Should programming be taught to all K-12 students?

Computer literacy should absolutely be universal in the adult population and hopefully universally under development in the entire juvenile population. I’m not sure programming literacy is the most important component of this literacy. While there’s more than a little truth to the old saw “program or be programmed,” I’m currently more concerned about the level of data literacy in the public. Public policy discourse around counterterrorism, law enforcement and so much more is full of talk about “inter-agency information sharing,” while consumer issues getting a lot of airplay include things like “privacy policies,” “data brokers” and datasets said to have been stripped of “personally identifiable data.” As an inoculation or public health measure I would recommend a high school course, strongly encouraged if not required, that introduces database concepts, perhaps using SQL (which seems to me to have a gentle and intuitive learning curve, but my mileage may be atypical). I would want this introduction to take the students at least as far as the concept of a table join. That is because this is (in my opinion) where the “magic” of SQL happens. This is why having access to two datasets confers more than twice as much informational power (and Information *is* power) than having access to one dataset. Exercises for the kind of data literacy course I’m proposing would ask questions such as,

  • How would you go about trying to infer individual identities from records in this dataset which has been stripped of identifying information?
  • How would you go about devising a system for calculating a numeric “score” for each of the [people, products, locations, etc.] in this dataset, where your goal is that higher scores might be predictive of higher probabilities of [a crime taking place, a loan going into arrears, a consumer making a purchase, etc.]
  • How would you go about building a recommendation engine? Again, I’d like to see the emphasis less on the coding and more on the choice of what data, and data relationships, to work into the recommendations and in what way.

One more thing: Far too many of the programming courses I have taken (in conventional colleges and universities) rely far too heavily on quasi-business problems that are grossly oversimplified and unrealistic. I seem to remember a “write a simple reservation system for a simple hypothetical airline” or something. No wonder there’s no such thing as an entry-level job. I would hope that for the data literacy course the datasets would be empirical, which is to say, real world data. I would also hope that at least some of the datasets would be large-ish. Keeping in mind that (unfortunately for my purposes) information does NOT want to be free, some class assignments may be data collection assignments, perhaps sending the students out to conduct some surveys, or keep a food diary, or do some GPS-surveying or what have you.

 

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I hate “links” that link to JavaScript instead of URLs

I suppose, like many in my age cohort (older generation X) I was a very early adopter of the Internet and later the Web and tend to have “old school” attitudes about many of these things.

I think of web pages in general as possessing two cosmetically similar (sometimes identical) things that serve different functions. One is links (<a> elements). The other is text spans styled the same as links, whose destinations are onclick handlers rather than URL’s. I’m actually overjoyed that someone wishes to use this concept for good rather than shady.

But still, I’m old enough to remember that the original idea behind CSS was that styling should be the prerogative of the audience, not the developers. If it were as simple as one of my browser settings is a master CSS template to go over every page I visit, mine would be something like a {color:purple; background:mauve; text-decoration: triple-overline-with-spots} and I’d happily assume anything in purple text over mauve background that’s triple overlined with spots is a link and that anything that looks like a link is probably one of those Javascript tricks that someone is using to monetize a website.

As for the blank target thing, I only ever follow links by clicking right mouse button, then select “open link in new tab”. It’s a grooved reflex with me, largely grooved by the stuff described elsewhere in the present comment. Nothing like pain to train the brain. Other grooved reflex is ALWAYS hovering any link/pseudolink (as the case may be) before (even left) clicking. But Facebook et al even spoof the title attribute to ≠ the href.

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Social expectations rot

I think my age cohort (so-called generation “X”) was the canary in the coal mine. I’m over 50 and haven’t yet managed to land a job that’s not part time and/or temporary. Maybe it’s because I’m from a working class background and didn’t know any better than choose a liberal arts major. Maybe it’s because I’m something like fifth percentile in communication skills. But now upper middle class kids, even ones with communication skills, are settling for precariat jobs, or worse, piecework gigs. So the problem gets attention. Whether that attention will include public policy action, I do not know. It may already be too late. Usually when something becomes a problem for the upper middle class it gets recognized as a problem, but we may have reached the point where the threshold for having an opinion that matters starts in the upper upper class range.

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Whatever became of the Semantic Web?

I learned in a recent discussion on Fecebook that the semantic web was discussed during the Telluride Tech Fest back in 2002.

I’m not a member of the professional classes and don’t attend conferences and the like, but I certainly remember “semantic web” being quite the buzzword for a season or so. I looked it up a few times but never figured out for sure what it refers to. Just now looked it up on Wikipedia. It seems that distribution of machine-readable data is a large part of it. It seems to me that to the extent that machine-readability itself is monetizable (and it seems to me to be VERY monetizable) it will not be freely distributed. To quote James Alexander Levy, “For information to be free, the coordinates of the information must be free.” You can have all the speedy and public trials in the public record (as required by the US Constitution) but if machine readability of the public record is proprietary, there will be a business model for Intelius-like malignancies to offer $35-a-pop peeks at “the public record.”

I once downloaded and played with a MediaWiki plugin called Semantic MediaWiki. I found its markup schema too finicky and too labor intensive to be useful. Perhaps if I had a data entry staff… And there you have it. Workers deserve to be paid, so work product deserves intellectual property protections. But with data entry as a line of work degraded all the way to Mechanical Turk level piecework pay, you’d think machine readability would be too cheap to meter.

Perhaps it is, in terms of production costs, but the strategic advantages of information asymmetry (including asymmetric levels of machine readability) far outweigh the monetization opportunities of selling access to machine readability. To offer semantic web functionality as a product would be to leave money on the table, so instead of semantic web we have “big data.”

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Quotebag #123

chilke:
The ugly conclusion from [Mark] Blyth’s view, as I see it, is that is we cannot have full employment, otherwise inflation will inevitably be out of control. That is, we “need” a certain portion of the populace to be unemployed. I find this disturbing. It amounts to what is basically human sacrifice.
Heather Marsh:
Non-fake news is that which emanates from complete, open, sourced, audited information on a topic.
mccoyote:
Your calculator breaks during an exam, you better be able to do its job if only more slowly.
Thornton Hall:
Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he starves to death because there are no fish where he lives and what he actually wanted was money to buy a car to drive to the job he already had, but lost because his car broke down. But he died knowing how to fish.
Phineas Fisher:
Hacking, in its purest form, is not about engineering: it is about leveraging power dynamics by short-circuiting technology. It is direct action for the new digital world we all live in.
God, quoted by Neale Donald Walsch (h/t /u/anyeahrim):
If everyone knew everything about everybody’s money situation, there would be an uprising in your country and on your planet, the likes of which you have never seen. And in the aftermath of that there would be fairness and equity, honesty and true for-the-good-of-all priority in the conduct of human affairs.

 

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We have an SNR problem, not a bandwidth problem

I just read The Economic Bandwidth Problem by Frank Miroslav. It’s another just-so story about how trying to beat the Invisible Hand at efficient allocation makes no more sense than trying to initiate perpetual motion. That it would be an uphill battle, anyway, with the assumption that somehow an uphill battle necessarily brings “force” into the equation.

Two categories of non-market left ideas are given as examples. One is the “centrally planned state socialism” put forward by Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell. The other is Parecon as described by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel “over several books.” While the former is described as centrally planned, the latter is not described as decentralized. Parecon is also described as something to be found in books, with no mention of applications of it to the publication and distribution of books, and to other cooperative undertakings.


Some examples of applied Parecon

Perhaps the most distilled description of what anagorism is supposed to be is the anagorist slogan “against market and state!” I reflexively smell a straw man whenever anyone posits a dichotomy. My first instinct is to look for a third way that is categorically different from each of the two ways someone has conveniently placed in front of me. In this case, there seems to be an assertion that any instance of the idea of a planned economy belongs necessarily in either the category of “centrally planned economy” or the complementary category of decentralized planned economy, which “exists only on paper.”

Miroslav says the central problem at the heart of the economic calculation problem today is bandwidth. While more bandwidth would be useful, I feel I must disagree. The huge problem as I see it is signal-to-noise ratio, or the fact that the bandwidth that is available is used very, very wastefully.

Apparently, some of us have been led to believe that the coordination successes we’ve seen under capitalism can be turned towards socialist ends. I believe the source of this capitalist success is neither computing power nor bandwidth, but extreme information asymmetry. Would successfully counteracting this asymmetry, or even stealing the informational assets, serve socialist ends?

How extreme is the level of information asymmetry surrounding a typical transaction in the market economy as we know it? I contend that it’s the informational equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Modern websites and mobile apps are designed specifically to transmit signal (behavioral data and other actionable data) in one direction and noise (basically bloat) in the other. “Basic informational realities of the universe” aside, this “Maxwell’s Dæmon” approach to accumulation of informational advantage seems to work. Maybe it doesn’t, and the businesses who are spending billions on the services of data brokers are basically buying snake oil. Then again, maybe we’re living in the best of all possible worlds. At any rate, when it comes to individual economic decisions, it appears to me that there are some very high bandwidth channels for accessing data that might be used for decision support. It also appears that the information landscape visible to individuals is largely controlled by business. Which price quotes offered up for price comparison, for example, is a question of which vendors have an exclusivity deal with the “comparison shopping” website. One thing that does not exist is a way to run queries against the combined product offerings of the global economy. This is a failure of signal-to-noise ratio, not of bandwidth.

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Can Silicon Valley itself be disrupted?

This started as a comment on Silicon Valley Only Has to Win Once by Aaron Renn. It quickly grew to a size that would be grossly inappropriate as a blog comment, so I took it here. Do read the article and prior comments. There’s some capital stuff in there.

Matt:

Tech can’t be “displaced,”

I think it maybe can, but I’m not quite sure.

The tail CAN sometimes [wag] the dog.

It sure can. In the case of Silicon Valley, of course, we’re talking about the l-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ong tail. The situation is highly asymmetric, but I believe at least the potential exists to go from sharecropping the long tail to wagging the dog with it.

…[old school locales] need to swallow their pride and accept that they can’t ‘beat ’em’ but that they can mostly definitely ‘join ’em’ if they’re willing to embrace the radical implications of the tech economy.

Meh, sounds like the kind of finger wagging that comes from the Mackinac types who love to make an editorial point of never missing a chance to use “legacy” as a code word for “labor.”

I believe Silicon Valley can be beat fair and square, without us all becoming techbrotarians or otherwise stooping to their level.

P Burgos:

Are there any tech companies that are really good at doing things in the real world (the world of atoms, not bits)?

I think that remains to be seen. I see that you don’t find their efforts so far to be all that promising. I think those may be trial balloons. They may be honing some formidable competencies when it comes to atoms.

But if those who do atoms better are dependent on “tech,” does it matter?

It doesn’t seem like the funding and startup system of Silicon Valley has the patience to pursue opportunities that require a bit of a longer timeline and more funding and interaction with a highly regulated industry.

If there’s such a thing as true AI, I would expect gaming of complex rule sets to be one of the early (and profitable) applications. ALEC certainly seems to have “computer aided drafting” (of state-level legislation, literally, “code”) down to some kind of science. One thing Silicon Valley does have is cash. I think it’s a safe bet there’s at least one “compliance consultant” who can be persuaded to be the Rudy Hertz of their trade.

Also, you mention the education market. Apple literally started by focusing on the education market. Maybe for higher profit margins (think price differences between textbooks and trade books, or if like me you’re old as dirt, price differences between Commodore 64’s and Apple ][‘s.) or maybe assuming some students will become yuppies who can cut PO’s. Possibly how they won over the creative class, not sure.

…it doesn’t seem that Silicon Valley is all that good at doing anything that requires making a profit and expertise that goes too much beyond using algorithms to do some task.

There’s probably some truth to that. This just happens to be the age of algorithms. An algorithm is a mathematical fact, even if advocates of software patents would like you to believe otherwise. As with any process of pure discovery, at some point the low-hanging fruits will have been harvested. Maybe some of them independently in multiple silos; “secret sauce” being what it is. But not forever. Maybe quantum computing is not too far off. Or maybe history’s verdict will be that age of algorithms is to algorithms as age of dinosaurs is to dinosaurs.

Steven Kaye:

So is the problem that companies are throwing people out of work? The cutting of safety nets for people who are unemployed?

Maybe. I’m quite concerned about safety nets for people who are employed. Basically, the body of code (codebase?) we call “labor law.” We spent the 20th century going from one incremental progress to the next, from wage and hour laws, to OSHA standards, to workers’ comp, and in one fell swoop we’re knocked all the way back to piecework pay. The so-called sharing economy is basically a DDOS attack upon labor law as a whole. Labor (organized or not, take your pick) doesn’t know what hit it. Neither does local political leadership. At some point, questions of legality are moot and all questions are purely de facto. Since the “sharing” “economy” has met zero effective challenge, I think we can probably expect more numerous and more intense launches of business models on a “who cares if it’s legal” basis.

Companies not sufficiently investing in (and participating in, probably more importantly) their communities? The gutting of unions? A largely apathetic public? A federal government that doesn’t want to hurt the goose that lays the golden eggs, for all the hearings on Facebook?

No, no, yes and yes, if you ask me. Companies stopped being citizens of nations, let alone communities, long before Silicon Valley became the thing it is. Likewise, unions had already been thoroughly busted and blasted to hell by Reaganomics (or by inevitable secular trends that coincided with it).

Apathetic public? Big time. Huge time. People talk about teaching kids to code as if it makes sense as a jobs program. Maybe it does, but my casual observation is that 100.00000% of programming jobs only consider people who already have years of programming experience. But I’d like to teach SQL to the kids and the grownups both. Even just a little SQL, maybe just take the curriculum as far as table joins. And then ask the kids (or grownups) in the class some “what if” questions. Like what if I somehow obtained access to the records of both the DMV and one of the major credit cards? What if I could access both TSA and Orblitz? It’s no wonder (and no joke) that the age of algorithms is also the age of “public”-private partnerships. I put public in scare quotes because I want to promote the idea that whatever stake the public has in the public sector, it has an even bigger stake in the public domain.

And besides the hardware and software companies, what about the venture capital firms that fund both incumbents and start-ups, enabling companies to scale and thus have more impact?

What, like Toys Я Us? Guitar Center?

Tech companies themselves can certainly be displaced because their own technology can become obsolete or usurped by competitors.

True, but I’d like to think that when we ask “can Silicon Valley be disrupted” we don’t mean the Silicon Valley incumbents such as they are, or northern California being the locus of the information arbitrage game, but whether we can disrupt the fact that there’s a viable business model that largely consists of building informational ratchets and informational one-way valves (remember, Silicon Valley only has to win once) that function as engines of information asymmetry. There have always been commercial advantages to those who have an intuitive feel for the “going rate” for something. But current information technology is a nuclear weapon compared to that. It’s conceivable to me that they know every individual’s price point for every product and service, and maybe even every individual’s “pain point.”

Perhaps it is a hard-wired feature of the universe that information does not want to be free. But, to quote Sabbah i Hassan X, “We can _______try!”

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