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Colin Johnson’s blog


Archive for September, 2018

Memory (2)

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

At York university in the 1990’s, there was a lane called “Retreat Lane” which was the start of the main route from campus into town. It was somewhat sketchy, and we were warned not to use it at night; it is good to see that it has had proper lighting installed a while ago. There were three prominent pieces of graffiti on the walls and gates:

  • The words “WATFROD F.C. RULES OK” (yes, that spelling) in huge letters.
  • The words “Ah good the sea!” in chalk. That seems to have been there for years, it was still there a few years ago, people must re-chalk it from time-to-time (I would, I suppose, if I noticed it was fading).
  • The words “Meat is Murder” written at the top of a gate to a field that sometimes had cows in it. Later joined by various other (rather less sincerely meant) slogans, such as “Veg is Vomit” and “Fish is Foul”.

Computational Thinking (1)

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

The idea of computational thinking as as set of skills that should be promoted as part of a broad education. The term originates with work by Jeanette Wing (e.g. this CACM article) over a decade ago. Computational thinking has developed to mean two, slightly different things. Firstly, the use of ideas coming out of computing for a wide variety of tasks, not always concerned with implementing solutions on computers. Systematic descriptions of processes, clear descriptions of data, ideas of data types, etc. are seen as valuable mental concepts for everyone to learn and apply. As a pithy but perhaps rather tone-deaf saying has it: “coding is the new Latin”.

A second, related, meaning is the kinds of thinking required to convert a complex real-world problem into something that can be solved on a computer. This requires a good knowledge of coding and the capabilities of computer systems, but is isn’t exactly the code process as such: it is the process required to get to the point where the task is obvious to an experienced coder. These are the kind of tasks that are found in the Bebras problem sets, for example. We have found these very effective in checking whether people have the skills in abstraction and systematisation that are needed before attempting to learn to code; they test the kinds of things that are needed in computational thinking without requiring actual computing knowledge.

A thought that occurred to me today is that these problems provide a really good challenge for artificial intelligence. Despite being described as “computational thinking” problems, they are actually problems that test the kind of things that computers cannot do—the interstitial material between the messy real world and the structured problems that can be tackled by computer. This makes them exactly the sort of things that AI ought to be working towards and where we could gain lots of insight about intelligence. One promising approach is the “mind’s eye” visual manipulation described by Maithilee Kunda in this paper about visual mental imagery and AI.

Lift and What?!

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018

Your current SQL Servers can lift and shit without seeing any change,

Scared (1)

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

As we approach the beginning of term, and a new cohort of students joining our universities, it is worth remembering that a decent number of our new students are arriving frightened of us, or assuming that we will look down on them. I think that the comment here, from a student admissions forum, is not untypical:
You never feel like you're inferior to the seminar leaders (despite their PhDs!) and nearly all of them are genuinely nice people.
It is important, in our first few interactions with them, to make it clear that this isn’t the case.