Sunday, July 05, 2009

Little Trouble in BigTown #10: As If I Didn't Feel Bad Enough About My Programming Skills

An exchange that occurred about three months ago:

Me: So how's [legendarily difficult programming class] treating you?
The Roommate: It's really hard because it's not very well-defined; you have to use a lot of creative skills and big-picture thinking.
Me: Uh huh. Sounds pretty tough.
The Roommate: Actually, you'd be really good at it.
Me: Really?
The Roommate: Yeah, it doesn't require any programming skill.

Then this happened:
On the way back home, I decided to reserve a cab for the one-hour trip to the airport rather than try to take a cheaper, and probably far more disastrous/entertaining, combination of trains, boats, and...uhhh...something that rhymes with "boats". My driver is a dark-skinned man, who shares "the most common first name on the planet, read a book why don't you" with a certain Islamic Prophet, but who I call Mr. Amin.

As our rollicking ride of return begins, I ask him a few questions about where he's from and he replies, in clear but highly accented English, that he is originally from Bengladesh but has lived in BigTown for 14 years. This is the entertaining part of taxi rides; I love hearing about different people's stories, from the Egyptian guy who let me know that Lebanese women are the most beautiful of all (and that the women of Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and all the other countries that tried to invade Israel in the '60's are only as beautiful as the amount of Lebanese blood in them) to the bearded grad student who thought I was from Chicago "because of yer accent" to the retired Intel engineer who was driving because he wanted to do something different.

Mr. Amin told me about how he had first come to America, leaving behind a wife and young son for four years (!) with no contact (!!!) before they could put together the proper papers for immigration. I mean, that's pretty hardcore. His son and daughter are now pretty much assimilated, with basically no memory of Bengladesh, but he still keeps up the old traditions, including singing and some form of chant/meditation called "rrackg" (sp?). From listening to him talk about the mixture of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus in his country, you'd think everyone was some long-haired groovy hipster who sat around being mellow and chanting all day. (Mr. Amin was particularly adamant that "Muslims in Bengladesh not like Muslims in Pakistan. We are not extreme, not extreme, very calm, very happy")

He talked about his deep depression during his years alone in the US, and how he got through it with a combination of religious faith (unspecified), this rrackg chanting, and computer programming.

Say what!??!

"Yes, yes, I find computer programmer from India, he teach me See Plus Plus, I teach him how to drive."

After a combination of tutoring with his Indian neighbor, self-teaching from books and tapes, and sitting in on a few classes at a community college, Mr. Amin now is fluent in C++, C#, Java and JavaScript, php, and Perl. His goal is to learn Python this year, since he has heard it is miraculous. (According to xkcd, it is, but be careful)

We then proceeded to have a long and fascinating conversation about how people learn things and the best way to teach the precepts of programming. ("To understand recursion, you must first understand recursion").

It's funny the kinds of things you learn when you meet people.

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