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Copying & Repetition

You ever hear parents complain about their kids TV habits?  “Oh my god! If I hear Blues Clues one more time! Timmy plays that damn video over and over and over.”  What Timmy is doing is learning.  Timmy probably also mimics his parents and siblings actions, copies their speech patterns, observes their habits, and repeats them over and over.

Copying other people and repetitive training is the foundation of education, but in today’s education this has been thrown out in favor of “conceptual learning”.  The idea of conceptual learning is if you expose someone to the concept of a subject then they’ll have a higher more refined understanding of the topic than simple copying and repetition (what they call “rote learning”).  The reality is conceptual models of education simply find students lucky enough to naturally know the topic, and then leave the rest to fail and flounder.

In the united states, there is even a slight racist tinge to the attitude of conceptual vs. rote education.  I’ve heard many people say that “Asians really can only copy others because they use rote education in school.”  If you’ve spent any time studying Asian art and culture you know this isn’t true at all, and is a very racist attitude.  Whether it’s the Ruby Programming language, or BABYMETAL, or Old Boy, it’s entirely wrong to think that Asians are unoriginal little robots because they learned by rote.

There’s also a strange fear associated with rote learning that says if you learn rote you’ll somehow be less “creative”.  The problem with this is that nearly every creative thing you do requires rote practice.  The idea that I’m going to learn the major scale on a guitar by just learning the concept of a major scale is laughable.  Nobody who teaches music thinks that.  I learned guitar from repetition and copying other guitarists.

Painting might be the next discipline someone who believes in “concepts” puts forward as an example of avoiding rote learning.  Again, there’s a very long history or repetitively copying the works of other artists. There’s even a term for it: “Master Copy”.  Every great artist and almost all art schools have copying other artists as a way to learn to paint or draw.

If doing rote copying turned painters or musicians into unoriginal robots then all of them would be that way.  Painters and musicians are frequently put forward as the pinnacle of creativity, so clearly rote copying doesn’t impact your originality.  In fact, the dividing line between amateur and professional is how much they practice, and practice is repetition. Artists do small studies in a formal way. Musicians play scales their whole life, again repetitively copying.

How about writing?  Again, you learn to write by first copying the alphabet, then small stories, then trying to write on your own, and reading and trying to emulate your favorite authors.  Copying and repetition is all there.  Memorizing a poem is copying and repetition.  Reading and pulling out quotes and phrase structures is also copying and repetition.  Every author who is any good copies other authors and repeatedly writes almost obsessively.

Martial Arts, Dance, Singing, even Mathematics is full of copying and repetition.  Denying the role of these two practices in education denies what is a foundational aspect of human learning.  This is even the foundation of non-human learning, so why is it that people in the computer science field think there is no role for copying and repetition?

Rote in Computer Science Education

Copying and repetition is necessary in education because it builds instinctual basic skills someone needs to understand the more abstract conceptual parts of a discipline.  Nobody thinks you can memorize all of Jazz, but they definitely know that if you can’t instinctively play a scale then you’re probably not going to be able to play Jazz.  Nobody thinks you can memorize all of art, but if you drawing or color isn’t instinctual then you are going to struggle.

I believe Computer Science education could benefit greatly from copying and repetition at the beginner level and possibly later.  Copying is how a vast majority of programmers learned to code, but many CS educators deny this fact.  If you’re imagining yourself at 12 trying to learn to code, then I’m betting you had either a book or website with code that you copied and made work.  This should just be how we start people in programming, and not the current method of conceptual “weed out” classes.

Repetition is a mostly un-researched aspect of CS education that I’d like to explore more.  I believe that repetition happens naturally if you have copying as a base part of the educational experience.  However, I feel that drilling and repeating aspects of a language that need to be instinctual would improve retention.  For example, if students had to memorize all the lexemes and syntax structures of a language while they’re copying small working programs.

I think the main reason why this is ignored or vilified in CS is the same reason that most programmers simply can’t teach:  They are so far removed from their beginner experience that they forget that they actually learned to code via rote learning.  We see it all the time when a programmer attempts to teach non-developer and immediately tries to get them to use Vim and write C code.

The experienced programmer has completely forgotten the nights they spent repeatedly copying other people’s code and writing and rewriting buggy code to make it work.  To them this isn’t “rote” because they were so deep in it that they can’t see all the implied rote work actually being done.  They were also 10, so their brains were very bad at meta-cognition and can’t really say why they thought anything, so how can their recollection of their self-education possibly be accurate?

Hopefully Computer Science will adopt the educational style I’ve found in Music for beginner, and painters for intermediate developers.   I believe an early training that involves a mixture of rote (scales, chords, ear training) followed by copying and modifying (learn a song and try to improvise) will benefit beginners.  For intermediate programmers I think the Painting style of education would work well:  copy master works and create your own studies of simple subjects.

Adopting these two models would make CS accessible to more people, and make it easier for beginners to transition to intermediate and then advanced skills.

The End Of Coder Influence

I get an email from someone who tells me that Reddit has decided to remove my book from their list of suggested readings for Python until I update the book to Python 3.  They made this decision about two weeks prior to when I received the email, so I went to look at my traffic and sales to see if there was an impact.  Weirdly, my sales were up and my traffic was about the same.  It had no impact.

Once a year I go through my Python book and I try to convert all the code to Python 3 as a test.  I do this with the eye of a total beginner, looking for things that will trip them up and cause problems.  Bad error messages, confusing syntax, broken libraries, and inconsistencies.  Every year I run into nearly the same problems:  strings are difficult to use, error messages don’t have variable names, libraries don’t really help with strings, and there’s too many inconsistent string formatting systems.  So I decided to see again what it would take to make my book Python 3 and ran into the same issues all over again.

To put it bluntly, the reddit community responsible for teaching beginners to code censored my book as a power play to get me to force Python 3 on unsuspecting beginners.  The language does not work for them, and they were attempting to use their influence to enact change in my books, rather than use that influence to improve Python for beginners.

And it didn’t work.  I still had the same sales and the same traffic.  I actually think if all Programming Reddit rose up and demanded Python 3 have better error messages regarding strings (a minimum usability bar) they would be ignored too.  In fact, I kept seeing over and over people pointing out blog posts, reddit threads, HN threads, and tweet storms as if these were highly influential which then did nothing.

A few days ago I went through another test of Python 3 and ran into the same problems.  I get enough people emailing me about Python 3 that I decided I needed to work out a list of reasons why Python 3 is broken for beginners as of today.  Originally I was going to write it fairly simply and not worry about appeasing the coders, out of fear they would retaliate like they always do and boycott my book even more.  But, I remembered that after countless blog posts about how terrible of a person I am and how terrible my books are, I still end up helping millions of people a year and still have the same sales.

I decided to just write what I felt and fuck whatever programmers think.  I wrote it, put in a couple of jokes and trolls, and then posted it.  Fuck it, I have a cold and don’t give a fuck.

Immediately people started insulting me, telling me I’m wrong (yet not reading the post, LOL). Then the HN posts start, then Reddit.  I don’t read those so people shove them into my email and Twitter stream.  I was tired and not into defending myself so I just deleted Twitter off my phone and go sleep some more.  Enjoy the sun.  Did some painting.  Hung out with friends.  Who gives a fuck about what a bunch of angry lonely coders think about my thoughts?

Yet, here’s where everyone I know becomes deathly afraid of the coders.  These groups of programmers used to have large sway over what was successful and chosen, but at the same time were horribly uninformed about basic computer science.  They ran to Node.js because of “events are better than threads” and had no idea Hoare or coroutines existed.  They manually went to hand convert all Python 2 code to Python 3 code, rather than just asking why the Python 3 VM can’t just…run Python 2 code too.  Then they believe the mega load of bullshit that this is impossible despite all proofs and evidence stating otherwise.  For all their claims of superiority for having once bought a copy of The Art of Computer Programming the previous generation of programmers are sadly uninformed about basic shit.

We all feared them, because their incredibly uninformed opinions and complete lack of humor or human decency could sink or swim entire companies.  Get slagged on HN and you’re done for.  I’ve heard of VCs actually threatening to strip away funding over bad HN reactions like HN is on the same level as the food critic of the NYT.  So what was going to happen to me?

Honestly, I’ve been trying to get out of the technology industry since 2008.  This industry sucks, and largely because of the abusive previous generation of programmers.  My goal has been to just make their influence on my life as small as possible so I can go on doing things I love like painting.  Fuck them.  But, a man’s gotta eat so I keep doing my work so I can make enough of a living to keep helping folks and doing what I love.

What are the results of their insane hatred of my latest stance against Python 3?  Am I doomed to never have any more sales again?

Nope.  Same traffic.  Same sales.

I believe that the influence of the previous generation of programmers is largely gone.  I can’t exactly say why, but I think it’s because they consistently back terrible ideas over and over.   They also tend to have no idea what will be successful or not.  The reason is they base their opinion of a technology on superficial things related more to whether the tech fits their tribe than its actual merits.  When my book first came out the HN crowd and other “professionals” said it wouldn’t work.  Same for many successful startups, technology, and ideas.  Meanwhile, the things they do back end up being terrible and we all regret following their hive mind.  Can anyone say OpenSSL?

I also believe the newer generation of programmers are more well rounded and have a general distaste of this kind of tribal fascist bullshit we have in open source.  I can’t really prove that, but it’s a feeling I’ve been having for a couple years now.  This next generation is different. I just can’t quite say how other than they seem to not believe the same things as the previous generations.

About a year ago I stopped reading HN and Programming Reddit because of this.  I don’t worry about the vindictive assholes out there who feel any questioning of their tribal beliefs is an affront to their person.  I now think the actual influence of the hive mind on anything outside of the tiny little set of Silicon Valley Programmers Who Read HN bubble is nothing.  If you think their influence matters then either you’re working on something as insignificant as they are, or it really doesn’t matter and you should just ignore them and move on.

Keep making cool stuff and speaking your mind counter to the hive.  I think that’s the future generation’s take on programming, and I fully endorse that message.