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Danny O'Brien: Question on geeks and games

Danny & Merlin As you may know, Danny O’Brien and I are rumored to be working on a book for O’Reilly’s Hacks series. As we theoretically toil with this theoretical book, we’ll be lazily turning to you smart people from time to time to save our bacon. This is the first of those occasions.

Thus, Danny asks…

So one of the things that’s cropping up in the research is that geeks hate boredom more than other people: indeed, more than life itself. The whole “rather gnaw your own arm off??? is frightening close to reality here.

Given the choice between a fractionally tedious task that will save hours of effort, and something capitivating and challenging, we’ll bunk off the former.

I don’t know yet whether that’s not something that’s applicable to other people. But I am interested in linking this up with another bit of anecdata, which is that geeks often enjoy thought games and puzzles.

So, here’s my question: when you have a regular, mind-crushingly dull task to do, do you have a little game you play with yourself to make it easier? If so, what is it?

(Merlin reminds me to include the canonical Simpsons reference in this discussion:)

Bart makes a game of it Principal Skinner: Oh, licking envelopes can be fun! All you have to do is make a game of it.

Bart: What kind of game?

Principal Skinner: Well, for example, you could see how many you could lick in an hour, then try to break that record.

Bart: Sounds like a pretty crappy game to me.

Principal Skinner: Yes, well… Get started.

Jeremiah McElroy's picture

Yes, yes I do make...

Yes, yes I do make up games.

I used to work in an auto parts factory when I was in college. I ran an injection molding press. These presses would usually have two or three molds on a rotating platter. The basics of the job were as follows:

  • put some metal bits on the mold
  • hit two buttons at the same time (for safety's sake)
  • the platter would rotate and a set of finished parts would show up in front of me and be unseated from the mold by little pins
  • grab the (exceptionally hot) finished pieces off the mold and put them in a bucket
  • repeat ad nauseum for 8 hours

So, in order to make this, moderately, more interesting I started figuring out how many pieces I could make in a minute by timing the number of pieces I made over 5 or 10 minutes and then figuring the average. I would usually do this calculation every 30 minutes to an hour and I would track how I was doing over the course of the evening. In the last hour of the night, which was always the worst, I would compute my average for the night and see if I could beat that in the final hour.

I would also try to memorize Walt Whitman poetry on my breaks and the recite it to myself when I had become bored with doing math and watching giant pieces of metal spin around in circles.

These days, I give into boredom and surf the net a lot more easily. However, when I'm given a particularly tedious programming task, I recall the advice of my mother-in-law (a former COBOL programmer). Every day she would come into work and look at the task in front of her. She would then make it a game to try to accomplish that programming assignment in less than a day. Even if it was something that was in theory a two or three day assignment, she would try to do it in a day. Eventually she hit a point where she was able to accomplish just about anything thrown at her in a day. So, I suppose, it was a good thing for her because she was able to alleviate her boredom and improve her skills at the same time.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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