Michael Siff

BA, BSE., MSE, University of Pennsylvania. PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Special interests in programming languages, cryptology, and software engineering; author of research papers on interplay between type theory and software engineering. SLC, 1999–

Undergraduate Courses 2018-2019

Computer Science

Introduction to Web Programming

Open , Lecture—Spring

This lecture introduces the fundamental principles of computer science via the creation of interactive Web pages. We will focus on the core triumvirate of Web technologies: HTML for content, CSS for layout, and—most important for us—JavaScript for interactivity. Examples of the kinds of Web applications that we will build include a virtual art gallery; a password generator and validator; and an old-school, arcade-style game. We will learn programming from the ground up and demonstrate how it can be used as a general-purpose, problem-solving tool. Throughout the course, we will emphasize the power of abstraction and the benefits of clearly written, well-structured code. We will cover variables, conditionals, loops, functions, recursion, arrays, objects, JSON notation, and event handling. We will also discuss how JavaScript communicates with HyperText Markup Language (HTML) via the Document Object Model (DOM) and the relationship of HTML, JavaScript, and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Along the way, we will discuss the history of the Web, the challenge of establishing standards, and the evolution of tools and techniques that drive the Web’s success. We will learn about client-server architectures and the differences between client-side and server-side Web programming. We will consider when it makes sense to design from the ground up and when it might be more prudent to make use of existing libraries and frameworks rather than reinvent the wheel. We will also discuss the aesthetics of Web design: Why are some pages elegant (even art) when others are loud, awkward to use, or—worse yet—boring. Weekly hands-on laboratory sessions will reinforce the programming concepts covered in lecture. No prior experience with programming or Web design is necessary (nor expected nor even desirable).

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Introduction to Computer Programming

Open , Lecture—Fall

This lecture presents a rigorous introduction to computer science and the art of computer programming, using the elegant, eminently practical, yet easy-to-learn programming language Python. We will learn the principles of problem solving with a computer while gaining the programming skills necessary for further study in the discipline. We will emphasize the power of abstraction, the theory of algorithms, and the benefits of clearly written, well-structured programs. Fundamental topics include: how computers represent and manipulate numbers, text and other data (such as images and sound); variables and symbolic abstraction; Boolean logic; conditional, iterative, and recursive computation; functional abstraction (“black boxes”); and standard data structures such as arrays, lists, and dictionaries. We will learn introductory computer graphics and how to process simple user interactions via mouse and keyboard. We will also consider the role of randomness in otherwise deterministic computation, basic sorting and searching algorithms, how programs can communicate across networks, and some principles of game design. Toward the end of the semester, we will investigate somewhat larger programming projects and so will discuss file processing; modules and data abstraction; and object-oriented concepts such as classes, methods, and inheritance. As we proceed, we will debate the relative merits of writing programs from scratch versus leveraging existing libraries of code. Discussion topics will also include the distinction between decidable and tractable problems, the relationship between programming and artificial intelligence, the importance of algorithmic efficiency to computer security, and Moore’s Law and its impact on the evolution of programming languages and programming style. Weekly hands-on laboratory sessions will reinforce the programming concepts covered in class.

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Databases

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Permission of the instructor is required. Students should have at least one semester of programming experience.

A modern database system is a collection of interrelated facts recorded on digital media and a set of computer programs that efficiently access those facts. In the 21st century, databases have become ubiquitous via the Web and {cloud computing” to the point that users may not even realize where their data is stored, how it is accessed, and who has access to it. This course attempts to shed light on why and how our society has become so dependent on information processing by examining software (and, to a lesser extent, hardware) techniques that lead to the efficient storage and retrieval of information. We will illustrate core principles by designing databases using open-source platforms (such as PostgreSQL, SQLite and MySQL) and designing websites to manipulate those databases using client-side technologies (such as HTML, CSS, JavaScript and a bit of AJAX) and server-side programming languages (such as PHP, Python and Node.js). Major topics include relational database design, query languages (e.g., SQL, its relatives, and lower-level embedded query languages), the object-relational model, ACID properties, and the client-server paradigm. We will also consider how the era of big data has challenged the supremacy of the ACID/SQL model and given rise to NoSQL database systems such as MongoDB, Cassandra, and Neo4J. Each student will be responsible for designing and implementing a Web-accessible database application of their own choosing, using open-source database software and a Web-application programming language such as Node, PHP, Python, or Ruby. Students will work on their projects throughout the course and will demonstrate them to rest of the class at the close of the semester. In addition to regular reading assignments, there will be several problem sets and short programming assignments. There will also be a more substantial programming assignment used to illustrate issues pertaining to the practical implementation of database systems. Example conference topics include data mining, database privacy and access control, geographic information systems (GIS), logic databases, and the implementation of a miniature database system.

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Privacy, Technology, and the Law

Open , Seminar—Fall

What do digital currency, self-driving vehicles, and Edward Snowden have in common? The answer lies in this course, which focuses on how a few very specific computer technologies are dramatically altering daily life. In lecture, we will develop a series of core principles that explain the rapid change and help us chart a reasoned path to the future. We begin with a brief history of privacy, private property, and privacy law. Two examples of early 20th-century technologies that required legal thinking to evolve are: 1) whether a pilot (and passengers) of a plane are trespassing when the plane flies over someone's backyard; and, 2) whether the police can listen to a phone call from a phone booth (remember those?) without a warrant. Quickly, we will arrive at the age of information and can update those conundrums to, for example: a drone flies by with an infrared camera, a copyrighted video is viewed on YouTube via public WiFi, a hateful comment is posted on reddit, a playful tweet is taken out of context and goes viral for all to see, an illicit transaction involving Bitcoin is made between seemingly anonymous parties via Venmo. To get a better handle on the problem, we will consider the central irony of the Internet. It was developed at the height of the Cold War as a way to maintain a robust communication system in the event of a nuclear attack. Now, its open nature puts us at risk of 21st-century security threats such as electronic surveillance, aggregation and mining of personal information, and cyberterrorism. We will contrast doomsday myths popularized by movies such as War Games with more mundane scenarios such as total disruption of electronic commerce. Along the way, we will address questions such as: Does modern technology allow people to communicate secretly and anonymously? Can a few individuals disable the entire Internet? Can hackers launch missiles or uncover blueprints for nuclear power plants from remote computers on the other side of the world? We will also investigate other computer-security issues, including spam, computer viruses, and identity theft. Meanwhile, with our reliance on smart phones, text messages, and electronic mail, have we unwittingly signed ourselves up to live in an Orwellian society? Or can other technologies keep 1984 at bay? Our goal is to investigate if and how society can strike a balance so as to achieve computer security without substantially curtailing rights to free speech and privacy. Along the way, we will introduce the science of networks and describe the underlying theories that makes the Internet and its related technologies at once tremendously successful and so challenging to regulate. A substantial portion of the course will be devoted to introductory cryptology—the science (and art) of encoding and decoding information to enable private communication. We will conclude with a discussion of how cutting-edge technologies, such as blockchains, are impacting commerce today and how quantum cryptography and quantum computing may impact the privacy of communications tomorrow.

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Previous Courses

The Interactive Web

Open , Seminar—Spring

No prior experience with programming or Web design is necessary (nor expected nor even desirable).

This seminar explores the impact and import of the Web by examining its underlying technologies and the theory behind those technologies. In particular, we focus on the interactive nature of the Web: how users consume content but, more importantly, create it. We consider both intentional creations (e.g., bespoke Web sites, status updates, message-board posts, Instagram feeds) and unintentional (e.g., the trail of a user's search history). The class combines discussion and debate with a hands-on, tutorial introduction to constructing interactive Web pages. Discussions include a brief history of the Web, the difference between the Internet and the Web, net neutrality and open source, the challenge of establishing standards, and the evolution of tools and techniques that drive the Web's success. From the technical side, we introduce basic programming concepts such as variables, conditionals, loops, functions, recursion, arrays, objects, and event handling. We develop programs using tools and languages (e.g., Pencil Code and CoffeeScript) that emphasize ease of use and allow us to focus on meaning rather than weighing us down with syntax. We leverage the power of the browser to create multimedia applications with sound and animation. We use tools that enable the collaborative creation of digital art and simple, yet entertaining, games. We learn about the core technologies of interactive Web programming: how JavaScript communicates with HyperText Markup Language (HTML) via the Document Object Model (DOM) and the relationship between HTML, JavaScript and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). We also consider when it makes sense to design from the ground up and when it is more prudent to make use of existing libraries and frameworks rather than reinvent the wheel. We discuss user experience (UX) and the aesthetics of Web design: Why are some pages elegant (even art) when others are loud, awkward to use, or—worse yet—boring.

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Data Structures and Algorithms

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Permission of the instructor is required. Students should have at least one semester of programming experience.

In this course, we will study a variety of data structures and algorithms that are important for the design of sophisticated computer programs, along with techniques for managing program complexity. Throughout the course, we will use Java, a strongly typed, object-oriented programming language. Topics covered will include types and polymorphism, arrays, linked lists, stacks, queues, priority queues, heaps, dictionaries, balanced trees, and graphs, as well as several important algorithms for manipulating these structures. We will also study techniques for analyzing the efficiency of algorithms. The central theme tying all of these topics together is the idea of abstraction and the related notions of information hiding and encapsulation, which we will emphasize throughout the course. Weekly lab sessions will reinforce the concepts covered in class through extensive, hands-on practice at the computer.

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Computer Organization

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Permission of the instructor is required. Students should have at least one semester of programming experience.

The focus of this course is on the selection and interconnection of components that make up a computer. There are two essential categories of components in modern computers: the hardware (the physical medium of computation) and the software (the instructions executed by the computer). As technology becomes more complex, the distinction between hardware and software blurs. We will study why this happens, as well as why hardware designers need to be concerned with the way software designers write programs and vice versa. Along the way, we will learn how computers work from higher-level programming languages—such as Java, Python, and C—down to the basic zeroes and ones of machine code. Topics include Boolean logic, circuit design, computer arithmetic, assembly and machine languages, memory hierarchies, and parallel processing. Special attention will be given to the ARM family of instruction—set architectures—now the world's most common general-purpose microprocessors. Time permitting, we will investigate the relationship between energy consumption and the rise of multicore and mobile architectures.

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First-Year Studies: Digital Disruptions

Open , FYS—Year

From Bitcoin to Uber and Instagram to Snapchat...to massively multiplayer online games and the Internet of Things, digital technology plays an ever more "disruptive" role in society. In this First-Year Studies seminar, we ponder where this phenomenon may be taking us in the immediate and not-so-immediate future and whether there is (or will be) anything we can (or should) do about it. The miniaturization of electronic computers—and the resulting increase in computing power, decrease in short-term cost to harness that power, and ubiquity of computer networks—brings people and places together, making distances formerly thought of as insurmountable ever more trivial. With the advent of gigabit fiber-optic networks, smart phones, and wearable computers, information of all kinds can flow around the world, between people and objects, and back again in an instant. In many ways, the plethora of smaller, cheaper, faster networked devices improves our quality of life. But there is also a dark side to a highly connected society: the more smart phones, the more workaholics; the more text messages exchanged and the easier the access to drones, the less privacy; the greater reach of the Internet, the more piracy, spam, and pornography; the more remote-controlled thermostats, the greater the risk of cyberterrorism. The first half of this seminar will focus on the relationship between digital networks (the Web, social networks, and beyond) to current events—particularly the economy, politics, and the law. We will emphasize the challenge of privacy and security in such an interconnected world. The second half of the course will focus on the cultural impact of digital technology, ranging from video games and science fiction to the rise of artificial intelligence. This is not a technical course, though at times we will discuss some details that lie behind certain crucial technologies; in particular, the Internet and the World Wide Web.

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Digital Zeitgeist

Open , Seminar—Fall

From Facebook, Twitter, and YikYak to massively multiplayer online games, to the Internet of Things, and to disruptive technologies ranging from Bitcoin to Uber, computer networks play an ever-increasing role in our daily lives. Where may this phenomenon be taking us in the immediate and not-so-immediate future? Is there (or should there be) anything we can (or should) do about it? The miniaturization of electronic computers and the resulting increase in computing power, decrease in short-term cost to harness that power, and ubiquity of computer networks bring people and places together, making distances formerly thought of as insurmountable ever more trivial. With the advent of gigabit fiber-optic networks, smart phones, and wearable computers, information of all kinds can flow, in an instant, between people and objects around the world and back again. In many ways, the plethora of smaller, cheaper, faster networked devices improves our quality of life; but we will also consider the dark side of a highly connected society: the more smart phones, the more workaholics; the more text messages and e-mails exchanged, the less privacy; the greater reach of the Internet, the more piracy, spam, and pornography. The nature of a course entitled Digital Zeitgeist is to move with the times, and those times move ever more rapidly. So even this description might seem outdated by the time you read it. Never fear, we will steer our discussion to the “bleeding edge,” as necessary. Consider these news stories (to name but a few) that would not have made it into this description were it written only a year earlier: the Gamergate controversy, “Citizen Four” (and its adoration), the Sony hack, the trial and conviction of the Silk Road founder, and the arrival of the Apple Watch. This is not a technical course, although at times we will discuss some details that lie behind certain crucial technologies—in particular, the Internet and the World Wide Web.

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