Infinite Musings

The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it. Edward R. Murrow

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Dear Old Dad's Dictum for Drivers

My late father taught me to drive in a 1967 Chevy Impala - a behemoth of a car. He was a tough task master. He would set-up pylons, stunt course fashion, and make me drive through them in reverse. Parallel parking...I shudder at the memory. But this was not all. Dear old dad had a dictum for drivers, especially young female drivers. "It is not enough that you put the key in the ignition, slide into gear, press on the gas and drive. That is not driving. Any idiot can do that". Oh no. One must know, in practice, how to remove and replace a flat tire. He also expected a basic technical understanding of how the car ran. His explanations were supplemented by the fourth edition of Automotive Mechanics which I still have as a memento. At the time I have to admit it all seemed very tedious not to mention excessive. What was wrong with just putting the key in the ignition and driving?

I'm been minded of my father's dictum in my Digital History course. I feel like I'm learning to drive again - this time a different behemoth. And this time I am not an argumentative, impatient, know-it-all teenager. Rather, I am a pre-digital newbie dumb-struck and very small at the edge of the digital universe. I know how to turn the ignition but I'm struggling to reach the gas pedal. I take refuge in learning, reflecting and seeking to comprehend in a structured (though certainly not rigid) learning environment. The readings for discussion are like maps to the digital universe, the technical background readings reminiscent of Automotive Mechanics and the lab exercises and projects practical skills like learning to change the tires on a car. It's left to me to decide what and how much to learn and how much to share, in pride or shame, publicly on this blog. I realise I may never graduate further than a learner's permit but at least I'm in the driver's seat.

First stop learning how to search properly using Google. Why didn't I take the time to do this years ago? I realise I used to search with the equivalent of one hand tied behind my back. "Negative terms, "+" search; synonym search; "or"; numrange search: These could have saved hours of laborious, unfocussed past searches. The trick of course will be to remember everything I've just learned. I think a good idea is to periodically return and refresh my memory. Reviewing the language tools I was amazed at the number of languages available - Goggle really seeks global dominance and the digital universe is certainly not English only. But - Elmer Fudd as a language? "Gwoups", "Diwectowy"; "Wangauge Toowls"? This made me immediately check the "Google in Your Language Program" to learn more. I felt a little curiosity killed the cat-ish, however, when I received the message "Welcome back Diana. Before using Google in Your Language, we need to know a little more about you." I thought I was anonymously browsing Google's search page. My pulse quickened. I felt as if I'd been caught out and quickly hit the back arrow. It appeared Google already knew more about me than I cared for.

And I see, now, the wisdom of my father's dictum. It's not enough to just put the key in the ignition and drive. I was now, hopefully, better versed in using Google as a search engine but I wanted to better understand algorithms not least because they are fundamental to what search engines do but also to understand this form of problem solving. The Virginia Tech site explained the concept in a clear, precise way. I can understand what an algorithm is, how it works but I have to confess - perhaps it was too much Sopple, search grid, Find it forward, some scavenging, Elmer Fudd - I choked when the program waited for me to fill in the number of memory cells needed in a simple, insert and select sort. I couldn't think rationally, mathematically, algorithmically or any other way at all any more. Electronic hands sorting electronic playing cards swam before my eyes as an old Kenny Roger's tune echoed in my ears: "You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run...." It was time to stop. You can't learn to reverse between pylons, change a tire and parallel park all in one day. But nor is there time to sit back and relax. There is so much to learn that the important thing is to push the boundaries as far as you can - when you start singing old Kenny Rogers songs perhaps you've pushed too hard for one week.


At 7:49 PM, Blogger Molly MacDonald said...

mmm. Nice blog Diana. You had me till the end! I was glad to know too, that someone else has had to walk away from a few of the 'easy' activities. As for being at the edge of a digital universe, well, I find this daunting too. It seems like once one makes the commitment to step into space and learn some of these technologies there's no turning back. Maybe that's not true, but it feels that way to me sometimes. But anyway, I enjoyed your metaphors and thoughts.


At 10:23 AM, Blogger Angel said...

Hey Diana, how are you?!? I miss sharing dog-stories with you!!


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