Posts tagged ‘Alan Kay’

Novum Organum: The original “How To Not Be Wrong”

When I visited with Alan Kay and Bonnie MacBird in June, one of the ideas that he got me thinking about was Sir Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620, wikipedia link), for ‘new instrument of science.’ Bacon understood human tendencies for bias long before behavioral economics. His book was the prototype for the modern popular book “How to Not Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking” which advocates for mathematics as an approach to addressing human biases and limitations.

Bacon aimed to construct a foundation for real science, a body of knowledge that we could trust despite the fact that our minds are weak and that we are easily swayed. He lists four “idols” — the biases which keep us from thinking objectively and scientifically. Wikipedia has a short description for each. A couple that I found particularly striking:

  • Idols of the tribe: The things we get wrong because we like to see things at human scale and in regular structures. I read these as including the ideas we like because everyone else likes them, like picking a programming language because it’s popular and not because it suits the task.
  • Idols of the cave: The things we get wrong because of our unique education and background. Bias due to privilege (and assuming that everyone else has the same privilege) seem to fall in here.
  • Idols of the market: I just kept thinking “computational thinking” here. Idols of the market include words “which spring from fallacious theories” and “that are the result of imprecise abstraction.”  Unsupported theories of transfer and terms which we can’t actually define and test are part of Bacon’s warnings about “the market.”

I haven’t read the whole document — it’s available on Project Gutenberg, but it’s tough going.  I have found that Bacon talks about issues not in the Wikipedia article that are are significant today. For example, Bacon decries making decisions based on too “few experiments” which is explicitly a concern addressed in the efforts to replicate prior results (e.g., article here).

I keep thinking about what Bacon would say about computing education research. CER has some deep research questions it’s pondering (which I plan to address in some future blog posts). How do we make sure that we’re doing Science and not just following our Baconian idols?

October 29, 2018 at 7:00 am 2 comments

The Father Of Mobile Computing Is Not Impressed: The Weight of Redefining the Normal

I have been fortunate to have heard Alan Kay talk on the themes in this interview many times, but either he’s getting better at it or I’m learning enough to understand him better, because this was one of my favorites. (Thanks to Ben Shapiro for sending it to me.)  He ties together Steve Jobs, Neal Postman, and Maria Montessori to explain what we should be doing with education and technology, and critiques the existing technology as so much less than what we ought to be doing.  In the quote below, he critiques Tim Berners-Lee for giving us a World Wide Web which was less than what we already knew how to do.  The last paragraph quoted below is poignant: It’s so hard to fix the technology once it’s established because of “the weight of this redefining of the normal.”

What I understood this time, which I hadn’t heard before, was the trade-off between making technology easier and making people better.  I’ve heard Alan talk about using technology to improve people, to help them learn, to challenge their thinking.  But Alan led the team that invented the desktop user interface — he made computing easier.  Can we have both?  What’s the balance that we need? That’s where Neal Postman and Bertrand Russel come in, as gifted writers who drew us in and then changed our minds. That’s why we need adults who know things to create a culture where children learn 21st century thinking and not oral culture (that’s the Maria Montessori part), and why the goal should be about doing what’s hard — not doing what’s universal, not doing what pre-literate societies were doing.  Alan critiques the iPhone as not much better than the television for learning, when the technology in the iPhone could have made it so much more.

He tosses out another great line near the end of the interview, “How stupid is it, versus how accepted is it?”  How do we get unstuck?  The iPhone was amazing, but how do we roll back the last ten years to say, “Why didn’t we demand better? How do we shuck off the ‘the weight of this redefining of the normal’ in order to move to technology that helps us learn and grow?”

And so, his conception of the World Wide Web was infinitely tinier and weaker and terrible. His thing was simple enough with other unsophisticated people to wind up becoming a de facto standard, which we’re still suffering from. You know, [HTML is] terrible and most people can’t see it.

FC: It was standardized so long ago.

AK: Well, it’s not really standardized because they’re up to HTML 5, and if you’ve done a good thing, you don’t keep on revving it and adding more epicycles onto a bad idea. We call this reinventing the flat tire. In the old days, you would chastise people for reinventing the wheel. Now we beg, “Oh, please, please reinvent the wheel.”At least give us what Engelbart did, for Christ’s sake.

But that’s the world we’re in. We’re in that world, and the more stuff like that world that is in that world, the more the world wants to be that way, because that is the weight of this redefining of the normal.

Source: The Father Of Mobile Computing Is Not Impressed

September 22, 2017 at 7:00 am 3 comments

No Dynabook Yet: An Interview with Computing Pioneer Alan Kay

Nice interview with Alan Kay, with nice links to Engelbart and Knowledge Navigator videos.  Here’s the segment where Alan describes why the iPad is not a Dynabook.

The interesting thing about this question is that it is quite clear from the several early papers that it was an ancillary point for the Dynabook to be able to simulate all existing media in an editable/authorable form in a highly portable networked (including wireless) form. The main point was for it to be able to qualitatively extend the notions of “reading, writing, sharing, publishing, etc. of ideas” literacy to include the “computer reading, writing, sharing, publishing of ideas” that is the computer’s special province.

For all media, the original intent was “symmetric authoring and consuming”.

Isn’t it crystal clear that this last and most important service is quite lacking in today’s computing for the general public? Apple with the iPad and iPhone goes even further and does not allow children to download an Etoy made by another child somewhere in the world. This could not be farther from the original intentions of the entire ARPA-IPTO/PARC community in the ’60s and ’70s.

via An Interview with Computing Pioneer Alan Kay | TIME.com.

April 11, 2013 at 1:51 am 12 comments

Interview with Alan Kay: Dangers of CS design patterns

I really enjoyed this interview with Alan.  I thought it captured well the pace of a conversation with him — you cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, and I always walk away with a long to-read list.

There are some wonderful ideas in here that fly in the face of common practice, like the danger of programming design patterns and education about them, the problems of the Web, and how we need more collaboration in American business.  That first one is particularly important for the audience for this blog– design patterns assumes that the way we program today is the way that we ought to program, and that’s not a safe assumption.

That’s when I realized that adults were dangerous. Like, really dangerous. I forgot about those pictures for a few years, but I had nightmares. But I had forgotten where the images came from. Seven or eight years later, I started getting memories back in snatches, and I went back and found the magazine. That probably was the turning point that changed my entire attitude toward life. It was responsible for getting me interested in education. My interest in education is unglamorous. I don’t have an enormous desire to help children, but I have an enormous desire to create better adults.

via Interview with Alan Kay | Dr Dobb’s.

October 3, 2012 at 8:06 am 4 comments


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