I've been thinking a lot lately about that question. It sounds a lot like many similar questions: "What are you doing?" "What do you like?" "What do you care about?" "What are your values?" "What do you stand for?" – but it's not those questions, and the answers to those questions don't answer it.
"What are you doing?" sounds the most similar, but it's a factual question that admits very little interpretation or meaning. What I am doing now is writing a post for my website. What I was doing earlier is watching Ze Frank videos. What I did on the weekend was break an electric screwdriver and then fix it again. Facts.
"What do you like?" is about preferences. These are transitory, and in some sense performative. I am not my preferences, they are just things about me at the moment. I really like this track by Emancipator, but I have been listening to it a lot and will likely get tired of it. I used to both play and watch a lot of Dota 2, and now I don't. This has not affected me very much. I have enjoyed science fiction for as long as I can remember, but if I stop enjoying it I'm sure I can find something else to read.
"What do you care about?" is often the closest. I answered "programming" to "what do you do?" for a long time, but that was never really the answer. I care about programming, much like I care about writing and performing and experimentation and ideas. However, they're not so much things you do as kinds of things you do: fields, or industries, or genres of skill. Unlike this track by Emancipator", it would change me to change those things, but they're not what I do, they're the spaces I do those things in.
"What are your values?" asks a more fundamental question still. Even the things you care about change, but I would say your values don't really change so much as your understanding of them improves. I recently found something I wrote a decade ago that described values I still hold today. These values describe who I am and shape what I do, but they are not what I do.
"What do you stand for?" is something more akin to why you do: a statement of purpose. I described my purpose as the need to create beautiful things. So far, this is perhaps the most meaningful thing I have said about myself, and yet if someone asks "what do you do?" at a party, it does come off as a bit of a strange answer.
Because ultimately "what do you do?" is not asking for the highest level of abstract behaviour, nor the lowest level of concrete behaviour; it's asking for the lowest of the abstract, or the highest of the concrete. It's the transition between the two: where ∀ meets ∃; where "I write" yields to "yes, but what?"; where you give up the sweet brain crack and draw a line between the things you could do and the things you do.
I think "what do you do?" is answered, not by facts, preferences, fields, values, or purpose, but by a job description. Why not? If anything has earned a claim to banal abstraction, the humble job description is surely it. It specifies work concretely enough that its boundaries are clear, but abstractly enough that there can still be a meaningful choice of how to do the work.
Here's something I did that could be a bullet point on a job description: write a post on this site every day. Not "I wrote a post about this track by Emancipator", not "writing", not "I love expressing my thoughts", and definitely not "I am a vessel that each day fills with creation and I have to pour it out somewhere". I just... wrote every day. That's it. Somehow, it seems simultaneously profound and mundane.
I think of meaning as the noun for which understand is the verb. You can know a fact, like the sky is blue, but what does it mean to say you understand the sky being blue? That you know why it happens? That's just more facts!
The sky is blue because of Rayleigh scattering, which is a special case of the Lorenz-Mie solution, which is itself a special case of Maxwell's equations for ideal spheres, which are themselves the special case of applying the Euler-Lagrange equation to the quantum electrodynamics Lagrangian. Which is, of course, just a gauge theory based on the phase invariance of the Dirac electron field. So that clears that up I think.
Even if you know what all that means, has your understanding increased? My argument would be no, unless it makes the sky being blue more meaningful to you.
An alternate explanation would be to imagine the sky as a lake, light as waves on the surface, and air molecules as little rubber duckies floating on top. When the duckies get hit by waves, they bob up and down, making more waves. Waves that move up and down faster make the duckies bob up and down faster, which also makes them bob up and down harder, so they make bigger waves in response. In other words, the sky is blue because blue light has a higher frequency and that gets the duckies all excited.
This explanation is more meaningful to me because it connects with intuitions I have about water and lakes and duckies, and helps me understand at a practical level. But it might also be meaningful to say something about gauge theory. After all, there is something profoundly fascinating about the idea that the answer to "why is the sky blue?" could start with "well, you know there's no way to tell which direction a circle is facing?" There is always some path, however twisty, from banal daily observations to the fundamental laws of the universe.
So I would argue that facts cannot be meaningful on their own. Even if tomorrow we found the grand universal codex containing every fact that ever was, we would still have a lot of work to do in understanding it: finding connections, correlations, and patterns; creating structure, rules, and theories; crafting interpretations, predictions, and stories. The data wouldn't satisfy us until we had found a way to break it down and digest it into meaning.
But it's not complete just to say meaning is the noun for which understand is the verb; there must be some equal and opposite verb. To understand meaning is to internalise it: to take it from the world and put it into your mind. What is it called when you externalise it, taking something from your mind and putting it out into the world?
That's creativity: the act of making meaning for others to understand.
Every now and again while walking around, I stumble across some discarded hardware that deserves a second chance at life. Since the dawn of human kind, when our ancestors first threw away rocks to pick up other rocks, equipment has been discarded in the name of everything: from replacement to obsolescence to simple boredom. But womblin'? Womblin' never changes.
Fresh from the scrapyard today, this lovely LG "DV380" DVD Player:
The ancient pedias spoke of shiny round USBs uploaded with content that you could only stream by spinning. Like every valued customer, I prosumed that this was just a metaphor, but it appears to be literally literally literally true.
I love pre-Apple-design-era appliances. Specifically, the way they consist of metal boxes with screws on them, such that when you take out the screws the box comes apart. Revolutionary. The layout inside is weirdly sparse: DVD reader on the left, control board in the middle, power supply on the right, and then just an entire extra DVD player's worth of space in between. I'm digging the modular vibe though.
The power module is a flyback converter driven by an A6259H, a modern independent switching controller that don't need no external MOSFET. What it does need, however, is that monster diode on the opposite side that probably wastes about 10% of the output power. Mmmm, efficiency.
The bottom of the power module was too adorable not to mention. It's got little symbols for the components, and they even drew the diode symbol for the monster diode larger than the others. I mean, someone put some thought into this.
The main module is really an ode to specialised ICs. That centre chip is a SPHE8202RQ, apparently an all-in-one "I just want a DVD player can you make a chip for that?" chip. The top left is an AM5890S all-in-one DVD motor controller, and the other two chips are flash memory and RAM. Kinda makes you wonder how long until every device is just a big blob of silicon with some wires coming out of it.
The front panel was refreshingly un-integrated though. Just a few buttons, an IR sensor, and a nifty little 5-digit 7-segment display. I particularly liked the whole extra board complete with connectors and wire just so the power button could be on the other side of the case. I bet some engineer was pretty mad about that.
Ah, at last! I'm not actually sure what to call the bit that actually plays DVDs. The DVD player's DVD player? The spinny stuff assembly? The exploited worker of the DVD-industrial complex? Something something Proletarian Revolutions Per Minute? I'm sure there's a version of that that works, but this margin is too narrow to contain it.
Here's the main guts of it pulled free from the drive bay. The motor at the back spins the DVD around and the motor on the left moves the Eye of Sauron into position. To be honest, I was a little disappointed here because I was expecting some high-accuracy stepper motors, but apparently the low-end DVD drives just use regular brushed DC motors. Someone was too cheap to buy a good DVD player so I could scavenge it from their garbage. Outrageous.
Still, with all the useless lasers and motors pulled off it, $0 starts to seem like a pretty good price for a little linear sled platform that you can control with just a positive or negative voltage. I was originally hoping to use it as a drawing robot, but given the lack of steppers it's probably better off as a robot that pushes distant buttons or swipes left on Tinder for you.
The little lens assembly turned out to be pretty cool too. It's magnetically controlled like a solenoid or speaker, but in 2 dimensions, which I guess means it can compensate for the inaccuracy of the motors. Nifty! Careful with that laser diode, kids, you don't want to end up having to use your heightened senses to fight crime like uncle Ben Affleck.
So that's all she lased: a mainboard that has specialised itself into oblivion, a little power supply, some switches, LED display, motors, and most importantly the robosled, laser diode and optical sensor. Can you really take all that and throw it away for a Netflix subscription? Yes.
Creativity is more than thinking up ideas. Rather, it's a moment of connection to something more profound. It's as much discovery as it is invention: a glimpse of a distant intersection between ideas, a sudden realisation of a shape felt in darkness, and a voice from beyond that says "hey, you know what might work?"
It's the fascination of a tricky puzzle. The sizzle of a devastating argument. The irresistible pull of the unexpected. It's strength through understanding. Humility through curiosity. Joy through experiment. It's learning what you don't need to know, discussing what you don't need to resolve, and seeking truth just for the thrill of the chase. Intellect is the mind's love of itself.
Sometimes, a thing is good just because it does what it was meant to do. A good shovel shovels well. But who's to say it's a shovel? Maybe it's a prop, and its purpose is to look good without hurting anyone. Every purposeful creation is an expression of the values of its creator, and only those values can tell you if it succeeded. Expression is making something that's your kind of good, and by doing so projecting your values out into the world.
Every now and again while walking around, I stumble across some discarded hardware that deserves a second chance at life. Everything you find by the side of the road has a story, and one thing I've learned after 31 years is you never know what's gonna get thrown out the door.
On the refuse pile of history today, this lovely Westcott "iPoint Evolution Axis" electric pencil sharpener:
Due to the tragic circumstances of my birth, I've always had to sharpen my pencils by hand like some kind of manual labourer. But I never stopped dreaming of a better future. Could this be my ticket out of skid row? A train ready to depart to my rightful place among the stationery bourgeoisie? I was determined to find out.
I pulled a bunch of screws from the bottom, but the damn thing still wouldn't come apart. Remembering the total chassis destruction that ensued when I missed some screws last time, I persevered in my search for peaceful disassembly. In time, the answer became clear: more screws hiding under the adhesive rubber feet. In repair culture, this is considered a dick move.
The pencil mincer part of the assembly looked very impressive. It connected via a little enclosed gear train to the motor, which yet again didn't have any useful markings but appeared to be a permanent magnet DC motor. I assumed it would be an AC motor on account of running off AC, but what I discovered next will shock you.
It's a circuit board. Surprise! The right hand side is a fairly standard rectifier to provide the DC that the motor so desperately craves. There's a transformer, but the number of coils on either side seems identical, so I think it's just for isolation. That would mean everything's running on around 300 volts DC, which seems like a lot. But, hey, I'm not a motor, what do I know?
What I couldn't figure out was what that relay on the left is for. There are two switches to detect that there's a pencil in the pencil hole and the pencil flakes container is inserted, and I'm pretty sure that switch visible in the middle is related to its "auto stop" feature. But what's the relay do?
I didn't ponder this for too long, because upon realising that it was, in fact, a DC motor, I figured I'd try to power it and see if it blew up. I gave it 12 volts and nothing interesting, then ramped up to 24 and finally 48. Somewhere around 24 it actually started working, albeit super slowly. To go any further really needed that sweet mains voltage.
I checked the fuses and capacitors, and nothing seemed particularly exploded. Up until that point I assumed the cord had been cut off because the sharpener went bang or zapped someone's kid, but I (very nervously) gave it the wall juice and it seemed to work fine. Maybe the cord got cut off because it was damaged. Or maybe the owner hates cords. It's not my place to judge.
So I lopped off its little vestigial cord stub, grabbed the cord from an old blender I ruined earlier, and wired it up. Everything still seemed to work, so I put all the screws back in and sharpened a couple pencils that didn't really need sharpening just to experience 240 volts of raw mechanical fury.
And there you have it. One broken-down electric sharpener that's given up on itself + one inspiring pep-talk and/or power cable = one working electric sharpener and a long-overdue sense of upward social mobility.