Greg Wilson

The Third Bit

The harder you work, the richer you die.

Nov 13, 2016 Stuff That Actually Matters
In the wake of things like GamerGate, Brexit, and the American election, it seems pretty clear that the tech industry needs a backgrounder for people who want to know more about how our political, legal, and economic systems actually work. Having produced half a dozen crowd-sourced books on open source software and software engineering over the last ten years (see here, here, and here), our goal now is to create something like Physics for Future Presidents, but instead of (for example) explaining nuclear power to someone who might one day run the country, we want to explain things like voter...
Nov  9, 2016 They Would Both Have Had Things to Say
My father and my sister would both have had things to say about the American election. I wish they were here to say them.
Oct 30, 2016 Rules for Teaching
Be kind: all else is details. Never teach alone. No lesson survives first contact with learners. Nobody will be more excited about the lesson than you are. Every lesson is too short from the teacher's point of view and too long from the learner's. Never hesitate to sacrifice truth for clarify. Every mistake is a lesson. "I learned this a long time ago" is not the same as "this is easy". Ninety percent of magic consists of knowing one extra thing. You can't help everyone, but you can always help someone.
Oct 19, 2016 Given Infinite Minions
My browser home page has a "to do" list and a "to don't" list. The former is things that I should be working on; the latter is things that I shouldn't let myself do (at least, not yet). There's more than this, like fiction I want to finish, but that's a story for a different site. Maybe some day I'll reconcile myself to the knowledge that there just isn't time to do it all. Meanwhile, if you're interested in doing any of these, or already have, please give me a shout. An undergraduate course in empirical software engineering This post...
Sep 29, 2016 Epistocracy as Privilege
Another day, another display of privilege from Aeon titled, “The right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge”. No mention of the fact that so-called literacy tests were used to disenfranchise minorities in the Bad Old Days, but of course, we wouldn’t ever do that. All I can think to do is re-quote Kenneth Wesson: If poor inner-city children consistently outscored children from wealthy suburban homes on standardized tests, is anyone naive enough to believe that we would still insist on using these tests as indicators of success? and paraphrase Anatole France: the law, in its infinite impartiality,...
Sep 27, 2016 The Markov Test
The Turing Test is used to determine whether a program exhibits human behavior. I’d like to propose that we use a Markov Test to determine whether a human being exhibits interesting behavior: Train a Markov chain text generator on a sufficiently large corpus of the person’s speech and writing. Put samples of the person’s actual utterances and equal-sized samples of the generator’s output in front of a human judge. If the human being can’t tell the difference between the two, classify the person as “uninteresting”. I’m pretty sure that some prominent people would fail to pass this test…
Sep 27, 2016 Terrified Sheep
In a recent article in Aeon, the historian Alice Dreger says, “Without tenure, professors become terrified sheep.” She goes on to say: Why should professors who receive tenure get a special kind of lifetime job security? …[Because] tenure, in fact, does something very important: it frees up researchers and adult educators to try out new, unprofitable, and challenging ideas. …universities in which the majority of the faculty feel unsafe in terms of job security become places where no one feels safe to do anything that might risk upsetting someone… And that’s a recipe for generally useless research as well as...
Sep 21, 2016 What I Wish I'd Read
I would have called myself a research software engineer from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, and if I could send email back in time and tell my younger self what to learn, only some of it would be about programming. The rest would be about how to talk to clients and colleagues about what they wanted, how to keep a project on track (or tell if it’s gone off the rails), how to run a productive meeting, and how to manage my own time. I’d also tell me to learn how to teach, since it turns out RSEs spend...
Sep 12, 2016 Collaborative Choral Software Exegesis
I’ve been thinking a lot about Mike Caulfield’s idea of choral explanations, the way we use Etherpad for collaborative note-taking in Software Carpentry workshops, and the idea of having learners work with an instructor in a single shared Jupyter Notebook during a live-coding session. I don’t think that having a bunch of novices edit the same piece of source code together is going to work well, but what about having them edit the comments? Critical editions of Biblical texts, Shakespeare, and legal documents are sometimes laid out in two columns: one contains the source, while the second contains comments on...
Sep 10, 2016 Slides for Two Talks Online
I've posted HTML slides for two upcoming talks, one on lessons learned from Software Carpentry, the other on what's missing in computing and what it can tell us about our field. I'll be giving one or both at York University, the University of Illinois, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin this fall – hope to see you there.
Aug 26, 2016 What I Didn't Learn in a CS Degree
I recently stumbled across The Imposter's Handbook, which describes itself this way: For the longest time I would remain silent when discussions with my peers would veer toward theoretical topics like P vs. NP, Lambda Calculus or bubble sort vs. merge sort... I decided to change all of this a year ago. I sat down and looked up all of the topics that a typical CS degree covers and then I dove in. Half way through, I decided to write a book about what I was learning. It's an interesting project, but it got me thinking about all the things...
Aug 26, 2016 Markers
Contents include: a copy of The Portable Curmudgeon a joke book from Australia from the late 1940s or early 1950s a toy fish a piece of broccoli a coffee mug my father's ashes Goodbye, Dad.
Aug 14, 2016 Holtzmann
Aug  8, 2016 Smooch
Aug  4, 2016 Not Much of a Conversation
I've been reading articles on The Conversation for a while, and with a couple of trips coming up, I thought I might try to write something for them. I clicked on their "Become an author" link, and got this: My first reaction was disappointment. My second was that it's not much of a conversation if only one side gets to talk. Depending on how you count, only 2% to 18% of people doing doctorates become professors. The rest of us don't actually have our brains wiped when we leave, and acting as if we did doesn't exactly encourage us to...
Aug  4, 2016 Etsy for Teaching
I've been wondering for years why people don't collaborate on lessons in the same open, ad hoc way they write Wikipedia and build open source software. Turns out I may have been using the wrong analogy. Teachers Pay Teachers is "... the first and largest open marketplace where teachers share, sell, and buy original educational resources", i.e., it's Etsy for teaching rather than Wikipedia. Their site says they have earned $200 million for their teacher-authors since their founding, and have two million "resources" available, ranging from lesson plans and interactive notebooks to games and classroom decor. Thanks to Sumana Harihareswara...
Jul 17, 2016 Commonization
I just finished a pair of books that were each very good in their own right, but were even better back to back: Think Like a Commoner is a brief introduction to the notion of a commons: something managed jointly by a community according to rules they themselves have evolved and adopted. As Bollier repeatedly emphasizes, all three parts of that equation are essential: a commons isn't just a thing, like a shared pasture, but is necessarily also comprised of a community who share it and the rules they use to do so. Building Powerful Community Organizations is longer and...
Jul 12, 2016 500 Lines
After a lot of hard work by Mike Dibernardo and Amy Brown, the latest book in the AOSA Series is now out. It's called 500 Lines or Less, and in it, developers walk readers through small but realistic implementations of databases, web servers, game engines, and many other kinds of applications. I think it's wonderful—congratulations to Amy, Mike, and all the contributors.
Jun 21, 2016 In That Dawn
"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive..." — Wordsworth Jerome Ravetz's recent article How should we treat science's growing pains? made me realize something about open science. He writes: [Science]'s present problems can be explained partly by the transformation from the 'little science' of the past to the 'big science' or 'industrialised science' of the present... There are two familiar qualitative aspects of the steady quantitative growth of the scientific enterprise. The first is the loss of 'Gemeinschaft', where all communities...have become so large that personal acquaintance no longer dominates in the professional relationships. The old informal systems...
Jun 10, 2016 The Superbug in Education
Roy Pea coined the term "superbug" in 1986 to describe the belief many novices have that computers can understand our intentions in the same way that people do. There's a similar superbug in education: the belief that if someone knows how to do something, they also know how to how to teach it. It's really hard to convince people that it just ain't so. Pointing them at evidence doesn't work; if anyone can suggest strategies that do, I'd be grateful.
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