On a recent Sunday morning in Central Park, we sat in a wisteria-clad arboretum talking about life and markets. One tells Victor how significant his “letters to my son” series are in one’s own family, and that my son reads them with great interest. “Yes, we’re waiting for your contribution,” he replies.So here is one…

Learn computer language(s)

Once upon a time about four hundred years ago in Europe, and a thousand years ago in China, movable type was cutting-edge high technology. Tim Berners-Lee’s internet is as big an inflection point in western history as Johann Gutenberg’s movable type press in 1440, and as in eastern history as Bi Shing’s movable type press in China in 1041. Printed books and periodicals opened up a new world of intellect, previously known only to monks and aristocrats. There were two general groups: There were the intelligentsia, who could read and write. Then there were the illiterate, who couldn’t. The literate group had many more religious, commercial and intellectual opportunities. This new facility disseminating the treasures of the intellect set the stage for the development of science.

The internet is the stage for another evolutionary surge. One needs to participate or be left behind with those who only read, write human language, listen to iPods, watch television. These days as a basic skill one should at least be able to code a web page with XHTML and CSS as easily as one typed a letter on an IBM Selectric twenty years ago. One should learn a real computer language to work with data as a farmer harvests a crop, a miner refines ore. It’s a basic skill of this millennium. It’s another great divide. There is a joke which carries a kernel of this truth: ‘there are only 10 kinds of people in the world…those who understand binary and those who don’t.”

Understand how computers fit in to our life. Several generations ago one’s family may have had a cook, a driver and domestic servants. To communicate and give instructions one learned their language. They were intelligent and did what one told them, but of course, one needed to talk to them in a way they could understand.

Here in the early years of the millennium, computers and the internet appear to be our servants for the foreseeable future. Intelligent yet docile, with superior memory and reasoning powers, few personal problems, they will do what one tells them, they will help us develop and progress, as long as we speak their language. Therefore it is important that you learn how to talk to them. HTML is an easy way to start. C++ is a good way to continue. Other dialects abound. No problem. Gutenberg and the thousand printers who went into business around Europe had similar challenges.

Remember when your father taught you touch typing, and your resistance, sloth, inattentiveness? A few years later you said, “I’m really glad I learned to type,” as you happily spent hours IM’ing friends around the world, and completed school projects. Now one’s efforts to teach you to communicate with your computer are on the same trajectory.

For a reader intimidated by these thoughts, open up a page of Notepad. Type this: Hello New MillenniumSave the file on your desktop with name: Hello.html Now double click on it’s icon, and you will see your first web page. That’s it. No big deal. Easier than planting a petunia. A skill for these times.

There are other skills to learn, which seem to apply to any age. For example, after Gutenberg printed a calendar, he went on to print scriptures, then indulgences, over borrowing to expand his business, defaulting on his debts, and his creditor repossessed his printing equipment and went into business for himself. But that is a lesson for another letter.


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