But I'm not a programmer!

People sometimes ask me about programming: how to get started, which languages to study, and why they should study at all. Here's my self-help for non-programmers: embrace being a hacker and get rid of your surplus powerlessness.


A Fundamental Realization

The first thing to realize is that you are a programmer. The biggest difference between someone who calls himself a programmer, and someone who does not is the attitude they have toward computer use. The definition of computer use that you apply will determine whether you become a victim of the technological designs of others, or become a competent user of technological tools.

The difference is attitude. I'm not saying that every person who turns on a computer is a potential Richard Stallman, but your goal should not be becoming the Last Real Hacker; instead your goal should simply be gaining technological competence and skill. You can do that. And the first step to believing you can do that is to change your mind and say "If I learn, I will know how." You don't know now, but you will know after you learn.

As evidence, take myself: I used to believe that learning to program would cost tons of money, and so I rejected learning to program as a tool of the establishment, something that people only did if they wanted a job with Microsoft. During all the time I believed that my friends and colleagues were gaining programming skill that I refused to get on my own. When I finally did take the sensible route and just look up what I needed to start programming in C, I discovered that free C compilers were readily available, and in fact whole operating systems had been built around them, along with free programming libraries and manuals.

Boy did I feel like a fool.

I found out that a whole culture exists, built around the ideal that being a computer user is far more than picking up a mouse or putting your hands on a keyboard. The community of Free Software is built around an older notion of what it meant to use a computer. In particular, it recognizes that whatever a computer is designed to do, or whatever programs you have available were not designed by you and therefore do not know everything that you want. If you accept that everything a computer does is something that you already want, you're limiting your desires based on what someone else tells you. You're subscribing to the idea that whatever someone wants to sell you is all that you should ever want. There is a very successful hardware and software company built around this notion, and people totally eat it up.

However, in the old days, you couldn't take what a designer gave you: computers didn't do anything "out-of-the-box" and you had to have the attitude that to use a computer is to modify its operations and give it specific instructions. With modern computers doing so much that is flashy and impressive, including eclipsing many other household electronic devices and consolidating entertainment around a single machine, computer consumers think that they don't need to extend what a computer does, or write their own programs.

They're wrong. Those same people, who think everything is sewn up when they turn on the computer, come to me saying "How can I make this happen? How can I perform this more efficiently? How can I replace this text with this other text, where I don't know completely what I want to replace?" The answer is to become a programmer.

So, What Should I Do?

A couple of things that I noticed when I started learning to program were that

  1. A lot of baggage from languages that aren't popular or aren't relevant to my own interests
  2. Subjects that I don't find interesting

As for the first point I've noticed that most programming texts (except the really good ones or the ones specifically aimed at beginners) are for people recovering from programming in languages that they didn't choose, mostly C++ and Java. Most of the stuff I read about Python was directly framed in terms of stuff you'd only know if you'd spent years progrmaming in C++. The other thing is that I'm primarily interested in numerical analysis and text processing, so it's strange that most of the stuff I come across is about web programming. The web is now the biggest market for programming and for people who want jobs doing it, that makes the most sense. This demand also creates the biggest market for books. The books I recommend below are more well-balanced.

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