By John Rieping | Published 11 Jan. 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Starting this week, I’m going to Harvard University — sort of. To be exact, Harvard is going to me.
I have enrolled at www.edx.org, a website that offers online courses from a variety of universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgetown, Cornell, Berklee College of Music, and more. Anyone can audit a class for free. Those more ambitious can do the homework, tests and final projects for a certificate or — for a fee — college credit.
My chosen challenge is CS50x, “Introduction to Computer Science,” taught by David Malan, Ph.D., who apart from his doctorate in computer science is also a volunteer emergency medical technician and former forensic investigator. After viewing his opening lecture, I can add he’s an entertaining teacher as well.
I’ve long had an interest in programming. I first encountered computers during my fourth grade year at St. Joachim School. A computer lab shared by the entire campus featured primitive educational games on Apple computers — long before the days of Windows, Mac OS, Android or iOS.
But that wasn’t enough. Like a burglar at the doorstep, I wanted to get inside. At one of my favorite refuges, the Madera County Library, I would read and re-read the sole book on programming in the children’s section.
A year or so later, my dreams came true briefly when my father bought a discounted TRS-80 personal computer from the local Radio Shack. Not long after, the store chain discontinued the product, which apparently had the nickname “Trash-80” from critics. It had, by today’s standards, an incredibly bulky screen and keyboard. Files were saved onto a 5-inch floppy disk or a magnetic cassette tape.
Until it perished, I created simple games and animations using the aptly named B.A.S.I.C. language (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). My digital graphics even provided a fake FBI piracy warning, title, and credits for a stop-motion video, filmed with the help of an elder brother. A small Casio music keyboard provided the soundtrack.
At Madera High School, I moved on to using Apple computers to produce “The Maderan” school newspaper, which grew to rival The Madera Tribune in size and sophistication, for publication once every four weeks. For me, computers became mainly tools for writing, photography, and art. But I still dabbled in creating story games and music using B.A.S.I.C. on a secondhand Epson Equity D.O.S. (Disk Operating System) computer at home.
At Drake University in Iowa, every student’s room included free cable television, a computer, and access to an alien bit of magic known as the Internet. They became addictions, although initially the “web” consisted of image-less text — mostly from schools and government agencies.
For a half dozen years, I became a reclusive “wizard” (a volunteer programmer in a C language) for text-only, multiplayer, online, role-playing games known as M.U.D.s (Multi-User Dimensions). They were forefathers of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games. Embarrassingly, high-ranking wizards were referred to as “gods” and “demigods” of the virtual worlds they created and ruled.
Video game addicts and their de facto widows, please don’t hate me for my tiny role in history. I realize now that “with great power comes great responsibility” (thanks, Spider-Man). I intend to help wreak less social havoc with my worldwide web-slinging superpowers this time around, depending on the havoc.
One aid in programming is the “algorithm,” which is a detailed way to handle a problem better. The idea is hardly new. The word itself dates to the late 17th century, and Christians have claimed for two millennia they’ve found the perfect “way” — in Jesus.
Yet, as Pope Francis noted Tuesday, “the path of Jesus Christ [is] abasement, humility, [and] humiliation as well. If a thought, if a desire, takes you along the road of humility and abasement, of service to others, it is from Jesus. But if it brings you to the road of sufficiency, of vanity, ... it is not from Jesus.”
Christians believe the path of Jesus includes a love generous enough to accept even a death marked by rejection (Philippians 2:5-8).
Francis concluded: “So many times, our heart is a road. Everything passes there. Put it to the test! Do I always choose the things that come from God? Do I know which are the things that come from God? Do I know the true criterion by which to discern my thoughts, my desires? ... The criterion is the Incarnation of the Word.”
For believers, Jesus is our algorithm.