“You have an astonishing variety of knowledge.”

That was from one of my housemates. I’d just told him that I was preparing for an interview with an ESL school. He was confused because, as far as he knew, I was specializing in programming. (Which is funny, because I’m just beginning that madness!) I told him that nope, I also have a certification in teaching English as a Foreign Language/Second Language. He was impressed, and it got me thinking. There’s a Heinlein quote that ends with: “Specialization is for insects.”

Now, there are a ton of things that are going on in America right now – and several of them can be boiled down to a deep and severe concern that, put simply, when it comes to the future, our country is completely and utterly screwed. The “why” depends on who you ask – some would say it’s because of the Muslims. Others would say immigrants. Others would say that it’s because of people who say those kind of things. Personally, I think that our country’s got a bright future, with the caveat that we’ve got to acknowledge the importance of a broad education.

I know, I know. There’s a chorus of people who shout “WHY WOULD I EVER NEED [“algebra”, “Shakespeare”, “C++”] in [“teaching English”, “programming”, “burger flipping”]. (That should probably be a hash, but in order for that to make sense, you’d have to run a program and — fuhgeddaboutit.) And, you know, that’s where the problem lies. Agreed, we need a lot more focus on the maths and sciences in grade school. Speaking as someone who was semi-boned by moving to Tennessee from the much-better school districts in Ohio, if I’d experienced a better framework for learning, say, even long division, there might be a better chance that I wouldn’t experience mortal fear upon looking at a multi-step equation. However, for every hard-skills course we have, we also need a soft-skills class.

Think about it: How many engineers do you know that are  brilliant at coding, but cripplingly awkward?

Obviously, there’s a world of difference between etiquette and analyzing a literary piece. However, there was a study floating around – and I’d link it if I remembered where I first saw it – that showed the connection between empathy between people and reading high literature. That is, as mind-numbing as Joyce is, he puts you utterly and totally in another person’s shoes. While programming is obscenely utilitarian and useful, there’s not a lot of human interaction in there – learning Ruby may exercise your logic muscles, but it won’t make you think about whether calling your nemesis a “whackoff” would be a good idea.

And so, I think that idea of the renaissance man, that idea that “a human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly” – in Heinlein’s words – is central to being a human. The jack-of-all-trades may not make a six-figure salary as, say, a dermatologist specializing in teen acne treatment, but he will be able to wear many, many hats in the course of a day.

And, perhaps it’s just because I’m trying to justify my slow (by my self-destructive standards) progress learning all this programming shiz, but I think there’s a lot to be said for that. Specialization is indeed for insects – or robots. After all, we create the robots so we don’t have to spend our time screwing bolts into things, or glueing windshields into newly-constructed vehicles, or whatever else you want to talk about. We make the bots so we can be free to enjoy life – theoretically, of course. What more often happens is the heavy hand of the free market then lowers wages, cuts hours, and busts unions. But, I don’t think that’s the fault of the bots – but let’s not talk politics in this space.

That comes later!

Ruby and Language

Languages are a weird thing. You’re born with one, work very hard to become proficient in it – regardless of the dialect – and then utterly forget the hard work that you put into learning it. In high school and college, you’ll start learning a foreign language and, inevitably, complain that it’s too hard. Why? Because you’ve forgotten how hard it was to learn English.

Now, consider programming languages. Even one of the most organic – Ruby – takes a lot of hard work to get down. Even the basics. Let’s assume that you, like me, are trying to learn it as your first programming language. (This is ignoring the fact that I used to work with ActionScript in high school. That was nine years ago and I was never able to use it outside of the one programming class I took.) You’ll go through exercises, and you’ll work very hard at them. You’ll work on problems posited by the exercises and, eventually, after working out that yes- it can be that simple, you’ll work on another tutorial. Because that’s how you – like me – learn: Beat it into your head over and over until it sticks.

So, I’m on – what – tutorial number four now? It’s called Ruby in 100 Minutes. So, I’m going through classes and methods – again – and decide that the program they’re asking me to write is too simple. Why? Because it doesn’t take into account the fact that, in English, if you have the article “a” preceding a word beginning with vowel, it becomes “an.” So, easy peasy, work in a quick check in the class to fix the program so that the does just that and move on.

Nope. What I found was that, for whatever reason, I could not figure out what to do. I knew there was a method that did exactly what I needed, and I knew I could check the first letter of the string (by using [0] and appending it to the argument), but something wasn’t clicking.

It was driving me nuts. Surely I could at least do this. Didn’t matter if I was doing it in a circuitous way, but after minute thirty, I was doing separate if/elsif/else checks for each vowel.

And then I stumbled across the problem at StackOverflow: Ruby does not have a “starts_with?” command. It does, however, have “start_with?” This boggled my mind. Why would they do this? Where was the logic? What madness was this?!

Well, the creator of Ruby had been asked that before and gave some answer that made it seem that he thought having the command be “starts_with?” would imply the second-person, third-perspective, or some such nonsense. I thought about how crazy that was, because in what world does that make sense? (Yes, I know. Recursive argument.) Then I thought about two things: 1) Rails has “starts_with?” (I think), so the point is moot if you’re developing in Rails; 2) This isn’t English. This is Ruby. This is a different language altogether, albeit one that happens to share the same characters as English and, in some instances, similarities with English. It is, to use an analogy, like you’re writing in another Romance language. (Albeit one that doesn’t do that whole ‘artistic thought’ thing and instead opts for pure logic.)

Now, has that helped me learn the language? Kinda. I mean, I don’t suddenly know everything about Ruby, and I acknowledge that it’s going to take a lot more work until I’m proficient in it, but I think knowing that – providing myself with a frame of mind, in other words – is helpful.

Anyway, other than having minor freakouts about still being unemployed after a month of being in Portland, and not getting call backs from temp agencies (ohgodamithatunqualifiedforeverythingohgodohgodohgodohgod), that’s what I’ve been up to.

Oh! Also! The internet works at the house now! I can’t do crap with it on my Mac partition, because the Ralink drivers for my usb dongle are garbage, but still!

The Importance of Documentation


Busy weekend. Wordstock. Reading. I SHOOK TIMOTHY ZAHN’S HAND.

But I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to save that for another post, for a time when I’m not prepping for a couple of job interviews. No, today I’m going to talk about a lynchpin of coding:


Specifically – and this is going to be brief – the importance of not just screwing around with variables in hashes and arrays in Ruby. See, I’m refreshing my memory on this thing (and learning some new stuff!) by going through the courses on Codecadamy. I’ve been doing this with JavaScript, but I’ve decided that I like Ruby better. Possibly because it’s my birthstone. I think. (That’s what it is for July, right?)

So, I’m going through the lessons, and one of them – sorting the frequencies of inputted words by using a hash – plays pretty fast and loose with variables. Now, it’s made it clear that variables, at least when you’re slapping them between “| |” are just placeholders. I get that. The tricky thing was that, in this particular lesson, we’re forming a hash out of single keys. In this case, words inputted by a user. So, rather than a multidimensional array (i.e., the sort of thing that would require a key and a value in between the |s), we’re just dealing with single things.

Follow me? Hopefully.

Point is, as I’m going through this, I do what I think is correct, and keep being told that I’ve set the hash up incorrectly. Now, I know that’s not right. I know that because I’ve set the variable – “frequencies” – equal to, just as it should be. So the hash is correct, damn it. And, as I am wont to do in certain situations, I try it a few more times, hoping that at some point, the machine will realize that it’s wrong and I am right.

Of course, that didn’t happen. What was happening, however, was a bit of miscommunication in the form of documentation. See, the author of the course obviously knows his Ruby. In trying to explain this course, however, he’d skipped over the fact that, when you’re sorting a hash, it becomes an array. (I.e., it assigns a value based on the frequency [in this case] of the appearance of a word. So, in this example, the word ‘the’ appeared twice. So, the multidimensional array became “the” => 2. Of course, this was all set up earlier by splitting up the individual words in the input by way of “words = text.split” and then slapping a method to “words” so that the program tallied every appearance of a word. Anyway.)

So, if I haven’t lost you there (WordPress really needs a footnote function), then what we’re at now is that I’m looking at what is clearly a hash, being told that there is no hash, and then being confused. So, after bashing my face against the metaphorical wall a few times, I went to the Q&A forums, where one guy helpfully suggested thinking of the variables as:

|words, frequency|

instead of

|a, b|

as had been displayed in the lesson.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well duh. What else would it be?”

Well, for me, who’s still on his first cup of coffee, trying to remember if any of this was covered in my Ruby on Rails course (it was – just very briefly and in one of those “You won’t have to remember this for the test” ways), that made all the difference.

And, further, it made me realize just how important documentation is. It’s so, so important to remember that other people may be looking at your code, so you have to make sure it’s not in your own bizarre mind-language, whatever that may be. And I also think this goes double for editing manuscripts – moreso when you’re doing it by hand. Really, anything where you’re working with other people.

Documentation: Make it like breathing.