Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Defrosting Old Neurons

One of the fun things (I'm using the term fun here somewhat loosely ;) ), is the ability to go back and re-evaluate or see what you still remember of an older skill.

Over the years, I've had the opportunity to use some skills fairly regularly. Other times, I have a need for something because it's what other people are using, and it will be with me for a season, and then I will move on to something else. I've been trying to think about what I have used that has been evergreen, and what has lasted "for a season".

Many years back, I built a PC specifically to do music recording and arranging, with MIDI as the cornerstone (manly because I wasn't talented enough to play multiple instruments to a level that would be high enough quality to record live). Thus, I played with several sequencer apps over the years. Voyetra, Cubase, Cakewalk, etc. all had their pluses and minuses, but sometime around 1999, I stopped doing anything MIDI related at all. Haven't touched a sequencer app since 2000. Ultimately, I just decided to move to straight waveform recording tools, and move my music production skills to podcasting. To that end, Audacity is my choice, and it's a tool that I've come to appreciate, if not outright love, and it's become a steady companion.

I learned a very little bit of BASIC and Pascal as a kid, went into some C programming out of necessity when I started working at Cisco, picked up UNIX Shell programming so I could write utility scripts, and spent a fair amount of time with scripted languages like Tcl/Tk and extensions like Expect. With the early wave of the web, I learned how to hand code HTML and some early CSS, and I did a number of Java applets, but never really got into depth of how to program with Java. Likewise, I learned enough Perl to make CGI scripts (and I still maintain a few of them even to this day ;) ). I had a brief period in 2002 where I worked with tools like LabView and SolidWorks because I had to make fixtures for instruments, and then control those fixtures and instruments. It was interesting, but again, not a skill that I carried with me later on. When I was at Sidereel, I put a lot of emphasis on learning about Ruby, Cucumber, Capybara and Selenium. Now, I'm digging into Perl (again), some JavaScript, and Selenium.

Today, as I work through David Burns Selenium 2 Testing Tools book, I decided it would be worth it to go back and re-acquaint myself with Java and get back into the space I used to be in when I had an inkling of what I was doing with it. There were several times I figuratively felt like I was bending frozen bean stalks, the crackling and smell of smoke made me think I was roasting long unused neurons, recovering long frozen memories, and trying to see how much of it would come back and make sense, or at least be decipherable. To my surprise, I was able to make some headway, enough that I was able to go back to some areas in the book that were causing me to be stuck (errors in code as presented, possibly outdated information, etc.) and realize I could unstick myself with a little research and going back to re-practice the basics. I surprised myself with how much I actually did remember at a conceptual level, though I had to spend some time writing out steps again so I could get them to work how I expected. Still, muscle memory is real, and thankfully, muscle memory is an appropriate metaphor for the brain, too :)?

To this end, I've decided that I want to go back and re-consider some old technologies and skills I used to use, and see if there's still a place for them today. It would be a shame to have all that experience with Ruby these past couple of years fall by the wayside because I'm not actively using it in my day to day work. Admittedly, some stuff isn't going to be practical. I just don't do work today that would be applicable for me to set up a LabView or SolidWorks station again (though there may be some open source options that do similar things). Likewise, there's a world of the UNIX command line that I could be exploiting way more than I do today. Some really interesting things can be done with Tcl and Expect. They may not be as hip as they once were, but they are still relevant in a number of industries, so why let that knowledge forever remain in deep freeze? This week, make an inventory of your "old tech" and ask yourself "how much of this would I like to revisit?" You might be surprised at how many old neurons would appreciate the exercise and the recollection of older and neglected skill. Be warned, it may hurt a bit at first ;).
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