There’s a new site I’m excited about

Hashnode – An open, friendly and conversational community for software developers

Remember when Atwood and Spolsky were developing StackOverflow, and their informal pitch was, “We’re like Experts Exchange, but without the evil”?

Hashnode is like StackOverflow, but without the evil.

Don’t get me wrong–SO is still a powerful resource, especially if you’re after something fairly simple and the question has already been asked. But the community is so huge that the moderators–who are supposed to be a result of Atwood’s valiant attempt at designing a system for the community to govern itself–have become Julius Caesar… and the system kind of needs a Brutus. If you know what I mean.

Basically, what I’m saying is: SO is a great resource, but not a great community any more.

Anyway, Hashnode looks to be more casual. It’s still a smallish community, or at least it feels small, and it looks like there isn’t so much policing.

I think SO’s problems are mostly just a result of its bigness, and also the fact that employers want to see a StackOverflow account on a dev’s resume, with as many points as possible. A tool meant for collaboration has become the subject of competition.

The solution to the bigness is the breakup of SO’s monopoly. I think there are several other sites cropping up to take its place, or at least take the load off; if you look in the comments on that article (which is where I found Hashnode), there appear to be a few different options that hopefully aren’t so dictatorial.

I suggest you join one, if you don’t belong to a forum or something already. Dream In Code is okay, if I remember right, but there was something about it that made me not stick around. Don’t remember what it was. Probably my own inexperience and inability to contribute; it was a while ago.

I don’t think Hashnode has that problem. They’re making a point of trying to welcome beginners. Anyway, you might want to check it out.

Happy hacking!


The last of today’s post trio; the three have a common thread.

There are loads of Internet people who will tell you how to do stuff, or give you cheesy motivation posts that are all the same except for their peppering of spurious advice that rotates in and out depending on the latest fads (“Get up early! Drink 8 glasses of water daily! Do a juice cleanse!”). This isn’t that.

If you’re trying to learn to code (that is, you’ve decided you still want to, not because other people have pressured you into learning), this post is for you to bookmark and return to when you’re feeling apathetic.

Because if you’re feeling apathetic, we lose something important. Your work is important.

What you’re doing is developing the kind of abilities that let you tinker with the world around you. Your ideas, if you choose to pursue them, can change how other people live. You can extend what humans are capable of.

You’re a maker. You’re powerful. You fix things. You solve problems. You’re capable. You’re creative. You’re clever. You’re sitting on a lot of potential. Whether you can feel it right now or not, you have all this pent-up energy waiting to be released into something.

Your code is art. With your mind alone you can make things that are not only beautiful and elegant, but serve a purpose.

Half the companies in America want to hire people like you because of the things you can do. No matter how you seem on the outside, your mind is a powerful tool. You’re among the relative few who understand a chunk of what’s going on with computers. Your skill set is prized and not common enough to fill the massive, gaping need for the things you can create.

And you’re getting better and better.

You can’t be apathetic. You can’t put yourself down. If coding is what you want to do, you can’t keep putting it off.

We need you too much.

We need the people who developed and maintained Kiva Loans so that struggling business owners and entrepreneurs in countries around the world could move out of poverty.

We need this guy and OptiKey, his open source software project that uses optical tracking to let people with motor and speech limitations use computers.

We need the people who are running OpenMRS, a medical record system designed for use in developing countries and now used basically everywhere.

We need the many, many open courseware projects that provide education to people around the world who might not otherwise have access to that knowledge.

We need the people who are building a bridge into a world that is way better than the one we live in now.

We need you, and those learning around you, to hold up the bridge with us. It’s a very important bridge and lots of people need to walk across.

Every time you build something, or answer someone’s question, or successfully learn something new, you are creating something incredibly valuable that didn’t exist before. And especially when you give away something other people will use, or even that other people are paying you for making (assuming they’re not terrible people)–that means you have changed a piece of the world.

Never forget how powerful you are.

I believe in you.

On impostor syndrome

I’m feeling pretty good about my skills lately. Maybe I’m realizing I didn’t have quite so much “catching up” to do as I thought. The theory stuff I’m learning in my classes is useful, but not as complicated as it looks.

(Well, most of it. Some of it is. Though I’m starting to pick up on the idea that if I don’t understand a recursive algorithm, it probably wasn’t efficient anyway–and if I don’t understand it [I’m usually good at this sort of thing] then it better be a darn good optimization hack for me to use such an unreadable piece of code. My standards may change as I’m learning Clojure, though.)

I dislike the whole “impostor syndrome” craze. If you read tech articles on Medium and Quora and so on, everyone and their dog has impostor syndrome. Saying you have impostor syndrome is like this big, socially-acceptable, self-contradictory humble-brag: “I’m actually a genius but I don’t think I am.”

It makes about as much sense as the girls who listen to “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful” on repeat:

“You don’t know you’re beautiful, oh oh, / That’s what makes you beautiful”

and then say, “Omigosh, 1D just totally gets me.

First off, the point is that you don’t know, so if you acknowledge the song as something you relate to then you’re canceling out your own point. Second, this song is about how the singer finds it super attractive that you have no self-esteem. Catchy.

When you’re a beginner, of course you’re looking around and thinking, “Wow, everyone else knows so much more than me.” Because they do, duh, you’re a beginner. And you’re going to be a beginner for at least a few months. If you start calling your thoughts “impostor syndrome” at this point, you’re deluding yourself. On the other hand, you need to trust your ability to learn. Just don’t underestimate that it’s going to take some work and you’re not there already.

Impostor syndrome is when you’ve still got this mindset, but you’ve also got concrete evidence that your mindset is flawed, which you then brush off by thinking that everyone else is some kind of idiot you’ve fooled into believing you have way more technical knowledge than you do.

Listen, you have respect for the other techies around you, right? Anyone you talk to on forums, StackOverflow, GitHub, your school/bootcamp/job. (If you’re roughing it alone, try to connect with someone. It helps.) If any of them are actually worthy of that respect, they can smell technical BS from a mile off. That’s a skill we all develop. If they were going to suddenly find out you’re not as skilled as they thought you were, it’d have happened a long time ago.

It’s hard to feel like you’re making progress when you can’t measure your own skill. I get it. Nobody in tech knows how good they are at what they do; we can estimate, or take the judgment of those around us. And the problem with the latter is that most everyone else is as insecure as you are, and some of them will lowball you to feel better about their own skills, while others will try to flatter you so you’ll like them.

Listen. There’s a solution to this. Not a perfect one, but one all the same.

You have to build stuff. You have to solve problems. You have to read code. You have to write code.

Empirical evidence of your own skill grounds you. It puts a lower boundary on where you are. It gives other people something tangible to assess you on. Working on something real will tell you very quickly whether you’re out of your depth or just underestimating yourself.

Here’s how you tell the difference: If you’re super confused and have to look everything up before you can do any real work, you’re just underestimating yourself. If you’re actually out of your depth, you don’t even know where to start. Misleading, I know.

The problem with the advice “just build stuff!” is that it’s really freaking hard to start. You don’t know what to make. The things you want to make are complicated. You don’t have the syntax memorized. You don’t know how to split things up sensibly into different methods or files. That’s a big problem with programmers who are just past the point of doing lots of tutorials. You don’t know where to start, and it seems like you should go back to the tutorials and learn more, because that’s usually how it works. But in this case, it’s doubly misleading. The bigness of open-source and the complexity of many of its projects are also terribly confusing.

In practice, impostor syndrome is a lack of information about your own ability. So do the scientific thing and experiment. Run some tests. And remember that, with more practice, you can change the results.

Related sidenote

Listen, I’ve been thinking about writing some more how-tos. Programming how-tos, not the Linux ones from before.

And I wonder if I might also accept some… I guess students? Mentees? Just informally. If you try to do one of my programming tutorials and you post your code on GitHub, and then drop a line here, I could look at it and help you get unstuck or suggest improvements or that kind of thing.

I can’t promise a specific response time or anything that formal. And I know some of you don’t really qualify to be my students, because you’re legitimately better programmers than I am. But otherwise, I might help you learn something new, and/or feel a little more confident about your skills.

Is that something you might be interested in?


Should You Learn To Code?

This happened recently:

Then this happened too:

It’s not new. Exactly the same debate happened in 2012:


Here’s pretty much the conversation that’s going on.

“Not everyone needs to learn to code. It’s a fairly niche technical skill set, used in one kind of career. Insisting that everyone learn to code is like saying everyone needs to know plumbing.” (For some reason, both articles used this analogy; maybe the second one was just ripping off Jeff Atwood’s?)

“But computers are everywhere, they break often, they’re not well understood, and the world runs on them. Even if you don’t want to be a software developer, it might be smart to have a passing knowledge of code.”

“It’s just not necessary; people have other things that require their time and energy. Besides, there are all these newbies coming out of coding bootcamps, thinking they know everything and are entitled to a job. Then they’re either horribly let down, or they go out and write bad code the rest of us have to deal with.”

“Only some bootcamps are like that, and only some students. Often bootcamp students make good open-source contributors, too. Besides, many of these students intend to go into other fields anyway–they just want to kind of know what they’re doing around software.”

“The software field is way too romanticized. People want to be a software developer because they want to look smart and get a high-paying job. In reality you’re often overworked and the job is very stressful. Lots of students enter this field with an overly optimistic idea of what it’s like.”

“True, but we also have a massive lack of coders in America. There are lots of great jobs out there, and a big reason for the overwork is that we don’t have more people in those jobs.”

Yep, that’s about it: people who are already in the field, arguing whether newbies should be encouraged to join the club.

Personally, I think these people need to calm the #%#$ down, if you’ll excuse my cartoon language.

Here’s the question that determines whether you want to code.

It’s not “Are you dedicated?”

It’s not “Do you actually like computers?”

It’s not “You’re not just in this for money or prestige, right?”

It’s this:

Do you want to?

That’s it. That’s literally the only question you should be asking. This pretentious judgment of newcomers based on their “dedication” or “talent” or any other bull as judged by an outsider who has no clue who you even are? That shouldn’t matter to you. At all. If you want to code, code. If you want to learn, learn.

If you don’t, you don’t have to, and you shouldn’t. The people who are trying to pressure you into learning anyway–saying it’s “the new literacy” or whatever–aren’t you, any more than the people who are all like “stay out of our clubhouse.” The idea that either camp can or should tell you what to do is pretentious nonsense.

But if you still want in? Welcome to the clubhouse.

I don’t care if you have kids. I don’t care if you’re not a dev by trade. I don’t care if you start off thinking you know everything–you’ll learn soon enough, unless you’re generally a jerk with no empathy, in which case your interaction with computers doesn’t really matter as to whether I’ll like you.

None of that freaking matters.

If you’re not dedicated, you won’t put in the time to learn.

If you’re bad, someone will tell you and (hopefully) give you hints about how to get better.

If you don’t like computers, there are easier fields for you to get into for money and prestige.

The technology field has enough natural barriers to entry without people building more. In fact, the natural barriers hold too many people back who would otherwise be great coders; that’s why there are so many bootcamps, tutorials, intro-to-programming websites, and even blogs (ahem) to help newbies in this field.

Technology doesn’t need to be only in the hands of this “elite few” that “Please Don’t Learn To Code” article writers seem to be trying to protect. (Ironically? These people are going to be the same people who’ll complain that their manager has no clue about anything they do. At least if the managers knew some basics, the devs would have a language to use to talk to them. If the boss thinks their job is so simple, maybe s/he should look at the bug they’ve been fixing for the past four hours. It’d be more like onboarding a newbie coder, which is something they probably have experience doing. Or should, anyway.)

I do have this to say on the topic.

You know how in schools, we have music classes? Even though most people are not likely to become professional musicians, they’re given a class where they… probably learn to sing better, and take some lessons in music appreciation.


Because music is an art form, and studying it is its own reward.

Writing good code is making art. It’s not “like” making art. It is making art. You can write beautiful code, and it’s a joy to do so.

So if you agree with taking music lessons in seventh grade in order to better appreciate an art form, you should also agree with learning to code enough to recognize a beautiful piece of software–even if you yourself don’t do so, you shouldn’t condemn others for trying.

Not everyone who takes music ends up a very good singer, and definitely not everyone goes on to sing professionally. They only do if they love it and are good at it.

Isn’t that how it should be?


I’m not going to tell you that you should or shouldn’t learn to code. That’s for you to decide–based not on the opinion of some pompous person on the Internet who’s acting like a grumpy black hat and thinks they should decide if you belong in Technology-Claw or Liberal-Arts-Puff–but on one simple factor.

Whether you want to.

That’s enough.

Greetings from University Town #214


Stuff I’ve done in the past two weeks.

  1. Moved. For the first time in my life; my parents have occupied the same house for longer than I’ve been alive, so I’d never moved before. That was my first time driving that long on the interstate, and I had a cat, a guitar, a ukulele, a younger brother, and a bunch of assorted stuff in the car with me. And people were being idiots on the road, changing their speed way more than was necessary, whipping around and doing stupid stuff. It was not a pleasant drive.
  2. Jacked up my foot. Sorry, feet. I wasn’t aware you could pull muscles in your feet??? But I think I did??? And I got a huge blister between my toes, and wow, yeah, no.
  3. Hauled loads of books, three fishtanks (two of them are small though), a heavy oak desk, a couch, a mattress, an armchair, most of my clothes, a working kitchen, and a whole bunch of other stuff into my apartment. My second-floor apartment. In a building with no elevator. I’m still missing a load of books.
  4. Signed a bunch of paperwork. Mom paid my tuition. I need to get off my butt and find the info I need to sign up for a parking pass for school.
  5. Discovered that I don’t have a dishwasher as I thought I did, but I do have a garbage disposal, which I thought I wouldn’t. This is a highly favorable tradeoff because of how much I cook.
  6. Cooked way more than usual because I do not own a microwave. This is turning out to be good for me, I think. I’m living mostly off of curry rice and stir fried whatever. I haven’t gotten tired of it yet. I did make sugar cookies and shared with my neighbors, though. Also a pease pie, although that’s a weird British thing done according to a recipe I made up inspired by a Terry Pratchett book, so I kept it to myself. It turned out saltier than I would have liked, but tasty all the same.
  7. Mostly re-set up my fishtanks. I still have a bucket of aquarium plants next to me.
  8. Worked on the YPN app. Did I mention that’s open source now??? You can contribute to it! Or just tell me how awful my code is! I know there’s crap in there I will very much hate in a year. Or a few months. Whatever.
  9. Read Lean In. I own both a GitHub account and bras, so it’s been heavily suggested to me for several years that I should read it. Despite the criticisms (and expecting them to be right), I read the book. It rather surprised me. I have a post under construction about it, but feminism is not one of my favorite topics to write about, and I find it hard to write about it in any sort of way I’m satisfied with.
  10. Discovered the cartoon Teen Titans Go! I watch easily more kids’ cartoons than any other kind of television. (British TV is up there.) It’s really funny and kind of brain dead, and that is all I ask of such things.
  11. The apartment smelled weird when I got here (I think they all do?), so I went all stereotypical middle class white girl on it with Bath and Body Works wall plugins and an assortment of scented candles. (I do like candles though.)
  12. Settled my cat in. He took the move pretty well; the biggest thing for him was the people who walk past our door, but he’s mostly gotten over that now. He still gives me the evil eye when it looks like I’m going to leave.
  13. Discovered the best Hy-Vee ever. It’s like a Whole Foods and a Schnuck’s in one building, but it’s a Hy-Vee. I bought some interesting food there to experiment. They had the Indian sauces I’d come for, but they also had legit, decent-quality ramen with no MSG, and some chicken apple sausages, and imitation crab meat (which means it’s mostly pollock, but it’s still tasty). The only things I left without that I wanted were lemongrass paste, which they were sold out of, and snack cakes, because they only sold one kind I didn’t like.
  14. Caught some kind of stupid virus that’s making me dizzy and faint and fuzzy-headed. My parents have caught it too, I think the stress weakened our immune systems. I can’t get work done in this state and it’s driving me mad.
  15. Despite that, watched a steady increase in the stability of my mental state. There was a lot of stress and anxiety floating around before the move, and we were all kind of feeding off each other. Let’s say–my tendency toward depression has a huge genetic component, and I’m glad Mom was there because even though she was pretty stressed out, she’s kind of always stressed out in one way or another and handles herself better than the rest of us. She knows when I’m having an anxiety attack, she knows what to say to make my dad stop being crazy and trying to move huge furniture by himself without even clearing a path first, she knows what will make my little brother feel better about Bekah moving away. Then she feels guilty for the fact that she can’t help us move stuff because of medical reasons, we all tell her that is stupid, she laughs and feels guilty anyway that she’s “not doing anything.”

Most of that was two weeks ago. We all survived.

The YPN app I’ve been working on is chugging along. Here, I’ll make a few screenshots to show you.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 7.14.34 PM
Menu page
Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 7.14.44 PM
Member discounts page
Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 7.14.47 PM
Newsletter articles page
Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 7.14.41 PM
Event calendar page
Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 7.14.51 PM
About Us page

It looks kinda funny because it’s meant for a phone screen. It resizes just fine, I just forgot to resize the window for the screenshots.

Anyway, I’m the one who coded all this. Some other folks said they wanted to help over the summer, but they’ve forgotten, flaked out, or had Life intervene. (I know the feeling.)

Currently, my battle is with Kivy’s RecycleView: supposed to be a way to make scrolling lists of items using the MVC pattern. Obviously I need this for the discounts and newsletter pages. The problem is that RecycleView is a new and not well documented feature, and doesn’t actually even import properly yet, I assume unless you’re using the bleeding-edge dev version of Kivy. But that’s not for using–it’s too unstable for production use. So maybe I’ll have to use the deprecated (yes, deprecated even before the new one is out) ListView and ScrollView features. I know I’ve gotten those to work once before; I have old code to work from.

I really should merge back the mockups branch, now that I’m working on this. Note to self. I guess I still need to mock up the Search page, but I don’t even know if Kivy has features for that yet?

Also, I want to make it more obvious what page you’re on while you’re using the app. I think it’ll be a header in place of the search bar, in the normal page headers. That’ll be some goofy inheritance stuff to work with, though; I have the header as its own custom widget.

If you don’t know Kivy, the past three paragraphs may be incomprehensible. Sorry about that.

Anyway, the YPN people have no clue what I’ve been doing. I need to send them screenshots or something so they’re not afraid I’ve abandoned the project, too. Someone’s got to follow through on this thing.

I need a nap.

Todo: Go backpacking

I wrote about a todo-list app idea I had in my post “My Idea File.”

DaniS said:

I can think of quite a few todo list websites and apps off the top of my head, and the time-filling aspect looks like it’s heading towards the knapsack problem, so this idea is a bit too big and scary for me right now, I think. Your mention of priory assignment is cool, though, and reminded me of a chapter from Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, which I don’t know whether you’ve read but is great.

I do know of lots of todo apps. I don’t know of any (without having looked) that let other people request additions to your list, or work with prioritization. Anyone can write a todo list app that sits on the phone and everything’s inputted by one person. It’s called a text editor.

I’m thinking of the people whose email inbox looks a lot like a todo list, because that’s how people ask them to do stuff. But that’s a kluge. I know these people exist because they’re usually complaining about it, and email clients are always trying to build in features to accommodate emails that are really todo-list items. What we really need is a new system, preferably one that integrates with the old one–maybe we should come up with a way to parse tasks from emails? That sounds complicated, but maybe it’s not impossible.

I get what you mean about the knapsack thing, but NP-complete problems aren’t generally difficult for small n. I’m talking about filling a few hours with a couple different tasks which might take 15min-1h. It gets way easier if your “specify how long this will take” function works in 15m increments. Then you’re working with, “I have 6 slots before my dentist appointment; find me 6 slots worth of stuff to do.” Also, if you don’t HAVE to fill every bit of time, the problem gets way easier. If the algorithm generally works, people won’t mind if it leaves 15m of free time or whatever–especially since the time estimates are necessarily estimates, and tasks often take longer than people think.

Also, if people have long stretches of time open, you generally want to make sure you get the longer tasks done then. If you have six hours of free time and doing taxes or something takes five hours, you need to prioritize that because big chunks of available time can be hard to come by. If you have a big swath of time and no long tasks, it’s a matter of sorting by priority. You decide which tasks to do to fill the spot, and then you prioritize them.

When it gets tricky is if you offer the user the option to split up big tasks. Say cleaning your kid’s room (which is a disaster) will take three hours. If you have a phone call scheduled early in the day and a hair appointment two hours later and you’re making lunch right after that and then your show is on an hour after that and the kitchen needs to be mopped sometime today… you’re probably not going to clean the room all in one sitting. Plus, you’d be pretty tired if you did it all at once anyway! So if you offer the option to break that up, then you’re approaching knapsack complications.

The solution to that would be to decide the smallest useful chunk of time to work in. 15 minutes is not really enough to pick up all the toys, and people tend to work better in slots of maybe an hour anyway. So if you split it up into 30m or 1h segments, then you’re back to relatively small n and you can work with that.

You also don’t have to use brute force–there are of course better algorithms for this–and you don’t have to get THE optimal solution. You just have to get one that works, and allow the intuitive human brain of the user to make changes to the suggested schedule.

This is a fun problem! Thoughts?


Some of you dropped a line over here, and I’d like to respond somewhere where it’ll be easier to read than the little comments section, because there are some very good questions and I like to answer completely.

For these first two commenters, I have a long and hopefully not boring story in answer/return comment. I wasn’t sure where to break it–merby would mostly be interested in the latter half–but it doesn’t separate nicely, so I’ll leave it as one piece.

Tally said:

Hi, I’m Tally!
Just wanted to share how glad I am to have found your blog, it’s gotten me interested in making my own page to document my experiences with tech, too. You seem brilliant and really knowledgeable about hacker culture; forgive me for asking if this is already stated on your blog, as I’ve just discovered it, but I’m curious to know what about programming inspired you to study it and tech? Did it have anything to do with the O’Reilly book?

Hope you keep on writing, all the best!

merby said:

Hi Rebekah,

I discovered your blog a few days ago via ESR’s website; I’ve read through several of your posts and I just wanted to drop you a line and say how helpful they’ve been to me. I too started programming with HTML fairly young (I was 15 or so) and then went to college to study computer science. By the time I was a junior, the structure of school, even though it’s a good program at my university, had essentially killed any desire I had to work with computers. It was kind of a rough time for me in general, and I think I might just be better suited to learning this stuff outside a classroom setting. Anyway, I just graduated (NOT with a CS degree), and now, ironically, I seem to have rediscovered my once compelling urge to hack stuff. Your blog has been very encouraging and motivating for me to get back in the saddle, not to mention informative as I take the plunge into Linux. So thanks!

Also, I can totally relate to being the only girl in the CS classes and the occasional target of sexist pigs. So irritating. Good luck at the new school!

Awgh compliments ^^; Thank you! I like to think I’m pretty smart, but I’d say the people who are most knowledgeable on what I’m writing about are the people who are on GitHub doing it way more than I am, instead of writing about it. I’m kind of a n00b actually. I think basically everyone feels like a n00b for a long time in this field. It takes a lot of time and effort to become competent! But the payoff of building things is worth it.

Don’t feel shy about asking questions. Questions are the best!


Technology has been a big thing in my household for as long as I can remember. When I was really little, I used to sit over the shoulder of my older brother Tim as he took apart, repaired, and reassembled computers. He had kind of a little business going with it! He also, if I remember right, built me my first computer–a desktop box with a CRT monitor that sat in the living room, its main purpose serving the Hamster Dance web page to me on a regular basis, because I was three at the time.

When I was ten I took up writing long stories on the computer. It started off as kind of a little ambition–I wanted to write fairy tales and publish them for other kids to read. I wanted to send them off to a publishing agent and everything, and I did all this research and stuff. By the time I was finished with my first batch, it was a year later and 35,000 words long, if I remember right. But by then I’d just finished it so I could focus on the next project I had in mind–one I’d already begun–which took another year and another 56,000 words  (I looked it up) plus a bunch of rewriting (I was never satisfied with it).

By this point, Tim had gotten used to my habit of emailing him the latest chapters. In an effort to make this process more efficient (or perhaps in the hope of distracting me with a project and maybe even a different audience), he created a WordPress blog for me. It’s still up, but I don’t think I’ll tell you exactly where it is unless I get it into my head to revamp it and post my current writing. There’s really nothing there worth reading, just bad fantasy and high school angst. I did eventually get better, but I also stopped publishing online because I was hoping to publish my next project. Then my focus shifted to coding and interrupted its progress. My mom’s really hoping I’ll go back and finish it though.

Probably a wise move on Tim’s part, because the next two were 45K (…per revision, of which there were three–I didn’t like that one much either after I’d finished it) and 69K. My mom used to comment on the way I’d go on writing for months and months, then decide it wasn’t good enough and just about start over with the same story.

I comment on this because of two things: one, that writing fantasy novels shares a lot with writing software (remembering little details and logic and characters and motivations and items and rules of magic and making the whole thing make sense and be beautiful and entertaining to a reader–and also that length sounded impressive, but when it came to quality it just meant you had more to rewrite), and two, because my WordPress blog was my introduction to the idea that I could manipulate computers beyond just using software. (Yeah, I know, WP is software I was manipulating. Occasionally I had to look at HTML code. When you’re twelve, though, that’s kind of important. Links took me altogether too long to figure out.) But I didn’t know anyone who had a blog, and that set working with computers, in my mind, as a kind of Thing I Could Do.

Later that year, I found a program called RPG Maker XP. It was a game engine designed to make those old-looking grid RPGs–you know, they look kinda like this:

rpg screenshot

(That’s from a RPGVX game, but they’re very similar–it’s the same idea)

I found RPG Maker XP on sale for $30 once, and convinced my mom to pay for half of it. So I spent hours poring over a screen that basically looked like this:

RPG Maker XP screenshot

Once you made a “map,” as pictured above, you could double-click the little squares and create “events.” These drove gameplay–you couldn’t really do anything without them. And they were basically programming.

Each event has a “trigger” that sets it off. The one above (a screenshot from a tutorial for the more recent engine VX Ace) is for character naming, and triggers automatically. But you can also make them happen only when the player character walks up and presses Enter, or walks onto a certain square, or merely touches the event. You can choose graphics for the event–for instance, it could look like a person walking around, and the thing it does is the person talking to you. Or they might give you an item. Or open a shop menu. Or attack you.

Each of those actions would have to be programmed in. You technically didn’t have to write code. …Technically. You had to generate code using the tools. Line by line. Basically, it typed the code for you, and the whole thing ran on this big game engine that was already in place. I think it ran Ruby? But I didn’t know that then.

I did, however, think it was extremely cool, and spent many hours in front of a CRT monitor making my eyesight worse because of it. I tried to find documentation for it, but I couldn’t, and there was none (or none worth reading) in the program itself, and it wasn’t the most user-friendly, so I figured out a great many basic programming concepts on my own by trial and error. Variables. Loops. Coordinates. Timing. I learned you couldn’t have too many events on one page, or it would run really slowly (these were the Windows XP days–Vista was out I think, but we hadn’t downgraded).

That is where I learned programming concepts. That was one of the periods when I was really, truly excited about programming. So far, those periods have come to me only when I was working outside class on a project I was excited about, and I’ve never gotten that engaged in school. It’s kind of why I feel less excited about going to UNI than I think I should be.

The next year, Tim would get me a book called Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML for my birthday. I was really pleased with it–my mom half-joked that only Tim would know that what I really wanted for my birthday was a textbook. He started to go through it with me, and he’s a pretty good teacher–but I think he thought I wasn’t excited about it when he started to carefully, thoroughly explain the basics and try to make me not afraid of code. I wasn’t uninterested. I was just past the point when that level of fix was enough. By then, it took a much stronger dose to satisfy me.

I ditched RPGXP after a couple months, though. After I’d figured out the basics, I tried to do things with them–that meant trying to make the fantasy novel of that time period into a game. It didn’t work too well. I tried to write something else, but it got abandoned too.

I didn’t worry too much about this. I had lots of dud stories on my hard drive. But it was more work to abandon games. I left it alone, and started making web sites instead.

A year after that, I would take my first formal college class on coding–web design, specifically–and find out that they were getting basically everything wrong. We spent a third of the class on Flash, which I hated to the core of my being. The next third was spent learning to manually code HTML and CSS… to a far outdated standard, including scrolling marquees and gratuitous use of clipart as project requirements, and we weren’t being taught to use validators (the HTML version of a debugger; when you’re learning, it’s almost essential for catching your mistakes). The last third of the class was on the use of DreamWeaver, which at the time was just as bad as Flash. (I understand it’s grown up considerably since.)

After that, classes on VB and so forth kind of made sure my attention stayed on writing, art, and psychology rather than coding. I still enjoyed the idea of making things and the cool image of having coding skills, but it felt like work far more than play. I’m still trying to reclaim my enthusiasm. Sometimes it comes back, but… not for school stuff. Even if I liked the teacher.

DaniS said:

You ever read a blog and really empathise with a person? Virtual supportive and encouragement vibes, or something. Badly engineered education + sensitive engineering design sense + depression is not a fun combo. But it sounds like you’ve gotten through the really bad bit, at least.

And let me know, once you get back to coding, whether you ever want someone to rant at or work with. I’m still learning, but damn if it isn’t easier to do that when you’ve got something to make.

I’m working on this right now:

It’s part of my “legacy” that I’m wrapping up. Not because I like the project, but because I promised to do it. I’m going to have the design docs up soon. It doesn’t have an open source license on it because it’s for an organization, and my communication with them on this particular topic was kind of vague. I’m really just building up the codebase so it’s worth it for someone else to inherit.

That’s boring though. So for you, I updated my idea file. Here you go! I’m seriously considering that bill-splitting app, but someone might have already done it.

Jan Coetsee said:

Send me an email and I will send you a link to some very cool stuff

Keep up the spirit!

Convince me you aren’t an email address harvester first. I won’t snub you if you’re a real reader, but this is the sort of generic message I’d normally stick in spam. So, if you recommend your favorite Jargon File entry, or remind me of the three virtues of a great programmer as told by Larry Wall, or tell me a very short story about a goat named Jerry, I’ll totally talk with you over email. 🙂

Or, if your links aren’t private material, feel free to post them here. 😀