The STEMpunk Project: Introduction and Motivations

As of yesterday I have officially begun “The STEMpunk project”, in which I will endeavor to shore up my techie credentials by completing a series of projects chunked into four large categories: Computing, Electronics, Mechanics, and Robotics.

I have many reasons for wanting to do this: I love computers and programming; I read an almost unhealthy amount of science fiction, to the exclusion of nearly every other kind of fiction; the idea of investing in tech startups is appealing, and I think I might be good at it; the world still has a dire shortage of people doing long-term, sensible analyses of emerging technologies, and maybe I can help with some small part of that.

Plus, I’ve been fascinated by technology as far back as I can remember, but for various reasons have failed to nurture or explore that fascination.

Well, that changes now.

Thinking Inside the (Black) Box.

Viewed one way, civilization can be thought of as the proliferation of black boxes, i.e. things whose internal workings are more or less a mystery to anyone who isn’t either a specialist or a person who has made a special effort to learn how the black box works.

Let’s take an example: what is a refrigerator?

Well, it’s a device that keeps food cold. I know that it doesn’t work if I leave the door open, which implies that some amount of sealing is required. I don’t know what freon is or what it does, but I have heard it mentioned in connection with air conditioners and other cooling apparatuses, so I assume it is involved somehow.

An entire segment of the economy exists to manufacture, distribute, repair, and improve upon refrigerators and related technologies, and they get along perfectly well without me. I can cheerfully write computer code without having to also invent refrigeration, and when I get hungry I can just open the refrigerator, pull something out, and eat it without having to go hunting.

If you don’t know anymore about refrigerators than what I’ve written above then they qualify as a black box. For the most part the proliferation of black boxes  is a good thing, and our ignorance is usually harmless. Still, though, I don’t think it’s good to have too many things I rely on every day be mysterious. As an adult male with a growing degree of responsibility I should probably have some idea of how to do basic car repairs, what an electrical panel is and the rudiments of how to wire one, what a computer is and how to build one, etc.

And besides that, as I grow older I find myself increasingly fascinated by how awe-inspiringly awesome this stuff is.

How many eons did men cower in fear under rock ledges because some vicious electrical storm or forest fire was raging just beyond their shelter? How many gods were invented and placated because those same men not only didn’t know what they were looking at, but hadn’t yet even conceived of a general method for understanding what they were looking at?

These days, however, lightning is channeled through hidden conduits in my walls so that I can keep my living room a comfortable 75 degrees year round, and I use fire to propel a metal cage sitting on four inflated rubber donuts down a ribbon of asphalt at twice the top galloping speed of a horse. These miracles are called electricity and driving, and they’re so common as to be almost boring.

That fact amazes me.

Not Just About the Technology

While this year’s project is about cultivating a richer set of models for understanding mechanical, electrical, and computational systems, on a deeper level it’s about developing two macro-abilities which will allow me to begin playing at the level of the men and women I most admire:

1) Building the strength of focus to make rapid progress and produce large quantities of value.

2) Conceiving of, planning, and executing large-scale learning projects with many degrees of uncertainty;

To that end I’ll probably spend most of my blogging energies on issues related to motivation, practice, attention, and so on. And I plan on covering the structure of The STEMpunk project, including ways it deviates from similar large-scale undertakings like Scott Young’s “MIT Project”, how to make changes along with an expanding knowledge base, how to iterate between theory and practice when you don’t know much of either, etc.

I’ve been planning this for a while and I’m frankly pretty excited about seeing how far I can get. Stay tuned.

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