Skateboarding and Hacking

Posted by jayrfink on Jan 8, 2017 7:13 PM EDT
LXer; By Jason (Jay) R Fink
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A few years ago Rodney Mullen[1] gave a TEDx talk about the similarities between skateboarding and (Open Source) Innovation [2]. At the time, a handful of technical people left some messages about the talks that went something along the lines of this: "We really need to get people like this out of these talks." Those comments are gone now. It really bothered me that anyone would say that not because I am a skater (not a very good one) but as a hacker (the good kind and again not a very good one) and believer in Open Source - inclusion is important to me. So in the spirit of what Rodney had to say I am going to add my own thoughts on similarities between skateboarding and hackery[3].


Skater: To me a skateboarder is any style of deck and wheels. This includes but is not limited to street, park, vert, big air, longboarding and old school decks. All of us share a certain ethos regardless of the type of deck or features we like to ride.

Hacker: I am using this in a very, very, very outdated way. In this article my definition of a hacker is very broad: Anyone who is a hobbyist programmer, sysadmin or maker (often we are all - all of those - by necessity anyhow). I would narrow it to the Open Source ecosystem but Open Source is so pervasive now; well I leave that up to you the reader.


In the skater community defiance is simultaneously our greatest strength and weakness. Skaters have a common bond of "*bleep* you I am going to do what I want. Skate how I want, where I want, when I want and I don't care what you think." This attitude has done great things, skaters have achieved levels of prowess not necessarily by breaking rules, instead by not being conventional: Danny Way jumped the great wall of China... just because. So how is this a weakness? Well, we don't care if we are ever mainstream yet we want to be accepted in certain ways. The problem it creates is our attitude makes it difficult for us to convey positivity. When one of your prime mantras is "I do what I like" it tends to create friction with the local municipality, cops or even in some rare cases family and friends.

Hackers have the exact same problem. Many hackers are all about not being conventional and that is not limited to how one does things, it can also mean our view of what it means to work on this stuff. How many of us have been frustrated by some things simply changing? The Linux kernel, GNU, the BSD systems, countless window managers, editors, compilers, languages and who knows what else all came from or have strong elements of "we are doing it our way." Many times have we tried to explain this to family and friends: then given up.

Defiance can serve us and hinder us. It is unquestionably one of the most common themes I have come across in this world with people. And it is definitely a common thread shared with skateboarding and hacking.


New school skating since around the early 00s is a wide, deep diverse array of people who generally are nice, smart and fun: but old school thinking from non-skaters is a problem. Old school thinking says we all smoke weed and are lazy, obviously that is not true. There are many ridiculous perceptions about skaters: all skaters want to do is destroy property, skaters don't have real jobs and so on.

Hackers suffer this problem to no end. The perception that all hackers are first and foremost dysfunctional is ridiculous. I know a lot of hackers, they are affiable, approachable people who have as rich a pile of hobbies outside of hacking as I do. Yet the media perception is all hackers are pimply faced boys who never leave the basement. I know a lot of women hackers who take exception with that idea.


Skaters are definitely a DIY crowd. The Do-it-yourself attitude of skaters has created skateparks and spots where none existed. Skaters have, and will, go out and build concrete ramps, bowls, ledges and fix stairs simply to be able to come back and skate them later. Of most note is the Burnside skatepark in Portland, Oregon USA - a complete do it yourself skatepark built by and for skateboarders. Some of those skateboarders went on to found companies that build skateparks. Sound familar?

Anyone who has installed a BSD, Linux or any other Open Source system is by definition DIY because at some point in time you will have to crack open an editor and customize something. It becomes a necessity. For some of us, that necessity becomes a hobby. I have custom editor hooks, custom xterm hooks, custom mail hooks. Sometimes, we take that to extremes with good benefit. You don't like how a piece of software works or it doesn't do what you want it to? Make it. Or write your own.

There is no end to the DIY element of both of these worlds. I have shaped my own skateboard by hand sanding down and old school wide deck. I have built piece by piece my own computer rig. I once wrote a bootable assembly operating system with an actual memory based filesystem. I still own one of two skate ramps I built by hand. In the true spirit of open source - I gave the other one to a friend who is improving it.


In the skating world there is a saying: Shut up and skate. Gee whiz does this sound familiar at all? Pony up the code, shut up and hack. That is not meant to be mean it is meant to say that at the end of the day while we are all vastly different the common bond of hacking, skating, surfing, writing, whatever a group of people is into, unifies and become inclusive of people maybe we otherwise would not. It is a humbling thing for me to say that while I believe I am not a very predjudiced person, I still have them as we all do, and the acceptance of people based on interests has helped me move beyond them. I am now in my early 40s yet I converse on a regular basis with people half my age. Why else would I be hanging out with a 20 year old in Ottawa? The BSDcan conference of course! We meet people we otherwise would not have or perhaps even would not have wanted to because of some pre or misconception that in turn erases a predjudice we once held.

There is another side to this a much darker one but it needs to be brought up. For some of us, the disaffected, the throw aways, the left by the road sides, the unsafe - these communities, this acceptance, means a lot. A place we are accepted: despite all else.


Skaters do have conferences and meetings. How I will never know because believe me trying to get even a handful of locals together can be a problem. Yet we somehow manage to do it. We have loose knit groups, organizations, websites and so on where we share ideas, clips and tall tales. The sense of "I can do this alone or with a group" easily crosses the lines between hacking and skating. In fact skating, not unlike Open Source, has many a non-profit group all over the world with different agendas to promote the activity and/or make it better.


This is another weird one because it is not clearly evident in either the skating world or hacking world - on the surface - how much it really goes on. But it sure does. Yes sometimes it is very apparent: a window manager idea in one shows up in another. A skater does a trick on a set of stairs and another one does the same trick up the side of a ramp. It is evolutionary not revolutionary ... most of the time. Usually it is subtle and unseen without digging around a little. In the skater world there was a sort of "minor row" a few years ago when some skater did a backside grind down a rail another skater had previously done a regular grind (it is a REALLY big rail). That in of itself is innovation. Improvement upon. Software does this every day almost every minute. Skaters and hackers both have a tendency to "look around" and see what they can use, incorporate and improve.


Now onto a really interesting topic: The Make. In skating a photo make does not mean that the trick or move actually happened in that photograph. It means if the trick was landed before or after the still frame it counts. So how does this relate to software? Well how many version 1.0 softwares were followed up hours later by v1.0.1? How many v2.0s broke something cool in the previous version? Lots. If the patch flies out the door: it is a make.

We suffer from our failures but learn from them. Next time, wax the concrete ledge but for now keep the picture you have, and go home to put some ice on your shoulder. Same goes for software. Many, many, many times I have looked at my own creations and thought "this is stupid, no one cares, it is hard and the bugs keep coming." Then, in my case, I get mad, perhaps maybe a little defiant, and push on. Take a break, have a coffee, maybe do something that calms the brain - come back and figure it out.


In the skateboarding world I have watched different skaters complete the exact same move, same speed, same technical nuances yet for some reason I cannot define - one was better than the other. What was the difference? It was style. One held their head a certain way or their shoulders projected a certain attitude. But that was the only difference.

In the hacking world style shows up in code. Everyone does things differently and yet often this difference is so subtle that unless you are into that particular thing, like say systems programming, you wouldn't notice. Many projects have coding standards, after awhile of working on a project different styles still crop up. Again, sometimes subtle, or other times very obvious (especially in comments!)


If people knew what was going through a skaters mind when they are grinding a ledge, making air, pulling a kicksturn or just plain cruising they would leave us alone.

The reward for the challenge can fire on every cylinder. It has happened to me to be sure. I can recall one time I was working on a software problem and when I finally solved it I felt really good. Not just emotionally either there was a definite chemical reward in my brain telling me I did a great job. The first time I saw myself in a photo doing a rad in place ollie was beyond description (now I have too many of them). It is a positive addiction: we chase that feel, we search for trouble and challenge. A skater will push or drive all over the place looking for spots. How many times has the hacker cracked open the TODO file of a software project to see what interests them?


Both worlds, skating and hacking, have a crawlspace underneath them. A crawlspace that sometimes we fall into and don't ever return from. I would know, I was there. Maybe someday I will talk more about that but for now it is worth noting that we cannot build new relationships, friendships and make colleagues without the inevitable loss. Sometimes it is unexpected or simple health reasons. Other times, not so much, other times we watch our rad friends slowly dissolve. It is the nature of life and the one downer that spans the spectrum of our lives.


People can hang whatever they want onto skating or hacking. None of that matters because at the end of the day it is about having a good time. Do it alone if you like or with others. Be distributed or central. Use vi or emacs. Longboard or skateboard. If you are having fun you are doing it right.

  1. Rodney Mullen is a world famous skateboarder. He is known for innovating freestyle and street skateboarding.
  2. Rodney's various TED talks: [url= nullen tedx] nullen t...[/url] and a few other interesting clips.
  3. I am using the Old School definition of software hacker which is to say, people who do things in an unconventional way.

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