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In Search for Wealth Irrelevance (sandwichbop.substack.com)
12 points by sandwichbop 10 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 22 comments

> I went to the library and did a small experiment; what could I do if I were to start with nearly nothing? Ignoring my library card sitting in my pocket, I went up to the librarian and asked for access to the public computer. She handed me an access code to use, and I sat at one of the workstations and logged in. Using the default browser, I now had access to free resources like FreeCodeCamp or Open Source Society University to learn anything I needed. I could make an email account for free and use that to make accounts elsewhere. You can't install anything on a public computer, but sites like Replit provide an online IDE to create almost anything. You can make a GitHub account to manage your code, contribute to others, even host projects thanks to GitHub Pages. You can make a free Heroku account and have a backend server to build on. Everything needed for success, although not perfect, was there. Nothing stops you from trying to start a small business, applying for software jobs, or making silly games as long as you're determined to make the most of what you have rather than feeling paralyzed at what you don't.

This seems to be the functional crux of the argument, but it's flawed, for at least a couple reasons.

(1) It presupposes a background in CS and software engineering, as well as knowledge of the ecosystem of tools available online. At some point in your life, you have to have had the time and stability in life to learn all that, and you need time and stability to work towards your goals in the present using those tools.

(2) It's too narrow in scope. This is shown as one example of a general philosophical mindset, but in fact software engineering is uniquely suited to starting out from nothing in this way. You'd be hard-pressed to find analogous examples that require any interaction with the physical environment.

If you're already into software, and you want to learn more about it or build something new, you're right that we have a lot of free resources available online to do so. And I agree that it's good to structure your life, when you can, so that pursuit of wealth isn't important, and you just happen to do so along the way. But I think it's difficult to translate that into a more general point about simply adopting a different outlook on your circumstances to effect meaningful change. There are big swaths of the human experience that that philosophy doesn't speak to.

You're absolutely right about "at some point in your life, you have to have had the time and stability in life to learn all that, and you need time and stability to work towards your goals in the present using those tools." And I failed in adequately establishing the audience to those that can afford to do otherwise. That's an entirely different beast, and I tried avoiding it by writing "nearly nothing" instead of starting from just nothing. I was thinking more college freshmen, people working minimum wage trying to move out into other fields with just software example as something I was familiar with. At that level, wealth is a priority to survive. Do you have any advice on how I can improve the argument, to avoid downplaying that situation?

To my mind, there are two angles to address. On the one hand, your argument really makes the most sense in the scope of "for people with a background in software", and due to the unique nature of software use and development, I don't think it would easily transfer to other domains. So, you can content yourself with making a point about people with a background in software.

Second, by bringing up free computer access at a library, it connects the point you're trying to make with the really complicated nuances around poverty. Even assuming we ignore smartphones and tablets (because how can you get any work done on one?), the demographic that only has access to a device with a keyboard at a public library is going to be almost entirely facing (at least) moderate poverty, and life in poverty just looks very different from the kinds of backgrounds that the rest of your piece implicitly addresses. So, you could focus instead on the wealth of free software tools available to the people who are in some range of circumstances to take advantage of them, assuming that access to a device with a keyboard isn't the primary challenge.

Thank you heyitsguay, I'll definitely try to edit the article to factor that in. I'm sorry having not been more specific before. But how can I still target those that are fortunate to have libraries they can take advantage but just don't realize it? Not everyone is as fortunate, but I'm a poor immigrant from Colombia and spent the majority of my childhood in public libraries while my parents worked and that's how I started my background so it can be done, but like you said, not every facing poverty will have the same circumstances.

Interesting, I bet that's an experience that most people on HN haven't had (I certainly haven't!). Since lots of the comments (including mine) have focused on how hard it is to take advantage of software engineering tools online without a CS/software background, and how hard it is to develop that background in precarious circumstances, it could be really interesting to write more about how you came to learn these things yourself.

> what could I do if I were to start with nearly nothing?

I would point out that you'd also have to start, prior to a background in CS and software engineering, with an environment that is stress-free enough to learn/do programming. We know that stress reduces the ability to learn and think rationally, and also that poverty is extremely stressful.

How could someone in the situation you describe find a environment that is stress free? I was thinking public libraries but being impoverish would still make it stressful in that case. What are some approaches in that boat to get out of negative feedback loop?

I'm sorry for coming tone-deaf for those who are in situations where they don't have the luxury to not pursue wealth. I added the blurb at the end, "But this all depends on your current situation; sometimes you do need to prioritize wealth and don’t have the luxury for goals that do otherwise, and that’s perfectly fine as well." Please let me know how to better phrase it to be more sympathetic.

By the way, I think it's really cool that you followed up your writing with a dialog on how to address criticisms that commenters brought up. Having something you wrote on the front page of a social media platform is a very vulnerable position to be in, and then going on to participate in a measured back-and-forth about your ideas is rare and refreshing. The discussion your ideas have created is much more interesting because you did so.

Thank you, I really do want to address those issues because they're important but I just don't know how to address them in a way that would do justice for all the backgrounds like you've all mentioned. The face of poverty is different for everyone and while I might think one approach would work, it wouldn't be appropriate for someone else.

One other nuance is the difference between wealth and income. Wealth is productive assets that generate further capital in one way or another. Income just gets used to pay for things.

Instead, I think it's basically ok to say that your point applies to people who have reached a certain threshold of stability and security in your life, and isn't meant to imply that people who haven't reached that threshold ought to be able to simply will themselves into doing the same thing.

But how can we better define that threshold? Where you live and circumstances you have are just so expansive to control in a few sentences. One person threshold can be much lower than someone else dealing with long term debt and family obligations but I didn't want to make it sound overly pessimistic by cutting them out in some way.

>I went to the library and did a small experiment; what could I do if I were to start with nearly nothing? Ignoring my library card sitting in my pocket, I went up to the librarian and asked for access to the public computer.

Were you wearing clothes? What would the librarian's response have been if a naked person walked up and asked to use the computer? Had you showered or bathed recently? What would the librarian's response have been if smelled of body odor? Was your stomach full while you were learning Github and Heroku? How much could you have learned if you were constantly racked by hunger pangs.

Yes, there are ways if you have some money to make it go farther and learn new skills relatively cheaply. However, to say that this is an illustration of wealth irrelevance is really pushing it.

On that practical level, public libraries in some of the places with the most need for public computer/internet services also, unfortunately, end up rationing them pretty severely. For example, the Los Angeles library's computer use policies are [1]: 15 minute sessions for walk-up computers (no card needed); 1 hour sessions if reserved in advance and you have a library card; 2 hours/day total limit for any combination.

I know this in part because I'm a middle-class CS prof whose stuff is all "on the internet". At one point I had the great idea that I don't need to carry around a laptop, since my stuff is all on the internet anyway. I'll just use public libraries, or other university libraries, problem solved. Sometimes it works, but there are obstacles strewn all about. On a side note, it's also made me appreciate physical books in libraries more. If you really did want to learn something and had $0 to spend, and you can find a physical book on the shelf of a public library, you can read it for as long as the library is open, without a card or 15-minute time limit.

[1] https://www.lapl.org/about-lapl/internet-use-policy

(Edit: I realize the original post was going for something more philosophical, and I see they commented in a sibling comment that they're sorry if they came across as tone deaf. I don't mean to pile on! But wanted to point out that just the bare practical aspect can surprisingly difficult even if you know what you're doing.)

I was wrong to assume how access is treated in different places. I'm a poor immigrate but been fortunate to have lived my life in a relatively wealthy county in New Jersey where libraries are much more laxed. What can be done to give hope to those without forgoing the practical aspect completely? While those who have the resources to, should; what can those that don't do if they wanted to try and improve, it can't be completely hopeless?

Wealth is very important, especially at the level. I was trying to avoid that scenario with "nearly nothing" instead of "nothing" but I failed. Do you have recommendations to better phrase it? I was thinking more like freshmen in college, or people in some minimal wage job seeing to get out and trying to get things done but seeing like huge fees like Bootcamps and AWS and feel discouraged but still able to afford look at goals in a different light besides getting rent in and ensuring they have enough to eat, it's entire different beast at the level I'm not familiar with talking about.

> people in some minimal wage job seeing to get out and trying to get things done

Someone in a minimum wage job would possibly be trying to work overtime or a second job in order to make ends meet, and would have very little time/energy left over to do anything, let alone figure out how to break into the world of software development. Even considering a happy path where someone works ~40 hours/week, has a short commute, and doesn't have dependents to care for, it can still be incredibly challenging to muster the focus necessary to self-tech programming.

I understand that the resources to become successful at software development are freely available, but this post glosses over all the prerequisites (as pointed out by some other comments): ample free time (for years), a growth mindset, intelligence, resourcefulness, etc. If somebody already possesses all those things, then the idea that they can teach themselves valuable skills online would be helpful (if not obvious).

As you said, somebody couldn't accomplish this goal starting from literally "nothing". It might be helpful to identify and delineate what _is_ required to embark on such a journey. That way people who tick a lot of the boxes will feel empowered, and those that don't will have an idea of what it takes to get there.

Do you have any suggestions on how to start delineating those requirements? You're right that there's a lot of implicit prerequisites but felt the message would get lost if I jumped the rabbit hole from the beginning. I knew fellow immigrates who never used a computer in their life and this was definitely out of their scope unless I started with the basics but I was mainly trying to target other people reading Hackernews in their free time. How can I better address those issues in a way that isn't limited?

I feel like the author makes a lot of assumptions about what others are able to do based on their own experience. This reminds me a lot of the guy who wrote in Forbes a number of years ago about what they would do if they were a poor black child... Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote one of my favorite essays of all time explaining the flaw in this type of reasoning: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/a-muscu...

You're right, I made the mistake of assumptions that I based off my own experience. I'm a poor immigrant from Colombia and spent most of my childhood at libraries since my parents had to work but I was very lucky to have so many resources at my library and parent's encouragement that others may not have had. I still want to encourage others to make the most of what they have, if they have the ability to, but how could I improve the message without belittling others?

I think talking about some of the attributes you have that let this work for you might be valuable. Maybe talk about the aspects of your personality that let this work for you, or the type of support your family gave (or didn't) give you. Maybe you can talk about how this sort of approach could work for non-programming stuff.

I think you might be overestimating how many people are self-starters like you.

Agreed on the last point.

The pursuit of wealth taints the things you enjoy. All of a sudden all your ideas are qualified and restricted to what can make money. Now instead of building the things you love and enjoy you are building things you think can make a quick buck.

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