Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Beauty and Learning


I've just completed Peter Norvig's class on Udacity, the Design of Computer Programs.

The course surprised me more than any other I've started or completed so far, primarily due to the artfulness of Norvig's insights and solutions.  We often think of computer science (and science in general) as highly logical and structured, in contrast to the more creative, fluid nature of the arts.  But programming languages, like natural languages, can produce an infinite set of utterances, and some are bound to be better than others.

What is "better"?  The quality of computer programs can, of course, be measured by objective measures like correctness, running time, and space efficiency.  More often than not, programs that satisfy all three are optimized for simplicity (thought not always readability).  Simplicity is a good measure.  When people talk about quality, though, they also refer to related but distinct things like elegance and beauty. It's even in written into the Python language:
>>> import this
The Zen of Python, by Tim Peters
Beautiful is better than ugly.
[...]
When I think of what I've learned in the class, it's hard to point to specific things like data structures or algorithms.  But the class has enhanced my appreciation for the depth of knowledge and skill that underlies good programming.  There are murmurings of dissatisfaction in the Udacity forums and in various other reviews, primarily around the perceived difficulty and ambiguity of some of the course materials.  Maybe the frustration is only natural; unlike most textbook material, Norvig's solutions are downright unexpected and beautiful, a result of what I can only image is tens of thousands of hours of experience and critical thinking.  Just the sort of learning he advocates in Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years.


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