Made in the USA.

Essay by Az777 October 2005

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A few years ago an Italian friend of mine travelled by train from Boston to Providence. She had only been in America for a couple weeks and hadn't seen much of the country yet. She arrived looking astonished. "It's so ugly!"

People from other rich countries can scarcely imagine the squalor of the man-made bits of America. In travel books they show you mostly natural environments: the Grand Canyon, whitewater rafting, horses in a field. If you see pictures with man-made things in them, it will be either a view of the New York skyline shot from a discreet distance, or a carefully cropped image of a seacoast town in Maine.

How can it be, visitors must wonder. How can the richest country in the world look like this?

Oddly enough, it may not be a coincidence. Americans are good at some things and bad at others. We're good at making movies and software, and bad at making cars and cities.

And I think we may be good at what we're good at for the same reason we're bad at what we're bad at. We're impatient. In America, if you want to do something, you don't worry that it might come out badly, or upset delicate social balances, or that people might think you're getting above yourself. If you want to do something, as Nike says, just do it.

This works well in some fields and badly in others. I suspect it works in movies and software because they're both messy processes. "Systematic" is the last word I'd use to describe the way good programmers write software. Code is not something they assemble painstakingly after careful planning, like the pyramids. It's something they plunge into, working fast and constantly changing their minds, like a charcoal sketch.

In software, paradoxical as...