A Thanksgiving for Public Education: Free, Life-changing, and Available to Everyone

Howdy DSISD (and all school districts),

With the Thanksgiving break approaching, I want to convey my thanks to you defenders of public education. “Free, life-changing, and available to everyone.” That’s what I and my peers have fought for in open source tech, and it’s what y’all fight for in education. The fight is hard, and opponents are numerous and well-funded. Keep on. For what it’s worth, I’m with you.

On a bright May morning in 2000, I was standing on the deck of a ship churning toward Alaska’s Inside Passage with more than a hundred computer programmers. The glittering towers of Vancouver receded behind us as we slipped under the Lions Gate Bridge heading out to the Salish Sea. The occasion was the first “Geek Cruise”— an entrepreneur’s bid to replace technology conferences in lifeless convention centers with oceangoing trips to exotic destinations. I booked passage on the ship, a Holland America liner called the Volendam, to cover the maiden voyage for Wired magazine.

Of the many legendary coders on board, the uncontested geek star was Larry Wall, creator of Perl, one of the first and most widely used open-source programming languages in the world. Thousands of websites we rely on daily— including Amazon, Craigslist, and the Internet Movie Database— would never have gotten off the ground without Perl, the beloved “Swiss Army chainsaw” of harried systems administrators everywhere.

To an unusual and colorful extent, the language is an expression of the mind of its author, a boyishly handsome former linguist with a Yosemite Sam mustache. Sections of the code open with epigrams from Larry’s favorite literary trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, such as “a fair jaw-cracker dwarf-language must be.” All sorts of goofy backronyms have been invented to explain the name (including “Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister”), but Larry says that he derived it from the parable of the “pearl of great price” in the Gospel of Matthew. He told me that he wanted the code to be like Jesus in its own humble way: “Free, life-changing, and available to everyone.” One often-used command is called bless. But the secret of Perl’s versatility is that it’s also an expression of the minds of Larry’s far-flung network of collaborators: the global community of Perl “hackers.” The code is designed to encourage programmers to develop their own style and everyone is invited to help improve it; the official motto of this community is “There is more than one way to do it.”

In this way, the culture of Perl has become a thriving digital meritocracy in which ideas are judged on their usefulness and originality rather than on personal charisma or clout. These values of flexibility, democracy, and openness have enabled the code to become ubiquitous— the “duct tape that holds the Internet together,” as Perl hackers say. As the Volendam steered into open water, I watched with admiration as my fellow passengers pulled Ethernet cables, routers, and other networking paraphernalia out of their bags to upgrade the ship’s communication systems. Instead of dozing in chaise longues by the pool, my nerdy shipmates were eager to figure out how things work and help make them work better. By midweek, they persuaded the captain to give them a tour of the engine room.

Source: Silberman, Steve. NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (pp. 1-2). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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