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color cycle (slow)

Kistaro Windrider, Reptillian Situation Assessor

Unfortunately, I Really Am That Nerdy

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More Thoughts on Tools
color cycle (slow)
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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Regarding Word, incidentally - it's not a DTP program, obviously. Still, I'm amazed at how it continues to constantly lose track of where objects are supposed to be, sometimes allowing them to disappear entirely, and other times get irrevocably stuck in places like the header or on the next page.

Try synchronizing a document between Word and Pocket Word a few times if you really want to screw it up properly!

There's a reason that I simply paste in edits I make on the PocketPC rather than saving the main in my autosynch directory and letting the autoconversion take care of it.

I used to write in virtually plain text in Pocket Word and concatenate on the PC as well. I think Windows Mobile 5's Word Mobile is supposed to be better about keeping formatting, but I wouldn't trust it.

I equally don't totally trust TextMaker, which I have on my PPC, but it's a massively more capable word processor than Pocket Word. It can display frames wrong, though, and doesn't support AutoShapes - though they're adding those next version.

We'll find out; I sent in a rebate form to get an upgrade CD to WM5 when it comes out. I will proceed to ignore it until the first or second round of updates is out, of course- it's a Microsoft product, after all.

I've had mixed success at best with TextMaker. I agree that it's much better than Word, but it's $50, and I can't afford that for something that does a job that I simply don't need. Pocket Word is not good enough for the task of word processing, but it is good enough for entering formatted text to later be melded into a full document. It's not ideal, but I can't justify a $50 expense for something that isn't quite what I need. I'll go for RepliGo for a viewer with markup (highlighter and comments) for $15 and call it good enough for my purposes.

I'm a little leery of WM5 myself; Fujitsu-Siemens pushed back the update until Spring 2006, but I dislike the two-button motif - it might work well for smartphones, but otherwise you now take at least two clicks/taps to perform any action except the default one, whereas toolbar buttons would have allowed you to achieve some actions with one. Ideally I'd like to be able to change between the two toolbar/menu styles.

I wouldn't pay full price for TextMaker either. I acquired it through LOOXchoice using the 5 points which came with my device.

Oh, also - WM5 devices may be less responsive due to their habit of closing everything whenever you switch them off. I originally thought that they paged the RAM to non-volatile storage, but this would clearly create a problem if there's not enough non-volatile storage, like on my device (there's 128MB RAM but only 28MB free ROM, and they can't expect everyone to have a memory card to use the OS).

It appears that the OS saves information about what's running to ROM, and then restores that environment when you switch it on. If you have large documents open, though, it could take several seconds to finish loading?

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.

I think your classmate was just jealous. I would have been. But here's a thought: What if this classmate borrowed your program and used it to answer the problems. What would be learned?

If you used someone else's tools without ever looking at what they do behind the scenes, what would you learn?

You'd be like a friend of mine who fancies himself a freelance PC repair techincian. All he can do is reinstall windows, and look at the device manager searching for conflicts. I don't know if he even knows how to get the BIOS screen at bootup, or what he'd make of it if he ever saw it.

He's my friend, and all, but I can't say I have a great deal of respect for his skills. I'd have the same low level of respect for the skills of someone who borrowed your problem-solving program.

What if this classmate borrowed your program and used it to answer the problems. What would be learned? If you used someone else's tools without ever looking at what they do behind the scenes, what would you learn?

It's all context-sensitive. You've just described exactly why I don't touch the "Math/Physics" section of http://www.ticalc.org. (I do go for the really important programs- y'know, the Games section.) For something solving a specific math or physics problem, there's nothing gained by using a prefabricated tool- unless you're to a point where you really do just need the answer and aren't trying to learn the theory. (Y'know, the real-world applications. You can believe that I've got my V200 loaded out with that sort of thing now that I'm trying to write the software guiding a small satellite.)

But I have no idea how Adobe Pagemaker, gVim, KATE, or YaST2 work behind the scenes. (Actually an exaggeration; there's nothing non-obvious about YaST2, it's just got a good interface.) For the latter three, the source code is sitting in /src on my Linux partition, and I haven't poked at it for a lack of time. But those tools are not valueless to me, and it would be ridiculous to say that I haven't learned anything from them- because what I'm trying to learn is not how they work, but how to use them effectively in the general case- how to perform a task that they help with, but can't do the beeg eemportant part for. If I had some way to point-click-poof a computer program into existance, magically solving a program assignment for me, that would be a tool that cuts into my learning- but a tool that keeps track of my indentation and colorizes my input to highlight language constructs? Not so much.

Being able to reinstall Windows, check Device Manager, and scrape particularly nasty spyware infections off a Windows system by hand from Safe mode can actually be a useful set of skills, except only the last one is particularly impressive...

I certainly can't fault you for relying on tools when I cart around a whole U-Haul's worth of possessions every time I move rooms. (I'm a bit scared what will happen now that I've got more than one room. Then again, I've got a desk that can't be taken out of my bedroom without being disassembled (Why is it every time I hear that word I think of "Disassemble!" as said by Johnny 5 in Short Circuit(something which you have to watch at some point if you haven't already seen it)?) plus yet more furniture, so it's even more scary.

Anyway, back to the original subject of the comment, having the right tool is essential. I've spent ridiculous amounts of time debating the proper tool for memorizing things (paper flashcards or computerized ones) with myself because I know how much easier having a method and tool more suited to me would make things.

My teachers sometimes wonder why I do everything on the computer, whether it doesn't make everything so much slower and take more time. I say that I like having the security of being able to print out a second version of my assignment if I leave the first sitting on a desk half a mile away and that I can type much more quickly than I can write. The second is especially true regarding notes. With homework, it's nice to be able to work the problems in any order and have them still all fit nicely together on the page because it's not at all difficult to add additional space in the middle of a typed page. Copy-paste is also something missing from paper-and-ink solutions. Granted, there's a risk of data loss, but it's minimized by synchronizing frequently with the school machines. I have paper versions of all my notes from previous years, but I rarely go hunting through them. I look through the electronic files because they're easier to search for a specific term in and because I can carry them with me to all of my classes, something I couldn't do if I had used paper-and-ink. Searching through old notes is not something I need to do very often, but when I do, I'm often looking for a quick answer and don't want to hunt through inches of paper.

Computerized tools are wonderful.

I am tempted to take the people who mock reliance on tools, take away all their tools--and that includes credit cards, house keys, IDs, and anything with pockets, though I might be generous and give them long underwear and a pullover shirt--and drop them somewhere away from their family and friends, and see what happens.

See how long it takes them to try to obtain tools, or use tools they borrow from someone else, like a telephone.

People mocking you for reliance on "tools" remind me of people who protest logging by typing themselves to trees.

Take away the mockers tools - and they're screwed.
Take everything that uses wood to produce in some form out of said tree chainers lives - suddenly they're naked in the middle of an empty plot of land somewhere.

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