Tag Archives: learning

Old Dog, New Tricks: Part 3

October is here. More truthfully, October is halfway over! I have spent half the day improving my programming skills, which are…improving.

I have not created the killer app yet, but I have a few good ideas and an increasing understanding of how to translate them into functional code. I know what “architecture” means in the context of software design. I am 90% finished with the online course in the Ruby language available on Codecademy; 41% finished with the course in Javascript; working through C++ using CodeBlocks, and making progress in learning animation together with my son. He learns faster than I do, which is great because I love seeing him acquire a useful skill; it is also kind of discouraging because I used to learn that fast, and watching him makes me feel old. But it is inspiring as well, because he still likes to work with me and his energy and enthusiasm are contagious.

Maybe old and young people are meant to work together. Old people have more discipline, persistence, and experience; young people bring energy, imagination, and a fresh outlook to the table.

So I went to the library today and came home with a stack of books, half of which involve technology. October is here, which marks one year and a month since I started blogging. Eight months since I started learning about programming; five months since I had the idea of building apps. Three months ago, I set a goal for myself to have built an app that is good enough for people to want to pay for, within a year. I am starting to think that just might be possible.

If it sounds like I am tooting my own horn today, you understand me completely! I feel terribly proud of myself for starting to learn how to interact with technology at age 42, instead of just going “gentle into that good night”. Old dogs CAN learn new tricks.

And (with apologies to Dylan Thomas) learning a new trick beats simply raging against the dying of the light.

Another New Trick

So this weekend will be the second one I have spent on Codecademy learning some programming skills. How did this happen to me? A year ago, I did not even have a blog! My computer was a tool for e-mail and reading the news and checking the weather! I guess I had an “aha!” moment. After switching out the operating system on my computer, I felt very proud of myself for about half an hour. Then when the glow wore off, I realized I had a lot of work to do. I always knew there is a lot going on beneath the surface of computer applications – I once translated the user’s manual for a business management software system – but I never felt like programing was something I could learn to do. After successfully doing one small bit of computer alteration for the first time, I started to feel like it might be doable. So I got started! Codecademy is a site where you can get free lessons and practice in several programming formats. It’s fascinating. I have learned a tiny bit about how to cause some of the effects I enjoy about computers, like being able to search a database and make little colored circles move around by clicking on them. More importantly, I am being reminded that it is never too late to learn something new, and that knowledge is power, and so learning new things adds to your freedom of choice.

Never stop learning!

Old Dogs CAN Learn New Tricks!

I am pretty excited this week because of what I was able to do last weekend. If you are the technologically savvy type – a “techie” – this will not seem like much to you. You might be tempted to sneer scornfully at my pride in such a small victory. Please realize, I am a 41-year-old guy who still does not own a smartphone. I have no desire to own a smartphone. I hate the absence of buttons on a phone.  Going on Facebook gives me agoraphobia.

I’m not all that bad. In fact, when I asked my 15-year-old son to think of some things about me that are old-fashioned and behind the times, he said, “You really aren’t that bad.” This made my day! If a teenager thinks I’m not really that bad, there may be hope.

Anyway, I spent last weekend switching my computer’s operating system from Windows Vista to Ubuntu. It took me three full days and I made many mistakes, but it’s done – and it works! I learned a lot about how computers work, and about how ignorant I am about programming.

I decided to install a new operating system because my laptop was getting really slow, and I had already done all the things that are supposed to help: cleaning the registry, getting rid of unused files, running good security software to avoid viruses and such. It wasn’t working. Now, my computer is five years old, but I keep my things in good condition and I expect them to keep working as long as I treat them with the proper care. Another issue was Vista: I have had problems with it ever since the laptop was new. Windows kept sending service packs and patches to fix all the bugs, but every now and then the computer would just shut down for no apparent reason; Vista would crash fairly regularly; I was tired of paying for security software every year that would slow down the whole system. So I started looking for alternatives. I hear Windows 7 is really good. It is also really expensive. I had heard about Linux – it’s an open source operating system, which means it is available for free and you can go in and mess with the program whenever you like without getting sued by a corporation. Now remember, I’m the guy that has no desire to own a smartphone because without buttons it seems excessively hard to pick up or hang up. I had no wish at all to go in and mess with any programs; my impression was that Linux was for geeks who speak machine language more fluently than English. But I was really getting frustrated with Windows, so I did some research. Here’s what I found out.

Ubuntu is an operating system based on Linux, or using Linux code; I’m not sure if there is a difference or even if I am using the right words. If you are still reading, you probably know about as much as I do. (Either that, or you are amused; either way, I hope you enjoy the post.) You don’t have to be a Ph.D in computer science to use it, nor do you have to join some bunch of guys who tried out for parts in “The Big Bang Theory” and try to keep up with their techie-talk while they sneer scornfully at your ignorance. It’s really simple. You just download the program and follow the directions, and voila! you have a new operating system.

Well, you may retort, if it’s that simple, why did it take me all weekend? There are a few reasons. First, I started out with serious doubts about what I was doing. So I downloaded a trial version that installed inside Windows on my computer, so I could get used to the different controls and menus, and gain some idea of what it would be like to have Ubuntu. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I liked it. It looks nice and works well, and in my opinion is better organized than Windows. Now, in case you haven’t got it by now, I am pretty hesitant about adopting new technology. So (the next day) I did what is called a “dual install” – installed Ubuntu onto my computer, but outside Windows this time. I felt reluctant to abandon Windows – I have always worked with Windows; it was familiar and safe. What if I should change my mind? So I kept Vista and added Ubuntu.

There are many nice things about Ubuntu, but the three nicest ones are: 1. It’s free; 2. It’s safe (there is very little risk of virus or malware, so you no longer need to buy security suites); 3. There is more support than I ever imagined. Any problem you have will be thoroughly documented, and solutions are clearly explained by experts. Friendly, polite experts. It was fantastic! I soon found myself opening up the “terminal” – access to the system’s code – and writing in pieces of code I got from the support pages. It worked! I felt like a hacker, even though I was just customizing my own operating system. Day three, I deleted Windows from my computer and reconfigured my own hard drive. Six months ago, I would have considered this to be madness on the scale of bungee jumping with a home-made bungee cord made of rubber bands. But after a week, I’m loving life with Ubuntu. It’s faster, smarter, better. I feel free.

A few tips: 1) Get an external hard drive and back up everything you wouldn’t want to lose. I got a 1-terabyte unit at Fry’s Electronics for $70. It’s smaller than a slice of bread, and after uploading every file in my computer, it is still almost empty! 2) If your main reason for having a computer is gaming, you may be better off with Windows; I understand that many games aren’t compatible with Linux. I don’t game much, so I don’t care. My boys have an XBox anyway. 3) If you want to install from a CD or DVD, make sure to burn it at low speed; it may not work if you burn it at high speed, probably for the same reason it is harder to read someone’s handwriting who writes in a hurry, like doctors filling out prescriptions. 4) Most of the programs you use have free, open source equivalents that are easy to get and install on your Linux system. But there are a few, like my Zune mp3 player software, that will not work except with Windows. Go figure – Zune is made by Microsoft. But instead of keeping me from switching, this only makes me more eager to get rid of Microsoft. They seem like they want to own and control everything, while Linux – and Ubuntu in particular – operates in a spirit of sharing, cooperation, and a belief that if everybody benefits, then individual organizations benefit too. This makes me like and trust them.

What do I take away from my experience? A new and improved computer; saving money on software and security programs; and a reminder that old dogs really can learn new tricks. It is never too late to become something better than we are at present! All is takes is the will to risk a little and believe in yourself. Of course, all this is possible because people like those at Ubuntu make it possible. In a world where helping and sharing are important values, we can all be OK.

The Quality Students Need Most

Teachers know that the ideal student is the one who is interested, works hard, understands everything easily, and remembers forever. But since ideal people – students, teachers, and every other category – are in short supply, we hope for just one or two of those qualities.

And if I had to pick one? Curiosity wins, hands down. A student who wants to learn, who has a hunger and thirst for knowledge, will work harder and remember better; all this in turn makes the understanding more likely to happen at a deeper level. Which reminds me of another Einstein quote: “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”

How can we awaken curiosity? Maybe it is more important in the early stages of education to focus on the happiness of the child, to provide an environment in which learning coexists with joy. After a while, the child will find joy in learning for its own sake. Successful students make empowered citizens. Empowered citizens make a brighter future. So let us not underestimate the importance of doing everything possible to make school a happy place for all our nation’s children! It is not a question of what we can afford to do, but rather of what we cannot afford not to do.

A Few Einstein Quotes

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

“I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

In Einstein’s day, formal education consisted mostly of rote and recital. Independent thinking was, as a rule, not encouraged. We have come a long way since then! Educational doctrine has come round to mirror exactly Einstein’s point of view; all professional educators today learn that they are – primarily – facilitators of learning, not sources of knowledge. A large base of knowledge is a good thing, but in this age of information technology, we are seldom more than the push of a button away from the facts we need to process. Anyone can access data; knowing how to interpret it is another matter. Using it to gain further knowledge is at another level completely. Those higher levels are accessed by minds engaged through curiosity. As a father of students, and teacher of my neighbors’ children, I am glad that curiosity has taken its place in the formal education of the new generations.