On the duties of a geek-cred certification authority

Earlier today I was in an email exchange with a Tier 1 tech support guy at a hardware vendor who makes multiport serial boards. I had had a question in as to whether a particular board supported the Linux TIOCMIWAIT ioctl. Tier 1 guy referred the question to an engineer in their Linux development group, and Tier 1’s reply to me happened to include his email chain with the engineer.

The engineer wrote to Tier 1 “Is that Eric Raymond ‘ESR’? He’s a big deal in open-source circles.” This made me smile, because when I get made that way it usually means the engineer’s going to work rather harder to make me happy than he would for some random. This is helpful to get my work done!

But there is a duty which is the flip side of that privilege, and that’s what I’m here to write about today. Because if you are reading this at all, your odds of becoming a geek-cred certification authority someday are higher than average, and if that happens, it’s better if you consciously understand what you ought to be doing.

A few hours later my friend and A&D regular Ken Burnside called me to tell me that he was thinking about coming east to Balticon on Memorial Day, and of a clever plan. He has a friend who is local to Baltimore, a painfully shy introvert who he nevertheless thinks he might be able to lure to the convention to do some things with us.

The friend in question has been a major illustrator of SF games for more than thirty years. Because he’s so shy I’m not going to blow his cover, but I could name any one of several iconic illustrations that every science-fiction gamer has seen and you’d say, if you are one yourself, “Wow! That guy?” and want to shake his hand.

In addition, he runs an incredibly fact-dense website about some topics with huge appeal to SF fans and gamers, really well and professionally done with cites to real science and the actual mathematics. As hard-core geekiness goes it really doesn’t get better than this. He has one of the most interesting feeds on G+, too.

The guy is pretty reclusive. No, not his mother’s basement, but he doesn’t get out much. I’ve been thinking I wanted to meet him for a while, but Ken’s proposal crystallized this into a mission. I want to go to Balticon and befriend this guy and hang out with him, only partly because it’d be fun for me.

As much or more, I want to do it more because it’d be fun for him. I mean, how much validation does a guy like that ever get? Super-bright, shy as all hell, few peers anywhere – I suspect it would be a major event of his year to have “ESR” be personally nice to him, and I want to give him that. He’s more than earned it.

I think people like this guy are more important than they seem. It’s easy to dismiss SF games as a frivolity, but by helping the rest of us dream bigger, brighter, more wonderful futures – and doing it with rigor – they help bring those futures into being.

Really, what good is it to be a geek cred certification authority if you don’t use it to befriend and encourage and support people like this? Maybe, I can hope, I’ll help him feel a bit more confident. Reassure him that the recondite stuff he does is really valuable and that someone he respects cares about it and he should keep doing it. I’d like it if he walked away feeling a little taller because “ESR” treated him as a peer.

If you ever become a geek cred certification authority yourself (or even just a famous alpha hacker), I hope you will understand that this is part of your job. It’s the duty that goes with the privilege of being recognized by Tier 3 engineers. There will be people out there doing wonderful things, in software and outside it, for whom you will be one of the few sources of validation that matter. Actually providing that validation is a service to your civilization and the future; it helps keep their creativity flowing.

(Usually I post links to my blog from G+. I’m not going to link this one until after Balticon…)

118 thoughts on “On the duties of a geek-cred certification authority

  1. Once upon a time, you and I were in the back of a van going somewhere for dinner at, ISTR, a Usenix in the early 90s. I don’t know if you noticed just how much it meant to me to have you tell me you thought I was a hacker…

    • >I don’t know if you noticed just how much it meant to me to have you tell me you thought I was a hacker…

      I usually figure that anyone brave enough to ask me that question cares about the answer in more than a casual way.

  2. Does it count as “blowing cover” if it is obvious from the description who it is?

    His website is great.

    • >Does it count as “blowing cover” if it is obvious from the description who it is?

      I figured some of my regulars would twig. Just don’t say the name, eh?

      >His website is great.

      Yes. If you were me, wouldn’t you want to give him a bunch of egoboo too?

  3. For that matter, the anecdote you told about Terry Pratchett at that first Penguicon fits in here…

    • >For that matter, the anecdote you told about Terry Pratchett at that first Penguicon fits in here…

      Oh, hell yeah. It was my job, in exactly the same way, to tell Terry that the idiots who told him in his teens he couldn’t be a programmer were hideously, awfully, 1000% wrong.

      There were a lot of us at his GOH speech, listening to his astounding tales of hacking early digital electronics, who were gobsmacked the same way I was. I don’t think I’d ever before felt quite so much like I was redressing a terrible injustice by speaking “officially” as ESR, and the hacker crowd there was totally behind it, heads nodding on every word.

      The stickum on the “hacker” ribbon we gave him had degraded. We had to attach it with duct tape. I’m not sure there was a completely dry eye within sight at that point.

  4. >Yes. If you were me, wouldn’t you want to give him a bunch of egoboo too?

    Oh, hell yes. I am somewhat surprised (though I shouldn’t be, I am shy too) to hear that he is that shy, it is funny how text-comms strip that kind of problem away. Being a nerd must have suuuuuucked before the internet, no wonder there were no “geek girls” back then.

    • >Being a nerd must have suuuuuucked before the internet

      Yes. Yes, it did suck. I think this is the part where I say “You kids today don’t know how good you have it…” in a creaky grandpa voice.

  5. I feel sorry for any of your readers that didn’t instantly know to whom you were referring. An amazing website and amazing illustrations not least for the [redacted] and [redacted] of the greatest [redacted] [redacted] [redacted] ever made.

  6. >I usually figure that anyone brave enough to ask me that question cares about the answer in more than a casual way.

    For what it is worth when I reach the point of “wake up and realize that the Mantle hath lain unknown upon thy Shoulders since you knew not when.” I intend to get the official confirmation from you if possible. Because of course I would: your writings have taught me much, on many subjects.

    But that event is far in the t dimension.

  7. Allow me to add a corollary: It is also valuable, when the occasion arises, to assist in getting another who is well known but does not quite realize the full extent of that fact to that realization.

    Years ago, when I was going to SHARE regularly to talk about Hercules, one such conference was in Seattle. One of the major Hercules developers lived in Redmond, not far from the Microsoft campus. He’d been long-term unemployed, and wasn’t doing well financially. I drove out to his place the morning of my talk, picked him up, gave him a ride into the conference, and introduced him to the audience. The reaction was overwhelming, and not just at that talk: he was treated like a rock star all day. I could tell immediately that I’d brightened his existence, and it lasted for weeks.

    That was a fun day, and I’m sure yours with your subject will be, too.

  8. @ Polynices
    >I feel sorry for any of your readers that didn’t instantly know to whom you were referring.

    Oops. I didn’t know… neither instantly nor a while later. In fact, I still don’t know. v_v

    @ the A&D community in general
    Are we talking about an illustrator of tabletop games? ‘Cause I only do video games–and I haven’t even played that many video games either. To top it all off, I’ve never watched Star Trek or read Pratchett. So I probably can’t be considered a geek. :'(
    Not that I care much about labels; I just figured you guys deserved to know the nasty truth about me, since I hang around here.

    @ ESR
    I appeal to you as the geek-cred certification authority you are: would you say Bill Gates counts as a geek? That question arose in my mind because, like you, he’s praised Guns, Germs, and Steel; that may mean nothing, but I find the parallel intriguing.

    • >I appeal to you as the geek-cred certification authority you are: would you say Bill Gates counts as a geek?

      I think Troutwaxer nailed it pretty exactly. Gates and some of the people around him had geek cred once, but they abandoned the values and the way.

  9. @Jorge

    Tabletop. You will presumably find out who it is soon enough, at which point you can absorb the incredible quantity of data on his site.

    I never heard of [redacted] until I saw it on his site.

  10. I appeal to you as the geek-cred certification authority you are: would you say Bill Gates counts as a geek?

    I am not ESR, nor am I any kind of geek-cred certification authority, but it should be remembered that Bill Gates, Paul Allen and one more person whose name I don’t remember hand-coded GWBASIC in Assembler, and and would compete with each other to see how many single bytes they could save by making minor changes.

    I loathe what Miscrosoft became, but IMHO those guys were Real Programmers. Do they still have geek cred? IMHO, Gates doesn’t anymore. But back in the day…

  11. How do you people come to know each other? There seems to be a fairly tight knit community of very interesting people with very interesting ideas out there: A sort of core of science fiction fandom/early computer culture. If I’ve interacted at all, it has only been at some remove through the internet, and mostly just reading/admiring their stuff.

    I think I know exactly who you are talking about. (Assuming I’m right) His website was an awesome inspiration/resource for me when ploughing through undergrad aero/astro.

    • >A sort of core of science fiction fandom/early computer culture.

      That’s it. The network you’re alluding to goes back to SF conventions in the 1970s and 1980s, when the hacker culture was too small to have a social network that was autonomous from that culture, not that we would really have wanted to anyway.

  12. ams, don’t discount the net:

    “If I’ve interacted at all, it has only been at some remove through the internet”

    This was the sum of my interaction with the hacker culture until pretty late in the game. I’d met Eric a very small number of times before the 2004 Penguicon that changed my life – and that was my first SF con. My interactions were mostly at some remove through Usenet. I lived in Houston, and wasn’t involved with the hacker community there that largely surrounded Rice University (Rick Troth, Adam Thornton, et al, which largely was involved with VM/370), or Stan Barber’s bunch at Baylor University College of Medicine, at all.

    But I made a name for myself nonetheless, on Usenet. Whether that was good or bad is for others to comment on. Then I went to my first SF con, in 2004, and my life turned upside down…but that’s another story…

  13. Hmmmm. Illustrator, fact packed website, associates with Ken Burnside…
    Oh! Right. Him!

    Jetpack Dog sez: couldn’t be more deserving of recognition.

  14. >Being a nerd must have suuuuuucked before the internet

    It sucked so hard we had to go out and invent the Internet.

  15. >Being a nerd must have suuuuuucked before the internet, no wonder there were no “geek girls” back then.

    Hmmm… a potential objection. Today people tend to see technology as “merely” something that makes their lives better. During the Cold War or WW2 where it was more about the military aspects of technology, perhaps some nerds were more lionized as brainy war heroes. Alan Turing is a good example (before the… well, you know before what), but what I have in mind is more like airplane or weapon designers etc.

    What would sound more impressive during a date: that you work on a web server like Apache, or that you designed some part of the fighter airplanes the guys flying above right know (say WW2 London), repelling the invaders?

  16. Credit Where Credit is Due is always a worthy endeavor, perhaps especially in geek circles where there’s a higher-than-normal preponderance of self-doubt. Note that it doesn’t always take being an authority or alpha geek to suggest to ‘con organizers that they could do worse than invite Joe Overlooked as a guest speaker.

  17. I think Troutwaxer nailed it pretty exactly. Gates and some of the people around him had geek cred once, but they abandoned the values and the way.

    IIRC, Steven Levy’s book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution talks about Gates (et al) writing BASIC for the Altair 8800 (the original micro-computer kit) and taking the position (and writing some sort of open letter to the hardware-hacking community) that they should pay for the BASIC rather than passing it around – that they are happy paying for hardware – they should be willing to pay for software that people have put a lot of time into writing. It was the beginning of the great divide.

  18. @Jorge Dujan
    I’m sure you’re a geek. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a full episode of Star Trek. I don’t watch much moving pictures generally. I have read most of Pratchett’s stuff. (And you should too if you like reading. Esp. if you like reading comedic fantasy, but if you don’t start with something like Strata). There are a whole lot of other boxes I just don’t tick when it comes to Geekness.
    But, whatever, there are enough other boxes that if I’m not a geek, then it’s a club that’s meaningless.
    If you think you’re a geek, then you probably are. And there’s no need for external validation on that one.

    And as for this amazing illustrator, I don’t have a clue who he is. But I’m sure I’ll find the website enjoyable when I do find out.

    • >If you think you’re a geek, then you probably are.

      There are very occasional exceptions to this rule. I’m pretty sure Jorge is not one of them.

  19. i remember well terry at penguicon eric, that was one of the greatest things we ever did. years later, i was at another conference, they put on my badge my (2nd gen, 4 char) handle, and crowds formed. i am not extroverted by nature… this i was unfamiliar with. i won’t presume, but i think you went through the same thing, that gives me hope…

  20. I have no idea who this fellow might be, and I’m actively trying to use the clues supplied here to search. And I’m loathe to ask specific questions unless I can feel sure the question, let alone the answer, wouldn’t give it immediately away.

    That said, I happen to live half an hour away from Baltimore, and would like to get in on this, too (since it looks like I’ll miss Penguicon again – gripe gripe). I also probably know some of the tech staff at Balticon; if you need any reasonably small resources from that corner, I might be able to pass requests along.

  21. Finding other geeks: I was very, very lonely and bored growing up, until I discovered the Internet in college. It’d probably be safe to sketch my childhood as analogous to Hedgemage’s – grew up in rural Texas, playing with Pedlo bricks (a competing brand with Lego – in one way, I found them superior!) until I got to play on my dad’s Osborne 1 around age 10, and then later his AMOS. Dad was pretty much the only other geek soul I could connect to, unless you count a group I played with briefly, playing D&D at our Catholic private school.

  22. Heh. Thirty years ago, I was sort of in that position, writing the “According to Webster” column in BYTE Magazine at a time when BYTE was 300-600 pages/issue and the leading personal computing magazine out there; the column provided industry commentary and analysis, as well as product reviews, with a focus on 680×0-based systems (Mac, Amiga, Atari) and software development. I was invited to speak at the Amiga Developers Conference being held in Monterrey, CA. While standing in the registration line, I overheard the two guys standing right ahead of me talking. One said to the other, “Hey, I hear Bruce Webster is going to be speaking.” The other guy said, “Eh.” and made the see-saw gesture of “Whatever” with his hand. It was all I could do not to burst out laughing then and there — it was certainly refreshing to get completely unfiltered feedback. I mentioned the incident in my talk the next day; after the talk, the guy who had dismissed me came up to apologize, and I told him, “No, it was absolutely honest and absolutely great.”

    But, yes, you’re right about the power you have to make others feel included. What you’re planning to do is a very good thing; be sure to let us know how it goes.

  23. @Paul Brinkley: Don’t feel too bad. I have no friggin’ clue who this person is, either. I’m so far out of the loop, it might as well be on Mars (listening to disco with Mark Watney? ;-) ).

    I probably hit “peak geek” sometime in the early 2000s and have been going downhill since then. But that’s OK; I’ve been discovering that, even if I’m less than a full-blooded geek, I’m more than “just” a geek in some respects.

  24. Meh, fuck it, let’s do this Cryptonomicon style.

    Assume the fellow has a bio page on the web. Viewing the HTML source, line 60, characters 22 – 26 are:

    S , (space) N O

    …is that him?

    Because if so… dude. That’s a hacker who needs a posse if one ever did.

  25. I don’t have the faintest clue who you’re referring to.

    But, Eric…if you think some Tron Guy fanboying would be of help (and that I’d fanboy over this person), please feel free to invoke it.

  26. Man, y’all are going to be amazed when you learn his name and get to see his site.

    @Paul

    He does have an “n” in one of his names, that much is correct.

  27. …Rats. Well, I used what I thought was the definitive bio page, but perhaps I was mistaken. (I’ve seen two, but one looked like a derivative of the other.) And the HTML on the page I’m thinking of is actually not particularly hairy. (It shows as only 82 lines on Chrome, and appears handwritten.) I didn’t do a hash, because of concerns that someone might use a different algorithm. And I was really sure that “s, no” would jibe if someone already knew what to look for, without yielding a usable search term.

    Aside from this, every other clue I’ve seen here jibes with who I’m thinking of, including the ‘n’. Except, I dunno why FooQ said that as a confirmation; I said nothing about ‘n’s until now.

    Can I ask if he’s married?

  28. Some back-channel comms confirms that I have the right guy, though maybe the wrong page. Huzzah! Extra hopeful that this goes through.

  29. I’m extrapolating from “(Usually I post links to my blog from G+. I’m not going to link this one until after Balticon…)” that ESR is likely to mention the encounter then, including the name.

  30. I read that as being this person follows his G+, but not his blog, and he wants this to be a surprise for him. No indication of an update for us mere mortals.

  31. @ Foo Quuxman

    >Tabletop.

    Those hex wargames ESR has blogged about, right? They seem interesting, but I don’t think I’ve seen them in any store (I haven’t searched yet, though). And I’m not sure I know anyone who would be interested in playing them. Thus, video games.
    Hell, even Lucas Corso (the protagonist of The Club Dumas) is fond of those hex games.

    >You will presumably find out who it is soon enough, at which point you can absorb the incredible quantity of data on his site.

    If you think I could grasp what seems to be a site full of equations and stuff, you overestimate me. And I thank you for that. ;P
    BTW, isn’t Ken Burnside himself involved in a similar site called Atomic Rockets?

    @ MichaeL
    Thank you for your kind reassurance.
    I haven’t read any comedic fantasy, unless you count César Aira’s The Literary Conference as such; but it’s almost (comedic) sci-fi. Anyway, if you don’t mind my asking, why Strata over The Colour of Magic?

    @ ESR
    Thank you, too! You’re very kind as well.
    In the OP, you talked about how getting encouragement from you means a lot to anyone who values your work. Well, you just did that to me. According to Jay Maynard, you’ve done it before; and you’ll soon do it to Ken Burnside’s friend as well.
    In conclusion, you’re improving the world not just through your software and writings, but also through your sheer humanity. (Another example of this is that you recently adopted a cat from a shelter. Dunno if the credit corresponds to you, your wife, or both; in any case, I don’t doubt her good heart–and I also admire her, partly because of the impressive knowledge of cultural history showcased in her blogs. Sorry for this digression, but I felt Mrs. Raymond deserved a tribute as well. You don’t mind, right? :$)

    • >In conclusion, you’re improving the world not just through your software and writings, but also through your sheer humanity.

      I would normally ignore this, because it’s a kind of praise I find faintly embarrassing. But I want to reinforce a point here: when you are a tribal elder, or one of the gatekeepers of an invisible college, or a geek cred certfication authority, this is not an optional extra. This is your job. If you take your responsibility to your people seriously, you must do this.

      If, in each generation, the elders do not take this responsibility, the culture withers and dies. Someday it will be your turn; do not forget.

      >Another example of this is that you recently adopted a cat from a shelter.

      I don’t know hat this is a testament to my humanity. It probably means I just like cats.

      >Sorry for this digression, but I felt Mrs. Raymond deserved a tribute as well. You don’t mind, right?

      Not in the least.

  32. >I would normally ignore this, because it’s a kind of praise I find faintly embarrassing.

    I’m just saying what’s true, at least in my view. Didn’t mean to embarrass you. I’ll try to curb my enthusiasm from now on.

    >Someday it will be your turn; do not forget.

    Again, I feel flattered. And if I ever become a “gatekeeper”, I promise to take the whole matter seriously and do my job. But for the time being, speculations on my becoming such an important figure are just that: speculations. The list of my achievements is still empty.

    >It probably means I just like cats.

    So do I (in addition to dogs). I eagerly await your next blog post on Zola. ^_^

    >Not in the least.

    Phew. I was reluctant to discuss Catherine Raymond because–IIUC–when an obvious introvert like me praises a woman over the Internet, he runs the risk of coming off as a creep. I’m relieved that didn’t happen; my appreciation for her is, I assure you, genuine and of the right kind–even though I do find her pretty. BTW, wouldn’t you say she resembles Swedish actress Pernilla August, who played Anakin’s mother (and whom I also like)? Is it just me?

    • >BTW, wouldn’t you say she resembles Swedish actress Pernilla August

      I don’t see it, myself. But it takes all kinds of visual processing to make a world. ;-)

    • >Have you looked at this particular photo

      More resemblance, but not enough – I can’t get past the shape of her face being so different.

  33. Re Gates: I don’t think software hackerdom and FOSS are equivalent. Proprietary software has its places. The important thing is: do you know what you’re doing, and are you determined to do it well? Do you share expertise and support other people in the field? Do you support the development of generally used standards and tools?

    Gates moved from being a developer to being a manager and marketer of software development – arguably the most successful ever. Maybe he is so far removed from the technical sharp end that he knows nothing anymore. Call him a very distinguished hacker-emeritus.

    • >Re Gates: I don’t think software hackerdom and FOSS are equivalent.

      That is a tricky and debatable question worthy of a blog post. But…

      >The important thing is: do you know what you’re doing, and are you determined to do it well? Do you share expertise and support other people in the field? Do you support the development of generally used standards and tools?

      Over time, the degree to which Gates and those around him failed all three of those objectives has steadily increased. The latter two, in particular, are incompatible with the drive for monopoly lock-in.

      >Call him a very distinguished hacker-emeritus.

      Whereas I see him as having moved from hacker to anti-hacker, a person whose goals demanded not just ignoring but negating and trying to stamp out the hacker ethos.

  34. > Do you support the development of generally used standards and tools?
    > …
    > The latter two, in particular, are incompatible with the drive for monopoly lock-in.

    Well, if everyone would just use theirs…</sarcasm>

    Anyway, on that note, what do you think about their recent open-source releases of .NET/C# tools? (CoreCLR, CoreFX, and Roslyn, under MIT, MIT, and Apache licenses respectively)

    • >Anyway, on that note, what do you think about their recent open-source releases of .NET/C# tools? (CoreCLR, CoreFX, and Roslyn, under MIT, MIT, and Apache licenses respectively)

      I’m always in favor of open-source releases of anything. I see these as surrender, an attempt to stave off irrelevance.

  35. >More resemblance, but not enough – I can’t get past the shape of her face being so different.

    Hmph. I think that’s enough for today. But don’t you dare think this is settled! Just you wait! I’ll raise the greatest army the world has…

    Right, I’m not Dalton. =P

    >Whereas I see [Gates] as having moved from hacker to anti-hacker, a person whose goals demanded not just ignoring but negating and trying to stamp out the hacker ethos.

    In other words, he was seduced by the dark side of the Force.

    (Guess I am a geek after all. Uwee, hee, hee!)

  36. In other words, he was seduced by the dark side of the Force.
    (Guess I am a geek after all. Uwee, hee, hee!)

    Ootini!

  37. >I don’t know hat this is a testament to my humanity. It probably means I just like cats.

    Heh. There are two opposite schools of this, the Kantian one that roots moral virtue in self-denial and sacrifice, and the Platonic one saying if you could make people like things that are good, and thus pursue good things out of selfish desire, that would be most functional kind of goodness of them all. “Platonic” raises the wrong kind of connotations here, but Plato was the first one who formulated that the purpose of education is to make children emotionally like those things that are rationally good. This precisely means they grow up into adults who can be good without much self-denial or sacrifice, just pursuing what they like. This also means you don’t really need to go overboard with praising their virtue :-) Basic friendliness will do.

    Clearly you are in the second camp, not sure how, upbringing, conscious choice, self-training etc.

  38. @ Shenpen

    >…you don’t really need to go overboard with praising their virtue :-) Basic friendliness will do.

    Heh. Point taken. But I never claimed ESR was altruistic; after all, altruism is “based on self-deception, the root of all evil”. ;-) I accept the thesis of psychological egoism.
    Maybe I’m impressionable. Maybe I need a role model or two. In any case, ESR fits that function perfectly, given his virtues. This doesn’t mean I worship him; I know he’s human, and I occasionally disagree with him. But that’s beside the point. Ultimately, what matters is that ESR–like I said earlier–improves the world; his high IQ and vast knowledge play a crucial role in that, and that’s why they matter. (It helps that he’s good natured.) I think of myself as a consequentialist. :-)

    One more thing: in the interest of fairness, I want to mention I quite admire Paul Graham as well.

  39. (My starting the comment with “heh” was not meant as mockery of yours. I apologize if it sounded that way.)

  40. ESR:
    > There are very occasional exceptions to this rule.

    Not today. 10 years ago, yes. 10 years from now, maybe. Right now you have girls and boys wearing fake glasses and declaring what “geeks” they are for being a moderate fan of this or that. No, you’re not a geek. You’re someone with a temporary obsession.

    ESR:
    > >Re Gates: I don’t think software hackerdom and FOSS are equivalent.
    > That is a tricky and debatable question worthy of a blog post. But…

    It might be worthy of a post, but I don’t think it’s really equivalent.

    As noted previous, I’ve worked in places that required a TS/SCI clearance. These places were heavily networked, and the source that many people–people of a *serious* hacker nature (I knew one guy who would save *every* piece of electronic scrap because sometimes he needed a specific electronics part, so he’d find a board and de-solder it).

    Now, by *law* these people could only share their code in limited circles, and truthfully most of it would be of no interest outside those circles, but there’s this *nasty* little cvs server sitting in a rack in that serves a certain type of researcher in , , and , and there might be some in and Canada. Anyone who has access to that network can get access to that code with a simple email.

    And no, it is incredibly unlikely (unless certain things line up *just* right and I wind up back there) that that CVS server will ever get uplifted into Git. But if I do wind up there again and can sell it to manglement I’ll try to get you a contract to do the work :)

    I would suspect that in most closed source shops there are those of the hacker nature who share information and code, just within the limits imposed by their contract with their employer.

  41. > Not today. 10 years ago, yes. 10 years from now, maybe. Right now you have girls and boys wearing fake glasses and declaring what “geeks” they are for being a moderate fan of this or that. No, you’re not a geek. You’re someone with a temporary obsession.

    Counterpoint: Since they think of themselves as geeks, isn’t it more likely that when that obsession fades it will be replaced with one or more other “geeky” interest? That their social circles will be built around other people with similar such interests, that they will go to science fiction conventions, etc?

  42. > Since they think of themselves as geeks, isn’t it more likely that when that obsession
    > fades it will be replaced with one or more other “geeky” interest?

    No. Because they don’t have the Geek Nature, which I will define as:

    1) A deep and abiding interest in How Shit Works.
    2) A desire to maximize one’s understanding of How Shit Works.
    2a) Even if it’s not your primary job or hobby. ESPECIALLY if it’s not your primary job or hobby.
    3) A desire, maybe even a *drive* to share that that understanding.
    4) A preference that places these traits over other traits in determining relationships.

  43. I was including “How Shit Works” as a “‘geeky’ interest”.

    You kind of need a bit of that mentality to enjoy SF/F over literary fiction anyway.

  44. @esr:

    >Doesn’t match the bio page I see, but the HTML markup is hairy enough so this isn’t determinative.

    It does match the bio page I see.

    When I started reading through your post I didn’t think I knew who you were talking about. Then it hit me.

    >Whereas I see him as having moved from hacker to anti-hacker, a person whose goals demanded not just ignoring but negating and trying to stamp out the hacker ethos.

    I think this has some relation to the question of why geeks tend to be shy. Going back to your post on nerd psychology from a few months back, I fit the “standard nerd profile” fairly well, and one feature of my personality, which seems to be shared by many other “standard” nerds, is a view of status competitions among more alpha-type personalities as not just pointless or wasteful, but as a contagious disease. While pleasant, praise of one’s work is seen as a potential source of memetic infection, and is thus simultaneously profoundly uncomfortable.

    Bill Gates can be seen as what we fear happening to us if we press through this discomfort. We may have a fairly good idea of our capabilities and accomplishments, but we are hesitant to acknowledge them, or allow them to be acknowledged, lest we “be reborn… as MCSEs”.

    • >Bill Gates can be seen as what we fear happening to us if we press through this discomfort.

      There’s something to that, I think. And I think it’s related to my fear that too much time and effort spent on being Mr. Famous Guy might turn me into a hollowed-out parody of myself that has become dependent on the adulation of the crowd.

  45. @Jon Brase @ESR

    > is a view of status competitions among more alpha-type personalities as not just pointless or wasteful, but as a contagious disease

    I used to hate them when I was young, then I realized it contributes a lot to why I have low self-esteem, depressed, miserable etc. because your body, at some basic hormonal level, cannot _not_ care about you being low status, and you pretty much automatically lose every status competition you don’t participate in. In capuchin monkeys, the winner/loser testosterone difference, caused by the status change, can be as big as 20x. I tried various ways of fixing it, actually currently I am focusing on martial arts (tried boxing, now in the process of switching to kick-boxing because I _need_ a belt-based system, to have an idea how much is expected at what level), because I think this primal level may work better than the civilized forms I was doing before (career, degree, money kinds of things).

    Of course, this does not mean everything should be turned into a status competition, in fact, things that matter should not at all. In an ideal world, this would be an entirely side-game done by consequence-free simulated combat and games and whatnot and not influence the important work at all.

    Did anyone where read Jerry Pournelle’s The Children’s Hour which is a novel set in Larry Niven’s Man-Kzin Wars universe? Pournelle is uniquely good at figuring out how way too aggressive people or cultures can still function intelligently and one repeated motif there is a smart kzin leader repeatedly going on hunting cattle before making important decisions in order to flush out his hormones. In an ideal world, there would be a mandatory martial arts sparring before board meetings to flush out status-competition hormones.

    My point is, the habit of nerds to shy away from status competitions just locks in low status, and that is likely to lock in low testosterone, and that is likely to lock in something like minor depression, often unnoticed. This needs fixing, on the whole geek subculture level.

  46. >This needs fixing, on the whole geek subculture level.

    Reason for disproportionate martial art practice in the hacker culture (and geekdom in general).

  47. @Lambert

    I know little about hackerdom, but if geekdom also includes e.g. places where people play Magic the Gathering… it is not that widespread at all.

    The issue is that the terminology here is imprecised, geekdom/nerddom has two hard centers, one is STEM and the other fantasy, they overlap but also are different. The motives behind learning LISP and the motives behind enjoying reading Dragonlance Chronicles are not exactly the same and they are not exactly the same personality archetypes. I think black-belting is a STEM-geek stereotype mostly. Its parallel in fantasy-geekdom is perhaps LARP-battling: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_gaming#/media/File:Melcaorme-III-005.jpg and I leave it as the exercise of the reader how much social status that brings.

  48. > I was including “How Shit Works” as a “‘geeky’ interest”.
    > You kind of need a bit of that mentality to enjoy SF/F over literary fiction anyway.

    Remember that this is about people *self-labeling* as Geeks, not other people labeling them as geeks, and they assume that a high level interest in Anime or Robert Jordan is sufficient to label themselves as “geek”, and what I’m getting at is that they are looking at a small part of the map and not getting the territory.

  49. @shenpen:

    My social circle contains both types of geek (I assume weeaboos go into the fantasy category), as well as some non-geeks and martial arts are practiced with disproportoionate frequency within all those groups.

    STEM: 80%
    Weeaboos / fantasy: 50%
    Non Geeks: 20%

    For each datum, n~5
    NB: Take with pinch^H^H^H^H^H skipfull of salt.

    • >STEM: 80% Weeaboos / fantasy: 50% Non Geeks: 20%

      This is anecdotal but suggestive evidence for a theory about the geek/martial-arts connection I’ve been mulling: that it’s partly due to martial arts being in the more general category of Stuff Bright People (including those who don’t self-identify as geeks) Like, and then more specifically concentrated in geeks and hackers.

  50. @William

    >enjoy SF/F over literary fiction

    You are aware how most mainstream books and movies that are called SF are just space opera fiction? To me discovering e.g. Larry Niven and understanding how Star Wars is no SF was a lot like discovering a “secret society”. Space opera vs. harder SF is one of the many cases of everything having a quality pyramid, still, in my experience, it is surprisingly hard to predict that 1) any given low-quality thing has higher quality versions 2) how that would look like.

    I used to obsess about this around 1995 when I was very interested in the difference between underground techno music and mainstream pop-techno. The later felt not only worse but also in a clear way fake yet I was not sure what exactly are the markers of fakedom, how to detect it in other genres and how to predict what the real version would be like, in order to start looking for it.

    If you have a theory, here is a test if your quality-search engine: what is that X that relates to Twilight type vampire romance the same way as hard SF relates to space opera?

  51. > You are aware how most mainstream books and movies that are called SF are just space opera fiction?

    Even if that doesn’t qualify as “SF”, it should at least qualify for the “/F” – worldbuilding and having a fictional society with its own rules rather than the real ones are still aspects of the genre even in those which are lacking in hard science.

  52. What is the basis for the martial arts interest?
    * Self-mastery?
    * Limit the control of others over the self?
    * Hacking which doesn’t require any other equipment?

  53. >All three of the above!

    Concerning the third bullet (“Hacking which doesn’t require any other equipment”): what about those martial arts that either include weapons (such as kali and ninjutsu) or are exclusively about weapons (kendo, kobudo, etc.)? What makes them appealing to geeks (assuming they are)?

    And another question: once Balticon is over, will you reveal the illustrator’s identity? I’m curious about both his art and his hard-science-oriented website. As for the latter, I probably won’t understand much; but, as Lucca said: “Gotta try, right?” ;-)

    • >what about those martial arts that either include weapons (such as kali and ninjutsu) or are exclusively about weapons (kendo, kobudo, etc.)? What makes them appealing to geeks (assuming they are)?

      They are, and I’m not sure the appeal is very different from empty-hand arts.

      >And another question: once Balticon is over, will you reveal the illustrator’s identity?

      Probably.

  54. >They are, and I’m not sure the appeal is very different from empty-hand arts.

    Too late I remember this comment by Greg, which probably nails it. Oops! :$

    But I would have asked the second question (“once Balticon is over…”) anyway.

  55. @Garret @ESR

    >Hacking which doesn’t require any other equipment?

    Have you ever wondered why do fantasy novels about wizards throwing fireballs are popular in a world where every soldier can throw hand grenades? Why would a fiction about telekinesis sound interesting to a man who can buy a forklift? Why are parapsychologists obsessed about proving telepathy true, which even in the best possible case would be a highly inefficient replacement for cell phones?

    I think there is something emotionally strong about doing things with the brain only (such as stories of telekinesis) or the body only (such as unarmed fighting).

    Is it possible we feel weakened and entraped by a world where we need the help of machines and technology in everything? Is it possible there is an emotional desire there to regain the agency of the unaided human brain and body?

  56. @shenpen:

    Also, when technology fails, our brain and body is all we have left. I’m considering becoming a survivalist just so I can look really smug in the event of a disaster. ;)

  57. @ ESR

    My insatiable curiosity has produced two new questions:
    1. In order to become a geek-cred certification authority, you must have become a geek first. Who certified you as a geek and/or as a hacker?
    2. After that, when and how did you realize you’d become a certification authority yourself?

    • >1. In order to become a geek-cred certification authority, you must have become a geek first. Who certified you as a geek and/or as a hacker?

      I don’t remember any individual doing that. I do remember hackers as far back as late 1970s casually treating me as a peer, which certainly made an impression on me.

      >2. After that, when and how did you realize you’d become a certification authority yourself?

      When other people started requesting my judgment about geek cred, and I realized I had answers that felt right. That is, you’re an authority when other people treat you as one and you feel like one, with the second normally happening after the first and in part as a result of the first. I think Jay Maynard was one of the earlier people to do this, back around the beginning of the 1990s, but probably not the earliest.

  58. And yet when I asked Eric that question, it was obvious to me that he was one of the authority figures of hackerdom, largely because of the Jargon File.

    • >And yet when I asked Eric that question, it was obvious to me that he was one of the authority figures of hackerdom, largely because of the Jargon File.

      Which I agree was a reasonable judgment as early as 1991, though I wasn’t thinking that way at the time.

      I didn’t understand that becoming a certification authority would be a consequence when I took on that project, but when people started to treat me that way my reaction (after brief bogglement) was “Of course. There’s a social need for this, and I have accidentally wandered into being qualified to fill it.”

  59. The Jargon File is what drew me at first, as well.

    That reminds me: how has the File been doing lately? I see the one at catb advertised as 4.4.8 or 4.4.7 depending on the page, dated 2004; I see a 5.0.1 elsewhere dated 2012; and I see some archived older versions here and there. Is the mailing list still running?

    Has there been much new jargon lately?

    • >Has there been much new jargon lately?

      No, which is why I haven’t done a release in years. The rate of jargon formation seems to have dropped off heavily after the year 2000, I’m not sure why but I’m sure the maturation of computing technology and mass-market Internet are implicated. Now the kind of online jargon formation hackers used to play at is just…pop culture.

  60. “OT: can gravatar be set up without a wordpress account?”

    I had a gravatar account which was converted to a wordpress account when they merged. This would seem to indicate “no”.

  61. The mass market computer culture seems to have taken the fun out of computing in general. When I was a kid, we actually used to join a computer institute to get access to a system. Nobody had laptops. Having a desktop PC at home was something of a status symbol. I still remember vividly when we learned DOS, LOTUS 1-2-3, dBase and some other software I cannot remember now at a computer learning center. School computer classes used to be fun too. We always had to have the program ready on paper before putting it into the system and getting the output and took turns typing them in. I still vividly remember the excitement of actually using a colour CRT monitor instead of a B & W one, even though the only real benefit was syntax highlighting in Turbo C++. Before that, we actually borrowed a neighbour’s 286 machine to learn BASIC programming.

    It’s quaint and probably not quite the hacker culture, but it is a unique experience I think many Indian kids in the 80s and 90s experienced.

  62. On the other hand, I don’t think we quite had UNIX knowledge back then because UNIX was not all that popular due to cost of hardware as compared to microcomputers which rapidly became popular thanks to DOS and Windows.

  63. I suppose the interesting question now is: where did this culture go? Maybe it split into other domains; perhaps:

    – 3D printer tech
    – robotics
    – several programming sub-domains (web dev, mobile, space research, bioinformatics, device-specific dev, game modding, et al.)
    – tabletop gaming
    – science fiction writing
    – rationalist philosophy
    – martial arts

    …and all these fields are now large enough to permit a hacker to explore widely without getting into the others quite as much – maybe geeks at one end of the geek galaxy can’t see the other end as well as they could in the 1960s-1990s. We have the Internet to keep in touch, but maybe the concept space is still too large for us to get into other topics of interest to the depth required by the grok limit. There’s probably still new jargon in each one, but a bioinf geek jargon wouldn’t make much sense to a martial arts geek, etc.

  64. @ ESR
    This is blatantly offtopic, but I’ve been puzzled about it for some time: your random-quote collection doesn’t specify the authorship of the Quixote-inspired observation, “Tilting at windmills hurts you more than the windmills”. Wasn’t it Heinlein’s Lazarus Long like all the rest? You might want to fix it.

  65. Shenpen on 2015-03-30 at 04:15:27 said:
    @William
    >enjoy SF/F over literary fiction

    > You are aware how most mainstream books and movies that are called SF are just space opera fiction?

    What is this “mainstream” you speak of?

    > To me discovering e.g. Larry Niven and understanding how Star Wars is no SF
    > was a lot like discovering a “secret society”.

    Starwars *is* SF. It’s not *great* SF, but it is SF.

    > Space opera vs. harder SF is one of the many cases of everything having a
    > quality pyramid, still, in my experience, it is surprisingly hard to predict that
    > 1) any given low-quality thing has higher quality versions 2) how that
    > would look like.

    I think you’re mistaken when you assert that Space Opera is inherently inferior (in the qualitative sense) than Hard SF. Personal I prefer the harder stuff, but it’s more like the difference between Beer and Whiskey–two drinks made from basically the same stuff (water, grain etc.) with dramatic differences.

    But that’s really not the point. I would much rather read (and in fact am reading) all of the Honor Harrington books than to read 50 shades of Grey. I’d rather read E.E. Doc Smith than *ANYTHING* currently on the NYT best sellers list.

    Even in the worst of the Space Operas you have a universe that is understandable and conquerable (at least to a point), and you have people striving to do so.

    ESR:
    > I’m not sure why but I’m sure the maturation of computing technology

    Yeah, pull the other one. It’s got bells on.

    I’d argue rather than the technology maturing (it isn’t, and it won’t as long as the hiring preferences are for children in their 20s v.s. adults in their 40s through 60s) for most of the people in the field it’s simply a *job* rather than a passion, and the field has sufficiently diversified that jargon is more localized than industry wide.

    • >Starwars *is* SF. It’s not *great* SF, but it is SF.

      I partly disagree. If we’re talking popular genre labels, it’s SF because it gets binned with SF. But structurally it’s science fantasy – the crucial SFnal property of affirming rational knowability is not just absent but (“Use the Force, Luke!”) actually negated.

  66. Lambert on 2015-03-31 at 03:41:45 said:
    >There are no dangerous weapons; there are only dangerous men.
    > Heinlein

    Nuclear weapons are obviously the counter example to this–Just sitting there in the cupboard they present significant risks, not to mention the rather nasty fuels their rockets require.

    There are other examples–while the powders used to stoke a howitzer aren’t hugely unstable their primers aren’t exactly something you want to wander around with in your back pocket.

    Then we have shit like VX and Sarin.

    So yeah, there’s dangerous weapons.

    And dangerous people.

    Years ago I lived in Silly Con Valley (where I first met ESR at a Geeks with Guns thing) and a guy I knew ran a Youth Airgun Range at “the” gun show and anywhere else anyone would have him. He had gotten an NRA grant to put the thing together, and had purchased a bunch of cheap Romanian spring “air” guns, then had some guy chop the stocks on them to fit kids. I think he paid like $20 a piece for them in 2001.

    Anyway, long story less long, he’d set this range up at the gun show for kids, but if there were no kids around adults could have a go. He had this guy come up and take a few shots. Keep in mind these were cheap training tools not well handled, well, this guy fiddled with the airgun for a minute then braced himself on the counter and proceeded–loading one pellet at a time–to tear one ragged hole with these cheap shit guns.

    Turns out he was the sniper for a local PD.

    A “Sniper Rifle” is any rifle with a sniper behind it. I could buy a Barrett M82A1 in .416 Barrett (and will if I ever hit the lottery) but that won’t make me the reincarnation of Chris Kyle. OTOH, someone like him with my mid-tier AK? Devastating.

    So yeah, there are dangerous weapons. And dangerous men.

  67. Someone who makes the claim that Space Opera is inferior – or even a separate category from – Hard SF needs to go play Mass Effect 1 & 2, and read the damn codex entries while they are playing it. If that fails to show them the error of their ways then they should go inhale the contents of the Orion’s Arm Universe Project.

    If that fails to convince them, then they have proven that they worship a map where SpaceOpera != HardSF, and as such are faulty thinkers and not worth the time to argue with them.

    • >or even a separate category from – Hard SF

      I’m going to have to disagree here. These categories overlap some – The Mote In God’s Eye is a classic case in point – but in general these genres are very different. Hard SF is cerebral and idea-focused; space opera is thalamic and action-focused. Both can achieve sense of wonder, but normally do it by different paths.

  68. I’m going to have to disagree here.

    Ah, perhaps my definitions are incorrect: I tend to use “Hard SF” to refer to SF in which the logic and technology is handled with an unusual degree of rigor, even if it isn’t focused on a Big Idea. And “Space Opera” I tend to use as much to mean “Operatic Scope” as the thalmic elements.

    But structurally it’s science fantasy

    What is interesting about Star Wars is that some of the better stories in the EU play the SF game, and push the magical elements into the background: Destiny may be the official reason JoeJedi can shake the galaxy, but he put in all the effort himself.

    The result is a funny layer cake: Fantasy Core, SciFi Veneer, Technology of Magic Plot.

  69. @Foo:
    >Someone who makes the claim that Space Opera is inferior – or even a separate category from – Hard SF needs to go play Mass Effect 1 & 2, and read the damn codex entries while they are playing it.

    While Space Opera and Hard SF are indeed miscible, and there are some great examples of works that are both, the Mass Effect series is nowhere near Hard. A better example of a work that does well at blending the two would be A Fire Upon The Deep.

  70. @esr:
    >The rate of jargon formation seems to have dropped off heavily after the year 2000, I’m not sure why but I’m sure the maturation of computing technology and mass-market Internet are implicated.

    Is it that the rate of Jargon formation has dropped, or that new jargon is dejargonized as soon as it forms (that is, hackers are still creating jargon, but it disperses into the general culture quickly). There are certainly a fair number of old entries in the Jargon file that are now mainstream, not confined to hacker jargon (e.g, firmware, bluescreen, ISP, RTFM etc).

    Relevant to this discussion, I think, is the date:

    Thu Sep 7884 22:09:36 CDT 1993

    • >(that is, hackers are still creating jargon, but it disperses into the general culture quickly).

      Yes, come to think of it, there has been a lot of that. Goes with a steep rise in the number of people for whom hacker jargon is recognition vocabulary but not production vocabulary. That used to be pretty rare, but no longer is.

  71. While Space Opera and Hard SF are indeed miscible, and there are some great examples of works that are both, the Mass Effect series is nowhere near Hard. A better example of a work that does well at blending the two would be A Fire Upon The Deep.

    Alas, I need to run sudo apt-get update definitions

    But I will still insist that ME1/2 are the hardest things in their popularity bracket. That puts them above realigning the tachyon capacitor with multi-modal quantum algorithms to produce a neutrino pulse from the deflector dish. As much as I may like Trek that babbling gets really annoying.

  72. ESR:

    I partly disagree. If we’re talking popular genre labels, it’s SF because it gets binned with SF. But structurally it’s science fantasy – the crucial SFnal property of affirming rational knowability is not just absent but (“Use the Force, Luke!”) actually negated.

    You know, I only saw the first 3 movies (based on release order) in the theaters, and (at the same time) read a couple of the spin off books. I was 11 when the first one was released, so you’re probably right about it being “science fantasy”. Hence won’t argue, you’re probably right.

    Jon Brase:
    > Thu Sep 7884 22:09:36 CDT 1993

    The precise beginning of the Eternal September?

  73. @ Foo Quuxman

    >…realigning the tachyon capacitor with multi-modal quantum algorithms to produce a neutrino pulse from the deflector dish. As much as I may like Trek that babbling gets really annoying.

    I’m sure I could watch Trek without being annoyed by that. After all, I don’t even know what an “Al-Gore-ithm” is. :-)

  74. What of those of us who contribute to stuff like Samba and Wireshark and other Open Source packages, as well as working for the man?

    What do we owe the world other than our contributions?

  75. > This is blatantly offtopic, … Wasn’t it Heinlein’s Lazarus Long like all the rest? You might want to fix it.

    And if we’re picking quip nits:
    This one, I believe, should be attributed to the character Jubal Harshaw in the book Stranger in a Strange Land:


    “Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist–a master–and that is what Auguste Rodin was–can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is . . . and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be . . . and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply imprisoned inside her ruined body.”

  76. Balticon is now this weekend. Has there been any development on this? Day of meeting? Time? Location?

    • >Balticon is now this weekend. Has there been any development on this? Day of meeting? Time? Location?

      Alas, the latest word is the recluse may not show at all.

    • >Balticon is now this weekend. Has there been any development on this? Day of meeting? Time? Location?

      As I said, the recluse may not show up. But you should – I’d enjoy meeting you.

  77. We’ve already met – at Steve M’s wedding in Catonsville. It’d be fun to see you and Cathy again, of course, and other A&Ders would be a treat. (Ken? William? Would Jay make it that far east?)

    Shame about our mystery guest.

    • > (Ken? William? Would Jay make it that far east?)

      Ken will be there; he and I and Charles Gannon will be doing a panel together. Jay won’t be. Dunno about William.

  78. Lots of introverts (I know whereof I speak) don’t want to come out of their closets: they find interacting with more than a few people at a time painful and exhausting. For some, it’s downright dangerous to try. Remember what happened to Cordwainer Smith (several times; he had to keep switching pseudonyms) and James Tiptree, Jr. (once, with finality).

    “Don’t do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same”. For no one is this truer than extraverts trying to provide “fun” for introverts.

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