Back to school

September 13, 2012

I’ve always liked the beginning of fall and a new school year. Refreshingly cool weather, a fresh new start with new classes, new subjects, new things to learn, and new goals to reach for.

Except for an online course I took a few years ago, it’s been a long time since I went back to the school in the fall – except for the “back-to-school” nights at my sons’ schools, which have a whole different feel for a parent than a student. I’ve always found things to learn, but generally not in the intense fashion that I associate with going “back to school.”

I’m back on a college campus this fall, but not as a student. Last week I started a new job, on the staff of Black Hawk College. I’m thrilled at the opportunity to be part of the learning environment, and I appreciate the community college’s commitment to making learning accessible to many people who for one reason or another face significant if not insurmountable barriers to becoming a student at a traditional four-year college.

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Going paperless

August 22, 2011

Good-bye, check registers. Good-bye, printed bank statements.

At least two years ago, I signed up to “go paperless” with the bank (actually it’s a credit union, but it functions the same as a bank as far as I’m concerned) that I use for most of my payments. I was never waiting until the paper statement came anyway – I’d go online occasionally to check my account balance and add any transactions I had missed to my checkbook register. So by the time the statement came, all I did with it was add it to a stack of papers to eventually store in a box somewhere.

It worked fine as long as I made most of my payments by check. But as I made more and more payments online or using my debit card, the job of keeping my check register up-to-date became increasingly tedious. Having the bank data all online was great. Having to writing it all on a paper register, just so I could do the bank reconciliation (where the errors were always mine, or else too small to spend time tracking down when they were most likely mine anyway), was a pain.

Now and then I thought about the possibility of getting a computer program to record all my finances. That way I’d not only take care of the bank records, I’d also be able to run reports showing me what I was spending my money on. For a while I had tried to track details of my spending in a spreadsheet, but it was a pain to do all that data entry. I don’t know if I’d dislike the chore as much if I had lots of money, but looking at the numbers is always an unpleasant reminder that I wish I were in much better shape financially – but don’t see that happening anytime in the near future.

Paying money for a program to do what I could do manually didn’t appeal to me, though, even if I didn’t like doing it manually. And while there may be freeware out there for that purpose, I wasn’t keen on relying on a program without customer support. (I did decide to pay for money a program to do my taxes this year, but that was because I was pretty sure it would save me money by making sure I didn’t miss any deductions.)

I finally have a solution I’m happy with, however. In recent weeks I’ve been working on using Visual Basic for Applications, together with Microsoft Access, to simplify keeping track of software licenses for my company. I really enjoyed the project, and I started looking for other ways to use my VBA skills. What about making myself a nice little application to record income and expenses and track my bank balances, I thought. Since I would be dealing mostly with numbers rather than names, I decided this time I would work in Excel instead of Access.

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It Boggles the mind

April 9, 2010

For several years I have wanted to learn one of the newer programming languages. There is still a use for COBOL programmers (read this interesting column which compares COBOL to Latin and explains why both languages are still important to understand), but that is mostly at companies with a huge investment in “legacy” systems. All the companies I have worked for since I became a programmer have replaced their older systems or are in the process of doing so.

There are a few difficulties in learning a new language, even if learning languages come easily (as it does for me). First, there’s the question of which language to learn. Java? C++? Visual Basic? Perl? I did learn some Python several years ago, but we only used it for some simple information-sharing on the company intranet. I tried to teach myself C++ from a book, but got stuck when the exercises dealt with card games instead of the business applications I am much more familiar with.

Then there is where and how to learn it, which includes how much to spend in the process. I learn best by doing – and I can’t see how you could learn a language (either a foreign language or programming language) except by using it. But that means having the software and a computer that can run it, plus an idea of what I want to make the software do. I’ve taken some free online classes (free to me, part of a service paid for by my company to provide continuing education for IT people), but they only taught facts about the languages, with no practical exercises.

A couple years ago I took an online course using Alice, which I blogged about here. It was fun, and helped me get a feel for object-oriented programming, but provided nothing I could use directly in another language. I downloaded something called Greenfoot, and Al and I found some simple but fun games written on that platform, but I didn’t get very far at all when I tried to write my own.

Last fall a team at work determined that we should use Infopath and C# to support our proposed redesign of the approval process that is at the center of my job. (Currently it is email-based, which works but has a number of drawbacks.) I had been trying to learn how to use workflow in Infopath using a book I had purchased, but it quickly became clear that the real work would be done in C#. So I started looking for resources for learning the language.

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For the challenge of it

November 16, 2009

In a recent post I quoted mountaineer George Mallory’s famous line about why he climbed mountains: “Because it’s there.” The challenge drew him irresistibly, even to his death atop Mount Everest. While I like hiking, I’ve never been drawn to dangerous climbs. But I do respond to the challenge of a good puzzle.

My sons, especially my younger son Al, do not seem to feel the same way about challenges. I am annoyed when he helps me with a puzzle I’m working on, though I try to express appreciation because I know he means to be helpful. I do not want help, I want to solve it on my own. Some of that may be pride, but it is also because it is the challenge itself that appeals to me, and to the extent that hints reduce the difficulty of solving it, they reduce my pleasure in finding the solution.

Over the years I’ve noticed that some kinds of challenges appeal to me more than others. At one time, the idea of fiendishly difficult jigsaw puzzles appealed to me. One sort has no picture, just a solid color, and only the shape of the pieces shows how to put it together. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is The World’s Most Difficult Jigsaw Puzzle, where every piece is exactly the same shape, and only the picture provides the solution – plus the puzzle is double-sided, with the same picture on both sides! But by the time I had money of my own to purchase such puzzles, I found I was no longer interested.

I enjoy difficult crossword puzzles, but if I spend an hour on a puzzle and have only come up with a few words, not enough to help me get any more, the puzzle is simply too hard for me. I will try even longer on an acrostic, but eventually I will give up on those also if too many clues are too obscure for me to come up with even a decent guess. I can do “cross-sums” puzzles, but I find that too often, I discover three quarters of the way through that I must have made some error in logic early on, and the only way to undo it is to start completely over. So I rarely start them at all.

One kind of puzzle I enjoy is computer programming, but never purely for the sake of the challenge itself. I like doing programming that provides a useful solution to a problem, or an entertaining game to play. I work at the application level, meaning the level where the program interacts with the user, rather than at the systems level where the program simply provides a platform for other developers to write their programs.

One kind of computer puzzle I have never found an interest in is hacking. The term hacker is often used in a pejorative sense, because some hackers have used their ability to alter hijack code for malicious purposes. But at root, hacking is simply figuring out the secrets that are coded into computers and not intended for anyone but the people who put them there to know. It’s not a challenge that appeals to me, but it has a very strong appeal to many people – at least to many young men (estimates of hacker demographics indicate that about 90% are male and median age is 25).

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Wonderful wetware

October 29, 2008

I learned a new word today. I think I had encountered it at some time in the past, but had forgotten it. Now I’m pretty sure I’ll remember.

I’m studying a book on Workflow in the 2007 Microsoft Office System. That also happens to be the book’s title – technical books tend to have boring names that leave no mystery about what is inside. This book does have at least one surprise, however – it’s very readable. It’s written in conversational, plain English, with occasional references to popular culture (such as HAL 9000 – though I suppose to the younger generation that might be a mysterious reference).

But then in a paragraph about how long workflows take when they involve human beings (which all of them do, in the context of this book), I came upon this sentence:
Let’s face it, from the computer’s point of view, wetware is slow.
Clearly, wetware has something to do with people. (Although my first thought was of glassware used at a wet bar – which has to do with people but not much to do with information processing, especially when they have consumed quite a bit there at the bar.)

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Adventures with Alice

May 21, 2008

Tonight I started a new adventure. I’m taking my first online class. I’ve been working with computers for over twenty years, I’ve taken quite a few computer classes, and done a fair amount of self-study. But although I’ve known about “distance learning” for a long time, this is the first time I’ve paid money to take an online course.

I like being able to talk to someone in person. Email works when there is straightforward information to communicate, but as soon as there’s uncertainty or confusion, I prefer to leave my desk and go talk to the other person face-to-face. So if there is a topic I want to study that I think is difficult enough to want someone else to teach me (instead of teaching myself from a book or online tutorial), I wonder how well it will work when I’ll never meet the instructor.

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