Computing Applications blog@CACM

Sharing Ideas, Writing Apps, and Creating a Professional Web Presence

Greg Linden reveals his new approach to reading research papers, Mark Guzdial discusses how to encourage students to write computer programs, and Tessa Lau shares her ideas about the importance of Web visibility.
  1. Introduction
  2. From Greg Linden's "Enjoying Reading Research"
  3. From Mark Guzdial's "'There's an App for That,' and You Could Write It"
  4. From Tessa Lau's "Visibility Matters: Why You Need a Professional Web Page"
  5. Authors
  6. Footnotes

The Communications Web site,, features 13 bloggers in the BLOG@CACM community. In each issue of Communications, we’ll publish excerpts from selected posts, plus readers’ comments.

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From Greg Linden’s “Enjoying Reading Research”

Research papers take a long time to read. They are dense, narrowly focused, often seem abstract and detached from practical issues, and occasionally require much knowledge of prior work to grasp.

Given all that work, why bother? After all, as many of my colleagues in industry say, due to the many assumptions about the quality of the data, needs of the users, performance of the algorithms, or size of the data, academic research often is unusable to them as is.

What I find most valuable about research work is that someone smart has spent a long time thinking about a particular problem. Someone has spent much effort describing a problem, why it is important, what has been tried in the past, and what should be tried.

The authors are working to advance the state of the art, but the solution often is less valuable than the journey. For those who are trying to solve similar problems, it is the discussion of the paths taken and not taken that illuminates the road.

If you also believe this, then the way you read papers might change. Years ago, I used to turn first to the implementation and experimental results, then push the paper away if I found the evaluation lacking.

Nowadays, I turn first to the introduction, related work, conclusion, and future work. I seek to understand the problem, why it is important, what has been tried, and what still needs to be tried. I try to see why the authors chose to spend part of their lives pursuing solutions to this task and what insights they gained. I think about how I would solve the problem myself. And only then do I turn to their solution.

Read this way, it is much easier to bask yourself in the flow of academic publications, letting the thoughts and insights wash over you. The papers become an easy joy to read, like having a conversation over coffee with the authors. It becomes what research should be, the sharing of ideas.

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From Mark Guzdial’s “‘There’s an App for That,’ and You Could Write It”

The Apple ads for the iPhone, with the catchy phrase “There’s an app for that,” seem ubiquitous on television these days. They suggest that for whatever one might want to do with an iPhone, from printing a label to finding an apartment near campus, there’s an application ready and waiting to help you do just that. Ready and waiting, but who made it?

One of the challenges of computing education these days is convincing students that there are new programs to write, programs that they want, and that they are the ones to write them. Computing is a new literacy. As Chris Crawford said, “Programming is the new writing.” How do we convince students that they also want to write? It’s hard to come up with a compelling argument for students that they need real computing literacy—which isn’t about using applications, and is about what is possible with a computer.

There are arguments that we can give students for numeracy and textual literacy. They need those things to survive in the world, because numeracy and textual literacy is pervasive in our society. But even without the pervasiveness, we can make arguments about self-expression and solving one’s own problems.

We tell kids that they need to learn to write in order to write letters to their grandmothers or to write to-do lists. The fact that there have been letters written in the past is irrelevant—everyone’s letter to their grandma is different. Few teachers tell kids that they should learn to write in order to become a great author (few kids will, or will even find that motivating) or that it will influence the way they think (I wonder if even all teachers believe that, though there’s good cognitive science research suggesting it’s true).

We do have a harder time arguing that kids should learn mathematics when they have calculators at hand. “What happens if you don’t have a calculator nearby?” and “You should know how to check if your answer makes sense” are both real reasons for knowing about mathematics without a calculator, but aren’t very compelling for elementary school children. The idea that mathematics might influence the way one thinks and problem-solves is again true, but not compelling for a child. Yet, the challenge to sell textual literacy or numeracy is nothing compared to the challenge of selling computational literacy.

How much harder is it to come up with a reason for coming to know computation? “There’s an app for that.” What should we be telling students that they can do with computation that’s different or better than downloading a readymade piece of software? What’s the software equivalent of the letter to grandma, that there’s a compelling reason why your program should be different from other programs out there? In part, the problem is a lack of imagination. As Alan Kay says, “The Computer Revolution hasn’t happened yet.” How do you convince kids that there’s a greater revolution possible out there and they can be part of making it happen?

So, how do these iPhone ads influence students? Do they convince students that “Every application that should be written has been written, so just buy an iPhone and don’t take computer science classes”? Or do they suggest to students that “There are so many cool applications to be written. Who do you think wrote that apartment-finding application? Could be you!”? Do the iPhone ads suggest a universe of possible apps, or suggest that the applications universe is large (certainly encompassing every need you could possibly have), closed, fixed, and ready for download?

*  Reader’s comment

This is a timely article for me as my school is beginning a STEM initiative and part of our goal is to convince people that computing literacy is important for every student. I am inspired to find a way for my computer science students to write an app for a G1 phone or an iPhone. That would be a very exciting assignment for them—one they would delightedly share with friends. And I can’t think of a better way of “selling” an idea than letting the students do the selling to each other!

Do you have any resources that would help me learn how to write apps for mobile devices? I currently teach students Flash, Java, C programming for robots, and some Python. Finding the time to learn new things can be difficult, but this seems worthwhile.

—Debra Gouchy

*  Blogger’s comment

Hi Debra! There’s a cool class at Stanford on programming cell phones–my colleague Sarita Yardi pointed me to it. The class materials are at, with more of an overview at

Some off-CACM respondents suggested to me that it’s hard to make a utilitarian argument to students for programming. It might be better to think about arguing for programming as a form of expression (to build or say things that one can’t easily do in any application, like with Processing, or to explore ideas, like in computational science. I found both to be compelling arguments.

—Mark Guzdial

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From Tessa Lau’s “Visibility Matters: Why You Need a Professional Web Page”

I’ve been serving on a lot of selection committees in the past few years. As you get to be more senior in your field, you are tapped to participate in these committees more and more; all this volunteer work is what makes our filed of endeavor possible. It’s how conferences are run, papers are accepted or rejected, award winners are chosen, fellows are nominated.

If you want to succeed in this field, you need to be well known. One step you can take toward being more known is to create a Web page for yourself.

Web presence is also important at more senior levels, to select speakers for conferences, to chair a banquet, to receive an award. Chances are good you will be selected by a committee that does not know you personally. In that case, you need to have a professional Web page that gives you credibility and assures them that you are what they are looking for.

Based on my experience, here are the important details to include on your professional Web page:

  • Name
  • Email address
  • High-level description of your research interests (e.g., HCI and AI)
  • Current employer and job title
  • When and where you got your Ph.D. (or when you expect to get it)
  • Past and future conference responsibilities
  • Conferences you have reviewed papers for
  • List of representative publications
  • Gender (a photo should be enough)
  • Awards you have received

Many of these should be on your CV (if that isn’t on the Web, it should be).

I hope I’ve convinced you why it’s important to have a Web presence. It’s particularly important for students and women in industry research labs to do this (because you tend to be less visible). Now, go update your Web site!

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