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Lauren Ipsum: A Story About Computer Science and Other Improbable Things 44

MassDosage writes As the full title to Lauren Ipsum: A story about Computer Science and Other Improbable Things indicates, this is a book about Computer Science but what's surprising about it is that it manages to be about Computer Science without actually ever directly referring to the subject or even to computers at all. It is in fact a fictional story about a young girl called Lauren who gets lost after wandering into a forest near her house after an argument with her mother. She stumbles into a world populated with all kinds of strange creatures and colorful characters some of whom she befriends in order to figure out how to get back to her home. The "figuring out" part of the plot is where things get interesting as she has many attempts at solving this problem with different characters giving her often contradictory advice and Lauren then has to decide what exactly she's trying to do and which of the various possible solutions is the best. This involves a fair amount of trial and error, learning from certain mistakes and trying different approaches. If this is starting to sound familiar to those who have written software then that's the whole point. Lauren Ipsum is cunningly littered with references to Computer Science and in particular to things like algorithms, logic puzzles and many other of the theoretical underpinnings of the subject. Read below to see what MassDosage has to say about the book.
Lauren Ipsum: A Story About Computer Science and Other Improbable Things
author Carlos Bueno
pages 182
publisher No Starch Press
rating 8/10
reviewer Mass Dosage
ISBN 978-1-59327-574-7
summary A whimsical journey through a land where logic and computer science come to life.
In the course of her adventures Lauren encounters characters like Xor the chameleon, Hugh Rustic the shop owner, a flock of round Robins and a Wandering Salesman. Anyone who knows a bit about computer science will be aware of the topics that are being alluded to here. This is also evident in some of the places she visits — a forest made up of red and black trees, the Island of Byzantium and a Garden of Forking Paths. All these insider references are obviously more enjoyable if you know the subject but it doesn't really matter if you don't get them as the story itself is separate from all the in-jokes. It's also almost certainly the intention of the authors to stimulate people to look up some of the things they refer to and thus learn more about computer science. Lauren Ipsum can thus be read on two levels — one as a straightforward adventure story and the other as a "find and research the hidden references" book. The title of the book is itself a play on words of "Lorem Ipsum" which I'll leave you to read up on on your own.

The chapter I enjoyed the most was one that covered building up a solution to a problem by breaking it down into smaller pieces and then combining these to come up with the final answer. In the book Lauren first learns how to draw a line and then that she can then draw and connect four of these to make a square. Even better is the discussion of the seemingly simple task of how to draw a circle which demonstrates that there are different ways of doing this, each having their own pros and cons. The solutions can be easily described as a set of steps and the question of how to control the size of the circle can be specified separately from the steps themselves. This is done without referring to any of the technical terms directly (one of the first chapters in the book is all about avoiding jargon) however what is actually being described will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has written some code — namely algorithms,algorithmic complexity, variables and parameter passing. This is quite a different way of illustrating programming concepts instead of the usual manner which involves lots of theory and code examples. Lauren Ipsum's approach offers a much lower learning curve with simple story driven metaphors that can then be applied practically later.

The target audience of the book is probably children from around the age of 8 and up with the intention being to spark an interest in computers without the intimidation and possible connotations of boredom that a textbook might evoke. The story is entertaining but relatively simple and most of the more serious subject matter is just touched on in passing. There is an Appendix at the end which covers a few of the topics in more technical and mathematical detail but there is plenty that isn't covered and it is up to the reader whether they want to find out more in their own way.

I found Lauren Ipsum an entertaining read, even though some of the computer science references are a bit forced. I ended up looking up a few things I wasn't entirely sure about and learnt something new in the process and I can imagine this being even more the case for someone new to the subject. Even if the reader isn't an aspiring geek-to-be there should be enough in the story here for them to enjoy and maybe help convince them that Computer Science can actually be fun or at the very least give them a taste for why problem solving is interesting and useful.

You can purchase Lauren Ipsum: A Story About Computer Science and Other Improbable Things from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews (sci-fi included) -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page. If you'd like to see what books we have available from our review library please let us know.
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Lauren Ipsum: A Story About Computer Science and Other Improbable Things

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  • Diamond Age (Score:5, Informative)

    by Zardus ( 464755 ) <yans@yancomm.net> on Thursday March 05, 2015 @02:31PM (#49190901) Homepage Journal

    Another interesting one is Diamond Age (aka A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer). Pretty interesting book that introduces a lot of CS concepts (although also explicitly mentions CS).

    • by RobinH ( 124750 )
      I thought immediately of that book as well. In fact, the "primer" referenced in the title is a book written for a little girl, and the man (uncle? grandfather?) who commissions the book tries to get the would-be author to consider what it means to be "subversive". This reminds me very much of the book in the summary... it is... subversive. (Maybe)
  • Nope (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    it manages to be about Computer Science without actually ever directly referring to the subject or even to computers at all.

    No, it manages to be a loosely connected chain of tired math/logic puzzles behind a transparent "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" facade.

    The target audience of the book is probably children from around the age of 8 and up with the intention being to spark an interest in computers

    Yeah, that'll go over well. Any kid willing to read this shit would already be interested in math/logic, and likely already know of many of the concepts in the book. Any kid not tickled pink by math/logic puzzles isn't going to read the book. You're not going to "spark an interest" this way.

    • Re:Nope (Score:4, Informative)

      by disambiguated ( 1147551 ) on Thursday March 05, 2015 @04:36PM (#49191761)

      I agree that it won't spark an interest that isn't already there, but it might spark a dormant interest in a lasting way. Maybe your criticisms are valid, I haven't read it, but then again we're not 8-year-olds.

      I was probably going to be interested in math & science eventually anyway, but at that age I wasn't voluntarily reading any non-fiction science. But then I accidentally discovered an Isaac Asimov book, and I was hooked. Not long after that I asked for a subscription to Scientific American for Christmas. That book had a huge influence on me and got me started much younger than I would have otherwise. (And I can't even remember which Asimov book it was.)

      The thing is, you don't know you're interested until you are exposed to it. I'm sure most slashdotters will agree that math & logic are inherently interesting, but that's because they already know a lot of it. You somehow have to learn enough to understand that it is more interesting than it is typically presented in school (hard as they try.)

    • Re:Nope (Score:4, Interesting)

      by lgw ( 121541 ) on Thursday March 05, 2015 @06:43PM (#49192743) Journal

      Yeah, that'll go over well. Any kid willing to read this shit would already be interested in math/logic, and likely already know of many of the concepts in the book. Any kid not tickled pink by math/logic puzzles isn't going to read the book. You're not going to "spark an interest" this way.

      I disagree. When I was 8-ish I had an interest in geeky things, but no simple, accessible math/logic problems to think about to begin growing my skills in that area. Math/logic puzzles written for a younger audience just weren't common. It wasn't until I was 12 or so that I found stuff I could actually read and understand enough to make progress on my own (beyond being good at arithmetic at a young age, which has nothing to do with math or logic really).

      Maybe it's different today in our higher-tech world, with wikipedia and whatnot, but I had no way to get started. I see a lot of value in a the reinforcement - in having a kid who might be interested discover that they in fact are good at and enjoy such problems.

    • It also doesn't make sense to say "even to computers at all" since computer science as such isn't really about computers. So I would have thought that there isn't any reason why they should be mentioned in the first place.
  • by Megahard ( 1053072 ) on Thursday March 05, 2015 @02:36PM (#49190943)

    Reminds me of that well-known reference The Story of Ping [amazon.com]

  • The whole story sounds a bit like Alice in Wonderland.
    • Also The Phantom Tollbooth. That's the book I immediately thought about when reading the description. I wore that book out as a kid.
  • by allo ( 1728082 ) on Thursday March 05, 2015 @03:07PM (#49191141)

    And another book, which tries to disguise an topic, and creates a book, which is neither useful for the topic, nor a readable story. Why?

  • In the book Lauren first learns how to draw a line and then that she can then draw and connect four of these to make a square.

    Christ. Who writes this rubbish?

    I read some of the book using Amazon's 'look inside' feature. It's deeply un-engaging, and highly unlikely to hold a child's attention for very long at all. Compare the writing in it to something [amazon.co.uk] that's actually [amazon.co.uk] good [amazon.co.uk], and you'll hopefully understand what I mean.

  • by whh3 ( 450031 )

    Sounds a little like Goedel, Escher, Bach [wikipedia.org] but more approachable. I am all for every single tool that we can use to get people interested in computer science. I am definitely going to recommend this to friends/family who have are even the least-bit interested in the topic. Let 1000 flowers bloom.

    • GEB is a great book but it not about computers, it's about the human mind and in particular the recursive nature of thought (see "I am a strange loop" by the same author). If you want something like GEB but more approachable then try the original "Through the looking glass".
      • by whh3 ( 450031 )

        Fair enough. It's not about computers, per se, but I do think that it can still be about computer science (or what is computable).

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