Monthly Archives: October 2014

Vida Blue

When I was a kid, I used to eat up baseball.  I’d look in the newspaper and study all the stats.  I’d memorize all the stats.  A large part of what excited me about math is that I thought I could translate those numbers into explaining why teams were good and why players were good and it was exciting and YAY!

The Oakland A’s were often on TV and in the postseason in the 1970s.  I would see “Blue, OAK” in the newspaper and hear the name on the radio.  At least I thought I heard the name on the radio; I only got it half-right.  At the tender age of 6, I voted for “Bida Blue” as a write-in candidate for the All-Star Game, not understanding that the fans couldn’t vote for pitchers.  Despite my write-o (sorry, Vida), he started in the 1971 All-Star Game.  (He also started the 1978 All-Star Game as a Giant.)

Fast forward to 2002, a point in my life where I had some interesting results in fantasy baseball.  I won the CDM Diamond Challenge in Y2K (~9600 entries), participated in the League of Alternative Baseball Reality in 2001, and was trying to start a company that did fantasy baseball gaming (it and I failed miserably).  I was invited to participate in’s inaugural experts league as a writer for Ron Shandler‘s, and–Lo and behold!–at the draft table, sitting down next to me on my right was Vida Blue.

Vida had a draft partner that day, who told me a bit about his background.  He had grown up in Louisiana without much money, was an amazing athlete (football as well as baseball), and didn’t have a fancy education.

For most people, the enduring memories of Vida Blue will be his amazing work as a professional baseball player.  For me, it is partly that, but partly what I learned about him that day.  Maybe he didn’t have that fancy education, but he had no shortage of intellectual curiosity.  To me that’s what counts.

I had done my usual homework to prepare for the event, with a spreadsheet full of baseball data on my laptop.  Vida had not seen anything like this and he had all sorts of questions about how to use the laptop to how I got the numbers to how I used the numbers to how I set up a spreadsheet and so on.  At the time, most people who saw me using a spreadsheet would have been thoroughly disinterested–either because they had experience with spreadsheets or because they were entirely disinterested in computing.  Vida was genuinely interested in understanding something he hadn’t seen before with an enthusiasm that was really fun.

I continue to think that is awesome.  Let’s be honest: he didn’t need to be there, he didn’t need the money, he didn’t need to ask any questions of the geeky, nerdy guy.  Yet he kept asking questions and seemed really interested.  So that’s how I think about Vida Blue.

Vida was also a really nice guy.  I really enjoyed that day.  (I also enjoyed that league as I won it.)  🙂

Tonight, I saw Vida at AT&T Park, doing work for Comcast SportsNet and, as he was taking pictures with people, I thought, well, maybe he’d remember 2002?  He certainly remembered that he participated in a fantasy league that year, but I think any memory of me was long gone.  That’s OK; he’s still awesome.

Vida was kind enough to take a picture with me.  He still looks like he could win a Cy Young and MVP like he did in 1971.


On the Joys of Being a Social Studies Teacher

Following the lead of UC-Berkeley’s fabulous Beauty and Joy of Computing class, we are now talking about computing in the news on a near-daily basis.  The student whose turn it is to run a class discussion chooses a topic, we read a short article, and then there is discussion.  I’m not accustomed to being a social studies teacher and I am definitely developing a deep appreciation for what my colleagues in that department can do.

I’m learning as I try to sort out suggested questions for students to pose to their classmates.  I’ve learned that a good first question is, “What was this article about?”  And I’ve learned that a good second question is, “OK, what was this article REALLY about?”

Today’s topic was “Siri v. Google Now”.  The kids understood the difference between the two, but nobody was asking, “What are you giving up to use one of these tools?”  It makes for an interesting discussion.

Yesterday, a student chose the Apple Watch which currently demands an iPhone purchase as a prerequisite.  My favorite comment was from a student who often travels to China.  He said that the iPhone was hugely popular there and also claimed, “Unlike Americans, the Chinese are materialistic…”

The things I learn from my students…

A Good Person Gets Recognition

Emmanuel Schanzer, all-around good guy and the driving force of the Bootstrap movement, was recognized in an article entitled “10 Men Making Waves For Women In Tech“.  It’s a really nice piece.

Emmanuel just posted about this on Facebook, and I really like what he wrote, so I am going to politely embarrass him by reprinting it here.  He expresses points that I often try to make and wish I could make as well as he does, regarding the accessibility of CS education for everyone, the strong connection to mathematics, and the importance of a great team to make it happen:

“I’m truly honored to be added to this list, and I’d like to add to what is written about me in the article.

While I may have started Bootstrap, it has long since been the work of an incredible team of talented people. Without Shriram KrishnamurthiKathi FislerDanny YooRosanna SobotaEmma Youndtsmith, Matthias Felleisen, and the entire Program by Design community, the program would not be what it is today. This is also a recognition of their decades of work.

As for what the program is today, I think it’s important to note that Bootstrap was never conceived as a “program for girls”. It has always been about the beautiful intersection of mathematics and computer science, focused around building cool things out of pure algebra. I am thrilled to see it used in so many electives and after school programs, but the heart and soul of the curriculum is all about the math classes that *everyone* takes in school — not just the kids who are interested, not just the ones who have time after school, or the ones who already see themselves as programmers. All students. All of them.

That focus places enormous constraints on our team when we sit down to write lesson plans, scope out new features, or train teachers. We can’t assume that all students are engaged, or even want to be there. And we can’t just let them tinker around and have fun, because dammit it’s a math class and assessment matters. We can’t ignore students who have special needs, who are english-language learners, or who don’t have access to computers when they do their homework. And we can’t assume that the teachers have programmed before, or that they even see it as valuable. These constraints make our jobs really, REALLY hard.

But these constraints also keep us focused on what’s important, and sharpen our efforts to be purely focused on the obstacles that make impact possible. Impact without equity is an oxymoron, so we set our compass by that star, and sail in the direction we think is good for everyone. I didn’t set out *just* to bring more girls into computer science, but thanks to the work of the best team I could hope for, Bootstrap is doing just that.

Good teaching lifts up everyone.”

Programming Isn’t Math, but That Isn’t the Point

One of my favorite computer science professors, Mark Guzdial of Georgia Tech, writes a computer science education blog.  It’s one of those things that is a must-read, on the grounds that it is current, interesting, and understandable.

Here is a recent post that has had me thinking:

At issue in the article is whether programming is mathematics.  I think that line of thinking may not be helpful.  My concern is that lumping all programming tasks under one hat will lead to bad generalizations.  

Better would be to ask what kinds of problems are you trying to solve as a programmer?  Depending on the problem, it may be possible to operate at a level of abstraction that masks away mathematical complexity.  Or it might be that a person’s ability to find good, fast, elegant solution paths is very much dependent upon mathematics.  

There is a difference between being able to write programs and being an awesome engineer–possibly to the tune of three hundred times the amount of productivity:

(If anyone has more recent information on the productivity topic, please drop me an email.  I need to learn how to allow comments that are spam-resistant.)

I’m not saying that the productivity difference is all math skills, but wouldn’t it be helpful to know if there is a correlation?  If that is a key component to two orders of magnitude of productivity, it would be misleading to say that “programming isn’t math”.

There is a famous video in which Bill Gates (amongst others) tells us that you don’t really need to know much math to do programming.  I get the point that the barrier to entry for programming something good ought to be small.  On the other hand, Microsoft didn’t come into existence because its programmers maxed out their mathematics educations at multiplication.

Talking about coding this way, to my thinking, conflates programming, coding, mathematics, and computer science in awkward ways.  There is overlap, but the terms all have distinct, essential meanings.  I think this may also diminish the importance and depth of computer science as a discipline.  Given that society as a whole does not seem to get computer science and requires persuasion that it is an important academic discipline, that ought to give pause to any advocate of K-12 CS education.

Here’s the point… It would be instructive if the research world could come up with a typology of programming problem types that do not correlate with mathematics.  Until that happens, making assertions about whether “programming is math” could lead to bad conclusions.