Who Am I?

My life has not been perfect, prestine, or predictable. From youth to adulthood, I have not been what most would consider normal or everyday. I believe strongly in myself and I have spent a lot of effort meditating and reflecting upon my life. I generally understand where I come from.

I am a hacker and computer scientist. I am considered quite a heretic from the experts in my field. My mentors and idols have luckily convinced me to follow my heart. However, I need the help of many, and that burden upon you requires trust. So, I'd like to have a conversation about who I am and what motivates me.

My Father

In the beginning, I had it fairly good. In the past, my father was an alcoholic. Because of this, he did not get to raise my (half) brother and sister. That job went to my grandparents and the mother of my siblings. Eventually, in what can be seen as a tribute to my father's strength, he turned his life around. However, he traded one addiction for another, and as a result of his overworking, he did not get to raise me.

Currently, he has relapsed and is currently struggling to stay off the homeless front. He has support and is healthy, however, which is good. He has a non-cancerous tumor in his brain that causes his many medical issues, but as a veteran, he has excellent healthcare and services. He is not quite able to take care of himself anymore, and has never really been able to take care of me.

But, I said I had it good, right? My father successfully fulfilled his goal to put us in the upper middle class. We lived a good life. We had the two story house with the pool in the backyard. Yet, this was not his dream. When the opportunity to take over the family business presented itself, my father jumped. He quit his upper management job and uprooted my mother and my five year-old self from our suburban D.C. home to an old house in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Youth and Code

Although my family made some drastic changes, we were still doing quite well relative to most people. My family had security, money, and an upscale lifestyle. My father expanded our modest home to something twice the size. I had good friends. I was popular and social, as much as a 6 year-old could be, at least. I wonder, with some awe and fear, what my life would have been like--- who I would have become if my life had continued to follow that path.

I was introduced to code at around 6 years old with Basic, QBasic, and Visual Basic. It was a means of competition between me and my brother who is ten years older. Our competitions would consist of us writing a program called "Change the Letters" which demoed a technique that we had learned. The only rule was the program had to update the text in the title bar dynamically. We would go back and forth (incrementing the version number every time) trying to outdo the other. We wrote applications spanning from a simple calculator, to a simple renderer, to a word processor, to a media player. At some point, my brother asked me to code something for him. That's when I knew. I had won.

This doesn't call me names unless I tell it to.

This doesn't call me names unless I tell it to.

Meanwhile, my father kept attempting to live his dream of starting a restaurant. He started a sandwich shop called the "Dilly Delly" (Yep. That's what it is called. I just can't make that stuff up, although my father apparently can.) It was in a terrible part of town: a poor residential area with no businesses around it. The venture turned out to be a complete failure. What did my father do? He turned it into a bar. Yep. My previously alcoholic father... owns a bar.

There is a lot of stress that comes with running multiple businesses, half of which are constantly failing (seriously. bars do not work unless you, oh, also own a club and sell some ecstacy on the side. do not buy one.) This caused a rift in the marriage of my parents. After a dive in their relationship, my father left my mother for a woman he met at his own bar. I was 9 years old when I learned the ultimately political nature of human relationships. It would not sink in until much later how unfair it was that my father got the house and my mother got me and the bar to live in. Yet, that is how it ended up. This is how I ended up living above a bar, a far less glamourous idea than many of you might be thinking.

Berets, Waitresses, and Hockey Players

In the West End Saloon, I am thankful to have met a wide variety of people. I swept the floors as they drank. I washed their glasses when they were done. They would see my inability to judge and tell me their stories. They would see my youth and note caution with their fates.

An old man in a beret who never spoke a word. He sat alone. A waitress struggling on her own to raise a child. A mill worker named Shadow who cannot get out of his job. He eagerly cautions me about not making the same mistakes. A minor league hockey player who strives for his big break only manages to break his last ten on a beer. A martial artist whose daughter was murdered found it compelled to teach me weekly, but only skills related to self-defense. He had lost the will to fight. I look back, I can see their impact on my life. I love them.

The people from the hills, who look down upon us all, wandered in from time to time. You get a strong sense of the inequality. These people had no idea what plagued this part of town. They could not empathize with individuals who are hopelessly trapped in a job they cannot afford to leave, even though they can barely afford to live. Some people just did not seem to have the issues and concerns of the community that surrounded me. I wondered why.

Yet, I stayed happy. I stayed sane. I owe it to a girl: the janitor's daughter. She and I would escape into fantasy. We would make up stories where we could fix the world. Stories where we could divert natural disasters. Where we could save people in need. Distractions from the poverty, drugs, drunks, stabbings, and shootings. I foolishly promised her mother that I would protect her, knowing that she would protect me.

But you cannot protect everybody. There is always a day when you have to leave them to fend for themselves. I was 10 years old when I moved out of the bar. There were days later where I needed her strength, and it was not there. It made me wonder if she ever needed mine, and I was not there to help. It bothers me to this day. But, I owe something to her. She taught me the world is malleable. I could indeed use my imagination to fix the things that are wrong.

Zero Tolerance

My mother, her boyfriend, and I moved to a mill town called Sebewaing in Michigan. We moved into a small little house on an island off of Lake Huron. Again, it is not as glamourous as it sounds.

We moved half-way through the school year, and while I was in elementary school in Pennsylvania, different starting grades meant I was in middle-school in Michigan. It was an abrupt change in my life. Everybody was much older and my classmates were already accustomed to the harsh environment of grades 5 through 8. In a town of only 2,000 one's personal life could be a weapon. So by accustomed, I mean hiding in plain sight.

My parents, having taken such a passive role in raising me, never explained cultural assumptions such as gender, sex, and preference to me. When I was young, I never understood the division of people into the two lines for recess: boys and girls. Never could I understand why dresses put you in one line and short hair put you in another. Although having and being alone with female friends demonstrated alternative anatomy, I was not prepared for the general assumption that anatomy was tied to gender. I was 11 when I was taught that girls have vaginas and boys have penises. I fought with that idea for a while. I'm glad I did.

When I hit puberty and my libido developed, I found myself attracted to boys and girls. I had no idea that this was culturally shunned. Gender just is not important in who I wanted to spend my private time with. In 6th grade, I found myself in my male friend's bed. Nothing explicit could really happen. We never discussed it openly. We were afraid. Let me explain, because it is not completely apparent to all. The world is harsh. The world is violent. At that age, in that type of environment, nobody can find out about this. That's what I learned in middle school. And I suppose I learned some algebra.

I was beaten by the others in the school. I was called names. The feminine mannerisms I developed by having female friends condemned me. My small stature certainly did not help. They asserted themselves in order to be ahead of me. So that it was me and not them. I was beaten for looking at someone's girlfriend, a friend of mine, the wrong way. I was beaten for just standing around. When this is what you expect from people, you are not exactly loose-lipped about how different you are compared to everybody else. Thanks to zero tolerance rules, I was penalized often. In one case, a boy cornered me and pinned me against the wall. I stabbed him with a pencil (not a deep wound, honestly) in my attempt to get away. Our punishment was detention together in an unsupervised room. My punishment also included forced psychriatric appointments.

At home, it was no better. We had little money and sometimes food was hard to get. My mother went through one abusive relationship after another. I was assaulted there as well. In one case, one was brought up on domestic abuse charges and got 24 hours time served and 20 hours community service. I figured hitting my mother was worth more, but alas, that is not how the world works. But by a combination of going through garbage for recyclables and sharing meals with friends, I made it through ok.

An optimistic artist's rendition of the Bay that spat out Madonna

An optimistic artist's rendition of the Bay that spat out Madonna

It was not long until we were being threatened by her first boyfriend that my mother and I had to move to Bay City out of fear. I slept with a knife under my pillow. I moved to yet another school. I decided to be popular instead of a pincushion and sat at the popular table. I cracked a few jokes and quickly realized how fake the world really is. It all felt wrong. I was not at all comfortable. I moved back to Johnstown for high school, but ultimately I didn't feel comfortable until college. This seems to be rather typical.

Why I Code

Throughout this entire period, I pursued the love for code. For years it was an escape. The machine does what I tell it to do. Its mistakes were really mine. The power of computation is something that I realized everybody could use: the people of this world that are different. The individuals that want to improve their lives and their communities. The reality is that the majority of people on this planet are at a disadvantage. We indeed have the power to fix that.

It seems like your heart is in it, and that's all that matters.

Frans Kaashoek, personal conversation, 2011

I write code because I am aware of adversity and the lack of diversity. Understand that I had it good. I really did. I believe that by utilizing code, and with the immense help of others, we can curb any societal disadvantages. We can, for instance, free information such that education is available at little cost to all of the world. We can build what I call sustainable operating systems where computation is provided to all without the need for centralized maintenance. I will later attempt to describe how these systems work from the perspective of my specialization: software systems.

That's where each and every one of you come in. Obviously, I can't build these myself. All of your skills, regardless of ability, regardless of who you are or what people say of you, regardless of who I am and what I can do, can aid in the creation of a world where technology allows an evolution of society. Where my expertise fails, somebody else must contribute. I cannot build these within the bounds of the institutions, academic or otherwise, that exist. These aren't products; they are environments that provide technology as a healthy lifestyle. So, I will devote all of my energy to defining these systems and implementing them on my own if necessary. I will devote my time to this because I feel I must. I hope you will help me.




If you'd like to comment, just send me an email at wilkie@xomb.org or on either Twitter or via my Mastodon profile. I would love to hear from you! Any opinions, criticism, etc are welcome.


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