Who: Alexander Bird
What: Software engineer
Where: San Francisco
Artist’s chosen location for interview: On a train to the Oslo airport
Connection to New Orleans: His brother and friends live there, and he has two Mardi Gras under his belt.
Q: How do you decide what to dedicate yourself to?
A: It’s not so much a decision as it is an observation. You observe yourself, see what you’re interested in, and you keep doing those things. I think it has to do with time as well. When I was making the Phish App, I wasn’t working, and I saw a vision of what I wanted to create. When you see that vision you have a sense of chasing a resolution.
The resolution is finishing the project and seeing it come to life.
There are a lot of things in life, though, that you never know the resolution of. I have no idea what my life will be like in years to come, but to be honest, I don’t think about that too much. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to make plans. You only have so much information about your current state of affairs, and you have even less information about the future, but you plan because that comes naturally.
Taking any action during the day means you’re working toward something.
Q: What would you love to find in a hiding spot that wasn’t yours?
A: It would be great to find a really old hiding spot, and you find a wad of cash in it. It’s so old, though, that the amount of money the person stowed away is worth nothing now.
I like this idea of how in America we are so crazy over cash. The aesthetic of it. So finding this giant wad of cash and then finding out that it’s worthless if pretty great. It’s a different take or perspective on that object of cash.
When I found that wad of cash I would probably smile to myself and be entertained by the fact that it was worth nothing.
Q: What do you think the purpose of nonverbal language is?
A: I don’t know where I heard this idea, but I like the idea that language developed as a way to structure thought. That sounds like a useful way to think about language. Then you have a differentiation between language and communication because you can have language without ever communicating.
Knowing and working with computer language is different because it’s very rigid. In verbal language you can change the pronunciation of a stated sentence and it will still have the same meaning, but in computer language if you don’t have the characters perfect then the program doesn’t run, or it runs differently than how you intended it. I find that you think way more precisely as a result of working with computer languages, and that flows over into everyday language.
There is this phenomenon that happens when writing code, and it happens way more than you would expect. You’ll be spending half a day working on debugging something, and once you finally understand why it’s not working you have this moment where you question, ‘How did this ever work?’ Then you fix it, and it works.
When you’re coding, the process of building the software is a process of constant error correction. The potential combinations of what you could type is basically infinite, so you have this strategy of trying as many options as possible. You try something and run it. Try something and run it. The faster you can do that, which is called ‘cycle time,’ the faster you can solve the problem. That can apply to individuals writing a single line of code or the whole team working on a project.
Q: What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given?
A: The advice that the culture hands down to people that you should chase status, money, and objects is terrible advice. And actually it seems like we’ve somehow added chasing and collecting experiences to that in the current times.
Q: What do you think the difference is between privacy and secrecy?
A: Secrecy has an association of hiding from another party that might be interested in the information. Privacy is more about the boundary that differentiates you from your culture. You have to have some parts of you that are individual and that no one else sees, and you also have to have parts of you that are plugged into the culture.
There are also times when it’s impractical to be talking or sharing, such as hiking or taking a shower. It also depends a lot on what is coming in the future. We are able to be social and give up privacy when we can see that we will be on our own in the future. Knowing that you’ll have that time to yourself opens you up to being with people.
Although, there really isn’t a solid answer to this. Lately I’ve been thinking about how a lot of things in life are models. There isn’t necessarily one answer to something; instead, we have these models that help us construct an understanding of something, but everything changes according to the model we choose.
I like this idea of ‘wisdom in action,’ which is great because it applies to everyday life. There’s something charming and compelling about the everyday actions of people, and there’s a lot of very useful information captured in the day-to-day life of every person. It may not be scientifically structured or modelled, and the behaviour may not even be studied, but it’s so interesting to observe their actions and see what they do. You see how they live and what keeps them alive.
You can pick up information like that everywhere you go as long as you open your eyes and observe it.
Alex Bird is a software engineer as well as an app developer. You can check out his Phish app at www.phishtrackstats.com.