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In Praise of Brevity

For those of us at universities, the school year is winding down. I am teaching our second semester course this spring, and I usually try to add some off-syllabus material at the end about Java Swing, layouts, event handling, and other things involved in programming window popping and GUIs. I have in the past used the first 15 pages or so from a book that doesn't happen to be the textbook for the course, because that particular book happens to have the simplest, quickest, cleanest introduction to the topic of any text I have seen. And I have felt that excerpting 15 pages from a standard 500-plus book was legitimate fair use and did not create a copyright infringement problem.

However, when I went looking this semester for my book, I find that I have loaned out the book; I don't have a copy, and I can't find a copy in any of my colleagues' offices either. And I can't find the photocopy of the excerpt; that must be buried in a file cabinet that got reshuffled when I moved offices.

No problem, or so I thought. There is a new edition of the book that has come out, and I do happen to have a copy of that.

Or so I thought. Trouble is, the authors apparently couldn't let well enough alone. The beauty of the earlier edition's text was that it presented just enough to allow one to start doing Swing. Not all the bells and whistles were there, but there was enough to allow one to start with some basic programs, and then, with some effort in reading the Java documentation carefully, to expand on the basics to do more clever things. It was from that short excerpt that I started and then built out a Sudoku solving program with clicks and colors and logic. (I find that nearly all puzzles can be solved with an essentially greedy approach.)

The new edition, though, has expanded 15 pages into about 70. Yes, this is a lot more complete, but it's also a lot harder to teach because it covers lots of details along the way, where the earlier edition just hit the high points.

Sometimes less is more. I find it hard to justify maybe three weeks of a semester just on the niceties of changing colors on windows, or showing how to make the lyrics of a Lada Gaga song flash on and off in a script font while the song is playing in the background. This is cool stuff, but it's not really what our students need as core material. I would rather give them examples of the half-dozen options of The Big Picture and then let them explore details on their own.

Sometimes less is more.

Duncan Buell
CSTA Board of Directors

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