For the Love of Problem Solving…
I’ve had a StarTribune op-ed piece by Garrison Keillor sitting on my desk for the past month (or two), waiting to be commented on here. Sometimes if I have an item age that much, I just toss it in the recycle bin, but this one still wants to be written about.
Keillor wrote about the passing of Fortran creator John Backus:
These days I’m indifferent to militance and more inspired by the worker ants of science. The patient accumulation of data, the dry formulation of theory, the countless little defeats, then the big leap forward that changes the world. I don’t have the mind for it but I appreciate those who do, such as John W. Backus, who died recently at 82, the man who led the team at IBM that created the programming language Fortran in the early ’50s, a giant step toward harnessing the computer and making it work. While the militants of his day stewed over the danger of rock ‘n’ roll and Reds in the State Department, Mr. Backus’ team of young math nerds toiled away in Manhattan and took small, decisive steps toward the future.
You drift around the Internet […] and you think of how this medium that has served angry militants so well was the work of committees of patient, hardworking, anonymous ants hauling grains of data up the slippery slopes. This was an enormous heroic enterprise, carried out in the dark by men and women motivated by the pleasures of problem solving.
—Garrison Keillor, 25 March 2007 StarTribune
…and of Sharing Knowledge
And this makes me think of the free software movement. It is full of people motivated by the love of problem solving and the desire to share knowledge.
Keillor was contrasting the quiet work of Backus and others with the voices of angry militants in his younger days and today, but I’m thinking of the work of the free software community and the spirit of sharing knowledge set against those who want to own and control all of these grains of data, and prevent us from freely building on one another’s work to produce some really cool anthills.