Confessions of an Analog Guy

I guess I’m just an analog kind of guy. Not that I don’t go absolutely ga-ga over the latest digital toys, or consider myself an early adopter of whatever technology my salary can support, but over the years I have shown absolutely no aptitude for nor interest in programming, coding, scripting, debugging or compiling. Sometimes that makes me feel dumb….

Not that I haven’t had my chances. In the early 60’s, when the Cold War was the centerpiece of American policy, foreign and domestic, and the military/industrial complex was in a tizzy because the Russkies had developed their own H-bomb and beat us into space, some brain in Washington decided we couldn’t afford to fall behind in the computer race. So they quietly started a program to pick out smart 9 and 10-year-olds and teach them to program computers.

Back in the day, the only real programmable computers around were in government research labs, military installations, large corporations and research universities. They rounded us up, me and one other kid from my school, twice a week for about half a school year. I remember a nice lady would pick us up after school in a non-descript late-model sedan (notably newer than my family’s car) and drive us out to the University of Rochester to try to learn to program those big old IBM mainframes.

I was terrible at it. I paid attention, and the history and implications of computer development interested me, but I couldn’t get my program to run worth shit, and I was retired from the program at age 10. Undoubtedly, some of the more successful participants went on to help Al Gore create the Internet as we know it.

Thus began a lifelong frustrating love affair with the cybernetics. A pattern was developing. I would learn just enough of a new technology to use it to accomplish something cool or useful in whatever field or project I was working on at the time. I learned to use Lotus 1-2-3 in 1983 when, while working feverishly for my MS in Ed and with a pregnant wife at home, I took a night job preparing BCBS User Benefit reports for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of NY, and then didn’t use another spreadsheet for 25 years. I learned just enough UNIX to connect to the internet through a terminal emulator from South America and set up a gopher tree. I learned just enough html to run a few simple sites for non-demanding clients. Lately it has been xml and RSS which have been the subjects of my feeble attempts.

I do OK as long as the concepts and instructions are in plain English. But as soon as the code starts to fly, even if it is in supposedly simple scripting languages like Apple Script or Java, I get hopelessly lost.

It may be related to a specific cognitive skill involving the brain’s internal coding system, in which I am woefully deficient. This may be related to language-related learning disorder from which I apparently suffer.

When I was an undergraduate there was still a language requirement at Harvard. Two years of a foreign language, or testing out at the equivalent level. I had already failed to learn Hebrew both as a potential Bar Mitzvah and as a teen-aged Jew exiled to a Kibbutz, for a while, before I was ignominiously deported from the Holy Land by the Mossad for consorting with Palestinians and dopers.

It had taken me four years of high school to pass French II. At the end of my final semester my French II teacher, who was also the head of the foreign languages department, called me into his office. In his stylish Italian accent he told me he knew I needed to pass his course to graduate and go on to college. However, I had failed every test he had given during the year. With great regret he was willing to pass me with a “D”, but only on the condition that I make him a solemn promise.

At that point I would have sold my first-born into servitude. “What,” I asked breathlessly. “Promise me you will never take French again, anywhere, ever.”

A promise I have had no problem keeping. By the time I got to Harvard I was convinced I was incapable of learning any language other than English, human or machine. So what to do about the language requirement?

Well, it turns out Harvard had one of the world’s foremost experts in language learning disabilities (who knew?). His name was Dr. Dinkledge (I swear I am not making this up) and his prime theory was that lots of otherwise intelligent people were congenitally incapable of learning languages because of the way their brains created sound/symbol associations.

In fact, Dr. Dinkledge had created a test to discover which otherwise intelligent people had this foreign-language-specific learning disability. Furthermore, if one failed the test, the language requirement was waived.

Now the word was out that Doc Dinkledge was a pretty savvy cat, although completely screwy. Supposedly the test had trick questions which could suss out fakers and louts looking for an easy way around the requirement. Naturally, I figured the way to go was start an extended and varied psychotropic run about 72 hours before the testing appointment, and then trying my damnedest. My memories of the test itself, as well as the period leading up to it are virtually non-existent, but I failed the test with flying colors, literally.

So perhaps my status as a Dinkledge Idiot explains in part my inability to learn coding languages. Actually, I prefer to think of it as a predilection for endeavors in which minor mistakes, creative fudging, and serendipitous inexactitude are assets rather than harbingers of doom.

The problem with coding as an endeavor, for me, was (and is) the deep feelings of frustration and failure experienced when one tiny mistake was made in a line of code. It wasn’t like another field I dabble in, graphic design, where a slight alteration, an off-kilter element, an unintended brushstroke can create new and unexpected variations or intermeshing of elements.

In coding, every bet is all or nothing. Like in flying or tightrope walking, the alternative to perfection is death. Writing code and debugging it, to me, was like dying a thousand little deaths, in the usually vain hope of eventual redemption and resurrection of the program.

I prefer more analog activities, like cooking. In the kitchen the random element, the pinch of this or the dash of that, can create unexpected but delightful variations on old favorites. If the oven is set at 395 instead of 400, my casserole does not usually crash and burn.

Soul coders, white-hat wizards, often compare what they do to magic, and refer to their scripts as “incantations”. This relates to a long tradition of Western magic, traceable back through Crowley to the Rosicrucian and the Hebrew Cabalists. All of these forms of magic are based in The Word, immutable and transcendant, and at least in their popularized forms involve chanting or reciting long, exact strings of incomprehensible sounds. One mistake will break the spell, or worse, create a completely different spell with unintended, usually catastrophic consequences.

My experiences with magic are quite different. The shamans I have known and studied with were of the third-world, analog variety. They had no prepared or memorized spells. How could they, when the powers and entities they would be working with were so varied and unpredictable? Their chants were soulful sound-webs, trying to synch with the vibrations in their immediate environment, different every time, adapting from instant to instant.

But who am I to deny the validity of digital magic? Every time Google comes up with just the bit of information I am looking for, a needle in a haystack, I give a nod to the google-god.

Maybe someday I will learn how to code. Despite my Dinkledge condition, after 12 years living in South America I have gotten to the point where I am often not aware if I am conversing in English or Spanish. But somehow I doubt it. And I can live with that, I can accept it. I just wish I could stop feeling so dumb.