Monthly Archives: April 2011

Coder dilettante

In my spare time, for fun, I’m learning some Clojure. It made me think (in the shower, as usual) to list all the languages in which I’ve written some amount of working code. Not as a brag, but to see just what I’ve been exposed to along the way. I’ve never actually been hired anywhere as a developer, so most of this experience is either from university, a work activity to get a bigger job done, or (mostly) as a curiosity. On one hand it demonstrates my generalist tendencies; on the other it suggests that I’m just a dilettante with an attention deficit problem. It also pretty well defines my age.

  • BASIC (Microsoft Level II, and Visual Basic)
  • FORTRAN (and Ratfor)
  • Assembler (Z80, PDP-11, 6809, 6800, 8086)
  • Pascal
  • C
  • Lisp
  • Prolog
  • Perl
  • Tcl (with Tk)
  • Java
  • Scheme
  • Forth
  • Ruby
  • Smalltalk
  • Lua
  • XSLT (yes, it’s Turing-complete)
  • JavaScript
  • Clojure

I’ve excluded OS-specific scripting “languages” like Bash, Awk, and VAX/VMS DCL, and proprietary languages. Missing in action for me are languages like C++ (only got as far as reading a book and trying to install C++ on VMS), 6502 assembler (never got an Apple ][), Python (I like Ruby better), Turbo Pascal, and Objective C.

Looking back, I’ve written the most lines of code in C, been the most productive in Perl, struggled the most with Prolog, had the most fun with Ruby, written the ugliest Java, and most admired Smalltalk and the Lisp family. Through all this dabbling in code I’ve come to value the power from language simplicity and elegance, as a means of building complex systems. And yet, I’m still frustrated in many ways by still having to deal with the basics of bricks, mortar, and plumbing, when I just want to create my own modest castles in the sky. Clojure actually feels a bit closer to that ideal, which is why I’m interested in it. And for learning it, I can highly recommend the nearly released Clojure in Action.

Fear of falling behind

My first blog post in the while. I’m spending too much time reading the web. Not only does it appear to be expanding at a rate not far behind that of the universe, but it means that I’m not spending enough time creatively contributing to it. After I’ve read my 104 RSS feeds, 143 Twitter followee contributions (plus others on lists), emails, news stories, articles on Instapaper, had a coffee, and patted the dogs, I’m done. And after all that I still haven’t done anything useful. I try and judiciously cull my sources, but more just gets added. And I’m not even working at the moment.

Other than completely giving up and disconnecting the broadband, I have no definitive solutions. Doing more skimming and less diving seems promising. I’ve taken to using Flipboard on the iPad to just scan the tweets and feeds, and sending the longer interesting articles to Instapaper, where I have a backlog suitable for longer periods of reading time. Which is hardly ever. Google News gives me a diverse set of headlines to scan over my fibre-enhanced weeties in the morning.

My fear comes from the maxim that the more you know, the more you realise what you don’t know. Or put another way: the more you know, the stupider you get. Being a bit of the generalist, I’m forever worried that I’m falling behind. In the subject areas I actually do know something about, I’m worried that I’m missing out on the latest, the best, the cutting edge breakthroughs or analysis. And in the infinitely larger space of topics I don’t know much or anything about, how can I hold up my head as a well-informed member of our society?

And as a result of the paralysis, I’m not shipping my art, as Seth Godin might put it. Not enough time coming up with ideas, focusing on creative solutions, forming opinions, talking to people, creating music and photos, implementing world peace, and so on.

The general answer of course is more discipline. Just do it. Carve out the time to do the most valuable work. Focus on the important stuff. As a strategy lecturer once said to us, the only real correlator of success seems to be that successful people just work harder.