Need To Know

Posted on June 3, 2023 by psu

When I was a graduate student in the late 1900s (if you must know, it was 1987 until around 1993) I used to use an old programming language called perl1 to do a lot of my “work”. That is, I wrote programs in perl to automate various tedious tasks that I had to do a lot as a graduate student: converting text files from one sort of format to another, reducing and summarizing data from some “experiments” that I ran, generating pictures in \LaTeX for my thesis. That sort of thing.

At the time perl had a reputation for being a very powerful but difficult to learn and use system. It had some strange syntax and for any given problem there always seemed to be five to ten different ways to write down an idiomatic solution in perl. People also made claims about how perl was hard to learn because it had no simple to understand conceptual core. It was just a lot of different utilities thrown together into one big mess.

These things never bothered me. My approach to using perl was to always use it on a “need to know” basis. That is, never learn anything new about the tool unless you really need to know. This saves you a lot of time and mental energy. You avoid the intellectual paralysis that comes with trying to understand the “big picture” about a system for which there is no big picture. This policy also lets you avoid some of the darker and sharper edges of the system that you should have really stayed away from anyway (see also: typeglobs).

I think using most computer systems like this is a rational way to go about your life. Unless you have some sort of unhealthy and uncontrollable intellectual curiosity about the things computers do computers are not really fun things to learn about, and you should minimize the amount of time in your life you spend learning to interact with them. God knows you should never get into programming unless you have just lost all hope and have nothing better to do. Or maybe you just like the punishment.

Of course, I am one of the cursed ones who enjoys suffering. So I have spent most of my adult life programming computers for money. But this has just made my attachment to the “need to know” method for managing computer knowledge even stronger. I spend my life knowing stupid and obscure things about a giant meta-recursive ball of mud made out of code that is now almost old enough drink in most states. I need to allocate my brain space very carefully.

So it is surprising to me that there is so much recent discourse and pearl clutching about how “the youngs” don’t understand computers “the right way”. The thinking goes, apparently, that modern computer systems are so good at hiding the obscure and archaic mechanisms by which they actually work that many younger users of these systems have little or no understanding of these critical bits of ancient lore. This, people say, means that they will be mentally and intellectually crippled in their later lives because they lack all of this foundational knowledge. What, you may ask, are these poor people missing out on? I’m not exactly sure but a few things I’ve seen include:

  • Primitive UI for organizing their data into ad hoc and impossible to navigate hierarchical databases made up of “files” and “directories”, but no real way to actually find the data you want at any given time by any attribute except maybe the name of the file you happened to put it in.

  • Building up their core intellectual strength by understanding the ancient language of “the command line shells” and pondering why we still have to put up with syntax built when creating a parser for something usable would have used more then the 64K of memory available to us at the time.

  • Automating simple things using “batch files”.

  • Special syntax in search engines that does not actually work anymore.

  • Learning to manually allocate and keep track of memory buffers using a language and runtime that will silently shoot you in the head when you fuck up is apparently very important for your development as a software engineer.

  • Pick any tool stack and you will find dozens of people saying that it is the most important thing in the world to know all of the details of how said stack can make your life a living hell.

  • If we were living in the year 2045, I imagine that the olds then would be scolding the youngs about how they have no understanding about how basic and foundational things like @-replies in chat rooms and #-tags work because the interfaces for online interaction have gotten so advanced … wait that will never happen never mind.

What is going on here is yet another instance of the universal standard nerd intellectual interaction, which in this form is phrased: “What I had to learn, and I found very interesting, must be the most foundational and important thing in the world and everyone must also learn it.”2

Of course this is just not true. Most of these things were just bad puzzles that people had to solve back in the day because nothing better had been implemented yet. Folks were forced to use a lot of awkward implementations of a lot of marginal ideas. There is nothing good or foundational about them. Like perl they were a set of imperfect and often painful to use tools that happened to solve some problems people needed solving.

However, often old nerds just can’t tell the difference between having learned something actually interesting and having been beaten in the face with the limitations of the stupid machines and learning how to work around the pain. It changes your perspective if you think of all the weird and complicated technical things that you have learned over the years as brain damage/trauma instead of intellectual trophies to be proud of. The truth is that most things are the former instead of the latter.

So as I said in the open, it is perfectly rational for people to ignore this bullshit until such time as they are forced to deal with it. There is no reason to waste brain space on stupid technical puzzles from the past when you could be using to store the things you really need to solve your problems.

With that main point out of the way you might now be wondering to yourself: “But psu, what are the important things related to computer systems that you should waste brain space on”? If you have read this web site for a long time you would have a pretty good idea about what my answer would be. But here are a few things:

If you find these ideas too technical and theoretical I would not blame you. They do lean to that side. But what makes them important to me is that they are all general conceptual issues rather than solutions to specific technical puzzles. I like having a nice set of general boxes to put problems into rather than just a list of specific solutions to things. There are a lot of patterns in computing and programming and thinking that way lets you take advantage of that.

Most other things you run into in our industry are just hype for some specific solutions to a particular set of specific issues, and are thus less interesting. Learn that stuff if you need to know it, but otherwise there is no shame in ignoring it. With the right foundations you can figure it out when forced to. And if you are never forced to then you will not have wasted your time.


  1. It is an old joke that “perl” stands for “Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister”. Which fits. See for details.↩︎

  2. Other forms of this line of thinking include: “this works fine for me, it should be fine for you too” and also “oh, we designed the system that way because we don’t see a reason to want to be able to do X easily, so you should not either”, and finally, “making sure that the system design maintains technical attribute Y is more important than anything else even if no other single person in the universe cares about that.” Finally, I guess in the FromSoft community there is a more concise way of saying this, which is just “git gud, scrub.”↩︎