Sculpting brains

               I’ve read something once, can’t remember where, that made a profound impact on my way of thinking. Up until then I was what you may call (well, at least I have) a big dumb bastard. Hell, yea. It all started when I found myself nose to nose with a 286. I might be wrong, but those didn’t have (big) hard disks, and whatever we typed there was saved on floppy disks – which is why even now, after decades, the ALT-F-S key combination is so stuck in my muscle memory I sometimes do it every 20 seconds even when using a web-browser. But that’s not the point. The thing is, I always thought of those things as something out of magic – they do whatever the hell they want regardless of what I write as code or batch commands. DOS for the win. It was like a scene from brit dry humor, I didn’t know what I was doing and also didn’t want to know – even worse, nobody else knew. All a big mystery to me. Then came the 386 variant. With a bit bigger hard disks – kids these days have more space on their smartphones than we did on our PC-s. Also with some games (o yea, the good days – Dune, Warcraft 1, X-COM, Orion and so on) my fellow students brought around – which our supervisors promptly deleted on sight. Eheh, like that was going to stop us. So we learned, first to hide games from them and in time, even how to make our own games. Rather big transition from a knuckle dragging Neanderthal to a light-sensitive pale geek, innit? What changed? Well, for one thing, I managed to read somewhere there is hidden meaning in everyday objects – unless we figure it out we can’t learn properly. It’s one thing to learn mechanically, without understanding what it is we learn, and quite another to truly understand the concept and find ways to adapt what we learn to other fields. It’s still learning, but just not that useful.

               What is a^2=b^2+c^2? A theorem, innit? An equation? But what does it mean, what does it show us? The length of a diagonal in a rectangle? The hypotenuse in a 90 degree triangle? The magnitude of a vector in 2D space (Cartesian coords)? Apparently all of the above. That’s the point. If I learn the formula above is the Pythagorean theorem, which says “the square of the hypotenuse in a 90 degree triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides”, without understanding what it means, then when I’m asked about say the magnitude of a vector I’ll just be stumped. I won’t connect triangles with Cartesian x/y sets. If I think this theorem only applies to triangles, I’ve lost. I’ll win at the memory game and fail at logic (actual thing, that one stays with you) – which is why I don’t put much stock on today’s model of education (or my day’s model).

               So I stopped thinking of those machines as something with a will of their own and started making them bow down to me. All hail Hydra! Mwahahaha.

               The thing I want to point out is I’m not that smart. I’ve changed plenty of jobs over the years, regardless of what my education was. I’ve worked in fields so different sometimes I had to start from the very bottom. I was a manager for a few years. I was also unemployed, once or twice. I worked in agriculture. In finance. I designed chemistry and physics software visual aids for teachers. I did some security work for the government (not that kind, easy there fella, I did IT security – which involves no muscles and/or sunlight). I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe. I’ve counted chickens, cows. I’ve watched tractors. I’ve measured diesel. I’ve used a broom. I’ve caught thieves, I’ve documented theft. I’ve given loans to companies, to individuals. I’ve hacked a city hall’s Red Hat system as proof-of-concept to secure it – and I’ve also secured it on a contract. I’ve sold insurance. I’ve relearned math, physics. I do have some nasty stuff to tell kids these days, even if they don’t believe me. Also I’ve been fired, I’ve been unemployed and I’ve been kicked around when I was down. I’ve moved a lot, worked a lot. Enough of this, anyway. I’ve done and seen things, which ought to count for me not taking shit from anyone, at least. I’ve got a damaged back to prove it, too. If I’m going down, I’m doing it on my own terms.

               The problem was re-educating myself. Finding the right thing for me. That stuff I’ve read was truly eye-opening and mind-blowing. Too many people think intelligence counts. Sure it does, if you want to win the Nobel prize in math or physics. Otherwise you haven’t got much competition there. The real competition is for people who are complacent, who don’t think and don’t want to think. For those who are afraid to become more. I’ve had people with master’s degree working for me as cashiers. I’ve seen actual security guys (big, hulking ones) with degrees in engineering. They were content. I wasn’t. After so much up and down I’ll say this, nothing you own is secure, nothing is safe – except what’s in your head – that’s your only wealth. Nobody but a trauma to the head can take that away from you. But you got to do it the smart way.

               It takes time (try a decade and more for me, and I ain’t done yet) to teach yourself new tricks, especially if you’re married, working full time, and with a kid or three, all requiring constant attention. Hell, people, there are always barriers to improving yourself. That’s why people stop doing it. I’ve been fortunate enough to understand there are things you can do without and things you can apply to every other work area. You can be a lawyer, but won’t use much of that elsewhere. You can be an accountant but if you move from say Ireland to say Romania all you learned will be obsolete – other laws, other rules. But learn math, physics, engineering, medicine – you’ll be able to use those anywhere on this planet. And their basics, you can use those too. You can use math in physics, you can use it in medicine, in psychology, all you need is to look around you and think for a minute. What makes the world tick? Law? Finance? Latin? Nope. Math. Physics. Medicine. Equations, particle interactions, forces and how those work. You want to know how to nail a chair together so it won’t come apart like when you’re using glue? Think. Learn. Use.

Post scriptum:

               I’ve remembered another thing from then – I started to think programming was fun, but school wasn’t. I say the same thing about math and physics now (and I was good at math up until high-school, when I lost it). Math is fun and easy (well most of it), our teachers screw things up. Well, that and also ourselves. We lose interest. We lose focus. We start believing those around us. We meet girls (or boys). We think we’re immortal. Well now, talk about a kick in the groin.


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