ramblings of an aimless mind

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Archive for August 2010

Learning the difficult way.

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An ancient relic of the computing age, the BBC microcomputer is making a comeback in a retro programming class. The idea being that it will help students understand computers better.

I applaud this decision. Students who are preparing for a programming career must spend some time working with computers that are decidedly not user friendly. Let me rephrase that, they ought to spend some time in user friendless hell, where no GUI exists, all commands are a mile long and have to typed out from memory. Where the error messages are cryptic and you are held to account for the tiniest error.

User friendly operating systems become friendly by abstracting a lot of the processes required to get any task done. While this may be ok for anyone who uses the computer as a tool to get their job done, it may not be the best idea for those whose job it is to know how the things work inside out. Obviously, it will be regressive to say that all GUIs should be scrapped, but spending some time working on extremely constrained and unfriendly computer systems can only be a good thing. It is a bit like working out with weights, not really necessary and a quite a bit of trouble, but beneficial in the long run.

May this initiative last long and thrive

Written by clueso

August 25, 2010 at 10:46 pm

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Science and Art

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During one of those fairly common and extremely rambling chats that PhD students have, one of those dropped a statement to the effect that “playing the piano is an art, not a science”. It is a view many will agree readily with, or at least accept pretty easily.

A slightly different thought then occurred to me. Maybe every skill is both a science and an art and it is the practitioners who can be classified as “scientists” or “artists”.

The word “science” conjures up an image of being bounded, restrictive and boring, while “art” represents the more free flowing, unfettered and exciting component of life. When we think about learning a skill though, it is easy to see the advantage of starting out as a “scientist”, with limits and rules to ensure focus on the basics, exhaustive records to pinpoint and eliminate mistakes, and repeated trials of the known to ensure fluency and accuracy.

Everyone will therefore start off doing things in the scientific way. At some point though, the student will have mastered the elements to such a high degree that things start to change. Liberated from consciously having to focus on the fundamentals, the practitioner is free to explore the limits of their skills. The task at hand ceases to be “work” or “practice” and starts becoming “play”, something enjoyable, fuelled by internal and not external motivation. Rules designed to guide are made redundant, fall away and the transition from the restrictive to the free flowing is complete. For all observer, this tipping point is easy to spot, because now the task seems to be effortless, the practitioner entranced and the word “artist” forms automatically in our minds.

Which is why we see “artists” in every sphere of life, from the musician and painters to the chef who confidently and skillfully creates mind boggling food, the sportspeople who do things laymen would never even think about and writers who transforms language, often considered mundane and into a work of tremendous beauty. Depending on natural propensity, some people achieve this tipping point early while others can go their entire life without seeing it.

Playing a piano by itself is not an art, like everything else, it is an art only if the pianist is an artist.

Written by clueso

August 23, 2010 at 11:30 pm

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