A beautiful article about programming for non-programmers

While I was on holiday, I had a conversation with my friend Emily about programming. She's not a particularly technical person and felt overwhelmed by the things she didn't know about computers. She could use them but she didn't understand them.

While computers are embedded in everyday Western life, most people don't know how to program. I guess it's a manifestation of the two cultures problem. When I was studying for my BSc in Theoretical Physics at Sussex there was an Arts/Science programme. 5% of science degrees were assessed on a pair of arts courses. I was told that a similar Science/Arts programme had never got off the ground because the humanities departments were so resistant.

Personally, I think that an understanding of ideas like evolution and the big bang, basic statistics knowledge and a concept of how a computer works are as important as knowing the story of Hamlet, familiarity with canonical poems such as Ozymandius and Dulce and Decorum Est or a working knowledge of English history. I don't expect everyone to be able to program, but everyone should know enough that they feel they could if they needed to.

Apparently Slate allow their writers a month each year to work on an ambitious project. Annie Lowrie used this opportunity to learn to program, resulting in Where's _why an amazing article about programming, which threads together the story of _why the lucky stiff with a discussion of an non-programmer's first steps in programming.

You may not want to become a programmer, but the article is worth reading. One particular quote from _why sums up the sort of excitement I felt when I first compiled a C program: "[Programming] will teach you to express your ideas through a computer. You will be writing stories for a machine … All you need to know thus far is that Ruby is basically built from sentences. They aren’t exactly English sentences. They are short collections of words and punctuation [that] encompass a single thought. These sentences can form books. They can form pages. They can form entire novels, when strung together. Novels that can be read by humans, but also by computers.

Journalism as a trade is in a lot of trouble, as demonstrated by Nick Cohen's excellent book Flat Earth News. At the same time, we are in the midst of a golden age of journalistic writing, as showcased by sites like longform (where I found this article). Annie Lowrie's piece could, I think, stand among the pieces collected in Wolfe's New Journalism collection.

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