[Humanist] 23.115 programming

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jun 30 08:07:15 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 115.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Elijah Meeks <elijahmeeks at gmail.com>                      (63)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.114 programming: fears and blocks

  [2]   From:    Tamara Lopez <tamara.lopez at kcl.ac.uk>                     (24)
        Subject: programming: another perspective on blocks

  [3]   From:    Martin Holmes <mholmes at uvic.ca>                            (1)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.111 programming: fears and blocks

  [4]   From:    lachance at chass.utoronto.ca                                (22)
        Subject: Code for coders

        Date: Mon, 29 Jun 2009 00:07:26 -0700
        From: Elijah Meeks <elijahmeeks at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.114 programming: fears and blocks
        In-Reply-To: <20090629060001.CD6FD2741E at woodward.joyent.us>

I was specific.  I pointed out NetHack, which is a 22-year old game,
with freely available source code for perusal and is as strange,
random and complex as any high gothic novel (You can check it out on
Wikipedia, though the synopsis will only hint at the strangeness and
subtlety of the gameplay).  Games are analogous to fiction in writing,
whereas operating systems, spreadsheets and metadata collation
software is analogous to technical writing.  So if you're looking for
interesting coding, you should look to the right genre.  I'm sure
there are some great turns of phrase to be found in the corpus of
lawnmower assembly manuals, but I don't think they're a good
indication of the state of Western literature.

Granted, most modern, big budget games are as interesting as big
budget movies and books, but there's a real wealth of quirky,
strangely programmed and functioning games out there.  The art of
writing a game, most especially the older and smaller games, with
their connection to random numbers to represent chance, is clearly
similar to the creation of prose and poetry.  There are entire
sections of code in some of these games that never get performed
except under the most esoteric of circumstances, and there are
interesting emergent properties of the interacting game world that
capture the imagination of players and coders, regardless of user

And yes, you can dip your feet into it with only a knowledge of XML or
Perl.  The game modification community has grown so large and the
modification of games has grown so pervasive that many companies
create specific entry points into modifying game content through
creation of XML files or writing simple scripts.

I'm not sure how you mean the question, "why would anyone use this
except for personal projects?" though.  What is the "use" of poetry or
literature?  How is a collection of the poetry of Emily Dickinson more
useful than the aforementioned lawnmower manual?  It's drudge work
writing a lawnmower manual, or an academic paper, but we don't claim
that therefore people shouldn't learn to write. If, however, one feels
that the writing of literature is of value and its structures should
be analyzed (And therefore understood to some meaningful extent) then
it would seem the same would apply to creative software and there
would be an incumbent need to be literate enough to analyze and
understand it.  You wouldn't blame a software engineer for not liking
poetry, but you'd likely think him an idiot if he claimed poetry did
not have the ability to pass along complex truths in the way that
software does and therefore that he didn't need to learn how to read.

This is a rather long and scattered response, but it's no longer clear
to me your exact criticism.  Is it that you think that low-level
programming languages don't allow for the creation of nuanced, complex
thought, or is it that you feel that code is goal-oriented and
utilitarian or is it simply that software is inherently boring?  I
believe I've addressed the first two and, as for the third, I think
that the all-pervasive nature of software militates against treating
it as an ignorable subject.  We have a basic expectation of literacy
due to the pervasive nature of writing, and I think that we should
have an equal expectation of software literacy.  So, whereas Dr.
McCarty's originally framed the question of software literacy (A term
I've used without defining, but which I assume involves a working
knowledge of creating software) in terms of fear, I feel it's more
related to underestimating the scope and value of software as
metaphor, creative work and tool.

Elijah Meeks
UC Merced

> Elijah -- can you get specific?  What exactly are you talking about,
> and why would anyone use this except for personal projects?  And is
> this code that someone shy of a professional programmer would
> conceivably write?  We're talking about code for dummies (I mean,
> humanists): HTML, PHP, XML.

        Date: Mon, 29 Jun 2009 06:40:26 -0700 (PDT)
        From: Tamara Lopez <tamara.lopez at kcl.ac.uk>
        Subject: programming: another perspective on blocks
        In-Reply-To: <20090629060001.CD6FD2741E at woodward.joyent.us>

Hi everyone, 

I've been reading this and the parent thread with great interest, and it has been wonderful to see voices popping up from distant Humanist lands to share their perspectives. It leaves me wondering though where the code got to in the discussion.  It has been categorised, compared to, extemporised about, with attendant expressions of our own love, fear, and loathing toward languages and tools (by my lurking self too). However, I've not seen compelling examples of the structures themselves that make code and the doing of it scary (leaving aside the early number vs. string tributary) or worthy of love or loathing (ignoring the boredom tributary). We seem to me like birds on the shore - a little flapping here and some squawking there, while we settle back down to a comfortable (safe) distance from it..  

But enough of my own squawking and pecking at the ground...

Recently I was reading through Dijkstra's oral history at the CB Institute (http://www.cbi.umn.edu/oh/display.phtml?id=320), and several sections of it came back to me when I read Mary's notes about teaching literary theory with computers.  In Djikstra's interview, the interviewer quotes an earlier series of papers or reports: 

Frana: You said “The tools we use have a profound and devious influence on our
thinking habits, and therefore on our thinking abilities.”

Dijkstra: Yes.

Frana: And then, in another place, you said, to take a different tack, “As long as we
regard computers primarily as tools we might grossly underestimate their significance.
Their influence as tools might turn out to be but a ripple on the surface of our culture.”
Are you talking here about the whole cybernetic gaze that they have lent to society? Have we become like - - do we think like our machines?

Dijkstra: No, no no no.

His perspective, he explains, was formed by working with a student who was taking an oral exam in which he had to talk through the design of a program to solve a problem.  The student couldn't solve it, because the language he had been taught to program in (Fortran) didn't have the concepts required to build the recursive construct he had in mind.  The influence of the language on his ability to speak about programming was stronger than his true understanding of the issue.

In an earlier section of the interview, he says: "There is an enormous difference between one who is monolingual and someone who at least knows a second language well, because it makes you much more conscious about the phenomenon of language structure in general. You will discover that certain constructions in one language you just can’t translate."

Dijkstra definitely advocated for a strong grounding in math and science for budding programmers, but here he is adressing the experience of wrestling with the work of programming that doesn't compute, and the importance it lends to the experience as a whole.  He also suggests that in teaching a student the skills for abstraction necessary to solve a problem like the one described, more than logical skills are required, hinting at some relationship between effective abstraction and the power of language.

Are we back to poetry yet?


Tamara Lopez
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
26-29 Drury Lane, London WC2B 5RL (UK), t: +44 (0)20 78481237

        Date: Mon, 29 Jun 2009 08:02:08 -0700
        From: Martin Holmes <mholmes at uvic.ca>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.111 programming: fears and blocks
        In-Reply-To: <20090627082447.F0407262FF at woodward.joyent.us>

> From: James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>  
>Martin -- Among those
> who study literature professionally, generally those poems which
> resist a single, readily grasped, clearly accessible meaning are the
> least interesting. Simplistic poetry that gets awards and attention
> usually does so because it's saying the right thing about the right
> topic -- it's politically correct somehow. A great deal of bad poetry
> gets published for this reason. Otherwise, poems generally need to be
> of a certain level of difficulty to merit study and attention. One
> reason for preference for difficulty is that a poem is usually not
> written simply to convey a single, clear idea -- if you want to do
> that, write prose -- but to convey a complex of ideas which
> interrelate values, mood, emotion, concepts, a phenomenology, and an
> environment in a very compact form which unites both the sound and
> rhythm of the words used with their meaning. Jim R

Hi Jim,

You've just captured perfectly why I stopped studying literature and became a common reader. I'll take Al Purdy or Larkin over Eliot and Pound any day. :-)


>>> I'd just like to pick up one of Mark Wolff's comments:
>>>>> An interesting poem resists easy interpretation
>>> Poems that "resist" interpretation are not the better for it,
>>> surely? I usually think of poetry that is "hard" as flawed in
>>> that particular respect, although it may be rich in other aspects
>>> and reward the work put into reading it. The best poetry is
>>> surely both accessible and rich.
>>> Cheers, Martin

Martin Holmes
University of Victoria Humanities Computing and Media Centre
(mholmes at uvic.ca)
Half-Baked Software, Inc.
(mholmes at halfbakedsoftware.com)
martin at mholmes.com

        Date: Mon, 29 Jun 2009 14:33:57 -0400 (EDT)
        From: lachance at chass.utoronto.ca
        Subject: Code for coders
        In-Reply-To: <20090531064946.CB5E260C8 at woodward.joyent.us>

Orthogonal to the thread on coding (fear, loathing and boring), I quote
here from a posting by Wendell Piez reminds the TEI discussion list in a
posting of July 31, 2006

[I]n view of the last exchange on editing software. You recall that one of
the most tantalizing things we know (of the little we know) of the
mysteries at Eleusis is that they involved not just what was said (ta
legomena) but what was shown (ta deiknymena) and what was performed (ta

I quote this snippet to suggest that the triplet "talk, show, do" forms
the basis of what is taught and assessed in Humanities Computing. Whatever
the degree and nature of coding/programming practice, it is important for
students and teachers to be able to engage the uninitiated. Such an
assertion makes sense if one is willing to grant that Humanities Computing
is a bridging discipline. And furthermore grant that the performative has
a place in this bridging.

I suggest that the value of any given pedagogical activity is both
intrinsic to the activity itself and extrinsic -- how the teaching and
assessment of the activity leads to discourse with others.

Francois Lachance

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