Friday, January 15, 2010
Being an outsider
Last evening I sat across a physicist and a mathematician and watched them discuss clusterings of Wikipedia editors based on edit behaviour. Snatches of familiar but meaningless phrases hit my ears. Markov chains. Undirected graphs. Distances. Eventually the physicist squealed in delight and said she had won a bet with the mathematician. I nodded. Then they said “computationally expensive” and I took my cue and pointed out that for an extended period of revision history, one could take a given revision and consider that editor’s other edits only within a small window rather than across the entire period. That would cut clutter from the dataset and allow long term analysis. We only need to agree on what the window’s size should be. We could even come up with a way to identify a pair of editors responding to each other, as against working independently to contribute new material or clean up a page.
And thereby having said something intelligent, I sat back and watched their faces again, slipping back into incomprehension. We parted agreeing to keep in touch on the new ideas, but I’m at a loss to tell you exactly what the new ideas are. Their math makes no sense to me, for I’m an outsider: the chap butting his way into a discipline claiming to have some solutions, but with no understanding of the fundamentals.
The previous day I had a most fascinating conversation with one of the presenters at WikiWars, the significance of whose insight was again wasted on me. He talked of Edward Said and Satyajit Ray, of the latter’s biography on Wikipedia, the trouble with too many of the citations referring to a single biographer, and of how that could be understood in the context of Said’s work. He recommends Said’s Culture and Imperialism. I can feel the warmth from a dim bulb glowing somewhere.
He asked about me. I said I’ve spent the last few years in the rural development space. “Fooled around,” is more like it, for I went into the space armed with claims of pioneering web development experience and programming prowess, and found the most intense technical task they had was to install an operating system, open a web browser, point it at a government website, and explain to all parties concerned whose fault it was that the page wasn’t loading. Day-to-day life revolved around the size of the cash float, which investor was willing to fund it, scheduling meetings with the ISP for CEO-to-CEO face-offs on how a screenshot of our bandwidth consumption was insufficient, and visiting the very abrasive government bureaucrat to assure him that I did indeed have top-notch programmers working full time to bring him his daily report. Stick some Python in there to make it all better, will ya?
Which is why when I met the geeky young man working towards a PhD in agriculture, you will understand why I begged him to recommend a book that explained all this. There has to be some intelligence in this chaos, but I’m too much of an outsider to spot it.
I’m a programmer, I keep telling myself. I write code. Good code. Fast code. All these people waving their arms and speaking a strange dialect of English need me because, on the internet, code talks like nothing else. I can sit cluelessly around them, bewildered even, knowing that in the end someone will turn to me and ask if I can help.
Conversations move on. An hour later, at another location, the physicist says she’s working on a doctoral thesis. I say that nearly everyone in my life has a PhD or is working on one. I would have been too, if it wasn’t such a long, circuitous route. How am I going to justify trekking all the way through undergrad at this age just to get to the interesting bits? In academia, I’m the ultimate outsider. I’ve never been through any of their systems, turn up as this chap that no one is quite sure how to engage with, and yet have gained entry to more than one of their circuits and even published papers. The geek hat does carry one far.
The geek hat is also suspected. Bangalore’s ruined by the techies, they wail. I’ve been to endless meetings on problems that wouldn’t exist if they used Firefox instead of Internet Explorer, or something as trivial, except the Mozilla Foundation isn’t making an offer to fund a major e-governance project. I keep my mouth shut. People in the habit of routinely shooting at feet will eventually shoot their own, and then they won’t turn up at the next meeting. Suspicion of techies and the biases behind their ideas carries all the way into the realm of the bizarre. At a music concert one evening, this dear old lady, proud of her daughter who wrote for an advertising supplement, didn’t ask what I did. She didn’t want bad news. She simply said “don’t tell me you’re a techie.” A friend jumped to my defence, pointing to the camera and explaining that I was a photographer. I played along, for revealing that you’re a techie generally tends to make life more expensive in these parts, and I was foraying into yet another new discipline. A few years have passed and I’ve clicked much. Today I no longer wield a camera but still wear the geek hat.
At dinner last, the wikipedian from Taiwan made conversation. He had helped launch a minority language Wikipedia that the official system of language Wikipedias wouldn’t recognise and had successfully lobbied for its inclusion. He wanted to interview me for the wikipedians back home. As a local Wikipedia editor, how did I relate to the English language Wikipedia? But wait, me representing the local editors? With just a hundred odd edits on my account when the local chapter had editors with 50,000+ edits? I made the call to another (real) Wikipedian asking if he was in the neighbourhood. He suggested I go ahead anyway since I was a valid rep.
Later still, the Taiwanese wikipedian asked that fatal question: “So, what do you do?” I responded with the one-liner I reserve for such occasions. “I’m a programmer, I write code.” He pointed at my shirt. “You work for Yahoo?” No, I said, “that’s just a conference t-shirt.” I then attempted a weak explanation of my rural development stint.
The truth is, in the eleven plus years of my working life I’ve never worked at a software house, have never attended a computer class, and have no certifications. I wrote code through the ’90s, code and little else, telling everyone I was going to be a “software developer” when I grew up, and ultimately falling out of the academic system. But when it came to going to work, did I do the expected thing and join a software house? No, sir, I went into print publishing. What one does first sets the template, and this one sure did. I’ve put my foot into all manner of disciplines other than computer science, playing the saviour who produces the code, but bearing no certifications. I could afford it because I had put in my 10,000 hours already. After that much exposure, learning becomes automatic and incremental. I haven’t looked at a technology guide book in over a decade because I don’t need to. The book on my bedside today is on law. The one below it on film studies.
An increasingly ragged hat
My expeditions into new disciplines have gotten deeper and longer over the years, but they’ve also taken me farther away from the primary identity I’ve defined for myself. The last major piece of code I wrote was in 2002. Everything since has been relatively minor scripting. My open source code contribution track record is astonishingly sparse. I’ve gained proficiency at just one new programming language in the ’00s, down from five in the ’90s. I regularly encounter bewildering new technical constructs these days. It’s bad enough to feel like retirement.
I’m slowly, but surely, being ejected from the one discipline I considered myself an insider at. What’s one to do?
I suppose this is the part where life gets really interesting.