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Posts Tagged ‘technology’

The early years of computing were a like a Renaissance dance, lots of people who somehow manage to get to dance with each other at least once. A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age gives us yet another place to stand and watch that dance.

Claude Shannon is one of those people who fundamentally changed the way we look at the world. The problem with fundamental change is that we tend to be on one side or the other of it. Today we speak of information theory as though it’s as obvious a concept as making paper. Kind of the same way we obsess over software developers being able to write code to sort numbers or reverse linked lists. At some point, the fundamental reality of the existence of high-quality libraries and data structures will make these queries as relevant as requiring people to explain a tape sort. But I digress.

He was a researcher, tinkerer, teacher, juggler, and for all appearances didn’t seem attached to labels. He had Vannevar Bush looking out for him. As an MIT professor, he had Danny Hillis and Ivan Sutherland, among others, as doctoral students. He worked with Alan Turing during World War II. And the box-switch-thing that turns itself off. That was him.

Reading the book, you get a sense of possibilities explored. So often people either dismiss or defer possibilities. He literally had a basement full of them. If only he’d know Ron Popeil, every home might have a few of them.

I don’t know how well he would fare in the world today. In his time, Bell Labs basically paid to have him around. He had cachet. He also helped focus people’s ideas. He brought this sensibility to MIT with him as a professor. We get so terribly wrapped up in being hyper-specialized, in know the what but not the why. To often we come across the proverbial Gordian knot and turn away. People are either unwilling to try, or believing themselves to be special, simply act as though the problem does not exist. (Treating people poorly and flaunting violations of the law fall into this category.) Few people are willing to question the fundamentals. What do you need? What do you have?

The interesting people are those who solve problems and help other people solve problems, not by merely telling them what the answer is, but by enabling them to see that solutions can come from places that aren’t necessarily rooted in the past ways of doing things.

In our day and age, when we focus on special skills and special languages and special hardware, it would behoove us to remember that there is no best skill or language or hardware. There is only the universe of problems. It is far more valuable to be able to help others see the shape of the solution than to be an individual capable of providing a answer to a well-defined question whose value will in time expire.

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When I was asked to create and teach a Python class, I had to ask myself, “where is the starting point for this language?”

When it comes to computer languages, I like them logical, powerful, compact and fast. The language currently at the top of my list is Swift. When it comes to longevity, C++ wins hands down. Python is neither compact nor fast. It is, however, very popular. It’s also very flexible.

The C language has so many children that it’s easy to use analogs. What about Python?

I’ve taken intro CS courses from Harvard, Rice and Stanford all of which use Python. They all teach C programming in Python in my opinion. I get where they’re coming from. You’ve spent years using FORTRAN then Pascal then Java.

Happily, my first language was FORTRAN. You think you need to build all your own data structures if you use C. Consider yourself lucky. But that’s a story for another day. My second lanugage as APL. Go ahead try to teach APL the way you teach C. Knock yourself out. A bit later I picked up BASIC, which after FORTRAN was trivial. Next came Forth. That took a bit to wrap my procedural head around. My experience with APL had taught me that it’s perfectly fine to focus on the data and not the process. Forth’s focus on the stack is strangely intriguing. The fact that it lives on in UEFI and Postscript is a testament to the fact that there is value in that view of the world.

So my approach was to start with data representation. In Python the world is all objects and references. But for some reason, people don’t want to approach the language from that standpoint. They like to talk about how easy it is to write ‘hello, world’ programs or how it’s more readable than Perl. Aside from APL, I don’t know anything that’s less readable than Perl. Except maybe TECO macros.

Now that I had a place to start, life should be a hop, skip and a jump to classes, yes? Not so fast pilgrim. It’s easy to explain that everything is an object and that integers are a sub-class of rationals. It’s easy to explain that 0 takes 12 bytes of storage. You can even justify the lack of a character object. But I think you do a true disservice if you don’t address the fact that strings are Unicode based. I’ve dealt with enough internationalization issues to know that to gloss over this would be a disservice to the student. I probably spent more time working on the string section of my class than any other.

The reason? It’s one thing to present information that raises obvious questions like, “so you’ve told me that there as multiple ways to represent the same grapheme and that these strings will have different code units, but what am I supposed to do about it?” Or “how am I supposed to sleep knowing that a Vai 4 digit isn’t the same as an Arabic numeral 4?” You might as well throw them under a bus if you honestly believe that you’ve discharged your duty as a teacher by telling the students that there are land mines out there and that they should bring an umbrella. You’ve essentially just given them a compelling reason to never use the language.

Once all the ‘core’ data types are out of the way, it’s time for some core data structure like list, tuple, and namespace.

Functions, generators, and lambdas come next. These are relatively straightforward. The trick to generators is to show the equivalent implementation in C++. Yes, they are different beasts, but you can get close enough. Similarly with lambdas.

Now, you’re in a position where classes can be reasonably explained. A point to mention here is that back before embarking on a exposition of data types, keywords and variable conventions were addressed. Now, for most students, this goes in one ear and out the other. Having arrived at classes, all those naming conventions come back like an overeager Sheltie wanting to play. Ignore them at your peril. Enumerations are also introduced here.

For many, all the object bits will now come into focus. This is a good thing. I’ve never liked the approach where students are taught how to use bits and pieces of libraries without the foundation to understand what’s actually happening. They end up with a false sense of accomplishment and may never seek to build an accurate model of the languages world. They’re like Jeff Goldblum’s character in ‘The Fly’ having no clue how things actually work since he just specified what he wanted a given part to do and plugged the parts together. We all now how that worked out for him. It also emphasizes their importance of debugging you system.

I’ve never understood why some people shy away from classes in Python. They act as though organization is an inherently evil thing. They also probably have all their laundry in two piles in the middle of their bedroom (one dirty, one clean).

Classes point us to resource management, but we can’t do that discussion until input / output is covered. That gives us the idea of using classes (file streams) and their methods to process data. Here’s where string formatting and core data conversion comes in.

Up until now, exceptions have been alluded to. Now there’s enough structure to not only address, but give meaningful examples of their use.

At this point, you’re done with the core language. So we’ll address unit testing. We’ve done bits of this along the way since the introduction of classes, but now we can talk about the unit test library.

What remains are sections on sequence and associative containers. An important aspect of this is teaching how to select the appropriate container. Yes, you can use list and tuple alone, but there are better things to do with your life than reinventing the wheel. Technical interviews insisting that people be able to balance binary trees notwithstanding.

Finally, a brief introduction to the standard library. Before Googling, how about being aware what’s already in the box.

You’ll note a distinct absence of web browsers, GUI applications, client-server systems, etc. Just the language here.

Would my class make you a Python expert. By no means. As with all things, you become proficient through years of study and practice. It is my hope that my Python class would give you a good start on that journey.

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I’ve just finished reading Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union by Stephen Budiansky. It tells the story of the US National Security Agency (NSA) up through the end of the Cold War.

Given the number of dry histories of the people and agencies who deal with cryptography and spying, this book is reasonably readable. If you’re looking for a less arch, and more human view on how things got to where they are; you’ll like this book.

The takeaway from the book is that the biggest hindrance in the world of security is people. People who are control freaks or don’t believe that rules apply to them, or believe that the “other side” is stupid, or are just too damn lazy to do the simple things that would avoid issues are the problem. You can’t design your way around them. If you try, you’ll only make things worse.

You can’t pretend you have the moral high ground when you’re collecting enough information to make the US National Archives, the Library of Congress, Google and Facebook look redundant. I’m not picking sides, I’m just saying that if you’ve got a hammer and you use the hammer, own up to the fact and don’t go around telling everybody and their brother that they shouldn’t use hammers and that in fact that hammers either don’t exist or are illegal (or would be if they did actually exist, which they don’t).

Along the way, you’ll be introduced to a cast of well-intentioned, clueless, brilliant and ruthless individuals. There are miscommunications, denial of responsibilities, bruised egos, moments of insight and face palm moments.

Please keep in mind Hanlon’s razor.

 

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I’ve finished reading The Shadow Factory (James Bamford) [Hardcover] – a history of the US intelligence community’s (especially the NSA) actions post 9/11.

 

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I finished reading two books this weekend:

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