Courage and curiosity

The installation guide to the popular Linux distribution Debian Linux includes a slightly scary term borrowed from electrical engineering to refer to the first time you start the computer after installing the operating system. It calls this first test run a smoke test. Originally, electrical engineers used the term smoke test in their building projects. For instance, after soldering components to a circuit board, they must then hook it up to the current. If the work has been done correctly, the circuit board operates as intended. If, on the other hand, there's a short circuit somewhere, the typical response would be for the soldered components to pop off the board and produce a wisp of smoke - a sure sign that the circuit board wasn't working.

Being immaterial, a computer program can't produce smoke, of course, but just the same the first time you start a computer with a newly installed operating system is always a moment of truth. It either works or it doesn't. The only way to find out is to try it.

Much like engineers, Linux programmers are driven by a burning sense of curiosity. For instance, they really want to know what new and fancy features Linus Torvalds' latest version of the Linux kernel will have, even before the kernel is complete. These unfinished Linux versions are called development versions, because they haven't yet reached the release stage. Although it's not recommended that you use them, they are just as available on the Internet as the officially released versions, and many a curious Linux user does come to use them before the final release.

Acting on this curiosity takes a kind of foolhardy courage, as there's always a risk in using an unstable development version of a new computer program. It may not work. And, particularly when the newly installed program is an entire operating system, there's always the risk that a malfunctioning program will tie your computer up in knots - such serious knots that you may lose all the data you had on your computer. Nonetheless, curiosity often wins out, and the eager user will disregard all risk and dull cautionary measures and give in to the irresistible temptation to try it out.

I was once given a laptop to work on but its battery was failing. I wanted to know if the battery was completely dead, or whether it was of the common sort that can keep a computer up and running for about five minutes before it finally conks out. Naturally, there are many ways to establish this, including, for example, sending the battery away to be serviced or borrowing a multimeter from an electrical engineer … or use another method which is by far the quickest and therefore the best way for me to satisfy my curiosity.

So, I pulled the plug on my laptop. It died instantly. Which was unfortunate because I'd forgotten to save the text I'd been writing. However, despite this setback, my curiosity had won and the test had told me immediately what I'd wanted to know: the battery was 100 per cent out of order.

It may seem odd to describe Linux developers as courageous. The stereotypical image we have of an average computer programmer is of someone who is very likely to be shy, cautious and quiet, a person of perpetual bad-hair days, wearing unfashionable glasses - a nerd. I'm not suggesting all programmers fit the stereotype, but Linux programmers are often as close as you can get to a real-life version of it. That's why it's so surprising that such a bunch of nerds could be considered brave, but the anecdote above does indicate that nerds, despite their tendency to be shy and cautious, are courageous when it comes to computers. Their curiosity about computers overcomes all caution and can transform the shyest nerd into a courageous pioneer.

So far, this book has portrayed the Linux community as an admirable model for us readers, but this section on courage might be where the shy nerds at the heart of that community have the most to learn from themselves.

Let's imagine, for instance, what would happen if a shy and cautious nerd is sitting alone at a table in the lunchroom at his college or place of work, when a beautiful woman he doesn't know sits down opposite him. The most likely scenario is that absolutely nothing would happen! The nerd would stare at his food, eat it in silence, and leave. If the beauty on the other side of the table also happens to be a timid and quiet nerd, she is likely to do the same. Nothing can happen even by accident, despite the fact that these two people could find one another of interest.

What is the train of thought going through the nerd's head that leads to nothing happening? He'd certainly be interested in establishing contact with the beauty opposite, so surely he ought to speak to her. But nothing sensible comes to mind, and therefore no contact is made. Obviously, he should say something, anything, but then the nerd fears the beauty might think him stupid. And besides, such a beautiful woman would surely have been snapped up already, and even if she hadn't it's highly unlikely she'd be interested in him. The nerd daren't risk being turned down. He fears if he said something the answer, or rejection, might be chillingly polite. The nerd really doesn't want to risk that. So in the end the nerd says nothing, and that's what happens.

If the beauty were a computer, the nerd would behave differently - courageously. With the beauty sitting opposite there would come a moment of truth - time for a smoke test! The nerd would say something, despite the high likelihood of getting a chilling puff of smoke in the face. It's not as if this nerd hasn't had his share of failed smoke tests with computer programs, and they have never slowed him down. Actually, the nerd doesn't even see such failures as failures. They are just different experiments and just as much fun and educational as the successful tests. And it's only through failed smoke tests that you finally get to the ones that don't fail.

Had the nerd applied this same logic to approaching the woman, he'd have spoken to her right from the start. Her reaction would either have been positive or negative. But as far as the nerd is concerned, both reactions are useful and productive, because they immediately satisfy his curiosity and desire to try new things. Not even a rebuff means failure for the nerd; it's just a smoke test and whatever the result you are then free to go on and try something else.

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