Friday, June 3, 2011

Thoughts from the Computer World

I’m three-fourths of the way through the online computer course that has taken over my life for the last three weeks. It leaves me little time for other reading, let alone synthesizing and writing about what I’ve read, which is an approach I often take with this blog. So, since I’m learning about computers, I thought I’d share a little.

I took the class mainly to learn how to use my computer better, and the assigned tutorials on Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Access are very useful. I’m hoping I can still use them after the class ends, because once through is not enough for me, and there’s no time for repeated efforts with all the other work. There has been a PowerPoint project, a website assignment (yes, I was able to do that from scratch—pretty basic, and of course not published to the web), and a programming assignment—which was “type this” and if it doesn’t run, “correct your errors,” repeat until it runs. I had one error, easily corrected, it ran; I have no idea how to make use of that exercise in real life. There is a team project that has been involved but enjoyable, and I’m nearly done with that.

Much of the time is devoted to the text, a chapter each day, with quizzes on each chapter and a test each week. The text is call Tomorrow’s Technology and You, 9th Edition, ©2009. It does nothing really to make me more computer capable. But it has been a good read. It’s about 40 pages a day, on the computer as scanned text, a little fuzzy. It’s slow going. But the authors have thought to amuse me with occasional quotes, some of which apply beyond the computer world. Here are a few from today’s chapter 14, which was on systems design and development (about computer programming languages and structures, mainly).

The only phrase I’ve ever disliked is, “Why, we’ve always done it that way.” I always tell young people, “Go ahead and do it. You can always apologize later.”—Grace Murray Hopper

One programs, just as one writes, not because one understands, but in order to come to understand. Programming is an act of design. To write a program is to legislate the laws for a world one first has to create in imagination.—Joseph Weizenbaum, in Computer Power and Human Reason [I like the first sentence’s description of why one writes—seems true to me.]

If one character, one pause, of the incantation is not strictly in proper form, the magic doesn’t work.—Frederick Brooks, in The Mythical Man-Month [After my programming assignment this seems especially poetic.]

We but teach bloody instruction, which being taught, return to plague the inventor.—Shakespeare, Macbeth

Programmers work the way medieval craftsmen built cathedrals—one stone at a time.—Mitch Kapor

It has often been observed that we more frequently fail to face the right problem than fail to solve the problem we face.—Russell Ackoff, American systems scientist [This is my favorite of today’s quotes. I’m sure it applies to the yesterday’s blog post somehow.]

The first 90 percent of the task takes 90 percent of the time. The last 10 percent takes the other 90 percent.—A systems development proverb

You can observe a lot by just watching.—Yogi Berra

It’s impossible to make anything foolproof, because fools are so ingenious.—Roger Berg, inventor

We build our computers the way we build our cities—over time, without a plan, on top of ruins.—Ellen Ullman, software engineer and author of Close to the Machine

The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.—Douglas Adams, in Mostly Harmless

Some of what I’ve been thinking of today is the comparison between the logical structure in the computer world and some of the things we try to accomplish in the real world. For instance, we know (or I should say, there is enough world history data and revealed truth that we should know) that civilization requires people being honest and caring toward one another, and for the family to be honored and protected as the basic unit of society. If society puts in these behaviors (input), society gets civilization over time (output).

And following up on yesterday’s economic idea: When there are problems in the overall economy, if government interferes in an attempt to fix them (input), the economy (and probably the specific problems as well) will get worse (output). Since we know these rules about the economy, we can expect the results we have been getting with the government interference we’ve been getting.

The question, then, is why do we keep doing things that bring about the expected outcomes when we don't want those outcomes. We need to debug the program--is that what we call elections?

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