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BS/MS Personal Statement—Right Brain, Left Brain

Written 17 Sep 2019 by D. Ben Knoble

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein [1]

My life experiences have led me to conclude that everything we experience, create, and do in our lives both produces, and is a product of, language. From programming to playing an instrument, from math to martial arts, we simply cannot escape the structure of languages, the specialized notations, the all-senses-engaged nature of communication. Contrary to my introverted tendencies, humans—myself included—rely on and thrive on communication. Below, I explain how my conception of language as a unifying tool drives my desire to participate in the B.S./M.S. combined program.

Vigorous writing is concise. This requires that every word tell.

—adapted from William Strunk, Jr. [2]

Putting the fun back in hacking!

—Cynbe, author of Mythryl, a Standard Meta Language fork [3]

Just as vigorous writing is concise, so must vigorous programming be concise. Strunk eloquently states that this does not require arcane, unreadable syntaxes; rather, it requires that each language construct is adequately expressive, both to reader and writer. I discovered my passion for concisely expressive writing—code or otherwise— through many papers, through projects in Compilers, and through my time on Piazza as both student and Learning Assistant. In particular, this sort of construction relies on knowing the right language for the (programming) job. For example, while I coordinate processes in shell, I work with mathematical definitions in Scala, and I write a French paper in French. For me, the essence of Cynbe’s slogan for Mythryl is this passion: I love the many programming languages, and I love to program languages.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.

—Mark Twain [4]

How do we teach the “right words” of computer science (CS)? Talks by Colleen Lewis, CS pedagogy researcher at Harvey Mudd College, led me to see the profound need for more intuitive programming models. To close the gap between Twain’s “lightning” and “lightning-bug,” between pointers and programs, between objects and big-O notation, between functional programming and fun programming—this is my goal as a future M.S. student and future educator (for any expert in a field ultimately must educate in some form). Our languages must reflect our realities.

A language that doesn’t affect the way you think about programming is not worth knowing.

—Alan Perlis [5]

The world needs capable CS experts to translate our domain language to a broader context. Consider the Facebook scandals, exposing a need for the General Data Protection Regulation and digital privacy. Or consider DeepFake, revealing a need for trustworthy digital content policy. There is thus a need for independent, unbiased experts who understand and translate these issues. How can nations and peoples make good decisions without appropriate subject-matter knowledge? David Auerbach, in his 2018 memoir Bitwise: A Life in Code, details how the digital controls and classifies the human [6]. He claims that digital algorithms over-simplify and over-categorize our behaviors while driving behavior into the same categories. For our own sake, we must not over-simplify the computer case, but we must ensure that those making decisions have the appropriate information.

Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain the swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground, or at least to throw a rope.

—E. B. White [2]

Ultimately, my passion is learning, evolving my language and expanding my limits of the world. In doing so, I strive to become a guide and “poet” at the intersection of bits and “thought-stuff,” much as Fred Brooks, Jr. characterizes the work of computer scientists [7]. I hope to contribute to programming languages that guide us towards program correctness and expressiveness. I desire to teach languages that guide developing scientists towards robust intuition and understanding alongside inclusive and welcoming discourse. I aim to be a part of an expert language and community that guides both my own decisions and those of humankind, as we seek to re-examine ourselves in this digital age. I believe that the B.S./M.S. combined program provides me the best opportunity for education so that I may pursue these goals and best contribute to a broader wealth of linguistic and scientific evolution.


  1. Wittgentstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Tractatus_Logico-Philosophicus. Accessed 17th September 2019.
  2. Strunk, William Jr. and E. B. White. The Elements of Style, 4th Edition. Pearson Education, Inc.
  3. Cynbe. Mythryl. https://mythryl.org/index3.html. Accessed 17th September 2019.
  4. Twain, Mark. The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain: A Book of Quotations. Dover Thrift Editions, 1998.
  5. Perlis, Alan. Epigrams in Programming. http://www.cs.yale.edu/homes/perlis-alan/quotes.html. Accessed 17th September 2019.
  6. Auerbach, David. Bitwise: A Life in Code. Pantheon Books, 2018.
  7. Brooks, Fred, Jr. The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering. Addison-Wesley, 1995.
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