July 31, 2023 2:35 PM

Learning CSS By Doing It

I ran across this blog post earlier this summer when browsing articles on CSS, as one does while learning CSS for a fall course. Near the end, the writer says:

This is thoroughly exciting to me, and I don't wanna whine about improvements in CSS, but it's a bit concerning since I feel like what the web is now capable of is slipping through my fingers. And I guess that's what I'm worried about; I no longer have a good idea of how these things interact with each other, or where the frontier is now.

The map of CSS in my mind is real messy, confused, and teetering with details that I can't keep straight in my head.

Imagine how someone feels as they learn CSS basically from the beginning and tries to get a handle both on how to use it effectively and how to teach it effectively. There is so much there... The good news, of course, is that our course is for folks with no experience, learning the basics of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript from the beginning, so there is only so far we can hope to go in fifteen weeks anyway.

My impressions of HTML and CSS at this point are quite similar: very little syntax, at least for big chunks of the use cases, and lots and lots of vocabulary. Having convenient access to documentation such as that available at developer.mozilla.org via the web and inside VS Code makes exploring all of the options more manageable in context.

I've been watching Dave Humphrey's videos for his WEB 222 course at Seneca College and learning tons. Special thanks to Dave for showing me a neat technique to use when learning -- and teaching -- web development: take a page you use all the time and try to recreate it using HTML and CSS, without looking at the page's own styles. He has done that a couple times now in his videos, and I was able to integrate the ideas we covered about the two languages in previous videos as Dave made the magic work. I have tried it once on my own. It's good fun and a challenging exercise.

Learning layout by viewing page source used to be easier in the old days, when pages were simpler and didn't include dozens of CSS imports or thousands of scripts. Accepting the extra challenge of not looking at a page's styles in 2023 is usually the simpler path.

Two re-creations I have on tap for myself in the coming days are a simple Wikipedia-like page for myself (I'm not notable enough to have an actual Wikipedia page, of course) and a page that acts like my Mastodon home page, with anchored sidebars and a scrolling feed in between. Wish me luck.

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

July 10, 2023 12:28 PM

What We Know Affects What We See

Last time I posted this passage from Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford:

Countless times since that day, a more experienced mechanic has pointed out to me something that was right in front of my face, but which I lacked the knowledge to see. It is an uncanny experience; the raw sensual data reaching my eye before and after are the same, but without the pertinent framework of meaning, the features in question are invisible. Once they have been pointed out, it seems impossible that I should not have seen them before.

We perceive in part based on what we know. A lack of knowledge can prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us. Our brains and eyes work together, and without a perceptual frame, they don't make sense of the pattern. Once we learn something, our eyes -- and brains -- can.

This reminds me of a line from the movie The Santa Clause, which my family watched several times when my daughters were younger. The new Santa Claus is at the North Pole, watching magical things outside his window, and comments to the elf whose been helping him, "I see it, but I don't believe it." She replies that adults don't understand: "Seeing isn't believing; believing is seeing." As a mechanic, Crawford came to understand that knowing is seeing.

Later in the book, Crawford describes another way that knowing and perceiving interact with one another, this time with negative results. He had been struggling to figure out why there was no spark at the spark plugs in his VW Bug, and his father -- an academic, not a mechanic -- told him about Ohm's Law:

Ohm's law is something explicit and rulelike, and is true in the way that propositions are true. Its utter simplicity makes it beautiful; a mind in possession of this equation is charmed with a sense of its own competence. We feel we have access to something universal, and this affords a pleasure that is quasi-religious, perhaps. But this charm of competence can get in the way of noticing things; it can displace, or perhaps hamper the development of, a different kind of knowledge that may be difficult to bring to explicit awareness, but is superior as a practical matter. It superiority lies in the fact that it begins with the typical rather than the universal, so it goes more rapidly and directly to particular causes, the kind that actually tend to cause ignition problems.

Rule-based, universal knowledge imposes a frame on the scene. Unfortunately, its universal nature can impede perception by blinding us to the particular details of the situation we are actually in. Instead of seeing what is there, we see the scene as our knowledge would have it.

the cover of the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

This reminds me of a story and a technique from the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which I first wrote about in the earliest days of this blog. When asked to draw a chair, most people barely even look at the chair in front of them. Instead, they start drawing their idea of a chair, supplemented by a few details of the actual chair they see. That works about as well as diagnosing an engine by diagnosing your mind's eye of an engine, rather than the mess of parts in front of you.

In that blog post, I reported my experience with one of Edwards's techniques for seeing the chair, drawing the negative space:

One of her exercises asked the student to draw a chair. But, rather than trying to draw the chair itself, the student is to draw the space around the chair. You know, that little area hemmed in between the legs of the chair and the floor; the space between the bottom of the chair's back and its seat; and the space that is the rest of the room around the chair. In focusing on these spaces, I had to actually look at the space, because I don't have an image in my brain of an idealized space between the bottom of the chair's back and its seat. I had to look at the angles, and the shading, and that flaw in the seat fabric that makes the space seem a little ragged.

Sometimes, we have to trick our eyes into seeing, because otherwise our brains tell us what we see before we actually look at the scene. Abstract universal knowledge helps us reason about what we see, but it can also impede us from seeing in the first place.

What we know both enables and hampers what we perceive. This idea has me thinking about how my students this fall, non-CS majors who want to learn how to develop web sites, will encounter the course. Most will be novice programmers who don't know what they see when they are looking at code, or perhaps even at a page rendered in the browser. Debugging code will be a big part of their experience this semester. Are there exercises I can give them to help them see accurately?

As I said in my previous post, there's lots of good stuff happening in my brain as I read this book. Perhaps more posts will follow.

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

July 04, 2023 11:55 AM

Time Out

Any man can call time out, but no man
can say how long the time out will be.
-- Books of Bokonon

I realized early last week that it had been a while since I blogged. June was a morass of administrative work, mostly summer orientation. Over the month, I had made notes for several potential posts, on my web dev course, on the latest book I was reading, but never found -- made -- time to write a full post. I figured this would be a light month, only a couple of short posts, if I only I could squeeze another one in by Friday.

Then I saw that the date of my most recent post was May 26, with the request for ideas about the web course coming a week before.

I no longer trust my sense of time.

This blog has certainly become much quieter over the years, due in part to the kind and amount of work I do and in part to choices I make outside of work. I may even have gone a month between posts a few fallow times in the past. But June 2023 became my first calendar month with zero posts.

It's somewhat surprising that a summer month would be the first to shut me out. Summer is a time of no classes to teach, fewer student and faculty issues to deal with, and fewer distinct job duties. This occurrence is a testament to how much orientation occupies many of my summer days, and how at other times I just want to be AFK.

A real post or two are on their way, I promise -- a promise to myself, as well as to any of you who are missing my posts in your newsreader. In the meantime...

On the web dev course: thanks to everyone who sent thoughts! There were a few unanimous, or near unanimous, suggestions, such as to have students use VS code. I am now learning it myself, and getting used to an IDE that autocompletes pairs such as "". My main prep activity up to this point has been watching David Humphrey's videos for WEB 222. I have been learning a little HTML and JavaScript and a lot of CSS and how these tools work together on the modern web. I'm also learning how to teach these topics, while thinking about the differences between my student audience and David's.

On the latest book: I'm currently reading Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford. It came out in 2010 and, though several people recommended it to me then, I had never gotten around to it. This book is prompting so many ideas and thoughts that I'm constantly jotting down notes and thinking about how these ideas might affect my teaching and my practice as a programmer. I have a few short posts in mind based on the book, if only I commit time to flesh them out. Here are two passages, one short and one long, from my notes.

Fixing things may be a cure for narcissism.
Countless times since that day, a more experienced mechanic has pointed out to me something that was right in front of my face, but which I lacked the knowledge to see. It is an uncanny experience; the raw sensual data reaching my eye before and after are the same, but without the pertinent framework of meaning, the features in question are invisible. Once they have been pointed out, it seems impossible that I should not have seen them before.

Both strike a chord for me as I learn an area I know only the surface of. Learning changes us.

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