Karthik Bala bio photo

Karthik Bala

Student at UT Austin. I like to write sometimes.

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A few months ago, I stumbled upon a fascinating website. It’s called the darnedest thing. I have only the slightest picture of who the owner of the site is, limited to what is contained in the colophon page. The owner’s name is Steven Hum. The bullet point description of his “production environment”, and a vignette unironically hyperbolizing customizing his window manager to where it sounds like a samurai adjusting a new katana (“it’s a slow and methodical process. Step by step… molding it to one’s will”), make him out to be a tech enthusiast.

Extracting a purpose or theme out of the engimatic website proved to be a challenge. Even the welcome page is buried well. If I understand the hippiesh exposition correctly, Steven Hum intended the site to be about the end of suffering– some Buddhist type shit, I can only assume. The equally difficult to find index page, however, contains a total potpourri of posts spanning a variety of topics– most not even related to awakening.

For example, he wrote a tutorial on adding Phusion Passenger to nginx, a piece with no connection to spirituality (or perhaps I am just not yet enlightened enough to see the primordial relationship between HTTP server configuration and the process of awakening). I’m not complaining, however, as the darnedest thing turned out to be an example of my favorite kind of website.

I’ll start my explanation of why with this Phusion Passenger tutorial. I have no clue what Phusion Passenger is, but this paragraph stood out to me:

“The only oddity along the way I discovered with the migration to Phusion Passenger was that inline Slim HTML templates no longer appeared to work and required that template specifications reside in the standard application/views folder. Not a bad thing, but it did have me scratching my head for awhile.”

Steven Hum has not given us a comprehensive Phusion tutorial, but has shared his personal journey towards easier HTTP server configuration and deployment, giving us the tips he’s thought of and the obversations he’s had along the way. I know I’m being overly grandious, but this isn’t sarcastic. Websites like these are genuinely my favorite corners of the web.

His reasoning on why he uses urxvt is similar. It’s not “top 10 reasons you need to switch to urxvt” or “a history of terminal emulators”; it’s simply his undogmatic observations on the topic.

Sometimes he’ll just throw out a random poem he wrote. And I have no idea what this means, but it’s self expression, and I appreciate that.

A personal website is an invitation to explore the thoughts and life of someone you would never meet otherwise. Even if I did meet Steven Hum in real life, our discussion would likely be limited to the weather, the election, and maybe, if it was an especially long conversation, programming. He would not, upon introduction, start reciting poetry at me and expounding the intricacies his nginx configuration. Visiting a personal website is a direct dive into the thoughts someone wants to share with the internet, a portal into their brain accessible with only an internet connection. Maybe my obsession with flipping through websites of an anonymous internet strangers is simply an indication that I need better hobbies, but regardless, personal website obsession seems to be a much healthier alternative to a Facebook obsession, since at least you might learn a thing or two from a blog. I’ve never learned something useful or encountered something interesting scrolling through pictures of the same beaches and latte art. Even just reading a stranger’s day-to-day activities and feelings is an enlightening experience, as it gives you insight as to how someone else in a possibly radically different situation than you is figuring out what they want, striving for it, progressing through life, and coping with it’s challenges.

Another reason I love the darnedest thing is Steven Hum doesn’t turn it into an elaborate advertisement or portray himself as the sum of his work related experiences. He isn’t

Steven Hum: hacker @ridiculousstartup, leveraging big data to synergize beautiful user experiences. Previously a freelance growth hacker. Message me on LinkedIn if you have something interesting to offer.

In fact, it was a struggle to just figure out his name.

In the UTCS department and in the tech community in general, it is generally encouraged to have a personal website. Students even receive a little corner of the cs.utexas website. Most students use their web development skills and free hosting to publicize their resume, perhaps throwing a few buzzwords and a github link on there too. The point is to show off to companies that they are so passionate about computer science that they took time out of their weekend to make a cute portfolio.

A personal website is something over 3 billion people can access. This is a chance to show some random Argentenian who stumbles into your site your conspiracy theory on why the government controls the weather, a chance to express your frustration over the FDA approval process and your thought-provoking ideas to fix it, a chance to write a dumb essay on personal websites and convince some Ukranian hacker searching for vulnerabilities in your site to start a blog about yerba mate.

I’m not condemning using a website as a recruiting tool. I’m trying to say that a personal website is a powerful medium of self-expression and idea sharing that more people should utilize.

As a random side thought: personal website edit history would be a beautiful thing. You would see how someone has changed as well as how what they wish to share with others has changed.