Friday, August 05, 2011

The best time to learn to compute

They say that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

I didn't learn how to code twenty years ago, but I am doing the next best thing.

I thought I would share with you my progress so far in case you wanted to get a jump on your own twenty year deadline. I think it's especially important to share this sort of personal experience because while there are many, many resources and many helpful folks out there to help you grok, the sheer enormity of what's available out there can make it difficult to get started.  Maybe my coping strategies might work for you.

About a year ago, I made one of the best investments in learning more about computing and the web: I signed up for web hosting at Dreamhost. Now compared to the cost of an iPad or fancy laptop, Dreamhost's price of $9 a month is cheap as chips. But as hosting plans go, $9 a month is actually deemed expensive as some other companies offer hosting services that are closer to $9 a year.

(Be warned that these cheaper services can bring on additional costs as these companies will constantly try to ding you for for services that you need to be constantly vigilant about opting out of. As well, these companies set very low limits for traffic so if you can be dinged for bandwidth once you've signed up. Personally, it was these annoyances that made me switch - but you can go with whomever you'd like. Just make sure you get access to SSH...)

I am flogging web hosting as your computer learning platform for a number of reasons. First, I am one of many who believe that WordPress is the gateway drug to programming. It doesn't matter if you don't want to be another under-appreciated blogger in the world. You can create a WordPress site just to document your learning process... because if it's one thing I learned about computer culture, they appreciate the recursive.

Now, you don't actually *need* to look at the raw code that runs a WordPress site, but one of the very nice things about Wordpress is that its lid, so to speak, can be popped off easily enough for one to look in and poke around. You should try it. Before you know it, you might be hacking PHP just so you can use a fancier theme, for say, your personal or professional portfolio.

Web hosting that allows for SSH - otherwise known as secure shell access - means that you don't need to buy a new computer or partition your existing to start learning how to do command line computing and scripting. I've been trying to improve my own bash skills and I've found this series of free videos from Lullabot a great help.

The reward of getting comfortable at the command line is that you find yourself being to install some really cool web services for your own devices. I've installed ThinkUp to archive my tweets and FB updates and will hopefully installing Yourls so I run my own URL shortener. Later, I hope to have my own copy of Ushahidi installed for mapping fun.

It's funny - when I started writing this post, I was feeling really good about myself because I thought I had figured something tricky out. I have since realised that my celebration was premature and the nut before me remains uncracked. Sigh. More disorientation and frustration and screaming WHY U NO WORK at my computer.

But there's no point wishing I had done this twenty years earlier.

1 comment:

Mita said...

And hours later... the nut has been cracked. I figured out what I was doing wrong and I fixed the problem.

For all my talk about resources, perhaps the most important resource of all is this one: the drive to beat things with rocks until they work.