Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

IN  WHICH Ross Rheingans-Yoo—a sometime economist, trader, artist, expat, poet, EA, and programmer—writes on things of int­erest.

"Weedout" Courses Considered Harmful

"The Perils of JavaSchools", by Joel Spolsky, is a wonderfully fun read for students of computer science. A veritable demigod of the software world tells a story -- ringing with appealing truth throughout -- of a tragic fall from grace in modern CS curricula...and at its core, that great deluder Java.

It's relentlessly snarky, and feels relentlessly true, as it lays out in gruesome detail the extent to which kids nowadays are being coddled and left tragically unprepared for the big scary world where pointer arithmetic, abstraction, and recursion are inescapable necessities. It's hard to read it without coming away with the sense that Spolsky has hit upon the great uncomfortable truth in computer science -- that some curricula simply fail to properly train young minds in key concepts.

It's a fun read.

But it's got some problems.

Though I am loathe to disagree with such a titan of my field, I respectfully submit that Spolsky not only misses the broad point of a computer science education,


Scariness and Self-Selection: A Shopping-Week Meditation

nb: For those outside of the Harvard ecosystem, "shopping week" is the first week of classes, during which all courses are open to drop-ins. It's only at the end of shopping week that we submit study cards and are assigned final schedules.

One of the things that inevitably happens during shopping week is that classes are overfull. Since almost all students shop weakly more courses than they end up taking, even classes with correctly-sized rooms end up crowded, short on chairs, and/or with students sitting on the floor.

I've noticed that this problem is remarkably bad in upper-level CS / Math / Stat courses (it might also be bad everywhere else; I just don't have enough data to say). Once you get past the intro-programming and intro-theory sequences, concentrators have almost-infinite freedom in selecting technical electives in the department, so there's a lot of comparison-shopping going around.

To make it worse, a phenomenon I'll dub "window-shopping" is particularly egregious in the CS department -- in-the-know concentrators will show


[OGPS] A Letter Home

So, I was forced to write a letter home to one of my robotics kids' parents yesterday:

A letter to one of my students' parents, complimenting his work in class

I was inspired, I suppose, by that Taylor Mali video. Not that I'm that awesome yet. Someday. I recently read a quote that I hope sticks with me for a while: "It's harder to be nice than clever." But then again, this letter wasn't even remarkably nice; it was just the honest thing to do.

And then I gave the student a bag of Hot Cheetos and some bite-sized candies. At which point, he informed me that I was "all right". Which might have been the best thing I've heard in a while:

"Ross, you all right."

I couldn't help but smile the entire bus ride back to Harvard.


[OGPS] Faith


Planning this week's lesson (#6) was tough. Last week was a disaster. Having split up students by the missions they were aiming to accomplish, we divided the groups between Diane (to do some programming) and myself (for building).

Those that didn't just walk away from my building table (I let them, not having the heart to tell them not to program) stuck around only to distract each other by building model cars, motorcycles, or other (neat, but off-task) things. On the bright side, I suppose, Diane said that programming made some progress. Still, not good for a full 10% of our time with these kids.

So, we met with Danielle (our new TA) and decided that we were going to go back to the old, broken model of Programming Team, Building Team, and Project Team. So much for changing things up from the old Chocobots team. We put off making the actual divisions until my and Diane's weekly planning meeting on Sunday night.

Of course, the planning meeting hasn't


[OGPS] What I Learned from Jacob Lurie

This post was written mostly after week 3 at OGPS. The weeks 4, 5, and 6 posts may or may not be forthcoming.


Learning Education

Earlier this fall, I lotteried for  USW35, "Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education". But, like 70% of those who tried to get a seat, I was rejected. So, instead, I'm taking a math course in Functional Analysis (Math 114). It satisfies my Analysis requirement for my joint CS/Math concentration. So there's that.

There's also the fact that professor Lurie has taught me more about how to teach at OGPS than I imagine "Equity and Excellence" ever could. (Aside: In no way do I mean this as a slight against Prof. Merseth. I'm sure that her class is fantastic. But the impression I got from shopping week was that it's a very academic treatment of the education problem in our country, and not "Here's how to teach a kid to program a computer for the first


[OGPS] [China] Week 2 Disasters


I had a surreal moment today. At about 8pm, and OGPS janitor walked in to find me still in the classroom, and asked "Aren’t you too old to be playing with Legos?"

You see, I was busy finishing the FLL game board models (that is, obstacles and scoring objects for the FLL Robot Game) and was completely engrossed in constructing a six-inch-long truck. Now, there are a few answers I could have given:


No, I’m not too old. No one’s too old.

I was, after all, completely relaxed for the first time in several days. Though I’ve not had a serious Lego project for years, I had managed to slip back into the flow of pieces fitting together the way they should, and the way I knew they were going to.

Incidentally, I’d encountered the same nostalgia earlier in the day, when I was preparing a few demo robot routines for our "Intro to Programming" lesson. I had had

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