tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
A work of parody by Tim Chevalier, based on "Hackers and Painters" by Paul Graham.

The following is a work of fiction.

When I finished grad school in computer science, I decided I had just wasted eight years, and went to firefighter school to become a firefighter. A lot of people seemed surprised that someone interested in computers would also be interested in fighting fires. They seemed to think that hacking and firefighting were very different kinds of work: that hacking was an inner-directed pursuit of personal pleasure (a little like doing drugs, but slightly more socially acceptable), while firefighting involves self-sacrifice and taking risks for the benefit of others.

Both of these images are wrong. Hacking and firefighting have a lot in common. In fact, of all the different types of people I've known, hackers and firefighters are among the most alike.

What hackers and firefighters have in common is that they both like to jump into situations that most sensible people would steer clear of. Along with doctors, nurses, and traffic cops, what hackers and firefighters are trying to do, at least in part, is save other people from the consequences of their poor life decisions (without passing judgment on those decisions; or, at least, doing so quietly among friends after one gets the job done). They're not doing research per se, though if in the course of trying to mitigate disasters they discover some new technique, so much the better.

Hackers need to understand the theory of computation about as much as firefighters need to understand thermodynamics. You need to know how to calculate time and space complexity and about Turing completeness. You might also want to remember at least the concept of a state machine, in case you have to write a parser or a regular expression library. Firefighters in fact have to remember a good deal more about physics and chemistry than that.

I've found that the best sources of ideas are not the other fields that have the word "computer" in their names, but the other fields inhabited by public servants. Firefighting has been a much richer source of ideas than the theory of computation.
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tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
It is often said -- for example, by people who think "South Park" is funny -- that racist, misogynistic, homophobic, sizeist, other "-ist" forms of humor are acceptable if "I make fun of everyone".

But when you make fun of everyone, different groups pay different amounts for your negative or stereotyped comments. If I make fun of my female friend when she talks about how she drove half of I-5 at 50mph by saying "you're such a typical female driver", and make fun of my male friend when he talks about his twelve speeding tickets in the past year by saying "you're such a typical male driver", these insults don't have equal weight, because it's worse to be considered a "typical female driver" (cautious, easily intimidated) than a "typical male driver" (bold, daring). If I throw around stereotypes of black people as crack-addicted welfare recipients and stereotypes of white people as uptight and soulless in the same sentence, I'm not "making fun of everybody equally" -- the effect of my remarks on any black people within earshot will be felt far more strongly than the comfortable in-group joking of me teasing other white people.

Saying that "making fun of everyone" is egalitarian is like saying that a flat tax is fair. Tax rates are based on income because $1000 is a different percentage of your livelihood if you make $5000 a year than if you make $500,000 a year. Likewise, what seems to be the same joke costs a group that's already hated and marginalized more than a group whose privileged status is secure.

Offering to include a naked picture of a guy in your next talk doesn't make including a naked picture of a woman in your software talk acceptable; making fun of your own privileged group doesn't buy you the right to reinforce oppressive discourse.

"Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel -- it's vulgar." -- Molly Ivins
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
You know what I could stand never to hear again? Complaints about stupid people, when such complaints are perpetrated by hip 25-to-44-year-old upper-income types.

Yes, I'm aware that I used to more or less build my identity around complaining about stupid people. I'm trying not to do that anymore. I don't want to hear you complaining about how all the world's problems are due to stupid people (or religious people, or people who fail to share some trait that you congratulate yourself about) if all you do is work at a corporate job and play video games. You are not doing the world any favors by merely existing. Your intelligence is of no value to anyone else unless you're using it to help alleviate the suffering of some other human beings. If your life goal is accumulating wealth, you are actually worse than the stupid people you revile.

Relatedly, I really don't want to hear anyone bemoaning how terrible it is that "people like us" (see previously mentioned hip 25-to-44-year-olds) aren't reproducing, while "stupid people are having so many kids". If you would teach your hypothetical kids to drive a Subaru Outback to the grocery store and aspire to a plush defense contracting job, the world is probably actually better off without those kids. If your life more or less amounts to consuming large quantities of consumer electronics and artisan-made waffles, what makes you think your kids are going to be any different?

In summary, shit is not fucked up because of stupid people. Shit is fucked up because of some smart people who are intent on using their power to make sure they get the goodies whether anyone else or not. And it's also fucked up because a lot of very smart people spend their lives keeping the power structure going rather than using their talent to undermine it. Blaming stupid people is a great way for that latter group to vent their frustrations without threatening the former group's power.

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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

August 2017

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