The All-Thing

All stick and no carrot, since ought-three.

`Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on ``I am not too sure''.' -- H. L. Mencken.


送崔九 (裴迪)


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Thu, 22 Jan 2004

Hackers and Painters Explained

I suppose I need to explain my previous post, which has generated some amount of misunderstanding as to the exact nature of my enthusiasm.

For the past eight or nine years I have been focused on being a researcher and a scientist. That's what I figured I wanted to do. And for the past two, I've been basically idling on that front, waiting for some kind of grad-school-inspiring idea to force me to take the next big drop down the dank dark hole known as academia. And I'm waiting and waiting, wondering why there's no one idea or field of research that seems to really speak to me.

Then one day not too long ago, thinking about my job, I realized that the times when I was happiest, most excited, and most eager at work were not the research itself. They were when I had a fun perl script or something to write. Yes, Argentina, it's the coding I enjoy. Not the actual pushing of the buttons itself, obviously, which main just hurts my hands, but the act of creating useful and well-composed bits of software. I.e., regardless of their ultimate purpose. In fact, the research aspects of it were, while not entirely tedious, often simply a convenient pretext for justifying the code, if not an outright obstacle.

And as the years passed by I have had a constant nagging doubt at the back of my mind that I'm not a particularly good scientist, anyways. I'm not especially curious. I'm not driven to explore things or to push the boundaries. I don't get an endorphin rush from understanding something new. I suppose I like learning stuff, but mainly, I like building. I like creating programs that people will use. I even like writing papers, because it's a creative act. I like generating cool graphs that pack a lot of information in a small space.

I guess I realized that the research aspect of it is ultimately just a means to an end, for me, no matter how many years I've spent trying to convince myself that I should be a scientist. Which is a funny thing to find myself saying, because historically I have espoused the typical "Dammit Jim, I'm a scientist, not an engineer" doctrine and kind of looked down upon those who were but common artisans to my honorable scholarliness.

But I don't really identify myself as an engineer, either. My limited software engineering experiences have been sufficient to convince me that software engineering is a fast trip down a short road to some kind of horrific Phantom Tollboth-style Doldrums of Computer Science Land. The mind-shattering ideas that this essay instilled to me, whether by accident or by design, were that:

  1. I am not alone. There are many poor misguided fools like me in academia who spend their time doing research, and feel like they should be doing research, and are forced to satisfy their creative urges with the occasional guilty self-indulgence of writing a bit beautiful code amongst the usual research prototype drudgery. Every once in a while they hang their head and say to themselves, I'm really a terrible scientist and then resume hacking their 4000-line TCL monstrosity, wondering where that vague feeling of self-loathing is coming from.
  2. Software engineering, that tedious and life-sucking monster, is not the only option in the world besides research coding. If I am not a scientist, I am not automatically a software engineer.

There's no immediate plan of action suggested by these ideas. They are merely food for thought at the moment—albeit food for a starving man. Bills have to be paid, and I'm probably in one of the better positions for being able to write fun code and get paid for it. I just understand myself a little bit better now, and am fooling myself a little bit less.

And no, I'm not somehow suddenly entranced by a bizarre cultish romantic hacker ideal after reading that essay. I am extremely familiar with the complete lack of social life and graces that so naturally springs from being a computer geek. I know there's nothing romantic about it, so fuck you and your flashbulbs. If I could get excited about something that would get me chicks, or that more than .001% of the population could even fucking understand or appreciate, or that wasn't going to leave me blind and with crippling arthritis in my fucking hands at age 40, you can bet the fucking farm I would fucking be doing that instead.

Posted at 00:16 | /misc | (leave a comment) | permalink


What good is an obscenity trial except to popularize literature? -- Nero Wolfe, "The League of Frightened Men"