Sunday, May 29, 2005

Geeking out...

O'Reilly and Associates recently started publishing a new magazine, Make Magazine. This is the coolest thing since sliced bread. It's articles by people who are actually doing stuff, both high-tech and low. There's a challenge at the end of this quarter's magazine: build a water filter that will remove VOC's and microbes from contaminated water, using some plastic soda bottles, bamboo, unlimited coconuts, etc. Another article talks about how in Nicaragua people are welding specialized bicycles - a wheelchair bike for someone with a spinal injury, several different sales bikes, stuff like that. Also featured: adobe building techniques. Other articles talk about how to make VOC sniffer robots out of cheap robotic toys, for tracking down illegal toxic waste dumping. Very exciting stuff, if you're a geek, or have geek tendencies.

I've been thinking about building a robot out of a broken Powerbook, an iSight camera, and some USB-controlled stepper motors with wheels. In Make magazine this week there was an article describing how to make a teleprompter on the cheap. One of the big problems with the iSight is that you are never looking _at_ the iSight when you are using it - you're looking at the screen, so the person to whom you are talking doesn't see you face on. The teleprompter jig could fix this - you put the iSight behind the mirror. Now you're looking at the reflected image of your computer screen in the mirror, and the iSight is pointing straight at you, so you get a nice f2f experience, instead of a "that guy's not looking at me when he talks" experience.

Back when I was coming up in the geek world, we called people who did stuff like this (and also pure programming) "hackers." Nowadays, "hacker" means a hardened 13-year-old criminal who breaks into your computer using skr1pts that s/he picked up on the Internet, who probably doesn't know anything about programming, but just follows recipes, breaks into your computer, screws it up, and moves on to the next one.

I propose that we stop trying to reclaim the word "hacker." Vernor Vinge, in several of his short stories, uses the term "tinker." See The Collected Short Stories of Vernor Vinge, which I think is a boringly-renamed collection of what's in True Names, and Other Dangers and Threats, and Other Promises.
Wen Spencer has a book called Tinker that's about someone who meets this description pretty well. Good book, too, if you like romantic/elf/borderlands/geek fiction.

Anyway, I think tinker is a really good modern substitute for the old meaning of hacker. I think we just ought to give up on "hacker," because it's too late. We should just be tinkers and be done with the arguing.

So what is a tinker? A tinker is someone who is curious about how things work, and isn't afraid to break them to figure it out, who can put things back together in strange, unexpected ways, use things in ways that they weren't intended. A tinker is impatient with externally-imposed restrictions to learning. A tinker doesn't accept anything important at face value - if it's important, it's worth understanding. A tinker may have strange ideas of what is important. A tinker likes to share what he or she creates - to pass on what he or she has learned. A tinker never, ever cooperates with someone who wishes to prevent some kinds of tinkering. A tinker takes personal responsibility for making the world a better place. A tinker doesn't make the mistake of thinking he or she is always right.

Could it work? I don't know.


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