Archive for: March, 2010

Is computer science baseless?

Mar 31 2010 Published by under computer science, education

From the April Communications of the ACM, the Kode Vicious column is on The Data-Structure Canon.

The reader question is:

In most areas of science there are a few basic underlying laws that inform the rest of the study of a given subject. Physics, chemistry, and electrical engineering all have these basic equations. What are the basic equations in computer science? Or is computer science baseless?

In other words, what's the fundamental intellectual basis of computer science? Well, according to KV, it's data structures!

If there were any set of basics that I wanted to hammer into software engineers and programmers, it would be the basic data structures, their features and pitfalls. ...

The basic data structures are the array, list, tree, and hash table. That seems like a short list, and I'm sure some of the more experienced readers of this column are warming up their mail applications to write me nasty notes about how there are more basic data structures than just these four. To these people I say, "Go for it!"

What I find most interesting about this list is how many programmers take it for granted and how few of them understand the implications of using one data structure versus another. Try as I might, I cannot lay all the blame at the feet of the programmers using these data structures; a good deal of the blame has to go to their teachers and the legions of poorly written "how to program" books that emphasize how to use a data structure rather than the underlying implications of what happens when they are used. Abstraction is a fine thing-it makes understanding large systems easier--but it also can obscure important facts: in particular, the performance implications of certain choices.


Given the different complexities I've just mentioned, I think you'll see that these four data structures, which form the basis of most computer programs, are worth studying time and again. A good place to start is Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 1, Chapter 2, which covers all of these subjects more seriously and in depth. When you're done reading all that he has to say, please write me, though I should be retired by then.

Interesting. Although he probably conflates computer science with programming a little too much for my taste, I'm probably mostly in agreement with KV's point of view. But I was wondering what all of you out there in Computer Science Land think?

23 responses so far

Book Camp Toronto: Saturday, May 15, 2010

The second Book Camp TO is coming up in about 6 weeks or so: Saturday, May 15, 2010 from 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM.

Last year's edition was terrific and I'm really looking forward to another great conference.

What's it about?

  • What: BookCampTO is a free unconference about the future of books, reading, writing and publishing. Ebooks have arrived, and with them great changes are afoot. BoomCampTO 2010 will focus on what happens next, how this big shift to digital is changing different parts of the book business, and how we are adapting. Our focus is not so much on ebooks as everything else.
  • When: Saturday, May 15, 2010, 9am-5pm + drinks afterwards.
  • Where: University of Toronto iSchool: 140 St George St, Toronto, ON M5S
  • Who: Everyone is welcome at BookCampTO: publishers, writers, technologists, readers, editors, designers, book sellers, book buyers, printers, teachers, librarians ... anyone who cares about books.
  • Why: We love books, we love writing, we love reading, we love publishing, and we want to see the world of Canadian books thriving in the coming future.
  • How: BookCamp is a conversation. Session format is: a fifteen minute intro, with a 40 minute discussion with participants.

My York colleague Evan Leibovitch and I are proposing a session on ebooks in academia:

eBooks in Education and Academia -- the glacial revolution, John Dupuis and Evan Leibovitch (York University)

Description: Despite growing public acceptance of eBooks, two areas in which they could offer the most benefit -- education and academia -- are far behind the eBook mainstream. This session will discuss issues directly related to educational (K-12) and academic (post-secondary) use of eBooks from the perspective of authors, readers and libraries. The session will also discuss the current generation of eBook readers -- both hardware and software -- in the context of student and researcher use.

The registration is filling up fast, so you might only have a day or two before the waiting list kicks in.

No responses yet

Music Mondays: Five songs I love

Mar 29 2010 Published by under music, music mondays

Another list of songs I really love, this time leaning a bit on the heavy side.

No responses yet

Ada Lovelace Day: Jane of See Jane Compute

Wednesday was Ada Lovelace Day!

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science.

The first Ada Lovelace Day was held on 24th march 2009 and was a huge success. It attracted nearly 2000 signatories to the pledge and 2000 more people who signed up on Facebook. Over 1200 people added their post URL to the Ada Lovelace Day 2009 mash-up. The day itself was covered by BBC News Channel,, Radio 5 Live, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Metro, Computer Weekly, and VNUnet, as well as hundreds of blogs worldwide.

In 2010 Ada Lovelace Day will again be held on 24th March and the target is to get 3072 people to sign the pledge and blog about their tech heroine.

Ada Lovelace Day is organised by Suw Charman-Anderson, with design and development support from TechnoPhobia and hosting from UKHost4U.

I encourage you to check out the rather extensive list of posts celebrating women in science and technology. It's truly inspiring.

A couple of days late (as usual) I'd like to add a name to the list of women deserving of a bit of celebration: Jane of the sadly departed blog See Jane Compute (and here for deeper archives).

Way back in 2005 or so, See Jane Compute was the first science blog I started following regularly. Her keen insights into the world of computing was what first drew me in, but it was the warmth and personality of the blog that kept me coming back. I'd done a computing degree myself way back in the 1980s and I saw a lot of what I went through as a student mirrored oddly through her experiences as a prof.

Also, as a callow youth way back then, I don't think I realized the challenges that the women in my program faced just being there, and that's something that Jane's writing really brought home to me, hopefully making me much more aware and sensitive now.

Over time, we also became blog buddies. It was always a thrill to see Jane's name pop up in the comments because I knew that someone who cared about the computing field and the people in it was contributing.

Jane also let us all into her life, let us experience the ups and downs of academia, of being a woman in computing, of everyday life. As all friends are, I was thrilled and happy when Baby Jane came along bringing great joy to the Jane household. I was also dismayed by some of the ups and downs of academic life and the weird tenure process.

Unfortunately, Jane's voice is mostly silent now -- I'm happy to report that she does still show up in the comments occasionally (here, for example). I'll also have a small little regret -- See Jane Compute closed down on Science Blogs on May 5, 2009 while I joined only a couple of weeks later, on May 18. Longtime blog friends, we missed being blog siblings by only a whisker.

So, slightly late Happy Ada Lovelace Day! And take a minute to go read some terrific insights by one of the great women technology bloggers here and here. And check out the interview I did with her on my old blog.

One response so far

Friday Fun: The Jobs Of Yesteryear: Obsolete Occupations

Mar 26 2010 Published by under acad lib future, friday fun

Interesting little slideshow article, one that makes you think about the transformation we've seen in the last century or so: The Jobs Of Yesteryear: Obsolete Occupations.

Here's the list -- note that each page in the slideshow has an audio interview with someone that used to do the job in question.

  • Lector (reads aloud to people while they're working)
  • Elevator Operator
  • Copy Boy
  • Pinsetter (sets up pins in bowling alley)
  • River Driver (logging)
  • Iceman
  • lamplighter (Manually lights street lamps)
  • Milkman
  • Switchboard Operator
  • Typist In A Typist Pool
  • Typesetter
  • Telegraph Operator

Actually, lectors aren't such a bad idea, even in modern workplaces.

I wonder what's going appear on a similar list in even 10 or 15 years?

(via David Rothman on Friendfeed.)

11 responses so far

Blogs as a Knowledge Management Tool in the Classroom

Nice article by Delaney J. Kirk and Timothy L. Johnson on Blogs As A Knowledge Management Tool In The Classroom (via).

Based on their experiences in a combined 22 business courses over the past three years, the authors believe that weblogs (blogs) can be used as an effective pedagogical tool to increase efficiency by the professor, enhance participation and engagement in the course by the students, and create a learning community both within and outside the classroom. In this paper they discuss their decision to use blogs as an integral part of their course design to contribute to both explicit and tacit knowledge. In addition, suggestions and cautions for using this new technology are presented.

The article definitely repays a close reading. I'll hit a few of the high points here.

Reasons to use a class blog:

  • "using a class blog allowed us to be more effective and efficient in communicating with our students"
  • "We also believed it important for all of our students to participate in class discussions but, despite our best efforts, on many days only a small percentage of the students ever had anything to say."
  • "And finally, and most importantly, we wanted to see our students take greater ownership of their own learning, not only for our classes but in their future lives."

The three main types of blogs they highlight were instructor focused, student focused and community focused:

  • Instructor-focused blogs. "The simplest way to use a blog is as a one-stop source where the professor posts syllabi, announcements, assignments, and links to articles and websites for the students to read. Faculty retain ownership of the site and students are expected to access the blog on a regular basis to obtain class information."
  • Learner-focused blogs. "In this approach, the professor would expect the students to be more active participants in the blog. Learning can occur peer-to-peer in addition to teacher-to-student."
  • Community-focused blogs. "A third approach to using blogs is to involve participants from outside the class itself. Students could be required to find, read, and evaluate blogs from "experts" outside class on assigned topics and then to share this information with their classmates."

The section on nettiquette for students is very good:

Another consideration is respect and privacy for others. In one of our classes, students were assigned a consulting project with local small businesses and not-for-profits. If a student writes disparaging comments on his or her blog, it can have an adverse impact on that organization. In addition, it makes it difficult for the professor to convince other businesses to be involved with projects for future classes. This instructor now advises students to speak of these companies (and their management) in general terms which would not specifically identify them.

Two of the overriding themes that students need to understand when expressing themselves on blogs (or other social media) are common sense and common courtesy. One of our students wrote about a variety of psychological disorders and personal problems which she was experiencing. While this information put into context some of her other classroom performance issues, it was not relevant to the assignment and was certainly more information than she needed to provide.

Some of the things they learned:

  • Blogging invites more students into the conversation
  • Blogging extends the conversation
  • Classroom blogging provides a "safe" mechanism for introducing students to social media
  • Blogging makes the students into subject matter experts
  • Blogging helps students take ownership of their own learning

Some selected advantages:

  • Allows "quiet" students a forum for expressing themselves
  • Promotes learning community between and among students and gives them a feeling of ownership
  • Students may put more effort toward their writing knowing it will be read by their peers as well as the professor

And selected disadvantages:

  • Can create more work for the instructor (developing content, reading student blogs and comments)
  • Students may be uncomfortable sharing information through this medium
  • Student writing might be more casual and sloppy compared to turning in hard copies

4 responses so far

Best Science Books 2009: The top books of the year! (Updated)

Mar 22 2010 Published by under best science books 2009, science books

For the last little while I've been compiling lists from various media sources giving their choices for the best books of 2009. Some of the lists have been from general media sources, in which case I've just extracted the science-related books. From science publications, I've included most or all of the mentioned titles.

What I'm doing in this post is collating all the books I've mentioned in all those lists and compiling a sort of master list of all the books mentioned three or more times. There were twelve of them and they are listed below.

Some notes/caveats:

  • These aren't in any way the "best" books of 2009, only the most popular books on year's best lists. For the most part, all the books mentioned wil likely be very good since they've attracted the most media "best" mentions. But, they are also almost certainly the books that had the biggest promotional budgets and sent out the most review copies.
  • There are probably one or two straggler "best of" lists that haven't come out yet. Library Journal, for example, does a list around the March time frame. (last year's) That's fine -- I just don't feel like waiting. I may update this list later on if it seems appropriate.
  • Similarly, there may be lists that were published that I just missed.
  • Finally, in some of the longer mainstreams lists that I did see, I can't guarantee I consistently pulled in the same "edge cases" in to my science-y lists. There were 25 books mentioned twice so one or two of those might have squeaked onto this list.
  • British, American and Canadian publication dates can mean that a 2008 British & Canadian book is a 2009 American book and vice versa. It happens. For example, I have the British paperback edition of Age of Wonder already.
  • There were 178 different books mentioned among the various lists. If you want to see my spreadsheet, just let me know and I'll email it to you. If I get more than one or two requests, I'll probably just load it into Google Docs.

Enjoy -- and good reading!

Here's the list, in descending order of mentions.

Any comments? First of all, there's not a whole lot of actual science among the books -- more edge cases or about historical or socail aspects of science. That's probably more a function of the number of pure science sources I found versus the mainstream ones. Second, not a whole lot of women on the list, unfortunately. Third, Logicomix is third, which is pretty cool.

Update 2010.03.22: Updated the list with books from Library Journal Best of 2009 Sci-Tech Books. The standings did shift a little, for example with the Dirac book going into second place all by itself. Also, four books were added to the list with 3 mentions: Catching Fire, Healing of America, Reading the Brain and Cold. There are also now 198 separate books mentioned among all the lists.

5 responses so far

Friday Fun: Why Hollywood Always Gets the Future Wrong

Mar 19 2010 Published by under friday fun, My Job in 10 Years Book

John Scalzi's latest AMC column Why Hollywood Always, Always Gets the Future Wrong is, as usual, very smart and right on target.

And pretty funny too.

Everybody gets the future wrong. It's not just Hollywood or science fiction writers. When it comes to the future, no one knows anything. At the close of the 19th century, British physicist Lord Kelvin declared heavier-than-air flight an impossibility (despite the existence of, you know, birds) and that radio was just a fad. In the '70s, the president of Digital Equipment Corp. voiced doubts that anyone would ever need a personal computer. In 1995, scientist Cliff Stoll wrote in his book Silicon Snake Oil that the Internet wouldn't really take off, in part because it could never replace newspapers or shopping malls.

Here's to getting the future wrong!

One response so far

Advancing and Promoting your Research on the Web

I received an email a couple of weeks ago from Daniel Cromer of the Hrenya Research Group located in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His group was interested in expanding their online presence and had stumbled up the presentation I'd given a couple of years ago on Academic Blogging: Promoting your Research on the Web. He asked me if I could explore those same ideas in a short presentation to the group.

That was Monday. Sadly, I wasn't able to actually go to Colorado for the presentation -- it was all online using the GoToMeeting software. I spoke and took questions for about an hour in a session that was lively and hopefully well-received. It was a bit odd to present without having any of the visual cues from the audience that are so helpful to the speaker. Fortunately, the audience was very engaged and we had a great discussion.

The actually presentation was based on the Academic Blogging: Promoting your Research on the Web presentation but also added in some new stuff as well as some content from the Web 2.0 Community Building Strategies: The World of Science 2.0 presentation I did from last year.

While the focus was still blogging and outreach, I did end up talking a bit about Open Access and Open Notebook Science.

In any case, the slides are below, with the link to the pdf version in our IR here.

Once again, thanks to Daniel and the Hrenya Research Group for both the invitation and the warm reception.

One response so far

Scholarly Societies: Why Bother?

An interesting and provocative article in The Scientist by Steven Wiley iof the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, To Join or Not to Join.

The thrust of the article is that scholarly societies are having trouble offering true value to their members in the Internet age, that their business models and even their raisons d'etre are being disrupted.

In years past, the answer was easy because being a member came with tangible benefits, such as inexpensive journals and the ability to submit abstracts to annual meetings. Nowadays, these perks don't seem very important. Most society journals are freely available online [1], and the proliferation of scientific meetings has made it easier to find venues to present my current research. Thus, the frequency with which I ask that question--"should I bother?"--has steadily increased.


Clearly, I am not the only scientist who is ambivalent about societies. Judging from their newsletters, many of the larger societies are struggling with stagnant or declining memberships, especially among young scientists. Although it is the youngest scientists who potentially have the most to gain from a scientific society because of networking opportunities, they are the ones who usually are most poorly served by those societies. This is because scientific societies generally cater to the status quo, not to the new and emerging elements of a field.


Currently, many different fields in biology are undergoing a revolution in approach, driven by genomics, computationally intensive data analysis, and mathematical modeling. Once again, these new trends are being driven mostly by young scientists, who likely see the potential to make new discoveries and avoid competing with their elders. Not all scientific societies are embracing these changes, as evidenced by the relative absence of talks highlighting new approaches at their annual meetings and the dominance of their editorial boards by traditional scientists.


If scientific societies truly want to promote their field of research and the careers of their members, then they should embrace new perspectives and approaches. If a society were helping me deal with the rapidly increasing rate of innovation and discovery in biology, then it would give me a great reason to bother remaining a member.

We live in interesting times. A lot of the posts I've done recently on scholarly publishing in computer science have really been about the role of scholarly and professional societies in a changing publishing and social networking landscape.

Here are some examples of those posts:

I don't have any answers about the future of scholarly and professional societies nor do I have any special insights on how they will change and evolve or perhaps even disappear.

But, not surprisingly, I do have some questions.

Questions for all of you library and science people:

  • What societies do you belong to?(Me: Ontario Library Association & American Society for Engineering Education.)
  • What value do you get from your membership? (Me: I do appreciate the print magazines I get. I also attend their conferences with some regularity and I really appreciate those.)
  • Is how you're thinking about your membership and the society's role in your professional life changing? (Me: Not yet, but I can see it coming, especially if conference attendance becomes significantly more expensive.)
  • Do you think societies should be in the scholarly publishing business? (Yes, I do. Most societies are more-or-less on the side of the angels -- they want to promote scholarship and add value to their fields and treat their authors, members and subscribers fairly. We all just have to figure out the best way into the future.)

Questions for scholarly societies:

  • Does your society subsidize member programs with profits from it's publications program
  • What kind of outreach do you do to the next generation of scholars?
  • What do you tell them is the "value proposition" for joining your society?
  • Do you facilitate your members online networking and professional development?
  • What are your thoughts on an Open Access business model for scholarly society publishing?
  • Do your members often mumble your name under their breath with the words to the effect of "just don't get it" or "waste of money?"
  • Do librarians often mention your name in the same sentence as Elsevier?
  • Do you have a librarian advisory group to work on issues of mutual interest?
  • What's your biggest competition?

Better yet, if you are an administrator or officer at a society and want to answer some of these questions (and more) at greater length, drop me a line and we can set up an interview.

(Via Frank Norman.)

[1] I assume here the author really means that the societies' publications are available online without additional payment to members and people at subscribing institutions. Few societies have all their publications truly Open Access.

9 responses so far

Older posts »