Why Eric can’t code

By » Sun, April 8 2012
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"Hello, World, why don't you play with me anymore?" (img by Bill Bradford)

I was about 8 years old at the dawn of affordable personal computing. My father bought an Apple IIc, and I spent days in the basement staring at a little black and white television we’d hooked up to it, trying to emulate Zork in BASIC because the machine didn’t do much on its own.

In college, I played Darkwind and coded a little LPC for a friend’s MUD. After college, I dicked around with Linux a lot thanks to information on the World Wide Web (remember when we called it that?). I got a freeshell account and wrote my own web pages (eventually with CSS!) and used Unix scripting tools to automate tasks at work and save hours.

Now I spend more time on computers than I ever did before, but the way I do it is completely different. Most of my work is simple office stuff. Email, web, documents, and work-specific stuff. This is me, doing what I do at work:

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This is how all the greatest apps get coded. (img by Justin Walcker)

Every few months, I’ll read an article like Why Johnny can’t code by David Brin and tell myself, “I should (re)learn to code.” I get some books and slog through a couple of online lessons. I get fascinated with the idea of some arcane computer language and research it and get more books. Then I end up staring at a REPL or interpreter or text file, ready to bash through a lesson on arrays or recursive functions or monads… and I promptly stop giving a fuck. Not because it’s hard, but because I just don’t care. It’s more fun to read about design patterns. I had the same problem with math in school.

Until tonight, reading a blog post about why Codeacademy sucks and the whole thread of replies and alternatives, I wasn’t clear on why I haven’t been able to to care long enough to learn to program or learn any math beyond basic algebra. My problem isn’t a lack of curiosity or intellectual equipment, it’s something else.

Now is the information age. I have a supercomputer in my pocket, and I’ve got access to loads of data beamed out all over the fucking place. People are making autonomous flying robots, distributed currency systems, anonymizing services, and peer to peer networks.

In this amazing time, I thought it would be easy to find a problem I want to solve and therefore have the impetus to learn to program. But I was wrong. There are lots of interesting problems out there, but there are also lots of cool solutions. If I want to keep an eye on the news for something specific, I take a minute to set up a Google Alert, not spend hours writing, testing, and debugging a script that crawls news sites for the term, formats the information, and beams it to my communication thingy of choice.

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"A" stands for "A shitload of money." (img by Rob Boudon)

Shit’s just easy now, and complacency is the mother of app store and marketing profits.

Codeacademy isn’t going to fix that. Nor is Learn Python the Hard Way. And punditry won’t help at all. I need to either artificially limit my own access to readily available premade solutions and/or find a project that has no solutions and is compelling enough to work on. The latter seems better, but I’ve got to unlearn some complacency and start dreaming of things for myself instead of letting Google dream them for me.

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