The quest for physicalityOriginally published 2005 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
Most nerds are starved for reality.
Grit. Vividness. Dirty nails and grazed knuckles.
Sure, the gadgetry involved is fun (the three great joys in life are sex, gadgets and dressing up; only sado-masochists and very advanced rock climbers get to do all three at once), but the real juice of the thing is the physicality of it. The creation of something you can pick up that does a job makes a darn nice change, no matter whether that job is generating power to run your house in the bush, or flying through the sky, or only categorisable as "whatever".
A brisk walk is my idea of strenuous exercise, but I still kind of miss having a real job.
Real jobs involve doing physical things with physical objects. Whether you're flipping burgers, selling books or painting hot rods, you've got things you can touch, kick and throw, and you're doing stuff with them.
I don't have a real job. My job, for the large majority of my working hours, involves sitting in a chair and pushing a mouse. I usually get to do things a lot more interesting and/or entertaining than the average cubicle zombie's activities, with the occasional detour into Junior Scientist territory - but the chair, mouse and lack of natural light are common factors.
It's pretty easy to tell when a fry-cook's working and when he's goofing off, but those of us who don't have real jobs can seem productive when we're actually just noding on Everything2, or something.
Every cubicle-jockey worth his or her salt knows that you can get away with doing pretty much anything as long as you don't look happy about it. That could be the definition of a non-real job, actually; the job ain't real if your boss can be looking right at you and, as long as he can't see your screen, think you're working, when you're actually watching Revenge of the Cybermen while playing NetHack In Space.
After the first decade or so of this, you kind of want to do something. Preferably involving power tools.
J. Random Nerd doesn't necessarily see any reason to start modifying his Corolla, but turning a boring beige business box into a disco-fever photon aquarium is quite another matter. It's a task of manageable dimensions, there's no (very) heavy lifting, most of what small risk there is comes in nice neat Dremel-branded packages, and the result is an actual physical work of creativity. Unlike that elegant tweak to the CMS that made it 23% faster under heavy load, but upon which nobody commented.
And then, there's under-pressure running repairs.
In one sense, it sucks when computers stop doing what they're meant to do. Your dominion over your silicon-based serfs is imperfect. Your space-time continuum is fractured. Your fragile nerdly masculinity, assuming you for biological and/or temperamental reasons have some, is threatened.
When that machine that kept quitting tasks at random, bluescreening, and blackscreening (in increasing order of impressiveness) suddenly starts behaving itself immaculately when you offload serving one directory of files to another system, kick its CPU voltage up 0.1V above stock, and Blu-Tack a new fan in pointing at the drive array, it's like figuring out a counter-intuitive problem in an Infocom game.
There's satisfaction to be had from participating in a really hard-fought multiplayer game, or from getting your file storage schemas really just so, or from finally getting the darn site to render perfectly in 16 different browsers. And we geeks can seek out new realities that mundanes can only dream of - MOOs, Roguelike games, 3D action titles projected over the whole wall, and of course the Zen of programming.
But you don't get the same satisfaction from looking at smoothly flowing LAN traffic as you get from looking at, say, your new scratchbuilt R/C warbird.
Especially since you know, for a fact, that the warbird has at least as many invisible faults as the LAN, which are similarly just waiting for the right combination of circumstances to deliver you into frustration. And possibly deliver the plane into the ground for immediate re-kitting.
When virtual reality finally goes all Gibsonian on us, fixing LANs will be this much fun.
In the meantime, though, that workbench in the garage is a sanity-saver.