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Hacking is a state of mind

The term “hacker” has an interesting history (see for an overview). The term originally referred to skilled programmers in general, but common usage generally refers to those who focus on penetrating computer systems. This has led to the use of terms like “white hat”, “black hat”, “cracker”, and so on, but the original core was creativity. Hacking is about finding novel approaches to problems, or re-purposing tools to solve problems they weren’t necessarily designed for.

In that usage, we now hear terms like “life hack”, which refers to ways in which we can simplify our lives, but the core meaning is still around creative problem-solving.

My father was not a computer person. He was nearly 60 when I got my first computer (an IBM XT clone, 640K RAM, 20MB hard drive, Hercules monochrome monitor, 9-pin dot-matrix printer, and a 1200 baud external modem, for any archaeologists out there), and passed away before computers became near-essential for day-to-day life. Still, he would say things like “use it up, make it do, or do without”, and would rig up the oddest gadgets when he found them useful.

As a tiny example, we had a pull-cord light in the garage, and I walked in one day to find that he had opened up a wire-hanger, attached it to the pull-cord, and had it hanging over the edge of his work-bench. It obviously worked, but seemed pointless to me – until he pointed out that his shoulder hurt when he reached up high, so he figured out a way to simplify his life.

Fast-forward to 2020. We had two people in this week to fix our fridge (wearing masks, and the best degree of social distancing we could manage). When they were about to leave, they noticed the cracked handle and missing screw on the freezer door. We had been ignoring it for years, but they noticed and tried a new screw (which didn’t work, because of the crack). Next thing I knew, one of them had picked up the old/broken thermostat and a pair of tin-snips, and started cutting out a small piece to use as a washer.

My first thought was of my Dad, and I realized that my Dad would have really liked this young man (mid-twenties, I would guess). Some might call it “dumb” or “trivial”, but how “dumb” is it if most people wouldn’t think of it?

THAT, in my mind, is the true hacker mindset.

My Dad was a hacker.




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