Bret Victor’s Learnable Programming

I spent some time last night perusing Bret Victor’s post titled “Learnable Programming.” It’s a through but easy-to-follow post on introductory programming. Writes Victor on the challenge of programming:

  • Programming is a way of thinking, not a rote skill. Learning about “for” loops is not learning to program, any more than learning about pencils is learning to draw.
  • People understand what they can see. If a programmer cannot see what a program is doing, she can’t understand it.

Thus, the goals of a programming system should be:

  • to support and encourage powerful ways of thinking
  • to enable programmers to see and understand the execution of their programs

A live-coding Processing environment addresses neither of these goals. JavaScript and Processing are poorly-designed languages that support weak ways of thinking, and ignore decades of learning about learning. And live coding, as a standalone feature, is worthless.

Alan Perlis wrote, “To understand a program, you must become both the machine and the program.” This view is a mistake, and it is this widespread and virulent mistake that keeps programming a difficult and obscure art. A person is not a machine, and should not be forced to think like one.

How do we get people to understand programming?

We change programming. We turn it into something that’s understandable by people.

If you haven’t ever got started with programming, set aside one to two hours and go through the post. It’s aesthetically pleasing, incredibly detailed, and best of all: fun! I guarantee you’ll learn a ton.

The Bug in Deep Blue and Its Effect on Garry Kasparov

Nate Silver’s anticipated book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’tcomes out today. The Washington Post has a great excerpt from Silver’s book about the bug in Deep Blue that made Kasparov consider the machine super intelligent:

Nevertheless, there were some bugs in Deep Blue’s inventory: not many, but a few. Toward the end of my interview with him, [Murray] Campbell somewhat mischievously referred to an incident that had occurred toward the end of the first game in their 1997 match with Kasparov.

“A bug occurred in the game and it may have made Kasparov misunderstand the capabilities of Deep Blue,” Campbell told me. “He didn’t come up with the theory that the move it played was a bug.”

The bug had arisen on the forty-fourth move of their first game against Kasparov; unable to select a move, the program had defaulted to a last-resort fail-safe in which it picked a play completely at random. The bug had been inconsequential, coming late in the game in a position that had already been lost; Campbell and team repaired it the next day. “We had seen it once before, in a test game played earlier in 1997, and thought that it was fixed,” he told me. “Unfortunately there was one case that we had missed.”

In fact, the bug was anything but unfortunate for Deep Blue: it was likely what allowed the computer to beat Kasparov. In the popular recounting of Kasparov’s match against Deep Blue, it was the second game in which his problems originated—when he had made the almost unprecedented error of forfeiting a position that he could probably have drawn. But what had inspired Kasparov to commit this mistake? His anxiety over Deep Blue’s forty-fourth move in the first game—the move in which the computer had moved its rook for no apparent purpose. Kasparov had concluded that the counterintuitive play must be a sign of superior intelligence. He had never considered that it was simply a bug.

I’ve ordered the book on Amazon.

Joel Gascoigne on Writing with Regularity

Joel Gascoigne has a great blog post titled “5 Realisations That Helped Me Write Regularly.” This was my favorite tip, as it’s come true for me so many times:

2. Delaying an article with the belief spending longer will make it better usually just means it won’t get written

I used to create a draft in Tumblr every time I had an idea for a blog post. Then I’d let it sit there for a while, because I believed the idea wasn’t fully formed yet, or I didn’t have enough points to share about the topic. I believed by delaying, the perfect post would eventually come to mind.

What I’ve realised is that there is no better time to write the article than when the thought first enters your mind. I should only write it at another time if I simply can’t open my laptop and write it all the way through right at that moment. The content is freshest when it first appears in my mind, and in that state I write the best posts.

I’ve gotten much better at this over time, but I have 10s of drafts lying in Tumblr from the early days when this caught me out time and time again. If you delay, the more likely outcome is that it just won’t get written.

Read Joel’s entire post here.

Ichiro Suzuki and His Care for Bats

Very interesting New York Times piece highlighting how Ichiro Suzuki cares for his bats. To Ichiro Suzki, bats are his Stradivarius violins:

Today, after a decade in the major leagues, Suzuki still displays that same reverence on a daily basis, caring for his bats like Stradivarius violins. While most players dump their bats in cylindrical canvas bags when they are not using them, Suzuki neatly stacks his best eight bats inside a shockproof, moisture-free black case that he keeps close by his locker at home and on the road.

Said Suzuki: “In Japan we take care of our instruments, our bats and our gloves…We take care of them well because these things are very important.”

On Louis C.K. and His Comedy Show

Adam Wilson’s Los Angeles Review of Books piece on Louis C.K.’s comedy show is a brilliant piece of journalism. It’s entertaining and highly informative:

The format of the American sitcom held steady for almost 40 years. The most noteworthy innovation was a negation; in the early nineties, HBO comedies like the short-lived Dream On ditched the pervasive canned laugh track, paving the way for the so-called cringe comedy of shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm. On Curb, the absence of a laugh track makes it difficult for viewers to know when to laugh. We cringe because we’re holding in laughter, waiting for a cue that it’s okay to release. But there is always a breaking point, an explosion into an absurdity so deep — Larry rushing into the water to “save” a baptismal candidate from drowning, for example — that the tension is relieved, and the laughter is released.

Louie both reacts to the failure of Lucky Louie and advances on Curb’s cringe comedy by creating something tenser, more tonally ambiguous. Louie’s singularity lies in its ability to further confound viewers by setting up jokes, and then providing pathos instead of punch lines. Not only does Louie’s audience not know when to laugh, they don’t even know if what they’re watching is supposed to be funny. For the Laptop Loner, this ambiguity is made all the more palpable by the absence of viewing partners; we use other people’s reactions to gauge the correctness of our own. But it also makes the ambiguity less assaulting. Alone, we can be comfortable in our discomfort.

I recommend reading the whole thing. I didn’t really know anything about the guy until his $5 comedy show hit the Internet last year. I bought it and enjoyed it.

Ray Bradbury on Optimism

INTERVIEWER: How important has your sense of optimism been to your career?

BRADBURY: I don’t believe in optimism. I believe in optimal behavior. That’s a different thing. If you behave every day of your life to the top of your genetics, what can you do? Test it. Find out. You don’t know—you haven’t done it yet. You must live life at the top of your voice! At the top of your lungs shout and listen to the echoes. I learned a lesson years ago. I had some wonderful Swedish meatballs at my mother’s table with my dad and my brother and when I finished I pushed back from the table and said, God! That was beautiful. And my brother said, No, it was good. See the difference? Action is hope.

At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.

That’s from this fantastic Paris Review interview.

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(via Swiss Miss & explore)

Tastes Like Chicken

Jackson Landers ponders why so many people claim something “tastes like chicken” when they try an exotic food. He goes into the evolutionary aspect of it, but first:

In order to answer this question, we need to start with chickens and work our way back through the evolutionary family tree.

Does chicken taste like chicken? Don’t laugh—this is an important question. Even lifelong chicken eaters usually have a very narrow experience because the birds sold in grocery stores are usually one of a very few breeds that have been designed to grow a lot of breast meat very quickly in factory-farm settings. A Plymouth roasting hen slaughtered for market at 7 weeks does not make for the same eating experience as a 2-year-old Rhode Island Red. I once ate a bantam rooster that tasted more like iguana than a grocery store chicken.

The most interesting paragraph was the explanation of why fish do not taste like chicken:

Several barriers prevent fish from tasting like chicken. A chemical called trimethylamine, which develops after a fish dies and creates that distinctly fishy flavor and odor, is a big one. Texture also plays a role: Fishes’ muscle structure is different from chickens’.  Fish muscles are typically arranged in bands along the sides of the body and are separated by relatively less connective tissue than what is found in the muscle of their evolutionary descendants. These bands of muscle are what make cooked fish flaky. Fish muscles are relatively simple because all they have to do to move through water is perform a sort of sideways flopping motion. The muscles of land-dwellers like chickens, lizards, and frogs are more specialized and are designed for the more varied movement of individual limbs.

The conclusion? About 350 million years ago is probably when life began to taste like chicken.