Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Damn the torpedoes

The other day a comment of mine on Hacker News received the following response:

Your work, however, suggests that you are not actually human. Seeing some of the things you have produced makes me think that you are inhumanly competent, and hence Joel's remarks do not apply to you.

I would have ignored the flattery if it hadn't been upvoted 10 times on a story that only got 8 upvotes. No one, except me, commented in disagreement.

So suppose that some group of Hacker News people does agree with that comment, I have to ask myself why, and what I've done to deserve that praise. I can really think of only one thing: I've often found myself thinking: "Damn the torpedoes". And if you are going to look up to me then I suggest that you do the same.

But damning the torpedoes comes in many different forms.

"You can't"

When I was around 9 years old I told a school science teacher that I intended to go to Oxford and get a doctorate. Since my parents had never pushed me in any particular direction this was a bit of a surprise. It also came shortly after the teacher had criticized me in an exercise that we had been doing about estimation of the number of earthworms in the school playing field. Damn her!

But getting to Oxford was one of the first times an external torpedo came my way. I told my school (when I was around 16) that I intended to apply to Oxford and I was immediately told that Oxford would never accept me because I did not know Latin. Now, it's true that at one time lacking a classical education would have precluded me entering Oxford or Cambridge.

But I left that staff room infuriated and determined to find out the truth. And the truth was I "simply" needed to sit the Oxford mathematics entrance exam and then pass a sequence of what would end up being around 10 interviews.

I did that, studied mathematics and computation and stayed to get a doctorate. Damn the teacher who tried to torpedo my desire to go to Oxford with her ridiculous outdated notions.

[As an amusing aside when I was being interviewed for entrance to study for my doctorate I was interviewed by Tony Hoare who asked me where else I had applied. I stated flatly and truthfully that hadn't applied anywhere else. To this day I don't know if he thought I was determined or simply crazy.]

I can't

Some torpedoes you create for yourself through doubts. Although doubts can be useful because if you examine them you can understand your own limitations, it's also important to recognize those doubts that have no foundation and spit in their face.

When I was at school I was very bad at foreign languages. I took French and German and was pretty bad at both. I barely spoke a word when I left school and my exam results were nothing to write home about.

Today, I speak French fluently.

I had a great personal motivation to learn French as an adult because of a relationship. But I doubted I could ever do it. So, I damned the torpedoes, dropped out of the useless evening course with a bunch of losers who were just doing it to be able to order bread in a boulangerie and took private lessons. Once a week I sat down with a Swiss woman who forced me to read and speak French. Little by little my doubts about not being a 'language person' dropped away. Now I'm ashamed I only speak two languages.

A similar thing happened when I worked on the copy/move forgery detection code. I knew nothing about computer graphics at all and considered my ability to learn about it pitiful. But I really wanted to implement that algorithm so I read and reread the paper and over a period of months I worked on the code. I had very little spare time so I would grab an hour one day and work on just the JPEG handling, or just the matrix code, and then drop the entire projects for weeks or even months.

But it works. Little by little I learnt about graphics and built on the knowledge necessary to finish the project.

They won't

And finally, the Alan Turing petition. For that I simply ignored the possibility that people wouldn't be interested in the man or the issue. Damn them all!

If you have an idea, or a cause, then you are going to face people who disagree with you. It's still disappoints me that my live interview with the legendary interviewer Jeremy Paxman was cancelled.

I was very scared of doing it, but damn Jeremy Paxman!

If you are going to do something, go all the way. I can't promise that you'll succeed, but you'll be better off for recognizing the obstacles you create for yourself through doubts, the obstacles others create for you for no good reason, and for sticking to what you believe.

I don't consider myself deserving of the Hacker News comment above, but if you think I do then try to damn the torpedoes in your own life.

PS And while you are being single-minded and purposeful, don't forget to be joyful. The happiest moment of my entire day yesterday came when I encountered a fox wandering down my street and I followed it to see what it was up to.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.


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