor would come through the train asking if anyone wanted to debark at Andalusia but nobody ever did. And nobody was ever waiting on the Andalusia platform, so the train had no reason to stop. I wondered for years what was in Andalusia. Once I got a car, I drove there to see what there was. It was a neighborhood, and I climbed down to the (no longer used) SEPTA station to poke around. Going in the other direction on SEPTA I have visited Marcus Hook and Wilmington just to see what they were like.

One especially successful trip was a few years ago when I decided to drive to Indianapolis. When I told people I was taking a road trip to Indianapolis they would ask “why, what is in Indianapolis?” I answered that I didn't know, and I was going there to find out. And when I did get there I found out that Indianapolis is really cool! I enjoyed walking around their central square which has a very cool monument and also a bronze statue of America's greatest president, William Henry Harrison. I had planned to stay in Indianapolis longer, but while I was eating breakfast I learned that the Indiana state fair was taking place about fifteen minutes south, and I had never been to a state fair, so I went to see that. I saw many things, including an exhibition of antique tractors and a demonstration of veterinary surgery, and I ate chocolate-covered bacon on a stick. After I got back from Indianapolis I had an answer to the question “why, what is in Indianapolis?” The answer was: The Indiana State Fair. (I have a blog post I haven't finished about all the other stuff I saw on that trip, and maybe someday I will finish it.)

On another road trip I decided to drive in a loop around Chesapeake Bay, just to see what there was to see. I started in New Castle which is noteworthy for being the center of the only U.S. state border that is a circular arc. I ate Smith Island cake. I drove over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel-Bridge-Tunnel-Bridge which was awesome, totally awesome, and stopped in the middle for an hour to look around. I made stops in towns called Onancock and Bivalve just for the names. I blundered into the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, another place I would never have planned to visit but I'm glad I visited. I took the Oxford-Bellevue ferry which has been running between Oxford and Bellevue since 1683. I'm not much for souvenirs, but my Oxford-Bellvue Ferry t-shirt is a prized possession.

When I was a small child my parents had a British Monopoly board and I was fascinated by the place names. When I got my first toy octopus I named it Fenchurch after Fenchurch Street Station. And when I visited London I took the Underground to the Fenchurch Street stop one night to see what was there. It turned out that near Fenchurch Street is a building that is made inside-out. It has all the fire stairs and HVAC ducts on the outside so that the inside can be a huge and spacious atrium. I had had no idea this building even existed and I probably wouldn't have found out if I hadn't decided to visit Fenchurch Street for no particular reason other than to see what was there.

In Vienna I couldn't sleep, went out for a walk at midnight, and discovered the bicycle vending machines. So I rented a bicycle and biked around Vienna and ran across the wacky Hundertwasserhaus which I had not heard of before. Amazing! In Cleveland I went for a long walk by the river past a lot of cement factories and things like that, but eventually came out at the West Side Market. Then I went into a café and asked if there was a movie theatre around. They said there wasn't but they sometimes projected movies on the wall and would I like to see one? And that's how I saw Indiscreet with Gloria Swanson. I was in Cleveland again a few years ago and wandering around at night I happened across the Little Kings Lounge. The outside of the Little Kings Lounge frightened me but I eventually decided that spending the rest of my life wondering what it was like inside would be worse than anything that was likely to happen if I did go in. The inside was much less scary than the outside. There was a bar and a pool table. I drank apple-flavored Crown Royal. They had a sign announcing their proud compliance with the Cleveland indoor smoking ban, the most sarcastic sign I've ever seen.

In Taichung I spent a lot of time at the science museum, but I also spent a lot of time walking to and from the science museum through some very ordinary neighborhoods, and time walking around at random at night. The Taichung night market I had been to fifteen years before was kind of tired out, but going in a different direction I stumbled into a new, fresher night market. In Hong Kong I was leafing through my guidebook, saw a picture of the fish market on Cheung Chau, and decided I had to go see it. I took the ferry to Cheung Chau with no idea what I would find or where I would stay, and spent the weekend there, one of the greatest weekends of my life. I did find the fish market, and watched a woman cutting the heads off of live fish with a scissors. Spaulding Gray talks about searching for a “perfect moment” and how he couldn't leave Cambodia because he hadn't yet had his perfect moment. My first night on Cheung Chau I sat outside, eating Chinese fish dinner and drinking Negro Modelo, watching the fishing boats come into the harbor at sunset, and I had my perfect moment.

A few months back I wrote about going to the Pennsylvania-Delaware-Maryland border to see what it was like. You can read about that if you want. A few years back I biked out to Hog Island, supposedly the namesake of the hoagie, to find out what was there. It turned out there is a fort, and that people go there with folding chairs to fish in the Delaware River. On the way I got to bike over the George C. Platt Bridge, look out over South Phildelphia (looked good, smelled bad) and pick up a German army-style motorcycle helmet someone had abandoned in the roadway. Some years later I found out that George Platt was buried in a cemetery that was on the way to my piano lesson, so I stopped in to visit his grave. Most interesting result of that trip: Holy Cross cemetery numbers their zones and will tell you which zone someone is in, but it doesn't help much because the zones are not arranged in order.

I was on a cruise to Alaska and the boat stopped in Skagway for a few hours before turning around. I walked around Skagway for a while but there was not much to see; I thought it was a dumpy tourist trap and I walked back to the harbor. There was a “water taxi” to Haines so I went to Haines to see what was in Haines. The water taxi trip was lovely, I looked out at the fjords and the bald eagles. Haines was charming and pretty. In Haines I enjoyed the Alaska summer weather, saw the elementary school, bought an immersion heater at a hardware store, and ate spoon bread at The Bamboo Room restaurant. Then I took the water taxi back again. Years later when I returned to Skagway, this time with Lorrie, I already knew what to do. We went directly to the next dock over to get on the water taxi and get some spoon bread.

Sometimes I do have a destination in mind. When I was in Paris my hosts asked me if there was anything I wanted to see and I said I would like to visit the Promenade Plantée, which I had read about once in some magazine. My hosts had not heard of the Promenade Plantée but I did get myself there and walked the whole thing. (We have something like it in Philadelphia now but it's not as good, yet.) What did I see? A lot of plants, French people, and a view of Paris apartment buildings that is different from the one I would have gotten from street level. Sometimes I do tourist stuff: I spent hours at the Sagrada Família, the Giant's Causeway, and the Holy Sepulchre, all super-interesting. But when I go somewhere my main activity is: walk around at random and see what there is. In Barcelona I also happened across September 11th Street, in Belfast I accidentally attended the East Belfast Lantern Festival, and in Jerusalem I stopped in an internet café where each keyboard was labeled in four different scripts. (Hebrew, Latin, Cyrillic, and Arabic.)

Today a friend showed me this funny picture:

Street signs at an
intersection.  The top one says we are at HASKELL ST.  Attached just
above this is a smaller sign that says DEAD END.

Maybe so! But as the kind of person who gets on a bus and takes it to the last stop, just to see where it goes, I'm fully prepared for the possibility that the last stop is a dead end. That's okay. As my twenty-year-old self was fond of saying “to travel is better than to arrive”. The point of the journey is the journey, not the destination.

[ Addendum 20220422: I think I heard about the Promenade Plantée from this Boston Globe article from 2002. ]

[ Addendum 20220422: Apparently I need to get back to Haines because there is a hammer museum I should visit. ]

[ Addendum 20220426: A reader asked for details of my claim that “SML had some major problems”, so I wrote it up: What was wrong with SML? ]

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