Keep Up at the Back

Keep Up at the Back

By Frances Buontempo

Overload, 29(162):2-3, April 2021

It's hard to keep up in a changing world. Frances Buontempo wonders how to deal with the constant state of flux.

I am not keeping up, as evidenced by yet another lack of editorial. Trying to keep on top of things can be a challenge. I didn’t use my diary much last year. I’m sure I’m not the only one. I don’t have one this year and sometimes forget what the date is. That is not a great way to be organized and prepare for conference talks, write editorials and the rest. Aside from day to day troubles such as knowing what date or even day it is, keeping up, particularly in tech, is hard work. I have recently strayed into a world of AWS, terraform and Java, taking me well outside my usual world of C++, Python and C#. Learning new languages and tools is tremendous fun, but trying to cram loads of new things into my head sometimes leaves me feeling like my brain is full. How do you keep up with new technology, language changes and the like? I find ACCU very helpful, either being able to chuck an email at ACCU general, or chat with other members. Sometimes someone can be persuaded to write an article or give a talk, providing an executive summary of the salient points to give you a leg up.

Learning a new language, programming or human, can be difficult. If you know one language well, this can cause confusion as you try to get your head round a second language. A little bit of knowledge can be dangerous. If words sound similar it’s tempting to guess meanings. Pronunciation can have subtle differences. You need practice and help from a native speaker. Throwing yourself into an unfamiliar culture requires acceptance of new idioms, sentence orderings and much more besides. Translation is hard. Some software vendors offer “international” versions of their products, tending to mean non-English versions. Using the word international hints at an old bias here! Nonetheless, one to one translations of words don’t always fit on menus and picking a direct translation of a word, say “bullet” when internationalizing a word processor may end up suggesting gunfire rather than spherical symbols [Lepouras99]. Even if people speak the same native language, different experience or roles can cause confusion. A BA I work with regularly devolves into laughter when I mention strings. He thinks of the Goon Show’s Great String Robberies [GoonShow], whereas I am talking about a series of bytes containing some characters. “Oh, dear, dear. Oh, dear, dear, dear, dear, oh, dear” as a character says in that very sketch. I would tell him about words being numbers in my universe, but he’s not ready for it yet. Different contexts change the semantics of symbols and words in human communication.

The same goes for programming languages. If you start out knowing how to write procedural code in C, there might be a temptation to write procedural code in every language. Good luck with that. The idea of a different context strays beyond the syntax and semantics of the language used. Code that behaves one way on one operating system may behave differently, or not even run, on another. Line endings vary between platforms. Endianness is a thing. How big is an integer? So many differences. Watch out for byte ordering marks when you try to open a file on Linux that a Windows machine happily opened via Python code. ProTip: set the encoding, once you have figured out what the encoding is. Finding that out is another story. The OS is one thing, but the device itself is another. I keep a blog [Buontempo]. I regularly get emails telling me the links are too close together on a mobile and other related problems. I recently discovered you can use developer tools to “toggle device” to see just how bad it might be on various different mobile phones etc. If I find the time I might try to sort this out. Maybe. First, I need to get my head round AWS lambdas, and why they can sometimes be slow in surprising ways. How do you find out what’s going on when the code hits the metal when it’s not your metal? I am experiencing a paradigm shift, and doing my best to keep up.

Learning new technology affects many people, not just programmers. Many people use smart phone or have a laptop who don’t have a clue what’s happening inside, which is fine. I recall struggling with keyboards and the “mouse” on a laptop the first time I tried to use one. You should see what happened when I tried to use a touch screen for the first time – long finger nails complicate matters. The switch to online banking has upset some people. This forced new way of transacting, with little choice where local bank branches have shut, can cause upset. When people can’t understand a new procedure that had become a simple task due to familiarity previously, they can feel and even become excluded. “It was simpler in the olden days” goes the cry. Truth be told, it probably wasn’t; you learnt some new-fangled things way back when, forget the other stuff that was way more complicated and your memory is selective. Nonetheless, many people struggle with change. In my experience, many techy people have a life-long love of learning, so may tend to embrace change. This does sometimes leave us as IT support for family and neighbours, which can be a time consuming role. I personally love learning some new things. Happy to try new programming languages, find new ways of testing, make algorithms quicker and easier to understand. Bring it on. But, move the buttons in a new version of a word processor, IDE or similar and I might start muttering very loudly. Hide the buttons in a ribbons and make me find how to make the button appear, and I’ll go back to my editor of choice and leave your new “improved” software closed for weeks. Give me a website with stealth scroll bars, those that only appear if I get my mouse in the right place, and I’ll be tempted to curl from a prompt. As stated, I like learning some new things and I suspect I’m not alone in this. Other changes are annoying. I’ll get used to it, then they’ll move my buttons, again.

Some things will never change, right? Like University Challenge on television on a Monday night in the UK, so I can have a quiet night in and focus on something other than failing to write an editorial. It has been running since the sixties, though has suffered a long hiatus in the 1980s being revived in 1995 [Wikipedia]. The quiz show is open to students representing a university and, in the case of Oxford or Cambridge, a specific college. Despite mumblings of elitism, due to these special rules for “Oxbridge” and that they frequently win, I still enjoy watching and trying to answer the questions. Recently I have noticed I can’t answer many questions on scientists or mathematicians. Why? I learnt the names mainly via the theorems and theories I studied and by reading some history of science books many years ago. Back then, most of the names I learnt were of white men, tending to live in Europe or the USA. University Challenge has started an annoying habit of asking about women. I can’t name many female mathematicians or scientists. Why? Because I was only taught about the guys. I love that the students seem to know many of the answers. I hope teaching has changed to be more inclusive. I clearly need to keep up, by expanding my horizons a bit, and updating my inaccurate, biased view of history. From now on, if anything seems to only involve white guys, I am going to do a bit of digging, and find out whether this is really the case. If it is, I will ask what can be done about it. I realise Overload has an international audience and the white guy syndrome is not a universal plague. Some cultures remember great females or know their BAME superstars.

Does not knowing the women involved in STEM make me sexist? No. Would assuming a women can’t be involved in STEM be sexist? Maybe. I have sometimes assumed women won’t be involved in the deep technical stuff, based on my personal experience. I am often the only women on a team. If I meet another woman, I am often initially surprised if she can code in C++ or similar. I then notice my assumptions and move on to be delighted. I bet I am not the only one. In fact, I know I’m not. Recently Steve gave a talk about Records, having written the article for this issue of Overload (thanks Steve!). When we both joined the online Meetup, an organizer asked if I was a tester, as though me being able to code hadn’t occurred to him. I understand and make a mistaken assumption as well far too often. Note to self: a better question is always, “What do you do?” You can hide your bias that way, and have a quiet word with yourself later. Your previous experience is no indicator of future performance. Your previous experience is your previous experience. Your future experience can and will be different. Everything changes eventually. Even you. Or me.

How do we keep up as things change? First, notice the change. If it’s a moved button then give up (if you’re like me). If it’s more important, take time to learn. Read. Listen. Try new things. Don’t be afraid. If you feel like you are falling behind, in terms of new technology or language features or anything tech, find someone to help you out. However young or old you feel, ACCU is here to help. Get in touch, write for us, join us: ask us anything. I’d love to see the study groups revived. These are open to ACCU members, and previously tended to work through a tech book, trying out coding exercises. Sharing together with others is a great way to learn. Learning isn’t a race. You don’t need to come out top of class, or win University Challenge. Slow and steady is fine. I frequently feel as though I struggle to understand new things when I compare myself to others. I have a deep sense of whether or not I have truly grokked a new idea or concept. This means I will often be muttering “But I don’t get it” while others are forging ahead, possibly missing some subtleties that are confusing me silly. I need to remind myself about the hare and tortoise having a race in one of Aesop’s fables. A hare can run fast. A tortoise cannot. And yet, the tortoise wins, because the hare, confident in his abilities, has a nap during their race. As the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes says, “The race is not to the swift.” Do beware going down a rabbit hole though. Sometimes you need to time box a task and give up if you are being slower than a tortoise.

Change brings new things but sometimes takes away the old. That can be hard to deal with. I have chucked out VHS videos because I can’t play them. I left a tape player behind when I moved once. I regret this. So many demo tapes from so many friends’ bands. But, you do need to let go sometimes. I had the honour of remotely attending Russel Winder’s funeral in March. Many ACCU people joined in too. Allow me to quote some lyrics from Fix You by Coldplay, a track used during the funeral:

Tears stream down your face

When you lose something you cannot replace

Change can be difficult. Russel will be sorely missed. He has left ripples on the internet, and many articles, including several in this very magazine. Despite my earlier complaints about a variety of annoying aspects of technology, the internet allowed me to join in. Technology can be an enabler. During the pandemic, Grayson Perry made a television programme called “Grayson’s Art Club” [ArtClub]. The second series started recently. He’s been encouraging people to submit art on a different theme each week, embracing people without formal training. I have found this delightful and encouraging. One stand out moment, was a young woman who had submitted a picture drawn on a tablet of some sort. She has restricted movement, I forget the specifics, making holding a pen or paintbrush impossible. Her submission had been drawn by moving her eyes and the technology translating that into brush strokes and lines. She said it gave her control and freedom, in a way that nothing else in her life did. Let’s attempt to embrace change, celebrate the freedom great tech can bring and try to make sure no one gets left behind. Help everyone at the back keep up.


[ArtClub] Grayson’s Art Club:

[Buontempo] Buontempo Consulting (Fran’s blog):

[GoonShow] The Goon Show: ‘String Robberies’:

[Lepouras99] Lepouras, Giorgos and Weir, George R. S.: “It’s Not Greek to Me: Terminology and the Second Language Problem”, 1999, SIGCHI Bulletin, Association for Computing Machinery, 31.2

[Wikipedia] University Challenge:

Frances Buontempo has a BA in Maths + Philosophy, an MSc in Pure Maths and a PhD technically in Chemical Engineering, but mainly programming and learning about AI and data mining. She has been a programmer since the 90s, and learnt to program by reading the manual for her Dad’s BBC model B machine.

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