Author: Daniel, Bert

Syntax Error

Learning a foreign language can be a very satisfying and rewarding experience but it can also be very frustrating. There’s all this new vocabulary which you have to figure out how to pronounce, conjugate and process. But if you take the trouble to learn some of the local language before your trip through the backroads of an exotic foreign country, you’re likely to have a much better time than if you didn’t.

Learning to play music is much like learning to speak a foreign language. There are a number of different dialects but if you can make your instrument talk in one language, say folk for example, then you can probably get by in some other dialects as well. And if you head to a bluegrass festival instead of that exotic foreign country, it’s nice to know the language before you go jamming.

A few months ago there was a major national effort, spearheaded by some tech sector luminaries, with the goal of exposing secondary school students to computer science. It was called the “Hour of Code” and students across the country took an hour out of their school day to learn a little bit about how to create things using computers. My son’s school participated and I was very glad they did. In my mind learning computer languages is at least as important for today’s generation as learning a foreign language was for mine. Some day computer translation programs may be able to make any language familiar to the listener.

The Hour of Code got me thinking. Maybe I could learn a little bit about how to program a computer. I had had a little exposure to computer science back in my college days, but that was when you had to punch out a bunch of holes in a stack of cards and feed the cards through a sorter. Very primitive and not very much fun. I’d be starting from scratch.

I soon discovered that writing computer code can be a whole lot of fun. For one thing, you get instant feedback on every effort you make. It’s amazing how quickly computers can carry out complex tasks as long as you tell them exactly what to do. I signed up for a free tutorial called Codecademy Codecademy rewards your progress with badges and other encouragements and guides you along (well sort of) step by step. I would encourage anyone who has the slightest inclination to learn about computers to check out an online tutorial. Another good one is W3Schools. Maybe you’d rather watch a You Tube video that explains computer science in a lecture format? Check out Khan Academy .

Some new computer languages are incredibly simple to learn. For example, one program written for very young children allows you to write programs by simply stacking the right box icons together. Not very challenging or powerful, but you still get an idea of the logic a computer uses to do all those incredible things it does.

One word of caution, however. Just like any other language course, learning computer science can be frustrating. Imagine you’re in a jam and you hit one of those bad notes you occasionally hit. (I refer to mine euphemistically as “passing notes” and it’s an unfortunate feature of my unique musical style that I seem to hit a lot of them). Well imagine you’re in that jam and instead of just playing though a bad note, hoping nobody else noticed, and continuing to have a good time this happens: your instrument locks up, no sound comes out and a light flashes on the headstock that says “syntax error”.

That’s what it’s like trying to learn how to code in the computer language called Python. If you leave out one little punctuation mark or you indent where you shouldn’t or if you don’t indent where you should you have all sorts of problems. I’ve spent hours trying to find one stupid mistake and I now have new respect for all those coders out there fixing bugs in codes for those apps we all take for granted.

I see those words a lot these days. Syntax error. Fortunately for me, not all languages are as tricky for me as Python. My latest effort is HTML which I love because it allows you to manipulate content for web pages like the one you’re reading right now. Some of your intrepid welcome columnists have recently signed on to a little quality improvement project using HTML to increase efficiency by freeing our esteemed editor, Rick Cornish, from some of the tedium of putting our columns into a postable format. I sure hope I didn’t make any coding mistakes today. And I sure hope that if I did, my editor just fixes it as usual. He better not reply with an e mail saying simply “syntax error”.

OK column done. Now to go practice my mandolin so I don’t have too many syntax errors at Turlock.

Posted:  3/9/2014

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