September 27th, 2005

color cycle (slow)

More Thoughts on Tools

Adobe Pagemaker has a vertical learning curve. I was puttering around helplessly going insane reading the manual for an hour and a half trying to figure out how to make a master layout do what I want it to do, and then I've had no trouble for the last three hours of putting together my Tech Writing assignment (which looks totally kick ass so far, if I may be conceited enough to say so), although with judicious reference to the manual's index. But since I have gotten the hang of it, I'm appreciating how easy it is to do a fairly complex task with the right tools to do so.

It's not a new experience. "Hey, the right tools make things easier!" is not some sort of amazing mystic revelation. But it's interesting to see what a drastic difference it makes. This was an assignment I spent several hours trying to get started on to make Word do anything useful whatsoever and completely failing. In just a few hours with Adobe PageMaker, I've made massive progress.

It's sort of shaping my perspective of tasks- or more accurately, shaping the one I already had. Whenever I expect to do some trivial computation task more than once, I prefer to automate it. It may be more time up-front to go to the trouble of whomping up a C program to do whatever, and I may in fact never get that time back, but it's my preference. For one thing, I trust my coding skills more than my mathematical skills- if it's anything that involves something more complex than, ooh, 0+0, I'm much better off writing the theory and letting a computer handle the details. It's also good practice, seeing as how I intend to make this sort of thing my life's career.

But it's also a good habit to get into: writing tools. That's the point of a computer. The more I get used to writing versatile command-line tools to do things, the faster it will come to me. Eventually, I'll wind up with a huge directory of very small shell scripts (or compiled programs, whichever), none of which are particularly useful in and of themselves and can do amazing things when glued together with a sufficient number of system pipes. It's the Un*x philosophy, and I find I like it. I don't like doing the same thing twice- I'd rather solve it generally once.

I've had people tell me that my reliance on a computer to do such tasks is a sign of incompetence on my part. I have to challenge this. Incompetence at what? Being able to add or count without losing numbers is a fine skill for a banker or a mathematician, but making a computer do it is what I intend to spend the rest of my life doing, so it seems a reasonable skill to use. I've been told that by making a computer do it, I won't learn whatever's being taught me with regard to whatever I've just automated- a comment from a classmate in Physics class after I solved a bank of pseudo-identical problems (same question, different numbers) by writing a TI-Basic program to do it and giving the output. "Show Your Work" was answered by writing out the source code. I got full marks, so I guess Dr. Trousil (the grader- Dr. Bernatowicz was my lecturer) didn't have a problem with it. But what people don't seem to understand in that is that I learn much more by writing the program than I would from doing it by hand. Following a process of mathematical reduction by hand doesn't do anything to help my understanding or fix the formula in my mind; I don't learn anything. The same is not true of writing a program to do it- it's much more memorable to me when I've had to take the time to write an explicit procedure of the solution task, the step-by-step that defines computer programming. That sticks in my mind, and that's the best way for me to learn things.

I find it interesting how society has a strong aversion to people relying on tools. "Well, what if you didn't have a calculator?" I'll tell you what: I'd be totally fucked. That's just the way things go. I simply go to great lengths to make sure that at any given time, I do have a fully programmable calculator. If I existed here at a time before such technology existed? I don't know how I would have developed. I'd probably be as reliant on an abacus as anybody you've ever seen.

The thing is, I'm not going to let myself consider that so thoroughly negative. I'm reliant on my tools and that's okay. I cannot function well without a computer and a PDA because I am very badly disorganized. I grew up without the use of a PDA to keep organized, and I was very badly disorganized; taking it away does not somehow force me to magically develop this skill, it causes me to struggle for not having it, even when I try to develop it. My handwriting is putrid, so I just about need a text-entry device with me if I want to scratch anything down quickly. Something I worked on for years, with professional help- nothing worked, so I use workarounds. I use tools to counter for my own deficiencies.

Thinking less of me for this strikes me as being not entirely different from berating a person in a wheelchair for not getting out of it and walking around. Perhaps there's more I can do to get by without it than Jon (a paraplegic guy who I've had several classes with- he sleepwalked out a fourth-story window and broke his spine) and his wheelchair. Thing is, doing without hasn't worked out well for me- so I use what I can to counter for it and find myself very successful and productive instead. Is knowing my limitations a fault? There's this magical view that somehow I don't have these limitations and can work around them, and that very well may be true but it's really quite a lot of trouble and my time would be much better spent getting things done with an iPAQ hx2415, a Pentium 4, and a Voyage 200.

I really do find society's emphasis on nto using tools as some bizarre display of machismo to be incomprehensible. Humans evolved as tool-builders and tool-users. I am presently physically incarnate as one of a species that was pretty much designed to rely on its ability at making tools. Why is it bad that I'm relying on this ability? I'm now thinking of things I've read about humans being so far from nature, pointing to the human design as being a miserable failure stripped naked alone in a rainforest (see also: Survivor, on CBS at some time slot I really don't care about) against predators. Well, duh. This is sort of like saying that a declawed tiger is at a disadvantage, or that elephants wouldn't work if they weren't so big. It's entirely obvious- and really shouldn't say anything against the creature for it to fail to thrive when its only mechanism to handle an adverse environment is removed.

The upshot to this is that for the predictable future, I will probably continue to rely on computers and have serious trouble functioning without them, and I'm not particularly distressed by that.
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