Laurie Penny describes one effect of so many strands of modern life converging into the use of a single device:
That girl typing alone at the internet café might be finishing off her novel. Or she might be breaking up with her boyfriend. Or breaking into a bank. Unless you can see her screen, you can't know for sure. It's all just keystrokes.
Some of it is writing in ways we have always written; some it is writing in ways only recently imagined. Some of it is writing for a computer. A lot of it is writing.
(Excerpt from Why I Write.)
I had never heard of the "suffocating gerbils" problem until I ran across this comment in a Lambda the Ultimate thread on mixing declarative and imperative approaches to GUI design. Peter Van Roy explained the problem this way:
A space rocket, like the Saturn V, is a complex piece of engineering with many layered subsystems, each of which is often pushed to the limits. Each subsystem depends on some others. Suppose that subsystem A depends on subsystem B. If A uses B in a way that was not intended by B's designers, even though formally B's specification is being followed by A, then we have a suffocating gerbils problem. The mental image is that B is implemented by a bunch of gerbils running to exhaustion in their hoops. A is pushing them to do too much.
I first came to appreciate the interrelated and overlapping functionality of engineered subsystems in graduate school, when I helped a fellow student build a software model of the fuel and motive systems of an F-18 fighter plane. It was quite a challenge for our modeling language, because the functions and behaviors of the systems were intertwined and did not follow obviously from the specification of components and connections. This challenge motivated the project. McDonnell Douglas was trying to understand the systems in a new way, in order to better monitor performance and diagnose failures. (I'm not sure how the project turned out...)
We suffocate gerbils at the university sometimes, too. Some functions depend on tenure-track faculty teaching occasional overloads, or the hiring of temporary faculty as adjuncts. When money is good, all is well. As budgets tighten, we find ourselves putting demands on these subsystems to meet other essential functions, such as advising, recruiting, and external engagement. It's hard to anticipate looming problems before they arrive in full failure; everything is being done according to specification.
Now there's a mental image: faculty gerbils running to exhaustion.
If you are looking for something new to read, check out some of Van Roy's work. His Concepts, Techniques, and Models of Computer Programming offers all kinds of cool ideas about programming language design and use. I happily second the sentiment of this tweet:
Note to self: read all Peter Van Roy's LtU comments in chronological order and build the things that don't exist yet: http://lambda-the-ultimate.org/user/288/track?from=120&sort=asc&order=last%20post
There are probably a few PhD dissertations lurking in those comments.
Stephen Ramsey wrote The Mythical Man-Finger, in defense of an earlier piece on the virtues of the command line. The gist of his argument is this:
... the idea that language is for power users and pictures and index fingers are for those poor besotted fools who just want toast in the morning is an extremely retrograde idea from which we should strive to emancipate ourselves.
Ramsay is an English professor who works in digital humanities. From the writings posted on his web site, it seems that he spends nearly as much time teaching and doing computing these days as he spends on the humanities. This opens him to objections from his colleagues, some of whom minimize the relevance of his perspective for other humanists by reminding him that he is a geek. He is one of those experts who can't see past his own expertise. We see this sort of rhetorical move in tech world all the time.
I think the case is quite the opposite. Ramsay is an expert on language. He knows that language is powerful, that language is more powerful than the alternatives in many contexts. When we hide language from our users, we limit them. Other tools can optimize for a small set of particular use cases, but they generally make it harder to step outside of those lines drawn by the creator of the tools: to combine tasks in novel ways, to extend them, to integrate them with other tools.
Many of my intro students are just beginning to see what knowing a programming language can mean. Giving someone language is one of the best ways to empower them, and also a great way to help them even see what is possible.
Just this week I learned that Jon Sticklen, my PhD advisor, has moved to Michigan Tech to chair its Department of Engineering Fundamentals. As I recall, Michigan Tech focuses much of its effort on undergraduate engineering education. This makes it a good fit for Jon, who has been working on projects in engineering education at Michigan State for a number of years now, with some success. I wish him and them well.
By the way, if you can handle a strong winter, then Tech can be a great place to live. The upper peninsula of Michigan is stunning!
August was quiet on my blog only because it was anything but quiet elsewhere. The department office had its usual August business plus a couple of new challenges thrown in. I spent one day on jury duty, one day in retreat with fellow department heads, and one day on a long bike ride. My older daughter was home for a few days before heading back to college for her senior year, and my younger daughter was preparing to leave for college for the first time.
On top of that, I am teaching our intro course this fall. I have not taught intro since the fall of 2006, when I introduced media computation into our Java track. Before that we have to go back to the late 1990s to find me in front of a classroom full of students embarking on their first programming experience. I'm excited and a little apprehensive. There is great opportunity in helping students lay the foundation for the rest of their CS coursework. But there is also great risk. For the most part, these students have never worked with a floating-point number or a variable or an assignment statement, at least in the context of a programming language. How badly might I lead them astray?
We now teach Python in this track. I could have used media comp as our organizing theme again, but the instructors who have been teaching in this track for the last few years have moved to a data manipulation them, using a textbook by Bill Punch and Rich Enbody. I decided to do the same. There is no sense in me disrupting the flow of the track, especially with the likelihood that I won't teach the course again in the spring. (In the interest of full disclosure, I told my students that Bill was one of my mentors in grad school at Michigan State.)
The first week of class went well. As expected, the students reminded me how different teaching intro can be. There are so many ways for novices to interpret so many things... Type a simple expression or two into the Python shell, ask them what they think,and find out for yourself!
Every teacher knows that the first day of class shatters any illusion we might have of teaching the perfect course. Such illusions are more common for me when I teach a course for the first time, or the first time in a long while. The upside of shattering the illusion is that I can move on to the daily business of getting better.
At the end of our first lab session, I walked with one student as he was leaving the room. He had asked a few questions during the exercise. I asked how he felt, now that he had completed successfully his first lab as a CS major. "I am excited and scared," he said. "Scared has been keeping me away from computer science, but I know I have to try. I'm excited."
I know exactly he how feels. I'm apprehensive, not in fearing failure or catastrophe, but in being aware that I must remain vigilant. When we teach, we affect other peoples' lives. Teaching a first course in the discipline, introducing students to a new set of ideas and way of thinking, is a multiplier on this effect. I owe it to these students to help them overcome their fears and realize their excitement.