This will not be the post I planned to write last week. I had imagined starting a series of posts today where I tell a story from my life, demonstrating some subtopic of Complex Systems. I tracked down a party of guest bloggers to write their stories too, demonstrating further how complexity appears in day-to-day life.
But my guest bloggers have not replied, either from my emails getting lost in their inboxes or the New Year festivities drawing them closer to their families and warm fireplaces than to their WordPress accounts. To be honest, the same has happened to me: my gmail has been flooded this week from incoming bug reports due, I believe, to hardcoded 2013s needing to be updated to 2014s, flooded with ACM and IEEE mailing list news I haven’t taken the time to unsubscribe from, and flooded with notification messages of spam bots registering accounts here on Nice and Complex.
So the post about “complexity and me” will have to wait.
But here’s a story anyway.
My sophomore year of high school I learned to program my mom’s old TI-83 graphing calculator. I was taking Geometry that year, so I used these programs to store equations on the device instead of memorizing them myself. After some time, I implemented user interfaces, as much as the TI-83 could handle, to output how the problem might have been solved by hand, in addition to the solution itself. I taught my friends to do the same on their calculators, and Geometry was the easiest class any of us took that year.
I learned C++ eventually, and the next year I signed up for an Advanced Placement Computer Programming course. I attended a programming contest at Western Kentucky University and my Geometry friends and I came in first place coding in Python. We were only juniors at the time, and were unable to use our $500 scholarships, as they expired before we graduated.
My senior year, I was able to attend a Computer Programming Independent Study class, where my soon-to-be college roommate and I set our own curriculum—to learn every programming language. We didn’t, of course, learn every language, but we picked up an ability to work in every programming paradigm we could get our hands on. We attended the programming contest again, won our $500 back, and graduated, ultimately getting accepted into WKU.
What started with my mom’s old TI-83 lead to our declaring Computer Science as our majors. Another year passed, and we were required to declare our concentrations and/or minors. My roommate opted to minor in Psychology, and I in French—then in English and then, finally, in Professional Writing.
For the first two and a half years of my undergraduate career, I had a strong interest in both Web Design and Computational Linguistics. I chose my minor in an attempt to reflect this.
I was subconsciously asking, “What can Computer Science do for Language?” Google scrapes millions of English-speaking websites to provide a dataset of word to word associations. To no surprise, this study reveals “the” as the most used word and “e” as the most used letter. Human-Computer Interaction is a concentration of Computer Science that has developed means for those with disabilities to control machines with facial expressions. In Theoretical Computer Science, the term “grammar” has been borrowed from Linguistics to formally describe programming languages and data input/output formats. Regular Expressions is a common—and useful as hell—application of this. Natural Language Processing, then, is Computer Science’s gift back to Linguistics, to no surprise another research interest of Google.
Computer Science brings to Language a suite of analytics tools and paradigms.
“But what of the converse,” I came to wonder and struggled to answer as I completed the majority of my major coursework and began a vertical climb up the tree of prerequisites for WKU’s Professional Writing minor.
Trivially, Writing allows a computer scientist to blog, WordPress being the perfect platform for a marriage between the two. It makes grant writing far less intimidating—although this can still be the most stressful activity of a young researcher’s career. And, for Professional Writing in particular, it takes the guess work out of writing cover letters and resumes and CVs.
So what? What good is an essay if the essayist has nothing to say? This, I posit, is the nontrivial case of “What can the Arts do for Science?”
I read a question on Reddit recently. The poster wanted to know what field of study to choose to complement his courses in Computer Science. Physics for Quantum Computing? Biology for Neural Networks? Math—because, come on, Math can go with any science degree. Maybe this question is what prompted me to write this post. I’ve come to feel strongly about my minor, perhaps stronger than my major, perhaps because it’s the one of the two I must defend, perhaps because it sets me apart from my peers more than a research interest ever could.
Or perhaps Writing, English, the Liberal Arts simply makes one feel.
Programming that old TI-83, I never thought to question the equations, the models underlying the user interface. Why would I? High school Geometry test problems assume the ideal, where the hypotenuse is clearly a function of side lengths and angles, so to say. But what of social problems? What of the real world? The price of the newest Apple device is not simply a function of supply and demand, it’s also a function of psychology, in turn a function of human behavior emerging out of complex Neural Networks. The world is far from ideal. Science attempts to ease this by fitting models to observations—and it does so suprisingly well, countless problems solved by countless researchers every year. But the Arts don’t model away the realness of reality. Art thrives in imperfections.
Computer Science brings to Language a suite of analytics tools and paradigms for the sake of answering the world’s problems, and the Arts teach the users of those tools to question the implications of their results, their underlying equations.
Simply put, Art is a necessary state of mind for verifying models in a messy, messy, complex world.
So, I lied. This is exactly the post I planned to write last week. Here is a story of how an outdated calculator and a minor in English lead me to check my work. At the heart of Complex Systems is Systems Thinking, and at the heart of that is the model. And what good is a model if the modeler has nothing to say? ∎
I’m always looking for a few more guest writers, so feel free to join in.
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