TITLE: Unexpected Fun Cleaning out My Closet AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 30, 2007 11:16 AM DESC: ----- BODY: The last week or so I've been trying to steal a few minutes each day to clean up the closet in my home work area. One of the big jobs has been to get rid of several years of journals and proceedings that built up from 1998 to 2002, when it seems I had time only to skim my incoming periodicals. I seem genetically unable to simply through these into a recycling bin; instead, I sit on the floor and thumb through each, looking at least at the table of contents to see if there is anything I still want to read. Most of the day-to-day concerns in 2000 are of no particular interest now. But I do like to look at the letters to the editor in Communications of the ACM, IEEE Computer, and IEEE Spectrum, and some of the standing columns in SIGPLAN Notices, especially on Forth and on parsing. Out of every ten periodicals or so, I would guess I have saved a single paper or article for later reading. One of the unexpected joys has been stumbling upon all of the IEEE Spectrum issues. It's one of the few general engineering generals I've ever received, and besides it has the bimonthly Reflections column by Robert Lucky, which I rediscovered accidentally earlier this month. I had forgotten in the off-months of Reflections, Spectrum runs a column called Technically Speaking, which I also enjoy quite a bit. According to its by-line, this column is "a commentary on technical culture and the use and misuse of technical language". I love words and learning about their origin and evolution, and this column used to feed my habit. Most months, Technically Speaking includes a sidebar called "Worth repeating", which presents a quote of interest. Here are a couple that struck me as I've gone through my old stash. From April 2000:
Engineering, like poetry, is an attempt to approach perfection. And engineers, like poets, are seldom completely satisfied with their creations.... However, while poets can go back to a particular poem hundreds of times between its first publication and its final version in their collected works, engineers can seldom make major revision in a completed structure. But an engineer can certainly learn from his mistakes.
This is from Henry Petroski, in To Engineer is Human. The process of discovery in which an engineer creates a new something is similar to the poet's process of discovery. Both lead to a first version by way of tinkering and revision. As Petroski notes, though, when engineers who build bridges and other singular structures publish their first version, it is their last version. But I think that smaller products which are mass produced often can be improved over time, in new versions. And software is different... Not only can we grow a product through a conscious process of refactoring, revision, and rewriting from scratch, but after we publish Version 1.0 we can continue to evolve the product behind its interface -- even while it is alive, servicing users. Software is a new sort of medium, whose malleability makes cleaving too closely to the engineering mindset misleading. (Of course, software developers should still learn from their mistakes!) From June 2000:
You cannot have good science without having good science fans. Today science fans are people who are only interested in the results of science. They are not interested in a good play in science as a football fan is interested in a good play in football. We are not going to be able to have an excellent scientific effort unless the man in the street appreciates science.
This is reminiscent of an ongoing theme in this blog and in the larger computer science community. It continues to be a theme in all of science as well. How do we reform -- re-form -- our education system so that most kids at least appreciate what science is and means? Setting our goal as high as creating fans as into science as into football or NASCAR would be ambitious indeed! Oh, and don't think that this ongoing theme in the computer science and general scientific world is a new one. The quote above is from Edward Teller, taken off the dust jacket of a book named Rays: Visible and Invisible, published in 1958. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Perhaps it should comfort us that the problem we face is at least half a century old. We shouldn't feel guilty that we cannot solve it over night. And finally, from August 2000:
To the outsider, science often seems to be a frightful jumble of facts with very little that looks human and inspiring about it. To the working scientist, it is so full of interest and so fascinating that he can only pity the layman.
I think the key here is make moire people insiders. This is what Alan Kay urges us to do -- he's been saying this for thirty years. The best way to share the thrill is to help people to do what we do, not (just) tell them stories. -----