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SUMMONING THE SPELL

April 19th, 2019

The phrase and directive ‘Learn to code’ has taken on a strangely weaponized role in recent times.  For some it is a situational cure-all that is lobbed at those who find their situations becoming less stable, and for those on the other side of the fence, it is a perhaps a grandiose display of intelligence and status.  Neither on each side of this invisible fence inevitably benefits from such a relationship as no one enjoys a billboard-with-an-answer thrown in their face, and those tossing such billboards almost never see their “suggestions” followed to efficacy.   It is a good example of trying to conquer a companion in dialogue as opposed to fruitfully exploring whatever common ground might have a chance of existing between two such companions.   

 

The effect is akin to an enemy placed safely atop a castle wall yelling down that it is safe to enter their castle.  Emotionally the prospect is imbued with impending slaughter, and yet the plain truth is that anyone arguing a point wants their companion in dialogue to join them in the same perspective, peacefully.   This failure of dialogue, however, has almost nothing to do with the subject in question – coding – and everything to do with the lazy and ineffective ways people speak to one another.

 

What is more fascinating than this idiosyncrasy of the times is just how much magic exists within the realms of code.  To be sure, this is not some high and mighty agreement with those who lob their ‘learn to code’ bombs at others.  This is solely intended for the non-coder, as there do not seem to be many approachable and effective descriptions to light up the imagination of the non-coder.

 

Magic might seem like a hyperbolic and optimistic word to use here, but the intent is quite literal.  The closest analogy that computer coding has outside of it’s own realm is the world of magical realism and fantasy, where their exist all manner of subtle systems within such worlds were things that are impossible in our reality can actually manifest.

 

For those familiar with the world of J.K. Rowling’s writing, a function or block of code has an eerie if not straight up fantastic similarity to the spells that are studied, creatively and meticulously practiced and employed within her realms of imaginary and magical worlds.  Within her epic series children spend years studying and practicing these spells in order to make things appear out of nowhere and disappear or move, mutate and do the bidding of their invokers.  Perhaps the only downfall of such an analogy is that within J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world a person’s blood in large part determines their talent and ability to perform such magic.    Carried through the analogy to the real-world example of coding, this easily looks like the arguments and declarations about intelligence that surround the #learntocode debacle.  This is easily a slippery slope that can counter-productively slide into a literal discussion about blood in the real world that we see in the fantasy novels.  But the more productive avenue of such a subject requires backing away from such a mutually destructive precipice in order to build bridges.  As is poignantly evoked in the culmination of J.K. Rowling’s series: an attacker only ends up hurting their own prospects while those comfortable enough in their own skin to realize that initiating an attack is frivolous end up having more stand peacefully by their welcoming side.

 

The worlds of such fantasy like those created by J.K. Rowling captured the imaginations of millions if not billions, while the worlds coming to life by the magic of code actually are the imaginations of such builders.

 

The Tinkered Thinking platform, for example, can be thought of quite literally as a unique spell that has been meticulously constructed in accordance to the rules and laws of a couple programming languages, and each time someone invokes the title of this spell which is literally www.tinkeredthinking.com, this spell comes to life inside of a robot located somewhere in Ohio and then that live spell shoots out into the world through all sorts of various channels in order to present a person with the results of such an invoked spell. 

 

Make no mistake: the writer relaying these thoughts was once so suspicious, ignorant and distrustful of technology that said writer did not have a phone for years and wrote laboriously using a typewriter from the 1930’s.

 

One aspect of such nostalgia that seems to elude the nostalgic person is that the older time in focus is often best evidenced and practiced through the technology that was then the state of the art.

 

In the early 1930’s a Smith & Corona typewriter was state of the art.  With regards to expressing thoughts, it was the fastest and most efficient avenue for the imagination to pour out into the real world.  But note the innumerable limitations of a typewriter.  One is simply that you cannot express any kind of graphical form other than the letters that are quite literally hardcoded into it’s design.  A person cannot really render a 3D model of an imagined object in the way a CAD program can today. 

 

We can then think of the emergence of the radio as an even faster way for the thoughts of those speaking on the radio to more quickly pour out into the real world.  And now with the emergence of the internet, nearly anyone can pour their imagination out into reality to all sorts of degrees, as is evidenced by the fact that this website is read and listened to by people all over the world, extending far beyond the reach of all political leaders in bygone times that had to rely on radio. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thing that’s been cooped up in the imaginative realms where Tinkered Thinking originated is the recent change that has occurred with the landing page.  Now when the Tinkered Thinking ‘spell’ is cast, the whole thing does not light up at once.  Only the most important thing immediately greets the one who invokes this spell, namely the most recent episode.  Then the name slowly emerges from nowhere and then the borders slide in to construct the familiar framework.  As mentioned, this was imagined long before the spells to make it happen where tinkered into existence.

 

However, we are easily jaded.  When something doesn’t work right, when something freezes or fails to function the way we want.  It bodes well to remember that the delete key did not exist on the typewriter, but we forget what a boon it is to tap delete every time our fingers fumble a letter.  It’s even more important to remember that the state of the art is constantly evolving, or rather in this case, the state of the magic itself is constantly trying to iterate towards something new; and that trend, if we extrapolate backwards from computers back to radio and typewriters to pens then quills to the first and most basic technology which is language, the trend seems to be towards a faster and more efficient way to bring our imagination to life.

 

Could anything more accurately capture the core of what fantasy fiction attempts to do? 

 

In the worlds of J.K. Rowling a wand is waved and things pop into existence.  Today a few buttons are pressed and things emerge into existence.  We can even hit a few buttons and have J.K. Rowling’s world pop into existence before our very eyes.

 

 

Analogy between the world of coding and J.K. Rowling’s magical world also suffers an identical problem regarding education.  J.K. Rowling’s world reflects a school system where things are studied and memorized and practiced, this is unfortunate because it fails to elicit the most powerful forms of learning, namely things like curiosity, or the way in which our mind tinkers with things, iterating our efforts, not from a text book but from a far more efficient mechanism within our minds that allows us to figure things out, which brings us to a central tenant of computer programming.

 

As Chris Pines once wrote: “Computer programming is not about what you know, it’s about what you can figure out.”

 

But we might sub-out ‘computer programming’ in this quote with all manner of other things.  Our lives can be viewed as a giant compilation of things we need to figure out or problem solve.  Painting a painting has less to do with art history or memorizing techniques as much as it has to do with a willingness to try something new.  The same might be said for fiction writing or designing a more efficient rocket engine, or trying a new skateboard move that currently only exists in the imagination.  Chris Pines’ quote is not exclusive to computer programing, indeed, the observation taps into a foundational principle of what it means to be alive.

 

We can all imagine a better world.  It’s certainly a mistake to think it used to be better during some nostalgic time.  It’s an equal mistake to think it will be handed to us.  The most promising strategy to bring that better, imagined world to fruition in the real one is to invoke the same strategy that allows coders to bring things to life on the screen, or writers to bring things to life on a page – it’s best to try and

 

figure it out.

 

Just as Tinkered Thinking will continue to tinker

 

and figure out how

 

to get you to think

 

a little more effectively,

 

for it’s those initial realms of thought and imagination that produce the best seeds for growing a better world.

 

 

This episode references Episode 157: Conquer or Concur.


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Podcast Ep. 369: Summoning the Spell

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