Strength in Chaos

Have you ever been so close to the edge that you no longer know how to tell whether you’ve crossed it? It’s a hard thing to live this way, yet this is all I’ve known for years. When your credit cards are maxed out and the only thing you have is the cash in your wallet, it’s a paralyzing feeling just to pay a bar tab. There’s a certain panic in spending 60% of your available wealth on two beers and a stack of potato fries. Sure, you play off the declined credit card as an oversight, but deep down, you know just how close you are to oblivion.

It’s easy to see how such a situation might cripple anyone. Still, there’s a strength to be found in all that chaos and uncertainty. If you can look past the debilitating rejection of having tens of thousands of dollars of credit, all stretched to their full extent, you find yourself in a peace known to few. I imagine it feels something like drowning. Despite the sudden onset of declined credit transactions, there’s a looming catastrophic quality to the experience, like watching the boulder from afar as it tumbles down the hillside toward your imminent demise.

I envision it like kayaking over a waterfall. Sure, I could keep a constant pulse, checking in with the sherpa shouting from the shore, waving his arms madly in a futile attempt to inspire me to paddle toward the dock. Instead, I find solace in the knowledge that there is more to learn in the quick trip over the edge than I could ever hope to encounter in the safety of knowing that there is another force dragging my boat. Whether I measure it or not, I’m going past the event horizon. I can not know the terror that awaits me, nor could I ever embrace its totality. Still, I close my eyes and sing to myself sweet songs of my inevitable victory.

You may call it foolish or even insane, and you’d be right. In describing the audacity of hope, you will inevitably find yourself questioning the basic fundamentals of what it means to live. I promise I don’t have any answers you want to hear. Frankly, there have been as many times as not that I’ve wondered how much easier it would be to flip my boat and drift away in serene aquatic asphyxiation. But I’m not interested in that death. I have far too much to contribute to this world to seek that path.

I’m not done with this life after these 36yrs. I’m doubling down. I’m ready for another 72, and I’m willing to bet that at the end of all those years, I’ll do it again, if for no other reason than to dare the universe to give me a thousand times more hardship than I’ve faced in these 36yrs. If I can survive this chaos and use it as a source of continued strength, another hundred years will only serve to anneal my heart and soul that much more. I no longer believe there is anything the universe could throw at me that I could not use to grow stronger. And that is the most peaceful feeling I could ever hope for.

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Surfing the Balmer Peak

There’s a joke common among software engineers, based on an xkcd comic, titled The Balmer Peak. Stories surrounding the Balmer Peak have evolved in the wake of the comic, stories I could do no justice here. Like legends of olde (so long ago that English-speaking people and French-speaking people got along and shared a silent ‘e’ in their written language, but still commonly hated the Dutch), stories spread from one epic moment in time out through hamlets and villages across the land. In this case, the hamlets are big companies and the villages are startups. Some repeated the tales in taverns and markets. Others heard the tales and took it upon themselves to seek to achieve such greatness.

Often, when working in an oppressive corporate sweatshop or your buddy’s sweaty garage, groups of geeks band together and form strong bonds during times of great struggle. When there’s a sudden defect in a major system that results in thousands of dollars of revenue loss per minute, the operations team that manages the resolution is battle-hardened in the process. Like any hardy band of warrior poets, their souls annealed by the tragedy of their plight, they write epic tales of their heroic triumph. As employees migrate from one job to another, they carry with them a vocal account of the history of their prior employers, including such heroic tales of “wicked all-nighters spent doing shots and jamming out code.” I salute these champions, for they have caught a glimpse of something others only hear about in pub legends.

These brave warriors have ridden the Peak, if even for a short time. Moreover, they have given us the wisdom of their example, so that we might be inspired to learn this herculean skill. To surf the Balmer Peak is to invite equal parts prosperity and catastrophe. It should not be undertaken without a guide (and a good lawyer). Just remember who wins whether you do or not, and incidentally, tip your bartender.

Note: the Balmer Peak applies only to programming skill. All other skills will effectively drop to zero during the experience. Participants may require a nanny (and, once again, a good lawyer).