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Actually Doing Things


Back in middle school, I used to think that Progress is made with ideas. You sit down with a pencil in your hand, thinking hard, blood dripping from your forehead, and if you are lucky and smart enough, something great will emerge. Something that has the potential of making the world better.

Most movies still depict it this way. It's always the one genius with the great idea that no one could have thought of; in the next scene, there is already a flying suit, powered by a never heard of reactor.

Of course, in practice, it is really hard to make a new insight. Only a select few can. Most normal people have no measurable impact on anything.

Eventually, you recognize that this doesn't work this way. In the real world, most of progress is made by hundreds, thousands of hard-working people, engineers sitting in cubicles, unceremoniously writing code every day for months on end. Yes, leadership and ideas are important, but all of it amounts for nothing unless you have a couple billions of investable money. Not one side project stands the chance competing with even one full-time engineer at an actual company, let alone hundreds of them. True magic emerges from the crowd of highly qualified professionals doing their day-to-day job. Most of the time, the magic still doesn't happen though; you need very well coordinated teams working on the right problems, to even just to stay in business. Leadership does count.

Of course, in practice, most people are not in leadership roles in big multinational corporations. Only a select few are. Most normal people have no measurable impact on anything still.

But then... you get sufficiently high up in this system, only to realize that in actuality, it's nowhere near any sort of efficiency.

And this is somehow normal.

You would think that humanity is already using the most effective tools for the job... because why wouldn't we?

And then you learn about Lisp machines and Unix... and how the latter is clearly not the better technology. It was just easier to run it on a PDP-11.

As it looks like, at a large scale, it's more about coordination problems than ideas or getting things done. And humanity is not particularly good at solving large-scale coordination problems.

This, on the other hand, gives a great advantage to individuals or groups who still have some amount of free will and are willing to actually do things.

For example, the latest novel, big and successful operating system project that humanity could embark on was Windows NT in the 90s. Since then... BeOS at least tried to make a difference; they did go bankrupt eventually though (thank you, Microsoft; see also: humanity & coordination skills). Afterwards, everyone seemed to have converged on reusing what we already have, no matter how much effort it takes to shoehorn it into applications it was not originally designed for.

So, what are some novel operating systems (just to stay with the category of example) that you can today try out and play around with?

Well, there is TempleOS, written by Terry A. Davis, one person (with a serious mental illness at that). It's awesome (we have a post on it, too).

Or... SerenityOS, started by, yet again, one guy, Andreas Kling, this time to help with recovery from a drug addiction. (Since then, it's a large-ish project with many contributors.)

(The common theme here is having both time and determination. Being smart also helps, but... it's not the main factor.)

Actually, we might also want to mention this Finnish guy who wanted to learn about how to program the Intel 386 CPU.

But... you don't even have to go this ambitious. There are plenty of projects that end up being useful somewhere, for someone, just because they exist. There are plenty of random blogposts, videos, proposals to fix potholes, pieces of music, books and Discord servers that were not hard to create but wouldn't exist if someone didn't think they were possible & put in some effort to make them happen.

Doing anything whatsoever already puts you ahead of the pack. Most people, most of the time, just do not do stuff. It's not even about quality, or perfection, or the right idea, or the right amount of people to work on it. Most things just do not get looked at.

No blood dripping from your forehead needed. You just need to go there and do it.