September 29, 2017 at 12:33 AM by Dr. Drang
A week or two ago, this old post of mine got linked on Hacker News. I learned about it on Twitter a day or two later and saw it had been given a short flurry of attention.
This happens every year or so, either on Hacker News or some forum on Reddit. The post recounts a story from the mid-80s in which Don Knuth wrote an article/program in the literate programming style and Doug McIlroy wrote a literary-style critique of it. The story seems to interest young programmers with strong opinions, i.e., the kind of people who hang out at Hacker News and Reddit.
Whenever I see this happen, I don’t think about the post or the story behind it. I think about the first time it got attention, which was just a few days after it was written in December 2011, and how I came to learn about it.
I was sitting in a small room in the Edward Cancer Center. It was my wife’s first day of chemotherapy. We had been told this initial session would take longer than normal, and we should bring books, magazines, iPods, computers—whatever we needed to keep ourselves occupied for the full morning and into the afternoon. Janet had some magazines and her iPad; I had my MacBook Air—the same one I still have, but it was only a year old back then.
Her mastectomy had been in early November—the sixth anniversary is coming up—and her oncologist wanted her past the worst effects of that before starting the chemo. The session did last a long time, as promised, but it went pretty smoothly. Easy for me to say, I suppose, but I think she’d agree, because she had recovered well from the surgery and she hadn’t had any chemo before. It wasn’t until the next day, when she started the cycle of drugs taken to counteract the side effects of other drugs—what I likened to The House That Jack Built—that she began to feel rotten.
This is the Taxotere and Cytoxan, which prevent the return of the tumor.
This is the Neulasta, which stimulates the production of white blood cells, which were killed by the Taxotere and Cytoxan, which prevent the return of the tumor.
This is the steroid, which dulls the bone pain caused by the Neulasta, which stimulates the production of white blood cells, which were killed by the Taxotere and Cytoxan, which prevent the return of the tumor.
This is the laxative, which alleviates the constipation, which was caused by the steroid, which dulls the bone pain caused by the Neulasta, which stimulates the production of white blood cells, which were killed by the Taxotere and Cytoxan, which prevent the return of the tumor.
But as we sat in the little room, that was still in the future. She read and surfed the web; I sent some emails and checked Google Analytics to what kind of traffic ANIAT had been seeing. My timing must have almost perfect. Not only were the GA numbers way too high for a post that hadn’t been Fireballed, they were increasing significantly in real time. After a quick check on the referrers, I realized I was getting traffic from both Hacker News and Reddit, which both had active arguments going on about the post with many disparaging comments about me. I can’t remember a time when I’ve cared so little about being criticized so much.
Every time my Knuth/McIlroy post gets renewed attention on Hacker News or Reddit, I’m back in that little room.
After the first visit, Janet took her treatments out in the Cancer Center’s big open area with a wall of windows that overlooked a pond. The sessions didn’t last as long, but they were harder because now she knew what was coming. They were always scheduled for late morning/early afternoon, so I’d get us lunch at Jimmy John’s and we’d eat and look out at the winter as the poisons dripped into her arm.
I just realized, looking back at that last paragraph, that this sounds like it’s going in a dark direction. Sorry about that. Janet’s still here and cancer-free. Although breast cancers like hers can return years later, there’s been no sign that hers will.
Dark memories, though, are hard to avoid, regardless of how things have turned out. Some triggers are obvious, like when I visit a doctor in the building next to the Cancer Center. But some, like seeing a link on Hacker News, are based on odd coincidences that manage to form strong associations.
Steve Jobs’s death, for example, hit us both very hard because it happened during that horrible limbo period between Janet’s diagnosis and mastectomy. His cancer and hers became linked in our minds, and I remember us both crying so much that day. Even today, the connection is there. I found the tribute to Steve during the Apple Event a couple of weeks ago difficult to watch, and I expect the stories next week on the sixth anniversary of his death will bring on the same feelings.