[FoRK] on hacking

Dave Long dl at silcom.com
Fri Aug 6 11:15:58 PDT 2004

The word for today is "hacking".

> Hacking is a traditional technique used by falconers whereby young
> falcons, approximately 6 weeks old, are released in a semi-wild state
> in order to improve their flying and hunting capabilities before
> being trained in falconry.

Hacking is not just for hawks; horses,
hounds, and humans are also known for
hacking when they're not working.

I ran into the term (in the late 20th
century sense) first for humans, then
discovered that horses and hounds are
said to be "hacking" when they have a
certain leeway to just fool around (a
sense dating to the 18th century) out
rambling through the country, instead
of working in formal conditions.

The hawks, however, have priority, by [0]
the account given in the shorter OED:

>  hack /hak/ noun, LME [var. (from inflected forms) of HATCH]
>  3. FALCONRY. A board on which a hawk's meat is laid (also
>  /hack board/).  Hence, the state of partial liberty of a
>  young hawk. L16.
>  3. /at hack/ (of a young hawk) given partial liberty

A hack board serves as "free beer" to [1]
a young falcon; it allows it to learn
the skills for hunting in a realistic,
yet forgiving, environment.


Of course, the falcon soon moves from
the problem of taking meat off a hack
board to problems posed "in the wild";
by challenging itself it becomes more [2]
well-rounded than it would have under
a structured training program.

> It is also thought that hacking improves mental conditioning as
> falcons receive a greater number of stimuli and experiences when out
> at hack. Most falconers would agree that a hacked falcon is superior
> to a falcon taken straight from the breeding aviary.

The equivalent for a human is a period
of freedom with the liberty to explore
real problems, during which one learns
to exercise dominion over the bytes of
the field, the fouls of the error, and
the fix of the C.

Therefore, I would say a "great hacker"
is measured not by productivity but by [3]
an aptitude for committing technically
impressive feats, while retaining that
spirit of just messing about, having a
bunch of fun--extraordinary competence
wielded with extraordinary insouciance.


:: :: ::

[0] We know of some old human hackers.
For example, Leonardo da Vinci is very
famous for his hacks, but his sketches
were how he amused himself, in between
undertaking his real duties.

"Re: distribution and persistence, ca. 1900"

[1] the hack board for humans was ARPA:

Alan Kay, "The Early History of Smalltalk", 1993
> I remembered at Utah, in pre-Mansfield Amendment days, Dave Evans
> saying to me as went off on a trip to ARPA, "We're almost out of
> money. Got to go get some more." That seemed about right to me. They
> give you some money. You spend it to find out what to do next. You
> run out. They give you some more. And so on. PARC never quite made it
> to that idyllic standard, but for the first half decade it came close.

[2] basically like "prototype and test":
a young hawk progresses from feeding off
scraps on the hack board to grabbing the
scraps on the wing to live quarry, for a
self-paced program of graduated exercise.

[3] if one has problems which are tricky
and interesting, a "great hacker" may be
very productive.  Often, with commerical
work, the work may not be so interesting,
merely very important--and for that case
it may be better to find a proven worker,
a hack for hire, than to attempt the use
of a jaded "great hacker" who might bate
madly for any hint of using any language
inferior to $UBERLANG.

As Nash puts it:
> I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance
> Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.

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