In 1972, Edward Lorenz gave a talk entitled Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?. Lorenz was a meteorologist and mathematician—one of the first chaoticians, in fact—who found that only slight changes in the conditions of his weather simulation could produce drastically different results. That the gentle perturbations of a butterfly flapping its wings might be a key ingredient to an eventual tornado.
Talking to Mateusz Szlosek, I became interested in how his life and all of our lives are subject to the world’s butterflies. His story included the distinct impact of a single butterfly that set the initial conditions to his career as an engineer, his eventual work at DK&A, and the unpredictable flourishes of his skillset.
Samurais, Ninjas, and Gurus
Szlosek is an iOS Engineer at DK&A’s office in Wroclaw, Poland. Since the decline of evil shogunates and secret temples, software companies have become the top employers of samurais, ninjas, and gurus, but Szlosek is down to Earth. He’s just an iOS Engineer. The more I spoke to him, however, the less I had him figured out:
Right now I’ve switched to back-end development. I’m implementing a slack plugin. It’s in Java. Back-end is completely new for me. I’ve also never done Java development. It’s completely new ground.
Okay, well, if I wanted to hear about Java, I’d have gone to a Java Cowboy or Server Sorcerer. Szlosek did get to telling me that his favorite iOS work at DK&A so far was for a start-up called Sharper Shape:
They used drones to maintain electrical poles by checking insulators. I built the iOS application for their platform. We received 3 drones frome Sharper Shape and I used a simulator to check their behavior. I had to create a mobile application from scratch to connect to Sharper Shape’s backend and translate commands between their server and the drone. I also had to stabilize the camera on a point of interest.
You ask the guy about iOS and find out he’s a Drone Jockey. But that wasn’t even the kicker:
In university, I was in the department of robotics. We had courses on steering algorithms. We also did physical stuff, like soldering and microcontrollers so it was more fun than just sitting in front of a computer building a database.
Okay, robotics. We all experiment in college. You wake up once or twice with an articulated manipulator you’ve never seen before laying next to you in bed. But Szlosek just kept going:
My Master’s thesis was on a small device that used ultrasonic sound to detect hand movements. I used machine learning to detect what gestures a person was making with their hands. I’m still interested in new machine learning algorithms.
Is he an Ultrasonic Soldier? A Machine Learning Leprechaun? We play with hyperbolic titles like Samurai to suggest an inhuman focus on a singular purpose, but the images we conjure are exactly that: inhuman. Human lives don’t have a singular purpose. They’re governed by dynamic forces. By chaos. Szlosek’s life is no exception, but if he’s the tornado in this story, our flapping butterfly is a more modern kind of Japanese warrior: a businessperson.
Harmonized System Code 9504.50
Szlosek was 13 years old and ready to be the proud owner of a brand new Sony Playstation 2. Living in Niemodlin, Poland, population 7,000, he was eager to be one of the lucky kids with his own copies of hit games like Tekken Tag Tournament and Gran Turismo 3. But Poland hadn’t yet joined the European Union and Szlosek could get his PS2 just a little faster than his buddies in Niemodlin with the help of his mother who lovingly drove over the border to Germany to get one for him before the PS2’s Polish release date. Pure happenstance put Szlosek on a collision course with Harmonized System Code 9504.50.
HS9504.50 is the code for one of many categories of imported products that the EU taxed, “Games, video game consoles and machines, other than those of subheading 9504.30.” Szlosek could have afforded the 2% tariff, but Sony’s dedicated little businesspeople had other plans.
We will not be discussing this film.
Sony knew that PCs didn’t face EU tariffs and attempted a shrewd tax dodge by releasing the PS2 in Europe with a demo disc containing YABASIC, a simple programming language. Sony argued that this made the PS2 a PC, not a gaming console, and therefore not subject to taxes on HS9504.50. Little Szlosek knew nothing about Sony’s scheme, or that it worked and saved him 2% off the cost of his PS2. He had no idea whatsoever that buying that Playstation 2 would come to define his career.
Szlosek’s first time programming was on his PS2 with the YABASIC disc from that silly tax dodge. He sat down and excruciatingly typed out his own programs, one character at a time with a video game controller. I asked Szlosek what kind of stuff he was programming:
More like 8-bit games. I made something like Space Invaders. A small ship destroying the other ships at the top of the screen. The biggest one was a fighting game. Two stick figures that could jump between different levels and kick and punch each other. Not much with graphics. I was just learning. Using my controller to input the code. It took a lot of time.
A preteen boy just wants to play some games, but stumbles his way into an education because of a tax loophole and a dumb demo disc. What did Szlosek think about his career being a tornado to Sony’s butterfly?:
I’ve never thought about it, but yeah, that’s true. I fell in love with programming. I wasn’t even aware of other languages at that time, but YABASIC was really easy to learn. Back then it was chaotic. I was trying a lot of stuff: riding skateboards, DJing, coding. I really liked mathematics, but I didn’t think I’d be a programmer. I went to the robotics university to build machines, but after graduating I said, no, that’s not for me. I’m much better at coding. I haven’t thought about it, but yeah really, it was a huge impact on my life that YABASIC was on that disc.
Szlosek felt that he might know more about programming if he had focused on it in school, but that a less ordered and planned life, including a foray into robotics, had stretched him in unforeseen ways.
How should I put it? My thinking about programming and the world around me was changed by electrical elements. Transistors and amplifiers and so on. The whole world is built from these. It’s a strange feeling. I realized that what we were building at university is pretty much the same as nature. The whole thing works similarly. We have simple elements that we use to build the bigger picture.
“You mean how life works?” I asked.
Szlosek laughed. He sounded embarrassed by the weight our conversation had taken on. “Yeah, the whole universe.”
I had a lot of discussions with my roommates about artificial intelligence, how it could be built, how it could mimic our brain, and how to teach it properly. We came up with the idea that sometimes in our brain we have a random interruption that could change our perceptions and that’s how we learn. We wanted to create a neural network that also had some unexpected interruptions. We never did it, it was only discussions, but it was nice that we had those discussions and thought about life and consciousness.
“You could have a neural network that starts out in robotics and switches to iOS development,” I said.
Szlosek laughed, “Yeah, something like that.”
Sony doesn’t release Playstations with YABASIC discs anymore, but I asked Szlosek if he thought kids today were still being impacted in similar ways.
It’s much easier these days to learn to code. The IDEs are free. There are plenty of YouTube channels about programming. Tutorials. StackOverflow is there. Back in those days, I didn’t have the internet. I only had Playstation 2. Now when I code, if I don’t know how to do something, the first thing I do is google it, check StackOverflow, and immediately I know how to do it.
Today, Szlosek is a regular contributor to StackOverflow, a website that connects developers with questions to experts who can volunteer answers. He’s flapping some wings of his own. Stirring up some tornados somewhere out there. Paying the chaos forward.
Szlosek smiled and reflected, “Yeah, that might be it. Sony wanted to avoid taxes and now I’m sitting at DK&A.”