Computers fast becoming the universal relator of concepts.



He looked like Young Einstein and he had the enthusiasm of Yahoo Serious, but mostly it was the gleam in his eye, as if he knew something that the rest of us didn't, which made me concentrate hard on the words of Jonathan Burns, the guest speaker at the Object Oriented Special Interest Group (OOSIG) meeting in Melbourne last week.

'A good teacher will go to many such third-positions until one clicks for each of their students - until a penny drops in the well of each open mind.'

Mr Burns is doing his PhD at La Trobe University. He set out several years ago, to totally define a bicycle in maths. He hasn't completed his metaphysical journey yet, but he is well along his chosen path and has travelled down many unexpected and interesting logical side alleys.

He explained that he didn't just want to define all the interconnecting parts (eg. wheels, fork, frame, pedals, etc.) in one type of coordinate system, as an engineer would, but instead he wanted to totally generalise it in algebra as mathematicians do: "So you can then express a bicycle in any coordinate system that you desire." he said.

For a simple example of such 'multiple representation', he suggested we consider a sphere: "You can express it in spherical coordinates, or you might prefer to express it in longitudes and latitudes. Its the same sphere, just different mappings."

Just as non-programmers must struggle with my jargon at times, it was my turn to suffer the unfamiliar language of another sub-culture, that of the mathematician. I had to put the meaning of words like the Lagrangian and Eigen value on hold, until the broader ideas become apparent. Eventually it paid dividends, slowly some pieces took hold in my grey matter, to the credit of this young man of ideas from Latrobe. My mind slowly but surely got dragged into a higher gear.

To visually demonstrate his evolving mathematical system, he used Stephen Wolframs revolutionary 'Mathematica' program running on a NeXT machine. Suddenly the obtuse language of the specialist became beautiful animated visual images. The blurb on the flyer for the meeting described Mathematica as 'a kind of mathematical multimedia kit', which proved quite accurate.

Then it suddenly struck me that his actual demonstration was a larger example of his specific quest for his PhD - facilitating 'multiple representations': The computer itself is fast becoming the universal relator of different concepts from different people, of different sub-cultures and even across cultures. He was talking high-level mathematics, and with the aid of the computer, I the layman could understand clearly what he was saying. The computer is the ultimate 'multiple representation' machine.

The computer/human interface of a program is about opening peoples minds to another persons particular thought process, which has been captured in software. That's what Jonathan Burns did via the internal programming language in Mathematica.

For a widely experienced example, consider using computer simulation games. I am currently writing a large educational simulation game, and the design process is indeed very much like trying your hardest to give people a view of another world, a very rudimentary one you have created on the screen.

Before you can take others into your world of understanding, you have to find a common sub-set of understanding, a common third-position which is not new to either person.

A good teacher will go to many such third-positions until one clicks for each of their students - until a penny drops in the well of each open mind. When it does, a small revelation takes place in the student.

What is historically unprecedented is that the computer screen is fast becoming the common medium for the 'third-position' for all manner of peoples, for all sorts of ideas and subjects.

On a basic level, just by adopting computers into two different cultures or sub-cultures, representatives of the two then have common ground and common jargon for conversation to break the ice. They have undergone a set of common experiences - an initiation of sorts. Those sub-cultures have come together just a little. eg. The secretary and the CEO can talk about the vulgarities of the commands of their common word processor.

On the higher level of teaching (for example, concept transferral as per Jonathan Burns Bicycle) where we are dealing with brand new ideas that the student hasn't before encountered, the computer and its enacting software, is a tool of unprecedented flexibility, perhaps the ultimate medium for relating ideas and views.

It was initially hard listening but again, I enjoyed my attendance at the OOSIG meeting. It's the third I've gotten along to over a two year period. I have come away from each with my head still in motion, where it stays for several hours, not normally an easy feat. OOSIG meetings are held monthly.

Two of the mainstays of the group are Dr. William Haebich on (03) 650 5100, and Christine Miggins of the Department of Software Development, Monash University on (03) 573 2787. As it happens they are also heavily involved in organising the TOOLS Pacific 93 conference (Technology of Object Oriented Languages and Systems), one of the few object oriented conferences held in Melbourne this year, running from November 29th to December 2nd.

(CUTTING CODE column, Computer Age, The AGE, 7th September 1993)