Saturday, November 19, 2011

People you meet

It's amazing the kind of interesting people you meet randomly. This morning I was on the bus to Seattle. I usually keep to myself but my ears perked when I heard someone ask "how many different combinations can you get from a byte?". It was a dad posing this to what looked like a 10 year old kid. The kid then cocked his head to the sky and responded in a tone like his whole life pride depended on solving this puzzle." Ummm there are 8 bits in a byte. And each bit can take 2 values. So that's two times two times two ...eight times" . I was so impressed. I had to examine closely. The dad had in his hand a book called "the algorithm design manual by Skiena". This happened to be one of my favorite books. I could hold myself no longer. I had to make small talk. "Is that a skiena?" , I interjected, perhaps a little too abruptly. "What's that ?" came the reply. I then proceeded to explain how the book he was holding in his hand was one of the best. He nodded in agreement. I also ventured to ask if his son was interested in computers. His dad then said "We're on our way to the University of Washington for my son's math lessons. He is taking classes on Topology for 5th graders". My jaw half dropped. All that came out of my mouth was "That's very impressive!".

Their stop came and they got off. I was still in awe of that child who was sure to become one of the greatest minds of our age. Meanwhile, I hadn't noticed the scraggy looking man sitting on the seat beside me. He then turned to me and said, "So you said you work on search engines?". This man looked like he had just returned from an arctic expedition. He had matted hair, a weathered face and his jeans were torn at places. My mind was already unconsciously trying to guess what he did for a living and how much of computers he actually knew. Was he a crazy hacker ? a hippie with an interest in computers? a madman ? Anyway, I replied in the affirmative. He then said very proudly - "You know, I wrote a search engine in HTML". Wait, what ? HTML ? That doesn't sound right. I then proceeded to voice these concerns to him. "Well, you know it's not perfect, it uses name refs and the program has around Ten thousand lines of code". That did not at all sound like a search engine. I settled on the madman theory as his chosen profession. He wouldn't stop talking about how his program could look up information about herbs and plants. I thought it was time to ask him if he had heard of PHP and MySQL. He listened, nodded and replied, almost apologetically " I thought I would learn about HTML by making this search engine. I also learned about C++ and linux. I started learning programming about a year ago". I thought I didnt't hear him right. Did he say a year ago ? "And what did you do before that ?". "I was a construction worker. Still am". He then turned to his side and took out his hard hat and ear muffs to show me as proof. Again my jaw half dropped, and all I could bring myself to say was "That's very impressive!".


JM said...

Great realization of the old truth that looks can be deceiving. For an analytic mind, this is a major guiding principle.

Brihadaryanak upanishad has this to say about form & function:

hiraṇmayena patrena satyasyapihitam muktam: tat tvam, pῡṣan, apavṛṇu, satya-dharmaya dṛṣṭaye.

The face of truth is covered with a golden vessel. O glorious sun! Lift this lid of gold with which you have covered the glory of truth inside, so that I may behold the true path.


Vikram The Prodigal said...

Bloody impressive indeed.

In other engg fields, if you grasp physics well, you can understand the concepts if you try enough. But with compsci and its abstractness is a bit of a challenge in my opinion and good that people are cracking it.