Eric Roberts Interview: Selected Quotes


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Business data processing for the state of Nevada

What my father did, rather than commute to the university, in those years was, because he studies public administration, he got a job as the Deputy Budget Director for the state of Nevada so he could learn how the bureaucracy works, and then write about it and go back to teaching. [..] So he got to know those people. And it's just an amazing story. My father brought home -- and I remember doing this -- an IBM programming aptitude test that they gave in the 1960s and he gave it to all of us. [...] And I evidently got the highest score they'd ever seen. And so the director of Data Processing, the state director, took a personal interest in me and had me come down and work on an IBM 1401 computer. I worked with a number of earlier data processing machines. I don't think you can call them computers. I have programmed collators, the IBM collators that you did with plug boards and wires. The 1401 had no permanent storage. There was no disk attached to it. I don't even know that there were tape drives. Everything that you did was read in from the card reader, processed in memory, and then printed on the printer or possibly punched. And all the coding was done in assembly language for the machine. And I loved that. I wrote a number of programs. I wrote programs that the state of Nevada used; after school and later summer internships. So, here I've become quite proficient in early high school at using computers of that generation. I didn't think of it as science. It wasn't. It was business data processing for the state of Nevada.

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"Is this normal?"

The summer before I did that teaching [1967] was the summer I spent at the program in Chico, Chico State College, in chemical equilibrium and computer science. When I tell people the story about this, it's sort of rehearsed in my head, so it's easy to tell. I chose it because it was chemistry. But the idea that there was a little computer science helped. So of all the summer science training programs that one could apply to, that one stuck out as a good opportunity and the schedule for that summer was every day we had chemistry lecture from 7:30[am] to 9:00. People think nowadays how could there be something at 7:30, students are never up but in Chico, California, you had to do everything in the morning because after 2:00[pm], it was 110 [degrees Fahrenheit] in the shade and you didn't want to be in a classroom then. So 7:30 in the morning was chemistry lecture, which I invariably attended, and 9:00 to noon was chemistry lab, which by the second week, I stopped attending for reasons that will become clear. Lunch, then 1:00 to 2:00, I think, just an hour of computer science class, which was a programming class in Fortran on a 1620 -- a really modern machine, which I just loved -- and every single day for 8 weeks from 2:00 in the afternoon until 7:30 the next morning, I lived in the computer room programming. And the only time I slept was during the chemistry lab. The directors called my parents to say, "Is this normal?" (I didn't know that). But I was doing interesting and exciting ... I was so obviously taken with it that about week four the computer science teacher said, "Why won't you go work?" and he assigned to a group of graduate students doing a research project. I had no idea quite what I was and I helped them code. It was unbelievably exciting, engaging, and so concentrated that I couldn't have done it any other way and learned as much as I did in that time with that obsessive compulsion streak that I've always had. By the time I was done with that I was just an ace coder in Fortran and assembly language.

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Advanced beginning calculus: Love it or not, mathematician or computer scientist

I came to Harvard intending to major in chemistry and physics. It was a joint major. [...] I was terribly behind so many of my fellow students because of the fact that my high school had not had advanced placement offerings. I was placed into the advanced beginning calculus, it was Math 11, at Harvard on the strength of my mathematics test scores. But almost everyone in that class had had calculus before and was using it to review .. perhaps a spotty high school education, and for me it was all new and one of my Stanford colleagues -- one of my obvious contemporaries since we were in that same class -- and I talked about that class in years later. He loved it; I just didn't. And he became a mathematician and I became a computer scientist. I loved my chemistry teacher. But in the final analysis I ended up spending -- in more or less the same obsessive way I had at that summer program -- ALL my time working in computing.

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Feminist influences

I have very strong role models of women in my family. My grandmother, my father's mother, for example, was probably the single most important influence -- I've said that in other interviews -- growing up. I dedicated my first book to her. What she did in terms of making it clear that I could accomplish things and being very active as a feminist force in her own ... in her way meant that I was really, I think, ready to go that way. But in part it was the accident of my living at the Radcliffe quad and finding the first ... feeling at home there in a way that I never felt in the Harvard side of things, partly for issues of class.

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Lessons from Father: The value of a broadly-based education

I learned it [my teaching philosophy] at my father's knee if you will. He's also taught as I have -- broadly. He uses many, many different resources in his classes. He teaches courses where, in looking at public administration, they read plays. Because he thinks that, in fact, the best place to look at the way people treat each other is not in ... of course he assigns analytical texts by people who do public administration or political theory or sociology; those are part of the reading. But to really have a sense of how someone responds to power without -- his course on plays reads Antigone, either in Sophocles' or Anouilh's version, and Ibsen's Enemy of the People, and Bertolt Brecht's Galileo, to look at the question of the relative responsibility of the individual and the state -- and Antigone is probably just a classic in that. And so I remember in high school reading those books when he would assign them because I'm fascinated by that and he would talk about them at home. And so I think that the notion that a broadly-based education is essential pre-dates even my teaching in high school by a lot. I grew up with that.

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A bigger passion for teaching than for research

My passion for teaching is different from my passion for research. I don't believe that ... I mean, I've never believed that the best researchers in any sense make the best teachers. They may, but I don't think that they're correlated. One of the myths that I think the research universities promulgate is that the great thing about being at a Stanford or Harvard is that you get to work with people who are at the tops of their field. It tends not to be true. A few people do, but only the ones who have self-selected and so are sort of brought into those research groups. More now at Stanford than was true in that day, I think that that myth is becoming less of a myth and more real than it was because of continual reform. But that what has always been true in computer science at most institutions is that some people have been brought in whose passion is in teaching. Because of ... a variety of, sort of, demographic factors.

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This year's Christmas letter ... not!

I still spend ... probably too much of my time coding. But I don't know that I could do anything else. It is just the most fun thing to do. I was telling one of my colleagues that when I write my Christmas letter for this year it will almost certainly not include the thing that I found most exciting, which was working out how to do something in a class that I had convinced myself for two years was impossible to do technically. And then one morning, in the shower, you know, this epiphany happened: "AH! I could do it that way!" And you run and you make it work and somehow, you know, that just keeps you going for months.

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Important for students to learn how to read

[F]or the last three years I've been on the faculty in the program in the introduction to the humanities at Stanford because I want to model as a real person, a technical person, an engineer, a computer scientist who thinks it's really important for students to learn how to read and I don't mean how to read on the Kindle or read technical papers (those are important too), but to read the literature of humanity because it will -- not because I think that that will make them better humans, I know that's true too -- because it will make them better scientists, it will make them better engineers. I don't think that without an understanding of humans, you do a good job with that. And I, like my father, believe that you get the best insights into that, not from ... there's no way you can get from reading a manual -- a computer manual -- much sense of how people think about things or how people learn about them. And even the work that's done in human factors and psychology and the design division of mechanical engineering don't really speak to the way that people think about things in the way that reading the best literature would allow you to understand. I think you can get an enormous amount out of that.

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Predicting the future: The Machine Stops in 1908

So what is technology holding out for us? The single reading that my students have found most compelling is the 1908 short story by E. M. Forester called The Machine Stops. It is absolutely wonderful. It is more prophetic. You know, last year was its centennial and so when we are reading it we could point that out: A hundred years before the present day this very accomplished, particularly in later years, English writer who would provide the Merchant and Ivory film series with most of their stories, had a prophetic vision of a world in which we live in a room in which we communicate on screens and all of our lives are mediated through the machine. It is probably far more accurate than anything else written before 1975. It is just amazing how close he managed to nail it.

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The magic of computer science

[I]t is possible to do more magic in computer science than in any other field I know. I mean it's just ... with ... starting with nothing except the talents that you bring and the creativity that you bring to make amazing things happen is unparalleled. So of course if you can do that that's absolutely what you ought to do, but the advice is to make sure that it stays fun. If is isn't fun then you need to find a way to make it fun again and that sort of restoring the passion, beauty, joy and awe that we've been talking about ever since that first came up at SIGCSE some years back. This is, I think, the key to it.