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First Order Problems

When I first started learning how to program, I was suprised when programs didn't work the very first time.

About a year ago I started to learn Python, a programming language.

To help out, I started working my way through problems on Project Euler. The problems start out simple enough, Problem #1 is "Find the sum of all the multiples of 3 or 5 below 1000", but they get tricky fast.

There are two constraints to solving the problem. Arriving at the correct solution, and having your program do so in under a minute.

In order to accomplish the latter, often requires research into many higher order math concepts.

This has been an excellent way for me to learn a language because I very much enjoy solving problems.

Long ago, when I was in college, I did my first internship, and was struck by how fast, rewarding and easy real-world problems were compared to the contrived problems I'd been solving in class.

College problems often only make sense in their own specific context, have only a specific solution and often have artificial limitations to require a consistent method of solving them. Not in the real world. People don't care how you solve a problem, just that it meets their needs.

After I got a taste of the real world, it was hard to go back, and for the most part, I haven't since I graduated.

But these problems, and their format really intrigue me. They are still contrived, but the complexity of analysis they require is much more nourishing. They stump me, tease me, challenge me in ways very few technical problems have.

Part of this addiction to puzzles often involves me solving Sudoku on my phone when I get bored, which I have enjoyed, up until this week when I hit Problem #96, to write a program that solves arbitrary sudoku puzzles...

It was a tough one, but eventually my program could solve all 50 of the sample sudoku's given, and now that I've written a program that solves *all* sudokus, I no longer find any joy in them.

I, personally, can't solve all sudoku problems. I often make mistakes, or get lost in a logic branch, but a thing I made from scratch can. Programming is a weird thing. I often get lost in the complexity of what I'm doing, and end up in a strange situation where I'm trusting myself because I can't fully hold the complexity of one part of the problem in my head while I tackle the other.

But now, with decades of experience under my belt, I have now begun to experience the reverse of my beginner's optimism. Where I will complete a program, run it expecting numerous errors, and instead, have a single, correct answer pop out.

To be surprised by yourself is an odd feeling.

Man Boy

So I was asked if I would act as someone's "mentor" at church.

The answer I gave didn't really have much free will to it. Someone asks you to mentor them, especially someone who is currently suffering through junior high, you pretty much have to say "Yes", even though you have no idea what you are agreeing to.

I am very protective of my time and routine. In some ways, almost too much so. So I immediately viewed this incursion as an irritant. A bit of grit in my otherwise well oiled life machinary.

Almost two months later I found out what I agreed to, and it was pretty mild. Meet up with the kid before a 30 minute lenten service, chat with him before and after. They provided hand outs with some very sane and helpful "Ice Breaker" questions, all in all a very impressively run program.

I am exactly the type of person who would usually benefit from a list of example methods of interacting with what is essentially a stranger, but to my suprise, I didn't end up needing them.

It turns out, that my sensibility and interests are suprisingly compatable with that of at least one modern eighth grader.

Video games and the Internet provided a deep well of shared experience and cultural touchstones to draw from.

It made me think back to my days in confirmation, and trying to imagine what a person would have to look like and have done to be able to carry on a similar conversation with my eighth grade self.

This led me to remembering back to my thirteenth year of life. Man, it was not a good one. It was around this time that I had caked on too much anti-acne creme on my nose and essentially walked around with a chemically irritated red nose for six months. Literally a walking clown is a pretty efficient method of losslessly compressing that bit of my history for me.

We talked a lot about a vast amount of things. Each encounter had the frenetic conversational paceof two girls on swings breathelessly exchanging a summer's worth of secrets.

Looking around and eavesdropping on the other conversations it was very apparent that some of the other mentor/mentee groups lacked our same amount of chemistry. In fact, at one point when I heard a boy describing to his mentor the Patrick Rothfuss book "The Name of the Wind", I wanted to jump in. Instead his mentor just asked "How many pages is that? Wow, that's a lot. ."

Don't get me wrong, many of the mentors also did great, the natural extroverts who can talk and engage even those who do not want to be talked to, but it seemed like I was the only one who did it by being able to fluently discuss Minecraft, Star Wars and internet memes.

Which I'm not sure is something I should be proud of?

I don't know if the Internet is making culture less age-specific, or if I have spent two decades turning myself into a stunted abomination who is far more comfortable talking with children than 95% of adults.

In either case, to that one kid, I at least resembled an adult who cared about the same things he did and didn't try to belittle his value of them. Which I'm hoping totally justifies the continunation of my adolescent life choices.