Chasing Rabbits in Stat Class

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"Whoa! Dr. Franklin, that was fast."

One of my students made such a comment on the speed with which I entered numerical data into a spreadsheet using the 10-key number pad. Being well into a 3 hour class, I decided it was a good time to give a bit of a break to the stats lecture by reminiscing on how I developed speedy 10-key skills. After the fact, I recognize that taking this excursion gave the students an interesting perspective on what makes their professor tick and helped them see how technology has developed over the last 20 years.

During the summer after my sophomore year of college around 1996, I lived with my grandparents in Amarillo and went to summer school at Amarillo College. To support myself, I also went to work as a temp. When I first went into the temp agency, I was given a test on some basic clerical skills: mostly typing and 10-key speed and accuracy tests. Honestly, this was the first time I learned that 10-key was something to master or even be tested over. My Mom was excellent at 10-key which know because I’d seen smoke rising from her desktop calculator at home when she flew through those numbers. I guess her prowess came from years at an S&L and a bank. Nevertheless, when I took typing in school, we were never taught 10-key just the basic "asdf ;lkj" home-row kind of stuff. That kind of typing clicked for me. (har har!) I got up to around 120 words per minute and did fair in the keyboarding competition among area schools.

So at the agency, I sat down to take my keyboard test. First, on the standard typing test I scored around 80 wpm. Down from high school days but still surprisingly impressive for a male temp (or so I was told by the person administering the exam). Then I took the 10-key test. Something I didn’t know existed. Now, I don’t remember the units that the speed was measured in, nor do I remember the score I made. What I do remember was that it also was surprisingly high and impressive. So, why was I good at some skill I didn’t even know was a skill? Ahhh, yes, I remember.

The answer dates back to the first computer my parents bought for me. The machine was a Laser-128 which from the Wikipedia article I just learned was manufactured by V-Tech. It’s interesting that one of the first console games that we purchased for our own children was the V-Smile also made by V-Tech. Nice symmetry. The Laser-128 was an Apple II clone with 128 kilobytes of RAM. This was in the days before hard drives and the operating system was loaded from a floppy disk. And yes, these floppy disks, the 5 1/4" variety, were actually floppy. It was on this machine that first began learning about computer programming. I can’t honestly say that I was learning how to program just what programming was.

I was subscribed to a children’s magazine called "3-2-1 Contact" and in the back of every issue were a couple of programs in BASIC (as in the BASIC programming language). I can still vividly remember one of the most exciting and exhilarating moments of my childhood, perhaps of my whole life. The moment came after seemingly endless hours of trying to get the very first program to run. I knew nothing about how I was supposed to type it in, whether punctuation or case had anything to do with the code, whether the line number needed to be typed and I definitely had no idea what the code meant. Yet, I tried and I tried and I tried until finally, after pressing the "Enter" key at the "RUN PROGRAM", something happened. Something beautiful. Something amazing. Something that made me jump up and down, hoot and holler, clap and do a little jig. Okay, specifically what happened was so basic and ordinary that no one but I would be impressed. It was the fact that it ran that made me so happy. The program just drew a multicolored box around the edge of the screen and then criss-crossed a multicolored "x" on the screen. It repeatedly drew the box and the x over and over again. It was essentially the most boring screensaver you could imagine. But, the code I entered ran. Brilliant! Genius! I still feel the excitement in my gut when I think about that moment.

A little later when I had begun to master the art of typing in the code on those last few pages of the children’s magazine and I actually started understanding what a majority of the BASIC code meant, I stumbled across a set of programs that would use the speaker in the PC to play music. The code itself was relatively short but there were tons and tons of data lines at the end of the code. The data codes were just lists of numbers separated by comma values. The numbers were pitches and lengths. Correctly coded and executed, a song would emerge from my speaker, complete with harmonies but still sounding like a robot out of movies from the 1970s. There were hundreds if not thousands of numbers in these lists to get a song to play. The first song I ever had play was the "Grand Old Flag". Debugging the data lines was a pain in the rear because you’d hear a pitch that was wrong or note length wasn’t right and you’d have to hunt for the mistyped value.

It was the hours I spent typing in those numbers that gave me my own prowess in 10-key. You just never know what skills you’ll pick up just by pursuing your passions. For me, I knew from those early days of coding that programming had to play a role in what I would do for a living. I still get that feeling of hooting and hollering when I find that bug in the code that I’ve written. To this day, that excitement is still there when I solve the problem after hours of eye-straining scrutiny.

I guess the moral of the story, particularly as it relates to the stats class I was teaching when I chased this rabbit, is that you never know what skills will benefit you later on in your career. Also, it should remind you to find your passion. Something stirs your interest and excites you. If you’re a nerd like me, it may be debugging code. If you’re normal, it might just be solving problems or helping people. God designed you with passions that fit you neatly into his plan for your life so don’t overlook those moments that get you hooting and hollering.

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