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A Nerd in a Cave

The first few days of any significant overseas trip, I’m a jerk. It’s not just the jetlag that’s poisoning my attitude; it’s the lack of context. I get twitchy when I don’t know where my stuff is. Combine that with the fact that no one is speaking English, there are two toilets in the bathroom, and I have no idea what time it is and you can begin to understand why I’m in such a foul mood.

Three days in, I’m sleeping, I know it’s called a bidet, and I’m working hard on my Italian R and U sounds. I’m having fun, but I’m still thinking about my lack of context. I’m thinking about the familiar place I’ve built so that I can work.

The Cave

The picture on the About page is my Cave. It came as part of the new house. I didn’t paint the walls blood red, they came that way. Most folks who get the tour walk into The Cave and gasp at the walls. “They’re so dark how can think surrounded by this ominous redness?” I nod and grin slightly and shuffle them off to the next room. See, I love my Cave. The thick blood red walls wrap me in comfort and that is what a Cave does.

My Cave is my intellectual home. My kitchen is where I eat, my bed is where I sleep, and my Cave is where I think. Everyone has some sort of Cave; just follow them around their house. It might be a garage full of tools or a kitchen full of cookware, but there is a Cave stashed somewhere in the house.

The nerd Cave has some specific traits:

  • A computer on a desk with ready access to the Internet. The fact that a computer without an Internet connection is essentially a very expensive DVD player is a recent development, but the fact is, when I sit down at my MacBook and there is no wireless I think, “Well, I could play Bejeweled, right?” In The Cave, the Internet is the life blood. It connects this dark place with the rest of the world.
  • World-canceling features such as a door or noise-reducing headphones. These features are a nuisance to significant others interested in communication, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
  • A random collection of comforting nerd knick knacks. This varies wildly from nerd to nerd, but there is always at least one object or talisman of nerd-dom sitting in the Cave. I have this white carved stone polar bear staring at me right now. I think I got it for Christmas. It’s been staring at me for ten years now and each time I sit down in the Cave, I worry that if the polar bear wasn’t there… I wouldn’t be able to write.
  • Something to drink. This may be my thing, but I can’t really settle into The Cave without something liquid. Right now, it’s a cup of homebrew by Peet’s. In the afternoon, it’s a glass of water. In the evening, it might be wine or a beer. For me, the drink is a mental pause where I intensely scrutinize the last 30 seconds. What did I just write? What am I trying to say? [sip] Ok, back to work.
  • A well-defined layout. This ties into my NADD, but I have deep knowledge of the layout of my Cave. Each month, the housecleaners come for a tidying of the house and each month I walk into my office when they are done and spend 30 minutes adjusting my monitors, relocating my pens, and re-piling my papers. I think it’s great that someone is coming to clean the house, but I wish they’d STOP TOUCHING MY STUFF.
  • A view. Like the drink, the view is a mental break, an escape to somewhere else that provides a brief alteration to perspective. This is why everyone in the office wants a window. It’s not a status symbol, it’s an escape. I’ve seen nerds without a view go to great lengths to create one. My manager at UCSC built a working window frame in his subterranean office and put posters from around the world behind it. When I left UCSC, he had a poster of Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

It’s an ominous name: Cave. It alludes to a dark, damp place where you are likely to be eaten by a grue. The irony is that the purpose of a Cave is not to insulate, its purpose is to germinate. I’ll explain.

The Zone

Each weekend morning, my process is this: I wake up, walk up stairs, sit down at the computer, and figure out what is happening on the planet. Once I’m comfortable the sky is not falling, I walk to the kitchen, grind my coffee beans, and begin to boil water. While the water is heating up, I return to my computer and follow up on whatever tidbits tickled my fancy from my first pass. This morning, it was some World Cup research followed by looking into options around wireless headphones. Turns out, Sony sucks. Go figure. Water’s boiling! Back to the kitchen, where I pour hot water into my French press and dig up my favorite ceramic cup. The coffee needs to sit for three minutes, which means back to the computer! Ok, so why do Sony headphones suck? Poor sound quality? Bad design? Bit of both, really. Coffee’s ready, so one more trip to the kitchen where I pour the steaming brew into my favorite cup and travel, once more, to my Cave.

It looks like a lot of work, but I do it instinctively . It’s a routine designed to do one thing — get me into The Zone. Much has been written elsewhere about the mental state that is The Zone, but I will say this: it is a deeply creative space where inspiration is built. Anything which you perceive as beautiful, useful, or fun comes from someone stumbling through The Zone.

Once I’ve successfully traversed my morning routine and have entered The Zone, I am OFF LIMITS. I mean it. Intruding into The Cave and disrupting The Zone is no different than standing up in the middle of the first ever showing of The Empire Strikes Back, jumping up and down, and yelling, “DARTH VADER IS LUKE’S FATHER! DARTH VADER IS LUKE’S FATHER!” Not only are you ruining the mood, you’re killing a major creative work. Think about that the next time you enter The Cave with a useless question about what shoes you should wear.

No, I’m not going to answer the phone. In fact, it’s a sure sign of compromised Cave design if I can even hear the phone ring. And no, I don’t hear you when you walk in and ask if we should go to the park tomorrow. I don’t hear you the second time, either. I don’t mean I’m ignoring you because that’d involve using precious brain cycles I need for The Zone… I really CAN’T hear you. That’s how deep I am in The Zone.

No , I have no idea that it’s been four hours since I closed the door and began furiously typing. Really, the only things I know are: a) when my coffee cup is empty, and b) when I need to head to the bathroom.

Yes. When you successfully penetrate The Zone, there is a chance I’ll be an asshole. In fact, I might snap.

The Snap

This is where I apologize.

No one deserves to be on the receiving end of The Snap. All you were really doing was coming in to see when I was done because we agreed we’d go surfing this afternoon. Still, I got in The Zone and I’m writing this wicked article and WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU WANT? The Snap is a glare, a raised voice… something designed to indicate you are PISSING ME OFF with your presence.

It’s not fair, I realize that, but think of it like this. If you walk up to me and slap me across the face, I’m not going to think, “Why’d you do that?” I’m not going to take the time to dissect the situation. My instinct is going to be pure, primal, and immediate. I’m going to slap you back.

The reason for this irrational reaction is antiquated brain wiring. Four million years ago it was to my evolutionary advantage to respond to slaps as quickly as possible because they were often precursors to being eaten. Rather than piping my slap response through the “What is a Reasonable Response?” portion of my brain, it’s wired straight into my “React Immediately or Else” area. Somehow, The Snap response has the same wiring. Invasion of The Zone is akin to some primal activity that required the brain to wire itself for immediate, irrational response.

It’s not right, it’s not socially acceptable, and I regret my actions 30 seconds later, but in 20 years of nerdery, the quest hasn’t been to kill The Snap, but figure out how to manage it.

The Place

Try as I might, I don’t always make it to The Zone. I’ll go through all my odd little pre-Zone activities of drink and music selection. I’ll slightly adjust the five essential objects on my desk and I’ll begin… playing World of Warcraft.

This is not The Zone… this is The Place. It is very similar to The Zone in appearance, but, mentally, it’s a different muscle that I’m exercising. If The Zone is akin to playing power forward in a championship hockey game, The Place is the six hours spent in the weight room the day before. Yes, I’m using my mental muscles, but I’m not really building anything.

The rule is this: your significant other can interrupt The Place with impunity. That’s the rule. I might Snap, but if you let me linger in The Place like you should let me work in The Zone, you’ll never see me. If you walk into my office to ask me something and see a half-naked night elf dancing on my screen, you are hereby authorized to invade. Mistakes will happen and you’ll invade The Zone thinking it’s The Place, but after I’ve cooled down, it’s my responsibility to explain why what looks like The Place is actually The Zone.

Other Places

Nerds are rewarded for structure. We get big bucks for reliably generating useful technology that works. Sure, we’re artists, but it’s an art of patterns, repetition, structure, and efficiency (I swear, it’s sexy). This makes it not surprising that the places we create in our homes and in our minds are designed in the same fashion.

The risk with these places is the same risk with all comfortable places. In the comfort, we forget that some of the most interesting stuff happens elsewhere.

26 Responses

  1. That point could not have been made in a better way. I owe you a beer.

  2. Rands:

    Beautifully written. Sums up for me why I think the open-office/bullpen style of desk arrangement is horsepoopy.

    Any “synergy” gained is going to be quickly lost when Bob and Joanie’s conversation about their weekends or Frank’s spilling his soda all over the shared space CLEAR MY STACK AND NOW I FORGOT HOW TO IMPLEMENT THAT REALLY HARD THREADING FUNCTION DIE DIE DIE.

  3. “Really, the only things I know are: a) when my coffee cup is empty, and b) when I need to head to the bathroom.” Why yes, and I’ll mostly only realize I have to go to the bathroom by the time I REALLY HAVE TO go.

  4. Rands, just curious: if the missus emails, IMs, or text-messages you to see if you want to go to the park, would it be more well received in The Zone or The Place?

  5. If I’m truly working in The Zone, I should take the time to minimize distractions means I should shut down email and IM.. but that doesn’t happen.

    So, the answer to the question is whether I’d prefer to be interrupt in The Zone or The Place… the answer is always –> The Place.

  6. Sorry, the question was: would electronic be better than in-person when you’re in the cave? You know, so your wife wouldn’t have to fear her husband turning into a Cave Troll when she wants to go to the park. :)

    I actually don’t have a good cave. I’ve got a good desk at home that’s usually covered in crap, and it doesn’t have a good door or window. I’d love to trade up to a cave, assuming I didn’t start exhibiting anti-social behavior. (This would not fly with my significant other.)

  7. Haha thank you, you talking about the zone always is a good laugh.. :)

  8. You snap because you’ve decided in advance that you’ll snap when you’re interrupted out of the Zone. In your mind, you’ve already equated being interrupted with being slapped, so it’s hard not to respond to voilence with voilence. However, an interruption isn’t a slap, so you (and I) always end up apologizing for something which, to everyone else, seems like a much larger retribution for a relatively tiny thing. Not many people can get into the zone while coding (which is why they pay us the big bucks), so not many can understand how interruptions cost.

    But the snapping thing? It reminds me of something I read in a law textbook about why we don’t have crimes of passion in the US. The logic goes like this: two big guys piss each other off in a bar, they get into a tussle, one of them ends up dead and the other wounded and slightly dazed, wondering what happened. If you just looked at those events themselves, seems like the heat of the moment. But the reality is, we train ourselves on how we’ll react in that heat of the moment. Those two big guys, they’re not used to being stood up to, and react to that with violence, which is just unacceptable in civil society. You’ve decided that being interrupted sucks, and you’ll respond with snapping. Your mind has been trained to respond that way, in that split second. It’s a learned habit, and one that can be broken. Took me a few years, but it’s one I’m out of. I think so, anyway.

  9. Blake 8 years ago

    Nice post.

    I remember a few days ago I was working at home, and my drink was empty, so I looked at the clock, and it was 10 p.m. I’d been thinking it was about 6 p.m. and I was waiting for dinner.

    Turned out I’d had dinner 3 and a half hours ago, and got straight back to coding, forgetting that any of it ever happened.

  10. Great post. I also like the idea of that subterranean Cave fellow and his improvised window…I might steal that.

  11. Of course it’s comforting; my first thought was “How uterine.”

  12. Mike Rowlands 8 years ago

    Hold on did I write this? I thought I was the only jerk in the world who treated his other half like this!

    Very nice post. I’ve found that there is a ‘middle place’ as well. For instance I would frequently visit http://www.deviantart.com, just to browse, get ideas etc, and find 2 hours later i’m in the manga section looking at the latest ‘super deformed’ pictures…

    This envokes the confused Snap where not even my primal response is sure who is in the right!

  13. An excellent summary. I’ve trained myself out of the Snap over the last few years, though – I can now settle for a mild glare and not moving the mouse or anything else until I can pick up my thread of thought again.

  14. Code Newbie 8 years ago

    Hmm…maybe I should not be a coder?

  15. PhilC 8 years ago

    OK, here’s the thing. You want intense focus on a single project, yet you have N.A.D.D. and multiple monitors to match your messy thinking. I’m not sure how this all fits together. (I ask because I’m not as good as getting into the Zone as I used to be and I may have a mild-to-moderate case of N.A.D.D.) I guess what I’m asking is: how does your messy thinking (or N.A.D.D.) fit in with The Zone?

  16. I agree with most of what you say, but I still would quiver at the thought of showing it to the significant other as an explanation of the Snap.

    Let’s face it, their Snaps are bigger than ours.

  17. Klaatu 8 years ago

    Talk Rands;

    Love the cave: mmmmm…Russian red. It reminds me of the colors found in the International rooms at The Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh Pa.

    Your room is set up for completionist design. My cave is set up for incrementalist design: My cave is a lab/studio: lavender walls, the laptop is actually sitting on a drafting table and not the mahogany desk, and rows of orchid flasks. I need these props to get into an Incrementalist zone. I do, however, have a talisman like you : a enameled chinese cloisonne box shaped like a gourd :-)

  18. IceRuby 8 years ago

    It’s true, it is sexy. So are some geeks that go with it. Nothing and no one else ever satisfies again.

  19. Rands–

    No offense, but your cave seems like a place you go to a lot (not always) to think about problems … at work. How much of your day is spent not at work, but thinking about it? Do you feel you think about work too much?

  20. Amen brother.

    Copy to:Significant other

  21. I have a feeling my significant other would yell at me and leave me because she would feel unwanted, neglected, and not good enough if I tried to explain this phenomenon to her.

    So in other words, except at work, I never get anything nerdily useful done because I never get to sit on the computer if she’s around.

  22. Sadly, my concepts of The Zone and The Place are pretty much opposite from yours. If I’m immersed in killing something then god help you if you decide to phone me or minimize my game by sending an IM.

    Conversely, my work ethic is such that I need distractions to break up my focus, otherwise I start getting jittery.

  23. This reminds me a book about architectural building patterns: “The Timeless Way of Building”, Christopher Alexander. It explains how, through the ages, patterns can be found on successful buildings, places, rooms, and shows their social roles. I think here we got nice patterns for geeks’ rooms…

  24. Great essay!

    This is the first I’ve heard of The Place, but I seem to spend a lot of time there — a lot more than I spend in The Zone, even though I don’t play video games. I hope to hear more about The Place from you in the future.

  25. >.would electronic be better than in-person when you’re in the cave?

    Answering from my own experience, electronic is better. It’s an IRQ (interrupt request) and can be prioritized to just after the current Intractable Problem folds over into the Inevitable Solution, which a great time for a break.

    A personal visit is an NMI (nonmaskable interrupt), on the other hand, can’t be prioritized or postponed, and often smashes the stack badly enough that the Inevitable Solution can’t be reached again directly, only through painful reverse-approximation (“Nope, that fragment wasn’t it.”) The same applies to the telephone, should you be so unfortunate as to have one in your cave; at least mine has SIT tones at the beginning of the outgoing message, which throws off autodialers.

    Unfortunately, doing something like hooking up a doorbell switch at the entry to the BratCave to an unused serial port’s status line will allow absolutely anyone (the kids included) to generate multiple spurious IRQs. Maybe installing a cardreader terminal intead, handing out magstripe cards, and restricting their access times…

  26. Wow. I thought I was the only one who called my NerdZone a Cave.

    Of course, since I have one of those odd bunk-bed/desk combos, and the lights that are supposed to light the desk portion don’t always work, it really IS a Cave…