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Can I Just Check The Back Of The Book?

April 11, 2016

I don’t know, Rodney, your server has become a personal quest. I keep trying to find time to work on it between other projects. 

Any ETA on when it will be done?

Sorry, no. But, it’s not going to win. I’m not going  to let it beat me.

My friend Sean Neuman is a computer expert. People, many who don’t understand computers, think that I’m a computer expert. And while I admit that I can find my way around a network, I’m nowhere near where Sean is at. And he’s stuck on a problem that he can’t seem to fix.

My car is broken again. Actually, it’s still broken from the last time I replaced the water pump, the thermostat and the radiator cap in an effort to get it to stop overheating. And like my computer, the car is currently winning the “Guess what’s wrong with me” game. 

College classes, especially when it comes to IT, are not designed to teach you a whole lot. Not to say they are worthless, not at all. But, the actual information that you learn in a computer class very quickly becomes dated. My first programming class used Turbo Pascal. I don’t know anyone who has even written a program in Turbo Pascal today. Ruby and Python are two of the trendy languages today. They were only invented in the past decade or two. 

If programming classes and computer classes are going to become outdated quickly, why even take the classes? 

Because the purpose of most classes is not to provide you with information, but to help you learn to think. The techniques I learned in that first computer class are just as applicable today as they were 25 years ago. For example, if you need to sort a list of names, you can do a bubble sort, an insertion sort, a heap sort, a radix sort, etc. Each sort algorithms has advantages and disadvantages. Some are easy to program but take a long time to run. Some are better on pre-sorted data. Some take a long time to write, but run really quickly. Some are better on small data sets. Some will take years on large data sets. 

Understanding the different types of sort will help me write programs in Turbo Pascal, Ruby, or the language that will be invented 10 years from now. Hopefully, in college we learn to learn. 

Solving problems in college classes did have one major advantage over trying to solve similar problems in real life: the answer key. There were times where I spent hours, possibly days, on a problem but still coudln’t get the right answer. At that point, I was willing to take half credit and “look in the back of the book.” Many texts, especially math texts included the answer key to a certain number of problems in the back of the book. And if I was frustrated enough, I no longer cared how I got to the right answer, I just wanted to know what the right answer was.

Unfortunately, that’s typically not an option in real life. My car, for example, has something wrong with it. I can drive it for 45 minutes and it will be just fine and after about an hour, it will start to overheat. I’ve done all the simple things. I’ve moved on into more exotic testing. I’ve done the “turkey baster” test to check for hydrocarbons in the coolant system. If the test came back positive, I’d know that I had a blown head gasket. The test came back negative. 

I’ve done a pressure test, where I artificially pressurize the coolant system to find any leaks. There were no leaks. I’ve checked the rating on my radiator cap. It’s rated 1.1 bars which translates to 15.94 lbs, which is close enough to 16 to eliminate that as a problem.

The car is not magical. It isn’t being sick on purpose. I’m confident that eventually I’ll figure out the problem. But, in the mean time, I’m stuck trying one ineffective processes after another. I’m ready to take half credit, if someone will just show me where I can look up the answer in the back of the book.

My friend Sean is facing a similar challenge with my server. The computer was working fine until we tried to move it one day. From that day on, it’s given weird boot up errors. I did everything I could think of and couldn’t fix it. I gave it to Sean who was confident he could diagnose and fix it quickly. But, like my car experience, Sean has run into one failed test after another. Computers, like cars, don’t have a soul. They are not breaking because they hate us. There is a mechanical reason that my server will not boot up. Sean will eventually find it and fix it. But, in the mean time, it would sure be nice to have someone share the ultimate answer.

I guess the real lesson is to college students. Enjoy the experience. The real world is nothing like it. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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