Friday, September 18, 2015

Nerds Unite - Standing with Ahmed, for Tech and for Passion

This week's social media storm (there always seems to be one) was about the saga of one Ahmed Mohammed, 14 year old student in Texas. As I'm sure you're aware, Ahmed was taken from his class, questioned by the principle, and arrested by the police because school administrators were too racist to think that a Muslim boy could have electronics for any reason on than a bomb scare and the cops were too stupid to see that the thing he had was just a clock. Yes, I do have a slight bias towards the young student and against the administrators and teachers and police. What brought joy to my heart was the outpouring of support Ahmed received from the tech world including Mark Zuckerberg,

Commander Hadfield) and the political world - all the way up the President of the United States.

That said, there are things that make me quite sad. First, there's the reminder that we still have a long way to go in terms of diversity in the tech sector; when I attend industry events, I see an awful lot of white men. This kind of anti-encouragement isn't going to help. For every Ahmed whose story resonates across the world, I'm sure there are scores of hidden Ahmed's we don't see: the ones whose passions are quietly discouraged or quietly ignored until they stop caring and stop loving the things they love. That's the element of this about which I want to talk today: about passion and about the element of the all-too-predictable backlash against Ahmed about which I'm the most disappointed.

Fred Shen (the Shen of Shen, Milsom and Wilke) has said that one thing he's learned in his decades of business is that a positive attitude is more important than knowledge, experience, or most anything else. I'll add passion as one of those elements of attitude; people will do their best, learn the most, and accomplish the most in endeavours about which they care. This is why I adore my friends in the #AVTweeps community; someone who goes to work, does his job, and then logs onto twitter to talk about his industry is someone really interested who really cares. It's someone who will go the extra kilometer because they feel the joy in a thing well done, because they want to learn, perhaps even to show off a bit for their peers. It's the spirit of a kid who wants to learn more about electronics so he assembles a clock from spare parts to bring to his teachers, to show them "look what I'm doing. I want to do more of this." This is the call that nerd-twitter was answering - that we have our passions as well and do not wish to stand by and see the joy in learning, in doing snuffed out. Who doesn't understand this? The police. They've been soundly mocked (justifiably so) for not knowing what a clock is. What bothered me most was the statement from police spokesperson James McLennan that Ahmed maintained that it was a clock but was unable to give a "broader explanation" as to what it would be used for. Setting aside the obvious answer that clocks are used to tell the time, the broader implication to me is this: the police don't understand what all of us do. They don't understand doing a thing simply to find joy in doing, and further joy in sharing. They have no passion. They walk, yet they are dead inside.

This brings me to the people who should know better: the nerdier-than-thou techdude gatekeepers who want to dismiss Ahmed as "not a real maker" because what he did is, to them, not all that impressive. They've see pictures of the infamous clock and pointed out, perhaps accurately, that the clockish parts which make it work appear to be repurposed rather than created from individual components. It's a cake from a mix, it's a shortcut. It is, to some "not real nerdery". My answer to that is twofold. First, we all start somewhere with the tools and guidance available to us. Remember what Fred Shen said last paragraph: the kids who disassembles and reassembles devices because they loves to tinker with them will, in the end, likely travel farther than the ones who solders at the component level because they are forced to. Ahmed as the passion, he has the attitude. The rest of is is just stuff. He'll learn the stuff - if the love isn't beaten out of him first.

The second thing is that I'm an AV System designer.  There are some on the AV contracting side who will implement the systems which I design. We've all read the technical musings and heard podcast  appearances, for example, from Crestron programmer Hope Roth. Does she get fewer "techie points" because she doesn't design the hardware and didn't create her programming tools from raw assembly language, or can we honor the art in what she does and the passion for the task she has?

I, of course, design systems at the component level; I have some idea of how the parts work, but I don't build them. Over the past years I've spent literally hours talking to people like, for example, Paul Harris of Aurora Multimedia about potential new products and new product categories. My advice if you stop by the Aurora booth at a trade show? Make sure you have plenty of time, because Harris can talk about his products, the challenges in creating them, and their potential with the enthusiasm of a true fanatic. So... does he and his ilk get all the nerd points, or do we want to shrug and point out that they're just implenting FPGAs which do the heavy lifting of video encoding and packetization. Or point out that the FPGA makers are using already-invented video codecs and network topologies?

A bit of personal history: my most fondly remembered High School tech project was a digital voice recorder. It lived in a home-made plexiglass box about a foot and a half wide by three feet long, contained a mess of hand-soldered circuit boards including a timing circuit (which I had some help designing) and a whole mess of hard-wired logic gates to control start/stop functions, to set variable sample rates, and to handle the refresh cycle on the dynamic RAM chips I used. It helped, of course, that as the son of an electrical engineer I had access to not only a mentor but a basement full of tools, supplies, and test equipment. Today, of course, none of the nuts-and-bolts lessons make all that much sense; logic which was hard-wired in 1988 would live on a microprocessor now. It's the experience - taking a thing and turning into another thing, seeing and feeling a creation come to life - which shines the brightest in my memory. That's the experience for which Ahmed and so many others are reaching.

Hipster-nerd gatekeeping, at its worst.
This is why I'm upset to see fellow tech geeks shrug him off as not really one of us, his clock as a "mere" case-mod not worthy of respect. The worst comment I was was from Chris Putnam, a  former Facebook engineer who should know better. From his social media post and general bitch-fest about the topic:

For those who don't know, Putnam famously hacked Facebook to make people's profiles take on the appearance of MySpace pages. Perhaps because he was a young, white male college student the college-educated young, white, males running the place ended up offering him a job where he was instrumental in some major improvements to the platform. He didn't, of course, invent his own facebook from the ground up. I'm angry at his sad, cruel, belittling commentary because it does the same thing Ahmed's teachers are doing: discourage a young man from further participation by sending the message that he doesn't belong. It's gatekeeping, it's exclusionary, and it's counterproductive. In some ways it's worse than the teachers because, coming from inside the tech community  it could carry extra weight with not only Ahmed but with any other kids just starting to tinker.

Watch below as Putnam goes from nasty attacks to mean-spirited mockery on his Facebook page. It's not pretty watching a successful adult bullying a 14 year old just starting out in his field.

I don't know what Ahmed will grow up to be; if he'll create new generations of hardware, find new ways to implement existing tech, or even if his passions turn a different route and he becomes an artist or a poet or something. I'd like to think that, professionally or not, he'll carry his love for things tech throughout his life, even if only as a hobby. Whether he does or not, he'll always remember the joy of taking apart and rebuilding, and he'll always have this moment in which the larger community told him that we see his passion and in it recognize a reflection of our own. That we love him, that we honor him, that he belongs with us.

So Ahmed and all of you other Ahemd's out there, keep doing what you're doing. Don't ever let anyone tell you that it isn't enough. If you have the chance and want to, learn more and go farther. In any event, find your niche.

And you gatekeepers out there, the Chris Putnam's of the world, remember your roots. Learn empathy, learn humility. Welcome the next generation with open arms and open minds, even if their path does not match your.s

Monday, September 14, 2015

On reading The Shephard's Crown, Farewell to the Disc


On reading The Shephard's Crown, Terry Pratchett's postumously-published and very last ever Discworld novel, I'd like to take a few moments to reflect on the forty-one books which have come before, as well as give a brief review of this final chapter in the saga. Pratchett is an author who was quite important to me, and one whose work in humorous fantasy gave, perhaps, two strikes against him in any effort to be taken seriously. This is a pity, as his work could be as deep, moving, and interesting as any straight literary fiction. He gave us memorable characters who grew over the decades and will remain in our memories long after the final page is turned.
The very last one. 

I read the novels pretty much in publication order, beginning in the early 1990s with 1983s The Color of Magic in which the Discworld was intrduced along with some soon-to-be recurring characters: Cohen the elderly barbarian warrior, Rincewind the cowardly (and not too competent) wizard, the wizards of the Unseen University (including the orangutan serving as their librarian) and, of course, Death. It was a little bit of a one-note lighthearted romp, but quite a fun one which set the stage for many, many more adventures to come. While Rincewind was a fun character, he wasn't really one of Prachett's best in that his personality was fairly one-dimensional: he was a cowardly wizard. That sentence (and his sad habit of writing "wizzard" on his hat so people knew what he was) tells you nearly all you need know about him. Other characters faired better, telling us more about themselves, growing, and even surprising us a bit in ways which, while unexpected, still fit what we'd seen before. In the "city watch" set of books we meet lazy Fred Colon and his partner "Nobby" Nobs along with one of the heroes of the series, Commander Sam Vimes of the nightwatch. The early Vimes books were absolutely delightful in giving us a flawed yet good-hearted character struggling to do the right thing despite a system which rarely rewards righteousness. We watched Vimes struggle with alcoholism, watched him have to face his prejudices and biases, saw him struggle with protocol when elevated to higher levels of society both in the job and as a result of his marriage into the aristocracy. We saw the conflict develop between the by-the-book honest to a fault Vimes and his boss, the patrician of the city Lord Vetinari. Vetinari describes himself as a tyrant, but a just one. What was best about the early city watch books was that one never really knew what Vetinari would do, never felt that one could trust him. It was a battle between the man on the street and the boss upstairs who needed to engage in certain amounts of manipulation and scheming to keep his position and, hopefully, have the city run smoothly. It was a great set of stories which brought us diversity (as the Watch added dwarves, trolls, and even a werewolf), intrigue, and, at times, victory at a real cost. When the watch faced a killer armed with the Discworld's first gun the final battle cost them one of their own and nearly took the life of another. There were real consequences and a feeling that anything could happen.

That feeling, alas, did not last through the entire series. Vimes in particular lingered on the stage long after his story was, to my way of seeing, over. No longer did you have the struggles of a flawed hero who at times felt over his head,  but you instead had a supercop - honest to a fault, deadly competent, and knowing that he had the full backing of those in power. The ambiguity surrounding Vetinari fell away, leaving us a tyrant in name only who we could trust to never do anything bad to someone about whom we cared. In Raising Steam there was a scene with Vimes, a disguised Vetinari, and others guarding a train against religious zealots. In contrast with the battle over the gun, there was no death of a friend new or old, no price to be paid, and little feeling of menace. Nor did anyone ever seem tempted or in danger of doing the wrong thing. Pratchett was always at his best writing about flawed and somewhat ordinary people. As his characters became less so and he perhaps fell a bit too much in love with them the writing suffered a bit.

This brings us to the witches. The witches - Magrat, Agnes who calls herself Perditax, Nanny Ogg and, most importantly, Granny Weatherwax were wonderful characters. We dealt with a young woman who was a better fit for the world of wizards than witches (in 1987's Equal Rites) and many stories of the senior witches being practical, no-nonsense, decent and somewhat nosy old ladies who kept their part of the world running smoothly. Granny Weatherwax was a hero, but also a very parochial self-righteous busybody. When she went travelling with Ogg and the stars-in-her-eyes young Magrat - a woman who saw witchcraft more in occult jewelry and mysticism than in the small practical miracles by which the older witches lived - she seemed a bit out of place and not altogether comfortable. When Weatherwax and Ogg joined Agnes-who-calls-herself-Perditax (another case of a character trying to reinvent herself) her downhome no-nonsense country wisdom IS to her advantage, but she still seems like a bit of a fish out of water. As the books go on, however, Weatherwax becomes nearly perfect. She does more magic than she did in earlier stories. She makes fewer mistakes. She seems less parochial and, like Vimes, more perfect. Her story - in any meaningful sense - has been over for quite a few books now.

Now that it is finished, a last
pleasure remains: sharing with the
next generation
This brings us to The Shepard's Crown and the shocking events of chapter three. In quite a moving sequence (one of the best written in the book, in this reader's opinion) Granny Weatherwax dies. Her final moments are fitting for her practical, no-nonsense manner; she cleans her cottage, prepares a wicker basket to serve as her casket (it's easy and inexpensive to make; Weatherwax was always frugal), bathes, pins up her hair, gets dressed, and lies down to sleep for the last time. 

It's a change which, for the books, would have been a great improvement in that the vacuum left behind by Weatherwax leaves some nice empty space into which other characters can step. We already see this in the remainder of The Shepard's Crown as Tiffany tries to step into the considerable shoes left by the newly departed. We see her struggling to find her own way and, ultimately, make decisions which would have rippled through the world had it continued.

Was the book perfect? No. It's clear that Sir Terry left it as a work in progress, and equally clear that the decision was made to publish as-is rather than have another writer pad it a bit and flesh out the parts that seem rushed and somewhat incomplete. 

The Tiffany Aching books have not only been the best of the later Discworld novels, but they might have held the key to revitalizing the larger series. I mourn not only for Sir Terry, not only for the end of a beloved series, but for all the many more stories which will now remain untold.