On the Hammer of Modernism and the Cleaning of Toilets

Daniel S. Wilkerson; 25 April 2005 and 8 June 2006

Larry Wall wrote an amazing essay "Perl, the first postmodern computer language", some of which I have excerpted below [At ellipsis I have elided; I also moved on sentence out of order because I thought it expressed the point better].

You've all heard the saying: If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. That's actually a Modernistic saying. . . . The funny thing is, Modernism itself was a kind of hammer, and it made everything look like something to be hammered. The protest movement of the '60s was Modernistic: "If I had a hammer, I'd hammer all over this land." The focus was always on the nail, or on whatever it was that was getting pounded. And many things did get hammered in the Modern age. Architectural beauty, for one. In fact, at many different levels, Modernism brought us various kinds of dysfunction. Every cultural institution took a beating. Government took a beating. Schools took a beating. Certainly the family took a beating. Everyone took a beating, because Modernism was about attacking problems. Modernism was the hammer. . . . Modernism oversimplifies. Modernism puts the focus squarely on the hammer and the nail. [W]e have the Cult of Spareness. The example of Modern Art ... was very spare. It was minimalistic. It was almost an artless Art. Certainly the emotion it was trying to instill was something akin to hammering. We felt like nails.

In contrast, postmodernism puts the focus back onto the carpenter. . . . In short, think about what it takes to put together an open source project such as Linux or Perl. You need a lot of people who think programming is serious fun. You need a culture of sharing, which is just the flip side of a culture in which you can borrow things without shame. You need people who have been hammered into dysfunctionality long enough that they're looking for new ways to form communities. You need people who are willing to be partisan on behalf of their chosen culture, while remaining sufficiently non-partisan to keep in touch with the rest of the world. It's no fun to create a new culture and then cut it off from the rest of humanity. No, the fun thing is to try to persuade others to share your opinions about what rules and what sucks. Nothing is more fun than evangelism.

When I was twelve I ran across a computer at the Baltimore Museum of Science. It said "forward 10" and the little turtle moved forward on the screen, leaving a line behind it. I thought "Ok". It said "right 20; forward 10" and the turtle turned and left another line. "Hm." Then it said something like "for i=1,20: right 20; forward 10" and the turtle drew a star. I still remember vividly the next sentence that burned into my mind: I can do anything!

My parents literally had to drag me away. I begged my mom to take me to Sears and I would program on the machine on display. There was no where to save my work so I just wrote the same program every time I went: tic-tac-toe. We had no computers at school so I wrote code on paper and ran it in my head. When my parents finally got us a game machine I told them I didn't want to play games, I wanted to program. They finally got us an Atari 800. We saved or programs on audio cassette (there was only about a 90% chance you would get your program back) and dreamed of the day we would have a disk drive.

Then a terrible thing happened to me: I was accepted to a Johns Hopkins summer program for "the advancement of talented youth"; I studied "Computer Science" where on the first day they taught us that the programming language didn't matter, it was only the Mathematics that mattered. At first it was fun, but the further from reality it got, the unhappier I was. Mathematics was the real thing, not lowly engineering. The Modernist viewpoint is the "Cult of the Original and Abstract" and in that worldview, Modern Mathematics is the ultimate discipline. Ben Franklin comments on Mathematicians in his Autobiography, speaking of a member of "The Junto", his men's club:

Thomas Godfrey, a self-taught mathematician, great in his way, and afterward inventor of what is now called Hadley's Quadrant. But he knew little out of his way, and was not a pleasing companion; as, like most great mathematicians I have met with, he expected universal precision in everything said, or was for ever denying or distinguishing upon trifles, to the disturbance of all conversation. He soon left us.

I resigned myself to this ultimate discipline and trudged through it until I could take the pain no longer. I wasted my youth finding out first hand the pain of the Hammer of Modernism. In the summer of 1997 after six years of undergraduate and five years of grad school, I had an epiphany: I realized that I was not put on this earth to be an institutionalized person who can't deal with reality. After another decade of full-time practice to learn that which I had been told was "trivial", I am now much happier as an engineer. I will always regret that I poured my youth into the toilet because I didn't trust my gut feeling and what really made me happy. I will never do again, but my youth is gone.

One thing Ben Franklin did not do is orient his research in the top-down Modernist way called "Become An Expert In Just One Specialized, Abstract, and Useless Thing To The Neglect Of All Else". Instead he just worked on whatever problems seem to present themselves in a bottom-up practical way as he went about his practical life. I have found by empirical observation of myself that this is the way for me as well. Unfortunately, there is no "Department of Everyday Life and Practical Problems" at a University. I will have to succeed in business somehow to support my research, just as Ben did.

When students ask me about doing research I send them a multi-paragraph section from Ben's Autobiography where he goes on and on about the problem of dust in the street. He concludes with a paragraph that should be read by all who strive to be specialist Academics. Recall as you read it that this is one of the greatest minds of his century; he had lots of other things to do.

Some may think these trifling matters [dust in the street] not worth minding or relating; but when they consider that tho' dust blown into the eyes of a single person, or into a single shop on a windy day, is but of small importance, yet the great number of the instances in a populous city, and its frequent repetitions give it weight and consequence, perhaps they will not censure very severely those who bestow some attention to affairs of this seemingly low nature.

A possibility that I currently advocate is that universities should have practical people mixed in with the faculty. Someone should be supporting the great Open Source programmers as their work is very valuable to society, but the best programmers I know of don't want to be professors. The reason for this is obvious if you have my job: a programmer who supports academic research. Academics have a shorter-term time horizon than open source engineers! Academics just want to do a demo prototype and throw it away; they want a paper in six months. They don't love the software and maintain it over time. But this is what is needed to make a real contribution; as Joel Spolsky says "good software takes ten years".

Professors teach and publish new ideas. I propose the creation of Engineering Fellows at a university who teach and

The practical problems they encounter would lead to new theory problems for the theorists to chew on. It would be a win-win for academics and engineers.

This way of doing research is not a fantasy; we actually did this for real. You will notice that the first three publications on my web page were modernist "theory for theory's sake" and I now say were basically useless. After that though is a paper ("Winnowing") on research that was done as a solution to a practical problem at a startup company where I worked. When the startup went under I saw important people in suits (translation: who only are about money) fighting in front of a Federal judge over the patent rights for that algorithm. In other words, it was theory that mattered because we started from an aesthetic of utility: we didn't strive for originality, we were just trying to solve a practical problem; any solution would have been fine; it just so happened that we had to invent a new one. This is research for real, research that matters, and now having tasted it I will never go back.

A few years ago there seems to have been some well-hushed-up movement in the Computer Science world to just push CS Theory into the Mathematics Department or no longer fund it or something; I only heard about it second-hand and by rumor and whisper. A famous theorist even wrote an apology for CS Theory that was almost published; it was pulled at the last minute (I heard that the publication pages had even already been numbered so another article of the same length had to be found to fill the spot.) In the hallway (at the Cal Berkeley Division of Computer Science) I overhead a theory professor say to someone "I'm not going to grub around in some database application!"

Well at our startup we did "grub around in a database application" and as a result we took a very simple and well-known problem that looked like it could not possibly be improved upon and improved it by an order of magnitude: we reduced the number of disk drives you had to buy by a factor of 8 and the query time by a factor of 3. It was not only theoretically cool, it was practical too! We did it by being willing to "grub around" instead of being arrogant theorists.

In a Zen Buddhist temple, the head student is also the Officer In Charge of Purity (that is, the toilet cleaner).

[B]eing Shuso, the Japanese Zen term for head student, is a great opportunity and a great responsibility. It is intriguing that the literal translation of the term Shuso is toilet cleaner, perhaps to poke the inflation and separation that could arise with taking on the position of head student. A true deepening avoids inflating the ego or any sense of separation. When discussing particular acts of deepening . . ., opportunity, responsibility and heart often are mentioned. Something larger than the self calls.

Buddhists understand the effectiveness of maintaining humility and a direct experience of everyday reality, especially for people in positions of leadership. Maybe Mathematicians and Theoretical Computer Scientists need to clean some toilets.

© Copyright 2006 Daniel S. Wilkerson