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  • Shovel That Code

    Posted by David Foster on January 11th, 2020 (All posts by )

    …into that server!

    Joe Biden gave coal miners facing possible unemployment some advice:  learn to code.

    In reality, of course, programming/coding is a skill that can exist on multiple levels.  Someone writing a simple spreadsheet model for some kind of repetitive tracking problem is working at a different level from someone writing a well-defined module within a large system for a bank, who is in turn working at a different level from someone writing interrupt-level hardware drivers for an operating system, or for someone creating the idea and user interface, as well as the code, for a new consumer-facing product.  Some of these tasks will usually pay less than what a skilled coal miner is paid, some of them will pay considerably more.

    And also, programming is not an infinite reservoir of job demand. Much work that previously required considerable high-skill programming has now been largely automated by software tools and/or by complete application systems, and considerable programming work is being offshored–see my post telemigration.

    Biden also asserted that:  “Anybody who can throw coal into a furnace can learn how to program, for God’s sake!”

    Ignoring the inherent ridiculousness of this claim as a factual assertion…does Biden actually think that manual stoking of coal furnaces is a thing in today’s economy?  Does the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a large count of people employed as stokers?

    In reality, the mechanical stoker was invented well over a century ago.  They were common in high-horsepower steam locomotives by 1900, and were and are used in coal-fired power plants.  I doubt if there was much manual stoking going on by 1940, except on steamships…and coal as a fuel for ships was rapidly on its way out by that point, as it was being displaced by oil

    Plus, Biden was talking about coal miners.  Does he think that there are coal-fired furnaces in coal mines?  If there were, you would likely get a massive explosion from igniting of any gas in the mine.

    Biden clearly understands as little about the software industry as he does about the energy industry.

    This is the man who says he was Obama’s point man on a “jobs of the future” initiative.

    Can you imagine what these people would do to the economy if they ever achieved the degree of power that they so avidly seek?




    24 Responses to “Shovel That Code”

    1. Mike K Says:

      My uncle had a mechanical stoker in his furnace when I was a boy.

      this looks like it.

      Biden is an idiot and always has been. How he managed in politics is a mystery to me.

      This new book should be interesting.

      Beyond the Biden revelations, Profiles in Corruption also contains chapters with breaking news on top progressive luminaries, including: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, Sherrod Brown, Eric Garcetti, and Cory Booker.

      In a statement to Axios’s Mike Allen, the author described the book as “a sweeping, detailed look at how the leading figures of progressivism have leveraged the power of their positions.” The book reportedly took a year and a half to research.

    2. Stephen Taylor Says:

      “…Can you imagine what these people would do to the economy if they ever achieved the degree of power that they so avidly seek?…”

      Didn’t Ayn Rand discuss this scenario in some detail? That book was almost unreadable, but her ideas made perfect sense.

    3. David Foster Says:

      “Didn’t Ayn Rand discuss this scenario in some detail?”…she had some practical experience, having lived in the Soviet Union right after the revolution.

      But those old commies didn’t have the same level of disrespect for industry and for energy that our current Progs do. It’s the difference between worshiping hydroelectric dams and tearing them down.

      IE, I think our current progs might even do *worse* in terms of rapid economic destruction, if they had that same level of power.

    4. Trent Telenko Says:

      Mike K,

      Anything by Peter Schweizer is absolutely must-read.

    5. MCS Says:

      Sounds like the sort of book I should avoid for two reasons: First, because I already know, at least in outline what’s in it. Second, I don’t need more blood pressure.

      While I’d love to see the MSM use it to rake Biden over the coals, stoking outrage, I’m not expecting to live that long.

      The IRS used to find “subjects of interest” by just looking at what they were worth then and what they are worth now, comparing it with the income they reported. It’s not rocket science, it’s barely accounting. I’m not holding my breath until the MSM starts applying it against Democrats.

      At the next debate, why not get an 80’s VCR and see how many future presidents can set the time and successfully record something the next day?

      The decline in coal miners started long before the recent decline in coal production with the introduction of mechanized long wall mining and then open pit mines. You can be pretty sure that all these machines take some programing.

      Whenever I see an article about how robots are going to take over our jobs, I calculate how long it will be until a robot would be able to do whatever I did that day. If I ever get an answer less that 100 years, I may start to worry.

    6. Bill Brandt Says:

      Believe me, being a programmer in the US uisn’t what it used to be, with out-sourcing. As for Biden I can’t believe anyone’s that stupid.

      In his case, stupid and arrogant.

    7. MCS Says:

      Stupid arrogant and corrupt, the perfect machine politician.

    8. PenGun Says:

      Good coders are born not made. The ability to hold a lot of stuff in your head is the first thing a real coder needs. That is usually a talent bestowed by birth. Carmack for instance is an amazing coder largely, according to him, because he can hold a lot disparate bits of information in his head while coding.

      I am just good enough to understand what he means. Not great that’s for sure but I have the kind of brain that could be good at coding, if I worked at it, and my efforts in this area are largely successful. My projects have been small mostly, and I do manage to write less code than many people use, to achieve the same effect.

      No Joe, you can’t take the people put out of work by modern times, and make em’ coders. That’s not gonna work. ;)

    9. Brian Says:

      Basic programming should be a part of primary education today, because it teaches you to organize your thoughts logically or else the program won’t work, and it teaches that computers are tools to be used for the benefit of people, not the other way around.
      But not because it’s likely most people will do it professionally, for many reasons but most importantly because most people wouldn’t want to do the job (as is true for all jobs).
      And of course as always it should be noted that Joe Biden really is a moron, and his career is The Peter Principle brought to life, in the most damning illustration of the decadence of today’s “elite” culture.

    10. MCS Says:

      My experience (since 1968) is the opposite. A successful program or any other design comes from breaking the process into small, simple steps and solving them one at a time. Where exactly the edges are is part of the art, you have to depend on intuition and luck.

      At every step, there may be many ways that will work and no real way to tell which, if any, is best or, more important, which will eventually lead to a brick wall. If you mean that some are better at this than average, I agree, but the only programmer that hasn’t had to go back and start over is one that has never done anything non-trivial.

      When they go back to do postmortems on failed projects, it usually comes down to failing to retrace when one of these brick walls is encountered and instead trying to kludge some sort of way around or over to avoid having to redo.

    11. David Foster Says:

      “Basic programming should be a part of primary education today, because it teaches you to organize your thoughts logically or else the program won’t work, and it teaches that computers are tools to be used for the benefit of people, not the other way around.”

      Dartmouth College created the BASIC language and the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System in the mid-1960s based on a belief that exposure to programming should be part of a liberal-arts education. I’m not sure whether the programming course was ever actually required, but my understanding is that it was greatly encouraged and heavily participated in.

      At some point, they apparently dropped this idea, but I saw somewhere recently that they’re thinking of doing something similar, though probably not with BASIC and surely not with DTSS.

    12. Gringo Says:

      This talk of programming reminds me of the coding song that Stan Rogers , the Canadian folk singer, wrote and performed. Stan Rogers – Live Concert Video 5-28-1983 – White Collar Holler. “This video was recorded by Alan Kanter on 5-28-83 at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Santa Monica, CA.Stan died 5 days later on Air Canada Flight 797.”

      Well, I rise up every morning at a quarter to eight
      Some woman who’s my wife tells me not to be late
      I kiss the kids goodbye, I can’t remember their names
      And week after week, it’s always the same
      And it’s Ho, boys, can’t you code it, and program it right
      Nothing ever happens in the life of mine
      I’m hauling up the data on the Xerox line
      Then it’s code in the data, give the keyboard a punch
      Then cross-correlate and break for some lunch
      Correlate, tabulate, process and screen
      Program, printout, regress to the mean
      Then it’s home again, eat again, watch some TV
      Make love to my woman at ten-fifty-three
      I dream the same dream when I’m sleeping at night
      I’m soaring over hills like an eagle in flight
      Someday I’m gonna give up all the buttons and things
      I’ll punch that time clock till it can’t ring
      Burn up my necktie and set myself free
      Cause no’one’s gonna fold, bend or mutilate me

      Stan Rogers died enroute from the Kerrville (TX) Folk Festival. From the Wiki article:

      Rogers died alongside 22 other passengers most likely of smoke inhalation on June 2, 1983, while traveling on Air Canada Flight 797 (a McDonnell Douglas DC-9) after performing at the Kerrville Folk Festival. The airliner was flying from Dallas, Texas, to Toronto and Montreal when a fire of unknown ignition source within the vanity or toilet shroud of the aft washroom forced it to make an emergency landing at the Greater Cincinnati Airport in northern Kentucky.

      There were initially no visible flames, and after attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful, smoke filled the cabin. Upon landing, the plane’s doors were opened, allowing the five crew and 18 of the passengers to escape, but approximately 60 to 90 seconds into the evacuation the oxygen rushing in from outside caused a flash fire.[15] Rogers was one of the passengers still on the plane at the time of the fire.

      His ashes were scattered in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Nova Scotia

      Maybe the lesson is, Canadians shuouldn’t go to Texas. (That was a joke , folks.)

    13. David Foster Says:

      Related to the previous comment: it is frequently asserted that “kids these days” are very familiar with “technology” because they use their iPhones and their laptops quite a lot. David Calhoun, who is running Boeing at the moment, even used this assertion as an argument for greater automation of airline cockpits.

      I think the assertion of technology-familiarity based on being a technology-consumer is highly questionable, to say the least, as is Calhoun’s citing of this argument in support of more cockpit automation.

    14. MCS Says:

      Back during the 80’s during the “micro-computer” revolution, a lot of the best programs were written by people with no background in computers, math or engineering that had a problem that they wanted to solve or just got sucked in for some reason. A lot of the worst was from supposedly big name sources.

      This I think illustrates the biggest failing of these “learn to code” boondoggles. Motivation. I can’t think of anything more boring than sitting in a class and trying to memorize the syntax of some computer language. It’s probably the reason that I haven’t taken a computer class since high school. What I and most other people need is a problem that we want to solve that requires a computer program. It’s what is driving all of the use of Arduinos and Raspberry Pies. They want to brew beer or control a green house (better not to inquire too closely what they are growing) or make a killer robot.

      The question of making a living at it is a whole other thing, as going from any hobby to commercial production is. And just like the furniture maker that has to compete with Ikea, you’ll be competing with some shop in Deli that produces crap code but in great quantity and really cheap.

    15. Gringo Says:


      Back during the 80’s during the “micro-computer” revolution, a lot of the best programs were written by people with no background in computers, math or engineering that had a problem that they wanted to solve or just got sucked in for some reason. A lot of the worst was from supposedly big name sources.

      My former employer wanted to transform the practical knowledge of its field engineers into a database that its customers and engineers could use. It went to Carnegie Mellon U, then as now, a leader in programming, to get the job done. Carnegie Mellon said it was more useful to teach programming skills to the field engineers than to have the field engineers coach the programmers. Field engineers knew the ins and outs- programmers did not.

    16. Brian Says:

      “I can’t think of anything more boring than sitting in a class and trying to memorize…”
      the presidents, or the elements, or the conic sections, or etc, etc, etc.
      But we do it, even though it’s not “useful” for 99% of people we force to do it.
      I think everyone’s getting hung up on the fact that people won’t be taught to be “good” programmers. So what? That’s not the point of primary school at all.

    17. Gavin Longmuir Says:

      The obvious flaw in Biden’s Learn to Code sneer is that there already are enough programmers — and Democrats would rather correct any future shortage by bringing in more H1B indentured serfs. Google et al are big Democrat donors. If there were a shortage of programmers, wages in that sector would be much higher.

      It is worth also thinking about the other side of stopping miners digging coal — where is the replacement energy going to come from? Not from subsidized intermittent environmentally-unfriendly bird whackers or solar panels, that is for sure. How do we make steel without coal, once the Chinese get tired of sending steel to the US in exchange for IOUs? How do we replace the chemicals extracted from coal tar? As a measure of the value of coal, it is worth remembering that the last operating coal mine in Scotland ships its entire output half way round the world to … China.

      Even if it were possible to be a modern country without direct or indirect access to coal, it would be smart to build the replacement technology first, and then let the coal mining industry gradually decline as demand fell. But expecting smarts from a politician (especially one named Biden) is a losing game.

    18. James the lesser Says:

      Pengun is largely correct. The ability to abstract and break the job down into chunks depends somewhat on training, but the training and fancy programming environment tools don’t get you far without the talent to back it up. I’ve seen this up close.

      That’s not to say that kids shouldn’t be challenged a bit, to see if they can do it and give them a little appreciation of what’s involved in watching those kittens dance.

      On a slightly related topic, I knew kids who did fine in algebra but couldn’t hack proof-based geometry, and vice versa. (And some who couldn’t manage either and some who loved both.)

      Examples of code shovelers abound

    19. MCS Says:

      Brian: Me either, but I have a lot of books where I can look it up when I need to. Now google.

      In the early 50’s, the electric utility that my father worked for got a couple if IBM 704 bookkeeping machines for billing. He and a work mate got the OK to use them at night when they would be otherwise idle. They enlisted a mathematician from a local university and programed it to calculate a new table of power line sags. The challenge was that the calculations involved using hyperbolic functions and the program had to be optimized around the physical layout of the machine and the way it stored intermediate results. In some ways it was more limited than the 4 bit processors that VCR’s and microwaves used to use. Anyway, after a lot of work for results that could be done now in a few minutes with a spread sheet, they had their table. They then noticed that their mathematician had gotten the sign wrong and all their lines were sagging up. The numbers were still valid so not a big deal but he was still amused 40 years later. He stuck with programing his own computers from then on and would have completely agreed with Gringo.

      At the time, IBM hadn’t thought about any sort of scientific application.

    20. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

      I would fail that VCR test, simple though it may be. We haven’t had a TV since 1979. We used to borrow one every four years to watch the Olympics.

      I started learning BASIC and using Dartmouth time-sharing in 1969, because my NH highschool had a terminal. I liked it and had some fun trying to get it write poetry. “The mind grew where the brain withdrew” was the best line that came out of that. Very 1969, eh? When I went to college at W&M, they had never heard of BASIC. Such was the state of programming in those days. I didn’t put in any serious effort, however until I had a problem to solve, as above. I wrote a program (in BASIC) so that the greatest Red Sox teams of all time could play each other, adjusting for different league averages in various eras. It worked great and I was planning on cleaning it up so that I could sell it – in sports newsletters pre-internet – but things kept going wrong when the relief pitchers came in. I never figured out why, and learned shortly after that someone had already done something similar, with far better graphics.

    21. Mike K Says:

      In the early 50’s, the electric utility that my father worked for got a couple if IBM 704 bookkeeping machines for billing.

      I worked for Douglas Aircraft in 1959 when they still had IBM 704s. I was programming an IBM 650, which had a total of 2000 addressable memory spaces witch were ten digits, not hex. The data, of course which was wind tunnel data, was all on punched cards. The memory was for the program and some of it had to be modified on the fly with sort of what might be called now “hacks.”

      The 7040s came along about that time and were the first of the IBM machines to be transisterized. The 704 still had vacuum tubes.

    22. Kirk Parker Says:

      Someone writing a simple spreadsheet model for some kind of repetitive tracking problem [emphasis added]”

      Oh, no. A zillion times no.

      If you want to use a spreadsheet to prototype some kind of tracking problem, fine. Once the repetitive part comes in, this is just asking for a disaster. I have war stories…

    23. David Foster Says:

      Kirk…”If you want to use a spreadsheet to prototype some kind of tracking problem, fine. Once the repetitive part comes in, this is just asking for a disaster. I have war stories…”

      Yes, please share some war stories.

    24. MCS Says:

      Looking around online I think I mis-rememberd. He must have been using a 702, the 701 and 704 were built for scientific use and would have made his life much simpler, the 702 was for bookkeeping. The 704 had hardware floating point and 34 bit words with 35+sign accumulators. The 702 was only 5 decimal digits probably 17 or 18 bit words but a 1000 LPM printer. The cost for the 702 was a little less than $9K/month.

      It’s hard to compare them with modern PC’s because the way they were used is so different. I suspect that I didn’t own a machine that could beat a 704 on math throughput until sometime in the 90’s when I had a 386 with a math co-processor. Now I’ve got a little board I bought from TI for $5 that will probably come close.

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