Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

learning Greek

Sure, people think it's a good idea to learn Greek. But of course they would when you put the question that way. It's a good idea to learn all sorts of things. The problems come when you try to determine relative goods. Is learning ancient Greek more valuable than learning calculus?

For the last few years I've made a conscious decision to work on retrieving some of my lost math and science knowledge, primarily in order to facilitate my understanding and use of computers. But this has been a fairly rough road, in part because of many years of exercising my mind in other ways, but also because the computer science world is generally not friendly to beginners/newbies/noobs. Even in some of the polite and friendly responses to my comment on this Snarkmarket post you can sense the attitude: “I just don't have the time or energy to be introductory.”

Maybe I've just been unlucky, but with a few notable exceptions, that's how it has gone for me as I’ve tried to learn more about computing: variants on “RTFM.” I think this response to learners happens when people think that their own field is the wave of the future, and like the idea that they're among the few who realize it — as Neal Stephenson once put it, they're the relatively few Morlocks running the world for the many Eloi — and don't especially need any more company in the engine room. Whereas classicists like Mary Beard are advocates for their fields because they are pained by their marginality. Maybe I should be pursuing Greek instead of Ruby on Rails. . . .

But wait! Just as I wrote and queued up this post, I came across an interesting new endeavor: Digital Humanities Questions and Answers. Now this might restore one's hopefulness!


  • Vince Virgilio said...

    Below link opens with

    "...how the computer scientists apologized for not be humanists and vice versa..."


  • I've never found a more friendly and open computer science community to beginners than that around the Haskell programming language:

    #haskell irc channel on freenode.

  • Your forum link reminds me of the StackExchange engine. The most well-known StackExchange Q&A site is Stack Overflow (a type of computer program error). Unlike many forums, Stack Overflow tends to consciously foster a helpful attitude towards new users as long as they take the time to carefully craft their questions with as much background information as they can. Perhaps you can propose a similar site for those in your situation.

  • Also related, it recently dawned on me that the most important skill for IT work is the ability to educate users (this presupposes the ability for IT workers to at least somewhat understand the skills themselves). Yet I do not see people going into IT because of the opportunity to build their educating skills. People go into IT because they are in the computer/Internet culture or because they are "good at computers".

    I think there is a parallel to health care and public health education. There is a lot of talk about how prevention is the road forward to improving health care and that comes in two branches: educating people about health and improving our science with new medications, better foods, and so on. In the tech world it feels like the only road anyone sees to improve the technology. Making software and hardware that requires less and less education. The problem is in such an inwardly focused field something that does not require education within the field may need a lot of education for those outside.

    I've found that Haskell is different enough in the programming language world that it requires education even for those inside. It is about much bigger ideas then typical programming languages. Perhaps this is why they are friendly to beginners?

  • Stack Overflow is great. I just keep wishing I had either a question that would be appropriate for the Stack Overflow crowd or something to contribute.

  • @Ryan - Haskell is very nice. And I think it's an example of the friendliness of the true computer science community. Haskell is a quirky language for folks who are passionate about coding for its own sake. And one is more likely to find friendly responses in such a community than among snarky, web squared (or whatever it is now), "party like it's 2006," Ruby on Rails hipsters and twitterhounds. I've also found the common lisp, perl, and python communities to be quite welcoming to newcomers.

    @Alan - If some took umbrage at your post on snarkmarket, I believe it was because you asked a "customer support" question about an free, alpha, proof-of-concept product. Having frequented a fair number of coder mailing lists and forums, I've found that the mistakes new folks make more often have to do with tone than a lack of knowledge. One common misstep is to approach the community as the might approach a commercial software developer: "Why don't you support X? Why did you code for Y platform only? Why is your program missing a clearly essential feature that I desperately need for my work?" While this tone is likely appropriate for an Apple support forum (where people have paid good money for their shiny toys), it is likely to put off people who have been working on an open-source project in their spare time, usually as a labor of love. Perhaps this is a better approach: "The project is very interesting. I look forward to learning more about it and hope it may be ported to other blogging platforms in the future. Might I ask why you chose Wordpress?"

    That said, your question may also have seemed a bit 1337, since everyone knows that Wordpress and php are so decidedly uncool these days. ;)

  • Proposal: anyone who responds "RTFM" should be required to write a better FM.

  • Ethan, I have to say that I can't even begin to fathom the connection between my comment and a "customer support" question . . . which perhaps confirms the point (or one of the points) of this here post.

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