Friday, May 31, 2013

Information for ACM Inroads Readers

I don't often cross post, but in this case I suspect that some of you may be readers of ACM Inroads and I want to bring to your attention the work of the Future Directions Task Group. You may have an opinion, suggestions, reactions and if so, we'd like to hear them.

This information will be in your hard copy when it arrives if you are a member of SIGCSE or have access to the ACM Digital Library. However, some people skim their hard copy or read it a few months late. Which would be too late in this case.

The following link with information is, at least for a little while but not forever, available without having to have DL access. If you are so inclined, you will perhaps let us know what you think about changes to the magazine.

ACM Inroads Future Direction Task Group intro

Happy Weekend,


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Online Traffic School Insights

First Study Break: Hulling Pistachios
I spent yesterday doing online Traffic School. After talking with friends and colleagues I realize that it is not at all uncommon for even the best of drivers to at some point in their motoring careers find themselves in possession of a ticket that can only be purged by going to traffic school. As I soon learned, most traffic school (at least around here) is done online. Even if one wanted to attend in person, those classes where you can mingle with your fellow alleged violators are few and far between. Not to mention in-person traffic school costs twice as much as online traffic school. Given the gouging financial nature of even teeny weeny tickets, I quickly dismissed the idea of coughing up even more cash.

It is possible that online traffic school is designed to bore you into never doing again whatever it was you are alleged to have done. Thus, as I fulfilled my obligation as a law abiding citizen and trudged my way through the do-it-yourself class, I was all the while musing on various related and unrelated topics. Which is probably a good thing because if I divulged the course materials I would no doubt be tracked down and cited.

Have you ever thought of driving a car as a means of communication akin to email and social media? I bet you haven't. I hadn't, and by the way, neither has the DMV (Division of Motor Vehicles) or anyone else in law enforcement I am aware of. As I was learning about all the ways people get into trouble with their cars and the reasons they get into trouble, and how they react behind the wheel of the car (you'd be amazed. or maybe not) it dawned on me that: people behind the wheel will communicate with other people in ways they would never dream of doing in person. 

For example, I have often watched people tear down a freeway at speeds far beyond the speed limit, cutting across lanes in front of other people no doubt scaring the daylights out of them. God forbid you should drive too slow (the speed limit) because you might find someone riding right up your tail giving you a subtle hint to GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WAY. Or if you don't accelerate into an intersection fast enough when the light turns green some Type A personality may HONNNNNK at you LOUD ENOUGH that you can hear it over your cranked Classic Rock station. They might even flip you the finger as they tear around you and burn rubber down the 100 feet to the next intersection. Which, apparently, leads to many nasty accidents in which your internal organs are splattered around against one another in a way you don't really want to think too closely about. But perhaps should.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of an anonymous teaching evaluation that referred to you in ways that are not printable here? I bet you have read a venomous review on Amazon or in the Comments section of an online newspaper. The kind of comment that makes you cringe.  Hiding, of course, behind a pseudonym along the lines of "Righteous Ralph" (or Ronda, not to show gender bias). If you have been using email long enough you have surely found yourself on the receiving end of a message that makes you want to cry or scream in outrage depending upon your personality. Or, just as likely, you have yourself contributed to email or online chat conversations that would *never* have happened could you but have seen the other person's pained face as you spoke.

People often need to be in the same physical space with another person in order to most effectively modulate their communication. There has been plenty of research about abominable online behavior and the psychological factors behind it. But, as I think about aggressive driving, road rage, and just a general tendency for people to be oblivious of their effect on others when behind the wheel, I hypothesize that we as a society sometimes hide behind the wheel much the same way we sometimes hide behind the computer monitor. Thesis topic anyone?

By the way, what does FTP stands for?

In most contexts  "File Transfer Protocol" would be the correct answer. However in the context of the Court System, FTP means "Failure To Pay".

I don't think they intended that to be funny, but I almost choked and I'm still grinning.

Wow...maybe Traffic School wasn't as much of a snoozer as I thought.
Many Study Breaks Later: A Stuffed Grape Leaf Casserole

Monday, May 13, 2013

Computing in Our World - Not Just Problems!

It isn't all that often that people take the time to send an email in response to one of my Inroads columns, or about my computers and society book. When people do write, they are more often than not thoughtful, and
they always give me something useful to think about. Recently, I received a communiqué (i.e. email) from a person who had gone to some lengths to suggest how I might improve my book to better align with their course material. We had a pleasant conversation, enlightening I suspect for both of us.

I wonder how long it will be before it catches on in the greater community that societal issues in computing is not a synonym for ethics. Nor should it be.

[For some odd reason I'm suddenly itching to launch into the discussion in terms of equivalence classes, negation, intersections and tail recursion, but I'm restraining myself for the greater public good]

You see, what my correspondent was attempting to help me with, was how I could make my book a better "ethics" text. By including such things as a history of the development of Western ethical thought starting with the Greeks, The Precautionary Principle in European Union Law as compared to the United States orientation towards a Postcautionary Principle , seminal cases and legal precedent in technology patent and trade law, and....

Boring. I'm sorry, but: Boring. Unless you are a nerdy academic of a very certain ilk or a lawyer. Certainly boring to most students.

Not to mention, there are only so many students (and hence future computing professionals) who are going to be attracted by the abstract mathematical qualities of computing. We know that many students want to make a positive difference in their world. We need to show potential computing students the exciting rubber hits the road aspects of computing. We shouldn't bore them into studying something else.

The other problem with the "computing & society == ethics" idea is that ethics discussions in "real life" contexts tend inevitably to focus on problems. Either evaluating problems after they occur or attempting to prevent problems in the first place (hence the Post and Pre Cautionary Principles discussion). When we do this, the implicit message sent, not just to students, but to the public in general, is: "when we consider computers in a societal context we are referring to bad things. Causing, either directly or indirectly, harm." We drill down on correcting harm or avoiding harm.

Not necessarily boring, but often harmful. Why?

For one thing, by equating computing societal issues only with problems, we are likely to chase away more of those people who want to be of benefit to society. Off they go to study Biology. (Personally, I love almost all things Biology but that is beside the point).

We need to show, at all levels, in all places, that we do not have to "choose" between technological progress and helping people; that it isn't inevitable that computing's impact on society at large embodies allocating people to run around cleaning up messes.

There is a lot more to say on this, but I have an Inroads column deadline breathing down my neck and I sense an opportunity awaiting.

Meanwhile: Think Good Thoughts, Say Good Words, Do Good Things.