Modern software engineering is rotten. I should know — it's been my livelihood since I graduated from college in late 2019. Last year, I decided I was done with it for a while. I started searching, waiting for inspiration to strike in the hopes that I could start pursuing something truly meaningful. An essay written by a friend of mine struck the fear of God into my heart on that front. It also gestured to a way out. In two words, Mr. Tivy suggested otium and providence. The former is the Roman conception of letting the mind wander, in whatever way it may, while spending as little time as possible on raw capitalist labor. The second is trusting in yourself and the world to deliver you what you need.
I began this period of focused leisure by going to one of the most glorious museums on the planet — The Met. While wandering, I stumbled into a strange section that housed the Arms and Armor collection. For those unaware, this collection contains things like the following:
I realized that the craftsmen of yore had elevated weaponry, a category of merely utilitarian objects, into some of the most exquisite things I had ever seen. They had taken objects of ubiquitous, vital importance in their respective eras and made them beautiful. My initial aesthetic shock was quickly replaced by jealousy — no one was lifting the most centrally important functional objects in our lives into the domain of beauty. The practice of these long-gone artisans had disappeared.
Consider the computer. Nearly everyone on the planet uses one, yet it has never gone through the same sort of treatment we see exemplified in the Arms and Armor collection. Note that there is no analogous computer collection in the Met. Nothing created as of yet has been deemed worthy, and it's not difficult to see why. Ever since the release of the first personal computers, i.e. those with form factors small enough to fit comfortably inside one's home, all we've gotten are plastic and metal boxes. As far as I can tell, no more than a handful of designers or engineers in the last 50 years of personal computing have thought: "We should consider the physical instantiation of these ubiquitous machines very seriously." Rather, we have endured decade after decade of a totalizing Faustian fixation: improving performance and expanding capabilities with software and hardware. The computer's aesthetics of form had been forgotten somewhere along the way.
It gets worse. Through years of discussions with friends in the software world, I had come to understand that computing suffers not only from a dearth of physical aesthetic care but also functional aesthetic care. The Faustian fixation on infinite expansion of power via software and hardware has had horrible effects on the everyday personal computer user. Suffice it to say that the typical person's user experience in the year 2023 is characterized by being strip-mined for attention with every application they open (often dealing with absurd bugs and lag), complemented by a near-total inability to make changes to any layer of their experience other than choosing which apps to download and which to delete. We've had an untamed outgrowth of these apps with few fundamental reconsiderations of how things could be different.
With this two-pronged insight into how bad things had gotten, I set out to try and prove that there are other possible paths. The Mythic I is the result of my year-long inquiry and effort. It proffers an alternate computational reality.
After my experience at The Met, I spent the next few months viewing and considering as much beauty as I could. I went to more museums. I spent weeks researching obscure Baroque furniture makers, legendary luthiers, prominent architects, naturalist illustrators, Italian car designers, and philosophers of aesthetics. What I came out the other side believing was that beauty must be created by human hands, and ornamentation is an essential part of beauty.
The word we use today for a person who creates things by hand in small numbers is craftsman. Tragically, phrases like "arts and crafts" have denigrated that very powerful Germanic term, and it now connotes one's mom scrapbooking at the dining room table. The meaning of craft in Old Norse was "strength, virtue", in Old English "power, physical strength", and Proto-Germanic "strength, skill". The word we use today for the creation of objects is manufacture. It was once a powerful Latin term that now, unfortunately, connotes behemoth, lifeless industrial machines. Its two roots, manus and facere, were Proto-Indo-European words meaning "hand" and "to set, to put", respectively. Armed with this philology, we see a deep truth and power in the phrase "manufactured by craftsmen." It contains thousands of years of wisdom from the most successful cultures in history. The process of "men of strength, skill, and virtue using their hands to enforce their will on materials" should not be forgotten.
Ornament has been mostly shunned in our time, shut out for the sake of efficiency, cost-savings, and production en masse. For thousands of years prior, it was thought to be essential. For instance, we find its necessity as a widely-held belief among Baroque Catholics. For them, it led to the flourishing of architecture, furniture, music, and many other forms of art. Same for the Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, Moors, Indians, Chinese, Celts, Medieval Christians, and Renaissance Christians (to name a few).
In the Baroque example, we see an era when most of a continent could agree on a statement such as "God is the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, and the exaltation of His many forms is one of the highest kinds of worship". For them, when exalting God, one must echo the beauty of His forms at all scales (which is what happens effortlessly in nature). This implies that the overall structure of a Baroque building must be given as much careful consideration as its minuscule details like door handles, candelabras, and moldings. The result is that no matter what portion of the thing you're looking at, you are always seeing detailed exaltation, as in nature. Compare this with a modern building, and the divergence is immediately apparent. There is no smaller realm of beauty that I am confronted with as I get closer to a skyscraper, only bleak monotony.
There is hope for us yet though — some modern architects and academic philosophers have tried to publicly agree that "ornament is good". One such counterculturalist is Mark Foster Gage. Gage, a classically-trained architect, would agree with the Baroque characterization of beauty as scale-invariant detail (his program prefers the term high-resolution design) but would break with the necessity of distinctly Christian motifs. Rather than aping anything that has been done before, he would implore designers to at least generate new libraries of motifs while embedding them at various scales of resolution in their work. Ideally, it seems he'd like designers to generate completely novel aesthetic methods of evoking the same sorts of emotions people feel when viewing older styles. I broadly agree with him — revivalist works are often garishly pastiche, and the designer's primary focus should only be to comfort, awe, and delight people who see or interact with what they create. There must be other ways of bringing about those reactions than with the billion-and-first acanthus leaf. In addition to Gage's fairly abstract program, there is also more concrete research that attempts to prove ornament by showing that biological stress responses in people are (unsurprisingly) lessened when inside ornamental buildings as opposed to concrete and glass monstrosities.
As to my first conclusion about beauty, the necessity of craftsman manufacturing, I did well. I carved the body of Mythic I by the strength of my hands alone. As to the second conclusion, the necessity of ornament, I did not do so well. For all my research and polemical thought, I ran out of time for this prototype. The thing about the scale-invariance requirement is that it takes a great deal of time (and therefore capital) to do. Indeed, ornament has served many past societies as a sort of jobs program. For future Mythic Computers, I'll have more time to focus on the details. I plan on inlaying mother-of-pearl and precious metals, and carving scenes and motifs with carefully considered meaning into the wood.
After building up a base of understanding in the aesthetics of form, I started teasing out forms of my own that felt right. The practical reality of this teasing out is buying a lot of modeling clay, hot glue, foam-core, and drawing supplies. It's one thing to be able to imagine a form in your head, but it's another entirely to have 2D and 3D physical instantiations of it. I gave computer programs like Blender a college try, but ended up avoiding them like the plague — manipulating (there's the Proto-Indo-European root for hand again) clay is much faster, and there are no worries of forgetting to save your progress or accidentally ruining your model's topology. All said and done, I went through around a dozen clay iterations with about a dozen sketches between each rep:
When you're modeling a form from scratch, your mind is making a huge number of decisions, usually subconsciously, about proportions. You add a bit too much clay in a place, notice it looks awkwardly long or wide or skewed, and you correct it. You repeat this process hundreds of times, and everything magically starts to converge. Given the lack of pointed intention that goes into most of the process, it was fascinating for me to realize that there were some obvious mathematical properties in the final design. The golden ratio, something I thought was a lame pop-science fixation, was hiding in the ratio of the length of the wrist rest to the length of the keyboard, and also in the ratio of the wrist rest + keyboard to the remainder of the body. When viewed from the side, the edge curves of the computer's arms and torso were two members of a family of quartic polynomials. The screen's angle was π/4 and the panel angles were π/3. I found that the adage "every human has an innate sense of mathematics" isn't stupid, it's true.
With the form finalized, the next step was to start real construction. I knew from the outset that the computer had to be made of hardwood, the noblest type of organic material known to man. In college, I made acoustic guitars, so I had a good understanding of how to work wood, but I had no shop of my own anymore. When most people think of woodshops, they imagine industrial-sized warehouses full of loud, dangerous power tools. The table saw. The planer. The jointer. The bandsaw. The belt sander. Each one of these can violently end you in an instant of lapsed focus. It's a tragic misconception that you need these deathtraps to do good woodworking — most didn't even exist before the Industrial Revolution. Instead, you can buy a handful of tools that operate by their sharpness and the power of your body alone. A high-quality bench, hand plane, spokeshave, set of chisels, set of card scrapers, and a few Japanese hand saws will cost you well under $1000 and enable you to make pretty much anything you can imagine. Add a few clamps and some glue if you're not 100% committed to joinery, where pieces of wood are cleverly connected using pressure fitting alone.
When you peruse the internet for good tools, you come across two classes — one Western, the other Japanese. A profound, culturally-dictated difference emerges between the two. In Japan, tools are made (with painstaking effort) to last a very long time. In the West, tools are made to be used and discarded. Warning: more Spenglerian, sweeping generalizations ahead. Japan operates with an Island metaphysic, where resources are finite in space (Japan is an island nation) but infinite in time (by virtue of natural regeneration). The West operates with a Faustian metaphysic, where resources are infinite in space (by virtue of conquest) and infinite in time. It's interesting to see these metaphysical realities manifest in something as ordinary as tool manufacture.
They also manifest in something as ordinary as home construction. In the US, we make houses out of fast-growth pine wood and hardware like nails, screws, nuts, bolts, and washers. We use scientific-industrial miracles like fiberglass, Tyvek Homewrap, and drywall for insulation. These materials and the associated assembly techniques enable a colossal quantity of buildings to be erected all across the country every year. In Japan, homes are traditionally timber-framed, meaning structural elements are composed of hardwood logs. Rather than nailing the logs together, most carpenters use joinery techniques (clever pressure-fitting) to connect beams and supports. Joinery has the useful property of being reversible — if a beam rots after 200 years of use, it can be replaced wholesale. The combined effect of Island construction is that each building is its own ship of Theseus.
Faustian building techniques birth disasters like the Marshall fires in Louisville, Colorado (the town I grew up in) where a thousand poorly-built homes burned, and they also make repairs more akin to total redoes. These defects don't matter though, because infinite spatial and temporal resources mean that the marginal cost of replacing a burned-down house to the Faustian civilization as a whole approaches zero. To the Island metaphysic, however, one thousand homes burning could be catastrophic because of spatially-dictated material constraints.
There are exceptions to the rule. Small pockets of more Island-like behavior have emerged in Faustian civilization. One such example in woodworking is hide glue. When imagining wood glue, most will think of a yellow-tinged goop distributed by Titebond — it's a synthetic product invented in the early 1900s. For thousands of years prior, craftsmen used glues made from purified animal collagens (hide has a lot of collagen), which have the very Island-like property of reversibility. To separate two pieces of wood that have been glued together with hide glue, all you have to do is soak the joint with water and heat it up. Almost all furniture before the 1900s was made using hide glue, so even in the year 2023, antique repairs can be made quite easily.
Another example of aberrative Island-like behavior is European leather production. Although many goods nowadays use low-grade leather (sorry rappers, even luxury goods from LVMH-owned brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Loro Piana, etc.), there still exist centuries-old tanneries all across Europe that create high-quality leathers meant to last forever. It's a common misconception that all of it is the same basic material. For instance, when most people see genuine leather stamped on the back of a belt or bag, they surmise it to be high-quality. This is false — there are gradations of quality, and genuine leather is just about the worst that you can buy. It's a marketing gimmick, a catchall term for anything that's technically leather. Full grain and top grain, on the other hand, are taken from the most durable part of the hide (just below the hair) and can last for centuries if conditioned regularly. There are also variations in tanning techniques that have huge effects on durability and overall character. The gold standard which has been in use for millennia is vegetable tanning, a highly labor-intensive process in which tannins from natural materials like tree bark are soaked into the leather over a few months. A cheaper alternative process invented during the Industrial Revolution called chrome tanning makes use of chromium sulfate to get the job done in hours instead of months. But that bargain doesn't pay off — chrome-tanned leather is weaker, more prone to cracking, doesn't develop a patina, and lacks a distinctive leather smell, whereas vegetable-tanned leather has true character. It is extremely strong, develops a beautiful patina with use, doesn't crack, and has a mildly sweet, earthy aroma. The Mythic I uses full-grain, vegetable-tanned leather from a heritage tannery in Tuscany for the wrist rest.
While constructing the body of the Mythic I, my process was to cut the planks of wood I got from the sawmill into smaller sections using my Japanese hand saw, refine the curves with sharp chisels and a spokeshave, and join pieces together with hide glue. It is remarkable how quickly your body gains strength where it needs it (hands, forearms, shoulders), and develops dexterity with each tool. It is also remarkable how quickly you gain an intuition for the material you're using.
All wood is composed of a unidirectionally biased pile of very small columns (this biased direction is called grain, which is the direction the tree grows upwards). To cut a column in half is an order of magnitude more difficult than separating it from its neighbors. Due to this structurally-dictated difference in input energy for cutting vs separating, a strike of the chisel with the same force in different directions will either cut a small number of columns for a short length (i.e. perpendicular to the grain) or separate a small number of columns for a long length (i.e. parallel to the grain). Intuiting these principles is difficult for many people, and I know a few craftsmen who tried working in wood, found it too fickle, and now exclusively use metal. If you put in the work to understand them though, you can hugely minimize the amount of effort it takes to create a form.
For example, say you wanted to make the following shape out of a piece of wood:
You could use a precise saw, which would take a long time and a lot of sweat, or you could consider the material for about fifteen seconds and realize that a chisel will more precisely do the job with far less effort and far more visceral fun:
In 1. you're doing a blend of cutting and separating, in 2. you're only separating, and in 3. and 4. you're iterating. I won't give formal proof by induction, but you can see how this achieves the desired result.
When you zoom in far enough to the cutting edge(s) of any tool, you see a wedge. Wedges separate material, and that's half of craftsmanship. It's easiest to see this for chisels, followed by spokeshaves and hand-planes where the sole wedge is a bit hidden inside of the tool, followed by saws where each wedge is pretty small and there are a lot of them in a row, followed by rasps and files where each wedge is very small and there are a lot of them in both directions on a surface, followed by sandpaper where each wedge is invisibly small and there is a huge amount of them in both directions on a surface.
Everything I've discussed so far got me to the point where I'd created a nicely-shaped wood sculpture with a comfortable wrist rest, but it had no function. Deciding what function I should give it was, just like form, a philosophical problem.
First, a motivating example for not just running MacOS, Windows, or Ubuntu, a la standard modern personal computers: given an application called a web browser and a wire to a thing called the internet, the same number of keystrokes can get you to instagram.com or gutenberg.org (13 + Enter = 14). Which do you think is better? A collected visual repository of current global society curated algorithmically for base desires, or a collected textual repository of all mankind curated by hand for timeless quality? Call me crazy, but I'd choose the latter. And yet, despite my higher self choosing the latter, I end up on Instagram a few times a week (even with its app deleted from my phone). Computers have, for all the miracles you can work on them, primarily become portals to realms that amplify and feed off of our most base behaviors. I'd even say that the degree to which you can stay off of the paths they want you to take determines how successful you are, how healthy you are, and how meaningful you consider your own life.
To add insult to injury, a meaningful proportion of the times you load up Instagram, you are confronted with bugs, delays, and general frustrations that you have absolutely zero power to resolve on your own. Nearly everything at the software level is poorly engineered these days. People like Jonathan Blow and Casey Muratori are fighting the good fight to expose this fact, scold engineers who don't know what they're doing, and show ways to improve. At the crux of their position is the observation that hardware components (CPUs, GPUs, memory sticks, hard drives, antennas, etc.) have gotten many orders of magnitude more capable over the last 30 years, but abysmal software engineering has made most users' experiences no better than they were in the 90s (often worse).
Extending their stance with my own: despite little improvement in overall user experience quality, there has been a colossal, rapid growth of new applications over the last three decades. Modern personal computers are like 1000-in-1 multitools made from plastic. People deserve 1-in-1 tools made from high-grade steel. A good exercise here is considering the net impact of various types of applications on individuals and societies (leveraging the power of hindsight). I believe of everything that has emerged, there are no more than a handful of application types that qualify as net good. The one I'm most confident in is the unnetworked text editor, which (apart from a shell) is pretty much the only thing the Mythic I runs at the user level. This is the Lindy principle applied to computing — text editors and shells have been around practically since the computer was invented, and they are still in widespread use today. History has already filtered out countless applications and modes of computer usage — I'm simply reducing the scope of mine to one that truly matters.
As an aside, I don't have anything against networked computing as an idea, but I think that what we currently call the internet is not good. Plenty of others agree, and some have even made their own alternate universes of networked computing. Examples include Urbit, Usenet, Gopher, and Gemini. In Gopher, for instance, we find a protocol for sending files between computers that functionally eliminates things like tracking, autoplay videos, garish design, and many other bad features of the modern internet, yet retains the ability to communicate long-form thought via text to anyone in the world. A networked system that's good for individuals and good for societies is almost certainly possible, but the past 50 years have shown us that unrestrained networking is a very dangerous Promethean fire. It might even be our undoing (lim N->+inf of GPT-N).
To add to the joy of unadulterated software, I wired up some simple circuitry to make turning the computer on and off especially tactile, indeed nearly ritualistic. The boot sequence is as follows: (1) prime the ignition by inserting the key and turning it with a metallic thunk (red light turns on), (2) engage the toggle switch with another metallic thunk (yellow light turns on momentarily), and (3) actual power transfer automatically begins to the internal circuitry (green light turns on and stays on). You can write this off as a gimmicky touch, but it gives the computer character. Once you've booted, your sole interface is the keyboard, which is also made from the best components you can buy.
At first glance, it perhaps sounds like Luddite nonsense to minimize a computer to an unnetworked text editor inside of a shell, but the result is extraordinarily powerful. Functionally, the Mythic I is a synthesis of the unimaginable speed and capacity of modern hardware with a Lindy software stack that already ran flawlessly on much less capable hardware nearly 50 years ago. Mythic Computers are tools indeed, akin to high-grade steel chisels made to last a lifetime. Our motto, ARMA ACRI FACIENDA VIRO, comes from Book VIII of The Aeneid when Vulcan commands the cyclopes to "Forge arms fit for a hero".
In closing, I'll say that I am sure most people will disagree with some part of what I've done. That is good. Go build something better.
If you're interested in commissioning your own computer-fit-for-a-hero, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the word "inquiry" in the subject — I'd love to hear from you. A forewarning: I don't skimp on materials, and it takes a significant amount of time to manufacture these machines, so prices are high.
— Keegan McNamara
Written on the Mythic I