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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The gift of learning

Ed Stephens Jr.

This Christmas, among my peers, many kids will be getting gifts aimed at increasing their competitive abilities. Examples include instructional books in math and science, instructional software in math and science, and scientific calculators.

There is an entire galaxy of learning aids and products out there, geared toward giving the ambitious youngsters a way to get ahead.

I think this has changed since I was a kid. I don’t remember the market for supplemental education being so big, formal, and developed. Back then, we had to pretty much make it up as we went. But the basic truth has not changed over the years: Do the best you can with what you’ve got.

For example, when I was a high school freshman, I wanted to learn to program computers. Small computers for the home were just experimental toys for hobbyists at the time. My school had no provision to teach computer programming. But I had an algebra teacher who helped me get going.

He gave me a book on FORTRAN (a programming language) and arranged for me to run my routines via the school’s mainframe computer.

This was easier said than done.

First of all, to write a program, I had to go to a vocational training room of the high school and use a keypunch machine to format cardboard cards that would be fed into the computer.

Unless you’ve got gray hair you won’t remember these cards. They were basically index cards that had little holes in them. The position of the holes is how the computer read them, and the keypunch machine, as you’ve probably gathered by the name, is how the holes get onto the cards.

I messed up my keypunching all the time, so it would take me forever, as in several days, to get my cards done.

Then I’d go down to the attendance office, which was my point of contact to drop off my cards. Unfortunately, I was on bad terms with the attendance office because of my habitual truancy.

So I’d slither in, hand over my cards, and slither back out again as the attendance lady gave me the stink-eye.

By the following afternoon my printout (white and green striped paper) would be wrapped around the cards I had submitted, and deposited into my algebra teacher’s inbox. I’d fish the printout from his inbox, and then the real work started. I’d have to debug the program, and my humble little routines had more bugs than an ant fest at a sugar party.

Given this clunky process, it would take me weeks and weeks of solid, incompetent effort to get even the most simple things done.

The next year fortune smiled on me. I wound up studying another programming language, APL, via a course at Northwestern University. “APL” stands for A Programming Language (yes, really).

APL was the .44 magnum of programs, a real hotshot way to crunch matrices, among other things. I meshed with APL a lot better than I did with FORTRAN, though I was never anything more than a bungling newbie with either language.

Best of all, there were no keypunch machines. We had real, live terminals to do our work on. Instead of making an error per day, I could make a thousand per hour. Hey, that’s more my style.

The computer terminals weren’t in the classroom. They were in a dedicated room. And I could spend as much time there as I wanted. So I spent all my time there. This aggravated my truancy problem in high school, but what did I care, I was an APL man!

Well, more like an APL boy. To the college students I looked like a mutant runt or something. The college women ignored me. Nobody talked to me. Nobody, that is, except one guy that I remember from the terminal room.

He was always writing programs that gave 2-dimensional projections of x-dimensional shapes, and “x” was always some wacky-large number. I was so stupid that he liked explaining this stuff to me, since it was a way for him to force his thoughts into small, discrete little baby steps, so he could sort of think aloud. In short, I was his in-house village idiot. But, for all my idiocy, I could concentrate for three or four hours at a stretch, with total, unwavering focus, as we went through our discussions.

Meanwhile, he would, with infinite patience, spend hours helping me with APL problems that my classmates could probably solve in two minutes.

That doesn’t sound like much of a triumph. But, for me, it was. I learned that if you want to go up, it’s better to be the dumbest guy in the room than the smartest. I think it’s a valuable outlook for being as competitive as possible, and if that seems counterintuitive in this age of narcissism, then so much the better.

The road to that lesson began with a used book on FORTRAN. Some of today’s youth will have nicer presents, all wrapped up under the tree, no less, but carrying the same basic payload.

* * * *

Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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