Know Enough to be Different

I was in the hotel this morning, and noticed the high-speed Ethernet connection to the internet. Instructions for use say “turn off your computer, connect cable, turn on computer, open web browse”. What they don’t say is that Microsoft Windows is assumed, you have to have Internet Explorer, computer is to be DHCP-enabled, and network drivers need to be installed.

I wondered if I booted with my Knoppix Linux CD-ROM, whether or not I’d be smart enough to work through the protocols and issues to successfully use their service. Did I know enough to be different from the crowd?

And then an NPR news story came on the radio reporting that Maxime Faget, a pioneering NASA engineer, died at the age of 83. A CNN report quoted Christopher Kraft, a former NASA Johnson Space Center directory: “Max Faget was truly a legend of the manned space flight program. There is no one in space flight history in this or any other country who has had a larger impact on man’s quest in space exploration.”

He stands out in the memory of professional peers as the small wiry designer of the Mercury space capsule used in our nation’s early space program. As early as 1958, against conventional wisdom, he successfully advocated a high-drag design for punching back into the atmosphere, rather than a needle-nosed design which seemed intuitively obvious. It was the bravado to be different that built his reputation.

If you don’t know much about the path on which you walk, you better stay with the norm. For most hotel visitors, Microsoft Windows built for the populace, is an appropriate tool. As for me, I wanted more. I lived with CP/M until 1989, and then was fed successive models of Windows until 1993. I dabbled in Linux, but was distracted by life and took the convenient upgrade to Windows 3.1.

In the year 2004, I took it upon myself to become fluent in a modern Linux distribution. It wasn’t because Linux was better, but because I wanted to be better. I wanted to know both, and be able to intelligently choose alternatives. The effort was not for free. It cost a good number of evenings and weekends, and reality is that the project will never end. But the pay-back is that I don’t have to accept capability that is fed to me. I think differently, and see data/computing problems differently. I’m able to come up with solutions others don’t see.

The attitude adjustment applies beyond computer operating systems. Whether you’re building Mercury space capsules, or running Knoppix over the hotel internet link, there’s room to be better. Exercise your skills by being different. Learn enough to do so.

About Brian

Engineer. Aviator. Educator. Scientist.
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