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in which I ask for your advice

Dear Blog Readers,

Most of you are far, far cleverer than I am in many ways, not the least of which is your knowledge of all things technological. It dawned on me just recently that instead of muddling around on my own, I might get some advice from the biblioblogosphere. And so, dear bibliobloggers, I have two questions for you–a hardware question and a software/reader’s advisory question. I’ll put them briefly first and then expand.

Short Version

  1. What kind of new computer should I buy?
  2. What books or other things should I recommend to a potential budding computer program programmer? [thanks, Greg]

Long Version

  1. I have an iBook that I got in 2003. I like it (though I curse myself on a regular basis for getting just the CD-ROM drive and not the combo one), but the battery is dead, and it currently runs at the speed of frozen molasses, especially if you want to do something really crazy, like run more than one program. I have deleted extraneous programs and done other things that people have suggested. Lately, though, people have suggested “Get a new computer.” I am trying to talk myself out of the idea that I need to have a Mac, but as I’ve been using Macs since 1986, I’m not having much luck. From what I’ve seen of Windows Vista, I do not like it, although I guess I’ve gotten used to XP. There is the whole open source operating system option, which could be good, but realisitically, I am not going to buy an old computer and install Ubuntu myself, so if I went that route, I’d either have to buy it already installed or find someone to do it for me. And finally, although there are many nice ergonomic aspects to having a desktop, I’ve had a laptop for ten years now, and I think I’d like to continue with them. So, any suggestions?
  2. There’s a kid in town who seems like a budding geek, or at any rate a potential budding geek. He said to me one day, “I’ve learned more from 15 minutes of talking to our sys admin than I have in 5 years of computer classes.” Earlier this summer I showed him Jessamyn’s Ubuntu video, and he got interested, so I downloaded it for him and he brought in a CD so he could burn a copy and play around with it on one of his old PCs. He now routinely comes in and talks to me about partitions and other stuff about which I am totally clueless. Awhile ago he asked for “some books about computers.” I couldn’t determine from the reference interview exactly what that meant, so I got him one about website building, one reference book, and one copy of Beginning Programming for Dummies (translation: the three books in the system that were less than five years old–I admit that we have no books on Ruby on Rails–but we also don’t have much demand). He’s gotten very interested in the programming book. I’m going to recommend The Cuckoo’s Egg for one of the books he has to read for English this year, and perhaps some Neal Stephenson. What else should I point him to, either educationally or recreationally?

Thank you all in advance for whatever advice you may have–you can leave it here in the comments, e-mail it to newrambler at gmail, or catch me on IM sometime. I am happy to return the favor should you ever have any questions about chronological order vs. publishing order in The Chronicles of Narnia (though actually Wikipedia has that covered) or how to translate things into Latin (though mine is kind of rusty) or recommendations for serial killer murder mysteries (I don’t read them, but my coworkers do).


12 thoughts on “in which I ask for your advice”

  1. I must admit I have been drooling over the MacBook (the pro is way out of my league), though it does put on hold the buying an old truck plan. . . although that’s at least a year off, and two, if I get the computer. I too envy the bourgeois.


  2. If your budding geek is into the internet (and what geek isn’t?) and also interested in programming, then a language like PHP or Python makes sense, esp. since they’re common scripting languages used for interacting with databases. JavaScript is also a useful programming language for people interested in web work; it can help with pre-processing of forms (though it shouldn’t be *relied on* since the user might be using a text-only browser or have JavaScript turned off).

    The O’Reilly books generally have a good reputation but I would *not* recommend the “in a Nutshell” ones for a new programmer; those all have struck me as more like a cheatsheet before an exam than a textbook actually taking the time to explain things and give examples.

    Of course with any programming book opinions will differ (along with temperaments & experience levels) but there’s usually some value in looking up various reviews and reading through them looking for recurring complaints or kudos.

    There are a number of sites covering the programming languages as well; it’s possible that some people could learn the languages without buying the books. I doubt I’m one of them–most sites “teaching” the languages struck me as somewhat slapdash, or unclear, or inconsistent. I have higher expectations of books, though they’re also naturally more expensive. ILL might be a solution for your patron….


  3. Oh, and Perl would be another web/database programming language. I’m not sure which of those three is most popular; I’ve been using PHP.


  4. #1 Second the notion of sticking with what you know. If you must buy Windows you can still purchase computers with XP – I would avoid Vista for the time being.

    #2 In addition to the languages already mentioned, your budding geek might also be interested in SQL (any flavour) or XML. SQL will require a bit of work for him to practice though. Other books that he might find interesting: “Just for Fun” by Linus Torvalds, “Silence on the Wire” by Michal Zalewski, “Where’s My Jetpack?” by Daniel H. Wilson and the various issues of “Make” magazine (published by O’Reilly).


  5. Laura, I say stick with Apple. I’m doing my best to migrate everything off this PC as fast as I can. I ‘m just tired of all the hassle. From what I hear Vista is a mess, and you may be able to buy a new PC with XP still, but how long do you trust MS to support it?

    Not sure how or when, but I hope to get me a Mac Mini (or perhaps an iMac but then I’d have 2 monitors) to replace the desktop PC and become the primary home machine.

    I love my PowerBook, but the evil consumer in me covets a newer one when all I need is some more memory.

    One concern will be can you possibly hang on long enough to get one shipping with, or a free upgrade to, Leopard? The Apple site says it arrives in Oct. but perhaps they’ll give free upgrades at some point before. And then do you want Leopard 1.0 or to wait for the slightly tweaked 1st minor upgrade? I doubt I can buy my replacement any time soon anyway, but I will not buy a new Mac that doesn’t have Leopard, or at least a free upgrade later.

    As for the budding programmer … I am not one although I have been as a student, at least, and will be again this fall. I have no idea how good or useful these resources are but Uta Priss has some tutorials on here site for Perl and Python under “Teaching Activities”:

    And, certainly, there are tons more on the web.

    I generally like the O’Reilly books but concur with the caveat on the In a Nutshell series. They are more useful as reference works and I have a couple, but I have a fair few more of the regular line of “animal books.”

    But computer books are highly individual; some just work better for one than others do. And it is hard to use the index as an evaluative tool because it is hard to guess what the things you want to look up are going to be. But if there are a couple current ?s or interests then they can be useful to determine depth and kind of coverage of a topic. And if the book is at hand then one can see if those indexed entries actually address one’s need.


  6. As Jessamyn mentions, max out your RAM – as you know my iBook is even older (Dual USB 01) but I maxed out the RAM last year and now it goes pretty well. Battery life down to 30 minutes so it’s not so portable anymore.

    I plan on waiting for Leopard and then getting a new MacBook. My husband is going Mac soon which is incredible for a lifelong Mac hater – though he does plan to install XP on it.


  7. Hi, it’s me again. This question came up on AskMe today and it’s got some interesting discussion about what language to learn and why and how to go about it. I thought your patron/budding geek might find it interesting.


  8. Actually, most of the suggestions re: programming are cool, but I would suggest your young person take a look at the W3 Schools tutorials first, and then go on to a programming book. That way he/she will get an idea of the direction he/she wants to go in with programming. Also, the tutorials are fairly explicit about what you need to know to get into the programming language.

    Lots of folks neglected to mention ASP (bunch of Microsoft haters. 🙂 ), but you could do worse than learn a bit of that, too.


  9. I would only ask why you want to talk yourself out of a Mac? Apple’s on a tear, the Mac platform and hardware have never been better, and Vista is a disaster by all accounts. Comparably configured Macs and PCs are comparably priced these days, too. Do hold out for Leopard if you can, though. And when you buy, consider the refurbished models available online at the Apple web site. Same warranty, etc., as a new model, but you can save a little money.


  10. Laura, I’m clueless on all things techie and Mac, so I’m no help there. But, what about books on MySQL (seems a good thing to know these days) database programming or fiction by Geoff Ryman (in particular, “Air,” although parts of that may be somewhat for MA, mature audiences). Or some geeky nonfiction like “The World Without Us”? Either way, good luck with both questions.


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