[Edu-sig] Computer Hatred

Terry Hancock hancock at anansispaceworks.com
Wed Sep 24 15:21:28 EDT 2003

On Wednesday 24 September 2003 11:10 am, Guido van Rossum wrote:
> > In a message of Wed, 24 Sep 2003 15:03:53 BST, Shelley Walsh writes:
> > >I'm not looking for a statistical package. I am trying to discover such
> > >basic things as why it is so much easier to press 2+4= on a calculator than
> > >=2+4 in a spreadsheet. Or for that matter why typing 2+4 at a >>> prompt is
> > >so much harder than pressing 2+4= on a calculator. My experience was that
> > >students were even more violently against Python than they were against
> > >Excel. The ** drives for powers scares them even more than the ^ does.
> [Laura]
> > I think the question you need to ask is 'what makes a calculator easy
> > to use'.  It may simply be that people are trained to use a calculator,
> > long before you meet them.  [...]
> Probably, but even if you've never used a calculator, *learning* to
> use a calculator is a lot easier than learning to use a computer. 

I hate to admit it, but I used to do first-tier telephone tech support. :-)

One of the things I found really interesting was the degree to which
things that I as a frequent computer user take *completely* for
granted would be serious obstacles for new users.  Particularly older
users who were trying to use a computer for the first time.

To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, find a computer running
an unfamiliar operating system and window environment (e.g. if you're
a Microsoft Windows user, use Mac or Linux+X). Now try to do something
fairly straightforward, like open a word processor and write a paragraph
of text.


First time users frequently do NOT find the "Windows - Icon - Mouse - Pointer"
model completely intuitive.  I once spent about a half-hour trying to
explain to a guy over the phone how to *resize a window* so that he could
see something that was "behind" it.  Remember also that there really *isn't*
anything behind the windows on your screen, and the idea of the window
environment as a bunch of layered images is a carefully preserved fiction of
the interface.  And if you don't buy into that fiction, the screen will be
severely confusing.

And this is one of many, many "intuitive" elements of working with GUI
environments that new users may not find intuitive at all.

As for the relevance to topic, what I'm saying is that you are
taking for granted that "typing =2+4 in Excel" and "typing 2+4= in a
calculator" are very similar experiences. They are for you and me, but this
is partly because we have a large body of shared knowledge which we
don't even acknowledge, because it's "intuitive".

There's another factor, too.  And this may be even more relevant to your
case: FEEDBACK.  Conceptually, both spreadsheets and programming
languages record a formula for later use, rather than providing an immediate
response. The time between these two phases can be quite short, but it
is there. And a person who types "2+4=" on a calculator *never actually
sees* the formula "2+4=", but only experiences it by feel.  So seeing it written
out on the screen as they work, instead of immediate feedback, may
seem odd.

I have to admit that I find calculation by hand to
sometimes feel more natural, too.  One of the things about Python that
I really liked was the interactive command line which allows me to have
*nearly* this experience on the computer, while conceiving of a program
or just doing calculations.  When I realized that the functionality of "calc"
was basically a complete subset of the functionality of python -- I realized
I should just stop using calc and use python instead.  After all, if I ever found
I needed more than a few calculations, I can always write a few lines of
python code interactively to do the job.

And before I developed any familiarity with spreadsheets in general, I
would do calculations just like that, and then paste over the results to
a word-processor or other program.  I eventually did learn to use kspread,
but it's not always the easiest way, especially if you're picky about layout,
which I often am.


Terry Hancock ( hancock at anansispaceworks.com )
Anansi Spaceworks  http://www.anansispaceworks.com

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