I recently started reading a very interesting book called The Elements of Computing Systems by Noam Nisan and Shimon Schocken. The book is nicknamed “nand2tetris”, so called because the reader starts off with a NAND gate and using it as a building block for more complex systems builds a modern computer(on which he or she implements the game of Tetris).
I’ve only just finished the first chapter and am currently diving into the second, but I can already say that the book is quite remarkable in both what it sets out to do and its pedagogy.
What the book is about
As I mentioned above, the book has you build a computer from scratch. Just so you don’t get the wrong idea, the entire computer is built in a simulator running on your “actual computer”.
The idea here is to learn how computers work by actually building one. In the process, you’ll encounter everything from the low-level, implementing logic gates to writing compilers to high-level object-oriented programming. And of course, the most fun part is that everything from the base will be something you built. I really liked this idea.
The abstraction-implementation paradigm
All in all, the computer you build in the book can be divided into 12 or so “layers”, roughly a chapter is dedicated to each of these layers. Each layer is built on top of the one below it. For example, in the first chapter you build logic gates out of NAND gates. Then, in the second chapter using the gates built in the first chapter, the book has you building an Arithmetic Logic Unit.
This way of layering abstractions is very important in computer science. The idea is to implement each layer such that the layer above it has a clear way of interfacing with it to get the required functionality. The benefit here is that by being able to think about just one level of abstraction at a time, complexity is reduced.
The other big idea I’ve noticed so far in this book is that it tends to be brutal about having the reader do the exercises. Whereas most books which claim to follow a “hands-on” will throw you a problem every once in a while, this book is mostly exercises. For each layer, the book gives you a specification and you are the one who needs to implement each layer.
Of course, some guidance is provided but expect to get stuck at problems. This can be frustrating but the central premise of the book is that you learn by doing things yourself.
Like I said before I’ve only just dipped my toes here so far, but I can already say that this is going to be an interesting experience. Not only will it help fill a gap in my knowledge regarding computer architecture, I think it will be interesting book to study because of the very different pedagogical approach the authors have taken.
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