Nerd Fun

Upcoming Important Holidays (Now that Nerds Rule)

Mark your calendars so that you can send an eCard to your favorite hacker, startup co-founder, or sys admin!

  • March 14 – Pi Day – Celebration of everyone’s fav irrational number!
  • March 25 – Tolkien Reading Day – Commemoration of the fall of Sauron (where did I put that ring?)
  • April 25 – DNA day – The day the paper on the structure of DNA was published in the journal Nature and later the day when the Human Genome Project was declared “mostly done.”
  • April 27 – Morse Code Day – The day Samuel Morse was born …. .- .– .– -.– / -… .. .-. – …. -.. .- -.– / … .- —
  • May 1 – No Pants Day – Thanks Knighthood of Buh!
  • May 4 – Star Wars Day – May the fourth be with you!
  • May 25 – Towel Day – According to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy you should alway have your towel with you (it’s in my backpack)
  • May 26 – National Paper Airplane Day – The only way to fly!
Nerd Fun

The Little Computer that Taught Me

The TI 99/4a from Texas Instruments still looks pretty awesome after 32 years!

The personal computer I really wanted to work with back then was the Apple II but as a university student of modest means the big Apple was too much for my bank account to handle. I considered the Commodore VIC-20 and Atari 800, both more popular but they were inferior engines of calculation. The TI 99/4a contained a true 16-bit CPU that might be considered one of the first RISC chips available to home users. But I didn’t know anything about CISC vs RISC or 8 vs 16 bits. I only knew that I could afford it, that it ran BASIC relatively fast, and I could save my programs to cassette tape. I no longer have a TI 99/4a but I still have the matching cassette recorder, which also doubled as an ordinary audio cassette player.

Back then there was a truly great hobbyist computer magazine called COMPUTE! Every month it would contain the source for several BASIC and machine code programs for each of the home computers of the day. I would dutifully type in each program for the TI 99/4a and then modify it beyond recognition. After a few months I started creating my own, original works, that served no other purpose but to amuse me. My TI99/4a started to attract other nerds (I don’t think we had the word hacker back them) and thus began a journey that took me from painting and drawing pictures with brushes and pens to developing real software on serious computer systems.

The simplicity and limitations of the TI 99/4a gave me an advantage that today’s young hackers lack: Focus. There was no question about where to begin and what to begin with. Most importantly I had to type in every line of code myself: No cut and paste (it had not been invented yet) and no code editors with auto complete. All my code was DRY because wet code was too time consuming to type in.

Argument Nerd Fun

How Engineers Will Win

Before reading this, you should read Why Engineers Never Win and Why Engineers Should Win.

Ok, now we’re all caught up.

I’m optimistic. Yes, I know the world is hurting. I see how the people trying to do good often make things worse. I can’t claim to be insightful when I observe how we celebrate buffoonery and berate competency. (At least the Romans got bread with their circuses.)

I’m optimistic because engineers have become poets and code has become poetry.

Every age, every culture, every society is measured by the breath and depth of it’s poetry and the brilliance of it’s poets. This poetry can be visual or musical or sculptural or theatrical or even wordy. Sometimes it’s hard to identify the poetry, hidden behind fashion and fads but it’s there if you look long and hard and unblinking.

A month ago I had an opportunity to visit the Louvre for the first time, in person. I only had a couple of hours so I made beeline for the Ancient Greek sculptures. My mature interest in making art, oops, I mean visual poetry, was born from my experience of the Kourus and Kore gradually coming to life from stiff abstractions in the 7th century BCE to expressive examples of humanity in the 5th century BCE. Walking past these sculptures in the Louvre was like watching a culture awaken from myth to science.

And that same transformation is taking place today: The boxy utilitarian desktop computers of the last decade have become light and glassy iPhones and iPads; The awkward and inflexible HTML websites of yesterday have become elegant and animated HTML5 web apps; CDs and DVDs with hard data limits have become unlimited streams.

We are waking up. Engineers are not arguing for a better world, they are not waiting for the next election or for military action or for protesters to start marching; Engineers are writing new poems that express our better natures in code and chips.

Admittedly, things are a little messy right now. Tech isn’t always used for good. But a program or a device that gives an individual the research and communication power of a corporation or government is inherently good.

Already we have tech poetry that is starting to enable individuals to navigate and bypass complex legal and political boundaries. This is true equality: When you can talk to anyone, anywhere, without permission from anyone else. People are talking to people without adult supervision on Reddit, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Ventrillo, and more. And it’s not the end of the world–rather it’s the start of the world, a new kind of unfettered speech.

Poets know that language both enables communication and limits expression. That why they use novel formulations and metaphors: A great poet breaks free of the constraints imposed by his native tongue.

We can’t solve the problems hurting the world with the tools and languages that created these problems in the first place. But engineers will solve them with ideas that can only be etched in silicon and written in RAM.


Why Engineers Should Win

If you accept my argument that engineers generally don’t win arguments because they tend to rely on reason instead of rhetoric (even if you don’t accept my example that spam is preferable to junk mail) then you’ll be glad to know I have  a prescription for engineers that will help them win arguments.

But before I get to that prescription I’d like to point out two important premises. First, winning arguments is desirable; Second, winning arguments via rhetoric isn’t really winning.

I have some friends in the hacker/engineering community who are simply disgusted and ready to drop out of mainstream society. In many ways they already have. They have their own culture, their own activities, and their own vernacular.

Q: Why did the hacker surrender his spoon but not his fork?

A: Because spooning is privilege but forking is a right.

If you get this joke you’re an engineer (of the hacker persuasion). Don’t ask me to explain it to you 🙂

“Why bother with the muggles if they’re just going to abuse us with their outmoded ideas about sexuality, gender, religion, intellectual property, and what constitutes an worthwhile activity?”

But there are several good reasons for dealing with the main stream, and helping it become more efficient, effective, and generally more happy. The muggles are our parents, brothers, sisters, and children and we owe them something. They are suffering needlessly. If you can help someone but stay your hand that’s just as bad as doing direct harm. These are all excellent but tired arguments. The best reason for engineers to engage society-at-large and start winning arguments is that we don’t have our own private planet. A couple of more Chernobyls, a few more degrees of global warming, a few more years of developing world famine, and it’s game over for all of us.

“Kk” you say, “I grok it. Let’s all go learn rhetoric and NLP and beat the muggles at their own game!”

Unfortunately that happens all the time. I know lots of people who started out as engineers and ended up as salesmen, managers*, and investors. Once you change your thinking patterns to base arguments on rhetorical techniques (winning on style, winning at any cost, winning as an end in itself) you lose the the ability to figure out the reasonable thing to do. Like Stockholm Syndrome once you take up the sword of your enemy you become your enemy.

If we really want to win arguments, we can’t win on mainstream terms, because then we lose. We have to win arguments on our own terms. See if you can guess how before I write  my next post…

* Mea culpa.