paul ford

OVER AT MEDIUM, PAUL FORD has a new essay written just the way I like 'em. Ford says at the outset that he will be writing about his grief over the loss of an old friend to cancer, grief that took the peculiar form of playing with computer emulators.

Hour after hour, this terrible fever. What the hell am I doing? I kept asking myself. Why am I forcing a fine new machine to pretend it is a half-dozen old, useless machines?

Eventually I realized: This might be about my friend Tom dying. At least I think so. I am not good at identifying my own motives. It usually takes me at least ten days and a number of snacks to go from feeling something to being able to articulate what I felt. Indeed, I got the news ten days ago, in an email from my friend Jim.

From here, Ford veers into a narrative of computer emulators and 40 years of code and fond memories of an introvert's finding community, a narrative notable for its clarity, good-humored nerdiness, and emotion, which is not easy to write into a discussion like this.

My father and I went to the Amiga users’ group meetings in nearby Downingtown. These were held in a basement of a computer store with wood paneling. At the users’ group you could buy floppy disks for a few bucks, and on them would be items downloaded from local bulletin board systems. Hardly anyone had modems, so this was how files were transmitted. Tom would be at the user group meeting sometimes. Or he’d pick me up and drive me over if my father was busy.

This is how a network comes together. You bought something and then you wanted to understand it, so you went out and found other people. You found them via posters in hallways, or word of mouth, or by purchasing a magazine that caught your eye and then reading the ads in the back.

You’d go to a party and browse through the host’s record collection, chat about the album, and maybe decide to go see a concert together—or in some cases you’d start a band.

Another example: Steve Wozniak built the Apple I computer because he knew the people at the Homebrew Computer Club would think it was cool. He wanted to blow their minds, and he did. A lot of times when people talk about Apple, Inc.—one of the largest social and corporate structures in the world, larger than many governments—they talk about design, manufacturing, and vertical integration. But the main driver for Apple’s early excellence was that Wozniak wanted to look cool in his little nerd network. He’d show his work to friends and they’d show him what they were working on. Without that, nothing that followed.

Ford's essay is full of glimmering bits of observation and insight.

When people get rich it always ends up sounding like destiny. And the actual narratives sound too small, too fragile—and impossible to reproduce. Which makes for a bad story. Good stories are ones you can learn from. Imagine [being Steve Jobs and] standing in front of the graduating class of Stanford and saying,

Man, I just don’t know. Wozniak wanted to show off for his nerd friends. I was ready to sell to Commodore. Xerox was so focused on the 1990s they forgot about the 1980s. NeXT, we just got further and further into the quagmire. Pixar, before Toy Story, it was the only hardware company less successful than NeXT. The iPhone launched without an App Store. But people were drawn to me, and I told them what they needed to hear in order to make each other rich. So do that: Go out there and tell people what they need to hear in order to make each other rich. When something works say that was the plan all along.

That would be a terrible commencement speech.

The neatest trick in Ford's work occurs when he rounds back to his friend and his grief.

I went looking for the teddy bear that Tom had given me, the reminder to be a child sometimes, and found it atop a bookshelf. When I pulled it down I was surprised to find that it was in a tiny diaper.

I stood there, ridiculous, a 40-year-old man with a diapered 22-year-old teddy bear in my hand. It stared back at me with root-beer eyes.

This is what I remembered right then: That before my wife got pregnant we had been trying for kids for years without success. We had considered giving up.

That was when I said to my wife: If we do not have children, we will move somewhere where there is a porch. The children who need love will find the porch. They will know how to find it. We will be as much parents as we want to be.

His conclusion is lovely.

Who wouldn’t want to go back 20 years—to drive again into the office, to sit before the whiteboard in a beanbag chair, in a place of warmth and clarity, and give it another try?

Such a strange way to say goodbye. So here I am. Imaginary disks whirring and screens blinking as I visit my old haunts. Wandering through lost computer worlds for an hour or two, taking screenshots like a tourist. Shutting one virtual machine down with a sigh, then starting up another one. But while these machines run, I am a kid. A boy on a porch, back among his friends.

First-rate work.