Posts tagged ‘image of computer science’

The Core of Computer Science: Alan Kay’s “Triple Whammy”

My aunt and uncle were in town last week.  My aunt told Barb and me how many of her friends’ computers were “destroyed” by “watching a YouTube video.”  “It almost happened to us, too, but we got a phone call telling us not to watch that video!”  Sure, there is probably a website out there that can trick users into installing a virus that can cause damage to their computer, and it may have a video on the website.  But I have a hard time believing that simply watching a video on a website like YouTube might “destroy” one’s computer (or more specifically from her explanation, erase one’s hard disk).  Belief that that could happen seems like a belief in magic and mythology, like the belief that a chariot draws the sun across the sky.  We ask everyone to take classes in history and biology, because they should understand how their world works, whether or not they will major in those fields.  It’s part of being an informed citizen who does not believe that the world runs by magic and myths.  What does everyone need to know about computer science?

Alan Kay and I were having an email conversation about this question, about what was the core of computer science that everyone ought to know about, even non-majors.  He came up with a “triple whammy” list that I really like.  It may need som re-phrasing, but there’s something deep there.  I’m copy-pasting his notes to me (repeated here with his permission) in italic-bold, with my intepretation and commentary between.

It is all about the triple whammy of computing.
1. Matter can be made to remember, discriminate, decide and do

In his book Pattern on the Stone, Danny Hillis points out that modern day CPU’s are just patterns on stone, essentially the stuff of sand.  We are able to realize YouTube and eBay and natural language translation and Pixar movies all because we can make patterns on stones that can remember things, distinguish between options, act on those distinctions, and do things from playing sounds to actuating robots.  This feels like magic, that matter can do those things, but mechanical engineers would find this first step unsurprising.  They know how to make machines made out of matter that can do these things, even without modern computers.  Whammy #1 is an important step away from magic, but isn’t yet computer science.

2. Matter can remember descriptions and interpret and act on them

In step 2, we get to programs and programming languages.  We can describe processes, and our matter can act on those descriptions.  While we can do this with steam engines and mechanical engineering, it’s complicated and not obvious.  We do this regularly in computer science.

3. Matter can hold and interpret and act on descriptions that describe anything that matter can do.

This third step is amazingly powerful — it’s where we go meta.  We can also describe the matter itself as programs.  Now we can create abstractions on our programming languages.  Now we can point out that any program can be written in any programming language.  This doesn’t directly address my aunt’s misconceptions, but if she understood the third whammy, we could talk about how a badly written media player could interpret a nefariously designed video such that the video could instruct a too-powerful media player to trash a hard disk, but how unlikely that would be.  This third step is where we get to the role that computer science can

The Triple Whammy isn’t all of computer science.  There is a lot more than these three steps.  For example, I think that everyone should know about limits of computability, and about the possibility of digitizing information in any medium (thus allowing for visualization of sound or auralization of stock market data).  I do see the Triple Whammy as part of a core, and that this could fit into any CS1 for any student.

We definitely talk about steps 1 and 2 in the Media Computation CS1, and parts of step 3. For example, we define a simple line-drawing language, then build an interpreter (just does each line-drawing statement) and a compiler (generates the equivalent Python function or Java method) for that line drawing language.  We do that in order to explain (in part) why Photoshop is faster than Python for any image filter we create.  But we definitely do not do this explicitly yet.  As I’m working on the Powerpoint slides for the Python 2ed book now, I’m thinking about building a “Triple Whammy” slide deck, to encourage teachers to have this discussion with their students in a Media Computation context.  I’ll bet that TeachScheme already gets there.

What I really like about this list is that it clearly explains why Computer Science isn’t just advanced use of application software.  We see adults and kids in our studies all the time who tell us that somebody really good at Photoshop is a computer scientist.  We hear from teachers and principals regularly who tell us that they teach computer science, because here’s the book they use for introducing Excel and Access.  The Triple Whammy is about computer science and not about using applications.

May 24, 2010 at 1:48 pm 7 comments

Albion College eliminates Computer Science

Budget cuts and low enrollment have led to this:

In similar letters from Paul Tobias (Chairman, Albion College Board of Trustees) sent to the Albion faculty and the Albion family, the Board of Trustees reported that they have eliminated computer science as a major at Albion College and that Albion College may continue to offer a computer science minor. In the process, an untenured Assistant Professor has been notified his position will be discontinued after the 2010-2011 academic year. The letter to students also indicated “Students who are currently enrolled in the affected programs will receive personalized advising to enable them to accomplish their academic goals and fulfill their graduation requirements for their major in a timely manner.”

via Albion College Math/CS – News.

In other news coverage, they detail the cuts overall:

Majors in computer science and physical education and minors in dance, journalism and physical education will not be part of the college’s curriculum moving forward — a reduction strategy that will eliminate about 12 courses, said Dr. Donna Randall, the college’s president.

via MLive news: Albion College officials defend decisions.

That comparison point really hit home.  Newspapers are dying, so journalism is less valued and on the chopping block.  Okay, I get that.  Physical education is the least rigorous field of education to prepare teachers for, so if you have to chop one, that’s the least valued.  And computer science is in that group.

To me, this is a sign of the dire straits of computer science and university budgets these days.  More than that, it’s a sign that computing literacy among the general public is at an all time low.  The uproar about these decisions is that they were made by a governing board, against the wishes of the faculty.  This governing board sees computer science as being so useless, so lacking in value?  The board made this decision based on “”how do we best prepare our students for meaningful … work in the 21st century?” What do they think computer science is?

May 20, 2010 at 7:23 am 6 comments

Preparing for Today and for the Future in Qatar

The Qatar Foundation inspired me on my visit to Qatar last week.  We were told that the point of the Qatar Foundation is to prepare their country for a “post-carbon” world.  Yes, Qatar is amazingly wealthy today from their oil and gas exports, but they recognize that they have maybe 100 years of oil left.  What happens after that?  The Qatar Foundation is investing a lot of that wealth in changing their culture so that their people are generators of intellectual property, to create a “knowledge-based society,” to sustain their economy when the oil has run out.  (Do you know of other nations that are taking so seriously the effort to prepare for a “post-carbon” world?)

One of their strategies is to create Education City, an enormous campus where six prestigious American universities have satellite campuses.  We visited CMU Qatar, which has a beautiful building and active research programs.

Do you see that sign along the walkway in the CMUQ building? “Create. Inform. Connect.”  That campaign is everywhere in Doha.  Around Education City, are these enormous (maybe 10 feet tall?) free-standing signs, exhorting the people to:


and Learn!

Some of these signs are multi-story tall, hanging on the faces of skyscrapers in downtown Doha:

While inspiring, there are curves in the road, which are hard to see around.  You may have read my post from Qatar — the women in CS at Qatar University are keen to build new applications, to embrace “geekiness.”  But more women attend Qatar University, instead of CMU Qatar.  They want gender-segregated education. They want to get their degrees and then work in Doha.  They will not move away.

The faculty at Qatar University told us that they are planning to increase the amount of IT coverage in their degree and their curriculum, because that’s where the jobs are in Doha.  Most computing companies in Doha adopt technology from elsewhere then adapt it for the Qatari and Middle East culture.  They customize and manage (which IT curricula excel at), rather than create (which is where CS curricula focus).

The ACM Education Board is talking to people in the Middle East about having a summit on Computing Education.  Should that summit focus on teaching students about Information Technology (IT), or about Computer Science (CS)?  The CMUQ folks say, “Computer Science!”  Aren’t the jobs today in IT, not CS?  “No, the jobs aren’t there now, but they will be when they graduate.”

Will the jobs be there?  I like the quote from William Gibson, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”  The Qatar Foundation wants the future of Qatar to be about intellectual innovation.  The current jobs in Qatar are about adaptation of others’ innovations.  The women embracing CS in Qatar want jobs in Qatar. They can’t move to where CS jobs might be elsewhere.  Will the future arrive quickly enough in Doha to meet the predictions of CMUQ faculty, to give jobs to the students studying CS today?  It would be a tragedy to teach these women about computer science, where Qatar sees its future, only to be unused because of a lack of jobs today.

Changing a nation’s culture is a hard job.  I am inspired by the efforts of the Qatar Foundation.  If I were a CS faculty member at Qatar, I don’t how I would make their tough decisions.  Prepare the students for the near future, or the further future, and how fast is that further future arriving?

May 11, 2010 at 11:53 am 3 comments

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