Archive for the 'computer science' category

IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Vol 32, Iss 3

Some interesting articles, as usual, in the latest issue:

There are also a few articles on the AEG-Telefunken TR 440 computer.

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Interlibrary Loan and eBooks: Helping you survive the summer!

A nice post from computer scientist Amy Csizmar Dalal on Five things that helped me survive summer:

5. Interlibrary loan and ebooks (tie). I am almost certain that I have checked more out of the library through interlibrary loan this summer than I have in my previous 7 years at Carleton combined. And this summer, I bought my first ebooks (because I was too impatient to wait for the paper versions to ship, but still). Recently I've expanded my view of which subfields relate to my research, and by expanding my view, I've discovered a whole new set of literature that will help push my research forward (and possibly in all-new directions!). I'm now way behind on my reading, but I'm also looking forward to scholarly reading in a way I haven't for a long time.

We're happy to help. And don't forget, libraries are getting more and more scientific and technical ebooks every day!

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Review of: Makers by Cory Doctorow

I actually read the freely downloadable version of Cory Doctorow's novel Makers on my Kobo ereader, even though I did buy the hardcover when it came out last year. Mostly, I wanted to check out the experience of reading a long text on my reader. Overall, the Kobo reading experience was terrific, not much different from reading a paper book. I tried it on both long inter-city bus rides and my regular commute as well as just sitting around the house. The Kobo is pretty bare bones, as these readers go, but it was good enough to consume fairly simple text. The Makers text was in epub format and that worked out pretty well. I've tried other texts in PDF format on the Kobo and the experience there is actually quite poor as it doesn't reflow the PDFs, requiring a lot of "pan & scan." I still haven't figured out what price I'm willing to pay in real money for a digital text I can't lend, resell, donate or share within my family. I'm still thinking it's not very much. As such, I haven't explored the Kobo store yet.

As for the Makers itself, I'll admit to rather enjoying it. Doctorow tells a cracking good story, fast-paced and exciting with reasonably good characters. If you're interested in a kind of near-future, post-scarcity view of what the capitalist and consumerist economy might evolve into in a 10-20 year time-frame, this is the book for you. Doctorow imagines a world of near-ubiquitous 3D printers and crumbling social structures with big corporations struggling to maintain their economic and political hegemonies. It's also a kind of geeky bromance/buddy picture/Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid vibe to it that's feels both incredibly compelling and a bit odd. It's like Judd Apatow grew up and made a movie out of Das Kapital.

On the other hand, I tend to see the "hand of the author" in the story a bit too much. Doctorow has a definite world view, a world view that revolves around openness and sharing and a radical transformation of what work and production are becoming. His world view has black hats and white hats, good guys and bad guys. It's possible for characters to grow, to show shades of grey, to be something other than perfect exemplars for one or the other side in his world view set piece, but it's rare. Because, really, his novels are just parables set in his world view. And really, that's ok. I share a fair number of principles with Doctorow but sometimes I just wish his novels weren't "just so." The plot follows too strongly from the world view.

In his Little Brother, a book explicitly aimed at young adults, the coincidence-driven, gosh-wow, good guys vs. bad guys shtick seems to go down easier. It's also his best book, where audience expectations seem to meet the structure of the work. And frankly, Makers mostly reads like a YA novel too, except for a few obviously R-rated scenes.

And there are a lot of similarities between the two books: eeeevillll apparatchiks, stout-hearted friends who stick by their pals no matter what, even the hero gets pretty well the same fire-breathing, ass-kicking, touch-chick girlfriend in pretty well the same way. Both heroes in Makers, actually, when I think about it.

Anyways, read the damn book. You won't be disappointed -- but you will be challenged.

Doctorow, Cory. Makers. New York: Tor, 2009. 416pp.

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Suppose you had a digital simulation of Paris Hilton's brain...

Now that's an attention-getter!

It comes from Ted Chiang's Big Idea post on John Scalzi's blog Whatever. It's a promotional piece for Chiang's latest book, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, which is about artificial intelligence.

For those of you that haven't heard of him, Chiang is one of the real breakout science fiction writers of the last two decades or so; his stories have consistently won both awards and the highest praise from reviewers and critics. This is his longest work to date. (His first collection is Stories of Your Life and Others, which has many of his most famous stories.)

A couple of choice quotes from the Big Idea!

It's been over a decade since we built a computer that could defeat the best human chess players, yet we're nowhere near building a robot that can walk into your kitchen and cook you some scrambled eggs. It turns out that, unlike chess, navigating the real world is not a problem that can be solved by simply using faster processors and more memory. There's more and more evidence that if we want an AI to have common sense, it will have to develop it in the same ways that children do: by imitating others, by trying different things and seeing what works, and most of all by accruing experience. This means that creating a useful AI won't just be a matter of programming, although some amazing advances in software will definitely be required; it will also involve many years of training. And the more useful you want it to be, the longer the training will take.


And that's what I was really interested in writing about: the kind of emotional relationship might develop between humans and AIs. I don't mean the affection that people feel for their iPhones or their scrupulously maintained classic cars, because those machines have no desires of their own. It's only when the other party in the relationship has independent desires that you can really gauge how deep a relationship is. Some pet owners ignore their pets whenever they become inconvenient; some parents do as little for their children as they can get away with; some lovers break up with each other the first time they have a big argument. In all of those cases, the people are unwilling to put effort into the relationship. Having a real relationship, whether with a pet or a child or a lover, requires that you be willing to balance someone else's wants and needs with your own.

I really need to get myself a copy of that book!

(And yes, you'll have to head over to Scalzi's blog to see the context of the title quote!)

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Report on the 2010 Computer Science Education conference

Aug 09 2010 Published by under computer science, education

Eugene Wallingford of the blog Knowing and Doing was at the SIGCSE Computer Science Education conference this past spring and as usual he provides a very fine report over a number of posts.

  • SIGCSE DAY 0 -- Media Computation Workshop

    I headed to SIGCSE a day early this year in order to participate in a couple of workshops. The first draw was Mark Guzdial's and Barbara Ericson's workshop using media computation to teach introductory computing to both CS majors and non-majors. I have long been a fan of this work but have never seen them describe it. This seemed like a great chance to learn a little from first principles and also to hear about recent developments in the media comp community.

  • SIGCSE DAY 0 -- New Educators Roundtable

    The new educators themselves came from this range of schools and more (one teaches at Milwaukee Area Technical College up the street) and were otherwise an even more mixed lot, ranging from undergrads to university instructors with several years experience. The one thing they all have in common is a remarkable passion for teaching. They inspired this old-timer with their energy for 100-hour work weeks and their desire to do great things in the classroom.

  • SIGCSE Day One -- Computation and The Sciences

    In the second paper, Craig Struble described a three-day workshop for introducing computer science to high school science teachers. Struble and his colleagues at Marquette offered the workshop primarily for high school science teachers in southeast Wisconsin, building on the ideas described in A Novel Approach to K-12 CS Education: Linking Mathematics and Computer Science. The workshop had four kinds of sessions:

    • tools: science, simulation, probability, Python, and VPython
    • content: mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology
    • outreach: computing careers, lesson planning
    • fun: CS unplugged activities, meals and other personal interaction with the HS teachers
  • SIGCSE Day One -- What Should Everyone Know about Computation?

    In a way unlike many other disciplines, writing programs can affect how we think in other areas. A member of the audience pointed out CS also fundamentally changes other disciplines by creating new methodologies that are unlike anything that had been practical before. His example was the way in which Google processes and translates language. Big data and parallel processing have turned the world of linguistics away from Chomskian approach and toward statistical models of understanding and generating language.

  • SIGCSE Day One -- The Most Influential CS Ed Papers

    You can see the list of papers, books, and websites offered by the panelists on this page. The most impassioned proposal was Eric Roberts's tale of how much Rich Pattis's Karel the Robot affects Stanford's intro programming classes to this day, over thirty years after Rich first created Karel.

  • SIGCSE This and That, Volume 1

    People, listen to me: problem-solve is not a verb. It is not a word at all. Just say solve problems. It works just fine. Trust me.

  • SIGCSE -- What's the Buzz?

    The real buzz this year was CS, and CS ed, looking outward. Consistent with recent workshops like SECANT, SIGCSE 2010 was full of talk about computer science interacting with other disciplines, especially science but also the arts. Some of this talk was about how CS can affect science education, and some was about how other disciplines can affect CS education.

  • SIGCSE Day 2 -- Reimagining the First Course

    What's up? A large and influential committee of folks from high schools, universities, and groups such as the ACM and NSF are designing a new course. It is intended as an alternative to the traditional CS1 course, not as a replacement. Rather than starting with programming or mathematics as the foundation, of the the course, the committee is first identifying a set of principles of computing and then designing a course to teach these principles. Panel leader Owen Astrachan said that the are engineering a course, given the national scale of the project and the complexity of creating something that works at lots of schools and for lots of students.

  • SIGCSE Day 2 -- Al Aho on Teaching Compiler Construction

    So, what should we teach? Syntax and semantics are fairly well settled as matter of theory. We can thus devote time to the less mathematical parts of the job, such as the art of writing grammars. Aho noted that in the 2000s, parsing natural languages is mostly a statistical process, not a grammatical one, thanks to massive databases of text and easy search. I wonder if parsing programming languages will ever move in this direction... What would that mean in terms of freer grammar, greater productivity, or confusion?

  • SIGCSE Day 3 -- Interdisciplinary Research

    Three ideas stayed with me as my conference closed:

    • One panelist made a great comment in the spirit of looking outward. Paraphrase: While we in CS argue about what "computational thinking" means, we should embrace the diversity of computational thinking done out in the world and reach out to work with partners in many disciplines.
    • Another panelist commented on the essential role that computing plays in other disciplines. He used biology as his example. Paraphrase: To be a biologist these days requires that you understand simulation, modeling, and how to work with large databases. Working with large databases is the defining characteristic of social science these days.
    • Many of the issues that challenge computer scientists who want to engage in interdisciplinary research of this sort are ones we have encountered for a long time. For instance, how can a computer scientist find the time to gain all of the domain knowledge she needs?
  • This and That, Volume 2

    How many professors throw busy slides full of words and bullet points up on the projector, apologize for doing so, and then plow ahead anyway? Judging from SIGCSE, too many.

    How many professors go on and on about importance of active learning, then give straight lectures for 15, 45, or even 90 minutes? Judging from SIGCSE, too many.

    Mismatches like these are signals that it's time to change what we say, or what we do. Old habits die hard, if at all.

    Finally, anyone who thinks professors are that much different than students, take note. In several sessions, including Aho's talk on teaching compilers, I saw multiple faculty members in the audience using their cell phones to read e-mail, surf the web, and play games. Come on... We sometimes say, "So-and-so wrote the book on that", as a way to emphasize the person's contribution. Aho really did write the book on compilers. And you'd rather read e-mail?

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Frederik Pohl on Alan Turing

Following up on my post from a few days ago, a short appreciation of Alan Turing by noted sf author Frederik Pohl:

The close of Pride Month seems an apt time to talk about Alan Turing, inventor of the famed Turing Test for identifying independent intelligence in computers, worked for the British code breakers in World War II, and was one of the leading figures who successfully cracked the secret German messages, a feat which played a considerable part in the victory over Hitler.

Pohl is one of my all-time favourite sf authors and his blog The Way the Future Blogs is an excellent updating of his classic memoir The Way the Future Was.

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Stephen Wolfram on Alan Turing

Jun 23 2010 Published by under computer science, history

Nice post by Stephen Wolfram on the Wolfram|Alpha blog, Happy Birthday, Alan Turing:

He was in some respects a quintessential British amateur, dipping his intellect into different areas. He achieved a high level of competence in pure mathematics, and used that as his professional base. His contributions in traditional mathematics were certainly perfectly respectable, though not spectacular. But in every area he touched, there was a certain crispness to the ideas he developed--even if their technical implementation was sometimes shrouded in arcane notation and masses of detail.

In some ways he was fortunate to live when he did. For he was at the right time to be able take the formalism of mathematics as it had been developed, and to combine it with the emerging engineering of his day, to see for the first time the general concept of computation.

It is perhaps a shame that he died 25 years before computer experiments became widely feasible. I certainly wonder what he would have discovered tinkering with Mathematica. I don't doubt that he would have pushed it to its limits, writing code that would horrify me. But I fully expect that long before I did, he would have discovered the main elements of NKS, and begun to understand their significance.

More on Alan Turing here.

(Via Jennifer Peterson of Wolfram Research.)

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Great Computing Museums of the World

A great two-part series on great computing museums from the last few issues of Communications of the ACM (here and here).

The museums they profile are:

I'll include an extra bit from the first CACM article on the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. I'm choosing that one because as it happens I'll almost certainly be visiting it this coming July. I'm fortunate to have been invited to the annual Science Foo Camp, which happens to be at the Googleplex in Mountain View.

Research Activities. The CHM wishes to become an important part of the academic research community on computing history, but it has only taken small steps so far: organizing topical conferences and workshops, collecting oral histories, and publishing papers and articles.

The CHM scope (and collection) is international, but the museum's physical presence is in the heart of Silicon Valley in California. The CHM owns a 120,000 square foot modern building on seven acres--lots of free parking is a real asset here!--in a prominent location in Mountain View. The CHM also owns a 25,000 square foot warehouse 20 minutes away, where most of the 90% of the collection that is not on exhibit at any particular time is stored in climate-controlled conditions and is available to researchers.

The Computer History Museum is a work in progress. We like to think of ourselves as a startup with a 30-year history. We welcome the opportunity to work with people and organizations that resonate with our mission and our goals.

My own institution, York University, has a Computer Museum dedicated to the history of the Canadian computing industry. It's housed in the Computer Science & Engineering Department and run by Prof. Zbigniew Stachniak. You can visit by appointment.

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Recently in the ACM: Computer Science Education

A small selection from some tables of content from a few recent journals and proceedings. These will require subscription access to the ACM Digital Library.

Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education

Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges, v25i4

SIGCSE Bulletin, v41i4

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What are the Potential Social and Ethical Implications of the $100 Laptop?

That's the topic for the most recent Schubmehl-Prein Prize for Best Essay on Social Impact of Computing.

The Schubmehl-Prein Prize for best analysis of the social impact of a particular aspect of computing technology will be awarded to a student who is a high school junior in academic year 2009-2010. The first-place award is $1,000, the second-place award is $500, and the third-place award is $250. Winning entries are traditionally published in the Association for Computing Machinery's Computers and Society online magazine.

The winners of the 2009 contest are published in the most recent ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society, volume 40, issue 1. (Subscription needed.)

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