Says Princeton Computer Science professor Brian Kernighan: “As calculators and computers have become steadily more powerful, they have buried us in an avalanche of numbers and graphs and charts, many of which claim to present the truth about important issues. But at the same time, our personal facility with numbers has diminished, often leaving us at the mercy of quantitative reasoning and presentation that is sometimes wrong and often not disinterested.”
For the past ten years, Dr. Kernighan has been teaching a course that satisfies “QR”, Princeton’s dreaded Quantitative Reasoning requirement. Increasingly, he has come to view a significant part of the QR component as basic numeric self-defense: assessing the numbers presented by other people, and producing sensible numbers of one’s own.
For the past eight years, Dr. Kernighan has taught a Computer Science course on advanced programming techniques that is meant to reflect how programming is used in the real world. Over time, the course has become more and more stretched between important old material and new unproven material that might be important. With more and more material to cover within a fixed time period, Dr. Kernighan acknowledged that he wrestles continually with the issue of what matters, what old information to preserve, and what new techniques and approaches to cover. In his February 13 Lunch ‘n Learn talk, he illustrated some of the challenges and discussed ways in which we might use complexity and rapid change to our advantage.
The good news, he notes, is that we have available more memory, processor power, disk space, and bandwidth. The bad news is that these advances don’t encourage good programming practices and, on top of that, expectations are changing. Programmers expect more elaborate features and environments that facilitate quick delivery. Kernighan quotes a New York Times article that a web site cobbled together in just a week is now pulling in a million dollars a year for its programmer. “How to prepare students when the creation of such a simple application can have such a profound effect upon the world?” he asked.
At OIT’s Lunch ‘n Learn seminar on Wednesday February 22, Computer Science Professor Brian Kernighan presented Millions, Billions, Zillions – Why (In)numeracy Matters. In 2004, Newsweek magazine stated: “Perhaps the Bush administration could use the 660-billion-barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve to push prices down. Given that the average vehicle uses 550 gallons a year, assuming that there are 300 million cars and that a barrel contains approximately 50 gallons, our yearly oil needs work out to about 3 billion barrels a year. And so, offered Dr. Kernighan, “Why are we so worried about oil?”
The answer is, of course, that our Strategic Petroleum Reserve is actually 550 million barrels, enough for 200 days, not 200 years.