Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Hope is the thing with feathers

Why is Alice called Alice?
This is one of my favorite questions. It always lets me know the question asker is thinking in the correct direction. After all, the ability to name something is a tremendous power, and in this case, there's a terrific reason.

Alice pays homage to Lewis Carroll, author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Carroll was a mathematician, novelist, and photographer. Most important, he could do intellectually difficult things but also realized the most powerful thing was to be able to communicate clearly and in an entertaining way. This inspires our efforts to make something as complex as computer programming easy and fun.

Randy Pausch, answering "Why is Alice called Alice?"

Many of you devoted readers know my affection for the work of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and that his characters feature quite regularly in the jumping-off points for these missives. The whimsy and surprising logic of his world never ceases to amaze and enchant me. The software he is describing, Alice is a piece of free software that is a 3-D, graphics based computer programming tool. Bear with me, technophobes. It seems that in this day and age of everything computer, there is a significant drop in students enrolling in computer science courses in universities. Apparently the students are put off by rigourous courses that require hours of practise at a keyboard and a strict dedication to syntax and coherent expression of creative vision arising from the simplest of materials. To many of us, it sounds like the courses you had to take featuring the work of Palestrina and his 16th century polyphonic colleagues, and it is similar in many ways.

Alice was developed to offer a visual form of computer programming where it was impossible to create syntax errors in programming and to produce an engaging product. Many of you will remember the glory days of computer education for teachers when we were all expected to learn to program in order to use a computer and the lack of a bracket or semicolon would send your precious programme which printed a line of text or moved a coloured square across the screen into a tailspin. Alice uses the metaphors of story telling or creation of an interactive world to teach programming concepts. This is in some ways related to the visual programming now available in the music world in programmes such as Garage Band, Reason and other loop based compositional tools. You music tech historians may also remember the visual programming language Max.

It is not this programming language, but rather one of the men behind it that is the real focus of this article. You may recognise the name of the quotee - Randy Pausch. He has been featured heavily on the Internet and on the Carnegie Mellon University web site. You may of heard of him in conjunction the phrase "The Last Lecture". This refers to a tradition where a retiring or dying professor presents his final lecture and is feted by the academic community where he has toiled. Randy Pausch is a very young man who has delivered his last lecture - he is in the final stages of pancreatic cancer and has only been given months to live. He chose not to give a momento mori complete with the spectre of the grinning skull looming in the background in the background. He gave us a gift, what I would like to call a a momento spero - a remembrance of hope entitled Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.

He begins by telling us what he won't be speaking about - cancer, his wife and children, religion. He does, however admit a deathbed conversion: he bought a Macintosh. His theme speaks of the things that probably brought many of us into the teaching profession. He talks of facing brick walls, of being honest, of doing good things, and of love. He tells of the people who he met who believed in him and who helped him get over the brick walls he found in trying to achieve his dreams. Many would say that as teachers, helping achieve dreams is a part of our daily life. We've seen success and failures: we've seen brick walls fall as well as stand resolutely despite the best efforts of all concerned. I can not really do justice to any of the themes or ideas he brings to the speech – the transcript of the talk runs to twenty-six A4 pages, Nor do I want to give away any more of his illustrations, other than this one as it applies to us who work at bringing music into the lives of others:
And I think that that’s one of the best things you can give somebody – the chance to show them what it feels like to make other people get excited and happy. I mean that’s a tremendous gift.
Please look him up on Google, YouTube or via the Carnegie Mellon web site and watch and learn from his lecture.