EppsNet Archive: Reading

Happiness is Not . . .

17 Nov 2015 /
portrait of Leo Tolstoy

Happiness does not consist of the gratification of your wishes. Anna Karenina, for example, is quite illuminating on this point. Try reading a book once in a while, you’ll pick up on a lot of universal errors like that.


Teaching Computer Science: Collected Thoughts

10 Jan 2015 /

If you recognize the person on this next slide, please raise your hand. Don’t yell out the name, just raise your hand.

Derek Jeter

About two-thirds of you recognize Derek Jeter. I thought everyone would recognize him, but still a clear majority.

I’m not a Yankees fan or a Derek Jeter fan particularly but the Captain and I are on the same page on this topic. I have to admit I was pretty competitive as a student. I didn’t want anyone to do better than me and I especially didn’t want anyone to do better than me because they worked harder than me.

This Jeter quote reminded me of a quote from another notable sports figure . . .

Bob Knight

This is Bob Knight, college basketball coach, most notably at the University of Indiana. He won 902 games, three NCAA championships, and he coached the 1984 Olympic basketball team to a gold medal.

Notice that he says “everyone” and “no one.” He doesn’t say some people don’t want to come to practice. There’s a universal aspiration to accomplish great results without a corresponding level of effort. I recognize that in myself, definitely. As far as I can tell, this approach rarely if ever works, even for people we think of as prodigies.

Mozart used to say that anyone who thought composing music came easily to him was very much mistaken. While all the other kids were playing kickball, Mozart was in the house practicing his music lessons. In case you’re thinking that kickball wasn’t even a game at that time, you may be right. The point is that if there was kickball, Mozart wouldn’t have been playing it because he was practicing his music lessons.

One more on this topic . . .

Michelangelo's David

This is a quote from Michelangelo. Nothing great seems to happen without a lot of practice.

Once again, please raise your hand if you recognize the person on this next slide.

Anton Chekhov

He looks Russian.

Yes, he is Russian.

Dostoevsky? Tolstoy? Mendeleev? Pushkin? Boris Pasternak?

No . . . he’s known as an author of plays and short stories.

[A student sitting next to a smart but quiet young man from Russia points to the Russian boy and says, “He knows.”]

Who is it? Chekhov.

Right . . . this is Anton Chekhov. He wasn’t a programmer but his advice is relevant to many different endeavors.

Don’t overcomplicate things. A good heuristic – which is a fancy way of saying “rule of thumb” – is to do the simplest thing that could possibly work. Method A could work, Method B could work — which one should we try first? Try the simplest one first.

Note that the heuristic doesn’t say to do the simplest thing. If the simplest thing couldn’t possibly work, don’t do it. Do the simplest thing that might actually work.

One final slide. I don’t think anyone will know these people so I’m not asking for a show of hands.

2 days in a closet

I saw an article last week about a man and a woman who were “trapped” in a janitor’s closet at the Daytona State College Marine and Environmental Science Center for two days. They got themselves in the closet last Sunday and finally on Tuesday, the gentleman on the right got the idea to call 911. Why that idea took two days to incubate is unclear. Police showed up to let them out and found out the closet was not locked. They could have opened the door themselves.

Maybe the lock was meth’d up, like the woman. “Meth’d” up, get it?

Are they students at Daytona State College? The article doesn’t say. Do any of you have Daytona State College on your college wish list? If so, you may want to take it off. Or just keep it as a safety school in case Harvard and the Sorbonne don’t come through for you.

What can we learn from this story? I don’t want to say “don’t make assumptions” but don’t make unwarranted assumptions. Don’t make assumptions about things that you can easily verify. If you’re in a closet, don’t assume the door is locked. Try it and see. A lot of uncertainty can be dispelled by trying things out.

Assumptions can hurt you as a programmer. You might be stuck because you’re assuming some condition is true that isn’t true. Or you’re assuming that some condition can never be true when it really can be true. Don’t make unwarranted assumptions.

I couldn’t help noticing that a lot more people recognized Derek Jeter than recognized Anton Chekhov. If you want to achieve great renown, if you want to be part of the public consciousness, entertain people in a simple-minded way, like hitting a ball with a stick and running around in a park. People can be entertained by Derek Jeter without expending any effort.

Where Chekhov went wrong is that he failed to anticipate a world where nobody reads anymore. Furthermore, he believed that the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them. His plays and stories don’t have a traditional structure where everything is tied up neatly at the end, so you not only have to put in the time to read them, you have to go into overtime to ponder the moral ambiguities. Who has time for that in their busy lives?


Teaching Computer Science: Those Who Don’t Like to Read

16 Dec 2014 /

Students with books

I recommended a couple of books that I’ve read recently and liked — Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman — to the class in case anyone was looking for a book to read over winter break or maybe as a holiday gift.

“What if you don’t like to read?” someone asked.

“Well, in that case you can spend your entire life inside your own head and never know or care what life looks like to other people.”

In hindsight, it occurred to me that I could have suggested audio books for people who don’t like to read, but . . . woulda coulda shoulda, you know what I’m saying?


Nobody Reads Books Anymore

11 Oct 2014 /

Me and Mark Twain


Elite Daily: Why Readers, Scientifically, Are The Best People To Fall In Love With

Posted by on 11 Jul 2014

We’re Still Smarter Than You Are

7 Dec 2013 /

Teens from Asian nations dominated a global exam given to 15-year-olds, while U.S. students showed little improvement and failed to reach the top 20 in math, science or reading, according to test results released Tuesday.

Harvard emblem

Why am I not shocked by that?

Because Americans on the whole are dumb and lazy. We have lots of dumb, lazy parents raising dumb, lazy kids. The average American kid doesn’t compare well academically to the average kid in an Asian country where academics and hard work are valued, or to the average kid from a small, homogenous European country where it’s easier to get everyone pulling in the same educational direction.

The U.S. is a big, diverse country and the average academic results are pulled down by a lot of dummkopfs.

But still, the smartest people in the world are Americans. Our smartest people are smarter than the smartest people in other lands.

You don’t think so? I’m looking at the list of winners of the 2013 Nobel Prizes . . . out of 11 recipients (I’m omitting the winners of the literature and peace prizes because those aren’t academic awards), eight are from the U.S. The other three are from Belgium, the UK and France, and the Frenchman is affiliated with Harvard University.

No one in Asian countries is winning any Nobel Prizes. Q.E.D.


We Need Better Parents

20 Dec 2011 /

Kids can’t do well in school unless their family has a lot of money, according to an op-ed in the New York Times, which goes on to argue that massive intervention by “policy makers” is needed to confront this issue head-on.

Head Start

The authors, Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske, are a husband-and-wife team of academic researchers. Education reform in a nutshell: First thing, let’s kill all the academic researchers.

Helen and Ed cherry-picked the results of a Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study to show that students with lower economic and social status had far lower test scores than their more advantaged counterparts.

But they didn’t actually link to the PISA results, because if they had, people would see that Helen and Ed just ignored the three main findings, which are:

  • Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all.
  • The performance advantage among students whose parents read to them in their early school years is evident regardless of the family’s socio-economic background. [That seems obvious, given that reading a book with your kid doesn’t cost anything. Can’t afford books? Borrow them from the library.]
  • Parents’ engagement with their 15-year-olds is strongly associated with better performance in PISA.

Andreas Schleicher, a member of the PISA research team, says that “just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring. It is something every parent can do, no matter what their education level or social background.”

Another recent study, by the Center for Public Education, found that parent actions such as monitoring homework, making sure children get to school, rewarding their efforts and talking up the idea of going to college are linked to better attendance, grades, test scores, and preparation for college.

Doesn’t this seem way too obvious for funded research?

To be sure, the Epps family doesn’t live in a poverty zone, but neither does it cost anything to teach a kid how to incorporate academics into his daily routine, or to review homework every night, or to read a book together.

I don’t think Helen and Ed have any kids of their own. They’re both white, in their 60s, maybe 70s. They’re true believers, ignoring reality and misrepresenting research findings to stake out what they imagine to be the moral high ground.

Listen, Helen and Ed, Ed and Helen: The only thing that matters in education is parents. Kids can be good at anything if that thing is important to them. And since kids are not born knowing what’s important and what isn’t, it’s up to their parents to teach them.

Are low-income parents going to focus their lives on teaching their children the importance of education? Of course not. They’re going to amuse themselves to death with the television. That’s why they’re impoverished in the first place.

Bad parenting is an epidemic in America. That’s okay. Failure is a part of life, even in America. School is a good place to learn that.


A Long and Short Explanation of Why Borders Books Went Out of Business

7 Aug 2011 /

Borders, unable to find a buyer willing to get it out of bankruptcy, plans to close its remaining 399 stores and go out of business by the end of September.

msnbc.com
_DSC8630 Borders Book Store and entertainment shop in administration press photos

“When Borders started up 40 years ago,” I explain to my son, “there was a certain percentage of the American public that bought books and read them.

“It wasn’t nearly as large as the percentage who preferred to sit on their fat asses and watch television but it was there. There was a profit to be made from it.

“Today, if I tell someone about a book I’m reading, they look at me like I’m confessing a perversion. Reading a book?!

“Not only does no one read books but if anyone does get a notion in their head to read one, they’re likely to buy it online and/or download it onto a device.

“The market for people who walk into a store and buy a book has dried up like a raisin.”

“Books, schmooks,” the boy replies.


Hockey Parents

17 Jan 2010 /
Hockey Parents

Originally uploaded by lippo

At hockey tournaments, especially travel tournaments, there’s a lot of down time between games. I usually bring a book to the rink so I have something to do. Nobody else does this. Nobody. In hockey circles, I’m known as the guy who brings books to the rink.

This weekend, we’re at a tournament in San Jose. One of the dads from our team — I think he’s a copier salesman — says to me, “I can’t understand why anyone reads fiction.”

He says it, not in a rude way, but not in a complimentary way either.

I say, “Oh. Well, I can’t understand why anyone lives his whole life inside his own head and never gets curious about what life looks like to other people.”

So I probably won’t have to talk to him the rest of the season.

Later the same day, this guy knocks back a couple of double Scotches at a team dinner and proceeds to make gay sex jokes — loudly — the rest of the evening.


Family Happiness

17 Aug 2009 /

I was reading a Tolstoy story called “Family Happiness” in bed last night. It was close to midnight when I finished it.

Leo Tolstoy

“Good story,” I announced to my wife, although she was 90 percent asleep by that time.

Without opening her eyes, she asked, “What was it about?”

“A man and a woman fall in love and get married. They’re very happy for a while but then the marriage starts to come apart.”

“Because the husband spends too much time on Facebook?” she asked.

“No, they didn’t have Facebook in 1860. What I didn’t see coming though is that the story turns out to have a happy ending after all.”

“Perfect,” she said. “What did you learn from it?”

“The past is gone, but you can still find a new life and a different kind of happiness.”

“With the same wife?”

“Yes.”

“Perfect,” she said.


Classification of Books You Haven’t Read

28 Jun 2009 /

From Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler:


The Giving Tree

22 Apr 2009 /

From the weekly Northwood High School bulletin:

Do you like reading? Do you like children? Do you like children but not reading? Or reading but not children?

Come to the Giving Tree meetings every Monday in Mr. Emery’s room 1103.


Communication Bandwidth

27 Mar 2009 /

As I’m writing this article, I’m trying to formulate ideas, understandings, and experiences into words. When you read this article, you try to understand what I’m saying within the context of your experiences. In the process of narrowing my bandwidth to words, and you trying to expand the bandwidth from words to your understanding, a lot is lost. No matter how well I write and you read. And, most of us are not superb writers and readers.


The Average Software Developer

12 Feb 2008 /

The average software developer reads less than one professional book per year (not including manuals) and subscribes to no professional magazines. These developers are not developing or advancing themselves professionally. About 75% of these people do not have a degree in computer science or a related field. They learn by trial-and-error and on-the-job training, which means that they risk learning other people’s bad habits rather than industry best practices. This method of professional development perpetuates ineffective, inefficient practices that hinder the success of software projects.