Surprised by Poverty

[ I recently wanted to locate this essay, only to find it in the web archive. I believe that it deserves preservation and maybe a lot more visibility ]

Friday, December 17, 1999; by Luke Tymowski.

A few minutes ago, I learned that I am now (in practice no less) absurdly poor.

I was at my machine, surfing, when I got a phone call castigating me for not paying my phone bill. I was looking for work — a job doing Windows database programming for corporations using Visual Basic, a language in which I had no say in the design. I’ve called it paying the rent and putting food on the table, or living. Living is what we have to do to keep paying bills. It’s a viscious circle, working to pay bills and buy food, working to live, living to work. It’s very cool.

Haven’t paid my bill? That’s interesting, said I to myself. I didn’t think it was due until tomorrow. And I oughtta know: I have a nifty Windows program that I wrote myself to keep track of my bills. And it’s a matter of public record that I’m mostly responsible for paying my bills. I tooled on over to my bill program and chased my cursor — and discovered that my date format had been switched and I had indeed missed paying my bills. So I surfed on over to my bank’s web site and proceeded to pay my bills. There was a problem. I had become worth exactly $1.49 while I wasn’t looking.

Well, that didn’t last long. Just looking up my balance cost me a $1.00, leaving me worth exactly $0.49. Which is still a preposterously small amount of money.

You may wonder why I am talking about this in public. The first piece of advice your friends and family will give you, if it looks like you’re about to become really poor, is: keep it quiet. It’s nobody else’s business — you don’t want to look like a loser, and you don’t want to be deluged with account cancellations, phone calls from collections agencies, withdrawals of job offers, quickly lost best friends, and other assorted former hanger ons who can’t mooch off you anymore.

Trouble with the “keep it quiet” theory is that I’ve made my bucks in a very private way. When you’re not already a media figure, and your name is on the hotsheet of every collections agency in town, and your accounts start shutting down like crazy as news breaks that you’re absurdly poor, playing it coy ceases to look like a viable option.

Besides it wouldn’t be fair to dissemble. I don’t serve a community. I’m poor today because of my efforts to be a Windows programmer on behalf of businesses everywhere, and earned the respect of the one or two Windows programmers still working. VISA thought it was worth shutting down my account. Fairness to the Linux programmers who put me out of work demands that I publicly acknowledge this result — and publicly face the question of how it’s going to affect my life and what I’ll do with the money – $0.49 to be exact.

This is a question that will face the other two Windows programmers still left as Linux sweeps the programming landscape. Money follows where hype leads, and the mainstream business and finance world are seeing decreasing value in the few Windows programmers left. In this and other ways the poverty is going to be shared.

So while there aren’t likely to be a lot more multi-cent disasters like mine, two programmers are going to have to evolve answers to this question for bigger amounts that will nevertheless make a big difference to them; tens or hundreds of dollars, enough to leave your life your life as it is — or improve it.

(“Gee. Remember when the big question was “How am I going to not get rich doing all this Windows programming.”)

The first part of my answer is that “I’ll do something right away. Because I owe money and need to eat and sleep somewhere warm and dry, and because I’m absurdly poor, (a process that helps ensure I can’t skip out to Argentina to escape my creditors). So it’s true that I’m poor right now. I’ll bet on Linux; I’m pretty certain Windows is dead :).

Assuming I don’t get a job, how is poverty going to affect my life in six minutes? Honestly, I think the answer is that I won’t be buying that latte. I’ve been enjoying a latte every morning ever since Windows shipped. I was doing pretty well until the hype machine took my job from me. There are these Windows machines out there, millions of them, and all without programmers because they’re all out getting rich on Linux. The biggest difference the lack of money will make to me personally is that I’ll be evicted and I’ll starve to death. I’ll worry about money for the rest of my life.

So I expect I’ll have to stop what I was doing. Programming Windows. Thinking and spreading popular thoughts. Staying at home and vegging. Writing programs. Poking fringe empires a good one in the eye whenever I take a break from programming. Working to live.

I expect the other two programmers confronted with sudden poverty will make similar choices. Neighbours often ask me these days if I think the Windows world will be corrupted by the disappearance of big money. I tell them what I believe, which is this: popular demand for Linux programmers has been so intense for so brief a time that anyone who can be seriously distracted by hype is already gone. Our Windows world has been self-selected for caring about other things — putting food on the table, solving real-world programming problems, shame, passion for games, and ourselves.

Ok, so maybe I’ll break down and finally learn to program Linux. It’s free. And with $0.49 in my bank account, I can’t do much else.

I’m going to increase my attachments to what I already have, though, because it’s all I have left. So all you zillions of dot coms can get excited and offer me bucks. I *am* going to be a soft touch, and will politely accept any and all job offers.

I’m not copping this easy-going attitude to get rid of what’s left of my pride, but rather to protect the far more precious asset of my life. Because I don’t want to eat grass, leaves, and hunt for squirrels, I’m going to accept the first job I’m offered. Anyone who offers me a job, no matter how lowly it is and how much it makes me ill to have to do it, will go on my permanent friend list. If I want to starve to death, I’ll turn down the job. Not!

And yes, there are bills I’ll pay and groceries I’ll buy. Rent I’ll pay. Tibet, absolutely. I won’t buy a hunk of rainforest or old-growth trees for conservation anywhere. Megapennies are subsistence, and with subsistence comes grovelling and an obligation to do what I’m told. I’ll accept money willingly, and even snatch it too, and all before doing any homework.

But enough about trivialities; I’m going to get a job. I’ve got food to buy, rent to pay. Next up, clothes to buy. Then, I need to think about paying taxes…

[Note: this is supposed to be a parody of ESR’s piece Surprised by Wealth. I assumed anyone reading this had read the original, otherwise it wouldn’t be very amusing.]

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