Sunday, February 08, 2004

I was sitting in a chair in the Barnes and Noble Cafe this evening, reading a book and nibbling on a cookie, when I was distracted by a comment from the people chatting at a nearby table. You actually remember CS 61A [Berkeley's introductory CS course]? one exclaimed. Yeah, said the other, but all that stuff you learn is useless. When I started this job, I was looking at code with some other programmers, and I said something looked like it was O(n3). They laughed at me, and I said to forget it.

The conversation at the next table turned to the topic of night life in various Bay Area communities, and I stopped listening. I finished my dessert, closed my book, and left the store. But as I went to buy milk and then to walk home, I continued to think about the exchange I had overheard.

How quickly I never use it becomes It is useless! A college acquiantance of mine -- a business major with a concentration in information systems -- once told me that computer science education was worse than useless, because computer science students learned irrelevant crap. Business majors who had introductory programming coursework, he argued, are in a far better position: they know all the programming anyone really needs, and they have business savvy as well. I've heard others say similar things, though less bluntly. Oddly, I know few who say the same of mathematics. Of course, I know many people who have an unwarranted high opinion of their own computer expertise, but most of those people find mathematics frightening -- at best . Perhaps they would prefer not to mention math at all, for fear that an integral might smite them from the sky, hurled like lightning by a vengeful god with a short temper and a part-time job teaching freshman calculus.

My college acquiantance's attitude annoyed me, but I shrugged it off easily. I was more disturbed by the statement I overheard tonight. It is one thing to hear a businessman say that an understanding of electrical current is useless; it is quite another to hear the same from an electrician who supposedly learned his trade in school and who helps design the wiring for new office buildings. The businessman may be blindly, willfully, and woefully ignorant, but he is probably less dangerous in his ignorance than the electrician.

Perhaps I'll regret that metaphor by the morning. Or perhaps I'll have forgotten it.