Saturday, September 17, 2011

You must hack

That imperative comes from Running Linux, a classic manual on the use of the Linux computer operating system. What it meant in context is that to take advantage of the full power of the OS, you can't just be a passive user, you must apply some ingenuity and use it actively and creatively, with a programmer's mindset. I was reminded of it when I was noticing in practicing and teaching just how little I use my materials for their intended purpose, and how much information I apply that is not on the page. I dove back into some of the old literature- I read a lot of this stuff when I was a daily Linux user from about 2000-2005- and was surprised to recall just how much it has influenced my thought process and writing style, and how well it applies to learning music and being a player in general. In fact, you could substitute "player" for hacker, and equivalent musical/musical community terms for much of what follows.

First, what hacking is and is not:
The terms cracking and hacking are often confused in popular usage. While cracking involves immoral or illegal behavior (such as compromising the security of a system), hacking is a generic word meaning to program, tinker with, or have an intense interest in something. The popular media often uses the term hacking to refer to cracking; the Linux community is trying to reassociate hacking with positive connotations.

The definition from the venerable Jargon File, a collection of hacker speech/writing conventions, terms, and slang:

hacker n.
1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. 2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming. 3. A person capable of appreciating hack value. 4. A person who is good at programming quickly. 5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in `a Unix hacker'. (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.) 6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example. 7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations. 8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence `password hacker', `network hacker'. The correct term for this sense is cracker.

Much more interesting stuff after the break:

It is better to be described as a hacker by others than to describe oneself that way. Hackers consider themselves something of an elite (a meritocracy based on ability), though one to which new members are gladly [reluctantly, in music] welcome. There is thus a certain ego satisfaction to be had in identifying yourself as a hacker (but if you claim to be one and are not, you'll quickly be labeled bogus). See also wannabee.

Players call themselves players all the time, so for that last paragraph you could swap the term "cat" for hacker/player- you want other people to say you are a cat, but calling yourself one is in poor form.

A couple of guidelines from Eric Steven Raymond's How To Be A Hacker, which apply to playing more loosely; problem-solving is not such a large part of playing music, though I do it a lot in teaching:

The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.
Being a hacker is lots of fun, but it's a kind of fun that takes lots of effort. The effort takes motivation. Successful athletes get their motivation from a kind of physical delight in making their bodies perform, in pushing themselves past their own physical limits. Similarly, to be a hacker you have to get a basic thrill from solving problems, sharpening your skills, and exercising your intelligence.
If you aren't the kind of person that feels this way naturally, you'll need to become one in order to make it as a hacker. Otherwise you'll find your hacking energy is sapped by distractions like sex, money, and social approval.
(You also have to develop a kind of faith in your own learning capacity a belief that even though you may not know all of what you need to solve a problem, if you tackle just a piece of it and learn from that, you'll learn enough to solve the next piece and so on, until you're done.)

Attitude is no substitute for competence.

[...]copping an attitude alone won't make you a hacker, any more than it will make you a champion athlete or a rock star. Becoming a hacker will take intelligence, practice, dedication, and hard work.

Therefore, you have to learn to distrust attitude and respect competence of every kind. Hackers won't let posers waste their time, but they worship competence especially competence at hacking, but competence at anything is valued. Competence at demanding skills that few can master is especially good, and competence at demanding skills that involve mental acuteness, craft, and concentration is best.

If you revere competence, you'll enjoy developing it in yourself the hard work and dedication will become a kind of intense play rather than drudgery. That attitude is vital to becoming a hacker.

 Peter Norvig's recipe for hacking success, from Teach Yourself Programming In Ten Years, is remarkably similar to the process for becoming a musician:

- Get interested in programming, and do some because it is fun. Make sure that it keeps being enough fun so that you will be willing to put in ten years.
 - Talk to other programmers; read other programs. This is more important than any book or training course.
 - Program. The best kind of learning is learning by doing. To put it more technically, "the maximal level of performance for individuals in a given domain is not attained automatically as a function of extended experience, but the level of performance can be increased even by highly experienced individuals as a result of deliberate efforts to improve." (p. 366) and "the most effective learning requires a well-defined task with an appropriate difficulty level for the particular individual, informative feedback, and opportunities for repetition and corrections of errors." (p. 20-21) The book Cognition in Practice: Mind, Mathematics, and Culture in Everyday Life is an interesting reference for this viewpoint.
If you want, put in four years at a college (or more at a graduate school). This will give you access to some jobs that require credentials, and it will give you a deeper understanding of the field, but if you don't enjoy school, you can (with some dedication) get similar experience on the job. In any case, book learning alone won't be enough. "Computer science education cannot make anybody an expert programmer any more than studying brushes and pigment can make somebody an expert painter" says Eric Raymond, author of The New Hacker's Dictionary. One of the best programmers I ever hired had only a High School degree; he's produced a lot of great software, has his own news group, and made enough in stock options to buy his own nightclub.
Work on projects with other programmers. Be the best programmer on some projects; be the worst on some others. When you're the best, you get to test your abilities to lead a project, and to inspire others with your vision. When you're the worst, you learn what the masters do, and you learn what they don't like to do (because they make you do it for them).
Learn at least a half dozen programming languages. Include one language that supports class abstractions (like Java or C++), one that supports functional abstraction (like Lisp or ML), one that supports syntactic abstraction (like Lisp), one that supports declarative specifications (like Prolog or C++ templates), one that supports coroutines (like Icon or Scheme), and one that supports parallelism (like Sisal).

Finally, from How To Become A Hacker:
To be a hacker you need motivation and initiative and the ability to educate yourself. Start now...

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