02 September 2008

Amateur computation

I finally got around to reading Brian Hayes's essay "Calculemus!" from the American Scientist. The essay and many of Hayes's other works are available on bit-player.org.

Hayes talks about making computation more accessible to laypeople so the average computer user can do "inquisitive computing." He gives some examples of inquisitive computing from mathematics, for instance, perfect medians. A positive integer m is a perfect median if it satisfies the equality 1 + 2 +... + m-1 = m+1 + m+2 + ... N for some number N.

Inquisitive computing is a cool idea. I have often thought about becoming a better programmer by challenging myself with little problems. I don't have the kind of personality to work on mathematical puzzles, but I would like to learn enough so I can write scripts to solve tedious everyday problems. For example, a week ago, I wanted to import my calendar file to Yahoo. The support staff at Yahoo told me that in order to safely import my 16,000 line CSV file, I should divide it into 1000 line chunks. If I hadn't been so lazy, I should have written a Python script to read the CSV file line-by-line and spit out a 1000 line CSV file after each 1000 line chunk. I was lazy because I don't know Python well enough yet.

These types of problems come up all the time and I'm always really impressed when I see a person post a script solution on a computing forum. One of my goals is to someday become that person -- the scripting guru.

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