Sunday, March 28, 2010

You're weird. I like you.

Yes, dear listener, I'm talking to you. How do I know you're weird? You'd have to be to read my blog. How do I know I like you? Because you're about to click the Google Ads just up above and earn me 31c or so.

Now that I've got that over, let's work out exactly what kind of weird person you are. There's plenty - but I'm just going to talk about engineers, geeks, nerds and dorks.

For the sake of listeners in the American Colonies, I have draw a line between engineers and engine drivers. It's true that back in the 1830s engines were so complicated that only engineers could drive them. But that went out with the railway boom of the 1850s. Now, onwards.

An engineer is someone who applies known rules of physics to solve problems for which there is no known solution - for instance, building a bridge where nobody has built a bridge before. There's no answers in the back of the book to say how thick the steel and concrete have to be, engineers have to work that out for themselves. They can measure distance, simulate forces and test the strength of the materials, but nobody can tell them how to build the bridge, they have to work it out for themselves.

Or on a smaller scale, an engineer might be assigned to design a cheaper toaster - one with fewer and simpler parts, but still directing the heat towards the toast and not towards the hands of its operator. The convection of heat is a known concept and the engineer has to apply the rules to any design they think up. But thinking up the design is something the engineer has to do for themselves.

A true engineer can only be frustrated by one thing - a felt problem which they are unable to solve. For instance, most engineers are completely at a loss for anything to say when they visit an aged care facility. All the patients' bodies are full of felt problems, but nothing can be done about them. Sympathy isn't easy for them to express, only hope. The embarrassment is not so obvious in hospitals, where people can recover with careful treatment (surgery, while not allowing an engineer scope for as much imagination as bridge building or toaster design, is similarly precise and beneficial, and appeals to the engineering mind).

The frustration is especially felt when the problem is a solvable one which is only unsolvable due to some piece of red tape. This includes any excuse which involves the words "intellectual property", "privacy", "equal opportunity", "commercial in confidence" or any other such weasel words. To the engineer, information should be completely free and open, because only then can it be used for the good of humanity. The engineer lives to solve problems and make people's lives better, and the thought of using free and open information to harm people is completely foreign to them. The fact that there are people who will misuse information is the "elephant in the kitchen" that they try to ignore because paying it too much attention (like western society does today) will completely destroy their ability to do anything at all, leaving them a purposeless, and unemployed, existence.

Geeks and engineers overlap significantly. Many professional engineers have the characteristics of geeks, and many geeks do engineering work for fun. The reason is simple - engineers' lives are ruled by the rules (if you'll excuse the pun) - the laws of physics, the properties of the substances they work with, etc. Geeks' lives are dedicated to finding out what the rules are.

We normally associate the word geek with computing - a teenage boy might be described by his mother as "a real computer geek" when he spends his free time experimenting with various settings and programs on the computer. Let's look at that situation a bit closer.

We have to presume that the computer is a working system to start with. It does what the operator requires of it. What motivates the geek to start experimenting? It might be an engineering streak which wonders whether there's a better way of doing a task which is already being done - or it may be a geeky streak which just wants to know for the sake of knowing.

Geeks have an insatiable appetite for information. They want to know what can be done, how things work, how far something can be pushed without ill consequences - even if there's no possible prospect that the information would be useful to them personally at any time.

This can apply in any field at all. A domestic appliance geek might experiment with the operation of a heater unit and determine which design would do a better job of heating a room. An office equipment geek might spend a month of Sundays testing combinations of different brands of staples and staplers with various loads to see which gives the most trouble-free operation. A hardware geek might build a second tool shed to do scientifically rigorous testing to see whether high quality tools are worth the extra price, taking duty cycle and maintenance level into account.

Another significant trait of geeks is that once they know what the rules are, they set a value on them. If a rule is set by the laws of nature, it's of very high value, because you can't break them, they break you. If it's recommended by the manufacturer to avoid heat-related damage to a product, it's as valuable as the product (minus the margin for error the geek assumes the manufacturer has built in to the rule). If it's set by the PC brigade to avoid embarrassing a minority group, it's probably of very little value indeed - not that geeks disdain minority groups (hey, they ARE a minority group!), but they see no value in a tokenist rule which they understand to only entrench differences rather than smooth them over. And like engineers, geeks detest any rule that is made purely to protect an entrenched commercial interest or anything else that puts the good of a few above the good of everyone.

This is particularly true of social rules and conventions. Embarrassment is not an unknown concept to the geek, but they usually run it past the value test - the same as they do for rules. Most responsible adults be embarrassed to be found playing with Lego - why? Just because it's something kids do? Not a good enough reason. If there's something to be learned by it, the geek will play with Lego. Most people don't wear pocket protectors - why? It's more fashionable to replace a whole piece of clothing worth $100 than a pocket protector worth $10? Not a good enough reason either. And that brings us to the next category.

Nerds are an extreme and yet inferior form of geeks. They have all (and more) of the disregard for social rules and conventions, but much less of the intense logic that gives true geeks their strength.

What's unusual is that the logic is still there - in parts. The true nerd will harp on for hours about how some new move is illogical and fundamentally flawed. They will, however, totally ignore many glaring logical flaws in their own thinking and life.

They also have very little of the selflessness of the geek - rather than working for the good of the community (eg by seeking out rules and formulas and publishing them to save other people the trouble of finding them), they treat information as a badge of success, to be guarded jealously as a form of "cred". They will happily bore a non-nerd to death with an in-depth description of some obscure area which they have been researching, partially out of ignorance (to them, anything less than a slap in the face means the listener is completely rivetted by the conversation) but mainly to show off their knowledge and ability.

The other major difference is that a nerd is fairly lazy compared to a geek. Where a geek will be suddenly inspired to explore some new avenue of study at every stage of their life, a nerd will be content to do nothing outside the barest minimum to keep alive.

The nerd is, however, not completely unrecoverable. Social interaction, while detestable to them, is necessary for the cure. It should be administered gently - beginning with a very small group of geeks and engineers who are experts in their favourite subject. Once they have accepted a working relationship, a social one can be embarked upon. This should be taken in very easy stages, at all times returning to the safe haven of nerdy work-related interaction before any damage can be done. Gradual increases in the size of the nerd's circle of friends (assuming them to be carefully selected for suitability as role models) will eventually see them converted to a geek.

And now we descend to...

This is not a pleasant subject to examine closely. Just as the nerd is a flawed edition of the geek, the dork is an extreme nerd with all the remaining nice bits taken out and nothing remaining except laziness and social ineptitude.

A dork is usually unrecoverable once they have reached adulthood. The problem is really an indifference to the feelings of other people. The dork doesn't care that nobody wants to hear how he killed a fly with a rubber band after eight years of practice. To avoid raising dorky kids, instil in them the basic rules of consideration for others and give them lots of practice listening to people.

How to be an engineer
Obviously the best type of weirdo to be is the engineer. To be one, you will need a brain that can catalogue facts and recall them when required - this is something that can be learned but takes a lot of effort. You will also need a good imagination, and the ability to run a "sanity check" on every idea you come up with before publishing it. To be a really great engineer, you'll need to optimise this process to increase your throughput.

Of course we can't all be engineers, some of us can only be geeks. But that's nothing to be ashamed of - be a good geek. Study for the sake of knowing things. Contribute to the sum of human knowledge, in whatever small way you can. Don't forget, all knowledge comes useful at some point. Make the world a better place!