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Computer Theory & Genetics: George Chao at TEDxUMNSalon

George Chao is an undergraduate senior studying Genetics and Computer Science at the University of Minnesota. Having started genetics research as soon as he entered the university, he has worked in labs spanning multiple disciplines as well as in Japan. Some of these researches include developmental genetics in Drosophila, computational techniques for analyzing protein interactions, and helping with the development of algorithms to analyze motion capture data of patients with neck pain. During this time, George steadily developed a fascination with the field of bioinformatics, the study of using computational techniques to learn from genetic data. He would like to go into a career of research into the application of bioinformatics in various fields. ---- The individuals involved with TEDxUMN have a passion for bringing together the great thinkers at the University of Minnesota and giving them the opportunity to share their ideas worth spreading and to discuss our shared future. We provide these great people the opportunity to share these ideas on a global stage and with an incredibly diverse audience. We believe in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately the world. Check out TEDxUMN at www.TEDxUMN.com In thespirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a <b>...</b>
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I'm entering a PhD program in the fall (scientific computing/bioinformatics) and am taking the summer off to travel. As such, I feel like I'm going to have a lot of free time for reading. I'm looking for suggestions for books that I should read that will make me a better computer scientist. I'm not interested in textbooks, since I'll be reading enough of those in the Fall and would prefer topics that I likely wouldn't get exposed to in a class. Also, everything I plan on reading I'm going to have to carry with me for the whole summer, so lighter and smaller is better.

So far I've compiled the following list based off of previous similar discussions:

  • The Soul of A New Machine - Tracy Kidder
  • COMPLEXITY: THE EMERGING SCIENCE AT THE EDGE OF ORDER AND CHAOS - M. Mitchell Waldrop
  • The Society of Mind - Marvin Minsky
  • Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid - Douglas R. Hofstadter
  • Computer Power and Human Reason - Joseph Weizenbaum

What else is there anything else that I definitely should add?

EDIT: Thank you all for your suggestions. I'm definitely going to have a lot of good choices this summer.

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The whole "everyone should learn programming" meme has gotten so out of control that the mayor of New York City actually vowed to learn to code in 2012.

Bloomberg-vows-to-code

A noble gesture to garner the NYC tech community vote, for sure, but if the mayor of New York City actually needs to sling JavaScript code to do his job, something is deeply, horribly, terribly wrong with politics in the state of New York. Even if Mr. Bloomberg did "learn to code", with apologies to Adam Vandenberg, I expect we'd end up with this:

10 PRINT "I AM MAYOR"
20 GOTO 10

Fortunately, the odds of this technological flight of fancy happening – even in jest – are zero, and for good reason: the mayor of New York City will hopefully spend his time doing the job taxpayers paid him to do instead. According to the Office of the Mayor home page, that means working on absenteeism programs for schools, public transit improvements, the 2013 city budget, and … do I really need to go on?

To those who argue programming is an essential skill we should be teaching our children, right up there with reading, writing, and arithmetic: can you explain to me how Michael Bloomberg would be better at his day to day job of leading the largest city in the USA if he woke up one morning as a crack Java coder? It is obvious to me how being a skilled reader, a skilled writer, and at least high school level math are fundamental to performing the job of a politician. Or at any job, for that matter. But understanding variables and functions, pointers and recursion? I can't see it.

Look, I love programming. I also believe programming is important … in the right context, for some people. But so are a lot of skills. I would no more urge everyone to learn programming than I would urge everyone to learn plumbing. That'd be ridiculous, right?

Advice-for-plumbers

The "everyone should learn to code" movement isn't just wrong because it falsely equates coding with essential life skills like reading, writing, and math. I wish. It is wrong in so many other ways.

  • It assumes that more code in the world is an inherently desirable thing. In my thirty year career as a programmer, I have found this … not to be the case. Should you learn to write code? No, I can't get behind that. You should be learning to write as little code as possible. Ideally none.
  • It assumes that coding is the goal. Software developers tend to be software addicts who think their job is to write code. But it's not. Their job is to solve problems. Don't celebrate the creation of code, celebrate the creation of solutions. We have way too many coders addicted to doing just one more line of code already.
  • It puts the method before the problem. Before you go rushing out to learn to code, figure out what your problem actually is. Do you even have a problem? Can you explain it to others in a way they can understand? Have you researched the problem, and its possible solutions, deeply? Does coding solve that problem? Are you sure?
  • It assumes that adding naive, novice, not-even-sure-they-like-this-whole-programming-thing coders to the workforce is a net positive for the world. I guess that's true if you consider that one bad programmer can easily create two new jobs a year. And for that matter, most people who already call themselves programmers can't even code, so please pardon my skepticism of the sentiment that "everyone can learn to code".
  • It implies that there's a thin, easily permeable membrane between learning to program and getting paid to program professionally. Just look at these new programmers who got offered jobs at an average salary of $79k/year after attending a mere two and a half month bootcamp! Maybe you too can teach yourself Perl in 24 hours! While I love that programming is an egalitarian field where degrees and certifications are irrelevant in the face of experience, you still gotta put in your ten thousand hours like the rest of us.

I suppose I can support learning a tiny bit about programming just so you can recognize what code is, and when code might be an appropriate way to approach a problem you have. But I can also recognize plumbing problems when I see them without any particular training in the area. The general populace (and its political leadership) could probably benefit most of all from a basic understanding of how computers, and the Internet, work. Being able to get around on the Internet is becoming a basic life skill, and we should be worried about fixing that first and most of all, before we start jumping all the way into code.

Please don't advocate learning to code just for the sake of learning how to code. Or worse, because of the fat paychecks. Instead, I humbly suggest that we spend our time learning how to …

  • Research voraciously, and understand how the things around us work at a basic level.
  • Communicate effectively with other human beings.

These are skills that extend far beyond mere coding and will help you in every aspect of your life.

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I woke up this morning...ish... to discover that Hacker News had finally had enough of me being at Google, so they forced me into early retirement.

On Monday I was honored to be able to deliver a keynote talk at OSCON Data. In the talk, I announce at the end that I am quitting a project that I had very publicly signed up for, one that I am not passionate about and don't personally think is very important to the human race. Though others clearly do, and that's a legitimate viewpoint too.

But the power of suggestion can make you see and hear something entirely different. If, for instance, someone tells you that I gave the talk wearing a gorilla suit, then when you watch it, I will magically appear to be wearing a gorilla suit. It's actually a gray jacket over a black shirt, but you will perceive the jacket as the back-hair of a male silverback gorilla! And to be honest the talk could have benefited from the judicious application of a gorilla suit, so no harm there.

Similarly, if someone on Hacker News posts that "Steve Yegge quits Google in the middle of his speech" and links to the video, then you will watch the video, and when I say the word "project" at the end of my speech, a magical Power of Suggestion Voice-Over will interrupt -- in a firm manly voice totally unlike my own quacking sounds -- with "Gooooooogle". And then you will promptly sink into a 15-minute trance so that the voice-over can occur in the middle of my speech where Hacker News said it happened, instead of 96.7% of the way through the talk where it actually happened.

I am going to harness this amazing Power of Suggestion, right here, right now. Here goes.

You are going to come work at Google! You are going to study up, apply, interview, and yes, you are going to work there! And it will be the most awesome job you've ever had or ever will have!

I hope for your sake that this little experiment works, because Google is frigging awesome, and you'll love it here. And they'll be happy to have you here. It's a match made in heaven, I'm tellin' ya. It might take you a couple tries to get in the door, because Google's interview process -- what's the word I'm looking for here -- ah yes, their process sucks at letting in all the qualified people. They're trying to get better at it, but it's not really Google's fault so much as the fault of interviewers who insist that you're not qualified to work there unless you are exactly like them.

Of course, there are interviewers like that wherever you go. The real problem is the classic interview process, which everyone uses and which Google hasn't innovated on, not really. It's like deciding whether to marry someone after four one-hour dates that all happen on the same day in a little room that looks kind of like a doctor's office except that the examining table is on the wall.

The reason I haven't been blogging lately is that working at Google is so awesome that I just don't feel like doing anything else. My project is awesome, the people are awesome, the work environment is over-the-top-crazy-awesome, the benefits are awesome, even the corporate mission is awesome. "Organize the world's hardline goods in little brown boxes delivered straight to your doorstep" -- that's an awesome mission, yeah?

Wait, sorry, that was a flashback to the Navy or something. "Organize the world's information" -- that's the one. It's a mission that is changing the course of human events. It is slowly forcing governments to be more open, forcing corporations to play more fairly, and helping all of us make better decisions and better use of our time.

In that vein, the part of my brain that makes Good Decisions was apparently broken a few weeks ago, when I allowed myself to be cajoled into working on something that I wasn't passionate about. I am an eternal optimist, and I figured I could teach myself to be passionate about it. And I tried! I spent a few weeks pretending that I was passionate about it -- that's how I got through my Physics classes in college with A grades, so I know it's a mental trick that can sometimes work.

But then I wrote my OSCON Data speech, in which I basically advise everyone to start working on important problems instead of just chasing the money. Or at the very least, go ahead and chase the money in the short term, but while you are doing that, prepare yourself to help solve real problems.

And after writing the speech I realized I'd completely failed to follow my own advice. I'm getting old and I only have so many "big projects" left that I can actually participate in. So in my mind it's a complete cop-out for me to take the easy path and work on a project that my company is excited about but I am not.

Now, as it happens, I am in fact working on a very cool project at Google. It's not important in the same sense that curing cancer or getting clean water to impoverished cities are important. But it's a project that has the potential to revolutionize software development, and NOT through some new goddamn dependency-injection framework or web framework or other godawful embarrassing hacky workaround for a deficient programming language. No. It is a project that aims to turn source code -- ALL source code -- from plain text into Wikipedia. I've been on it for three and a half years, and I came up with the idea, and the team running with the idea is fantastic. The work may not be directly important, but it is an enabler for important work, much like scaling infrastructure is an enabler.

So I am happy to continue working on that project for now. Yes, at Google. I may even blog it up at some point. But I'm very serious about brushing up on my math and statistics, some of which I haven't applied directly in 20 years, and start focusing on machine learning problems. Particulary, if I may be so fortunate, the problem of curing cancer. I may not be able to participate directly for a few years, as I need to keep working and paying the bills just like you. But I'm studying hard -- I started up again a few days ago -- and I've demonstrated to myself quite a few times that if I do anything daily for a few years I can get pretty good at it.

Anyway, I'm late for work. Isn't that nice? I like the sound of it. It has a nice ring to it: "I'm late... for my job."

So come work with me! Unless you are curing cancer, of course.

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