Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Babbage's heart-warming message for the middle-aged (jgc.org)
153 points by jgrahamc on Oct 8, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

I believed that age mattered until I met a super-coder for the first time. He is over 60 years old, and completes entire projects by himself. A team of five decent programmers would likely complete these projects late and over budget. He has high standards, a razor-like focus on implementing The Right Thing, has a great eye for reusing old code, and isn't afraid to split the world apart to make life easier for the client. I'm glad I met him as early in my career as I did; I unlearned a lot of falsehoods about software engineering.

I think this is where the current attitude towards programmers and how we hire them is wrong, or at least a little off-base. A lot of people here seem to look down on someone who just works his ass off and gets the job done unless that person has a web presence and a github repository. Why would a guy like this even have a blog? Why would he care about our opinions of him? The contrast is striking between the blogging, coding-a-personal-project nature of our generation of programmers and the get-things-done-efficiently-and-go-have-fun nature of an entirely different generation. Many miss that "completes entire projects by himself" and "razor-like focus" often preclude many of the activities we now expect to see in a good programmer. Many think that if a programmer is not giving something away for free -- likely something that few will use or read -- then he is just a hamster-wheel cubicle drone.

Your comment reminded me that the reality of the programming world is that there are countless unsung amazing programmers who have stuck to the same platform for years, if not decades. They know their IDEs, libraries, and code bases inside and out. They get an assignment, go into crazy-productive genius-coder mode, and get a high quality product out the door. And then they go home and enjoy themselves, and none of us are the wiser. But we sure do appreciate the reliability of our cell phone networks, our vehicle computer systems, and countless other amazing pieces of software that we take for granted. Thanks for reminding us that you can be a great programmer without having a huge following, programming open source, or even working for a startup. Building something people want and getting things done are all that matters.

When a field is new, its pioneers can be identified easily: they are the ones who are making the field up as they go along. Thus, there is no need for status signaling, because the merit of each individual is very clear: the "alphas" are the Newtons and Shakespeares, having to invent entirely new notations and words just to explain the things they're working on. This is how programming was for the previous generation.

When a field matures, and it becomes harder to make true advances on one's own, we lose our ability to easily evaluate objective merit--so we replace objective merit cues with subjective status cues. The "alphas" of a mature field are the ones who signal more, showing that they can afford to waste effort on useless plumage (little-used FOSS project contributions.)

Of course, once we have adapted to existence in a mature field, we begin to recognize an overabundance of status cues as "trying too hard," and recognize that those who have true merit might not be bothering with status cues at all: thus is born countersignaling, of the kind these "unsung amazing pogrammers" perform.

Something I started noticing a few years ago is the amount of hype around marketing as a programmer. Seems like there's a neverending stream of self-help articles discussing the virtues of marketing yourself through blogs, open-source, SEO, etc.

Thing is I'm positive this has helped a lot of programmers become far more successful than they otherwise would have been.

Unfortunately this also increases the amount of noise in the industry and makes it really hard to find the get it done types. There also seems to be a lot more ego floating around, but my perception on this could just be a side effect of getting old and grumpy.

This is not just a software/technology thing either.

My uncle is in a firm of "gruff old" electricians; they have made their fortune going in towards the end of projects when they are running overdue and completing them in time (i.e. massive construction projects).

But then, conversely, I know some youngsters who do similar things in other industries. So I don't think age is even a factor, some people are just finishers.

That is a strong departure from the stereotype! I'm really interested to know more.. Does this person have a blog?What type of projects has he worked on? Would be great be if you could elaborate on what had unlearned!

I would also be interested in hearing some of the lessons the grandfather poster learned, and the preconceptions he unlearned. Maybe a blog post is in order?

Edit: I removed a rant that I had here which went too far off-topic.

I don't think darwinGod was trying to put the person down because he doesn't have a blog. He was rather interested in learning more about this person and his experiences and the lessons which jakevoytko learned from him. I think your rant is misplaced.

No, I don't think he was trying to put him down either, that's not why I made the comment. darwinGod's comment inspired my line of thinking, so I inappropriately replied to it. Since my comment was so off-topic, I decided to delete most of it and reply to the parent. Sorry for making your comment seem out of place.

For a moment there I thought you were asking if Babbage had a blog...

The big problem with age is focus (and price). I find myself a lot less interested in coding 18 hours a day just for kicks.

It's like pizza when you're a kid. You could eat it every day for every meal. As an adult, you still like pizza, but even twice a week feels like too much.

And in most regards, I think its fine. I had my day of the 90 hour work week. I'll let the new guys take their turn.

I actually think the problem with programming and age is that it's not very healthy. I've sat on my ass for so long I'm not convinced I will live into old age. I'm only in my mid 30s and I already have high blood pressure, a bad back, bad eyes, my brain is scrambled from too many inane emails and meetings, etc. Babbage had the advantage of being able to think on his feet and not have 1000 distractions. I know a lot of old tinkerers, including my grandfather. I don't know a lot of old office stiffs, they seem to die of heart attacks and strokes. Two of my uncles were career programmers, and they are a mess, health-wise.

There's nothing inherently unhealthy about being a programmer. If you take care of yourself, you can still program a lot without adverse health effects:

   - Take regular breaks
   - Practice good ergonomics
   - Exercise regularly
   - Eat healthily
   - Avoid stress (meditate or find another way to relax)
You can let any career push you into an unhealthy lifestyle. Programming doesn't sentence you to an unhealthy, overweight, aching shorter life. It's all about taking care of yourself.

It's good practice to maintain your code. Treat your body like source code that you have to maintain for your entire life.

Yeah, when the walk from my desk to the candy bar vending machine started to make me perspire is when I thought I should start exercising more. Now I jog to the candy bar vending machine -- I think it's helping. :-)

If you think Babbage had no distractions you know little of Mr Babbage :

Organ grinders .... the worst of the "thousand nuisances that made it impossible for the householder to enjoy any quiet" .... such "instruments of torture" had cost him a quarter of his working life. At one point he tallied 165 nuisances in 90 days.

his 1871 obituary in the London Times notes that he lived to be almost 80 "in spite of organ-grinding persecutions."


Because of his campaigns against street music, buskers deliberately turned up at his lodgings to annoy him, even following him down the street.

That is a truly awesome bit of historical trivia.

thank god we now have ipods

but seriously babbage should have stuck some beeswax in his ears

alternatively, he could live in a tower like a proper wizard

It's interesting you say that, as there are many studies that show total productivity in coding tops out at around 40 hours a week, and working 12 or 18 hour days is just a waste. (See, for example, the references in Code Complete.)

edw519? I kid, I kid.

We believe age matters because a lot of people allow their age to matter. They let themselves go, physically and mentally, and want to slide through life. They stop growing. They stop learning.

Just because some people do that doesn't mean we all do. I'm, ahem, 47 this year, and you probably wouldn't know it judging by my mental and physical vitality. I have not stopped being who I am. You don't have to, either.

Yup - as someone who just turned 45 I can understand that - this year I can ski better then I ever have before (and I've been skiing for nearly 35 years) and I'm having more fun with more different technologies than I've ever had before.

An old lady told me that it is not proud to label yourself a hacker. You're a criminal, etc.

I don't want to be that old guy who say that a youngster' subcultural identity doesn't exists based on my preconception or so I decided.

I've never bought into ageism. I've known too many brillant older guys. My grandfather was an aerospace engineer, and sharp enough to put me to shame until the day he died.

Overall I'd say its confirmation bias. Think about how many people we encounter every day that don't have a clue. That ratio doesn't change with age. Age just becomes a convienient scapegoat.

Absolutely. Ageism is terrible.

If we can cure the diseases of aging that affect our mental and physical performance, we'll hopefully get rid of this sad state of affairs.

It's such a waste that so many incredibly brilliant people are seeing their mental functions decline because of the accumulation of beta amyloids in their brains or whatever other problem that happens to be in evolution's blind spot (humans didn't use to live that old, and rarely reproduced at that age if they did). A huge waste for humanity.

Ageism sucks. At 25, I'm an idiot – I mean, truly a moron by comparison to some people ten, twenty, thirty years my senior. Not because of what I know, though that always needs work, but because of how I think. How passion can funnel into trivialities. How unfortunate events can discourage good ideas, while optimism can blind me to reality.

Youth can be applied to do great things but it has its disadvantages.

Ageism becomes, unfairly, a proxy for determining something important: The creative humility of being able to embrace and extend new ideas.

The thing is: Someone in their 20's can just as easily become set in their ways as someone in their 40's or 60's. Becoming jaded and self-important is easy. Losing your curiosity is easy – boy, some people lose it by age 10. I can't stand people who decide they've learned everything there is to know about the world around them – whether they're 22 or 82.

Especially when selecting people to help you build something, buy into people with creative insight, curiosity, humility and passion. Those can be found at any age.

(Fun example: Watch a David Attenborough nature documentary from the BBC. One where he actually shows up on camera, in the middle of a remote habitat. Watch how delighted he is, even after decades of study and exposure to what he's talking about. He doesn't take anything for granted. He and his work are wonderful.)

My dad is still programming at 79. Go dad!

Please, let us know what he does. Had he worked as a programmer or is he an hobbyist? Thanks.

He used to be a math teacher. I believe he took some programming courses (as an adult student), and we had a computer in the basement back in 1978.

I think he's developed a couple of websites for pay. I just remembered that he worked for a while at the McLuhan centre at University of Toronto.

Now he's mostly working on personal research projects for education.

I've heard there are two kinds of genius, one that blossoms at an early age and those that develop their craft over time to achieve great things later in life.


dabent, you should post the Wired piece separately -- it's worth reading just for the account of the metrics Galenson used to decide on the "value" of art produced by artists, poets, etc. at different points in their lives (it was not just the prices of the different pieces, but their citations in textbooks, a la Google's PageRank algorithm).

I would, but it was submitted less than a month ago here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1678415

It really is a good article and worth the read.

Fitzgerald died at 44, Mozart at 35 so neither lived long enough to get into the old group.

A very relevant book on this aspect is: http://www.amazon.com/Truth-Beauty-Aesthetics-Motivations-Sc...

The author compares and contrasts the differences between early blossoming and late blossoming intellects. The science/math geniuses belong usually to the former and the artists to the latter. Perhaps, programming is more art than we have been led to believe.

Yet another example: Lars Bak wrote V8 in his 40s. There are some details in "The genius behind Google’s browser" http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/03775904-177c-11de-8c9d-0000779fd2...

I'm actually working on getting my dad up and going on Android development. He has an app addressing a vertical he is involved with. He's in his early 60s. Hell, considering when I wanted games growing up, his solution was to give me the K&R book and told me to write my own. I guess this is the least I can do.

Your dad is awesome.

It's common to find a 70+ year old electrician or plumber because those trades have had high demand for generations, ours is still young enough where stereotypes still have some hold over coming reality.

> where there's currently a cult of youth

I hear that a lot. I've worried about it since mid-eighties when my father sued US Government for age discrimination. But, I've not see it.

I'm almost 40, not old enough? Maybe I got another decade or two before the kids kick me off their lawns?

Maybe cult of youth exists more in "corporate"/"enterprise" world? Where naive, cheap, workaholics are greatly desired and always in supply?

I think it's just a holdover in the comp sci biz from the days when COBOL programmers found their COBOL hacking to be obsolete and chose to retire rather than retrain

Truth is, old dogs CAN learn new tricks. But it takes more energy than just repeating their old tricks.

"Message" implies an actual quote from the man. "Example" would be more appropriate in this context.

Like many words in English it does not have such a discrete meaning.

A story or experience can have a "message" the same way it might have a "moral". In fact "moral" is often defined as: the message conveyed by a story.

"Example" would have been a poorer word in its place.

Yes, a story can have a message, but "Babbage" is a person, not a story. "This story's message" has a different agent from "Jim's message". Jim is always the _author_ in the second meaning.

"Babbage's message" made the title shorter, but also misleading. A complete title of "Babbage's heart-warming" would have made it even shorter, but I hope you're not advocating in favor of that!

Reflecting today I believe Jim's inspiring message to us is to live life to the fullest even if that requires participation in extreme sports.

Jim did not write a letter. He was the "author" of the sentiment (according to the speaker) by the way he lived his life.

"Babbage's message..." and "A message from Babbage's Life...".

are not identical. The former is a personal article or note from Babbage.

I got down voted for exactly what zeteo said...

"A message from Babbage's Life..." is too long. A title can trade ambiguity for elegance if the essay is clear.

"Babbage's heart-warming message for the middle-aged"

and "A message from Babbage's life for the middle-aged"

to me both titles sound elegant but the former is misleading and the latter is correct.

The title is not trading ambiguity, it is just misleading.

Babbage's work was a bleeding edge of the science. As far as i know there is still no "cult of youth" in the areas what are bleeding edge of science today. Most people are getting to the bleeding egde and starting to produce their first significant science results only at 30+ . Dismissing 40-50+ year olds at the top of their scientific work would be just like throwing gold in thrash.

Programming isn't a science (it is barely an engineering) and thus comparison with Babbage just isn't valid.

The title is very misleading.

The article is more like, "What the middle-aged can learn from Babbage's life".

I give credits for the authors perspective, though.

I am calling this out because I was expecting a reference to an original article written by Charles Babbage and did not see one.

Imagine if someone wrote an article titled "Einstein's final message to the world" and you only see a list of life achievements of Albert Einstein from the authors perspective.

One only has to ready Gladwell to realize that becoming a master of any craft takes time, patience, experience, and lots of practice (10,000+ hours) - none of which is likely at an early age.

My mentor was 20 years my senior. His ability to read into other people's code, see potential problems, bottlenecks, and keep our code optimized has been invaluable.

I wonder how much age is relevant in software development merely due to the commonality of awful working environments (which younger workers are more likely to put up with).

It is there an actual market opportunity somewhere in this problem of ageism in tech? You've got all these undervalued veteran hackers, could there be a way to provide a way for them to pool their abilities, either on a company, or a freelancing collective or LLC or the like, in order to maximize their full value?

If there is a preponderance of younger success stories w/r/t age of the founders of successful internet companies, or the average age of programmers working for those companies, my bet would be that is due to an increase to risk aversion as folks get older.

Yes, but Babbage didn't ship.

s/programmers by young/programmers be young/

Thanks. I've fixed that.

wrt the pedantry elsethread, might I suggest "Babbage's life's message" as a better start to the title?

And a heart rending message too from Tuesday's Babbage installment http://blog.jgc.org/2010/10/babbages-other-woman.html:

His wife, Georgiana died age 31, Ada Lovelace died aged 36 and Countess Teleki died a year before Babbage aged 34.

Only three of his 8 children survived into adulthood.

Life expectancy back then was quite different than it was today.

Wow... that puts his lifelong quest to build a machine that can think into terrifying perspective.

Perhaps his longevity was because because his work made him active physically, just as Leonardo was a sculptor.

As a programmer, I try to automate everything; but it can be healthier to do (physical) tasks the long way.

Someone is feeling old.

It makes me confused when a old person simple doesn't learn anything new that could possible help with their life. Heck I've been trying to convince a family member with the iPad (possible the easiest "computer" to use).

I see most people my age (50) "closing off", they don't want to learn anything new. I think a lot of it is learned behavior, not wanting to be embarrassed or made fun of by their peers.

So Babbage, the guy who is best known for starting work on the first mechanical computer but dying before completing it, is a heartwarming example?

If he'd started at 20, he would have finished it.

Thats like saying the first one who made a wheel never completed it, because he never managed to get a car!

What we know today as computer is probably far from what he imagined.

You're assuming he wasn't working on them.

In 1810 aged 19 he started University at Trinity, Cambridge. In 1812 aged 22, disappointed with the level of mathematical tutorage formed the Analytical Society, translating Lacroix' works on differential and integral calculus into English. He transferred to Peterhouse and they gave him a degree without him even having to sit an exam.

He also got married during this time. 10 years later his wife and 5 of his 8 children were dead.

And he stood up again and invented a fucking programmable computer made out of wheels!!

I think I can cut him a bit of slack.

From what I've read it seems extremely likely that he did build (in secrecy) a working computer. One that was used by the British secret service to decrypt enemy communications.

[citation needed]

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact