Every once in a while in your career, you encounter problems or concepts that blow your mind. Either because they are complex or just because they are just plain exotic. Here are a few I can remember over the past 30+ years that I have been in the software industry…

  • Assembly language. I encountered this for the first time on my Apple ][. After a year of learning some Applesoft Basic, I encountered a curious instruction that I had never seen before: CALL 768. When I ran it, it played some music. After weeks of research (this was in the early 80’s… no Internet nor even books), I managed to figure out that I needed to switch to the “monitor”, convert the address in hexadecimal ($300) and see the “listing” (basically opcodes). I was absolutey mystified. I couldn’t make sense of any of this and but I did manage to alter the pitch and tune by inserting values in random places. It took me years to finally get a grasp of what’s going on. One thing for certain: I was hooked.

  • fork(). I encountered this mysterious function in my early CS classes, and if you’re not familiar with UNIX, it basically lets you spawn a new process. The semantics of this function is absolutely baffling, I just can’t understand how anyone could ever come up with this and think it’s intuitive. But as years go by, you just get used to it, just like you stop noticing this eyesore building every morning on your way to work.

  • Pointers. Aaah… pointers. Just when you think you start having a handle on this programming thing, a mean teacher throws you a curve ball and tries to explain to you how pointers work in Pascal. How inhuman. I suffered months of mental anguish trying to wrap my head around this concept, and then suddenly, it made sense (and I even managed to relate this to my earlier assembly language discoveries… now *that* was an epiphany).

  • Continuations. As opposed to the other three items described above, I can’t say that even as of today, I understand continuations. They just don’t make any sense to me and even if they did, I just can’t see any practical use to them except maybe to torture students and make sure you grade along the curve. Yuck.

    These are the main painful experiences I can remember, I’m sure there are more.

    How about you, readers: do you have any painful learning experiences to share in the area of computers?