December 28, 2017 8:46 AM

You Have to Learn That It's All Beautiful

In this interview with Adam Grant, Walter Jacobson talks about some of the things he learned while writing biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Leonardo da Vinci. A common theme is that all four were curious and interested in a wide range of topics. Toward the end of the interview, Jacobson says:

We of humanities backgrounds are always doing the lecture, like, "We need to put the 'A' in 'STEM', and you've got to learn the arts and the humanities." And you get big applause when you talk about the importance of that.
But we also have to meet halfway and learn the beauty of math. Because people tell me, "I can't believe somebody doesn't know the difference between Mozart and Haydn, or the difference between Lear and Macbeth." And I say, "Yeah, but do you know the difference between a resistor and a transistor? Do you know the difference between an integral and a differential equation?" They go, "Oh no, I don't do math, I don't do science." I say, "Yeah, but you know what, an integral equation is just as beautiful as a brush stroke on the Mona Lisa." You've got to learn that they're all beautiful.

Appreciating that beauty made Leonardo a better artist and Jobs a better technologist. I would like for the students who graduate from our CS program to know some literature, history, and art and appreciate their beauty. I'd also like for the students who graduate from our university with degrees in literature, history, art, and especially education to have some knowledge of calculus, the Turing machine, and recombinant DNA, and appreciate their beauty.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, General, Teaching and Learning

December 22, 2017 12:50 PM

The Power of an App or a Sideways Glance

This morning I read an interview with Steven Soderbergh, which is mostly about his latest project, the app/series, "Mosaic". A few weeks ago, "Mosaic" was released as an app in advance of its debut on HBO. Actually, that's not quite right. It is an app, which will also be released later in series form, and then only because Soderbergh needed money to finish the app version of the film. In several places, he talks about being a director in ways that made me think of being a university professor these days.

One was in terms of technology. There are moments in the "Mosaic" app when it offers the viewer an opportunity to digress and read a document, to flash back, or to flash forward. The interviewer is intrigued by the notion that a filmmaker would be willing to distract the viewer in this way, sending texts and pushing notifications that might disrupt the experience. Soderbergh responded:

My attitude was, "Look, we've gotten used to watching TV now with three scrolling lines of information at the bottom of the screen all the time. People do not view that stuff the same way that they would have viewed it 20 years ago."
... To not acknowledge that when you're watching something on your phone or iPad that there are other things going on around you is to be in denial. My attitude is, "Well, if they're going to be distracted by something, let it be me!"

I'm beginning to wonder if this wouldn't be a healthier attitude for us to have as university instructors. Maybe I should create an app that is my course and let students experience the material using what is, for them, a native mode of interaction? Eventually they'll have to sit down and do the hard work of solving problems and writing code, but they could come to that work in a different way. There is a lot of value in our traditional modes of teaching and learning, but maybe flowing into our students' daily experience with push requests and teaser posts would reach them in a different way.

Alas, I doubt that HBO will front me any money to make my app, so I'll have to seem other sources of financing.

On a more personal plane, I was struck by something that Soderbergh said about the power directors have over the people they work with:

What's also interesting, given the environment we're in right now, is that I typically spend the last quarter of whatever talk I'm giving [to future fillmakers] discussing personal character, how to behave, and why there should be some accepted standard of behavior when you interact with people and how you treat people. Particularly when you're in a position like that of a director, which is an incredibly powerful situation to be in, pregnant with all kinds of opportunity to be abusive.
... if you're in a position of power, you can look at somebody sideways and destroy their week, you know? You need to be sensitive to the kind of power that a director has on a set.

It took me years as a teacher to realize the effect that an offhand remark could have on a student. I could be lecturing in class, or chatting with someone in my office, and say something about the course, or about how I work, or about how students work or think. This sentence, a small part of a larger story, might not mean all that much to me, and yet I would learn later that it affected how the student felt about himself or herself for a week, or for the rest of the course, or even longer. This effect can be positive or negative, of course, depending on the nature of the remark. As Soderbergh says, it's worth thinking about how you behave when you interact with people, especially when you're in a position of relative authority, in particular as a teacher working with young people.

This applies to our time as a parent and a spouse, too. Some of my most regrettable memories over the years are of moments in which I made an offhand remark, thoughtlessly careless, that cut deep into the heart of my wife or one of my daughters. Years later, they rarely remember the moment or the remark, but I'm sad for the pain I caused in that moment and for any lingering effect it may have. The memory is hard for me to shake. I have to hope that the good things I have said and done during our time together meant as much. I can also try to do better now. The same holds true for my time working with students.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Personal, Teaching and Learning

December 21, 2017 2:42 PM

A Writer with a Fondness for Tech

I've not read either of Helen DeWitt's novels, but this interview from 2011 makes her sound like a technophile. When struggling to write, she finds inspiration in her tools:

What is to be done?
Well, there are all sorts of technical problems to address. So I go into Illustrator and spend hours grappling with the pen tool. Or I open up the statistical graphics package R and start setting up plots. Or (purists will be appalled) I start playing around with charts in Excel.
... suddenly I discover a brilliant graphic solution to a problem I've been grappling with for years! How to display poker hands graphically in a way that sets a series of strong hands next to the slightly better hands that win.

Other times she feels the need for a prop, a lá Olivier:

I may have a vague idea about a character -- he is learning Japanese at an early age, say. But I don't know how to make this work formally, I don't know what to do with the narrative. I then buy some software that lets me input Japanese within my word-processing program. I start playing around, I come up with bits of Japanese. And suddenly I see that I can make visible the development of the character just by using a succession of kanji! I don't cut out text -- I have eliminated the need for 20 pages of text just by using this software.

Then she drops a hint about a work in progress, along with a familiar name:

Stolen Luck is a book about poker using Tuftean information design to give readers a feel for both the game and the mathematics.

Dewitt sounds like my kind of person. I wonder if I would like her novels. Maybe I'll try Lightning Rods first; it sounds like an easier read than The Last Samurai.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, General

December 20, 2017 3:51 PM

== false

While grading one last project for the semester, I ran across this gem:

    if checkInputParameters() == False:

This code was not written by a beginning programmer, but a senior who likely will graduate in May. Sigh.

I inherited this course late in the semester, so it would be nice if I could absolve myself of responsibility for allowing a student to develop such a bad habit. But this isn't the first time I've seen this programming pattern. I've seen it in my courses and in other faculty's courses, in first-year courses and fourth-year courses. In fact, I was so certain that I blogged about the pattern before that I spent several minutes trolling the archive. Alas, I never found the entry.

Don't let anyone tell you that Twitter can't be helpful. Within minutes of tweeting my dismay, two colleagues suggested new strategies for dealing with this anti-pattern.

Sylvain Leroux invoked Star Trek:

James T. Kirk "Kobayashi Maru"-style solution: Hack CPython to properly parse that new syntax:

unless checkInputParameters(): ...

Maybe I'll turn this into a programming exercise for the next student in my compiler class who wanders down the path of temptation. Deep in my heart, though, I know that enterprising programmers will use the new type of statement to write this:

    unless checkInputParameters() == True:

Agile Hulk suggested a fix:

    if (checkInputParameters() == False) == True:

This might actually be a productive pedagogical tack to follow: light-hearted and spot on, highlighting the anti-pattern's flaw by applying it to its own output. ("Anti-pattern eats its own dog food.") With any luck, some students will be enlightened, Zen-like. Others will furrow their brow and say "What?"

... and even if we look past the boolean crime in our featured code snippet, we really ought to take on that function name. 'Tis the season, though, and the semester is over. I'll save that rant for another time.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Patterns, Software Development, Teaching and Learning