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Friday, May 30, 2008

Putting your heart into it

It's been said that Life is like a sewer; you largely get out of it what you put into it. However you can be seriously messed up by other people.

There was a time, long ago, when I participated in a big way on Usenet newsgroups - only to be driven out by the volume of spam, trolls and flaming nasties. This happens. The teenage males (of all ages and several sexes) that do this kind of thing are getting their jollies by the net equivalent of graffitti and muggings.

Now there's the world of blogs. Nasty things happen to, basically, good people; Kathy Sierra is the one that springs to mind. Threatening such a fine human being is wrong, and deeply stupid.

Then we have stuff like this dumb-as-a-post attack on the credibility of Jeff Attwood.

I may disagree with some things Jeff writes but he's always worth reading. It's thought-provoking stuff. Only very occasionally MEGO. Judging by his writing, he's a smart, thoughtful person with opinions on a variety of subjects. I like the phrase strong opinions, weakly held. Generalists are to be encouraged in this world of narrow-minded specialists.

I do admire his courage in exposing himself to criticism. That's what happens to popular blogs. I don't care if he's right or wrong, I can judge that for myself. What matters is that he has something to say. I do care when carping and non-constructive criticism try to discourage genuine debate.

The basis of the attack seemed to be that "someone was wrong on the Internet", and that Jeff had said that he didn't think that learning the C language was necessary. In my opinion it actually doesn't matter if one "learns C" or not. Since I graduated in 1980 I have never "learned" a programming language systematically - it's all been learning by doing and learning by example then discovering the more esoteric stuff. Most of my collection of several hundred books about programming have only been partly read by me. Sometimes skimmed through, sometimes dropped after 100 pages.

(And, incidentally, when did the freaking programming books get to be 700-900 pages instead of a couple of hundred? About 5-10 years ago. My bookshelves are groaning with paper...switching to a tablet device and electronic books might's showing promise so far. Anyhoo, authors are too ready to write immense tomes which really should be a long technical article or blogpost. Where the heck are the editors? I have been buying used books for a while now and encourage others to do the same (ABE books can get almost anything) - in the hope that in some small way it discourages the longer format - silly, I know. A small book giving the essentials backed up with a website containing the long examples and downloadable stuff would be so much better.)

It is arguable that I am a better maintenance programmer because I do not study a language deeply before working in it. This is now called "refactoring" and has become respectable again. I can certainly grok code as fast or faster than anyone I know. I think that I can pick up at least a superficial grasp of new tools, languages and techniques quickly because I am not plugged deeply into the massive amount of library code that most languages develop over time. At least enough to know whether I want to go further. That is not to say that it isn't painful sometimes (I have had some struggles especially with the more organic mutations of, say, ActionScript. I mean why does it have to have four ways of doing the same thing? lol, it's almost as if it was a human language!)

There is a role for the generic "programmer" as a smart person with an idea, or who is open to the ideas of others, or even more importantly, finds an idea and popularizes it.

Programming is ultimately about communication and ideas, isn't it? We are communicating with the machine and to those that follow us. And most great programmers are not sheep who just follow one path. They are usually people who have multiple other interests - such as gaming, sailing, music, mathematics, physics, psychology, art, athletics - and as such, real people bring insight into the largely hermetic world of the coder.

I have lived in the world of software long enough to know lame when I see it. And the self-declared iconoclast who derides the credibility of someone who puts his heart into his writing... well, get over it fella. You can earn your own credibility with your own work. Life is not a zero-sum game.

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