Friday, December 16, 2011

The Aha! moment

Mr. Smith was known for giving assignments on topics far removed from the current course content.  Well, so it appeared to us anyway, as first year, introduction to computer science students.  The second year students supported our beliefs with Smithy stories of their own.  Everyone who learns to write a working program, does so in spite of Mr Smith. 

The assignment that week was to simulate a calculator.  If the user entered "23+41=" at the command line (these were the days of command line prompts and floppy drives), the computer should respond with "64".  This had a vague connection to the lesson on arithmetic operations.  In addition to correct arithmetic, many opted to add screen embellishments that would allow the computer screen  to look like a calculator.

These were also the days of the 4 hour/week NCR Tower time limit so if you didn't have a computer at home, the situation was a little more grim.  I was one of those computer-less first year students.  Fortunately, the final years were sympathetic to our cause.  They had a PC lab (think Alleluia chorus).  If a PC was available, one of us could use it, then take our working program and re-enter it on the computer in the first year lab, debug for any differences between the machines and voila!

I'm sitting in the final year lab in front of a borrowed PC wondering how I could make my calculator behave more like an actual calculator.  Calculators start showing numbers on the right of the screen and the numbers increase left. Typical computer command lines start at the left of the screen and the numbers would increase towards the right.  Sean Parris, a final year student stood looking over my shoulder.  I must have spoken out loud, or asked him a question.  I'm not sure.  I just know that the moment of my inspiration for the next 2 and a half years of study was about to happen.  What about not reading the numbers as numbers but reading all the user enters into a character array.  Each time the user enters something, clear the screen and print the array on the screen up to the last thing input.  It will look like it's scrolling left

That was it.  Everything changed. He is a god!  How did he know that?  We could do that?  How did he say to do that?  A million questions flashed through my mind, and with them, the growing excitement.  There was more to this than Smithy let on!

That was the beginning of something new for me.  I had never felt like I had the power to manipulate the science, to discover, to explore.  Chemistry, biology and physics experiments didn't  me this sense of power to discover and create.  I felt like I was looking to see what others had already seen.  With the computer, I was looking to see what I could see.

I have to tell Sean this story.  I'm sure he knows, but it's easy to forget your impact on another person.  Just one second of enthusiastic attention to another person's life can help them open the door to a universe of possibilities.  Who are you inspiring today?


  1. I like the story and can relate to it. On the one hand I am more of a computer wiz, on the other since I graduated I haven't exercised the muscle in any way. Yet, what I like about the story is going from "There is no way out" point (which I often visit and stay in for days/months/years to "How did I not think of this simple change of a view point"???

    6 courses at the OI and I'm still looking for that limitless possibilities view point.

  2. Hi Zhenya, I realized that the switch to that 'Aha!" moment is a decision I can take, so I become curious about the times I don't make the decision. I have to admit that it's because I don't want to. It's like that limitless possibilities is sometimes too big. Sometimes I forget how powerful I can be.

  3. Faith, driving back from New Jersey this morning, Iris and I talked about getting to ah hah.

    As we drove, Iris commented on how easy it is to be together because we share common perspectives on so many topics, topics that often become the bane of many a relationship.

    We moved on to some of the differences between us, one of which is how we handle points of frustration (not the emotion, but the experience of having tried something endlessly without having achieved the desired results.)

    In those moments, whether it's arguing a point, trying to learn something new, or solving a problem, Iris tends to back off quickly and try again tomorrow; I tend to dig in and become more intense and energetic.

    It would appear that my response is simultaneously my most annoying and endearing characteristic. Based on feedback from Jonathan and others, I would guess that more people experience it as annoying than endearing.

    Nonetheless, I think the key to "ah hah" is no more esoteric than plain-old persistence (or stubbornness depending our your perspective). To be sure, there are times when I think I'd be better off taking the "try again tomorrow" approach.

    There are nights where I exhaust myself, never finding an answer or achieving success. The next morning, I'll wake up and ah hah! I'm still not sure it would be there were I not have spent the time the night before.

    On the other hand, I know so many people who having tried something once, twice or ten times, decide that it's not going to work. They seek another answer (something easier?) or give up altogether. I'm pretty sure they never experience ah hah.

  4. Mark, I experience you as constantly being in the Aha! moment since it's not necessarily in the Aha! answer, just in the awareness that it's there, in your willingness to see the possibilities in every thing, in any body all the time, to the point of being excessive.

  5. I've been told that it's my child-like fascination with everything new. Or was that child-ish fascination...

  6. Uhhm... Let me see. The difference between child-ish and child-like fascination is... a judgment?

    Is fascination related to energy? You can be fascinated even when you are really tired (you get more active when you get tired) while I withdraw when I get tired. For me taking a break and trying again the next day gives my brain time to recover and get back up to speed. You don't like to much sleep because you say it slows your thinking down...

    Anyway, I am very happy that over the years some of your persistance has been rubbing off on me. I still take breaks, but have become a more persistant, curious and enthusiastic learner. Keep it going, my "child-like ball of energy"....


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