Programming and Writing: an Analogy

My wife teaches our primary introductory programming class, CISC 121 , and regularly has to advise students whether to take the even-more-introductory class first. The even-more-introductory course, CISC 101 , presumes no programming experience at all. The primary course presumes “some previous experience with programming” but many students find they don’t have enough such experience.

It occurred to me that there’s a useful analogy to explain to students why their little bit of programming experience isn’t enough for the regular course: levels of programming skill are much like levels of writing prose.

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Aspies are not A**h*les

Anyone who spends more than few milliseconds reading Internet forums and unmoderated comments discovers that the anonymity of the Internet encourages some people to make the kind of inflammatory remark they’d likely never make face to face. If called on it, some people “apologize” (not) by claiming they can’t help it because they lack social skills. Apparently some go even further, pretending they have Asperger’s Syndrome , a recognized psychological condition. Being an Aspie is supposed to be some sort of trump card to cut off criticism.

Personally, I expect that very few of these claims (“pretend” is Norman English for “claim”) are valid.

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Cognitive Flexibility

One of the neat things about getting a doctorate at a school partly supported by the Military Industrial Complex is that sometimes you get visitors giving seminars about stuff (often having little to do with killing people) that give you an interesting perspective you might not have encountered elsewhere. Once upon a time a the US Navy was soon to commission a new aircraft carrier , and its Captain went around DARPA -supported universities to see if they were working on anything useful to him. (With us he found a mainframe-based hypertext information management system , about 15 years before the Web existed). He gave a talk that mentioned “levels of cognitive development” in which he summarized the first three as
  1. There is one right answer to every question, and Mommy knows it.
  2. There is one right answer to every question; if Mommy doesn’t know it, someone else does.
  3. There is one right answer to every question, but maybe nobody knows it.
He then said an aircraft carrier is a small city with average age 19 and average cognitive level just above 2.

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Posting Rate

I started this blog early in April as “private” to a few people, primarily to see how consistently I could post. I opened it up to the world two weeks ago – and, as Murphy’s Law would predict, was unable to post since then. The trouble is that I have some good days, many not-so-good days, and some very bad stretches of days, but they’re unpredictable, and there are many other things that have to get done on the good ones. This seems to be a common problem. I follow about two dozen web comics these days. A lot of them have a schedule they try to keep, but most have gaps when the author gets sick, loses net access briefly, hits a writer’s block, or just disappears without explanation.
There are only two of my favourites that have posted consistently, seven days a week, for years on end: Schock Mercenary , and the ironically-named Irregular Webcomic Both authors count as geeks in my books: Howard Tayler once worked for a computer company, in what capacity I don’t know – but writing high-tech science fiction gives geek cred in and of itself. David Morgan-Mar is a physics geek who can explain physics and other stuff way better than Wikipedia (and some physics profs). Their consistency results from their employing a geekish concept: buffers.

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Law and Definitions

Emeritus Professor Cecil Law died last week , and flags at Queen’s are at half-mast until tomorrow. He had served as acting head of what is now the School of Computing during the search for the first capital-H Head in 1969. I never met him (likely because of geekish lack of attention to professional networking); I had plenty of time to do so (he retired from the School of Business eight years after I arrived in what was then the Department of Computing and Information Science ), and he would have been worth knowing. Prof. Law was more into operations research and business than what we’d now consider the core of computing, but his association with the Department led to his serving on quite a few Master’s degree examinations – where the other members usually conspired not to warn the candidate about his standard question:

“You are studying computer science. Can you tell me exactly what is a computer?”
Go ahead, try it. Don’t look up anything, don’t consult friends, and don’t take hours or even minutes to think about it. Imagine being stared at by four or five august members of faculty, under the illusion that their reaction affects whether you get your degree. And then imagine your subsequent panic when Prof. Law says, “By that definition my X is a computer” where X might be a bicycle, a sewing machine, possibly even plumbing

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