Recently I went to do something in Mathematica – a program I’ve used hundreds if not thousands of times – and found myself stumped on a simple issue related to defining functions. I’ve written large, complicated Mathematica notebooks, yet this thing I done hundreds of times was stymieing me.
But – yes – I’d done it hundreds of times; but not regularly in the past year or so.
My knowledge had gone stale.
Programming, it appears, is not like riding a bike.
What about other languages? I can remember LISP defun’s, mostly, but would I get a C++ class definition right? I used to do that professionally, eight years ago, and have published articles on programming C++ … but I’ve been writing almost exclusively Python and related scripting languages for the past 7 years.
Surprisingly, my wife and I had this happen in real life. We went to cook dinner, and surprisingly found some of the stuff in the pantry had gone stale. During the pandemic, you see, we bought ahead, since you couldn’t always find things, but we consumed enough of our staples that they didn’t go stale.
Not so once the rate of consumption dropped just slightly – eating out 2-3 times a week, eating out for lunch 2-3 times a week – with a slight drop in variety. Which meant the very most common staples were consumed, but some of the harder-to-find, less-frequently-used stuff went bad.
We suspect some of it may have had near-expired dates we hadn’t paid attention to, but now that we’re looking, we’re carefully looking everywhere to make sure our staples are fresh.
Maybe, if there are skills we want to rely on, we should work to keep those skills fresh too.
Maybe we need to do more than just “sharpen the saw” (the old adage that work goes faster if you take the time to maintain your tools). Perhaps the saw needs to be pulled out once a while and honed even if you aren’t sawing things regularly, or you might find that it’s gone rusty while it’s been stored away.
Pictured: The bottom layers of detritus of the Languages Nook of the Library of Dresan, with an ancient cast-off office chair brought home from the family business by my father, over 30 years ago.