Alan Kay’s advice to computer science students

I’m once again going to quote a Quora answer verbatim, because I think there’s a lot of value in it. Alan Kay answered What book(s) would you recommend to a computer science student?

My basic answer is: read a lot outside of the computer field.

It is worth trying to understand what “science” means in “Computer Science” and what “engineering” means in “Software Engineering”.

“Science” in its modern sense means trying to reconcile phenomena into models that are as explanatory and predictive as possible. There can be “Sciences of the Artificial” (see the important book by Herb Simon). One way to think of this is that if people (especially engineers) build bridges, then these present phenomena for scientists to understand by making models. The fun of this is that the science will almost always indicate new and better ways to make bridges, so friendly collegial relationships between scientists and engineers can really make progress.

An example in computing is John McCarthy thinking about computers in the late 50s, the really large range of things they can do (maybe AI?), and creating a model of computing as a language that could serve as its own metalanguage (LISP). My favorite book on this is “The Lisp 1.5 Manual” from MIT Press (written by McCarthy et al.). The first part of this book is still a classic on how to think in general, and about computing in particular.

(A later book inspired by all this is “Smalltalk: the language and its implementation” (by Adele Goldberg and Dave Robson — the “Blue Book”). Also contains a complete implementation in Smalltalk written in itself, etc.)

A still later book that I like a lot that is “real computer science” is “The Art of the Metaobject Protocol” by Kiszales, Bobrow, Rivera,). The early part of this book especially is quite illuminating.

An early thesis (1970) that is real computer science is “A Control Definition Language” by Dave Fisher (CMU).

Perhaps my favorite book about computing might seem far afield, but it is wonderful and the writing is wonderful: “Computation: Finite and Infinite Machines” by Marvin Minsky (ca 1967). Just a beautiful book.

To help with “science”, I usually recommend a variety of books: Newton’s “Principia” (the ultimate science book and founding document), “The Molecular Biology of the Cell” by Bruce Alberts, et al. There’s a book of Maxwell’s papers, etc.

You need to wind up realizing that “Computer Science” is still an aspiration, not an accomplished field.

“Engineering” means “designing and building things in principled expert ways”. The level of this is very high for the engineering fields of Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, Biological, etc. Engineering. These should be studied carefully to get the larger sense of what it means to do “engineering”.

To help with “engineering” try reading about the making of the Empire State Building, Boulder Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc. I like “Now It Can Be Told” by Maj Gen Leslie Groves (the honcho on the Manhattan Project). He’s an engineer, and this history is very much not from the Los Alamos POV (which he also was in charge of) but about Oak Ridge, Hanford, etc and the amazing mobilization of 600,000 plus people and lots of money to do the engineering necessary to create the materials needed.

Then think about where “software engineering” isn’t — again, you need to wind up realizing that “software engineering” in any “engineering” sense is at best still an aspiration not a done deal.

Computing is also a kind of “media” and “intermediary”, so you need to understand what these do for us and to us. Read Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Innis, Havelock, etc. Mark Miller (comment below) just reminded me that I’ve recommended “Technics and Human Development,” Vol. 1 of Lewis Mumford’s “The Myth of the Machine” series, as a great predecessor of both the media environment ideas and of an important facet of anthropology.

I don’t know of a great anthropology book (maybe someone can suggest), but the understanding of human beings is the most important thing to accomplish in your education. In a comment below, Matt Gaboury recommended “Human Universals” (I think he means the book by Donald Brown.) This book certainly should be read and understood — it is not in the same class as books about a field, like “Molecular Biology of the Cell”.

I like Ed Tufte’s books on “Envisioning Information”: read all of them.

Bertrand Russell’s books are still very good just for thinking more deeply about “this and that” (“A History of Western Philosophy” is still terrific).

Multiple points of view are the only way to fight against human desires to believe and create religions, so my favorite current history book to read is: “Destiny Disrupted” by Tamim Ansary. He grew up in Afghanistan, moved to the US at age 16, and is able to write a clear illuminating history of the world from the time of Mohammed from the point of view of this world, and without special pleading.

Note: I checked out “The Art of the Metaobject Protocol,” and it recommended that if you’re unfamiliar with CLOS (the Common Lisp Object System) that you learn that before getting into this book. It recommended, “Object-Oriented Programming in Common LISP: A Programmer’s Guide to CLOS,” by Sonya Keene.

As I’ve been taking this track, reconsidering what I think about computer science, software engineering, and what I can do to advance society, making computing a part of that, I’ve been realizing that one of Kay’s points is very important. If we’re going to make things for people to use, we need to understand people well, specifically how the human system interfaces with computer systems, and how that interaction can help people better their condition in our larger system that we call “society” (this includes its economy, but it should include many other social facets), and more broadly, the systems of our planet. This means spending a significant amount of time on other things besides computer stuff. I can tell you from experience, this is a strange feeling, because I feel like I should be spending more time on technical subjects, since that’s what I’ve done in the past, and that’s been the stock in trade of my profession. I want that to be part of my thinking, but not what I eat and sleep.

Related material:

The necessary ingredients of computer science

Edit 2/9/2019: I highly recommend people watch Episode 10 of the 1985 TV series “The Day The Universe Changed” with James Burke, called “Worlds Without End.”

The original topic Alan Kay wrote about was in answer to a question about books to read, but I thought I should include this, since it’s the clearest introduction I’ve seen to scientific epistemology.

In an earlier post, “Alan Kay: Rethinking CS education,” I cited a presentation where Kay talked about “erosion gullies” in our minds, how they channel “water” (thoughts, ideas) to go only in particular directions. Burke gave an excellent demonstration of these mental gullies, explaining that they’re a natural part of how our brains work, and there is no getting away from them. Secondly, he pointed out that they’re the only way we can understand anything. So, the idea is not to reject these gullies, but to be aware that they exist, and to gain skill in getting out of one, and into a different one.

What I hope people draw out of what Burke said is that while you can’t really be certain of anything, that doesn’t mean you can’t draw knowledge that’s useful, reliable, and virtuous to exercise in the world, out of uncertainty. That is the essence of our modern science, and modern society. It is why we are able to live as we do, and how we can advance to a better society. I’ll add that rejecting this notion is to reject modernity, and any future worth having.

The ending of this episode is remarkable to watch in hindsight, 34 years on, because he addressed the impact that the computer would have on our social construct that we call society; its epistemological, and political implications, which I think are quite accurate. He put more of a positive gloss on it than I would, at this point in history, though his analysis was tinged with some sense of uncertainty about the future (at that point in time) that is worth contemplating in our present.

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