Thursday February 25th
Adventures in Block World
Sometimes I go back and forth
- Sometimes, I go back and forth about whether I really am an engineer. It reminded me of a panel I moderated last year, where I accidentally referred to the speaker as Professor, and he said “I’m not a professor; I’m a hacker” in a thick French accent.
- Yes, a hacker, that’s more like it. I came to tech because of play; something pulled my interest away and I fell down a giant rabbit hole, and didn’t look back. And I love it.
- I was discussing with a friend that I was speaking with someone who wanted to pursue grad school, and who had come from a liberal arts background, like myself. One of the things I told him was that he is the perfect person for research. I was telling my friend that the liberal arts people who transition to technical fields are perfect for creative problem solving, because their minds are spared from the boxing that inevitably comes with too much of a STEM education, too early. Let me explain.
- STEM training, at the lower level, is essentially training to be an employee. Many of the persons I met later in life who were interested in engineering or science told me that they, too, were either hackers, became electrical engineers or roboticists out of tinkering with amps and modding them in high school, and many other wonderful and delightful stories. Some of them worked behind the scenes in theatre, dressed in black, or behind video cameras at their local station in high school. Some loved anime and wanted to work in animation. There was an element of play that led them to their passion.
This permeates into culture
- In my first grad school semester, someone told me that I couldn’t possibly know anything about a thing because it wasn’t my specialization. It was the first time in a long time I had been confronted again with the “you can’t possibly know this” mindset. Hearing “you’re a such-and-such” person is one of the most disheartening things I can ever hear. This is an example of the training and the mindset that is a result of not encouraging creative problem-solving, or an openness to solve complex problems. I’ve been thinking deeply about this, and wonder why I often don’t believe in this ideology. I’ve come up with a few explanations
- I moved away from this in undergrad, deliberately choosing a field that was based on an expectation of being both technical and creative. I also came from a region where we are not given the privilege of the expectation of just doing one thing. Often, someone sees a need or a skillset that is lacking, learns as best they can, and gives it a shot. When I worked in the video industry in my country of birth, there was no such thing as a “set electrician”. They hired someone who was an actual electrician, figuring out that he already liked the job and since it was a budding new industry, they might as well give him a shot (he was more than qualified anyways). Additionally, I stuck to fields that encouraged that kind of openness; the kind of field where someone would need help, pull you aside and say “hey kid, I’m going to teach you how to fix this thing. Watch me first and then you try it.” I had similar experiences in sailing. There wasn’t “you don’t have the experience” or “you’re not the expert don’t touch anything”. It was more “this needs to get done; let’s give you a shot”. Coincidentally, these tend to be new fields, or fields where a large enough breakthrough is on the verge of happening, because people haven’t figured out “the jobs” or “occupations” yet. That’s something worth thinking about. Innovation vs Maintenance.
- I remember speaking with my parents just a weekend ago. My dad mentioned that when they met my professors in Undergrad, they were in a state of shock about me, but gushing to my parents about me. Their biggest shock was that they didn’t know where I had come from, how I just “came out of nowhere”, and blew everyone out of the water. They just couldn’t understand how I had just come out of nowhere, curiously sat in their classes, not necessarily needing to be there, soaking everything up like a sponge. Coincidentally, I don’t remember any of these kinds of things, but it made me smile. Sometimes, it takes the world a while to catch up. Today, I am grateful for the people who had that vision and talent to see something in me before everyone else caught on.
- In terms of general curiosity, I haven’t changed, but I’d like to think that by doing this, I had changed some assumptions people had about me.
I’ve been wandering through a new world
- I’ve currently been involved in a few new ventures, where I’m often the only person like myself. But I’m of the belief that the culture of the community, if it’s good, is enough to hold me. When I’m into a thing, it doesn’t matter if I know nothing about it, or if I stick out; if they are happy to have me and someone is willing to take the time and has the patience to teach me, I’ll eventually stick around long enough to learn a thing. Heck, I may even become incredibly engrossed in the thing and become really good at it. So that’s what it feels like right now. It overlaps a lot with my research, and it definitely seems like the direction I’d like to go, so I’m sticking with it.
- I’ve been up at really early hours in the morning, on Discord servers, and have made so many new friends. We’re all misfits, but we are among friends. We are curious to bring with us bits of who we are to this new world, where there are no rules besides sharing knowledge, learning, and giving back to our community. We are escaping block land, the place that tells us “we can’t”, because we lack some arbitrary privilege.
- One of the things I loved when I first moved to California was that the lines were a lot more arbitrary. You never knew where you could end up. A friend of mine started out after a music degree, falling in love with rockets, and went back to school for physics. We met at a workshop at NASA, and he changed his major to electrical engineering, and today he continues to work on that stuff, at a startup in the Bay area. What if someone had told him along the way that he lacked some arbitrary privilege?
- Hate or love this country, but one of the beautiful things about it is that it’s truly for the curious-minded. Anyone can buy a thing online, order a kit, go to an electronics store and try out a new thing. Quarantine has been a gold-mine for DIY-ers and introverts. This weekend, I’m taking a wifi pen-testing workshop with a bunch of hackers, as one example. During the week, I do lots of similar stuff, hopping from virtual coast to coast. Heck, one of my friends from film and another from architecture recently asked me about coding. What if I had been like that person at the start of my grad school? No. I just told them about a couple places people have found useful, and told them if there was anything I could ever do to help, please feel free to reach out. These are my friends, and this is my community. People move in and out. They’re human and they may have a tiny idea, and they just need the right tools, the right insight, to solve it, to make a breakthrough that can impact lots of people. Who am I to deny this?
- I think people figure it out along the way, so I don’t think it’s my place to tell someone, if they feel like at this time, at this moment, this is where they should be. It’s funny considering that tech talks about people like Jobs all the time, but dismiss that he found himself, arbitrarily, taking a calligraphy class.
- This semester I’m taking 3 different classes (2 for credit and one auditing) that are from three completely different departments, but they all overlap with my focus, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. They make me think deeply about my field in completely different ways. This week, one of the TAs presented work they had published and it blew my mind, the way they had turned a problem inside out, in an effort to think about it in a different way. And that’s what I find so valuable about the class. The professor always challenges my assumptions.
- Yet, a lot of these fields still put people in boxes, dictating what they can and cannot do based on a piece of paper or an input in a form. Coming from a place that lacked so many choices, where we were dabbling in things we didn’t know were even things people would just do as a tiny subset of a field for an entire career, I have to say it still feels weird. I still feel like an imposter. I guess you can say that like my French friend, I am, at heart, still a hacker. Not a scientist, not an engineer, not an artist. All of them, while being none of them.
And that’s it
Written on February 25, 2021