Why I fear Computer Science courses

Just because you can’t read it, doesn’t mean it won’t kill you.

This fall, I am doing something f***ing crazy. It’s on my senior bucket list, but it’s not the Naked Donut Run (been there, done that), and no, it’s not the SciLi challenge. What I am doing is way more hard-core than that.

I am enrolled in CSCI0150: Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming, otherwise known as CS15.

While not everyone will be doing coordinated stretch breaks with Andy van Dam this semester, a lot of you have probably toyed around with the idea of taking a computer science course before. Banner stats currently put the registration numbers for CS15 and CS17 (another introductory course) at 394 and 214, respectively.

That being said, a lot of you have also wimped out. No shame, we totally get it–computer science is scary! The cold, gripping fear of sitting down in the Sun Lab (or more recently, your own computer), and having no clue how to go about your assignment–it’s enough for anyone to drop.

All of the concentrators will tell you that’s silly talk. Sure, it will be a lot of work, but you’ll be capable of it! Essentially, the fear of CS is irrational. I am here to tell you about my own fear of computer science, which is irrational, but for very different reasons. These are all the things I’m afraid will happen if I take CS:

  • I will undoubtedly awaken an internet demon that will manipulate me into freeing it from its digital prison, and wreak havoc on campus a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It will name me as its co-conspirator on Reddit, and everyone will hate me.
  • The complete lack of sunlight will cause my appearance to shift into something like this:

    Deep sea Angler fish

    Smile for your graduation picture!

  • The tech bubble will burst upon my graduation, and I will still end up jobless and alone.

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Professor of Computer Science Michael Littman tells us how to tell machines what to do


Michael Littman, a CS professor at Brown, believes that machines should be able to get better at what they do. For example, if you adjust a thermostat, it should recognize that it was at the wrong temperature and be like Damn, I messed up! I’ll do better next time.

Littman gave a talk on user-friendly programmable devices at yesterday’s Science Underground, a science café that hosts informal scientific lectures through Brown’s Science Center, The Triple Helix, and Sigma Xi. He is currently teaching an introductory course that uses a hands-on approach to problem solving: “CSCI0080: A First Byte of Computer Science.” (Get it? Byte, bite? 8, ate? Computer scientists can be punny, too.) He also leads the Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative, which aims to integrate robots into daily life in a beneficial and practical way. Littman’s research centers on artificial intelligence and machine learning, and he put these ideas into non-CS-concentrator terms at yesterday’s talk.

Computer science can seem out of reach, and Littman acknowledges that learning to program well is at least as difficult as learning to write English well. Traditional programming languages “look like gobbledygook” to a non-programmer. He wants to make devices more easily programmable, allowing people to customize and simplify daily tasks. Basically, he wants to shove computers into household objects to make them “taskable.” Continue Reading

Introduction to Computer Science – as taught by BlogDailyHerald



BlogDH sent an ambassador from the humanities (yours truly) to sit in on a panel entitled “Never too late to take CS.” Many of us have dreamed of taking CS 15 with Andy van Dam, but then reality checks in: our schedules can’t accommodate it, we don’t think we can handle the extra workload, and most importantly – a lot of us are secretly afraid of computers. Computer-phobia isn’t a science fiction trope, it’s a very real affliction that plagues all of us who don’t understand why our Macbook suddenly stops working, or why our PC is so damn slow.

At BlogDH, we have suffered from confusion as to why sometimes WordPress decides that it hates us and doesn’t publish our posts. Our web masters/technology overlords tried to put it in terms we could understand: “There are little gnomes that live inside of computers, and sometimes those gnomes get drunk, and things stop working.” This is a photo our current webmaster, Joe Stein ’16, took of our old webmaster, Neal Poole ’13:

Just another day on the job.

Just another day on the job.

Going into this panel, my go-to solution for computer misbehavior was to call Stein ’16 on the phone in tears, and then rate in retrospect how drunk my gnomes were on a scale of tipsy, to black out, to requiring medical attention. Luckily, I soon realized I wasn’t alone, because 1/3rd of the people in the room raised their hand to the opening question “who has never taken a CS class before?”

Evidently, a lot of people were curious about the mysteries of computer science. Our fears were further quelled when one of the panel members, Ardra Hren ’15, admitted off the bat that she “was afraid of computers until sophomore year.”

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Computer science alum goes culinary

Jeff Potter's new cookbook shows that a CS nerd can have talent on the keyboard and in the kitchen

What happens when you take a CS nerd out of the Sun Lab and put her into the kitchen? Apparently, a great cookbook. Alumnus Jeff Potter recently published his new cookbook Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food. Potter, who has no traditional culinary experience, concentrated in computer science and visual arts at Brown. In addition to providing a variety of recipes that vary in difficulty, Potter includes chapters on such geeky topics as molecular gastronomy (which he calls “modernist cuisine”) and “Fun with Hardware.”

So, CS concentrators, if you ever make it out of the CIT, make sure to pick up Potter’s cookbook for some culinary programming.

The same ten questions we always ask: Barbara Meier ’83 M.S.’87, adjunct assistant professor of computer science

After nearly a decade of studying computer science at Brown, Meier headed to Los Angeles to lend her talents to animation and visual effects production companies (her projects include Batman Returns, Toys, Fantasia 2000, Devil’s Advocate, True Lies and Michael Jackson’s iconic Black or White music video).

But Meier found, it seems, the world within the CIS building more animating than studios like DreamWorks, Cinesite and Hammerhead Productions, where she has worked as art director or senior animator. She left Tinseltown to return to College Hill, where she’s been teaching since 2003. Meier’s Intro to Computer Animation is offered this fall, but be prepared to fight for a seat in the popular course capped at 20  students (it helps to have some CS courses under your belt, or an artistic background, or good groveling skills).

Name: Barbara Meier

Age: Over 21 is all that matters Continue Reading

The same ten questions we always ask (Faculty edition): Pascal Van Hentenryck, Professor of Computer Science

Professor Van Hentenryck has authored 5 books and more than 170 scientific articles. He calls CS 31  (Introduction to Computer Systems) and 258 (Solving Hard Problems in Combinatorial Optimization) his “dream courses,” and believes he was “born…to work on constraint programming.”

Name: Pascal Van Hentenryck

Age: 0x2E

Occupation: Professor of Computer Science

What’s your job description, in one sentence? I teach undergraduate and graduate courses, do research with my students, and write optimization software.

What’s the best part of your job? All the above

The worst? The elevators in the CIT (Center for Information Technology) drive me nuts.

How long have you lived in Providence? 18 years, if you count Barrington as part of Providence. Continue Reading