February 24, 2016 2:36 PM

Computer Science is the Discipline of Reinvention

The quote of the day comes courtesy of the inimitable Matthias Felleisen, on Racket mailing list:

Computer science is the discipline of reinvention. Until everyone who knows how to write 10 lines of code has invented a programming language and solved the Halting Problem, nothing will be settled :-)

One of the great things about CS is that we can all invent whatever we want. One of the downsides is that we all do.

Sometimes, making something simply for the sake of making it is a wonderful thing, edifying and enjoyable. Other times, we should heed the advice carved above the entrance to the building that housed my first office as a young faculty member: Do not do what has already been done. Knowing when to follow each path is a sign of wisdom.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing

February 14, 2016 11:28 AM

Be Patient, But Expect Better. Then Make Better.

In Reversing the Tide of Declining Expectations Matthew Butterick exhorts designers to expect more from themselves, as well as from the tools they use. When people expect more, other people sometimes tell them to be patient. There is a problem with being patient:

[P]atience is just another word for "let's make it someone else's problem. ... Expectations count too. If you have patience, and no expectations, you get nothing.

But what if you find the available tools lacking and want something better?

Scientists often face this situation. My physicist friends seem always to be rigging up some new apparatus in order to run the experiments they want to run. For scientists and so many other people these days, though, if they want a new kind of tool, they have to write a computer program.

Butterick tells a story that shows designers can do the same:

Let's talk about type-design tools. If you've been at the conference [TYPO Berlin, 2012], maybe you saw Petr van Blokland and Frederick Berlaen talking about RoboFont yesterday. But that is the endpoint of a process that started about 15 years ago when Erik and Petr van Blokland, and Just van Rossum (later joined by many others) were dissatisfied with the commercial type-design tools. So they started building their own. And now, that's a whole ecosystem of software that includes code libraries, a new font-data format called UFO, and applications. And these are not hobbyist applications. These are serious pieces of software being used by professional type designers.

What makes all of this work so remarkable is that there are no professional software engineers here. There's no corporation behind it all. It's a group of type designers who saw what they needed, so they built it. They didn't rely on patience. They didn't wait for someone else to fix their problems. They relied on their expectations. The available tools weren't good enough. So they made better.

That is fifteen years of patience. But it is also patience and expectation in action.

To my mind, this is the real goal of teaching more people how to program: programmers don't have to settle. Authors and web designers create beautiful, functional works. They shouldn't have to settle for boring or cliché type on the web, in their ebooks, or anywhere else. They can make better. Butterick illustrates this approach to design himself with Pollen, his software for writing and publishing books. Pollen is a testimonial to the power of programming for authors (as well as a public tribute to the expressiveness of a programming language).

Empowering professionals to make better tools is a first step, but it isn't enough. Until programming as a skill becomes part of the culture of a discipline, better tools will not always be used to their full potential. Butterick gives an example:

... I was speaking to a recent design-school graduate. He said, "Hey, I design fonts." And I said, "Cool. What are you doing with RoboFab and UFO and Python?" And he said, "Well, I'm not really into programming." That strikes me as a really bad attitude for a recent graduate. Because if type designers won't use the tools that are out there and available, type design can't make any progress. It's as if we've built this great spaceship, but none of the astronauts want to go to Mars. "Well, Mars is cool, but I don't want to drive a spaceship. I like the helmet, though." Don't be that guy. Go the hell to Mars.

Don't be that person. Go to Mars. While you are at it, help the people you know to see how much fun programming can be and, more importantly, how it can help them make things better. They can expect more.

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

February 12, 2016 3:34 PM

Computing Everywhere: Detecting Gravitational Waves

a linearly-polarized gravitational wave
a linearly-polarized gravitational wave
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 US)

This week the world is excitedly digesting news that the interferometer at LIGO has detected gravitational waves being emitted by the merger of two black holes. Gravitational waves were predicted by Einstein one hundred years ago in his theory of General Relativity. Over the course of the last century, physicists have amassed plenty of indirect evidence that such waves exist, but this is the first time they have detected them directly.

The physics world is understandably quite excited by this discovery. We all should be! This is another amazing moment in science: Build a model. Make a falsifiable prediction. Wait for 100 years to have the prediction confirmed. Wow.

We in computer science can be excited, too, for the role that computation played in the discovery. As physicist Sabine Hossenfelder writes in her explanation of the gravitational wave story:

Interestingly, even though it was long known that black hole mergers would emit gravitational waves, it wasn't until computing power had increased sufficiently that precise predictions became possible. ... General Relativity, though often praised for its beauty, does leave you with one nasty set of equations that in most cases cannot be solved analytically and computer simulations become necessary.

As with so many cool advances in the world these days, whether in the sciences or the social sciences, computational modeling and simulation were instrumental in helping to confirm the existence of Einstein's gravitational waves.

So, fellow computer scientists, celebrate a little. Then, help a young person you know to see why they might want to study CS, alone or in combination with some other discipline. Computing is one of the fundamental tools we need these days in order to contribute to the great tableau of human knowledge. Even Einstein can use a little computational help now and then.

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