I don't know anything about anything.

Posted on June 26, 2021

Last summer, after decades using soft contact lenses, I decided on my ophthalmologist’s advice to try rigid contact lenses again as those are supposed to be superior both optically and anatomically. This suggestion made me realize that I had actually no idea how the different type of contact lenses or spectacles worked. As a technology enthusiast, it always seemed natural to look up into great details how OLED/VA/IPS displays worked before buying a monitor, to educate myself on the different types of backlight technologies and to find objective benchmarks to compare the choices as objectively as possible. And yet, while I was taking great care in making sure my monitor was able to reproduce reality as accurately as possible, I never actually cared enough to do the same for my eyes, which admittedly I use quite a bit more than any monitor.

Sufficiently advanced technology

Clearly, when one thinks about it, it seems absurd to try very hard to get the best picture quality possible out of a monitor and not out of your own eyes; but I am willing to bet that I am not the exception here and that while most contact lens wearers probably spent hours researching their expensive new TV or ultrawide monitor purchase, most did not research in any way what would be best for their vision.

This absurd situation bothered me a great deal, and I decided to research in detail everything I could about my future lenses: what is Dk? What is astringency? Why does modulus matters? What’s the point of scleral lenses? While ultimately knowing all that did not matter that much as the contactologist actually knows what he or she is doing, I’m still glad I now know exactly why I am wearing the contacts I am wearing (because thanks to my eye being wonky, I actually had to test most of them, I’m currently wearing mini-scleral hard contact lenses made of Acuity Polymers’ Acuity 200 high Dk material).

This little expedition in the world of eyewear made me realize that I actually didn’t know anything about the thing I use every day, take for granted, and cannot do without. The fact that we can use advanced technologies every day without having a single idea how they work is in itself nothing short of amazing. Most scientists, computer programmers or any people in a highly technical field probably know how hard it is to make a very advanced topic understandable or even simply usable by anyone. As our society has become increasingly technical, we have grown accustomed to not knowing how the world around us operates. Ironically, as we congratulate ourselves for our scientific achievements, our sufficiently advanced technology, we treat everything as magic. More worryingly, it seems like our complacency with this fact is taking us down a path of neo-obscurantism, where snake oil and misinformation can be sold using a form technobabble. The fact that I am currently typing this article on a computer that uses advanced silicon magic to think, which will then be posted on the web for everyone to see using tube magic is awe-inspiring, but I cannot help but feel uneasy about the fact that all of this is magic to me. I feel like I know what I’m doing as a programmer, and yet I’m nothing more than a very educated magician. I just now the right magical incantations to summon programs out of thin air but I do not know where they come from. At best I can hand wave an explanation by mumbling something about electrons and transistors, like an alchemist explaining the world by invoking ether.

I don’t know anything about…

As I am writing this post, I’m writing my PhD thesis. I’ve spent 4 years learning about a single topic and I still barely know anything about it. Being deeply knowledgeable about everything is foolish, even being deeply knowledgeable about a single thing is a lofty goal for an entire lifetime. But being a little knowledgeable about a lot of things seems much more achievable. I will never be a polymath, but I can try.

As it’s impossible to gain even a shallow overview of everything, I have settled on the long-term goal of learning about two fields I use every day and know nothing about: computers and networking. And in order to motivate myself I will be writing about them here in a I don’t know anything about… series.

My goals for the networking series are not that hard but have proved to be quite fun until now:

  1. Understand more about Layer 2 networking by growing my network and installing a transparent wifi bridge at my parents’ place.
  2. Understand more about Layer 3 and routing by replacing the ISP provided router and using my own, and then creating a network spanning multiple sites using OSPF and VPNs.
  3. Understand more about GPON and other access technologies by getting rid of my ISP provided ONT for my own.
  4. Understanding a lot more about routing by using BGP and becoming my own Autonomous System.

My long-term goals for the computer series are

  1. Understand how CPUs work by creating my own CPU on an FPGA (by going through The Elements of Computing Systems)
  2. Understand how OSes work by writing my own OS, hopefully on my own CPU (by going through Operating Systems: Three Easy Pieces).

As those two goals are already really ambitious I am wary of adding more until I am done, as I have a tendency of starting projects and never finishing them. But I will also punctually write about new topics as I learn about them.

It seems impossible and foolish to hope to learn enough to understand everything, especially since there are many things I sadly do not care about very much (I’m sure knowing how a car works is very interesting, and very deep, rabbit hole; just not for me). But I hope that after spending 3+ years learning a lot about a very niche topic (aka a PhD thesis), I can learn a little about many things, and feel a little less like Arthur C. Clarke, surrounded by technological magic.