FSEM 142: The Algorithmic Life

Fall, 2013.

Instructor:  David J. Eck.

Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 12:20--1:15 PM.
Room Stern 217.

About This Course

An algorithm is just an unambiguous, step-by-step procedure for carrying out some task. Algorithms are the ideas behind computer programs. They make possible the modern technology-intensive world.

To some extent, this course is about algorithms. The course was inspired by a book called 9 Algorithms that Changed the Future, which tries to explain the ideas behind some of the important algorithms that people encounter every day. We will read and discuss part of this book. You will also learn how to make basic web pages and write some simple programs. This will give you some background to help you understand just what it is that computers do.

But the course is not called Algorithms. It's called The Algorithmic Life, and the major part of the course will investigate how people live in this modern networked, computerized world. It is, in short, largely about your algorithmic life.

This course is a seminar. Most of what you do for the course will be reading, writing, and discussing. The course depends for its success on your willingness to engage seriously with the material. The things that we will cover and the issues that we will consider should be of vital interest to you and to anyone alive today, and I am hoping for a lively and fun experience.

Required Books

Most of the readings for the course are from the following four books. You should buy copies; they should be available at the HWS College Store. When we discuss a reading from one of these books, you should bring your copy of that book to class. All of these are available in paperback for about $16 each:

There will also be some readings that I will hand out in class. We will not use any of the books until the second week of classes.

Reading and Writing for Discussion

In this course, most of your time in the classroom will be spent in discussion, and most of that discussion will be based on assigned readings. It is important that you read the material in advance, think about it, and come to class prepared to discuss it. This means not just being prepared to respond, but also bringing questions that you would like to discuss or points that you would like to raise.

Of course, writing is also part of the course. Part of that writing will consist of formal papers on which you will work for several weeks. But writing is also a way of thinking, and there are also less formal writing assignments to help you think about the reading and prepare to discuss it.

So... Each reading assignment automatically comes with a one-page writing assignment. The assignment is limited to one side of one sheet of paper. It can be hand-written or word-processed. These assignments will be graded check (serious effort), check-plus (serious effort with especially good writing, insight, or analytic depth), or check-minus (not at the expected level). They will count as part of your "participation" grade for the course. The grade in the end depends on the number of pluses and minuses that you get. A missing assignment is much worse than a check-minus.

The format must be as follows: A one or two paragraph summary of the reading, which should be in the form of full sentences and paragraphs, not an outline. Optionally, your reaction or response to the reading. Optionally, notes about things in the reading that you didn't understand or that you thought were too obscure. And finally, at least one significant, interesting question or point about the reading that you can raise for class discussion.

Remember that you are limited to one side of a sheet of paper! Part of the point of the exercise is to be able to express yourself concisely and precisely.

Occasionally, after our discussion of the reading, I will ask you to turn the paper over and take a few minutes to write about your response to the discussion.

Major Writing Assignments

This course requires you to write three papers. I will hand out details of the assignments in class, but here are the general ideas, to let you know what's coming.

The first paper will be an essay about your use of technology (or, if that is too personal, about your generation's use of technology). As an essay, it will not require any research — though, of course, if you do use any sources you are required to document them as usual. Hopefully, this paper will inform and will be informed by our discussions in class.

The second paper will be based on research into some topic, using a magazine or newspaper article as a starting point. I will provide the articles, and you will be part of a group of several students working on the same article. This assignment will begin with a visit to the library, where you will learn about some of the resources available there. It will also be the basis of student-led discussion/debate about the topics of the articles.

The third paper will be a longer research paper. You will have to find a topic for the paper, related to the course. I will hand out a list of ideas, but you can also come up with something on your own. You will have to consult with me about your choice of topic and get it approved. I hope to avoid having two people write about the same thing. I plan to use some class meetings to give students a chance to present their topics and discuss them with other students.

The two shorter papers will be done in the first half of the semester. Each will be about three or four type-written, double-spaced pages. You will work on the third paper in the second half of the semester. It will be about six to ten pages. In each case, I will collect the papers and return them with my comments. You will then have a chance to rewrite the paper before I give it a grade. There will also be some opportunities to get feedback from other people in the class about your work.

You can start thinking about a topic for your final paper any time, and you are welcome to discuss your ideas with me. One thing that you might want to do is to look at a book as a starting point. Here are a few. I have copies of these books that I would be willing to lend out. Note that the readings for the first week of classes, which I will hand out in class, are taken from the first three books on this list.

Activities Outside of Class

There will a few required out-of-class activities. For the first paper, and likely for the third, I will require you to meet with me in my office to discuss your plans for the paper. Also, I hope that the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science will be able to sponsor a talk by a well-known computer science researcher about "The Semantic Web." If that comes off, you will be required to attend the talk (or, if that is absolutely impossible, to make up the missed opportunity in some way). These activities will be part of your participation grade.

Although it is not a requirement, I hope that you will keep your eyes open for interesting news about technology and its role in the modern world. You can bring what you find to class, to tell the class about it and discuss it. We can always take a few minutes of class time to do so.

Attendance and Participation

This course relies on your participation for success, and a significant part of your grade will be based on your participation. Participation includes not just talking in class. It also includes preparing for discussion by completing the reading and writing assignments and in some cases working with other students, such as by reading and commenting on their papers.

Of course, you can't participate in a class if you are not there. Attendance is required. I don't have any specific rules about how many classes you can miss or how many points I will deduct when you miss a class. However, missing class will certainly affect your participation grade, and excessive absences will certainly lower your grade for the course. I will warn you if you are in danger of this.

When you miss a class in this course (or any course that you take), it is good practice to contact the professor. If you know in advance that you will have to miss a class, talk to your professor beforehand. If something comes up at the last minute that forces you to miss a class, email an apology or explanation as soon as you can.

Quizzes and Tests

Although this course is mainly about writing and discussion, there is a certain amount of factual material that you are expected to master. This includes material from readings, lectures, and labs. I do not expect you to memorize everything that you read or hear in the course, but I do expect you to retain significant points of information.

There will be two "factual quizzes," given in class on Wednesday, October 2 and Friday, November 8. There will also be a final exam, which will take place during the official final exam period for this course, Tuesday, December 10, at 8:30 AM. (This is the first exam on the first day of exams for the Fall semester.) The final exam will include a "factual quiz" similar to the two in-class quizzes. It will also include some essay questions about the major ideas that have been covered in the class. You will have at least some idea in advance about what the essay questions will be.


It should be reasonably easy to get a B in this course, not so easy to get an A, and relatively hard to get a C or worse. That is, if you take the course seriously, turn in the work, and come to class, you should do fine. Here is how I plan to weight the various components of the final grade for the course:

Quiz 1:           8%
Quiz 2:           8%
Final Exam:      14%
First paper:     10%
Second paper:    10%
Third paper:     20%
Participation:   30%

Note that "participation" includes attendance, the daily writing assignments, and any work I ask you to do for computer labs, as well as participation in class discussion.

This Course and the Eight Goals

The HWS curriculum requires that you take courses to address eight "goals."

Goal 1 ("Develop skills for effective communication, including the ability to read and listen critically and to speak and write effectively.") and Goal 2 ("Develop skills for critical thinking and argumentation, including the ability to articulate a question, to identify and gain access to appropriate information, to organize evidence and to construct a complex written argument.") are fundamental to learning and scholarly communication. It is assumed that the courses that you take will inevitably address these goals. This course, certainly, is designed to help you begin working on these two goals on a college level.

As for the other six goals, you must certify at some point that you have addressed each one. Usually, this is done in consultation with your major advisor in your Junior year. However, you can also ask your current advisor to sign off on a goal at any time.

This course, by itself, does not fully address any of the six goals. However, it does address Goal 3 (quantitative reasoning) and Goal 8 (ethical judgment) to some extent. It is even possible that you might fully address Goal 8 if you write a final paper does some deep analysis of an ethical issue.

Statement from the CTL

At Hobart and William Smith Colleges, we encourage you to learn collaboratively and to seek the resources that will enable you to succeed. The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) is one of those resources: CTL programs and staff help you engage with your learning, accomplish the tasks before you, enhance your thinking and skills, and empower you to do your best. Resources at CTL are many: Study Mentors help you find your time and manage your responsibilities, Writing Fellows help you think well on paper, and professional staff help you assess academic needs.

Your are encouraged to explore CTL resources designed to encourage your very best work. You can talk with me about these resources, visit the CTL office on the 2nd floor of the library to discuss options with the staff, or visit the CTL website: https://www.hws.edu/academics/ctl

Study Mentors: The CTL resource especially valuable to students just starting college is the Study Mentors program. Study Mentors engage directly with each student in the process of adjusting to new academic demands: They help you find the time you need to engage with both your academic and co-curricular activities, accomplish the tasks in front of you, and enhance your reading and study time. Study Mentors may be especially important for those of you who are involved in many activities. To meet with a Study Mentor, one option is to go to the TutorTrac link provided on the CTL webpage and make an appointment. You can also contact Sam Vann at vann@hws.edu, or drop in at the CTL office on the 2nd floor of the library.

Disability Accommodations: If you are a student with a disability for which you may need accommodations, you should self-identify and register for services with the Coordinator of Disability Services at the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), and provide documentation of your disability. Disability related accommodations and services generally will not be provided until the registration and documentation process is complete. The guidelines for documenting disabilities can be found at the following website: http://www.hws.edu/disabilities

Please direct questions about this process or Disability Services at HWS to David Silver, Coordinator of Disability Services, at silver@hws.edu or x3351.

Office Hours, Email, WWW

My office is room 313 in Lansing Hall. My office phone extension is 3398. I am on campus most days, and you are welcome to come in anytime you can find me there. I will announce office hours as soon as my schedule is determined, but note that your office visits are not restricted to my regular office hours.

My email address is eck@hws.edu.

The Web page for this course can be found at http://math.hws.edu/eck/fsem142/index.html.

Tentative Schedule

Here is a daily schedule for the course. Although we will try to follow this schedule for the most part, it will probably be necessary to make some adjustments along the way. Changes will be noted in class and posted on the course web page.

Friday, August 23:  First class meeting, as part of Orientation. We will introduce ourselves, and we will talk about the course and about advising. The reading for next Monday will be distributed.

Monday, August 26:  Reading: Handout from Hackers, by Steven Levy, pages 3–38. (For this and all reading assignments, unless otherwise noted, you should read the material before class and write your one page reading response, as described above.)

Wednesday, August 28:  Reading: Handout from Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky, pages 109–123. The first writing assignment will be distributed today. (This assignment will be an essay about your — or your generation's — use of technology. I will ask you to meet with me individually sometime next week, outside of class, to discuss your paper.)

Friday, August 30:  Reading: Handout from You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier, pages 87–93; "Trurl's Electronic Bard" from The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem (translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel), pages 43–57.

Monday, September 2:  Reading: 9 Algorithms that Changed the Future, Chapter 1, pages 1–10.

Wednesday, September 4:  Reading: 9 Algorithms that Changed the Future, Chapter 2, pages 10–23.

Friday, September 6:  Today's class is a lecture about creating web pages.

Monday, September 9:  Today, the class meets in a computer lab where you will work on creating a web site. You should also be working on the first writing assignment!

Wednesday, September 11:  Reading: 9 Algorithms that Changed the Future, Chapter 3, pages 24–37.

Friday, September 13:  The first writing assignment is due today. People will read and give feedback on other people's essays, before turning them in.

Monday, September 16:  Reading: The Filter Bubble, Introduction, pages 2–20. Your first assignment will be returned, with comments but not with a grade.

Wednesday, September 18:  Reading: The Filter Bubble, Chapter 1, pages 21—46.

Friday, September 20:  Turn in your rewrite of the first assignment for grading. We will spend the class discussing the papers and preparing for next week's library visit.

Monday, September 23:  The class visits the library today for a session on library resources and web research methods, coordinated by one of the research librarians. This session is also the start of the second writing assignment. For that assignment, you will read a recent magazine or newspaper article and use it as a starting point for research. The class will be divided into four groups, and each group will read a different article, covering a different topic related to the course.

Wednesday, September 25:  Reading: The Filter Bubble, Chapter 2, pages 47–76.

Friday, September 27:  Reading: The Filter Bubble, Chapter 6, pages 165–188. There will also be some lecture on writing computer programs.

Monday, September 30:  Today is our second class meeting in a computer lab, where you will do a little programming in JavaScript, a programming language that runs on web pages.

Wednesday, October 2:  Today is the first QUIZ, which will test you on factual information from the first part of the course.

Friday, October 4:  The second writing assignment is due today. You will discuss your paper in a group with the other people who read the same article. Your group will very briefly present the topic to the rest of the class.

Monday, October 7:  Reading: The Filter Bubble, Chapter 7 pages 189–216; "The Library of Babel," from Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, pages 51–58. The second writing assignment is returned with comments but no grade

Wednesday, October 9:  Reading: 9 Algorithms that Changed the Future, Chapter 6, pages 80–104.

Friday, October 11:  Rewrite of the second writing assignment is turned in for grading. The four groups for that assignment will prepare for next week, when they will lead discussions/debates. The requirements for the third and final writing assignment will be distributed.

Fall Break, October 14—15

Wednesday, October 16:  Student-led class discussion/debate on two of the topics from the second writing assignment.

Friday, October 18:  Student-led class discussion/debate on two of the topics from the second writing assignment.

Monday, October 21:  Reading: Cognitive Surplus, Chapter 1, pages 1–30.

Wednesday, October 23:  Reading: Cognitive Surplus, Chapter 2, pages 31–64.

Friday, October 25:  A second visit to the library or discussion of final paper topics. Bring a one-paragraph description of each of two possible topics to class.

Monday, October 28:  Lecture on CSS (which controls the appearance of web pages).

Wednesday, October 30:  The class meets in a computer lab, where you will work on your web pages, mostly on CSS.

Friday, November 1:  Reading: Cognitive Surplus, Chapter 3, pages 65–96.

Monday, November 4:  Reading: Cognitive Surplus, Chapter 4, pages 97–131. Preliminary bibliography (possibly an annotated bibliography) for the final paper is due today.

Wednesday, November 6:  Reading: 9 Algorithms that Changed the World, Chapter 4, pages 39–59.

Friday, November 8:  Second QUIZ, on factual material from the second part of the course.

Monday, November 11:  Reading: Alone Together, Introduction, pages 1–20.

Wednesday, November 13:  Reading: Alone Together, Chapter 1, pages 23–34.

Friday, November 15:  Discussion related to final paper topics.

Monday, November 18:  Reading: Alone Together, Chapter 8, pages 151–170.

Wednesday, November 20:  Reading: Alone Together, Chapter 9, pages 171–186.

Friday, November 22:  The class meets in a computer lab, where you will work on adding more programming to your web pages.

Monday, November 26:  Final papers are due today. We will continue discussion of final paper topics.

Thanksgiving Break, November 28—30.

Monday, December 2:  Reading: Alone Together, Chapter 14, pages 265–277. Papers will be returned, with comments but no grade.

Wednesday, December 4:  Reading: 9 Algorithms that Changed the World, Chapter 10, pages 177–198.

Friday, December 6:  Reading: "Prince Ferrix and the Princess Crystal," from The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem, pages 282–295. Final paper rewrites due (but extensions are possible).

Final Exam, Tuesday, December 10, 7:00 PM
(Factual QUIZ plus essay questions)