Automata Theory MOOC

21 Dec 2013computer-sciencemoocs

I’ve just finished the final exam for Stanford’s Automata Theory online course, run by Jeff Ullman. I originally chose to follow this course because 1). I wanted to learn (and in some cases re-learn) about finite automata and context-free grammars, and 2). it’s Jeff Ullman (duh). The finite automata and context-free grammar stuff was fun and useful and pretty easy, but the most interesting part of the course ended up being the material about decidability, computability and tractability (P vs. NP and all that jazz). I was re-reading Hoftstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach at the same time as doing the course, and so questions of decidability and computability were bouncing around in my mind.

Hoftstadter makes a big effort to present some really deep ideas in an accessible way without wading through the details of proofs. Ullman’s course takes a complementary approach, with lots of semi-formal proofs: “semi-formal” in the sense that they’re what I call “story” proofs with quite a bit of narrative argument—there’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s a fairly digestible approach for video lectures. You do need to pay attention and skip back and forth in the videos a little sometimes, but only a couple of the proofs are complicated enough to cause trouble.

The course was very well-organised, with useful homeworks and a couple of interesting programming exercises. Ullman and his TAs participated in the discussion forums quite a bit and there were some extra “challenge problems” to add to the fun. I have some more general comments I want to make about MOOCs in another post, but this was definitely a good example of what you can do in a course like this.

Like I said, the most interesting material was the stuff on computability and complexity. It’s not something I know a whole lot about, and I found myself adrift in a twisty maze of complexity classes when I tried to do some background reading. I’ve since discovered some useful resources. Emphatically not included among those is the “standard” textbook, which is more than US$100 from the vultures at Addison-WesleyI just bought Michael Spivak’s Physics for Mathematicians, which is 700-and-some pages of really good stuff for about $45 in hardback. I never believed that there was any real justification for the inflated prices of US college textbooks. When I was teaching in Canada, I always felt really bad telling students that they had to buy some overpriced and crummy textbook that the department had mandated because of pressure from a publisher’s salesman.. The best alternative I’ve found seems to be Scott Aaronson’s stuff. He’s been teaching a course at MIT for a few years on Automata, Computability, and Complexity, and all the course materials are available through MIT’s website. Beyond that, there’s the Complexity Zoo, also an Aaronson project, which has an overwhelmingly comprehensive bibliography and treatment of more or less every complexity class known to humanity.

I don’t know how much of this material is useful for day-to-day “practical” programming work, but it’s certainly very entertaining.