They Put You On The Day Shift

“Twenty Years of Dijkstra’s Cruelty” (at Slashdot) led me a couple weeks ago to this PDF of a handwritten paper by computer science great Edsger Dijkstra; I’ve finally finished it (and passed on my hardcopy) and it’s amazing. How to bring beginners on board with the Math point-of-view (by not lying about it).

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Posted in Links. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “They Put You On The Day Shift”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Good read.

    I can’t help but be slightly disillusioned, however, as I am hoping to pursue a degree in computer science.

    I’ve taken a couple intro computer programming (NOT computer science) classes before, and the difference is blatant. I only hope I am not learning too many bad habits.

    Rote learning of sections of code to be repeated later is not nearly as interesting as studying recursive functions and realizing how powerful they can be. I had an instructor in one of the intro programming courses actually say that recursion was far too difficult to explain when a student asked what it was. It may be challenging, but not even trying to help an inquiring student…

    Ultimately, I am going to keep reading CS texts and keep taking math classes.

  2. vlorbik Says:

    “i can’t tell you about z
    until i tell you about a, about b…”.

    sometimes true enough; often a trap.
    examples of recursion at the popular level
    are of course abundant. the answer you report
    appears to be evidence of rather gross incomptence.

    thanks for commenting!

  3. Sue Says:

    He has gorgeous handwriting, but I’m not up to reading 30 pages. What you wrote (How to bring beginners on board with the Math point-of-view (by not lying about it).) is very intriguing. COuld you say a bit more?

  4. vlorbik Says:

    the “not lying about it” bit
    refers to putting definitions first
    and *avoiding* anthropomorphic
    metaphors for how coded symbols
    are manipulated by stated rules
    (not by ideas *about* the rules).

    beginners tend to misunderstand
    the very nature of our enterprise
    by thinking that mathematics
    can—and should—
    be translated into plain english
    by not trying to be so doggone precise.

    dijkstra proposes a course of shock treatment
    where students are made to follow certain
    symbolic rules *without* “meanings”.
    this isn’t such a weird idea of course…
    usually one encounters at least some *exercises*
    along these lines in “transition to advanced maths”
    courses… but this is like paraphrasing poetry.

    “goto” may be considered harmful
    but i’ll urge you again to “go to”
    the source… 30 pp. is indeed a lot.
    i don’t print out much but i printed out this
    and wasn’t sorry. found another reader
    real quick, too…

  5. Sue Says:

    I did end up skimming it. Interesting thoughts. But I see different audiences needing different strategies. Here are 3 audiences:
    – kids
    – adults who have a rough time with math, and are taking math courses because they ‘have to’ as part of their college degree
    – cs majors, engineering majors, math majors

    I’m willing to see his point with the last group, but I don’t think so with the first two. With those groups, maybe you can go this route after you’ve established with them that math is fun, powerful, intriguing.

    Besides, historically, it is attached to more anthropomorphic meanings. Graph theory came from the bridge crossing problem. How lovely. I wish I could think of more examples right now, but I can’t…


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