Fairy Tales

Before the time of television and other digital media, children’s stories were told to help the children navigate their path towards adulthood. Unlike today, where an extended period of adolescence is common, our forebears experienced a world that was much harsher, where the transition between childhood and adulthood occurred much more quickly and where mistakes were much more dangerous. In short, whether the tale was told at the campfire’s edge, or by candlelight in a darkened Victorian house, it still served an important cultural purpose. The utility of this approach has not been lessened by modern conveniences and that there are a lot of important lessons in fairy tales that are still useful metaphors for modern software development and whose understanding is sorely needed.

The stories referenced in this episode are not the “Disney” versions. Grimm’s fairy tales are grittier and probably better teaching tools than most Disney movies. Disney has a tendency to sanitize things. They also are trying to mass market things, which doesn’t mesh with the original intent.

“I’ve never seen a Grimm’s Fairy Tale inspire a person to walk up to a herd of bison in Yellowstone Park.”

At the time these stories were first told, it was understood that the real world had shades of gray in everything. The things cheerfully portrayed in Disney movies had a very different connotation back then. For examples, in the medieval stories, children were often stolen by fairies and replaced with changelings. Mermaids would lure you into the water, drown you, and eat you, and genies were tricksters who would grant wishes in a way that would destroy you. In other words, the world was understood to be a dangerous place, with both a high level of risk and opportunities for rewards. There isn’t always a happy ending, but things aren’t as bleak as more modern tales like Game of Thrones or Walking Dead.

The real point of a campfire tale, fairy tale, or a cultural legend is to instruct the young while keeping the fear in a safe context. It’s to prepare them for the real world. That preparation involved giving them the ability (and examples) to ascertain what was really going on, rather than relying on hope and trust. It also gave examples of how to overcome and out-think adversity when put to the test.

They also serve to give a shared mythology to the tribe and allow one to learn about other groups of people Shared mythology is shared vocabulary. For instance, it’s pretty easy for most people familiar with Star Wars to understand what is meant by resisting the dark side or most people familiar with Tolkien to understand tossing the ring into the fire to mean not letting your ego destroy you. It also a way to get a little peak into other people’s worldview. You might reasonably expect someone who grew up on John Wayne to have a different approach to problem solving than someone who grew up on Harry Potter and rightfully so. People tell you a lot about themselves when they tell you what stories they like.

Fairy tales have many useful and valuable lessons for those willing to learn from them, even for those of us in technology-heavy careers such as software development. learning the lessons imparted by fairy tales can be just as valuable in the warm glow of a monitor in a big city as it was in the flickering light at the edge of a campfire. This was a weird episode and we hope you enjoyed it, even though it didn’t come out at the usual time and didn’t contain the usual content.

Episode Breakdown

11:30 The Three Little Pigs

The General Principle: Learn to invest wisely and be prepared for disaster. It’s important to remember that the wolf still destroyed two houses. Most forms of disaster are not a one-off, no matter how much we would like them to be.

For Children: Preparing in advance for likely trouble is wise and requires effort up front. It’s too late when the wolf is at your door and only the prepared weather the storm. Decisions in late childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood reverberate for the rest of your life.

“Beej and I both have friends who are dead, rich, happy, or miserable, because of decisions made long ago and a series of disasters that came from them.”

For the Adults: Get your financial, physical, and mental house in order. The time to get debt under control is before it becomes a problem. Your health and personal relationships must similarly be maintained to weather life’s storms.

“Even when you get knocked all the way down, which has happened to me.”

For Developers: Technical debt and brittle practices will tear the house down around you. It’s too late when the risk is already obvious. You should always be trying to leave your code base better than when you found it. Sometimes very large, abrupt changes in business can happen. It’s best not to be in a house made of straw when that occurs.

16:25 The Little Mermaid

The General Principle: Don’t be afraid to venture outside your comfort zone, but be aware that there might be a price for it. Remember that the mermaid left the water, but she couldn’t go back. Some decisions are permanent. Understand the consequences of what you do when you do it.

“I made the decision to go to med school, then I made the decision to leave med school, both of which had costs.”

For Children: The determined can reach their goals if they are willing to pay the price. Sometimes the price is more dear than you would think. Taking risky decisions is part of youth. It can work out well, but it is seldom ever entirely free. It’s about making them understand that there are tradeoffs.

For Adults: Pursue your dreams, but have a realistic assessment of what they will cost up front, including the things you lose by going after them. You can’t pursue all of them. We often hear people telling us that we can have it all. A good work/life balance, and the exact career path that we want. Experience shows this not to be true. As adults we’re terrible at understanding the real trade offs of even the most trivial life decisions. Think of the trade off between the pleasure of eating a donut and the pain of the cardio required to burn it off.

“You have to focus on something.”

For Developers: You might want to leave that stable, good job for something more exciting with more upside opportunity, but be aware that you can’t go back. When you are doing career planning, it’s really easy to base your plans on the avoidance of pain. Yet that can put a ceiling on your salary. On the other hand, going just for salary can bring in other problems.

27:35 The Emperor’s New Clothes

“Age will tell you, ok let this thing ride out for a while.”

The General Principle: Sometimes mass delusion is a thing. Especially around power. That doesn’t make speaking truth to power a wise thing to do in all cases. Ideas that “sound right” and are said by the powerful often are difficult to resist, even if evidence for them being wrong is all around.

For Children: Sometimes the leaders can be wrong in obvious ways and sometimes it’s dangerous to acknowledge the wrongness. Peer pressure is something your kids are going to have to learn to deal with. They need to learn to evaluate things on their own and make their own decisions based on the evidence they can gather, not appeals to authority.

“I remember regularly getting kicked out of Sunday school classes because I told the teachers they were wrong.”

For Adults: There are lots of things you are being told in popular culture that are easily, trivially provable to be wrong. But point out the emperor’s tan-lines and face the headsman. Just because you suspect something to be true, doesn’t mean you talk about it. Act on it if it is to your benefit, but keeping your mouth closed is sensible. The truth tends to win out over time, regardless of what you think about it. When someone says something that everyone else notices, it’s like a dam breaking.

For Developers: There are lots of popular ways to do things that can be totally destructive on your project, even though they are accepted practice across the rest of the industry. Microservices, ORMs, and serverless architecture are popular trends in the industry right now. They solve a large range of problems. There are problems they make worse. Understand that just because everyone else is using a particular set of tools for a job, that doesn’t make it the right set of tools.

33:20 Snow White

The General Principle: A cornered leader unwilling to give up power is a risk to everyone around her. It’s essentially a tale of a beleaguered member of an older generation unwilling to give up power (the power of beauty in this case) to an upstart. Imagine how people would remember the queen from Snow White had she been willing to advise and work with snow white to turn her into a wise ruler in her turn. The Queen ultimately ends up a victim of her own unwillingness to let go of power.

“He became the greatest hockey player of all time because he was willing to let others make the goal.”

For Children: Don’t take food from strangers. Those in a disadvantaged position need to learn to understand the difference between charity given to help and charity given for other reasons.

“When the fox hears the rabbit scream, he comes a-runnin’, but not to help.” ~ Silence of the Lambs

For Adults: Beware the motivations of people in positions of power lest you fall afoul of them. Don’t take things at face value. Understand that your boss may value input, but it has to be useful to achieve their goals, not yours. Be very careful with gossip. It can be tempting to listen to what other people say, but be aware that it is often used to distract from what they do.

For Developers: Don’t become the cranky old developer who tries to squelch change. It’s very easy to get attached to your position, but remember that you can’t move up if you can’t be replaced. This doesn’t mean being for change for its own sake, but to be willing to try new things so that you can move ahead. You can really damage the people around you by tying your ego to your position, as well as hurting yourself.

40:50 Hansel and Gretel

The General Principle: Sometimes people abandon you to starve because doing otherwise just means that you will starve with them. Sometimes people feeding you well don’t have good intentions either. Hansel and Gretel’s parents left them in the woods to starve so that the whole family wouldn’t starve. They were taken in by a witch that was fattening them up to eat them.

“Be very careful about your analytical overlay.”

For Children: Understand the difference between action that hurts and intent. Just because the van says “free candy” doesn’t mean that you should go up and ask for some. Just because someone seems mean, doesn’t mean that they are doing it out of personal animus towards you. They may just be stuck. That doesn’t excuse behavior, but it’s important for children to realize that people may behave very differently when “unstuck”.

For Adults: Realize that everyone has their own agenda, including the people in charge of that company that is “like a family”. The big thing to realize is that assistance from other people isn’t offered because of who you are, but because of who they are. It might mean that the people that say this don’t mean it, or that the people that don’t say it do. You’ve seen this yourself with people who give you a hard time, but will be the first to jump in to defend you. Realize that this is the default mode of most human beings you are going to meet. Assume the best about people generally, because optimism seems to be a good working model for most interactions in good faith, but it’s very risky to assume that people are entirely altruistic and don’t have their own agenda.

“I can pick on them but no-one else can.”

For Developers: Don’t take being laid off personally, and don’t assume that someone who is willing to pay out the nose to hire you is doing so entirely for your benefit. Unless you are really getting fired instead of laid off, being laid off isn’t really a statement about you personally. It’s a statement about the company’s finances. Conversely, don’t assume that a company being willing to pay you a high pay rate is doing so because they think you are the best thing since sliced bread. It’s a result of the market or a result of what they think they can get out of you. You have to perform to that level, or you are gone.

IoTease: Project

IoT EggBot to Paint Easter Eggs


This project combines a few of my favorite things: Raspberry Pi, robots, and sharpies. A fun project for you and the kids to do is build this Raspberry Pi controlled robot that uses sharpies to decorate Easter Eggs. This starts with a kit you get from Evil Mad Science to build an EggBot. For the real IoTeaser you can build your own EggBot from old printer parts, though that is not part of this tutorial or project. The idea with this project is that instead of connecting the EggBot to a computer you can use a Raspberry Pi that is attached to the robot. It’s a fun idea and something that you can do with the kids especially if you don’t enjoy painting eggs yourself.

Tricks of the Trade

Learn the mythology of the company you work for. Not only does it impart valuable lessons, but it gives you a shared vocabulary, and integrates you into the team better. The origin stories of the higher ups in your company are useful in a myriad of ways and can help you understand why things are the way they are now.

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