Cultural literacy for hackers

I’ve written before on the hacker culture as a invisible college defined partly by a network of trust, gatekeepers, and certification authorities. Jay Maynard ask the next question: What are the non-technical things every hacker should know?

Jay wrote in email:

> It just struck me that this might be an interesting subject for
> exploration. It's pretty obvious that any hacker out there worthy of
> the name would know Monty Python and the Holy Grail backwards and
> forwards. The same goes for Airplane!, Blazing Saddles and Young
> Frankenstein, TRON and now TRON: Legacy, and such written works as
> TNHD and Bored of the Rings and CATB (whether on paper or on the Web
> isn't important), not to mention pretty much the entire Weird Al
> Yankovic corpus (but especially It's All About the Pentiums and White
> and Nerdy).
> 
> But it goes beyond that. How many hackers wouldn't immediately place a
> soft voice saying "I want to boot some head too" and get a chuckle out
> of the thought? Or hear a comment about world domination and think of
> a white mouse with a big head and a dumb sidekick?
> 
> Just what would you say is basic cultural literacy for a hacker? Not
> in the sense so much that a hacker would need to be familiar with the
> works in order to be a hacker, but rather that someone with the hacker
> mindset would be drawn to them innately?

Good question, and I can add a few things. If you are a hacker or proto-hacker:

* You should know at least a few of Tom Lehrer’s ditties as well as Weird Al’s. Huge style points if you can sing The Elements a la Daniel Radcliffe.

* If you are mystified by the phrase “Hail Eris! All Hail Discordia!”, you need to fix that bug immediately.

* You should have romped through the logic puzzles in one or more of Raymond Smullyan’s books.

* You need to know who the dread god Finagle and his mad prophet Murphy are, and be able to recite dozens of corollaries of Murphy’s Law off the top of your head. And what “on the gripping hand” means and who actually has one.

* Terry Pratchett. If you need that name or his relevance to the hacker posture of mind explained to you, I pity you deeply.

Thread open for more suggestions.

402 thoughts on “Cultural literacy for hackers

  1. Should know what the Singularity is and what the basic arguments surrounding the topic are. No particular opinion about it is required, though.

    ESR says: Agreed on both counts.

  2. Speaking of the Singularity:

    I would be very interested in seeing an Eric Raymond book review of Kurzweil’s book.

    No doubt some of it is true, but I have a hard time believing that technology could really make us immortal.

  3. So far this looks like “every” hacker from an English-speaking background, perhaps even a US / UK / Australian background. Does the same list work for other English speakers, such as India or Singapore? And what about those brought up in other languages. The extensive Russian hacker scene comes to mind — but would that world have necessarily picked up on so much of the English language stuff? Or, indeed, can “hacker culture” be defined as a Western phenomenon?

  4. You should know:

    * Neal Stephenson and his works, most particularly “In the Beginning was the Command Line”. And Snow Crash. (Speaking of which, it’s time for me to read Snow Crash again.)

    * John Brunner and his works, most particularly “The Shockwave Rider”.

    * Richard Feynman and his works, most particularly “Safecracker meets Safecracker”.

    I’ll add more later.

    ESR says: Agreed on all of this. I almost put Brunner’s “The Shockwave Rider” in my original list.

  5. >Or, indeed, can “hacker culture” be defined as a Western phenomenon?

    My experience from travel is that a lot of this stuff crosses linguistic barriers more than you’d think – Danish hackers read Terry Pratchett, for example, and I’ve seen Japanese hackers pick up on Heinlein references.

  6. Is there anything more embarrassing to the computing community than the inane conversations surrounding the term “hacker”. The pretension of the supposed gatekeepers of this term is mind-boggling.

    ESR says: Thank you, Roger. Now kindly get stuffed. Jay asked a sensible question and we’re going to have fun kicking it around, whether you approve or not.

  7. >The work of Robert A. Heinlein.

    I’m a huge Heinlein fan myself and think pretty much everyone should be familiar with the old man’s work, but I’m not sure I see a specific relevance to hacker culture there. What’s your argument for the proposition?

  8. I’d equally say if you don’t know who this guy is, you should also fix that.

    You should probably be able rattle off at least a dozen sources of caffeine other than the obvious coffee and cola.

    You should know the best sources in your area for Thai, Chinese (especially Szechuan), Sushi and Indian food (at least), and be intimately familiar with their menus. On a similar culinary note, you should know what a rotary debugger is, where to get one, and the difference between ANSI standard and ISO standard flavors.

    You should know what `M-x butterfly’ does.

    You should probably be familiar with Asimov’s works as well.

  9. And in asking that, I think you reach the core of the question. Hackish culture isn’t just things hackers know and appreciate. It, too, is hackery of its own form. I think you’d agree that Weird Al has the hacker nature: who else but a hacker would turn Bohemian Rhapsody into a rousing polka? I would argue that parody is a form of hacking, and that Weird Al and Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker and Terry Pratchett all have the hacker nature (yes, even without knowing Pratchett’s history of hacking on small computers). Feynman’s hacker chops speak for themselves.

    I think this generalizes. Hackers appreciate hacks in all parts of their lives. Take the AMC Pacer as one example. It’s almost a cliched nerdmobile, but it got that way because of design features that actually make a lot of sense. The unusual low beltline was designed to give the small car much larger feeling and superb visibility. The passenger door is longer than the driver’s door (in left-hand drive countries) to allow passengers easier access from the sidewalk side. The car’s nontrivially wider than average for cars in its class because that’s what really improves comfort and the feeling of room inside. If AMC could have managed to build other than crap at that point in its corporate life, we’d be seeing Pacers running around as classic cars today.

    And that leads to another point. Hackers have a low tolerance for crap. A well-executed hack is much more satisfying then lowest-common-denominator crap. Hacks on language, filmmaking, cartoons, writing, or music not only have to be hackish, but also well done. Try a hack and blow it, unless it’s so self-evidently obvious that you’re breaking new and tough ground, and you’ll get the “meh” of death. Try and succeed, and you’ll have the adulation of hackers the world over.

  10. >You should probably be familiar with Asimov’s works as well.

    I agree with all your items except maybe this one. Refers to the general question of how much literacy in classic SF is required and of what kinds. I’d like to say “a lot”, since I love that stuff and draw strength from it. But, for example, Larry Niven and Greg Egan might be more relevant than Asimov.

  11. I’m surprised to see so much fiction and fun here. I would be surprised to find a hacker—no matter how isolated from Western Media—who hadn’t figured out something about sharing and collaboration, about teaching in a classroom vs. a master-apprentice relationship, about people and power and bureaucracy: pranks and dodging it, or hiding from it, or makin it dance. I expect almost every hacker to embrace communication. But a hacker who knows nothing of geek humor or modernity, but only Tripitaka, Socrates, and Anansi—and a wrench—is a hacker still.

  12. >But a hacker who knows nothing of geek humor or modernity, but only Tripitaka, Socrates, and Anansi—and a wrench—is a hacker still.

    As a philosophical/psychological point, I agree with you, and I’m certain that Jay and Craig and the others pitching in with pop-culture lists would too.

    On a more practical level, we’re discussing the things you need to know to share communicative referents with the hacker culture as it actually is in modernity, not as it hypothetically might be in a context where lots of its members don’t have access to the stuff we’re talking about. Really, in 2010 it’s barely even possible to imagine a hacker who hasn’t seen (for example) Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies.

  13. Brian, that’s why I specifically chose not to make my question one of norms, but of manifestations; not “this is what a hacker must know”, but rather “what do hackers enjoy that’s tied enough to being a hacker that one hacker can toss out a reference in the expectation that another hacker will catch it and appreciate it”.

  14. Either I don’t belong in your subculture, or there are generational differences. Everything you cite as needful for hacker-literacy might be classed as old-people-stuff. I’m at least half a generation younger than esr and Jay Maynard, and while I get about half of the references, my experience has been that would-be hackers younger than me will not.

    Niven and Heinlein are sine qua non, but only if you’re into libertarian SF. Monty Python springs eternal, but isn’t much watched by men born after the ’70s. Weird Al was hot 20 years ago.

    Nascent hackers read XKCD, watch Office Space, luuurrrv Cryptonomicon.

  15. Really, in 2010 it’s barely even possible to imagine a hacker who hasn’t seen (for example) Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies.

    /me raises his hand.

    But then, I’m familiar with the long, drawn-out, overblown examples of repeated deus ex machina that is the Ring trilogy, and as far as I’m concerned, the Harvard Lampoon said everything about it that needed saying in just over 150 pages. Going to see it in the theater strikes me as a waste of $30.

  16. > Nascent hackers read XKCD, watch Office Space, luuurrrv Cryptonomicon.

    I suppose that makes me a nascent hacker, even if I am one of the old-people.

    > But a hacker who knows nothing of geek humor or modernity, but only Tripitaka, Socrates, and Anansi—and a wrench—is a hacker still.

    Yes, but we were discussing hacker culture, not hackers per se. Of course I know nothing of Asian, African, or Eastern European hacker culture, so I’m not qualified to discuss their referents; perhaps Triptaka and Anansi do figure in.

  17. > Going to see it in the theater strikes me as a waste of $30.

    PJ’s Rings trilogy was a wonderful demonstration of the state of the art in movie-making technology, and well worth the theater price on that basis. But BluRay and HDTV are almost as good, and don’t involve the modern “theater experience” (ugly obnoxious crowds, cramped theaters, etc) so I’ll concede your point.

  18. As always, I find I do not fit the norms. I am intimately familiar with about 50% of the cultural prerequisites …and vaguely familiar with another 25%….mostly “old guy stuff” but a surprising amount of the “young punk milieu”. I do not consider myself a hacker though…merely a monkey that is slightly more talented at arranging shells and sticks…

  19. Bookwise: Charles Stross’s Accelerando (http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/fiction/accelerando/accelerando-intro.html). Vernor Vinge’s “Fire upon the Deep” is also good – but those not raised on usenet do *not* get it (which is too bad – a solar system wide network will look a lot more like netnews than the web)

    I’m unsure if there is a lot of cohesion of “hacker character” in the next generation… and perhaps that’s OK. It’s we that have to become irrelevant, talking about the relative merits of the wy-60 vs the vt100 in ye olde programmer’s home…

    I’ve by now met quite a few of the current age’s programmers who have not seen Monty Python, or The Prisoner (the only essential not mentioned so far), or read Heinlein, but they’ve played quake, and are in recovery from WoW. Few have left the house long enough to get to a SF con, but all are online nearly all the time.

    LISP experience? Very rare. Assembly language? Almost never. Python and PHP, sure…

    Few have seen SCO’s (long before they became evil) wonderful parodies of the industry, either. Weird Al may have done Bohemian Rhapsody but SCOhemian rhapsody captured the conflicts between marketing, QA, engineering and management (which I just re-watched for old times sake)

    http://il.youtube.com/watch?v=gR6lrCGbr88&feature=related

    (I note that I can sing and play Lehrer’s “She’s my girl”. I played it instrumentally at a wedding once, (it is quite a lovely song), which went well until the groom happened to come by and see the lyrics… It WAS a good hack, until that happened.)

    The last film that hasn’t been mentioned yet in this thread was Blade Runner. It seems appropriate to close with:

    “I’ve seen things… you people wouldn’t believe:
    Attack ships on fire off the Shoulder of Orion..
    I watched Sea-Beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser gate…

    All those moments… will be lost… in time, like tears… in the rain.

    Time… to die….”

  20. Nascent hackers read XKCD, watch Office Space, luuurrrv Cryptonomicon.

    You must’ve missed my comment about ‘M-x butterfly’ above. Agreed on those, too. Dilbert, of couse, too.

    You should at least know who esr (duh), rms, Gosper, Bill Joy, Gosling, Linus, Ken, dmr, Brian Kernighan, Keith Bostic, John Draper, Kirk McKusick, Keith Packard, Turing, Larry Wall, the Woz, and Guido, are and be familiar with their contributions. Probably a few I forgot on that list.

  21. Since we’re referring “Hail Eris!” etc., here, Perhaps among the “Robert A’s” we should include Robert Anton Wilson?

    Love the sggestions so far.

  22. Morgan Greywolf, I know few of the names on your list. What about Chuck Moore and John McCarthy? Or lately, Matz, Zed Shaw, John Resig, Douglas Crockford? Or on the dark side, de Raadt and Drepper? I don’t challenge that the old guard has a usefully heuristic list; I challenge that it is broadly meaningful to the newer echelons.

  23. >I’m a huge Heinlein fan myself and think pretty much everyone should be familiar with the old man’s >work, but I’m not sure I see a specific relevance to hacker culture there. What’s your argument for the >proposition?

    Well, for starters, the Lazarus Long quote at the top of this page. :-D

  24. I think the core list is smaller than most of you make it out to be. If you’re familiar with Adams, Tolkien, Monty Python, The Matrix, and Office Space, and know at least a few bits about the Asimov and Harry Potter universes, that’s enough to pick up on maybe 95% of the fiction references that are particularly common to hackerdom. While it would be strange for a hacker to not to have much cultural exposure beyond this list, knowledge of it is to prevent anyone from recoiling in shock that you aren’t familiar with literary work X.

  25. surprisingly little TV SF mentioned yet. (too obvious?) trek, b5, red dwarf, who, etc.

    should at least be able to follow, if not actively participate in, religious arguments over relative merit (among treks, trek vs. b5, old who vs new who, etc.).

    there’s also a whole swath of non-SF (at least for most strict senses) fiction (TV and otherwise) that tends to appeal to hackers–macgyver, etc. i find _house_ has very good uptake–try saying “it’s *never* lupus” in an appropriate crowd and see how many laughs you get.

  26. Linus? Guido? Old guard? Hardly. Linus is my age. Thanks for making feel old. Python and Linux are very much a recent thing.

    I won’t comment on Theo *grumble*. You do realize that Chuck Moore and John McCarthy, two people you listed as appealing to the younger crowd, are older than probably most of the people on my first list?

  27. >Weird Al was hot 20 years ago

    Huh? “White & Nerdy”, which is possibly the most brilliant satire of geekdom ever uttered, dates from 2006. The fact that you dismiss Weird Al as “hot 20 years ago” really causes me to question your judgment and observational acuity about the other stuff. Typing Niven as a libertarian SF writer doesn’t help your case, either; unlike Heinlein, his work has never had any detectable politics at all.

    Hacker culture has a tendency to glom on to really pungent satires and hold on to them long past the point where pop culture has forgotten them. Tom Lehrer and Discordianism are cases in point, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail may be sliding into that category.

  28. >I suppose that [to read XKCD, watch Office Space, luuurrrv Cryptonomicon makes] me a nascent hacker, even if I am one of the old-people.

    Likewise. If I needed reassurance that the generation “gap” in hackerdom is at worst a tiny crack rather than a gaping chasm, hanging out with Randall Munroe a couple years back at Penguicon would have provided ample.

  29. >Charles Stross’s Accelerando

    Which I have a bit of a soft spot for because one of the early characters was partly modeled on me. Charlie and I are on each others’ “I knew him before he was famous” lists. And you could add all the Bob Howard stories from The Atrocity Archives onward. Stuffed with hacker-culture in-jokes.

    >I’m unsure if there is a lot of cohesion of “hacker character” in the next generation…

    Judging by the hackers I meet doing speaking gigs and at SF conventions, there is.

    >Few have left the house long enough to get to a SF con, but all are online nearly all the time.

    Possible difference in samples, then.

    >The last film that hasn’t been mentioned yet in this thread was Blade Runner.

    I’m not sure it belongs in the hacker-literacy canon. Why would you put it there?

  30. “>Charles Stross’s Accelerando

    Which I have a bit of a soft spot for because one of the early characters was partly modeled on me.”

    Really? Which one?

    I picked up a copy of Accelerando in a bookstore at DIA, of all places. Well-written, if a bit confusing in the later chapters.

    And, of course, anyone who’s played MMOs or Second Life has to read Halting State at some point. I was a bit bummed when it didn’t get the Hugo at Denvention 3 (which I was at)…

  31. Gary Larson’s “The Far Side”, Dilbert, a taste for puns and off-beat humor, …

  32. >Really? Which one?

    Now I’ll have to reread it. There was this guy who wandered around giving away inventions…

  33. Preferably earlier Dilbert, and possibly the television series which I missed at the time but I think was actually pretty good. The cartoons after Scott Adams discovered he could build his career solely on pandering to cubicle workers start to lose hacker points, with the rare exception. (More power to him to make money his way, but I don’t find it as good or as hackerly.)

  34. Manfred. Here’s the book itself as provided by the author, posted more to let people know it exists than save you the ten seconds of Googling it would take to find it once you know that.

  35. perspective from a semi-outsider (hacker by nature, but not a programmer): you have to know what an image macro is — how to make one, what the correct tone is, and why it’s not defined by the daily drivel on ICHC.

    jay’s analysis of parody as hacking is spot-on. what is “airplane!” but a ’70s air-crash disaster movie hacked into a comedy? it even relies heavily on the puns and wordplay that ESR has cited before as being a signpost of hacker thinking.

    i think “inception” (which i only recently saw) will be on this list in several years, as a movie that not only appeals to the hacker nature with its intricate puzzles-within-puzzles but also surely depicts high-level hackers at work.

    i was surprised it took niven so long to make it into the discussion. every old-school hacker i’ve known seems to have “ringworld” as a cultural touchstone.

    gibson?

  36. Surprised to see Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy isn’t on the list. Douglas Adams was the writer who made me want to to be a writer the most out of any that I’ve read.

    Music: Progressive rock seems to be a perennial favorite. My peer group shares an affection for post-punk and indie-rock. Joy Division/New Order, Talking Heads, Devo, They Might Be Giants, The Smiths, among others. A lot of cult artists, in general: XTC, Big Star, Nick Drake, The Velvet Underground, among others.

    As for Web comics, nobody’s mentioned Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.
    Abstruse Goose is also classic.

  37. Surprised to see Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy isn’t on the list. Douglas Adams was the writer who made me want to to be a writer the most out of any that I’ve read.

    But I did mention it; several posts back. I would’ve mentioned Mr. Coulton as well, but um, well, sorry, Jessica. :)

  38. Morgan Greywolf:
    You just mentioned Douglas Adams. For all I know, you could have been referring to Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (also recommended). ;-)

  39. “Now I’ll have to reread it. There was this guy who wandered around giving away inventions…”

    Jeremy’s right, it’s Manfred Macx. And he (and the ladies in his life, and his descendants, and his cybernetic cat) are pretty much central to the book’s entire plotline. Which is saying something.

  40. esr wrote:
    “I’m a huge Heinlein fan myself and think pretty much everyone should be familiar with the old man’s work, but I’m not sure I see a specific relevance to hacker culture there. What’s your argument for the proposition?”

    I’m surprised nobody has mentioned “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”. It’s full of stuff, from “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” (TANSTAAFL) to Mike HOLMES IV, with discussions of economics, orbital mechanics and anarchism in between.

  41. strongpoint, I love Mel Gibson’s “Conspiracy Theory”. Touches on every possible conspiracy theory.

    the whole “i’m pretending to not understand your somewhat ambiguous reference” joke meme seems to be a telltale symptom as well.

    perhaps “knowing how to make a macro” is too specific, now that i think about it. but it seems to me that hacker types seem to grok the proper tone and win-vs.-fail criteria almost instinctively.

  42. Quote “I’m grepping the refrigerator for pizza” (Eric may even know who I’m quoting) but that sentence will be understood by hackers, and no one else.

  43. Definitely add Douglas Adams – I know far too many people who pick 42 when asked for a number. Also comments about ‘brain the size of a planet’ and the fate of the Marketing Department of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation

    The music of Rush? or is that just older hackers

    I suspect that Black Adder (especially “I have a cunning plan”) and Austin Powers are also well known

    Also these days some exposure to LOLcats is probably good. Enough to understand the concept of ‘ceiling cat’ and ‘I can haz ….’

  44. (keep on pressing submit then thinking of something else)

    Cartoons like Southpark and perhaps “Pinky & the Brain”

    I’m not sure what specifics to suggest but I suspect a familiarity with classic Anime would be good. Perhaps Spaceship Yamato?

  45. It was practically a requirement that you had to have seen “Star Wars” (the original) and “Buckaroo Banzai” to get a CS degree.

    “Back to the Future” was another popular one, if only for quotes “1.8 Gigawatts”

    Nowadays, I’d probably suggest that getting to know that MC Frontalot exists and to have listened to a song or three would be good.

  46. I’d be surprised if Girl Genius and Watchmen weren’t pretty well known– though maybe they aren’t commonly referred to?

    Even if you don’t read Asimov overall, I’d be surprised if the Three Laws of Robotics don’t come up now and then. Or are they too silly now that we know how hard natural language is?

    Is Magic the Gathering still referred to?

    Off topic, but probably of interest: Forensic archaeology about deaths in the Wars of the Roses. Also, medieval people weren’t all that short.

  47. Typing Niven as a libertarian SF writer doesn’t help your case, either; unlike Heinlein, his work has never had any detectable politics at all.

    I got a major anti-eco-activist vibe from Oath of Fealty; on the groping hand, that may have all been Pournelle’s doing.

  48. >i think “inception” (which i only recently saw) will be on this list in several years, as a movie that not only appeals to the hacker nature with its intricate puzzles-within-puzzles but also surely depicts high-level hackers at work.

    I think this is right.

    >i was surprised it took niven so long to make it into the discussion. every old-school hacker i’ve known seems to have “ringworld” as a cultural touchstone.

    I think The Mote in God’s Eye has endured better, in hacker culture at least. We have at least one live reference to it in slang; can’t think of an analog for Ringworld.

    >gibson?

    Gibson and the whole cyberpunk thing seems to have had much less influence on hacker culture than might expect – less, in retrospect, than classic hard SF a la Heinlein and Niven and Vinge. I’m not sure why this is.

  49. >Music: Progressive rock seems to be a perennial favorite.

    I don’t think this is specific to hackers, I think it’s an index of a larger population – people with IQs in the gifted range and up – from which hackers are disproportionately drawn.

  50. >I’d be surprised if Girl Genius and Watchmen weren’t pretty well known

    All the stuff you refer to, with the possible (but only possible) exception of the Three Laws of Robotics, I think of as generic bright-person stuff, not specifically hacker culture material.

  51. >I got a major anti-eco-activist vibe from Oath of Fealty; on the groping hand, that may have all been Pournelle’s doing.

    That’s right. The amount of conservative chuntering in a collaboration seems a pretty good indicator of how much of the writing Pournelle did; Niven’s solo stuff has none of it at all, while Pournelle’s solo stuff is stiff with it.

  52. Sherlock Holmes?
    I am not a hacker myself but know most of the references and names. Even been at the “humble” home of the original tripitaka. And I read all 100 chapters of the book he figures in.

    Maybe this is wider than hackerdom?

    ESR says: I think it is.

  53. “Wot are we going to do tonight, Brain?”
    “What we do every night, Pinky…try to TAKE OVER THE WORLD!”

    I still maintain that show permanently warped my sense of reality perception, chock full of obscure pop culture reference goodness.

  54. Matt, you might be interested to know that the Brain was modeled rather explicitly after one of two writers who did a lot of work on Tiny Toon Adventures, by the name of Tom Minton. Any relation?

  55. >Charles Stross’s Accelerando

    >Which I have a bit of a soft spot for because one of the early characters was >partly modeled on me. Charlie and I are on each others’ “I knew him before he >was famous” lists. And you could add all the Bob Howard stories from The >Atrocity Archives onward. Stuffed with hacker-culture in-jokes.

    I thought one was modeled on ME! I think there’s a lot of hacker self-identification in Manfred’s character…

    Yes, the Bob Howard stories are great. I look forward to Rule 32.

    >>I’m unsure if there is a lot of cohesion of “hacker character” in the next generation…

    >Judging by the hackers I meet doing speaking gigs and at SF conventions, there is.

    And I’ve been living overseas, where there are few speaking gigs and SF conventions.

    Notably, Monty Python’s English accents are mostly in indecipherable to non-native English speakers.

    That said, I’ll point a couple non-Americans that I think have hacker nature at this blog entry and see what works for them.

    >>Few have left the house long enough to get to a SF con, but all are online nearly all the time.

    >Possible difference in samples, then.

    Your sample set is skewed by self-selection, as is mine.

    >>The last film that hasn’t been mentioned yet in this thread was Blade Runner.

    >I’m not sure it belongs in the hacker-literacy canon. Why would you put it there?

    The genome hacker character of JF Sebastian, and the phrase “Wake up, time to die”, but I think I was mostly thinking of that movie in the context of what we are (not) passing on to the next generation…

    Some other names and references that came to mind during this episode of navel gazing: jwz (who has not only escaped his cubie but keeps finding good hacks like the sounds made by sorting algorithms, kibo, Jon Postel, Van Jacobson, the internet oracle…

    A delight in Easter eggs (“make love”)…

    (I had not seen all the xkcds before now. I just added it to my comics.el favorites… lost some sleep over it before laughing myself to bed. Wonderful stuff. M-x butterfly is broken in my release of emacs, sadly enough. Maybe it’s because I have a SSD?)

  56. @esr: “Typing Niven as a libertarian SF writer doesn’t help your case, either; unlike Heinlein, his work has never had any detectable politics at all.”

    This is likely an easy mistake to make (I’m assuming it’s a mistake from your assertion, since I’m not terribly familiar with Niven’s stuff) due to Niven’s firm association to Pournelle who is most definitely on the vocal anti-left end of the spectrum. Seeing how I’m more familiar with Pournelle’s thought from his blog than his/Niven’s books, I can easily see myself making the same mistake.

  57. “Wear a dance belt with your spandex”? :-)

    All seriousness aside…
    > Really, in 2010 it’s barely even possible to imagine a hacker who hasn’t seen (for example) Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies.

    /metoo

    That’s much more your tolerance for fantasy, of which I have none, than your hackish nature. I hope. (You noticed the Lehrer riff in there, right?)

    I’m surprised that I got all the way to the end of the current comments and no one mentioned Hofstadter *or* Martin Gardner…

  58. On another point, I think MC Frontalot, though I’m not familiar with his actual work, does belong in here just because of the delightful frame-shift of his *name*.

  59. @esr: I think that your thoughts and data points i the post and the others in the thread a way too strongly USA centric.

    Just to be clear, I don’t mean that it’s restricted to English (it’d almost HAVE to be), but that anyone who was not raised in USA/UK in the 70s/80s at the latest would have a very strong chance of not being familiar with a lot of items. That is not a bad thing in and out of itself (heck, the hacker culture is strongly USA centric for most of its history), but IMHO pretty sloppy of you all to not explicitly qualify that point when it comes to talking about *culture*.

    I also agree with Matthew King’s assertion about ageism – Tom Lehrer and Discordian stuff being good examples. Pretty much none of the hacker/protohacker type people in my cultural circles (both age wise or non-USA-upbringing-wise) have any familiarity with either.

    SOME of the stuff mentioned actually manages to transcend age/cultural boundaries, likely PRECISELY because of its qualities that make it such a great complement to haker culture (Murphy, Monty Python).

  60. @Stilgherrian – I somehow managed to miss your comment, so apologies if my post was somewhat a duplicate of your thoughts. I think that English-centeredness is not necessarily a bad thing in this topic, for 3 reasons: (1) A vast majority of hacker culture IS English and even USA centric, historically. (2) A lot of non-English hackers actually have at least some familiarity with English (at lest in Russia, and I’m guessing a lot more so in India); (3) A great deal of hacker-friendly culture was widely translated. A good example would be Murphy’s laws, RAH or for example Lewis Carroll which I think belongs on this list.

    OTOH, parody movies (Airplane) would probably be waaaay outside of realm of experience of a random russian hacker who likely haven’t seen more than a third of the movies it parodies and might not have the required grasp of the English – idiiom wise and dictionary-breadth-wise – to get some of the puns/double-enterndres etc…

  61. @esr – now, interestingly enough, Jay’s “Bored of the Rings” data point is a good one if you generalize it to “hacky reworkings of LOTR”. As a matter of fact, having read a TON of LOTR derivatives in English AND in Russian, the VERY BEST one by a large margin was written in Russian (Chronicles of the War of the Ring written as an industrial/hacker/enlightnment culture (Mordor) crushed by feudal/medieval culture, with all of the “evil Mordor” stuff being very typical propaganda by the guys who wrote the history (as an example, think of what a random person in 1900s thought about Ghengis Khan and mongols, largely thanks to their almost completely false portrayal by western historians).

  62. >due to Niven’s firm association to Pournelle who is most definitely on the vocal anti-left end of the spectrum.

    Ah, now this is a generational thing. If you had grown up reading SF in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as I did, you’d identify the core of Niven’s work not as his later collaborations with Pournelle but as his earlier solo stuff, especially the “Known Space” sequence. The Pournelle collaborations, with the exception of the excellent and groundbreaking The Mote In God’s Eye, were inferior work.

  63. “Ah, now this is a generational thing. If you had grown up reading SF in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as I did, you’d identify the core of Niven’s work not as his later collaborations with Pournelle but as his earlier solo stuff, especially the “Known Space” sequence. ”

    I’d say it’s a “You’ve actually read anything Niven wrote in Known Space other than Ringworld”[0] thing, rather than a generational thing.

    I grew up in the late 80s/early 90s, and Niven’s Known Space stories were possibly the second major grouping of SF I read as a teenager.

    [0] – Niven should have just stopped with that one, good gods, the rest of those were crap.

  64. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”.

    Indeed. I consider Manuel Garcia O’Kelly Davis a hacker, who the self-aware Lunar Authority computer “Mycroft” put over some of the coolest hacks ever to win independence.

    One could easily classify “Stranger in a Strange Land” as a story about hacking the universe itself.

    Another movie that I think every hacker should know, simply because of the volume of awesome lines of dialogue, is “The Princess Bride”. Some of them are essential parts of the hacker mindset (“Inconceivable!”, “You keep using that word. I do not thin’ it means what you thin’ it means.”)

  65. esr said:
    >I think The Mote in God’s Eye has endured better, in hacker culture at least. We have at least one live reference to it in slang; can’t think of an analog for Ringworld.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I still occasionally use the epithet “Tanj!”.

    Admittedly, it has gotten me some strange looks.

  66. @esr
    > Gibson and the whole cyberpunk thing seems to have had much less influence on hacker culture
    > than might expect – less, in retrospect, than classic hard SF a la Heinlein and Niven and Vinge.
    > I’m not sure why this is.

    Speaking as a relatively young (sub-30) maybe-proto-hacker, when I read Neuromancer some ten-ish years ago my reaction was: ‘Here is a book that is extrapolating the popular view of hacker culture without genuinely grokking it.’ This is versus Snow Crash, which I read within months of Neuromancer, and which sold me on the first page. When I read Heinlein and Niven and Stephenson, I pick up on a kind of subdued (or not-so-subdued) playfulness that Gibson’s work, or at least what I have read of his, lacks.

    Also, re: Ringworld, what sells me on it as a hacker-culture work is not the story itself, but the fun world-building and the attempts Niven makes at getting the reader to appropriately mind-bend so as to properly comprehend both a.) the Scale of the Ringworld and b.) what it looks like and how it works. Many of the plot points of the first book center around mind-bending: a giant mountain that is actually an inverse-crater; an eye-of-god that is actually a sideways-hurricane, and so forth.

    ESR says: I think all these observations are extremely astute. Bravo!

  67. In my opinion, Larry Niven is like the elephant in the circus parade. He’s one of the best parts, but there’s a reason he comes at the end. You really want that guy to follow him with a shovel and bucket. My paperback copy of Ringworld has jarring continuity errors.

    Jerry Pournelle is willing to wield that shovel. He adds value in other ways too. He understands just how bogus the left-right paradigm is. I think he’s a minarchist.

  68. Gibson and the whole cyberpunk thing seems to have had much less influence on hacker culture than might expect – less, in retrospect, than classic hard SF a la Heinlein and Niven and Vinge. I’m not sure why this is.

    I see two possibilities as to why cyberpunk as a whole hasn’t clicked with the hacker culture.

    The first, and lesser, is that cyberpunk uses computers and how they might influence cultural developments as an element of the fantastic. Hacker culture (or at least this sub-domain thereof) is far too close to this in reality for it to be purely a “fantasy”/fictional development. While it is possible to set this aside, it is a different sort of “suspension of disbelief” more akin to reading Jules Verne as sci-fi than Vernor Vinge or Frank Herbert.

    The second is that much of hacker culture is built around a philosophy of [boundless?] possibilities, and much of cyberpunk has a tone of ‘predestination’ or humans being powerless against the march-of-technology, with the subtle implication that individuals cannot divert or affect the flow of history. (Consider as an example the Gibson novel “Neuromancer”, and how much of the plot action was revealed to be driven by the AIs versus human action.) Since hacker culture is about asserting human independence, this philosophy will naturally run against the grain of hackerdom, no matter what trappings it wears.

    ESR says: Well reasoned. I think this fits together nicely with jsk’s observations.

  69. @Jay Maynard

    You know, you’re not the first person to ask me that, but no, I don’t believe we’re related. Minton is actually an adopted name. Apparently, one my ancestor’s entire family was wiped out while he was young during the War Between the States and he was adopted by some neighbors by the name of Minton.

  70. My father and I both feel that Niven and Pournelle have managed to write one of the seminal classics of SF in collaboration.

    We just disagree on which one. For him, it’s Lucifer’s Hammer (Rick Delanty’s speech at the end of that book is “The measure of your life is your honor guard in Hell” speech for every engineer I know). For me, it’s Mote in God’s Eye.

    One of the signal, crowning moments of my life was showing Attack Vector: Tactical to Jerry Pournelle and Jerry saying, “Bob Heinlein would have loved this.”

    While I *wish* that Attack Vector: Tactical were a cultural reference point for hackers, the reality of the matter is that it’s too narrowly focused. As I told Daniel Franke at PenguiCon: If “The Matrix” is hacker culture’s “Classic Cinema”, AV:T is hacker culture’s “Aida”.

    I find Stephenson to be a better essayist that novelist. The man cannot finish a book in an acceptable manner.

  71. I can see how parody such as Yankovic and intelligent silly comedy such as Monty Python would appeal to a hackers mind, and therefore become part of the hacker culture.

    otoh, the comments here (SF, Emacs butterfly, xkdc and similar comics, …) read more like the geek test ( http://www.innergeek.us/geek-test.html ), and I wouldnet b’ surprised to see them mentioned on, say, ubuntuforums, while the ubuntu userbase doesn’t necessarily qualifies as a hacker culture.

  72. >Indeed. I consider Manuel Garcia O’Kelly Davis a hacker, who the self-aware Lunar Authority computer “Mycroft” put over some of the coolest hacks ever to win independence.

    Point well made, sir. Manuel is a hacker akin to real-world hackers in a way Gibsonian cyberpunks never approach.

    You have pointed out what should have been obvious to me. I guess I was too close to Heinlein’s entire body of work to have quite the right perspective on this question. Now that you’ve opened my eyes, I think The Moon is a Harsh Mistress stands comparison with The Shockwave Rider on this level.

  73. I don’t know about anyone else, but I still occasionally use the epithet “Tanj!”.

    Admittedly, it has gotten me some strange looks.

    Sometimes, the only thing that can be said is “narf!”.

  74. >I find Stephenson to be a better essayist that novelist. The man cannot finish a book in an acceptable manner.

    This was a quite justified criticism in the past, but he’s getting better. Anathem ended well – and began well, and continued well.

  75. @jsk:

    when I read Neuromancer some ten-ish years ago my reaction was: ‘Here is a book that is extrapolating the popular view of hacker culture without genuinely grokking it.’ This is versus Snow Crash, which I read within months of Neuromancer, and which sold me on the first page. When I read Heinlein and Niven and Stephenson, I pick up on a kind of subdued (or not-so-subdued) playfulness that Gibson’s work, or at least what I have read of his, lacks.

    Agreed, and that is part of what I find fascinating why some literature has the hacker nature and some does not. In fact, there are plenty of authors who seem to cross the line back and forth (Heinlein, Asimov, and Niven all have short stories with strongly show the hacker nature) that believing the hacker-nature of the author determines the hacker-nature of the story is aesthetically displeasing to me. [Mainly because such an answer halts exploration of which aspects of the hacker nature are revealed by our preferred literature.]

  76. You have pointed out what should have been obvious to me. I guess I was too close to Heinlein’s entire body of work to have quite the right perspective on this question. Now that you’ve opened my eyes, I think The Moon is a Harsh Mistress stands comparison with The Shockwave Rider on this level.

    This is almost certainly the explanation for why Mistress is my favorite book, ever. I, too, was too close to see Manuel’s hacker-nature.

  77. None of the above.

    If you can write an awesome program or improve an existing one awesomely, for me you are a hacker wether you read Terry Pratchett or not.

  78. If you can write an awesome program or improve an existing one awesomely, for me you are a hacker wether you read Terry Pratchett or not.

    Hacker is a state of mind, not just a skillset (though the skillset tends to overlap strongly).

    But, again, this discussion is descriptive, not prescriptive. Someone with the hacker mindset is highly likely to find Pratchett quite enjoyable. That’s all that the discussion is about, really.

  79. The relationship between hacker culture and martial arts is interesting for this discussion.

    Over the last 30 years I have watched the hacker culture evolve from having a strong but largely theoretical interest in martial arts to a condition in which it is extremely common for hackers to be practising martial artists. My personal history may have been a bit ahead of the curve on this, but not by much; the shift to practice was already quite marked by the late 1990s/early 2000s.

    To some extent I think this tracks the increasingly general availability of martial-arts training in surrounding cultures. But I think it’s endogenous as well; in some sense hacker culture “wanted” to move in that direction and did so as soon as the possibility became available.

    Good explanations for this offer themselves so obviously that I won’t rehearse them here.

  80. I always put Heinlein at the top, but Asimov requires study as well, if for nothing other than his Robot stories. He looked at the existing (boring) genre and said “There is no way we’ll build such dangerous machines without some kind of safeguards against them going all Frankenstein on us.” and wrote the Laws of Robotics to represent those safeguards. Then he was able to probe the subtle ways in which even those safeguards might be circumvented.

    The Robot stories (and by extension the later retconned Empire and Foundation stories) deal with quintessential themes of hackerdom.

  81. The second is that much of hacker culture is built around a philosophy of [boundless?] possibilities, and much of cyberpunk has a tone of ‘predestination’ or humans being powerless against the march-of-technology, with the subtle implication that individuals cannot divert or affect the flow of history.

    I can see how folks could feel a subtle aversion to the thought that, module by tiny module, they might be helping to lay the foundations of a Bill Joy Singularity.

  82. Hm. A question for the regulars: Adult strategy games and wargames – is it a hacker cultural literacy requirement to know something about these or not?

    I’m inclined to think “not”, despite being heavily into them myself. But the question is interesting and I might be wrong.

  83. I’m surprised no one explicitly mentioned “Doctor Who”.

    > The pretension of the supposed gatekeepers of this term is mind-boggling.

    The problem is that you are quite likely to be unable to discern the meaning from context. It either means “one who enjoys using computers with their great technical skill” or “one who breaks computer security with their technical skill”. Those terms aren’t that dissimilar semantically. Does this represent a problem in that you have introduce semantics before you get onto substance (this caused “free software” lots of problems)?

  84. The second is that much of hacker culture is built around a philosophy of [boundless?] possibilities, and much of cyberpunk has a tone of ‘predestination’ or humans being powerless against the march-of-technology, with the subtle implication that individuals cannot divert or affect the flow of history

    That might also explain why the gibson/alec effinger style cyberpunk never quite stuck with me, while Snow Crash did. There is a subtle but notable difference that some authors take the attitude that what we do matters. And other’s don’t – that it’s pointless.

    Or why Mark Van Name’s Jumpgate series of transhuman stories stick with me.

  85. Then he was able to probe the subtle ways in which even those safeguards might be circumvented.

    When robots go into combat against each other, whether as autonomous fighter drones, through software or whatever, you have to entertain a sneaking suspicion that the ones without those safeguards are going to have a game-theoretic edge, as they’ll have a wider palette of strategies to choose from.

    Not that anyone would ever want to build such robots, of course.

  86. Strategy games? On one hand, finding hackers who have never played D&D, or one of the video game decendants or MMORPG’s is nearly futile. On the other hand, outside of D&D or one of it’s licensed intellectual properties, I can’t think of a common, and more to the point, “hackish” touchstone.

    You could argue that by the creative and inter-creative nature of RPG’s, those in general are somewhat hackish, but the player bases for strategy/miniature games (Warmachine, WH40k, etc.) are hardly hacker-centric – most of my gaming group came at it from historical wargames and would barely touch RPG’s even if they love the sci-fi themes of some of them and are hard-core SF nerds.

  87. Not that anyone would ever want to build such robots, of course.

    Of course not.

  88. When robots go into combat against each other, whether as autonomous fighter drones, through software or whatever, you have to entertain a sneaking suspicion that the ones without those safeguards are going to have a game-theoretic edge

    Not according to the Petraeus Principle. A robot without those safeguards will hurt the mission more than one with those safeguards that is destroyed by the enemy. For that reason, I expect military robots with any lethal capability to only use it under human control.

  89. Wargames: Would be inclined to think no. Not many references to them. A common hobby, though.

    Doctor Who: Possibly with the revival. Pre-revival was somewhat difficult to get a hold of for many of us. I was still quite young when even PBS stopped airing it routinely. I’ve gone back to some of the pre-revival episodes via Netflix and it’s hard to get into them because they are slow. This stuff often takes a while to percolate out to general culture.

    I’m going to mention Godel, Escher, Bach for the purposes of not adding it to the list. I’ve encountered too many respectable hackers who legitimately don’t understand it. I would consider liking it as a positive indicator, but that is not quite the same thing as the question being asked.

  90. …I’m inclined to think “not”, despite being heavily into them myself. But the question is interesting and I might be wrong.

    I’m inclined to agree with you, although the hack potential of such games (especially RPGs) is very high…but I’ve seen a significant percentage of participants display no hacker qualities – they enjoy the game for what it is, with no aptitude for pushing it further.

    There’s a strong correlation, but it’s not a hallmark cultural quality IMHO.

  91. > [Doctor Who] Pre-revival was somewhat difficult to get a hold of for many of us.

    It is a very cult thing over here in Britain, the British equivalent of Star Trek (I think this tells you something about Britain vs. America).

    The differences between old and new are like TOS and DS9.

  92. In re Neuromancer: If the hacker temperament is a sense of boundless possibility, then I wonder if hackers are apt to like noir at all. Sin City (the movie, I haven’t read the comic) might be a marginal case– at least it’s got super-science.

    I like horror some of the time. I’ve never run into noir I liked, and I think part of my problem with it is that it presents a very shut-down sort of world.

    I don’t know if there’s any horror that hackers tend to like– if there is, I’m betting on HP Lovecraft. However, even if you don’t like the status of human beings in horror, at least the author’s imagination has room to fly… and swoop down… and…

  93. I would suggest Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” as vital hacker fodder: the data glitch, Harry Tuttle’s libertarian hack on propriety tech, the steam-pink data terminals: it is as vital an image as there ever has been of the hacker aesthetic and the hacker ethic. Not to mention a samurai whose suite is made of printed circuit boards.

  94. @esr:

    Hm. A question for the regulars: Adult strategy games and wargames – is it a hacker cultural literacy requirement to know something about these or not?

    As a disclaimer, I am an “omnivore” gamer so this is something “close to home”; therefore, while I agree with the other posts saying “no”, merely to play devils advocate I will attempt to argue a somewhat contrarian point: some manner of passing knowledge may be required, but only because this is a fruitful ‘gateway’ field to “recruit” future hackers.

    First, strategy and wargames requires seeking ‘fun’ outside the broadest socially normative formats. Secondly, the “gamer” culture embraces personal creative expression: from painting your army (miniature gaming) to the RPG concepts of acting “in character”, this individual expression is central in ways that traditional games such as chess do not encourage. Finally, the wargame/RPG culture contains a set of descriptive norms toward “non-traditional” tactical choices or moves, ranking their value in a manner which mimics that of hacker culture. [There is no 'cheese-beard' chess strategy, merely good or bad sportsmanship.] Taken as a whole, these elements are foundational cornerstones of the hacker mentality — unique expression within a set of constraints — which can reveal one’s potential depth of hacker nature.

    @dan:

    There’s a strong correlation, but it’s not a hallmark cultural quality IMHO.

    True, which is why I think this is a marker not for those who already possess the hacker nature, but for whom teaching it would be easiest.

    Also, @Jeremy Bowers:

    I’m going to mention Godel, Escher, Bach for the purposes of not adding it to the list.

    From what I read of it, GEB is meant to appeal to a specific statician/logician mindset. This strong-ordered worldview is frequently in opposition to the rules-warping behavior of hacking culture.

  95. >I don’t know if there’s any horror that hackers tend to like– if there is, I’m betting on HP Lovecraft.

    I think you’re right both in that hackers generally don’t like horror and in that they make an exception for HPL. Both claims match my experience of hackers in general and (less importantly) my personal tastes.

  96. Having read through this list of comments, it seems the original question was fraught with vagueness. As soon as ESR wrote Heinlein off the list, the game was up; he then clarifies with the point that these are non-technical cultural exemplars whose referents are reasonably familiar to hackers everywhere (perhaps modulo language barriers). But then Jay comes along and confirms “if you have hacker nature, you’re likely to enjoy X”, and then we’re back to the original sense I had. Anyone with a hacker mindset is, I’m quite sure, very likely to enjoy Heinlein. So now I don’t know what we’re talking about.

    Various families of culture seem to have emerged from all this, not completely tied to the ESR and JM descriptions above. The first is the easy, broad class of things all confirmed and semi-confirmed hackers like, like Slashdot, 4chan, Asimov, Heinlein, Star Trek, Babylon 5, Coulton, MC Frontalot, XKCD, Girl Genius, martial arts, Tolkien, Gibson, Monty Python, Blackadder, Chinese food, manga, etc. etc. etc. Nerds in the streets.

    Then there’s all the exclusive clubs joined to the street, with bouncers in front of them. The most prevalent seems to be the class as ESR described it – you can expect another hacker to understand your reference to it. It’s a fun club. Heinlein, Asimov, Adams (Douglas and early Scott), Pratchett, David Brin, Kurzweil, Dick, Firefly, Trek, Monty Python, K&R (insofar as Unix has a non-technical flavor, which I claim it does), Foglio, Zork, Nethack, Portal, and still a bunch of other things.

    Then there’s the back room to that club, reserved only for the cultural element that is not only used by hackers as an underground meme patois, but is appreciated for its hackerish creativity in itself. There’s only a few left standing here. XKCD’s still here. Pratchett too. Nethack as well. And Portal (I say!). Monty Python is pretty hackish. I see a Conway here, and Martin Gardner. Asimov made it in. Feynman, of course.

    This is also a back room that – it seems to me – has a side door to an alley accessible directly from the street, since not all hackerish creativity is necessarily a source of hackrefs. Or someone can please tell me Mozart wouldn’t be a hacker if he’d more than just orchestras to play with as a kid. A hacker doesn’t need a ball of transistors to exhibit this flavor of brainfu.

    ESR says: Very well analyzed!

  97. good grief. no one has invoked clarke?
    plus not enough emphasis here on vinge, egan and stephenson

  98. Re-read above. BOFH is technical. Cthulhu and XKCD were both mentioned, numerous times in fact.

  99. The way I see it, cyberpunk and hackerdom are not really that related on more than a superficial level.

    One could say that cyberpunk is much more right-brained and about aesthetics and atmosphere. Whereas hackers seem to me to more trickster engineers.

    Cyberpunk is interested in existing systems (although influenced by technology). Hackers are more interested in creating their own systems.

    Cyberpunk shows a zero-sum or negative-sum universe, hackers are pre-wired to seek positive-sum games.

    Cyberpunk is messy through neglect and incompetence, hackers seek elegance and any messes (ie dirty hacks) they create are intentional and cordoned-off.

    Hackers is a cyberpunk movie in my opinion. I can’t really think of any true hacker movies, kinda difficult to portray it in that format.

  100. re: horror:

    In my experience and estimation, most standard horror is of the from-within variety: vampires that reflect the uncontrolled id, zombies mirroring our worst culture traits, and so forth. It tends to show us what we like least about ourselves and rarely gives an escape, instead giving a sense of being trapped. HPL stands out for me in that he is almost invariably a from-without storyteller. Many of the horrors he describes stem from his own unease with the rapidly-expanding scientific horizons being uncovered in his time. Maybe I’m rambling here, but Lovecraftian horror is, to me, more ‘limitless, frightening possibilities and an insignificant humanity within them’ rather than ‘pitiful humanity rattling the cages of its own impotence.’

    I suspect hacker-types will generally tend towards the more outwardly-creative horror works than the typical bogeyman stuff.

    ESR says: Once again, very astute. I agree.

  101. With vampires and zombies, we are still firmly within some kind of reality with expected rules, concepts, roles, and causalities. Even if we die, it still makes sense in a way. I get the sense that HPL is different here because he actively aims to dissolve all sense of reality, leaving no escape, not even death.

    Maybe surrealism could appeal to hackers also? I am not familiar with the genre at all, however.

  102. Peter Davies (in reply to “pretention” guy):
    > The problem is that you are quite likely to be unable to discern the meaning from context. It either means “one who enjoys using computers with their great technical skill” or “one who breaks computer security with their technical skill”. Those terms aren’t that dissimilar semantically. Does this represent a problem in that you have introduce semantics before you get onto substance (this caused “free software” lots of problems)?

    No, his problem wasn’t that he confused hackers with crackers, his problem is that he’s one of the guys who thinks ESR is pretentious because he “presumed” to guide hacker culture — in part by releasing TNHD and editing TJF.

    At least, that was my reading.

  103. From what I read of it, GEB is meant to appeal to a specific statician/logician mindset. This strong-ordered worldview is frequently in opposition to the rules-warping behavior of hacking culture.

    No, that’s in the set of ways in which it is commonly misunderstood because it’s, well, hard to understand. Not even the book itself, if anything it does a decent job of making the topic easier to understand at a gut level than the fully mathematical treatment alone could, it is simply a hard topic. It’s more like the Asimov robot stories as discussed above, showing how the rigid rules of math inevitably and unavoidably engender the uncontainable chaos of Turing Machines. There’s many interesting hacker-type lessons to be drawn from it, but like I said it’s not something you can really add to the pantheon in any sense.

    Actually my development style that focuses on embracing and harnessing the chaos rather than denying it is in no small part driven by the recognition from both the fully mathematical theories of computer science and the more artistic exploration of the topic in books like GEB that the chaos is unavoidable; at best it can be directed and prepared for, but it can not be stomped out and efforts to do so inevitably backfire, as all other efforts to do the impossible do as well (profoundly so, I find).

  104. Snow Crash was an epic win because it was a hack on cyberpunk itself, bearing the same relation to the earlier works of Gibson that “Dare to Be Stupid” does to the works of Devo.

    Neuromancer and its ilk are written from the perspective of a willful outsider, a litfag who feels entitled to sit on the sidelines and critique without understanding. Snow Crash is written from the perspective of someone who understands and did the sort of things hackers do. So, for that matter, is Tron, fanciful as it is. (The technical consultant for Tron was Alan Kay; Bonnie MacBird, who wrote the screenplay, later became his wife.)

    Hackers is a cyberpunk movie in my opinion. I can’t really think of any true hacker movies, kinda difficult to portray it in that format.

    Hackers is a teen adventure rom-com with a gnarly mid-90s rave aesthetic. It betrays the writers’ utter cluelessness about hackers and hacking (in our sense or the script kids’ sense) at every turn, but it’s actually pretty charming for what it is, and more honest about middle-class urban teenagers than much of the media drivel of that time. It also features Angelina Jolie at her absolute sexiest.

  105. I’m not sure what specifics to suggest but I suspect a familiarity with classic Anime would be good. Perhaps Spaceship Yamato?

    Anyone who is a big fan of 1960s and 1970s SF needs to check out Gunbuster — simultaneously a parody of the tropes of 1970s sports, bishoujo, and giant robot anime; a love letter to Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Orson Scott Card; and a sprawling space opera with a magnificently crafted story in its own right. And it was created by a bunch of geeks who used their aspergery perseverative tendencies to build an anime studio from the ground up!

  106. @Paul Brinkley – +1 for Martin Gardner. I’m not sure of his popularity in US hacker culture (or culture in general) but in fUSSR, pretty much any kid with more than standard math/logic/informatics abilities was close to 100% guaranteed to have read and heavily worked through at least one of Gardner’s books (tons of them were translated into Russian).

  107. DSK, I’m not sure that your from within and from without distinction quite covers the ground, but I can see that there’s something a little claustrophobic about a lot of horror. It might be monsters from the id or it might just be cliches from the genre.

    In any case, I’ll mention Skinwalker as having a bit of a hackish vibe. It’s horror-mystery, and part of solving the mystery is figuring out what sort of monster is doing the attacks.

  108. I would like to nominate Firefly/Serenity for the list. It has no direct bearing on hacker culture, and it isn’t quite as prevalent as Star Trek or Doctor Who, but something about it fits. It combines good storytelling with excellent characters and a detailed sci-fi world, all rolled together with an individualistic message and a touch of action. It strikes me as an indicator not of the type of thinking hackers tend to possess, but of the type of values.

    By means of introduction, I’m on the “young” and “nascent” ends of the hacking spectrum. Once I read some real sci-fi and move past single-use Java programs, I’ll reconsider where I stand, but for now I’m standing outside, my breath fogging up the window. Keeping that in mind, I think that the defining characteristic of the younger generation of hackers is net literacy. I’ve picked up large amounts of semi-useful information simply by spending lots of my time online, and my geekier friends seem to have a similar base of knowledge. The next generation of hackers will be shaped by this incarnation of the internet, and that seems like the biggest change to me.

    I’ve tried to think of another webcomic that has broad hacker appeal, but xkcd seems to be the only universal. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comes close (as essentially a lighter, more punchline-oriented incarnation of The Far Side), but it isn’t as well-known or as geeky. The rest that I’ve seen don’t really have broad enough bases or the right appeal to be considered. That said, I would recommend trying out Dresden Codak. It’s a blend of science, science fiction, philosophy, and transhumanism with some truly beautiful artwork.

    One last recommendation for the list: the Jargon File itself. As far as hacker culture goes, not only is it the best introduction around coupled with a fairly inclusive history, but it also serves as a catch-all for any cultural literacy missed by the rest of the list.

  109. As I read through the comments above, there seems to be a trend toward a love for parody, an art form which is necessarily constraining from a creative standpoint, in the areas of music and film. The same trend seems to be apparent in the area of literature, but it is offset by a penchant for genres of fiction (sci-fi, fantasy) which allow the author a great deal of creative latitude compared with, for instance, murder mysteries.

    I’m curious: Is there an as yet unexpressed enjoyment for more uninhibitedly creative types of music (or other art forms) amongst the hacker community?

  110. I think you’re right both in that hackers generally don’t like horror and in that they make an exception for HPL.

    I like anything in the field I feel is elegantly written – MR James comes to mind, but then I’m a hobby coder. HPL’s Supernatural Horror in Literature is also a kind of geeky overview of the genre as it existed then – mostly pretty indigestible by modern standards, alas.

    No, his problem wasn’t that he confused hackers with crackers, his problem is that he’s one of the guys who thinks ESR is pretentious because he “presumed” to guide hacker culture — in part by releasing TNHD and editing TJF.

    Eric *pretends* to be pretentious in order to lay a trap for just such as he. Whether this is a good hack or not is possibly a matter of taste.

  111. >I would like to nominate Firefly/Serenity for the list.

    I might have done this, and for the reasons you state, but I’m wary of projecting my own tastes on hackers in general. Perhaps, given the way this thread has been going, I’m overcompensating.

  112. Neuromancer and its ilk are written from the perspective of a willful outsider, a litfag who feels entitled to sit on the sidelines and critique without understanding.

    Gibson’s a good writer (IMO), and I’d hesitate to dismiss that as litfaggery. I can certainly see that the idea that Only True Hackers Are Entitled To Speculate About Such Things could be why he’s not had more influence on the culture, but I’m not currently lost in admiration of the fact.

  113. >I can certainly see that the idea that Only True Hackers Are Entitled To Speculate About Such Things could be why he’s not had more influence on the culture,

    No, what he’s asserting isn’t that only true hackers are entitled to speculate, it’s that Gibson’s speculations are glossy, shallow, and afflicted by magical thinking. Nobody gets respect for that, hacker or non-hacker. He’s got a point.

    Contrast Vernor Vinge. Also not a hacker, but he did “cyberspace” better and sooner, in 1979’s True Names. He’s earned respect from us, enough that I feel a little unhappy about having to describe him as “not a hacker”. Up there with Pratchett (who is a hacker) as someone who will always be welcome where hackers gather.

  114. Vinge taught math and CS for years and never got around to hacking anything? What a shame.

  115. >Vinge taught math and CS for years and never got around to hacking anything? What a shame.

    I don’t know of any code with his name on it. And as respected as he is, I’m pretty sure it would have become common knowledge if there were such code.

    Full disclosure: Vernor Vinge and I have been personally acquainted since about 2004 and rather like each other. I don’t think this messes with my judgment in the matter in any way, but discussants should know this and form their own judgment thereof.

  116. >I’m curious: Is there an as yet unexpressed enjoyment for more uninhibitedly creative types of music (or other art forms) amongst the hacker community?

    Yes, but much of that is not really distinguishable from “stuff bright people like” and only doubtfully specific to hackers.

    For example, somebody observed upthread that hackers tend to like prog rock. I think this is true (certainly I myself fit that spec) but I think it’s a “stuff bright people like” observation.

  117. I suppose Dijkstra must be outside the charmed circle and all, he went near the keyboard only reluctantly by most accounts. On the furtively scrabbling hand, he did say “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” Perhaps to see the wood one must eschew the trees.

  118. Brent Moran: “…there seems to be a trend toward a love for parody, an art form which is necessarily constraining from a creative standpoint…”

    It stems from a tendency to “go meta” – to seek patterns in everything, followed by a tendency to mock it, either good-naturedly or viciously as deemed appropriate. It’s one of the facets of hackers: a civil union of a scientist and a court jester.

    ESR says: True. I like that last sentence.

  119. >I suppose Dijkstra must be outside the charmed circle and all, he went near the keyboard only reluctantly by most accounts.

    That, and the approach to programming he advocated is about as opposed to creative exploratory hacking as one can get.

    I mean, sure, it would be nice if proofs of program correctness could be made to work as a production technique. But our way (exploratory programming and open-source review) scales better. Much better.

  120. I see that at least four people have already nominated Douglas Adams (and the four books of his trilogy). Certainly anyone who likes Monty Python should love “Hitchhiker’s Guide” as well. I would like to be the fourth person to second his nomination because I have recently discovered literary proof that the man himself was certainly a hacker.

    I read a book (mostly) by him called “Last Chance to See” where he and a zoologist traveled the world seeking out some of the most-endangered animals. On page 39 he encounters the nest of a megapode – a bird that incubates its eggs by laying them inside a mound of decaying garbage. He writes:

    “I’ve just spent a cheerful hour of my time writing a program on my computer that will tell me instantly what the volume of the mound was. It’s a very neat and sexy program with all sorts of pop-up menus and things, and the advantage of doing it the way I have is that on any future occasion on which I need to know the volumn of a megapode nest, given its basic dimensions, my computer will give the answer in less than a second, which is a wonderful saving of time.”

    @esr: What say you? Was Douglas Adams a true hacker? (Please don’t tell me the answer is 42.)

  121. Well, if you assume yonder mound was either a cone or a hemisphere, we’re not talking a huge number of LOC by my reckoning, though perhaps the pop-up menus did something important.

  122. >@esr: What say you? Was Douglas Adams a true hacker? (Please don’t tell me the answer is 42.)

    Insufficient data. I admit the paragraph you quoted makes a case for the right sort of playfulness, but I’d have to know more about Adams than his books reveal to settle that question in my own mind.

  123. I point out, without reading all the previous comments, that Gilbert and Sullivan were the Monty Python of their era, and that previous generations of sf fans (and writers such as Asimov and Heinlein) clearly knew their work well (to the point sometimes of being able to pastiche it). The interest has not died out; GURPS Mars has a brilliant pastiche of a song from “The Mikado” that starts out “Three little men from Mars are we/Green as a Martian well may be.” I’m not positive that this qualifies it for a hacker culture reference (I don’t claim to be a hacker), but I suggest the question for consideration by competent minds.

  124. Hmm, how about nonfiction? There’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. Someone else mentioned Martin Gardner. Good science books are favorites.

    Of course, hackers, no matter what genre, tend to be incorrigible bookworms. But that’s just part of, as Eric put it, “stuff bright people like.”

    Hackers and hacker-leaning people are more likely to actually read the books that other people buy and just let sit on their shelves to look educated.

  125. I’m a bit dismayed at the small degree of breadth in the suggestions on offer. I love just about all the things suggested but they feel so narrowly constrained.

    Might not a hacker enjoy Wordsworth? Might one think of a poet as a hacker of the spoken word? Wouldn’t a hacker be drawn innately to the study of History? Philosophy? The Visual Arts? Wouldn’t a hacker want to understand what the prophets have had to say about the human condition?

    Is the aim described by ‘cultural literacy’ about being able to talk to other hackers? Or is about expanding one’s mind to help one become an awesome hacker that can really think outside the box and approach problems in a new way?

    I was feeling a bit hyperbolic when I wrote this – but it’s a long exposition of this theme that I hope might interest the occasional hacker:

    http://reviewsindepth.com/2010/11/the-social-network-the-end-of-intimacy-and-the-birth-of-hacker-sensibility/

  126. Gilbert and Sullivan qualify at least as a snippet of Star Trek lore. There’s a rather interesting scene at the beginning of Insurrection involving the HMS Pinafore.

    “the fourth person to second his nomination”

    I didn’t catch that the first time. I tip my hat to you.

  127. >I submit that [Douglas Adams] hacked *English*

    True, and perhaps I’d be more impressed by that if I hadn’t done it myself. I should read that bio.

  128. >Might not a hacker enjoy Wordsworth [etc.]

    Sure, but you’re wandering off into stuff bright people like again. For this discussion to be interesting it needs to be focused more narrowly.

  129. Stilgherrian Says:
    > So far this looks like “every” hacker from an English-speaking background, perhaps
    > even a US / UK / Australian background. Does the same list work for other English speakers,
    > such as India or Singapore? And what about those brought up in other languages.
    > The extensive Russian hacker scene comes to mind — but would that world have necessarily
    > picked up on so much of the English language stuff? Or, indeed, can “hacker culture”
    > be defined as a Western phenomenon?

    Oh no, not again….

  130. Might one think of a poet as a hacker of the spoken word?

    Haven’t read much esr, have you? His exposition of the process of bumming syllables out of a line to make the meter match gave me perhaps a truer sense of what hacking is all about than anything I’d read relating to code.

    But as Eric mentioned, poetry by itself is not particularly hackish. Hackish poetic tastes may involve parodies or filks, or translating poetry effectively (preserving meter and perhaps rhyme) into languages like Latin, Elvish, or Klingon. I suspect a greater proportion of hackers than the general population like William Topaz McGonagall, the famed Scottish poet who is considered one of the worst in the English language. (It’s debated by scholars whether he was sincere or trolling.)

  131. The trouble with poetry as a hacking art is that hacking usually produces something tangible (whether it does concrete work or is merely amusing). It’s typically hard to tell the difference between poetry that really hacks an idea and one that’s just subconscious spew without spending a lot of time studying the text, so it’s easy to look like a poet without actually saying anything profound. Anyone can write words that fit the tune of Yellow Rose of Texas, but not everyone can be Emily Dickinson.

  132. I might have done this, and for the reasons you state, but I’m wary of projecting my own tastes on hackers in general. Perhaps, given the way this thread has been going, I’m overcompensating.

    That’s been a general trend of the thread, but on the gripping hand, the audience here is not necessarily representative of “hackers” as a whole. We are self-selected as people who want to read what you have to say about things. That correlates strongly (with the exception of the haterboys who seem to come here to automatically gainsay whatever you’ve offered on a topic) to people who have similar attitudes, which in turn means we’re likely to be fans of the same literature, movies, etc.

  133. >That’s been a general trend of the thread, but on the gripping hand, the audience here is not necessarily representative of “hackers” as a whole.

    Which is why I remain somewhat wary.

    One advantage I do have, as someone pointed out in a previous thread, is that due my travels and my length of time spent in the culture, I have a broader sample of hacker behavior than…almost anyone, probably. This is the basis on which I have been asserting that some of my tastes (wargames and prog rock, for example) are not specifically hacker indicia but more generally “stuff bright people like”. To these I would now add being literate in and competent at composing metric poetry.

    But the causal arrows and categories are even more confused than you report. Consider the possibility that in selecting for people who want to read what I have to say about things, we are not selecting against representativeness with respect to the hacker culture at large but rather for it. This possibility cannot be lightly dismissed; I did hack the culture for cohesiveness, twice, and there were undoubtedly sideband effects from that.

    UPDATE: I should have said “undoubtedly sidebands I cannot identify.” I think I know of at least two relevant ways in which I have nudged the hacker culture a little, by raising the prestige and centrality attached to (a) being a polymath, and (b) being a martial artist. In both cases I think these were natural directions of evolution – the culture “wanted” to move that way, I just encouraged it a little harder. Without really planning to.

  134. Gilbert and Sullivan qualify at least as a snippet of Star Trek lore. There’s a rather interesting scene at the beginning of Insurrection involving the HMS Pinafore.

    If you haven’t, drop everything and read John M. Ford’s How Much for Just the Planet?. One of the funniest SF novels out there, and a must-read for fans of G&S and anyone who understands the basics of the Trek universe. If you don’t have to put the book down after reading the first 20 pages because you’ll drop it from laughing too hard, you have no sense of humor at all.

  135. Many of Tom Lehrer’s tunes were swiped from Gilbert & Sullivan. For instance, The Elements uses the tune from I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General from The Pirates of Penzance.

  136. Is there any place for Daniel Suarez’ work. _Daemon_ and _Freedom(tm)_? I enjoyed them but have no idea what if any impact they might have on the hacker community.

  137. >Is there any place for Daniel Suarez’ work. _Daemon_ and _Freedom(tm)_? I enjoyed them but have no idea what if any impact they might have on the hacker community.

    So far, none that I can see; I never heard of the guy before you brought him up. But from the synopses available on line it is possible this might change.

  138. I read a book (mostly) by him called “Last Chance to See” where he and a zoologist traveled the world seeking out some of the most-endangered animals. On page 39 he encounters the nest of a megapode – a bird that incubates its eggs by laying them inside a mound of decaying garbage.

    Quasi-offtopic: Last Chance to See was recently revived as a TV series with Stephen Fry replacing Adams. In one episode, Fry and Carwardine encounter a male kakapo (owl parrot) looking for a mate. The kakapo decides on Carwardine, and what happens next handily trumps Monty Python as the funniest thing to involve two Brits and a parrot.

    “You are being shagged by a rare parrot!”

  139. Eric,

    What about “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” or the other works of Borges?

  140. Regarding Douglas Adams, there is a biography by Nick Webb called Wish You Were Here.

    All I know for sure about Douglas Adams is what they used to print on the dust jacket; that before he started writing, he worked various odd jobs, including one involving shoveling chicken, um, matter from chicken coops.

  141. Relating back to the original point, as I’ve been reading over all the suggestions I have been trying to put a finger on what it is about each thing that is, or isn’t, attractive to the hacker nature. Bear with me while I ramble (maybe incoherently) on a bit.

    Trek, Star Wars, Firefly… all essentially westerns in genre. Each exhibits rugged individualism, either through exploring the unknown or fighting against an oppressor. Both considered hackerly traits of merit. Obviously these stories easily grab plenty of others through lively characters, epic struggles, good storytelling and such, but there is the additional special draw of philosophy. Heck, Mal Reynolds doesn’t prevail over the Empi^H^H^H^HAlliance through any kind of direct force; he wins an information war. So, for the very story-ish stuff, I posit the hacker nature is drawn to things that present an inherent philosophy that mimics its own. Heinlein falls in this catagory, too.

    Niven: Mote, Ringworld. Mote is a good story; Ringworld, IMO, less so. But where Niven shines here isn’t in his storytelling, but what he accomplishes using the story as a medium. Mote stood out for me in one particular way: the plight of the Moties is our own. Space is so vast that it is likely we will not be escaping our own solar system, at least not in the distantly-foreseeable future. For that matter, real intrasolar colonization is not something likely to solve the problems we face now at home. So, Niven/Pournelle give us a cleverly-disguised allegory with the face of an exploratory SF yarn, and it is a subtle, slow-burn kind of thing.
    Ringworld, as I’ve stated above, is not about the story. The story is just the vehicle; Niven came up with this neat thing and tried his damnedest to get across just how neat it is. The story, with the neat aliens, the long-game genetic manipulations by the Puppeteers, exploring how civilizations cope long after the fall of empires, and so forth, is great stuff, but ancillary to the point.
    Niven, it seems to me – and I admit I still have much of his work to plow through – plays a very meta kind of game, where he is genuinely trying to twist your thinking while he tells his tales. That kind of subtle mind-game stuff is an intellectual treat for hacker-types.

    Humor. Monty Python; Animaniacs/Pinky and the Brain; Weird Al; classic Zucker comedies; Discordianism; Douglas Adams. Has Futurama been mentioned yet? All often quite subversive, multi-leveled. The favored stuff seems to have more in common with clever riddles and puzzles than anything else. I think there is a pretty clear correlation here, and why a hacker mindset would be drawn to appreciation. Almost just standard smart-folk fare, but its the subversion that tickles. I want to say the draw isn’t the humor specifically, but the game of layers and misdirection. The laughs are a bonus. Absurdism plays a huge role here with its subversive tendencies.

    So: Expresses a common philosophy, often individualistic. Works on multiple levels. Requires or requests mind-expansion. Plays a clever game and subverts the normal.

    Nothing really surprising here, but what else can be added? What can we predict a hacker-natured person to enjoy or “get”, culture-wise, given the above? Maybe we can crowd-source some more new things that not all of us know about yet.

  142. >What about “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” or the other works of Borges?

    I almost brought those up earlier, actually. It’s not clear to me whether Borges is just “stuff bright people like” or whether his particular form of playfulness with language pulls him into a category of special relevance to hackers. There is something very like our style of humor in his willingness to reason meticulously from premises that are surrealistically absurd, his fascination with symbol/object antinomies and his willingness to “go meta” on the act of literary creation itself.

    Do I think hackers have a big head start on understanding what Borges was actually aiming at? Hell yes; I (and I think I can say “we”, where the implied set is hackers who have read Borges) don’t get why English majors seem to think he’s some sort of marvel of impenetrability (and we entertain the obvious suspicion that they’re just kind of thick). Do I think knowing your Borges is basic hacker cultural literacy? No; I don’t see hackers sprinkling their writing with possibly-unconscious references to Borges the way it happens with Niven or Heinlein or Vinge.

  143. >So: Expresses a common philosophy, often individualistic. Works on multiple levels. Requires or requests mind-expansion. Plays a clever game and subverts the normal.

    I think that is extremely well summarized.

    You left out a few things: techno-optimism is one. Another is that hackers are drawn to themes that are transhumanist, ranging all the way from meditative ego transcendance a la Zen (the persistent lure of Zen to hackers is worth an essay in itself) all the way up though cyborging and the Vingean Singularity. We may be skeptical about these things, we may end up rejecting them, but it is in our nature to be fascinated by them.

    I think we can also sharpen the “often individualistic” in a similar way. Every hacker eventually has to engage libertarian ideas, whether to embrace them as completely as I have or to reject them. How these questions present may be modulated by culture (the term “libertarian” may not be meaningful to a non-English-speaker) but for us, these questions about the relation of individual liberty to “society” simply will not go away.

  144. >So: Expresses a common philosophy, often individualistic. Works on multiple levels. Requires or requests mind-expansion. Plays a clever game and subverts the normal.

    Further thought: There’s something implicit here about agility of mind. Not just “intelligence”, but a playful delight in caroming off as many different premises as you can. Isaiah Berlin’s “fox” position, very much as opposed to hedgehog.

  145. I’m seeing a further undercurrent in various comments that I didn’t get around to addressing: culturally relevant works are necessarily de facto prominent. Case in point: Daemon and Freedom. I never heard of this work, either. Suppose I read it, and find that it’s as potentially appealing to other hackers as any other works we’ve stipulated as intrinsic to the culture. That still doesn’t change the fact that it is a relative unknown (so far as I know – and even if it isn’t, there are no doubt other works in that boat).

    This can be depressing. Someone might have scribbled reams of stories with wit and innovation rivaling those of Pratchett, and to us they’re only so many trees falling in the forest. They may be destined for cultural relevancy, but that road is oft paved with socio-economic concerns which do not always correlate with hackerish merit.

  146. ESR: “Playful delight in caroming off as many different premises as you can.”

    Yes. If hackers had a Greek god, I’m tempted to say it would be Prometheus – a patron of humanity’s entitlement to technology if ever there was one – but he’s not habitually subversive in this regard. Many say it would be Eris as a result – but as seemingly limitless as discord is, it does not supply that anchor in innovation; it doesn’t care whether we build spaceships or club each other with sticks in perpetuity.

    Which says something about hackers. Even chaos isn’t enough. I don’t think there’s a single deific persona in any mythology which completely captures all the necessary premises.

  147. >This can be depressing. Someone might have scribbled reams of stories with wit and innovation rivaling those of Pratchett, and to us they’re only so many trees falling in the forest. They may be destined for cultural relevancy, but that road is oft paved with socio-economic concerns which do not always correlate with hackerish merit.

    Yes? So instead of being depressed, what can we do about it? Other than being neophilic and mentally flexible so we recognize good stuff when it swims onto the radar – and we’re really quite good at that, I think.

    If it helps, I think one effect of the Internet is to make such tragedies much less likely, at least within language communities. I’ll concede the possibility that there might be another literary comedian as good and hacker-relevant and with as large a body of work as Pratchett writing in, say, Mandarin Chinese – but if there were another such in English I think we’d all know by now. The propagation velocity of this kind of cultural information has gone way up.

  148. The propagation velocity of this kind of cultural information has gone way up.

    A-freaking-men. I went from zero to Internet celebrity in 8 hours in 2004. The speed has only increased since then.

  149. >Isaiah Berlin’s “fox” position, very much as opposed to hedgehog.

    Yet further thought: This may explain why, politically, social conservatism is quite rare among hackers. The “conservatives” we do have tend to be libertarian-leaners like Jay Maynard with little or no investment in social-conservative issues. The reason is not so much a matter of right and wrong or intelligence but temperament: a social conservative is almost necessarily a hedgehog in Berlin’s terms.

  150. All right, let met drop another hand grenade in this discussion. Conventional faith-holding religions are less prevalent in hackerdom than in the world at large. (I think this is one reason hackers are much less likely to be social conservatives, and to both embrace in themselves and tolerate in others, for example, practices that place them in the sexual minority.) Does that necessarily follow from the hacker mindset you describe?

  151. Jay Maynard: “Does [lack of prevalence of conventional faith-holding religions in hackerdom] necessarily follow from the hacker mindset you describe?”

    I think it does… currently. That’s the thing. Hackers are necessarily in an unstable state with regard to anything except the love for technology. Technology doesn’t fit with any conventional faith-holding religion – but only because technology as a force in itself is newer than any such religion. But things change, and hackers will go right along with that change if they like it.

    Meanwhile, if we’re still around 1000 years from now, I’ll make it a point to look up from whatever I’m doing then and see if there are any great cathedrals around, built to deities of a certain avian pasta persuasion.

  152. >Does that necessarily follow from the hacker mindset you describe?

    I don’t know if we can say “necessarily”. I know of three eminent hackers who are faith-holders; Larry Wall, Don Knuth, and Guy Steele.

    On the other hand, none of them seems to have any trouble being friendly with a notoriously vocal neo-pagan atheist like me. So one can suppose (in fact, one almost must suppose) that they’ve managed the trick of being hedgehog-like in one mental compartment (the one they keep their religion in) and fox-like elsewhere.

    My suspicion is that faith-holders are rare among hackers because this sort of compartmentalization is unstable and difficult to maintain.

  153. > I don’t think there’s a single deific persona in any mythology which completely captures all the necessary premises.

    I’ll steal a page from Stephenson and posit Minerva/Athena, although as you say it doesn’t completely capture.

  154. Which says something about hackers. Even chaos isn’t enough. I don’t think there’s a single deific persona in any mythology which completely captures all the necessary premises.

    Athena comes close. She was the goddess of not only war and wisdom but strategy and cunning as well, with a definite trickster element; her mother was Metis — a name which means in Greek “craft” or “skill” but also “cunning”.

  155. >Athena comes close

    Ahh, now we’ve wandered into one of my sub-specialties as a neopagan cleric – finding or if necessary inventing a suitable god-form to cover a particular activity or intention.

    An even stronger candidate would be Hermes Trismegistus, which as Wikipedia correctly notes was a “syncretic combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth”. As such the god combines elements of sage and trickster. Thoth was associated with intellect, literacy, forethought, science, justice, and magic, while Hermes was the trickster-slippery messenger of the gods and patron of all things related to communication. And also of thieves and confidence-men, if the truth be known.

    If this doesn’t cover all the bases, it comes pretty close.

  156. Why does it have to be a Greek deity? How about Lugh? Lugh was the Celtic “master of all the arts”. He seems rather hacker like to me. (Read the story to find out why I think that)

  157. >Why does it have to be a Greek deity?

    No reason it has to be. The available material on Lugh is fairly thin, though. We’d have to invent a lot.

  158. Not to derail this thread, but…

    esr: “neo-pagan atheist”

    How… exactly does that work?

    ESR says: Read this.

  159. Not just “intelligence”, but a playful delight in caroming off as many different premises as you can.

    I have often referenced this old McDonald’s commercial in an intellectual context, both programming and debate. “Off the Vingean Singularity, through the Kantian Imperative, bounce off the Zen Mysticism, nothing but net.”

  160. >ESR says: Read this.

    Huh. If I’m understanding that, you seem to be saying that you ascribe to neopagan practices because you can induce mystical/religious experiences out of them, but you don’t actually believe the experiences are supernatural, correct?

    ESR says: Correct. “Supernatural” is a nonsense word.

    That’s a bit interesting, although some of the claims of what you can do from that seem a bit farfetched.

    ESR says: Please do not trust my report. Experiment for yourself.

  161. ESR says: Please do not trust my report. Experiment for yourself.

    Mrf. I suspect that by this time I’m far too much the hard-headed, realist atheist for such things to work. Which raises another question: we know that hackers are less likely (probably much less likely) to be faith-holding religious. Are they more likely to be hardcore atheist, like me, or off the the direction of individualistic mysticism, or simply fuzzy and not caring very much?

  162. In re religion. it seems to me that hackers of whatever religious persuasion tend not to proselytize or even be terribly public about their beliefs. Yes they may go to church/temple/synagogue/… but they don’t try to ram their beliefs down the throats of others and they are usually quite tolerant of the beliefs of others.

    *there are undoubtedly exceptions.

  163. But then, I know that I’m a good hypnosis subject…dammit, now I’m not so sure any more.

    ESR says: Excellent. In these matters, doubt is the beginning of wisdom.

  164. esr Says: My suspicion is that faith-holders are rare among hackers because this sort of compartmentalization is unstable and difficult to maintain.

    I think a more important factor is that hackers are more open to new ideas and new technology. This makes them very suspicious of closed systems with an answer to everything, eternal truths revealed once and for all. Doesn’t seem very likely to ‘em.

  165. >ESR says: Please do not trust my report. Experiment for yourself.

    Heh, this should have been my first instinct, really, considering I’m pursuing a degree in science. I think I must have learned about Wicca a long time ago, but thought it was too silly and new-agey.

    Where would be a good place to start?

    ESR says: Sorry, offtopic. Email me or use Google-fu.

  166. A-freaking-men. I went from zero to Internet celebrity in 8 hours in 2004. The speed has only increased since then.

    We are approaching the point, to re-word Andy Warhol ever so slightly:

    In the future, everyone will become world-famous forin 15 minutes.

  167. gack. I forgot the second blockquote is automatically bolded.

    ESR, get Preview on this thing!

    ESR says: I’d love to. Haven’t found a plug-in for it.

  168. As a 20-something hacker, I have to say that if I’d read, watched, and listened to 2/3 of the suggestions here by now, I’d not have had time to learn to code, let alone code up anything cool.

    Is the list getting insanely long, or am I just an outlier for having taken time out for relationships, parenthood, and numerous non-hacker interests along the way?

  169. Religion can be a slippery concept. Most people who dislike it tend to think of one of the major world religions. Press them about it, and some of the smarter ones will claim that what irritates them* is the stubborn clinging to faith – but even the most open-minded Buddhist has a few axioms socked away.

    When it comes to treasured axioms of faith among hackers, Murphy’s Law ranks very high. Now, that’s largely because we observe examples of it, and very frequently, so it’s not really fair to claim it’s all faith; however, remember that if something is true a lot of the time, that still doesn’t mean it’s true all of the time. Sometimes something can possibly go wrong, and simply hasn’t for some reason.

    Which brings us to another hacker favorite: observe, hypothesize, test, play, repeat. (Test and play are often interchangeable.) A great deal follows from this, given how much we can observe.

    In general, any semi- or greater organized belief system that can tolerate the axioms above probably gets plenty of play with hackers. This includes atheism, agnosticism, Unitarianism and secular humanism. I’m not familiar, but I can see ESR’s argument for paganism. Even Christianity can if you set it up carefully. Then there are belief systems that we don’t usually call religions, such as Constitutionalism or libertarianism.

    *…which, incidentally, is what they say irritates them, but isn’t really what I see pressing their buttons when I observe them. What actually gets to them is simply people who (a) don’t agree with them about how to live, and (b) won’t shut up about it. Both are necessary to the equation. The claimed source of irritation is decidedly not.

  170. Is the list getting insanely long, or am I just an outlier for having taken time out for relationships, parenthood, and numerous non-hacker interests along the way?

    Begone, heretic!

    …ahem. Y’know, ESR called Don Knuth a hacker, and I doubt he knows all these tropes, either. I wouldn’t fret. As Jay Maynard says, this is descriptive, not prescriptive. Which takes some of the fun out of it, but what can you do.

  171. Is the list getting insanely long, or am I just an outlier for having taken time out for relationships, parenthood, and numerous non-hacker interests along the way?

    Begone, heretic!

    …ahem. Y’know, ESR called Don Knuth a hacker, and I doubt he knows all these tropes, either. I wouldn’t fret. As Jay Maynard says, this is descriptive, not prescriptive. Which takes some of the fun out of it, but what can you do.

    Not just that. Turn it around. If you haven’t encountered something listed here before, seek it out and give it a try. If you are of a hackish mindset, you will probably find it enjoyable.

  172. ESR says: I’d love to. Haven’t found a plug-in for it.

    Ask Jeff Goldstein what he uses at a href=”http://proteinwisdom.com”>Protein Wisdom. He just added it recently.

  173. @Susan

    As a 20-something hacker, I have to say that if I’d read, watched, and listened to 2/3 of the suggestions here by now, I’d not have had time to learn to code, let alone code up anything cool.

    Truer words were never spoken. I’m sure not everyone here has read everything suggested, with the exception of a few of the silverbacks. There are quite a few titles mentioned here that I haven’t read yet, but have meant to, such as Charles Stross’ Acclerando. Many books mentioned here I read many years ago; I think I first read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when I was maybe 13. (I’ve read it again a few times since then; I got my then-girlfriend a copy for her birthday when I was about 19 or 20 because she didn’t understand some of my jokes.) I read Lord of the Rings when I was 16 or 17. As mentioned before, I’m about Linus Torvalds’ age (he’s 3 years older than I am)

  174. Huh. Morgan’s my age then (June 26, 1972).

    Partial list:
    Saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail in college, and several times after; Brian and Meaning of Life once each, plus selected sketches from the TV show. Grail is one of those “if you have time for only one thing” things, by the way. College was also about when I gained passing familiarity with Discordia, not to mention hackerness itself.
    Airplane!, Saddles, and Young Frankenstein about the same time. Liked Tron, but I consider Legacy rather noxious.
    Never heard The Elements until just now (what the hey); probably no Tom Lehrer aside from that.
    Never read Smullyan, but I did read related puzzle books, namely Martin Gardner, when I was a boy (including a fascinating essay on dumb liars, honest liars, and malicious liars – I swear it was Gardner, but I can’t find the book on my shelf right now). Also went through Games for the Superintelligent back then.
    Lived and breathed Murphy ever since Dad explained it when I was a kid.
    Never read Mote or Gripping Hand… wow. Let’s just add that to my Amazon wish list right now. …There.
    Lord of the Rings as a teenager. Ditto quite a bit of Heinlein and Asimov; Dad’s bookshelves were great. Pratchett came much later – I started maybe 3-4 years ago, in fact. Read nearly all of it since. Read Kurzweil about the same time. Working through Stephenson as I write this; I’m halfway through Anathem.
    Never read Accelerando.

    Then again, I haven’t claimed to be a hacker (though I’d like to think of myself as one).

  175. I think the list is pretty much complete, with three exceptions that I can think of:

    Thomas Dolby seems very hackerish to me. You mileage may vary along the “all intelligent people” axis mentioned above.

    Laurie Anderson seems to me the essence of “music hacking.” For those not in the know, she removed the strings from a violin and mounted the read head from her tape player on a modified bridge. Then she removed the horsehair from her bow and replaced it with a piece of recording tape and played stuff with the tape against the tape head. You can hear this if you Youtube “From the Air.” She was able to play notes in tune with her songs by moving the “tape bow faster or slower.”

    Another cool Laurie Anderson hack involved putting a speaker in her mouth to become her own vocodor. I’d Youtube “Oh Superman” and “Excellent Birds” for other good samples of her work.

    The Firesign Theatre seems essential to me. Youtube “Nick Danger, Third Eye.”

    Lastly, I would definitely give my votes to Douglas Adams and Borges.

    Ta.

  176. Heh, speaking of LotR, I got a new set of the books this Christmas since I had lost my old ones years ago.

    To be honest, I’m not sure what distinguishes most of the hacker culture from, as Eric calls it, the general “bright people” demographic, except for some of the more esoteric stuff (and may precluding the more fanboyish based demographics if you feel like lumping “bright people” into the “nerd” population). One of the posters above stated, at least when it comes to comedy, that it’s subversiveness but I always thought that to be a generic bright person trait as well.

  177. >To be honest, I’m not sure what distinguishes most of the hacker culture from, as Eric calls it, the general “bright people” demographic

    I can think of a couple of important things, at least with respect to comedy. A lot of bright people don’t respond strongly to humor based on symbol/referent confusion or level-metalevel confusion. Hackers do. 3-second test: show a programmer a picture of a Volkswagen Beetle with a llicense plate that says “FEATURE”. Someone who can’t help laughing is probably a hacker.

  178. >3-second test: show a programmer a picture of a Volkswagen Beetle with a llicense plate that says “FEATURE”.

    OK, I must admit I smirked at that, even though I don’t consider myself a hacker. :P I do see what you’re saying though, if that’s what you mean by subversiveness. I’ve responded to that before, although it’s more the sort of response from being a part of an inside-joke: you gain joy at finding mirth in something someone else can’t possibly get.

  179. I’m moving soon and will need to buy a car to get to work. I’m considering having it painted purple and getting “ABGRPE” as a license plate.

  180. >I’m moving soon and will need to buy a car to get to work. I’m considering having it painted purple and getting “ABGRPE” as a license plate.

    There are enough mathematicians living near you to make the effort worthwhile?

    UPDATE: For the rest of you, best use of the “Abelian grape” joke EVAR!!! Because, you see, his car commutes…

  181. > I do see what you’re saying though, if that’s what you mean by subversiveness. I’ve responded to that before,
    > although it’s more the sort of response from being a part of an inside-joke: you gain joy at finding mirth in
    > something someone else can’t possibly get.

    Not quite the point being made. A better example might be, from the Jargon file’s ‘hacker humor’ entry, holding up a red card with the word ‘green’ written on it. A hacker-type will probably at least chuckle. A bright non-hacker-type will ‘get it’ but probably just shake his or her head with a mild groan. It’s not so much a matter of understanding the joke, it’s the level of appreciation. See also: good, multi-level puns that aren’t of the word-bending variety.

  182. you gain joy at finding mirth in something someone else can’t possibly get.

    It’s the exclusiveness, is it?

    First time I heard the word “hacker” (about 20 years ago, I was late to the party, whatever) it referred to someone who had a burning contempt for non-hackers.

    Not an auspicious introduction.

  183. >It’s the exclusiveness, is it?

    Please recall that the person smirking did not claim to be a hacker himself. Your contemptuous hacker was not a kind I have encountered.

  184. @BobW: Only that one Lehrer tune borrowed from G&S; TTBOMK, everything else he wrote was original.

    > Haven’t read much esr, have you? His exposition of the process of bumming syllables out of a line to make the meter match gave me perhaps a truer sense of what hacking is all about than anything I’d read relating to code.

    Nicely put. As the author of RFC 2100, and someone with little tolerance for *non-*rhythmic poetry, this is a subject near and dear to my heart.

    I have to fix a parody of A Christmas Carol about every other year…

  185. >I’m moving soon and will need to buy a car to get to work. I’m considering having it painted purple and getting “ABGRPE” as a license plate.

    There are enough mathematicians living near you to make the effort worthwhile?

    Since when has that kind of consideration ever stopped a hacker from a neat hack?

    And Daniel, I know where’s a purple Hyundai Accent you could probably get just for hauling it away, though you’d have to go to north central Wisconsin to get it…

  186. Hackers do. 3-second test: show a programmer a picture of a Volkswagen Beetle with a llicense plate that says “FEATURE”. Someone who can’t help laughing is probably a hacker.

    LIke this one? :)

  187. ur-memes/-characteristics:

    saying/thinking:

    * “that’s interesting…”

    * “that’s annoying… // there must be a better way to do this…”

  188. Your contemptuous hacker was not a kind I have encountered.

    Nor have I, since. Though I wouldn’t expect such people to approach an evangelist for getting people to use Open Sauce expecting a particularly warm welcome.

    BTW, your search function on here doesn’t seem to be covering comments, only the original articles. Unless you want it that way, of course.

  189. >[Morgan Greywolf] Linus? Guido? Old guard? Hardly. Linus is my age. Thanks for making feel old. Python and Linux are very much a recent thing.

    hmm! that rang all sorts of bells. though not the sort MG probably was thinking of. python is well old, at least 20 years. not much younger than C++. and linux? jesus. 40 years. in that it’s “just” a very old reimplementation of a then-very-old OS.

    but the ur-point struck hard. these things are still young. linux and python are both bubbling uproarious founts of energy and delight. as are all the instances cited here, of hacker culture shibboleths. lehrer makes 15yos sit up and laugh delightedly. monty python is ever-young. the scifi instances still astound the youth of today.

    whereas “normal” cultural memes wither and die fast.

    i think/suspect/suggest, that the essence of hacker culture, is things which cut deeper than most, which talk to energetic optimistic (even if/especially if, dryly satirical) core drives to improve things or to see things as they are, rather than as they are often presented. “brave sir robin, ran away” “he ran away!” “he ran away” (“i never!”)
    they see things as positives, as growing, as changeable, as improvable.
    as amusing, as laughable, as insightful, as happy small parts, of a larger whole.

    where wider-cultural things fit that mould, the hacker culture adopts them. carries them forward.

    lehrer’s, what, 60 years “out of date” now? and yet he fits. and hackers and hacker-types remember him and his output with joy.
    and even memorise him and sing him on national TV.

  190. and he’s a hacker of ur-awesomeness. literally created our modern everyday, via his quantum chromodynamics, which opened up modern computing, which nowadays our washing machines rely on. yet remembers most fondly his safecracking and that niels bohr excluded everyone else in the project from the room until after he’d finished speaking with him. (paraphrasing) “because you’re the only person who wasn’t afraid of me/questioned me”. or even more fondly, his father taking him for walks in the woods and cracking open his mind about basic human assumptions and thought patterns by asking him about a bird then laying out/flaying out the assumptions he’d relied on in answering.
    which opened his mind to a wider way of thinking.

    feynman’s father is someone i want to have been able to meet almost as much as spike milligan. spike, captured briefly on film late50s/early60s, on a beach with kids running and playing behind him: (paraphrasing badly from old memory again) “lately, i have been most preoccupied with studying children. they are lovely, and then they vanish. they turn into adults. they lose their joy and their inquisitiveness and their JOY of life.

    [slightly lost look] where do they GO????”

  191. Speaking of gods to represent hackers, though, or mythical figures anyway, why not Ilmarinen, the smith from the Kalevala?

    Among the cool things he does are the forging of the Sampo, a device which isn’t clearly understood but which has been interpreted among other things as a mill that makes flour, salt and gold out of nothing, which could be read as a sort of allegory of technology, the making of the dome of the sky, and due to his lack of fortune in love, the forging of a golden wife.

    Granted, this golden wife thing doesn’t turn out well, but it’s quite a hackerish thing to do, no?

  192. Which says something about hackers. Even chaos isn’t enough. I don’t think there’s a single deific persona in any mythology which completely captures all the necessary premises.

    In the Roman Catholic church, St. Expedite is the patron saint of programmers and hackers. Many disagree when it comes to St. Expedite however.

    Under Haitian Vodou, many believe the Lwa Simbi Makaya is closely related. Personally, I think that the Lwa Legba, who controls all gates, has a lot to do with the activity.

  193. but it’s quite a hackerish thing to do, no?

    Making an artificial woman ‘cos the real ones will have nothing to do with you?

    Classic.

  194. In the Roman Catholic church, St. Expedite is the patron saint of programmers and hackers.

    No, no, no. St. Expeditus is the patron saint of e-commerce, not programmers or hackers. You pray to St. Expeditus that the hard drive you just ordered from the Net will arrive quickly and in one piece.

  195. …via his quantum chromodynamics, which opened up modern computing, which nowadays our washing machines rely on.

    Then Feynman can kindly take his quantum chromodynamics right back. I’ve had enough socks wink out of existence…

    Probably my favorite Feynman story is the one my dad used to tell of the Challenger explosion. Feynman was on the investigative team. During one of the hearings, held in the usual luxuriant conference rooms typical for highly publicized hearings, Feynman got his hands on a sample of the O-rings used in the shuttle. He thought for a bit, then quietly requested ice water from one of the attendants while some muckety-muck droned on. They quickly brought him a thermos of ice water and a lead crystal glass, which he proceeded to fill with the water, then plunged this dirty piece of black rubber in and waited. The testimony continued. After a minute or so, he interrupted (paraphrased):

    “I just verified that the material in these O-rings doesn’t perform well at freezing temperatures. Look: this ring won’t return to its original shape when I squeeze it like this. We all know it was below freezing that day. This could be very important.”

    Sure enough, it was later found to be responsible for the leak of hot gas that led to the destruction of the shuttle. All discovered from a science experiment during a committee hearing.

    Speaking of my father, I wasn’t aware of this definition of “hacker” at the time, but I probably realized he was one when, one day (I think I was about thirteen), he said, “Paul, you need to get the idea out of your head that an electron is some B-B flying around the nucleus.”

    Of course, let’s not forget Loki. the Norse trickster god. He may be a bit too dark, however.

    That’s just it. Every mythos seems to have its trickster god, be it Hermes, Eris, Loki, Coyote, Raven, or something else. But they’re not also technologists.

  196. 3-second test: show a programmer a picture of a Volkswagen Beetle with a llicense plate that says “FEATURE”.

    Or a fountain pen with “fifteen” embossed along the side.

  197. My wife says Loki is more of a troublemaker than a trickster. He’s quite unlike Coyote.

  198. No, no, no. St. Expeditus is the patron saint of e-commerce, not programmers or hackers. You pray to St. Expeditus that the hard drive you just ordered from the Net will arrive quickly and in one piece.

    As I mentioned, there exists disagreement when it comes to St. Expedite :)

    According to his wikipedia page he is the patron saint of programmers and hackers. I personally believe he is for several reasons, chief among them my own interactions with him. This wired article about him is informative and delightful to read.

    I would post some fundamental instructions on interacting with spirits, however, I would not want to post off topic.

  199. >he said, “Paul, you need to get the idea out of your head that an electron is some B-B flying around the nucleus.”

    Reminds me of my single favorite Eliezer Yudkowsky quote ever:

    “Quantum physics is not “weird”. You are weird. You have the absolutely bizarre idea that reality ought to consist of little billiard balls bopping around, when in fact reality is a perfectly normal cloud of complex amplitude in configuration space. This is your problem, not reality’s, and you are the one who needs to change.”

  200. Paul Brinkley: i knew that story, but only its superficies. the extra background behind feynman placing evidence, undisputable self-observed phyisical evidence, in front of the people-games “project managers” is rather lovely. thank you.
    also very interesting that the standard story has it that the o-ring snapped. not merely failed to un-deform. well, i say “very interesting” — better would be to say profoundly insightful for humans’ need for drama and mythology overriding mere facts. as every mis-attributed quote by americans is too, but in this case more jaw-dropping.

    Morgan Greywolf et al: “Of course, let’s not forget Loki. the Norse trickster god. He may be a bit too dark, however.” an interesting common misapprehension; in similar lines to the above, the meme dominates the facts. actually Odin was the trickster god. and a darker, nastier, god you’d have trouble to find.

  201. Odin and Loki lead the wild hunt through the heavens. Gathering (?) the souls.

    I heard a story that the wild hunt lead via a convoluted history (involving st Niclas and a morisch helper) to Santa.

    Santa would have changed sleipnir for a horse and then for rendeer.

  202. Having trouble remembering much of Norse mythology I read, but I recall Odin often hid his identity and used his anonymity as a means of deception several times. I don’t know if that’d make him a trickster god, though.

  203. Most hackers know about rickrolling, most non-hackers do not.

    I’d disagree, rickrolling is a 4chan thing and i’d characterise the majority of hackers to be way to busy to consume their life on 4chan. I’d say the correlation is better for “internet aware” than “hacker”, the latter being almost entirely subsumed within the former.

  204. @ esr:

    I look forward to a discussion of tech literacy for hackers ;)

    Your “How To Become a Hacker” has some great starting points, yet it would be great to see the topic discussed here.

    Cheers,

    Mauricio

  205. IIRC Feynman quite explicitly credited others for leading the investigation to the o-ring demonstration writing that he Feynman was a little slower that he was happy with to realize that he was being fed information. E.g. “Fed clues from a source with inside information, Feynman famously showed on television the crucial role in the disaster played by the booster’s O-ring flexible gas seals with a simple demonstration using a glass of ice water and a sample of o-ring material.” See also What do You Care What Other People Think.

    For an operational definition of cultural literacy though maybe not strictly hacker and more Dilbert – given an actual list of associated servers in a large organization can name the usually literary or media or other source and successfully guess/add names that fit.

  206. @ esr –

    I understand your desire to keep the range of interests narrow. You seem to be more focused on what cultural interests define hackers as hackers. And so maybe this isn’t the place for my sort of contribution. (although I do strongly agree with your encouragements in the polymath direction).

    I do think, however, at some point Hackers are going to have to engage broadly with the arts. At least, you’re going to need emissaries who can engage with them and speak their language (just as any artist worth their salt in the coming century are going to have to learn to code). “The Social Network” is a good example of how it is that artists (e.g. sorkin) see Hackers (anti-social and threatening) – and it’s a characterisation that is largely born of ignorance. Giving the increasing importance of hacker culture, these sorts of mis-characterisations are going to intensify.

    As such, I don’t just see this as an issue of ‘bright things people like’ – but an absolutely crucial aspect of cultural engagement that is necessary to the health of hacker culture. Nevertheless – still off topic to what you’re going for. So I’ll leave it at that. :)

  207. >The Social Network” is a good example of how it is that artists (e.g. sorkin) see Hackers (anti-social and threatening) – and it’s a characterisation that is largely born of ignorance

    Sorry, but speaking as someone who’s both a techie geek and artist (capable musician and poet with an untrained but strong visual-arts talent) my instant reaction to this is: “Fuck the Aaron Sorkins of the world with a chainsaw.” I know exactly what I’d need to be and do to have their approval, and I don’t want or need it. Nor does any other self-respecting hacker, I’d say.

  208. As regard the idea of “Hacker (anti-social)”, to paraphrase a .sig line: Hackers are not anti-social, they are just choosy about who they socialize with.

  209. “Fuck the Aaron Sorkins of the world with a chainsaw.” I know exactly what I’d need to be and do to have their approval, and I don’t want or need it. Nor does any other self-respecting hacker, I’d say.

    AMEN to that!

  210. I totally understand that reaction…

    It’s just that I’m seeing this schism forming between two cultures that really have a great deal in common. Meanwhile, the artists are shacking up with big content over copyright issues… and look who has just cut a deal with Goldman Sachs? These two communities are supposed to be the genuinely subversive and oppositional forces to the increasingly fascistic nightmare forming around us – yet it’s looking all the more divided and conquered to me.

    But I’m hijacking your thread… I’ll stop now… really! :)

  211. These two communities are supposed to be the genuinely subversive and oppositional forces to the increasingly fascistic nightmare forming around us

    Huh? If you’re peddling the standard left-wing bullshit about evil corporations, include me out. The hacker community is about hacking, period. There’s far too much diversity of political opinion for it to ever coalesce around such things. The only common thread is a preference for individual liberty – both economic and social – and that argues strongly against the kind of leftist crapola that the art world pushes. If there were no corporations, who’d build the toys we hack on?

  212. “The Social Network” is a good example of how it is that artists (e.g. sorkin) see Hackers (anti-social and threatening) – and it’s a characterisation that is largely born of ignorance. Giving the increasing importance of hacker culture, these sorts of mis-characterisations are going to intensify.

    People like that will reject us until we become like them and accept their authority over our culture.

    I was going to mention videogames as another key cultural touchstone for hackerdom: most hackers born circa 1980 or later grok references to Half-Life, BioShock and Portal, as well as the usual retrogaming suspects (Mario, Sonic, etc.). It dawned on me, however, that computer games are the one extant artform that only hackers can give to the broader culture[0] — and that’s precisely why Roger Ebert doesn’t believe that games count as art. They, unlike the visual arts, poetry, prose, film, and certain music, are not (yet) owned by the artfags and litfags. Until they are, they can’t possibly be taken seriously.

    [0] Computer games are perhaps a necessary sideband effect of hacking itself. As Alan Kay observed: “The game of Spacewar blossoms spontaneously wherever there is a graphics display connected to a computer.”

  213. I will point out, though, that at least in my experience, hackers have a true disdain for the sort of crap that passes for “high art” these days. “Serious artists” produce unmitigated crap and call it art. Modern graphic art is unviewable; modern artistic music is unlistenable; modern artistic films are unwatchable; modern artistic literature is unreadable modern artistic sculpture is unmentionable; modern design is unusable.

    The concept that art must subvert the current order and attempt to drive it in some favored direction is one exclusively of the modern Left, which has taken root in the modern artistic world. In so doing, it’s done nothing more effectively than alienate the rest of society, except for that portion of it that goes to art exhibits and oohs and aahs simply so they are not thought of as being unsophisticated. Hackers don’t care about such things. We see crap, and we’re not afraid to point out that the sculture titled “the Emperor” has not only no clothes, but no resemblance to more than a pile of scrap iron left out in the rain to rust.

    Take your “genuinely subversive and oppositional forces to the increasingly fascistic nightmare forming around us” and stick it in your ear. Hackers, as a whole, want no part of it.

  214. Jay,

    It’s been my observation that the artists who are serious about it — people who really have a bug in their ear to draw or paint or sculpt — really don’t care about that garbage either. Like hackers, they just go about making their art. The “art world” consists of mainly collectors and poseurs. Occasionally, an artist may compromise his/her artistic values and start producing garbage in order to attract collector interest (and hence money); I call this “pickling the shark”. In the realm of music, Lady Gaga is an example of a talented performer who’d pickled the shark and started churning out crap, and as expected the press calls it chocolate ice cream.

    Take your “genuinely subversive and oppositional forces to the increasingly fascistic nightmare forming around us” and stick it in your ear. Hackers, as a whole, want no part of it.

    Sorry, that’s not true. What is Wikileaks but a “subversive and oppositional force”?

  215. What is Wikileaks but a “subversive and oppositional force”?

    You really don’t want to get me started on that. I’ll limit myself to saying that Julian Assange needs to be on the receiving end of a Predator strike. And no, I don’t consider him a hacker.

    My point was that you can’t assign the kind of motivations to hackers as a whole that Dan Haggard is trying to. Over breakfast, I gave this some more consideration, and think that his error is in assigning the values of the Stallmanites to the wider hacker community. This is a deep and profound error, but one that’s unlikely to be corrected through education or debate. Leftists are so wrapped up in their worldview that they simply ignore contrary evidence.

  216. @Jay Maynard:
    “Julian Assange needs to be on the receiving end of a Predator strike. ”

    Do you extend this wish, retroactively, to those who published the Pentagon Papers in the 1970’s? Or the Abu Graib pictures?

  217. Okay – a passionate response from Jay. I’m really a bit worried about taking over ESR’s discussion, which I assume was not intended to go in this sort of direction. But i’d like to respond if I may.

    Jay – you’d be surprised how much I agree with you I think. Just be a little bit more careful what you describe as leftist – a libertarian or an anarchist for instance can certainly oppose corporate fascism or oligarchy, without being anywhere near the left. So just because I talk about a culture as being oppositional, doesn’t mean I have to be talking about leftists.

    Besides this, I wouldn’t like to ascribe (necessarily) political ideals of any sort to hackers. As I describe at length (I won’t repost the link as I did in my comment above) – hackers are better characterised in their core as a-political… or even better as anti-idealistic. At least, that’s the gist that I’ve gleaned. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    The ways in which hackers and artists stand as oppositional forces are absolutely different. But I think I’m right when I say they both are. Again – I’ll leave the details for those keen enough to follow me up on it.

    What I think you really will take issue with me about (at least if you care to get to know my considered view) – is my claim that the hacker self identification around the concept of anti-ideology (or play) is a big, big mistake. I expect this is going to be vigorously denied. But yeah – if you want to go for the smack down (which will probably do me a lot of good, so please feel free) – that’s where I think you’ll want to start. :)

  218. >hackers are better characterised in their core as a-political… or even better as anti-idealistic. At least, that’s the gist that I’ve gleaned. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    Well, as a group we observably have a bit of a lean towards libertarianism, but you’re mostly right.

    >What I think you really will take issue with me about (at least if you care to get to know my considered view) – is my claim that the hacker self identification around the concept of anti-ideology (or play) is a big, big mistake.

    I’d like to hear your argument for that, if you think you can make it without descending into political particularism.

  219. >What I think you really will take issue with me about (at least if you care to get to know my considered view) – is my claim that the hacker self identification around the concept of anti-ideology (or play) is a big, big mistake.

    I’d like to hear your argument for that, if you think you can make it without descending into political particularism.

    /me goes to get popcorn…

  220. Agreed about “anti-social”– I was called that when I was a kid. As it turns out, I’m fairly social, but I didn’t like the people I was around at the time. “Anti-social” is a way of turning a preference into a (presented as bad) ideology.

    As for hackers and public art– the only solution is for people who understand hackishness to be artists and develop positive presentations of the temperament. There’s no need to convince Alan Sorkin to think differently (though it would be nice).

    I think there’d be a market for positive portrayals of hackishness– they’d have to be somewhat simplified and abstracted, but I think light-heartedness and skill are attractive.

    I do think there’s a smug streak in hacker culture, but I don’t think it’s more extreme than anyone else’s smugness. Group self-congratulation is normal human behavior.

    Pratchett may offer a corrective– he’s the best author I’ve seen for liking and respecting different sorts of people. He’s got moral standards, but he’s very clear that a wide range of temperaments is consistent with good will.

  221. @ESR:
    “Well, as a group we observably have a bit of a lean towards libertarianism, but you’re mostly right.”

    I’ve seen this in the US, but the european and Australian hackers I know lean towards soft socialism.

  222. @jsk

    Bah, seems I’m neither a hacker nor a bright person, and that I should eat my words about exclusivity. :P I’ve been wracking my brain for the last two days trying to figure out the red card with green written on it thing.

  223. Ignore previous comment, finally figured it out with some help from Google.

  224. Blatantly OT, apologies for that….just wanted to make sure that ESR had this passed under his nose.

    Thoughts in a separate post, maybe?

  225. I’ve been wracking my brain for the last two days trying to figure out the red card with green written on it thing.

    You’re doing it wrong.

  226. >Blatantly OT, apologies for that….just wanted to make sure that ESR had this passed under his nose.

    GPSD is on Coverity’s list of open-source projects to be scanned. I have been unable to get my contact there to respond to email, however, so I don’t have results more recent than late 2007.

  227. @Winter:

    Julian Assange is a vandal. He didn’t find evidence of misdoings and publish them at risk to himself. He got access to large quantities of confidential information and dumped it onto the internet. He exposed sources who if not yet dead will be useless to us in the future.

    Don’t be confused by stories of careful vetting. That was done by newspapers interested in publishing excerpts.

    He’s doing it for the drama, and the fringe benefits notoriety brings.

    This is qualitatively different from the Pentagon Papers.

  228. As for hackers and public art– the only solution is for people who understand hackishness to be artists and develop positive presentations of the temperament.

    Agreed, 100%. That said, go see Tron: Legacy. While you’re at it, you may wish to record The Big Bang Theory to your DVR. It’s not about software developers, but one of its producers was one, and it’s probably the best treatment of geniuses as central characters to reach mainstream television since Doogie Howser, M.D..

    I detect an inverse problem: taste in programming does not automatically translate into taste in visual media. Case in point: many hackers think User Friendly is a good comic. In addition to being unfunny, the art is abomination. The good news is, good taste can be learned through careful study and practice; and hackers can probably do this more readily than the general population. Cultivating art as an amateur hackerish pursuit will only improve our relations with artists, as it will give us a common shared language with them.

    Full disclosure: I’ve invested quite a few years into developing the skill of cartooning.

    “The Social Network” is a good example of how it is that artists (e.g. sorkin) see Hackers (anti-social and threatening) – and it’s a characterisation that is largely born of ignorance. Giving the increasing importance of hacker culture, these sorts of mis-characterisations are going to intensify.

    I’m probably one of those “shadow autists” that Eric observes constitute a salient portion of hackerdom — you know, the ones who are supposed to have no social skills and no sense of humor. I have observed that so-called neurotypicals are often as socially daft as people like me are accused of being; yet they get a pass for it whereas people like me are viewed by the NT masses as being puzzle pieces (or quasi-invalids broken and corrupted by vaccines) at best. At worst we creep the hell out of the NT majority.

    “Lack of social skills” is not the problem with high-functioning autists, and it’s not the only thing keeping us from acceptance by the wider world. We have a vastly different Weltanschauung from the wider world, and in the case of shadow-autists it is most likely due to a vastly different cognitive PHY layer. I suspect that a different Weltanschauung from the general population is something virtually all hackers have, and in some cases it may even be deliberately cultivated. This is something the wider world finds unsettling. The only long-term solution to the problem is to somehow make everybody just a little bit geekier. I’m convinced this is a desirable goal.

  229. Winter, yes, I do. There’s a word for those who steal and expose government secrets: spy. Spies get killed out of hand summarily in time of war.

    Fundamentally, what gives Assange the right to decide what is and is not secret?

    It’s worth noting that not even the Pentagon Papers spy defends Assange.

  230. >This is qualitatively different from the Pentagon Papers.

    That’s true. Insofar as it helped destroy public support for the Vietnam War, the death toll reasonably attributable to the publication of the Pentagon Papers was far higher (including as it did not just the totalitarianization of South Vietnam but the Anghka massacres in Cambodia). But since it was all brown people in faraway countries being killed by victorious Communists, barely anyone in the U.S. cared.

  231. Dan, this isn’t really offtopic, because it has to do with hacker culture and what you are claiming it should be. I agree with Eric: I’d like to see you make your case without dropping into the specifics of politics. Frankly, I don’t think you can.

    This comment is why:

    Besides this, I wouldn’t like to ascribe (necessarily) political ideals of any sort to hackers. As I describe at length (I won’t repost the link as I did in my comment above) – hackers are better characterised in their core as a-political… or even better as anti-idealistic. At least, that’s the gist that I’ve gleaned. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    You’re correct. Carry that thought farther. It leads to the conclusion that hackers do not consider themselves “oppositional forces” in the same way as the High Art community does. That, in turn, says that the hacker community as a whole will not rise to the level that the High Art community has in its navel-gazing echo-chamber self-pretentiousness. Personally, I consider that an unalloyed Good Thing.

    Hackers are fundamentally practical people, in a way that a High Artist is constitutionally incapable of being. Making a Grand Statement Opposing The Man is not something hackers do, at least in their hacker persona. A High Artist might consider piling ten tons of scrap iron in a park to be a Powerful Statement, and wonder why he’s roundly ridiculed by everyone except other High Artists and their toadies. A hacker wouldn’t even dream of doing it in the first place. A truly great hack is useful at some level. High Art is not.

    The proof of this is in the pudding. Linus Torvalds changed the world in ways High Artists only dream of and can fundamentally never achieve. He didn’t set out to change the world. He just wanted to learn about the guts of Unix, and the 386, and committed one of the truly great hacks of all time.

  232. > I detect an inverse problem: taste in programming does not automatically translate into taste in visual media.

    Thus the popularity and defense of XKCD as a good _comic_.

  233. taste in programming does not automatically translate into taste in visual media. Case in point: many hackers think User Friendly is a good comic.

    I’m one of them, at least until the author ran out of material. Yeah, the art isn’t great, but the whole package is a great comic, in the same way Dilbert is (and you can’t claim Scott Adams’s art is any better). It’s a documentary, holding up a mirror to the IT world and showing the humor that’s inherent in it.

    jsk raised XKCD. I’ll raise another one: Schlock Mercenary. Howard Tayler’s art has improved dramatically since he began the strip nearly a decade ago, but as a comic, it’s been good from the beginning: he brings the funny every day, and that means every day. No hiatuses, no guest artist weeks, no slacking off. The humor is consistent, the science plausible and rigorous outside the stuff he had to invent to make the universe work (and even there as far as possible), and the characters real and engaging. If you claim that that strip is not something that would appeal to a comic fan of good taste, right from the beginning, I shall have to ask you to step outside.

    There’s more to taste in comics than fine art. Not everyone can create Girl Genius, but they don’t have to either to provide a fun comic to follow.

  234. the High Art community has in its navel-gazing echo-chamber self-pretentiousness.

    That’s because the “art world” are weak-sauce oppositionalists. Craig Nulan enlightened me of the extent to which black culture is oppositional culture, encompassing centuries of practical knowledge of how to survive in a hostile embedding society without being assimilated by it. Indeed, so crafty has been their subversiveness that this oppositional culture has counter-infected our own, from Twain’s writing through jazz to modern hip-hop. Compared to this success story, the artfag collective is weak, flaccid, and easily swayed by money.

    As for hackerdom — as a useful byproduct itself of the military-industrial complex, it doesn’t register on the oppositional scale at all.

  235. > jsk raised XKCD. I’ll raise another one: Schlock Mercenary.

    I love Schlock, and Howard is a stand-up fellow. I do want to clarify though, in case I was a little obtuse: I don’t think XKCD is a good comic. Funny, yes. Well-written, yes. Good comic? No. IMO Munroe is coasting on his wit and not trying to develop as a comic artist. Point being: it could be much, much more than it is. Howard Tayler is an interesting counterpoint here: his early art is rudimentary at best, but grows markedly with time. Munroe doesn’t seem to care at all, and I think it hurts his comic.

  236. @Jay Maynard

    Daniel Ellsberg, the guy that leaked the Pentagon Papers, has actually made numerous public statements in strong support of Wikileaks and Julian Assange. One of those statements was made in June on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman and another was just last month on Stephen Colbert’s show.

    @esr:

    Insofar as it helped destroy public support for the Vietnam War, the death toll reasonably attributable to the publication of the Pentagon Papers was far higher (including as it did not just the totalitarianization of South Vietnam but the Anghka massacres in Cambodia)

    The Pentagon Papers were just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Public support for the Vietnam War was already very, very poor by 1971, as evidenced by the numerous large Vietnam War protests in the late 1960s and the numerous anti-War protest songs (example) of the time showing up in the popular music of the day.

  237. I don’t think XKCD is a good comic. Funny, yes. Well-written, yes. Good comic? No.

    I think you’ve put your finger on a difference in how hackers perceive art as opposed to others. Hackers are practical people. Ugly but working is valued over pretty but broken. Thus, something that will make critics turn up their noses will be thought of as good by hackers if the overall experience is enjoyable. As long as Randall Munroe brings the funny regularly, the hacker community will embrace him.

  238. I think I understand where Dan is coming from, but I feel like it’s a false analogy. Yes, hacker and artists are oppositional forces, but that’s where the similarity ends. I’m speaking in broad generalizations, but hackers oppose That Which Prevents Them from Playing (closed source, ill-conceived standards, government interference, etc.), with varying degrees of respect for works and their creators that came before them. Individual liberty is paramount. On the other hand, small-m modern artists (like other Pournelle(4-5,4′-5′) folks) have little to no respect for the works or their creators of the past, always moving on to some “new” thing with no anchor in what came before. The goal is permanent revolution or overturning of the now. They seek approval from the ouroboros of sophisticates and collectors. Yes, hackers also seek approval from the community-at-large, but it’s the approval of one craftsman to another, not the ego stroking of the art world.

    Call me out if any of this sounds bogus.

    ESR says: To the contrary, I think you pretty much nailed it.

    NB: I have deliberately avoided using terms like “right” and “left”, since they have become devoid of their original meaning

  239. >Linus Torvalds changed the world in ways High Artists only dream of and can fundamentally never achieve. He didn’t set out to change the world.

    Just to buttress Jay’s point, I too have changed the world in ways High Artists only dream of and can fundamentally never achieve. This is not actually a very high hurdle; I can think of a dozen or so people who qualify just among my personal friends. But I make an interesting second data point because, though changing the world was a little more intentional on my part than for Linus (and became much more so after 1997), I deliberately rejected politics and being an “oppositional force” as a pathway to doing so. I did so in part because I judged that path to be incapable of leading to change on the scale I was interested in.

    The artist’s ability to change the world is sharply limited because all he can do, fundamentally, is emit propaganda on behalf of some political faction. All that can do is change who gets to be on top of the system this week; it cannot change the fundamentals of economics and technology of which politics is an epiphenomenon. Truly fundamental change comes from breakpoints like the invention of the printing press, or the steam engine, or gunpowder weapons, or the Internet. At a level above that, where less important innovators like Linus and I and RMS operate, change comes from radically altering the relationship of individuals to the technology and economics of their surround, enabling them to actually seize the potential offered by the technological breakthroughs of their day.

    By comparison, nothing “high artists” do is more than froth on the waves. Which is why I neither want nor need them to approve of me. They can congratulate themselves about “changing the world” all they want; all I will see is a bunch of self-deluding parasites who couldn’t build anything actually useful to save their lives, and are all too willing to shill for the next tyrannical ideology to make glittery promises at them.

  240. High artists?

    Nina Palin, Rem Koolhaas, Mondriaan.

    Original meaning of right and left was the position of the benches in parliament. I think that was the only unambiguous definition ever.

  241. By comparison, nothing “high artists” do is more than froth on the waves. Which is why I neither want nor need them to approve of me. They can congratulate themselves about “changing the world” all they want; all I will see is a bunch of self-deluding parasites who couldn’t build anything actually useful to save their lives, and are all too willing to shill for the next tyrannical ideology to make glittery promises at them.

    Completely agreed. You’ve perhaps heard the expression that “life imitates art,” but as a student of history I find the exact opposite is true: art imitates — or, more accurately, mirrors — life. I think the original expression of “life imitates art” was probably started by some “high artist” seriously deluding himself.

    For example, the Vietnam War protest songs I referred in my above post didn’t cause public support to wane for the VIetnam War, it was merely a reflection of it. The war, and the fact that people saw it live for the first time ever on television via satellite-connected news reporters, was enough to do that all by itself without any help from Edwin Starr. So it wasn’t art, but technology that affected public opinion, and thusly changed the world.

  242. [quote]I think you’ve put your finger on a difference in how hackers perceive art as opposed to others. Hackers are practical people. Ugly but working is valued over pretty but broken. Thus, something that will make critics turn up their noses will be thought of as good by hackers if the overall experience is enjoyable. As long as Randall Munroe brings the funny regularly, the hacker community will embrace him.[/quote]

    Oh, don’t get me wrong, I think XKCD is very entertaining, and I read it M-W-F. I just think the visual aspect of it is more of a side-note than anything else, and at most a nice shortcut for the joke (exceptions for the various maps and such he creates, which are top-notch). I like his work; I want to see him push past his stylistic box and actually use the sequential-art medium to its full potential. XKCD could be working AND pretty, if he’d just step up his game and improve his visual storytelling.

  243. Oh bah, that’s what I get for trying to use tagging. Always a disaster.

  244. >XKCD could be working AND pretty, if he’d just step up his game and improve his visual storytelling.

    No, you just don’t grok what Munroe is doing. The contrast between Munroe’s gorgeous, visually polished maps/charts and the primitivistic line art in his day to day comic strips is an important clue, the significance of which you have completely missed.

    To clue in, read “Understanding Comics”; XKCD is the most faithful execution of McCloud’s esthetic theory I’ve ever seen. It’s almost as if Randall created XKCD as a laboratory demonstration of same.

  245. > No, you just don’t grok what Munroe is doing.

    False. I do, I just think he could do it better. How many of his comics can you completely remove the visual and still make the joke work? I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.

  246. You know, I had a feeling jsk’s hangup with XKCD was largely about the stick figures, but I thought maybe he was getting at something deeper. Now it sounds like it is largely about the stick figures. I kept thinking to myself, well, Munroe is being reductionist on purpose. We know he’s capable of elaborate maps and charts. (Maybe Munroe could bank on this by publishing a strip similar to Frank Cho, where he teaches people how to “Draw Like Randall Munroe in Three Easy Steps”. (Maybe he did this already and I don’t remember.))

    Anyway. It’s about the brain vegetables, not the eye candy. You’re getting a visual feast; you’re just not realizing how tasty the broccoli is. Or something.

    By the way, I hope you read the blog as well; it doesn’t update as much as the comic, but when it does, it’s mesmerizing. I’ve found one idea for a book that I very, very, very much want to give to my niece and nephews as a gift.

  247. And by the way, I claim ESR’s last comment before this one pretty much proves Heinlein isa sine qua non of hacker culture.

  248. @jsk
    The minimalistic aethetic of Munroe’s work is directly targeted at increasing the hermeneutic value of the art; when we look at comics, our brains automatically fill in the “blanks”. The more realistic the art is, the less we get to fill in for ourselves. XKCD just takes that theory to the extreme.

  249. > The minimalistic aethetic of Munroe’s work is directly targeted at increasing the hermeneutic value of the art

    Sure. And he could still do it better than he usually does. See Jeph Jacques’s guest comic @ http://xkcd.com/822/ for the exact same deal done with more skill. Or the very next guest comic by David Troupes @ http://xkcd.com/823/.

    My issue is not with the minimalism or the stick figures, it’s with the execution. Let me reverse my previous post: Can you completely remove the words and still have the visual work? From a quick overview, I would say the answer tends towards No, but I’ll allow that many of the single-panel comics especially use text as a visual in itself, at which point I’ll reiterate that often the ‘comic’ nature of the work becomes not much more than sideband info.

    I guess what I’m really saying is, the way he is using the minimalist art doesn’t work for me. It falls flat, and survives by virtue of sharp writing and reasonably decent timing.

  250. @MG:

    I think “Art imitates life” was originally meant more in the sense of “Man bites dog”.

    @esr:

    I agree that the way the USA abandoned South Vietnam was shameful.

  251. Quick exercise for the crowd: given previous comments on the difference between hackers’, high artists’, and low artists’ approaches to the new and the old, to what extent does this exhibit hacker nature?

  252. My issue is not with the minimalism or the stick figures, it’s with the execution. Let me reverse my previous post: Can you completely remove the words and still have the visual work?

    I’d argue that your guest comic examples are just as bad as the resident comics. They do however tend to not find the funny more frequently.

    Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a comic (not just web) or graphic novel i’ve enjoyed that would satisfy this test. If you can link a demonstration i’d like to see it.

    From a quick overview, I would say the answer tends towards No, but I’ll allow that many of the single-panel comics especially use text as a visual in itself, at which point I’ll reiterate that often the ‘comic’ nature of the work becomes not much more than sideband info.

    IMO both graphical and textual assets in any comic have to work together, the value is more than just the sum of the parts.
    I don’t think you’d get anywhere near the same effect from just pasting the text onto a webpage.

    “I’m all for green energy, but those turbines creep me out. They remind me of War of the Worlds or the tripod books.”
    “They ARE unnerving.” “I can’t shake the feeling that at any moment they’ll…” *Rumble*
    *crack* *boom* *crack* *boom*
    “Oh no it’s coming this way” “Al Gore, You’ve doomed us all! Run”
    *BOOM*
    “What Now?” “Someone has to stop them!” “But who could…”
    “Stand Aside!”

    or this.
    In fact i think that XKCD comic is a good example where the graphics might convey part of the joke on their own without text.

  253. I think “Art imitates life” was originally meant more in the sense of “Man bites dog”.

    Not sure what you mean. My post postulates about “life imitates art,” not “art imitates life”. As I said, I think it’s more accurate to say that art mirrors or reflects life. If you mean that “life imitates art” is supposed to be ironic, okay, but to what end?

  254. >Quick exercise for the crowd: given previous comments on the difference between hackers’, high artists’, and low artists’ approaches to the new and the old, to what extent does this exhibit hacker nature?

    There is more than a touch of hacker-nature there, if only in the deliberate use of silly names and labels to convey in plain language some concepts of serious importance. But I think you knew that when you posted the link, yes?

  255. @JonB:

    Actually, that’s a great example of an XKCD that really, really knocks it out of the park. Take away all the spoken words and it still works beautifully. I can think of a few small critiques that might improve it, but on the whole great.

    Maybe my biggest beef with the comic as a whole is that Munroe shows he can do some really very nice work, like #556, but it’s just too darned rare. I Know he can do better, and so it always seems like the comic is less than it should be. Just my own opinion, though I admit I feel more strongly about it than I probably need to.

    This makes me lead into another hacker culture knowledge topic, actually. A lot of XKCD’s humor relies on reader familiarity, but gets away with it by generally being very clever about it.

    I’ve noticed a strong trend in the last several years on the part of entertainment to get applause by simply holding up something familiar to the audience. It may generalize out, but I notice this heavily in geek entertainment. For example, if a band all of a sudden plays the Zelda theme on stage, all the geeks go craaaazy. It feels pretty shallow a lot of the time.

    So: How much does this apply in hacker culture? Are hacker-nature types more or less likely to place the familiar in esteem? Or does this not have much bearing one way or the other? Am I making sense, or just spewing more crazy-talk?

  256. Re: Economnomnomics:

    Brown University is offering a CS course called “YO DAWG I HERD YOU LIKE RECURSIVE ALGORITHMS”. Which might be considered meme abuse but for the relevance of the meme the name came from to the concept of recursion.

    (When asked to summarize inversion of control briefly for someone who hadn’t a clue what it meant, I responded simply: “In Soviet Russia, API calls you!”)

  257. JonB: saw that comic when it first came out, and laughed again, now.

    Appropo of the mouseover: I dare say there is enough creative talent among the big name Hollywood studios for one of them to produce a movie playing with the trope of One Crazy Dude Saving the World. The teaser: someone, be it a Bruce Willis or a Ben Stiller or a Sigourney Weaver or a mouse voiced by Martin Lawrence, saves the world, but that’s just in the first two minutes; the story has just begun. I might just fall in love with that movie on the spot.

    ESR: I was afraid it was maybe a bit TOO dumb. Ha. An exercise as much for me as for everyone else. But it seems we agree.

  258. jsk: Sometimes I think Munroe is a bit TOO clever. To wit: Piano.

    At the time, I had to go to the damn forum thread before I got it.

  259. It’s very nice of you to invite the argument ESR – and I’m glad generally to see many in this thread engaging with my suggestion. I tend to feel that hackers as a whole are much closer to understanding the commonalities between the two cultures. My artistically minded brethren, I fear, have much further to go.

    But now I’m in danger of writing a giant wall of text in response. My article on the matter isn’t 20k words long for nothing. The argument that hacker self-identification is a mistake is indeed difficult to make. My original piece itself needs considerable revision and expansion. The more I get into this, the more I’m beginning to think that a fully adequate argument is going to take me years. But if there is one thing I’ve picked up from the hackers so far it’s the importance of brevity and iteration. So perhaps an attempt at a concise summary will do me some good.

    I don’t expect to convert anyone on the basis of this summary – there are just too many presuppositions and background issues that need to be gone into at length. But it’s a start.

    Before I start the argument. Here are a few presuppositions that you might want to take issue with:

    A1) I define ideology to be a stance that a human being takes vis a vis the world. In it’s essence it is neither good nor bad. It gets a bad wrap commonly because many folks often refuse to revise their ideologies. But that’s not the fault of ideology itself.

    A2) Human endeavour is not separable from ideology. All coherent human action presumes some stance toward the world. To be is to be SOMETHING! (Note, this is an anti-romantic claim. The romantics came to believe that being precedes essence. In making an ideal of play, hackers are actually doing something very similar. It’s in this respect they most clearly resemble the artists – and it’s the respect in which they are most in danger of repeating the chief mistake the artistic class made).

    A3) What often makes good ideology go bad is its abstraction from the concrete context which gave rise to it in the first place.

    Okay – so here is the argument:

    P1) The hacker self-identification with anti-ideology and play is itself an ideal (it is a stance against the world that can be defended, attacked.. etc it guides action – it embodies its own set of presuppositions).

    P2) This ideal has become an abstraction from the wider context which gave birth to original idea (and I believe this degree of separation is increasing with time).

    P3) This wider context is the sphere of human inter-personal engagement known as intimacy. Play is but one component of this wider context, and literally cannot exist without it (another component is.. you guessed, ideology. They turn out to be different sides of the same coin).

    P4) The possibility of genuine human intimacy is in danger of being severely damaged. (I know – this claim is huge). As goes intimacy, so goes play.

    P5) Hackers are making a pretty solid contribution to the endangerment of human intimacy. That many of them would engage in such a pursuit I think is likely a result of not recognising the relationship between play and intimacy. That is to say because the concept of play has been made an ideal, abstracted from its wider context, it is becoming something at odds with the spirit that originally served as its motivation.

    Conclusion: Hackers therefore are in danger of destroying the facet of human experience they seem to value most – the concept of play. The solution is to embrace the wider context involved in play into one’s self identification – which means embracing the necessity of ideology as core constituent of that self-identification. And who has been good with coming up with ideologies? It’s been the artistic class. Get chatting – you’ve got a lot to learn. (As do the artists – and they have the disadvantage of being an old cultural force that is still set in its ways).

    As I said – I don’t expect this presentation to convert. Every premise needs an enormous amount of explanation, qualification and defense. My presuppositions are deep philosophical claims that are disputed by just about all the great romantic thinkers of the last two centuries. There is no easy route to a serious consideration of this argument.

    It does, however, meet your criterion of avoiding a specific political viewpoint- at least, I would argue that it does. Maybe that might be enough to convince some of you to devote some time and research to the issue.

    :)

  260. >Or does this not have much bearing one way or the other?

    Among hackers, you get points not so much for pointing up the familiar as for how clever your reference to it is. In the ideal case, a little mental effort is required but when you get it you feel silly for not having twigged sooner. The sillier you feel, the more successful the funny was.

    XKCD’s Can’t Sleep is an excellent example.

  261. I find the idea that removing text or images from a comic is a valid metric of judgment to be a bit odd. XKCD’s art may suck, or it may not, but I don’t really care, I don’t go there for the art. I don’t always go there for the funny either, he’s very hit or miss, but the hits are quite good.

    (In fact from what I can see it is rare beyond belief to always always be exceptionally good, if there even is such a thing. To be exceptional one must be trying hard enough that failure is inevitable. The failures may go unpublished in conventional media, but they are almost always there.)

    There are comics I don’t go to for the words, too, it all balances out.

  262. jsk: Sometimes I think Munroe is a bit TOO clever. To wit: Piano.

    See i think Piano is a classic mind screw. It’s basically being the straight man to your own brain.

    Everyone understands about the the [insert measurement here] pianist gag so our brain expects the gag and then when you don’t get it you think “oh must be in the alt tag” and then it gets so close that your brain is screaming the punchline.

    I think I like XKCD because the overwhelming majority of times, if i understand the components I laugh. If i don’t understand the components I search wikipedia for key terms in the punchline and then generally I laugh.

    If you want too clever (or perhaps too esoteric is the better description), i’d suggest Apocalypse.

  263. >It does, however, meet your criterion of avoiding a specific political viewpoint

    It does, but there are so many other huge leaps of assumption in it as to render it nearly nonsensical. The problems start right at the beginning, where you suppose that hackers have ideologized play. This is, in fact, wrong. Because there’s something underneath the play: stuff has to work. The playfulness is not actually an end in itself, it’s a learned strategy for maximizing creative productivity in domains where the problems of making stuff work are extremely hard. (To be fair to you, I didn’t consciously know this myself until you forced me to think about it just now. But I also bet you every hacker on this thread is now nodding in agreement.)

    Because you mistake the means for the end, you miss the bedrock connection to reality that hacker playfulness has. We’re engineers. We live to make stuff that works; we engage the real universe on the level of action. If the tools we create have the effect of eroding intimacy (and that’s not clear to me) then the problem is with how human beings choose to use the tools we gave them, not with the playfulness that was part of our cognitive strategy in creating the tools. You have your levels confused.

    If you wanted to make an argument with the same conclusion (the hacker nature subverts itself) you would have done better not to start from our “playfulness” but from our much deeper belief that giving people more tools to do stuff with always has a net positive payoff. Tough argument (and ex-hacker Bill Joy got there first, and we didn’t buy it from him so we’re not likely to buy it from you) but at least it would be about the right level of causation.

  264. The trouble with Piano isn’t that it relies on that gag, so much that it relies on a specific version of that gag. It just so happened that my exposure to that gag involved someone wishing someone else would have a “little penis”. So I was hopelessly wondering why the girl in the comic wanted a date. (Yeah, I know, I still wonder why that version was the one I got.)

    Whereas, with Apocalypse, nearly everyone who’s heard of Erdos is familiar with the meaning of an Erdos number, no matter how they came by it.

  265. I agree with most of what you’ve just said esr. In particular I laud the hacker engagement with reality (as engineers) as their chief superiority over artists. I agree also that playfulness serves as a strategy for precisely that purpose. It does this because it allows a person to experiment with previously untested behaviours.

    I go into this precise point in great detail in my article. So no – if I’ve made a mistake – it’s hasn’t been to miss this particular issue. I go further however, and state that really what gives people that creative edge is not play (considered in isolation) – but intimacy (of which both play and ideology are inseparable and essential components) – intimacy taken as the space in which both play and serious ideological critique can be engaged in and delivered.

    That play has become a perverse ideal is not because it is being used as an end in itself – but because it is being applied as a strategy taken out of its wider context.

    Now – you’re absolutely right when you say I have to make an argument that the tools provided by hackers are going to have a negative payoff. And it’s an enormously difficult argument to make. And while the difficulty goes in both directions (what confidence do we have that it will be net positive?) – the onus is certainly on me for taking the negative position.

    I do have an argument that the tools being provided are leading to a net negative – my argument is precisely that these tools are leading to a destruction of intimacy (as well as play), and therefore these tools are in danger of wiping out exactly that creative crucible that mankind has deployed so successfully to generate value and pull itself out of the bog of existence. I do give at least one concrete example in my article of how I think social networking tools, for instance, will have this effect.

    Whether or not these tools are just an extension of human tendencies – or whether they generate these tendencies is a very difficult chicken/egg argument that is extremely difficult to resolve. But ultimately, my contention is that intimacy behaviours arose in the evolutionary context of small group, tribal structures – were constrained by moralistic, agricultural societies and will likely be wiped out by high wealth, free information societies. Not everyone agrees with this. The economist Robin Hanson, for instance, believes that we are heading back toward a pre-agricultural (or forager) type existence – where presumably there is a greater possibility for intimate behaviours. I think the issue is touch and go depending on the choices made by the this generation and the next.

    Anyway – I have a mountain more to say – but better do some work. Awesome chat! :)

  266. The playfulness is not actually an end in itself, it’s a learned strategy for maximizing creative productivity in domains where the problems are extremely hard.

    Ding! I think that’s why it’s almost universal that to inject humor into technical documentation, like language tutorials or library documentation; silly examples, silly variable names, silly metasyntactic variables, various references to hacker humor. It helps make sometimes hard-to-understand topics seem just a little bit easier. Take that Xiph.org video processing tutorial you covered a while back; the guy injects plenty of humor and adopts the stance this stuff is child’s play. And he makes it seem that way, for sure. It’s a hack of the mind.

  267. JonB,I didnt’t think that one was particularly obscure or even clever, but having been a math major I may be biased. I’d buy that http://xkcd.com/514/ is obscure, even though I got the joke and started laughing hysterically before I read the caption at the bottom. Though that’s probably good evidence that there’s something deeply wrong with my brain.

  268. Well, it’s all your fault Eric.

    I bought a nexus S over new years weekend. It seems to be worth it, even if the bill was about 750. Daughter talked me into the insurance plan, probably not a good investment, but oh well. I got on the kid’s family plan with t-mobile, costs $45 per month for 200 minutes of talk and unlimited text and data. I doubt I’ll crowd the 200 minutes so sounds like a good deal.

    I jumped from a trakphone that I got around five years ago when my mother died and I needed one in a hurry, to the top end of smart phones, so this review will be a bit lacking in techie comparison.

    I am a real techie — probably have the hacker nature although I’ve been lurking on the fringes for years. I moved from being a mechanic/machinest/blacksmith about 20 years ago to being a computer programmer/database/network… guy. It has worked well.

    I’m about your age, Eric, and somewhere up in your area for IQ, one test showed 156 about 40 years ago. I currently program in python (Thanks eric and guido), legacy stuff in clipper 5.2 with forays into sql, occasional html and g-code. I do model machining these days too, mostly original designs.

    The nexus S
    A very nice package. A very very nice screen. The interface seemed a bit odd at first, but seems to work well with a fairly easy learning curve. So far, the software has mostly just worked. Kids (Youngest is approaching 30, but oh well) took pictures to add to the phone book for them. Seem like good pictures.

    Pandora works very well — once more, thank you Eric. Switches seamlessly, in the middle of a song, from g3 or E to wireless. It took me about 45 seconds to do the wireless login to my home network — the major problem was trying to type on that bitty screen keyboard with my fairly large fingers.

    Apple fan boys can count themselves as vindicated — if I hold the nexus cupped in my hand, the signal strength drops noticeably. So far, not enough to annoy me, but I suppose if I was on the ragged edge of having a connection, that it would fail. Overall on that subject, just about what I was expecting having read much discussion on this blog.
    A fair chance that I wouldn’t have noticed had it not been for the fuss.

    Running pandora, battery life is not astounding. If I run it for six or eight hours, afternoon and evening, I’m below 50%. I listen to electric blues as I type this.

    Overall, it counts as a good thing. Having owned it since sunday, I’m not sorry to have made the purchase. On the other hand, I own two HP 48 calculators. I bought the second one 14 years or so ago when I took a class in linear algebra and the 48gx had capabilities that the older model didn’t. I use about 3% of the capabilities of the calculators, one of them lives in my briefcase at all times. So far the nexus S feels like it will be the same kind of gadget — one that I will keep for a long time even if I don’t use much of it’s capabilities.

    I also purchased the witstech A81G. It has android 2.2 on it, and the execution of the software isn’t as slick. Worst thing is that the manual is in chinese and info about how to tweak it is a bit hard to find on the web. Not a bad thing at all though — I don’t regret having bought it.

    Thank you for running this blog eric. You do have some interesting discussions go on.

    Jim Hurlburt
    Yakima, WA

  269. @eric The playfulness is not actually an end in itself, it’s a learned strategy for maximizing creative productivity in domains where the problems of making stuff work are extremely hard. (To be fair to you, I didn’t consciously know this myself until you forced me to think about it just now. But I also bet you every hacker on this thread is now nodding in agreement.)

    Nod, nod, nod.
    Since I was about 10 or 12, perhaps before. Push the edge, mostly with marginal resources. Didn’t have money, so substituted ingenuity and work.

    Jim

  270. >I’d buy that http://xkcd.com/514/ is obscure, even though I got the joke and started laughing hysterically before I read the caption at the bottom.

    Well, yes, but the cartoon is flawed. The relative velocity would have to be a significant fraction of c for the effect to be observable.

  271. Well, yes, but the cartoon is flawed. The relative velocity would have to be a significant fraction of c for the effect to be observable.

    Whoosh.

  272. @Jeff Read — Weltanschauung

    This blog is the first place in *years* where I have to look up words on a regular basis.

    What ever I am, it’s not autistic Jeff. I was once described as a neophile, which seems to be sort of diagonally opposite the autistic corner. Could you expand a bit on how your Weltanschauung might differ from what you perceive as the norm. A web pointer would do as well if you have one.

    Jim

  273. “The artist’s ability to change the world is sharply limited because all he can do, fundamentally, is emit propaganda on behalf of some political faction. All that can do is change who gets to be on top of the system this week; it cannot change the fundamentals of economics and technology of which politics is an epiphenomenon.”

    I would say that’s an argument that an artist is sharply limited in changing the world for the better, but perhaps can do quite a lot to change it for the worse.

  274. “In so doing, it’s done nothing more effectively than alienate the rest of society, except for that portion of it that goes to art exhibits and oohs and aahs simply so they are not thought of as being unsophisticated.”

    It’s what the kids today call “status-whoring” and it extends to cultural pronouncements of all kinds: artistic, political, philosophical, etc.

  275. Well, yes, but the cartoon is flawed. The relative velocity would have to be a significant fraction of c for the effect to be observable.

    If you smoke after sex, you’re doing it too fast.

  276. Art can make a political difference– the notable examples are Uncle Tom’s Cabin and 1984. I’ve heard claims that Gone with the Wind did a lot to make the Confederacy look good in retrospect, but I don’t know how sound that is.

    And I’m not sure how much political effect Atlas Shrugged has had in the US, but I think there’s been some.

    Still, for the most part, I’d say that art has little or no political effect.

    My impression is that post-modernists are mostly using art as a way to find out what’s going on in the back of people’s minds more than expecting art to change the world. Using art as an indicator (for some reason, this is usually derogatory) is basic human stuff– I think it goes back at least to classical Greece.

    I don’t think it’s crazy to say that what’s going on in art (especially popular art) says something about what people find plausible and/or attractive– the problem is that it’s very hard to check one’s conclusions.

    I don’t believe hackers use humor primarily in order to keep their spirits up while doing hard work– they’re funny a lot more often than that. I think they make and repeat jokes because they like them– it’s an expression of the same hedonism which goes all through the sub-culture. Some of the pleasures are subtle, and many of them involve effort, but I’d say that people of a certain temperament doing what they like is an underlying premise. Duty and asceticism aren’t hacker traits. (Eric, I think you talk about moral obligations rather more than most hackers.)

    That was a very good point upthread about hackers being oppositional in a very different way than some modern art is. I think hackers are very clear about what they want, and some artists (some critics?) mostly just know what they don’t want.

    Dan Haggard, I have no idea what you mean about hackers possibly destroying intimacy. Examples might help.

    In re pretty: For some people, visual beauty can be a pleasure in itself. I get a kick out of the skillful drawing in Calvin and Hobbes. If this is non-hackish, so be it. There might be something to explore in the sensory balance in different sub-cultures.

    As for critics, I believe that “Krazy Kat” is a critics’ darling among comics, and it’s very ugly. I suspect that either some commenters or my impression have conflated many different sorts of art criticism into an undifferentiated status-grabbing lump.

    I have no idea whether Munroe’s stick figures represent a choice. I think I’ve seen good landscapes in his strips occasionally, but I don’t know whether he can draw people more representationally. I’d say that the very simple style is good enough, but doesn’t contribute to my pleasure in the strip, and I needed to be told what to pay attention to in order to tell one character from another.

  277. Artists – it’s important to remember ESR was talking about High Artists, which seems to be this hoity-toity crowd of people who entered art in order to make political statements. (To some extent it strikes me as a self-licking definition, but meh.) Meanwhile, by many people’s definition of art, a lot of the world-changing stuff hackers do is also art – that much of it performs intellectual work as well does not detract from its creative component. On that note, there are artists that create nifty art, justifiably admired, and changes our world for the better.

    Let’s take care not to lump all art in with the High People.

  278. >I don’t believe hackers use humor primarily in order to keep their spirits up while doing hard work– they’re funny a lot more often than that. I think they make and repeat jokes because they like them– it’s an expression of the same hedonism which goes all through the sub-culture.

    I guess I wasn’t clear. When I speak of an adaptive strategy to maximize creative productivity, I’m not limiting it to just “keep your spirits up”. What’s actually going on is far more interesting than that. What makes laughter and play really helpful is that they help you see, and then discard, assumptions that might otherwise be invisible to you. Relatedly, they also trade in the blurring of conceptual boundaries. When linear thinking cannot take you further, these are vitally important means of generating new insights.

    I’ve used RFC 1149 as a paradigm example of hacker humor before. What makes it both hilarious and a useful stimulus to thought is that packets via carrier pigeon implies a profile of networking speeds and costs very different from our normal assumptions. By doing this, it throws those assumptions into sharp relief, and makes it a bit more likely that we can think creatively about real-world networks.

    The stress-relief function of humor is not trivial, but it doesn’t explain the popularity of really elaborate satires like, say, INTERCAL, which require a lot of effort before you can appreciate them. What’s going on here, I think, is that hackers have internalized a strategy of using such satires to check their assumptions; the large effort put into the satires (and the respect in which such effort is culturally held) is a direct index of how adaptively important that strategy is.

    In this and other ways, what you call “hedonism” is functional. I pointed out thirteen years ago that enjoyment predicts efficiency – people enjoy their work when it is well matched to their capabilities, neither so difficult as to be unduly frustrating no so easy that it’s boring. Pleasure-seeking is, in this context, efficiency-seeking. If you insist on regarding the hedonism as primary, you miss the most interesting part of the causation and will be unable to generatively explain the full results of the efficiency-seeking strategy.

    >(Eric, I think you talk about moral obligations rather more than most hackers.)

    That is hilarious, given that I am frequently attacked for talking about moral obligation less than attackers think I should. Have you really been paying no attention to the last 25 years of Stallmanite rhetoric? OK, a lot of hackers don’t buy RMS’s specific agenda – but his rhetoric reflects the fact that hackers as a population respond extremely well to deontic moral reasoning, much more positively than the (non-NT-loaded) general population. If I am an outlier in this population, it is by being more of a pragmatist and less of a moralist than most.

  279. “The playfulness is not actually an end in itself, it’s a learned strategy for maximizing creative productivity in domains where the problems of making stuff work are extremely hard.”

    It’s certainly true, but I have to throw this one on the “stuff bright people do” pile. I saw exactly the same thing when I was a physics graduate student, years ago.

  280. it’s important to remember ESR was talking about High Artists, which seems to be this hoity-toity crowd of people who entered art in order to make political statements.

    Actually, I’m the one tho tossed that into the conversation, and I mean it much more in the sense of those who pursue art for its own sake, eschewing any consideration of things actually being pleasing to the eye and mind in the majority of the population and aiming their creations solely at those who occupy the rarefied heights of the Serious Art World. (I find the term “artfag” moderately offensive.) They aren’t doing art to make political statements so much as they expect their art to be taken seriously, and their political statements as well, and the two often cross into each other’s territory.

  281. I don’t think skill and pleasure are separable for the hacker temperament, and I may have put the emphasis in the wrong place. However, I can’t imagine hackers pursuing skill if they didn’t take some pleasure in it.

    Maybe it would be useful to look at how depression manifests in hackers.

    I could just be wrong about moral emphasis, though I’d say you promote a strong moral obligation to be pragmatic.

    I was thinking about your take on politics, not programming and related topics, and even there, I might not be weighting different sorts of moralism equally.

  282. I’m afraid I still have trouble distinguishing “art for its own sake” from art which is simply intended to be art, which means the next time you use “art for its own sake”, I’m liable to misunderstand again. (Not that I expect you to care about one man’s proclivities. But I might not be the only one.) That said, I probably find the Serious Art World about as deeply unfathomable (if you’ll pardon the phrase) as you do.

    I like the Met, the Smithsonian, and the Louvre. And I like chalk art on sidewalks, and the people who draw them. This is what I tend to think of as “art for its own sake” – it’s not trying to make statements any more profound than “this is pleasing to the eye or ear”. But if I have pegged what I think you mean, that other World is trying to be pleasing to the brain, and ends up revelling in being logic-averse. You’d think that would offer a chance of predicting its whims, but even chaos has its theory. This is more like Anathem’s Book, encrypted and transmitted over a noisy cellphone frequency.

  283. @Morgan Greywolf

    Ouch. I got that exactly backward. “Life imitates art.”

    Or should I say

    s/Art imitates life/Life imitates art/

    Stand back! I remember ed!

  284. I’m afraid I still have trouble distinguishing “art for its own sake” from art which is simply intended to be art

    Think of it as the difference between “Today I shall make Art!” and “Today I’ll create something I want.”

  285. but his rhetoric reflects the fact that hackers as a population respond extremely well to deontic moral reasoning

    Ooh! I learned another new word today, and suddenly became aware of a concept with which I was not previously familiar. That’s why I like this blog. :)

    That hackers are drawn to logic concerned with permission and obligation makes perfect sense given common programming paradigms that use them.

  286. >Ooh! I learned another new word today, and suddenly became aware of a concept with which I was not previously familiar.

    Here’s another, then. The friction between the Stallmanites and hackers who look to me for theory can be fruitfully viewed as part of a long-running contention between deontic and consequentialist ethics. Now you get to look up consequentialism, and ignore the talk about “virtue ethics” as a third pole – it’s merely a result of psychological confusion. “Virtue” arises from having internalized a set of norms that is either deontically or consequentially founded.

    Part of what I did was introduce consequentialist arguments to a culture in which previous discussion of the whys and wherefores of being a hacker had been largely framed in deontic terms (and this was true almost as much of RMS’s opponents as of his followers). It’s actually a little odd that it took as long as it did for someone to do that, since there are many hackers who have libertarian convictions closely related related to consequentialist ethical analysis. But there it is.

    UPDATE: Actually, deontic ethics is a delusion in exactly the same way that “altruism” is. A deonticist is a consequentialist who has suppressed from his thinking the ends-based analysis that motivated his rules. Nevertheless, the belief that deontics (or “virtue”) can be separated from consequential analysis is as persistent as the equally unsane (and related) belief that there are truth criteria other than predictive success. Something in the instinct wiring of humans seems to actively resist clarity on these issues.

  287. Oh dear. I’m about to reveal some fundamental ignorance…but isn’t libertarianism fundamentally deontic? “Thou shalt not initiate force or fraud” seems an awfully deontic principle. Indeed, libertarians seem more apt than most to reject consequentialist arguments. That would explain the attraction of Stallmanism to hackerdom…

  288. “Thou shalt not initiate force or fraud” is maybe one step up from fundamental to libertarianism. The basic axiom is “it is best to maximize freedom for everyone”; the “shalt not” follows from that.

    But libertarians want maximal freedom because they believe it gets everyone the most stuff. (“Stuff” being nearly anything – food, housing, entertainment, fulfillment, etc.) Everyone want to get as much of this stuff as possible, but only the ones who see maximized individual freedom as the path to it are libertarians.

  289. >Oh dear. I’m about to reveal some fundamental ignorance…but isn’t libertarianism fundamentally deontic? “Thou shalt not initiate force or fraud” seems an awfully deontic principle

    Depends. The debate between deontics and consequentialism is expressed within libertarianism by the schism between “natural law” libertarians and …well, the other school doesn’t have a single label but “pragmatist” will do. To a natural-law libertarian, the NAP (Non-Aggression Principle) is a deontic premise pulled out of some kind of metaphysical hat outside libertarianism itself. To a pragmatist, the NAP is justified by its consequences….in my own case, for example, my overriding goal is to prevent a recurrence of the Nazi Final Solution and the Gulags.

    I should have said that enough hackers have connections to pragmatist versions of libertarianism. My friend David D. Friedman is a leading thinker in the pragmatist wing, which has been winning most of the internal arguments for several decades now. But the history is complicated by th fact that the NAP comes to us from Ayn Rand, who was very much a deonticist.

  290. >But libertarians want maximal freedom because they believe it gets everyone the most stuff.

    Personally, “preventing the chimneys at Auschwitz from smoking again” ranks above getting people more stuff in my priorities.

    Both are consequentialist arguments. You are excused for not knowing that natural-law libertarians exist because they’re a minority group that has spent a lot of time losing arguments with people like you, me, and David Friedman.

  291. Chimney prevention falls under failure to initiate force for me. Our chains are largely the same, though the links may be a bit rearranged.

    Of course, part of me thinks both of these lines of arguments are just pushing the deontics deeper. Wanting the most stuff assumes this is best in life. Preventing a holocaust assumes that is best in life. I could characterize all consequentialism in terms of deontology by claiming “get a good result” is the universal rule of every consequentialist.

    ….For that matter, I could characterize all deontologists as resorting to rules because they produce the best results in the long run. Rules, results, back to rules… everything seems to settle into this continual flipping back and forth, and whether you’re a C or a D seems to depend on where you stop the oscillator. I’m probably missing something (I’ve really read about philosophy for logic and for infrequent recreation), but damn if this stuff isn’t extremely impenetrable, even for hackers.

  292. >I’m probably missing something (I’ve really read about philosophy for logic and for infrequent recreation), but damn if this stuff isn’t extremely impenetrable, even for hackers.

    Read James Harris’s The Moral Landscape. Among other things, he shows how it is possible top break the cycle, and why it is necessary to do so.

  293. Looks like Sam Harris, actually, unless I’m prey to a shocking coincidence. Thanks muchly, all the same. I think I might push this to the front of my queue.

    ESR says: You’re right, pardon my thinko.

  294. Ah, so if we greatly oversimplify as I am very likely to do, deontic ethics are like Christian ethics – “Thou shalt not foo” and consequentialist ethics is more like neopagan/Wiccan ethics — “An it harm none, do what ye will.” ? That sounds about right?

    ESR says: About right, yes. :-)

  295. Every hacker should know how to read and understand a contract, and refuse to sign any contract with odious terms included. You NEVER need a job bad enough to sign anything that leaves you pre-screwed.

  296. …and I forgot to mention: if the counterparty to some contact under consideration says “oh, you HAVE to sign that, it’s STANDARD”, then just walk away.

  297. libertarians want maximal freedom because they believe it gets everyone the most stuff.

    No, getting more stuff is icing on the cake. Freedom is a benefit in and of itself.

  298. @ Nancy

    Yes – the part about hackers destroying intimacy I haven’t explained in this context at all. It’s a long argument… the full of it you can find on my blog…

    Probably my favourite example concerns Zygna and the rise of social gaming. It’s a great example because it exemplifies how the concept of play – when taken out of its wider context of intimacy – becomes something odd and perverse. It also shows how the prospects for genuine intimacy are diminished in these sorts of contexts.

    Game dynamics as a concept evolved out of a sub-culture which feeds directly into hacker culture – the nerdy fantasy role playing folk. This culture has that same love of play as the hackers: – that ability to experiment with new behaviours in consequence free zones, is exactly what the spirit of play is all about. But this sort of play requires a great deal of intimacy between those engaged in this sort of behaviour. Why? Because they are breaking all sorts of social norms as well as making a great number of signalling mistakes in terms of how they get perceived by the rest of their peers. They get labelled nerds…etc… But they continue to persist in this behaviour. You might claim its because they could only get other nerds to hang out with them – but I think it’s much more likely that they are innately attracted toward the high level of intimacy generated in these sorts of role playing contexts. (this is part of the reason why the social network is so appallingly wrong. Nerds actually have a high level of capacity for intimacy – not the other way around). This intimacy is valuable because it allows them the space in which to feel comfortable testing out new modes of self – and presumably is worth the cost of wider social alienation. One piece of evidence of the benefits of such social experimentation was the discovery of the efficacy of game mechanics itself.

    To really get at understanding the costs and benefits associated with intimacy behaviours you need to understand how such behaviours are to be contrasted with signalling behaviours. But that’s another long discussion.

    But now consider game dynamics as rendered by the like of Zygna. The game mechanics now serve as a psychological driving force – not the instinct for intimacy itself. The social component is a watered down stew of mere signalling behaviour and obligation. There is no sense in which players are testing their sense of self – no sense in which they are able to experiment with new modes of behaviour which could benefit them in the real world. There is no sense of the social risk for which the role players required their established friendships to shield them against. I submit that there is no genuine intimacy in these contexts at all.

    Here we see something which we label as a ‘GAME’ become something which is anything but. A game is a component of play – and play a component of intimacy. These are not games – they are something else – and require a different name. Seriously – can anyone come up with one? I think a strong effective label would become an important anti-marketing tool against these sorts of technologies.

    esr believes that the tools and technologies deployed by hackers are neutral and it’s just a matter of what humans make of them. While I will be the first to admit this issue is beyond difficult to settle – ultimately I believe this view is naive. No organism evolves independent of a context. There is no such thing as a genetic determination independent of a context in which those strands of DNA are supposed to do their work. You change the context and the organism is going to be effected by that. In the case of human – we have a number of psychological systems which were designed to work together in a way that provided balance relative the contexts in which we evolved. If you situate a human in a context that – for instance – targets directly the reward/punishment mechanisms while at the same time abstracting away from direct engagement with a tribalised peer group, that human is going to likely respond differently. I do wonder how much lost economic output and wider social alienation is going to have to develop before this point becomes clear to people.

    In any case – to me the point already is clear. Play – abstracted from a context of intimacy becomes something perverse. And the hackers are deploying the technologies which make these contexts possible. The deep irony in all this is that the hacker culture in itself is perhaps one of the richest sources of intimacy on the planet. I genuinely believe this. I’ve hung out with nerds and hacker folk all my life. I value those relationships more than anything else in my life. But part of the responsibility of such intimacy is call out your mate when they are fucking up bad – even at the risk of them not wanting to hear it.

    My suggestion: play shouldn’t serve as your kernal of self-identification. Intimacy should be. And intimacy involves a whole lot more than play – it involves serious critique… it involves the ideology from which serious critique can be delivered. Ultimately, you guys are going to have to take a stand on something beyond the belief in play itself.

    Deploy technologies which enhance human intimacy as opposed to weakening it – and you truly will have the power to build a world you’ll be proud of.

  299. Dan,

    I’m not sure what Zynga games have to do with hacker culture. It seems more like the sort of thing hackers might write as a job, but nothing like what they do for fun.

    If I were to rank games in terms of value to the development of people’s personalities, I’d say that the relevant factor is flexibility of the medium. Chess gives more room for individual style than checkers.

    Role-playing games are an extraordinary development– in addition to the strategy and sometimes numerical side, they’re also a fairly popular movement of improvised amateur theatricals. I’m torn between thinking that they deserve more respect and thinking that that there’s more innocence about an activity if it doesn’t get respect from anyone but the participants.

    The vast majority of nerds aren’t writing things like Farm Town, and I don’t know if there’s any effective way to apply social pressure to discourage those who do. Considering the nerd temperament, the best solution would probably be to find more interesting jobs for them.

    I don’t think the sort of intimacy you describe requires rich games– I suspect that people who get together for bocce or pinochle are at least reasonably intimate. For a lot of people, a low-effort game like mah-jong makes socializing easier.

    What it would take to get people in general to want more complexity and intimacy in their pastimes is an interesting challenge– possibly worth looking at, but I don’t think nerds are enough like the majority to do good work on it.

    And intimacy involves a whole lot more than play – it involves serious critique… it involves the ideology from which serious critique can be delivered.

    I’ve explained this to the cat, but she insists on purring without a theory. What should I do?

  300. Lol – cats are a great example. They’ll go from enjoying a good belly rub to serious death claws without notice! They actually really embody for me that spirit of unified playful seriousness. Weird that you should mention it actually… I’m currently working on a science fiction story where one of main characters is an ‘uplifted – ala David Brin’ cat – they are like a totem animal for everything I’m talking about.

    But zygna and the like are an outgrowth of hacker culture. I understand that any decent hacker wouldn’t equate what they’re doing with what the likes of Zygna are doing. But it’s all part of the same continuum. I know that any example I raise will cause hackers to respond: but that’s not what the core – it’s not what the “real” hackers are into. But that’s just an easy way to not have to engage with those less appealing aspects that are nevertheless developments that extend the same internal logic – that logic being the abstraction of play from its wider context.

    Most of those reading esr’s blog won’t be falling into that trap because I suspect that a love of intimacy is deeply embedded in your psyches. But not all of those coming into contact with hacker culture are necessarily like that. Hacker culture is starting to mainstream. And if the best of you refuse to identify and engage with what’s appearing at the periphery of that culture then you’ll be making the exact same mistake as the artistic class. They walled themselves off in disgust of the mainstream with an elitist culture that ultimately has lost its vitality and power to influence. And this is despite the fact that popular culture largely incorporated the basic tenets of the romantic ideology that still largely guides the majority of artistic vision to this day.

    Popular culture is currently transitioning away from its self identification with artistic/romantic ideology (which has dominated for the last 200-300 years) to an overall identification with hacker ideology. I fully believe this – but it might take another hundred years to complete. Movies like the social network are the death throes of a threatened species. A lot of good will come out of this change. But a lot of bad will come out of it too. Hackers have to take responsibility for both.

  301. JB: It’s what the kids today call “status-whoring” and it extends to cultural pronouncements of all kinds: artistic, political, philosophical, etc.

    Isn’t there a significant elephant-in-the-room aspect of hacker culture which mirrors this? Yes, hacker culture at its best is all about the finest of creative wit, but all too often I’ve seen “humor which subverts expectations on multiple levels” reduced to “recite the script out of context”.

    I’ve seen nominally hackish gatherings devolve into dull pissing contests, not over who can come up with the cleverest hack or the wittiest zinger, but over who can precisely quote a bit of Holy Writ, or who has amassed the most obscure reference. And while I’m sure that Eric will assure me that No True Scotsman would ever do such a thing, I think it’s important to realize that hacker culture does have its failure modes, and the idea that there’s some canon that Western hackers, at least, all have in common… well, it bumps up against the idea that anyone who is uninterested in reenacting “Monty Python” at a moment’s notice lacks the Hacker Nature, which I think has gone rather unacknowledged in this thread.

  302. >And while I’m sure that Eric will assure me that No True Scotsman would ever do such a thing, I think it’s important to realize that hacker culture does have its failure modes

    Of course that’s true. All subcultures with a shared set of in-jokes have similar ones.

  303. @Dan Haggard:
    I’m not sure what this nonsense about Zynga having anything to do with hacker culture or that it Farmville or Mafia Wars represent hacker culture. They don’t, Zynga doesn’t.

    I’m also not sure about this nonsense that ideology flows from artists. It doesn’t. Unless you consider Karl Marx or Ayn Rand to be “artists.” Atlas Shrugged is a great political treatise, but high art it is definitely not.

  304. @Morgan

    Well – I gave my reply to your first point in my reply to Nancy – so I’m not sure what more I can add. Re-iterating that my claims are just not true (or nonsense) doesn’t help me engage or understand what I’ve gotten wrong. Perhaps you just want to register your vote of “this is nonsense” to the chorus. That’s cool. Ironically I can’t get the artists to agree with me much either since they don’t want to accept the view that they need to give up their precious mediums and learn to code if they want to stay relevant in the coming century. I get no love I tells ya! ‘)

    With respect to your second point I do actually have a very wide conception of what an artist is. And for the purposes of this discussion am content to define (in a somewhat circular fashion) – as the folks who push theories about the nature of humankind and our place in the world. I won’t try to defend this usage here – although I concede it’s probably confusing.

    Interesting that you would raise Rand though. Quoting the wikipedia article on her collection of essays about art:

    “At the base of her argument, Rand asserts that one cannot create art without infusing a given work with one’s own value judgments and personal philosophy. Even if the artist attempts to withhold moral overtones, the work becomes tinged with a deterministic or naturalistic message. The next logical step of Rand’s argument is that the audience of any particular work cannot help but come away with some sense of a philosophical message, colored by his or her own personal values, ingrained into their psyche by whatever degree of emotional impact the work holds for them”

    Seems she would agree with me about the relationship between art and ideology.

  305. esr: Of course that’s true. All subcultures with a shared set of in-jokes have similar [failure modes].

    I’m trying to think of examples here, any coming up blank on anything that reaches the pathological excesses found in hacker culture. Sure, evangelicals will use certain phrases, i.e. “works in mysterious ways” (I’m sure there are others–referencing certain Bible verses?), and maybe sports fans have their own verbal tics that don’t make sense to outsiders. These tropes are cached thoughts, well-worn pathways down which you can send your mind; since they’ve been enjoyable to traverse before, they’re enjoyable again, and there’s none of the effort or uncertainty that comes with constantly striving for novelty.

    But as I said, the hacker culture takes it–at least the quoting thing–to a pathological extreme. If there’s an equivalent of what Stephen Bond describes in the H2G2 fandom (“Most memorably, there was a “quote wall” where fanboys could post their favourite quotes from the books. Like an infinite number of monkeys, they had reproduced the entire text of the first two volumes in random order.”), I’ve never heard of it. (Pissing contests, of course, are common as dirt; no argument from me on that one.)

    If the media-quoting problem isn’t a geek-specific one (or at least finds its fullest grotesque flower in geek culture), then why has xkcd made hay of it?

  306. >But as I said, the hacker culture takes it–at least the quoting thing–to a pathological extreme.

    Your example refutes your own claim. H2G2 fandom is not the hacker culture.

    You don’t make yourself look any brighter by changing the subject from ‘hackers’ to ‘geeks’ as though the distinction doesn’t matter.

  307. @Dan Haggard: I think that artists certainly infuse their work with their own personal philosophies and value judgements, sure. But whether they originate particular philosophies, I’m not so sure. Philosophers do that. But the thing is that everyone is a philosopher of sorts. Philosophies are primarily made up of shared cultural values. IOW, philosophies grow out of a particular society; they aren’t made out of whole cloth by artists.

  308. Most of this discussion goes way over my head for two reasons. First is probably because I have no aspirations or inclination to be a hacker or maybe I am incapable of being one even if I want to. I don’t have any false pretensions in this regard.

    Secondly most of the cultural references are Western and fairly obscure to me. I guess a lot of people from non-European and non-American backgrounds will find it tough to identify most of these cultural symbols let alone appreciate them.

    What I’m saying is, this hacker business seems to be centered around the culture of the US and to an extent some parts of Europe and other developed nations. I don’t judge this to be a bad or undesirable thing, but I also think it explains some of the exclusivity of the “club”. I think the reasons might be more historical than anything else though. Computers at home were not even common in India until the late 1990s.

    Culture is ever-changing and always in flux. I guess hacker culture will not be immune to fresh cultural influences from other societies than purely the developed Western countries.

  309. >Vernor Vinge’s “Fire upon the Deep” is also good – but those not raised on usenet do *not* get it (which is too bad – a solar system wide network will look a lot more like netnews than the web)

    I’ve read that book (great book by the way,) and I do get it– a galactic network will probably *have* to be a mesh and not a tree just due to the scale of it all. Although I do admit a lot of it looked pretty quaint to me.

    I’m not really familiar with most of the stuff being thrown around here, and am definitely an outsider (my introduction to the hacker culture was the Jargon File a couple years ago,) but I’d like to suggest Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke as really great examples of fantasy universes with a real attention to detail and maintaining a consistent mythology. Cowboy Bebop is great too– it’s similar to Firefly in subject matter, but the tone is very different and the approach to storytelling is, in my opinion, superior.

  310. Oh, and if you’re going to watch Cowboy Bebop, one thing to brace yourself for is the introduction of Edward– she (?) is incredibly annoying and tries her darndest to destroy the series, but doesn’t succeed if you can block her out.

  311. >I’d like to suggest Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke as really great examples of fantasy universes with a real attention to detail and maintaining a consistent mythology. Cowboy Bebop is great too– it’s similar to Firefly in subject matter, but the tone is very different and the approach to storytelling is, in my opinion, superior.

    I liked Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke a lot, but they had nothing to do with hacker culture. I didn’t like Cowboy Bebop at all – incoherent and pointlessly bizarre – and that had nothing to do with hacker culture either. Firefly at least had something resembling hacker-like values threaded through it.

  312. RE: Douglass Adams, didn’t he write the Guide spinoff computer games himself?

    By the way, is anyone here familiar with the fiction of Diane Duane? Geared at very bright kids, but very great stuff nonetheless (or perhaps because of it?) Complete with a totally plausible explanation of how its universe’s magic actually works “under the hood.” And she got the definition of “Hacker” right and she used to work as a programmer.

  313. >By the way, is anyone here familiar with the fiction of Diane Duane?

    Yes. Very good stuff, with a better claim to hacker affinities than most that resembles it. The contrast with material like (to echo a recent cite) Spirited Away is instructive.

  314. I guess what they have in common (at least as far as I can make out) is self-consistency. Within their respective universes, everything makes sense. Not that the inner workings of everything are always elaborated on in detail in the case of those animes, but nothing overtly contradicts anything else. This is really what I look for in any ambitious work of fiction, more than anything else. You’re right that this probably doesn’t indicate hacker nature, but anything like this (again, speaking as an outsider,) is a contender for the category of “stuff hackers like.”

  315. To clarify, self-consistency of story isn’t mandatory, but it’s a good indicator of the level of thought which was put into a work, and that kind of thought will manifest itself in other, more subtle ways.

  316. esr: the equally unsane (and related) belief that there are truth criteria other than predictive success.

    Mathematics is unsane? It has a very strict definition of ‘truth’, but it isn’t predictive success. Though taking for example the Banach Tarski Paradox (that if out theory includes axiom of choice, then a ball can be decomposed into a finite number of point sets and reassembled into two balls identical to the original) perhaps it is unsane.

    “Predictive success” is criteria that can be appliet to natural sciences, but not to all science.

  317. By the way, is anyone here familiar with the fiction of Diane Duane?

    Only her Star Trek canon work, which I thoroughly enjoy. (Want to see an examination of Doctor McCoy in an unusual setting, for him? Grab Doctor’s Orders.) To what are you and Eric referring?

  318. @Jay, I was talking about her Young Wizard series (which starts with So You Want to Be a Wizard,) although I’m not sure if ESR was talking about it too. You’ll probably find it under juvenile fiction at the library.

    By the way, I thought of another one: Stanislaw Lem’s collection of short stories set in the same universe, the Cyberiad. It’s just about equal in wit to Hitchhikers’ Guide, and I don’t say that lightly. For the edition I read, equal credit should go to whatever genius translated it from the original Polish while leaving the puns intact. Have a look at this excerpt:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=kWElP9YZkzQC&lpg=PA50&ots=-LgP13nlb_&dq=cyberiad%20haircut&pg=PA43#v=onepage&q&f=false

  319. By the way, is anyone here familiar with the fiction of Diane Duane?

    I’m familiar with her Trek novels, which I enjoyed immensely. In particular, she wrote Spock’s World and The Romulan Way, along with the Rihannsu novels, all of which are excellent. She develops the back story of the Romulan/Vulcan split in a way that is captivating. Her Romulan novels also give you insight into the oligarchy that runs the Romulan Empire, and into the Romulan culture in general.

  320. >Mathematics is unsane? It has a very strict definition of ‘truth’, but it isn’t predictive success.

    And it isn’t “truth”, either, but something else associated with “truth” by historical and linguistic accident.

    Actually, it turns out that even if you reject that premise as a quibble the fallibility of proof verification collapses mathematical truth into prediction.

    And if you don’t believe even that, see my essay The Utility of Mathematics.

    I used to be a mathematician with an active interest in foundational formal systems, and I’m here to tell you that the belief in the special purity of mathematical truth is a vulgar superstition inherited from the ancient Greeks. Kurt Godel put the last bullet through its head in 1931.

  321. >To what are you and Eric referring?

    Her fantasies from The Door Into Fire onwards, which are uniformly excellent.

  322. >I guess what they have in common (at least as far as I can make out) is self-consistency.

    Right, the way science fiction is supposed to. All you’re noticing really is that SF (and non-SF with SF-like qualities) are “stuff hackers like”, This is not breaking news.

  323. >Her fantasies from The Door Into Fire onwards, which are uniformly excellent.
    Well I’ll be darned, I’d never even heard of those. I’m going to have to check them out.

  324. >This is not breaking news.
    Well, since you phrase it that way, fair enough.

  325. So hang on, this means Plan 9 and the Godzilla movies aren’t sci-fi?

  326. >So hang on, this means Plan 9 and the Godzilla movies aren’t sci-fi?

    At best (and I’m being generous) they’re defective SF. They have the tropes and some of the intentions of SF, but incompetently executed.

  327. Ah. So by your definition, SF is required to extrapolate from or substitute elements of current reality in a well-defined and rigorous way, whereas I tend to drop that “well-defined and rigorous” qualifier if there are enough explosions.

  328. >Ah. So by your definition, SF is required to extrapolate from or substitute elements of current reality in a well-defined and rigorous way, whereas I tend to drop that “well-defined and rigorous” qualifier if there are enough explosions.

    Yes. I like Gregory Benford’s summation. SF is the branch of fantastic literature which affirms that the universe has a rationally knowable order, and has as its most characteristic reader experience the sense that one suddenly understands the universe in a new and larger way.

    Defective SF appropriates the imagery and tropes of SF without affirming a rationally knowable universe and without having the moment of conceptual breakthrough at its emotional core.

    Yes, I’ve thought about this a lot. Can you tell? :-)

  329. That probably explains a lot about the strengths of cinema vs literature. A lot of people (by which I mean at least me) can really enjoy what you call “defective” sci-fi in the form of old B-movies, but cannot tolerate the novel equivalent of a B movie. Probably because it’s harder to wedge explosions onto dead trees, but more likely because novels are usually a lot longer than movies. Which I think also partly explains why a lot of the time, it’s the long-running TV series which get more dedicated fandoms than movies; you have enough time to develop an entire universe, and since nature abhors a vacuum, you can’t just tack on a bunch of explosions.

    Come to think of it, this is all trivially self-evident stuff, but re-proven from a somewhat different way.

    So yes, today we have defined SF from first principles. This is why I like this blog. :)

  330. Although the expanded-universe novels for the Halo games do the B-novel thing pretty well; they are certainly trash, but I think they’re a lot of fun.

    (Sorry for posting so many times in a row, but there’s no edit function.)

  331. >So yes, today we have defined SF from first principles. This is why I like this blog. :)

    I participated in this digression on this thread because Benford’s definition implicitly explains why hackers like SF and so readily incorporate SFnal imagery into their culture. SF’s combination of counterfactual premises with careful reasoning is necessary to us as hackers in order that we be creative – it’s a fictional celebration and affirmation of exactly what makes us us. And I’m not just speaking of software hackers here, but of everywhere that the playful offspring of Hermes Trismegistus can be found – other engineering fields, sciences, arts, everywhere.

  332. >Although the expanded-universe novels for the Halo games do the B-novel thing pretty well; they are certainly trash, but I think they’re a lot of fun.

    True of much space opera. Many SF fans will settle for it when the real thing is in short supply :-)

  333. @Dan, your comment about “social gaming” as an example of hackers destroying intimacy doesn’t quite hold.

    I’m reminded of a lecture by Johnathan Blow (designer/programmer of Braid, which is absolutely a must-play game.) He pointed out that crap like Farmville doesn’t get made by geeks with goals like “how can I make this more fun?” Instead, it gets made by profiteers with goals like “how can we punish players for not logging on at least twice a day?” (Their solution is the crop-shriveling mechanic.) This is exactly the kind of villainy that geeks abhor. Worth a look:
    http://edtech.rice.edu/cms/?option=com_iwebcast&task=webcast&action=details&event=2349

  334. I’ve been beaten to it. That’s what I get for answering stuff as I read through it.

  335. @ Morgan – I agree with both of your claims there. I use the blanket term ‘artist’ to describe philosophers because their work is essentially creative and much closer to artistry than science (although I don’t intend that to be derogatory, many of them would take it that way.) There is also a lot of stuff going on in philosophy, and I wouldn’t claim this of every group. But since we’re talking at the level of the ‘gist’ I’m happy to take a stand here. I’m not too far away from finishing a PhD in analytic philosophy – and I’ve taught logic for a living, so feel reasonably qualified to speak on this matter. My favourite characterisation of philosophy is as ‘slow poetry’.

    @ Max E.

    Braid is awesome. It’s one of my favourite games of all time, and I’ve been playing since the C64 was big. But now you make me think about where I’ve gone wrong in my exposition. For me Braid is a great example of a cultural product that take the best of both hacker and artistic sensibilities. It’s exactly stuff like that which makes me believe that hackers should in general develop their artistic sensibility – while artists should be learning to code, and learning not to take themselves so seriously – i.e. learning the spirit of play that hackers embody so well. I truly believe that the hacker infused with a deep and rich artistic sensibility will represent a cultural force so powerful that it will simply sweep all other cultural artefacts beside it. While there have been a few awesome first steps – there has not yet been a cultural product that has truly achieved this. That is to say – I don’t believe that a true ‘Hackist’ has yet been produced and that’s largely because of the enormous amount of investment required to master bother sensibilities. But hopefully folks like me can encourage a couple of you in that direction.

  336. Well, the best definition of “art” I have yet found is in Understanding Comics (which ESR already mentioned,) as anything which has no practical value or utility, but which is important or meaningful nonetheless. So if (and I got this purely from reading the jargon file) hackers are toolmakers and engineers, the idea of a “hackist” might be a contradiction in terms.

    But if you look at a lot of the commands shipping with GNU Emacs, or at anything the demoscene has produced, there are a few happy counterexamples. Have a look at this:
    http://demoscene.tv/page.php?id=172&lang=uk&vsmaction=view_prod&id_prod=13015

  337. >I use the blanket term ‘artist’ to describe philosophers because their work is essentially creative and much closer to artistry than science

    Only when it’s bullshit.

    I don’t argue with the “essentially creative” part, that’s true. But the sort of philosophy that defines itself as closer to ‘art’ than ‘science’ is also the sort that is at best useless and (much more usually) actively toxic. By categorizing philosophers as ‘artists’ and encouraging philosophers to think of themselves that way, you encourage all of the worst historical errors in philosophy and smother that which is best in it. You say you’re studying analytic philosophy, so you should know better than to perpetuate this nonsense.

    Most of what has traditionally been called ‘philosophy’ belongs in the dustbin of history along with alchemy and other failed protosciences; what’s left is the theory of theory-building, marrying logic and linguistic analysis and psychology and other sciences towards analytical ends which are not encompassed within any individual science. The requirements for this work begin with rigor, objectivity, and cross-disciplinary breadth; the artist’s mission to share personal subjectivity in ways that rely on preconscious responses from the audience is at best irrelevant and usually in active conflict with these virtues.

    I am an artist and a philosopher as well as a scientist/engineer; having operated creatively in all these modes, I know the differences among them from direct experience. Confusing philosophy with art does nothing but damage to both.

  338. >[Art is] anything which has no practical value or utility, but which is important or meaningful nonetheless.

    This definition is wrong everywhere that it is not meaningless. It is often the case that art has practical utility; for example, vivid storytelling about particular dangers can motivate people to avoid or mitigate them. It also suffers from vagueness around the terms “meaningful” and “important”.

  339. @ Max E – Yes, that’s a common approach in aesthetics. You’ll see it in Kant – as an example. But it is essentially the bedrock of much of romantic thinking. It comes in varying forms – for example the notion of tragedy involves the annihilation of the protagonist… usually because of his pursuit of some noble, but useless aim. The concept of sublimity has a similar result – annihilation, but through some great force of random, disinterested nature.

    In asking for a union between artistic and hacker sensibilties – then those of us coming from the artistic end have to make sacrifices as well. One thing we have to give up is precisely these romantic, aesthetic notions of beauty that involve uselessness. This tendency is another great example of how particular ideals become abstract and then perverse. The artists were guilty of it here. What artists shouldn’t have to give up, however, is the production of ideology – as those coming from the hacker end of the spectrum seem to suggest.

    But ultimately your right – if you kept everything from both sensibilities then you would indeed have a contradiction in terms. So something has to give. Really, both sides are so close together that the costs aren’t that high. The artist doesn’t have to give up beauty – they just have to situate it within it’s proper context (which includes a pragmatic component), not as a perverse ideal – such that it became. So to with the concept of play. Hackers don’t have to give it up – they just have to see it as part of a context that involves ideology – i.e. intimacy. What’s more all of the ‘real’ hackers that I speak to, I believe ALREADY embody this unison to a large degree. It’s just that they don’t consciously recognise this in their self-identification. This is a problem, because as leaders, they influence greatly those who come to become hackers – and the catchphrase of ‘anti-ideology’ is actually mis-leading.

    @esr – Note that I did qualify my statement by saying that I wouldn’t apply it to all fields. For sake of argument let’s just agree that analytic philosophy is not of this ilk. Beyond this we’re just arguing over how to use the word ‘philosopher’. I’m quite happy to call the non-analytic philosophers ‘artists’ if that would satisfy you. Popular use of the term ‘philosopher’ however, is probably more likely to refer to work outside of analytic philosophy – and in fact, when people are introduced to analytic philosophy they often gob smacked at the differences between it and their expectations.

    But because I’m a difficult person ;) – I’m actually willing to take a stand and claim that even some sections of analytic philosophy are guilty of the ‘creative crime’, and to quite a large degree. The application of logical and conceptual analysis (and its associated rigour) to this creative process serves merely to slow the creative process down. Hence my view of it as ‘slow poetry’. I work in the area of logic + linguistic analysis. And the area is absolutely RIFE with this creativity. Logic is awesome – I love it to bits. It is rigorous and useful and brings us so much insight. But what are the sorts of thing philosophers like to do with it?. They do things like say: “Ah, well, since the most conservative quantified modal logic involves quantification over possible objects, therefore we must accept possible objects into our ontology”. A wonderfully creative suggestion, but an ultimately useless addition to our ontology. And it only took a hundred year of progressive logical development to arrive at it. As I said: ‘slow poetry’.

  340. Damn it, I was travelling this weekend, and missed out on the first few days of thread time. This is a damned interesting topic, and I wish I’d gotten here sooner.

    esr: Your example refutes your own claim. H2G2 fandom is not the hacker culture. You don’t make yourself look any brighter by changing the subject from ‘hackers’ to ‘geeks’ as though the distinction doesn’t matter.

    I am, like others upthread, surprised that “H2G2″ isn’t on the list, but if your issue is that it’s not part of the hacker canon, replace it with “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, which is frequently subject to the same treatment. It looks like you’ve defined hackers as a subset of the Python fandom; does the distinction in this case amount to hackers culture being like geek culture, with the failure cases edited out?

    This is of particular interest to me, because “Portrait of J. Random Hacker” is, I think, the most popular lay sociological study of hacker culture; it fills an important role, and it’s a fascinating read… but I think the ‘weaknesses’ section pulls its punches significantly, and this is an instance where it does. If there’s a bright and shining line that explains why the downsides of geek culture aren’t carried over into hacker culture (also, what exactly is the distinction there?), what is it?

    I actually do have positive things to contribute here in addition to ornery comments around the periphery; I’ll try to get more of those in follow-up comments. But for now:

    If hacker culture could be said to have cousins, I think security would most certainly be one of them. Not every hacker has the security mindset (as described by Bruce Schneier here), but it exemplifies the sort of lateral thinking in its clever use of misdirection that the best hacks have. See also Feynman’s adventures in lockpicking, and the occasional crossover between hackers and lockpickers (2600 Magazine had a lot of that). I’m surprised that stage magic and sleight-of-hand aren’t more popular with hackers, given that they run on similar principles.

  341. @ESR, so I take it you don’t subscribe to the “exists for its own sake” school of thought? Doesn’t surprise me at all.

    I dunno, seems to me you have to pick your paradoxes when you deal with this stuff.

  342. (Once again, apologies for double-posting.)

    The closest union I can think of is adding characteristics to a tool which serve only to enhance its aesthetics. For example, swords, which are obviously tools to do a job, have historically also had a lot of seemingly-unneeded decoration; but I imagine this would have been every bit as important to the owners as the sharpness of the blade. A more modern example is the styling on a car, which needs to be both streamlined and beautiful. Luckily, a lot of the time, aesthetic beauty coincides nicely with utility, as it does with streamlining, or that example ESR pointed out of vivid storytelling. This has a lot to do with how people are hardwired to recognize beauty (and that could be an adaptive trait, who knows.)

    If it helps, think of “meaningful” in terms of communication. I do think that the most effective way of communicating something through art is by making it beautiful. The shape of a blimp? Beautiful and welcoming. The shape of an F-14? Beautiful and terrifying. The shape of some random jumbled-twisted-steel public statue? Ugly and it communicates nothing; not good art.

  343. But in other cases (much to Steve Jobs’ dismay,) beauty does *not* coincide with the optimal form for some tool.

  344. >It looks like you’ve defined hackers as a subset of the Python fandom; does the distinction in this case amount to hackers culture being like geek culture, with the failure cases edited out?

    No. Hackers hack – they build things; geeks is a wider category of people who are mainly consumers rather than producers. Thus, for example, “gaming geek” rather than “game hacker” – the latter could sensibly only be applied to someone like Ken Burnside. Of course you’re going to get more uncreative quotation from geeks; if they were more creative, they’d be hackers!

    >If hacker culture could be said to have cousins, I think security would most certainly be one of them.

    I agree with this.

  345. >Beyond this we’re just arguing over how to use the word ‘philosopher’.

    For someone who claims to have taught logic, you’re an astonishingly sloppy thinker.

    First there was the nonsense about intimacy requiring an ideology. Nancy Leibovitz already handed you your ass about this, but since you were too thick to notice I’ll spell it out for you: My cat understands intimacy better than you do, because she hasn’t intellectualized it into something it’s not. Intimacy proceeds from mammalian and pre-mammalian huddling instincts that have nothing to do with “ideology” and don’t even require an organ of Broca.

    Then there was the nonsense about artists generating ideology. I have been both an artist and an ideologist, so I know better than this. Art is not analysis, art is not prescription; art is the entrainment of the audience’s nervous system to evoke an esthetic response and share the artist’s personal. subjectivity. Art is no more capable of generating new organizing ideas about the world than green ideas can sleep furiously; at best, art may persuasively convey ideas that must be generated by creative processes that use different methods and neural circuitry than the “art” part.

    Now you’re babbling about “creative crime” and “slow poetry” – very fine-sounding, to be sure, great rhetoric for scoring chicks in coffeeshops, but collapses into meaningless hooey under analysis. The word “creative” is not a magic wand you can wave to dissolve all distinctions between different kinds of creativity. Who gets to be called a “philosopher” is not the point; the point is that if you try to do “philosophy” with the assumptions and mindset of an artist (the focus on expressive intersubjectivity rather than objective rigor) your creativity will generate nothing but more bullshit.

  346. Pratchett may offer a corrective– he’s the best author I’ve seen for liking and respecting different sorts of people. He’s got moral standards, but he’s very clear that a wide range of temperaments is consistent with good will.

    Quite true, and well said.

  347. If we’re including Eris and BOB (and I agree with that, along with musical parody, I think we should probably add That Real Old Time Religion to the list (points if one of your verses made it to an official complilation…). Again, probably for the older hackers among us – and for the younger, I’d also add the FSM to the religion list.

    I think Cthulhu is more goth than hacker, really, although I’d say hackers all at least know who Lovecraft was.

  348. Taking this contrariwise, I hope no one asserts that cultural or literary tastes out of sync with the favorites listed above makes a programmer’s code worse. Or that someone who enjoys cyberpunk more that Heinlein is persona non grata in hacker circles.

    ESR says: Nobody’s gone near that kind of claim.

  349. Floored, just floored to learn there are other people who have read Shockwave Rider and consider it applicable, let alone important.

    HPL is essential if you’re to have any deep grasp of negative outcomes or why brain-in-a-can might be ungood. (Shoggoths should be warning to sloppy programmers but alas…).

    At one point, knowing how to solder was a touchstone; that way, at least you could nod knowingly over a box of fail that was mildly responsible to percussive correction and mutter,”cold joint.”

  350. >(points if one of your verses made it to an official complilation…).

    Hah! I score one!

  351. Perhaps you and I should cuddle then esr? I would like to improve your deteriorating tone and establish a greater sense of intimacy – one in which both of us can feel free to exchange ideas without the fear of having our ‘asses handed to us’. If cuddling is intimacy, then I’m sure it’ll fix everything.

    This doesn’t have to be about ego and looking stupid… just saying ;) Anyhoo – it was a good chat. So long and thanks for all the fish!

  352. At one point, knowing how to solder was a touchstone; that way, at least you could nod knowingly over a box of fail that was mildly responsible to percussive correction and mutter,”cold joint.”

    Errmm…some of us still know how to solder. For example, I created an external fan header in my PC workstation because I couldn’t find a 90 mm case fan with a long enough wire to reach to the back of the PC from the mobo and I’ve learned not to trust crimp-on connectors on very fine wire. Additional things I’ve hacked with a soldering iron: my pool’s saltwater system and an espresso machine; with the last one, I added an industrial temperature controller.

  353. I’ve got 40-year-old soldering iron scars in my hands. That’s one skill that it pays to acquire and maintain. You may not use it often, but hen you need it, nothing else will really do.

  354. esr: No. Hackers hack – they build things

    Hm. I think I see what you’re talking about, and I’ve seen a version of this impulse elsewhere–what do you get, if you’re creative and clever, but don’t build things? Consider, for example, unlikely rapping: someone makes a joke involving Bill Adama (of Battlestar Galactica fame) cussing out the forum robot in hip-hop style. Other people take up the idea with other unlikely rappers, real and fictional, and there’s some excellent wordplay in there. (Joseph Goebbels rhymes “Jew-run media” with “Wikipedia” at one point, and there’s an ongoing battle between Chairman Mao and the Dalai Lama.) Eventually, someone comes up with a rhyming summary of “Fahrenheit 451″ which has some pretty good poetry in it. (“You can’t burn truth, can’t put it in a cell / Censor a whisper and you make it a yell.”) It’s all for fun… but people started taking the gag seriously enough to put real creativity into it.

    Jay Maynard: I’ve got 40-year-old soldering iron scars in my hands.

    When I was a lad, I cut one of my fingers surprisingly deeply when removing one of the twist-off metal plates behind the optical drive slots in a new computer case. The scar remains, and perhaps in a few decades it’ll be similarly nostalgia-inducing.

  355. It’s way upthread, but the bit about hard SF being particularly hackerish ties in with some thoughts I had about what hardness in SF entails. I think it’s not directly about the use of current science; it’s about following your own explicit rules of worldbuilding, rather than the implicit rules of drama. Good hacking entails understanding a complex system of rules, along with all of its corner cases and strange implications, straight down to your bones. I can imagine that, to anyone steeped in this tradition, sloppy thinking (e.g., Trek’s shipboard computers are intelligent enough to Do What I Mean, but we only care about AI rights when they’re packaged in a humaniform body) is a constant annoyance, its absence a welcome relief.

  356. The Pournelle collaborations, with the exception of the excellent and
    groundbreaking The Mote In God’s Eye, were inferior work.

    Nonsense. Footfall is probably the best “Aliens Invade the Earth” story ever written, and Pournelle’s solo fiction, while not of the first rank (which would include e.g. Heinlein, Bujold, and Poul Anderson; but not Niven’s solo work either), is generally decent, noticeably better than the various popular and superficially similar 3rd-rate SF writers, like David Weber or John Ringo.

    Perhaps more importantly, Pournelle’s non-fiction is often very good indeed, much better than most of his fiction. E.g. his many essays on space exploration and development, strategy, education, etc.; the old 1977 collection A Step Farther Out; and The Construction of Believable Societies.

    I suspect that ESR’s oddly strong personal dislike for Pournelle is interfering with his evaluation of Pournelle’s written work. (Which is doubly odd in that despite one accurately labeling himself a libertarian and the other a conservative, it seems clear from their writtings that ESR and JEP would more agree than disagree on most matters of principle, policy, and practice.)

  357. >I suspect that ESR’s oddly strong personal dislike for Pournelle is interfering with his evaluation of Pournelle’s written work.

    It’s not personal, and not just me. Back in the 1980s it was a common joke in SF fandom that “Jerry Pournelle causes brain damage”, because his collaborations with other writers were widely thought to be so inferior to those writers solo – Niven was the major case, but there were others I’m not recalling. The problem there is that, like Robert Heinlein, Pournelle is a compulsive didactic and tub-thumper; unlike Heinlein, this is expressed in a way that invariably damages the fiction he has a hand in rather than energizing it.

    I’ll be very clear what I specifically don’t like about Pournelle: the strong streak of order-worshiping authoritarian militarism in his stuff, probably shown at its worst in the Falkenberg sequence. They read to me like creepy power fantasies for fascists. To be fair, Pournelle’s many imitators in the military-SF genre can be as bad or worse – one thing I concede David Weber: he may be a hack, but at least his stuff doesn’t read that way. (This is also one of Lois Bujold’s virtues – she’s both a much better writer than either Weber or Pournelle and very clear-eyed about the costs of trying to live a militarist fantasy.)

    I agree that Pournelle’s nonfiction is often quite good. I haven’t found him personally obnoxious at all; I’ve even willingly tolerated his company when he was drunk, which is not an uncommon state for him at conventions.

  358. ESR wrote “I used to be a mathematician with an active interest in foundational formal systems, and I’m here to tell you that the belief in the special purity of mathematical truth is a vulgar superstition inherited from the ancient Greeks. Kurt Godel put the last bullet through its head in 1931.”

    I agree that’s true in some sense: there was something in the Greek vision of math truth, or at least the Greek vision as understood by the Renaissance, that was mortally wounded by non-Euclidean geometry, and later Godel nuked the shambling undead remains from space. We also understand other relevant issues, like information theory and computability and inductive logic and its discontents, much better than anyone did before the twentieth century, and various old claims about math truth (and philosophical truth) look profoundly silly. However, I also think there’s something in the modern understanding of math and truth that some of the ancient Greeks would’ve grokked and perhaps accepted as an acceptably correct version of what they were developing logical machinery for and treating as an ideal goal separable from day-to-day observation. A lot of what we now call math is expressing and demonstrating equivalence classes of statements. Modern science is full of things where the relevant equivalence classes are nontrivial, harder to express than most of the math the Greeks were able to express. In history of science this modernity seems to arrive with Newton — possibly first with arguments about what way of looking at calculus is better or more correct, then certainly a little later with things like Hamiltonian mechanics and Lagrangian mechanics which are precisely Newton’s mechanics but expressed in such radically different ways that very complicated problems become very simple, and vice versa. (later redone, with much-harder-core math, in other theories, notably the different ways of looking at QED) To me, admittedly a non-expert on the Greeks, saying “I may not know for sure whether they match the world, but I do know that these two superficially very different statements are saying precisely the same thing” seems to capture our modern understanding of what some of the Greek mathematician were after. And I think just about any ancient Greek might have his mind blown by our modern understanding of the first clause, but some of them — perhaps including big names like Euclid — would be pretty comfortable with the modern understanding of the second clause, and might agree that that’s where “mathematical truth” went.

    I do realize that the fundamentals of our understandings of what’s equivalent are shaky. We could discover tomorrow that our axioms are inconsistent. But it seems to be fundamental shakiness at the level of the possibility we might just be brains in boxes: people haven’t yet found a way of doing anything useful with the possibility. I doubt all the Greeks would be that vexed by either: some would, perhaps the same kind of mind that back in the day worried deeply about Achilles and the hare, but a lot of people can settle on “so yeah, our axioms might be inconsistent or we might be brains in boxes, I do think about that occasionally, but pretty soon I decide it’s time to move on.”

  359. re: The Schneier article referenced above

    Schneier is dead wrong about this bit though:

    “Good engineering involves thinking about how things can be made to work; the security mindset involves thinking about how things can be made to fail.”

    It’s pithy, but still wrong. Getting things to work is the easy part of engineering. Getting things not to fail is the hard part, and if an engineer isn’t constantly trying to figure out how something might fail, he isn’t doing his job.

    The difference (if there is one) between an engineering mindset and a security mindset, is that engineers typically think more about how things could fail by accident, and security people think more about how people could exploit the system maliciously. Both groups have to take both accidental and malicious causes into account though.

    I think the only difference is a matter of focus, rather than an opposition of mindset.

  360. Kevin Horn: The difference (if there is one) between an engineering mindset and a security mindset, is that engineers typically think more about how things could fail by accident, and security people think more about how people could exploit the system maliciously. Both groups have to take both accidental and malicious causes into account though.

    This sounds analogous to the way that research scientists are about as easily fooled by magic tricks as anyone else. Nature may be subtle, but it’s not actively deceptive.

  361. One of my favorite themes in Penn and Teller’s magic shows is that they can show you how a trick works, and still fool you with a variation on the theme later in that same show.

  362. @grendelkhan

    I’m sure that happens to both engineers and security people. I’ll even concede that it probably happens to engineers somewhat more than security people. But saying that thinking about intentional failure modes isn’t part of good engineering just displays ignorance of the engineering profession.

    I have a lot of respect for Mr. Schneier, but he’s just wrong on this. When I was in college, we frequently had to perform 2nd and even 3rd order failure analyses, which goes something like this:

    1st order:
    a) think of everything that can go wrong
    b) for each one, figure out the consequences

    2nd order:
    – same as for first order, but pick every combination of two things that can go wrong and determine the consequences

    etc.

    Now obviously a lot of times the failure has to do with part a) rather than the rest, but the point is that engineers spend an awful lot of time thinking about failure, both accidental and intentional. Of course, just like in any other human endeavor, economics and pointy-haired-bosses sometimes get in the way of an optimal solution.

  363. I’m moving soon and will need to buy a car to get to work. I’m considering having it painted purple and getting “ABGRPE” as a license plate.

    Update: mission accomplished on the car, and got it purple right from the factory (they call it “royal blue” but it’s pretty damned purple). Plate to follow as soon as the apparatchiks of the live-free-or-here state see fit.

  364. Just FYI: if the royal blue is indeed purple enough, I’d say you could go with ABELIAN as the plate and let the grape be implied.

  365. Plates are limited to 6 letters, and there’s a weird rule that any I, O, U, or Q must be part of a complete and correctly-spelled word, so ABLIAN is out. Cutting out any more letters would make it hard to decipher even for someone who knows the joke. I’m pretty sure about the ABGRPE spelling. Ab and Grp are the category theoretic notations for Abelian groups and all groups respectively, and the E changes “group” to “grape”.

  366. The same thing we do every day Pinky, try to take over the world!

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