Problem Solving

Solving problems is the core of computer science. Programmers must first understand how a human solves a problem, then understand how to translate this "algorithm" into something a computer can do, and finally how to "write" the specific syntax (required by a computer) to get the job done. It is sometimes the case that a machine will solve a problem in a completely different way than a human.

Problem Solving

Computer Programmers are problem solvers. In order to solve a problem on a computer you must:

  1. Know how to represent the information (data) describing the problem.

  2. Determine the steps to transform the information from one representation into another.

Information Representation

A computer, at heart, is really dumb. It can only really know about a few things... numbers, characters, booleans, and lists (called arrays) of these items. (See Data Types). Everything else must be "approximated" by combinations of these data types.

A good programmer will "encode" all the "facts" necessary to represent a problem in variables (See Variables). Further, there are "good ways" and "bad ways" to encode information. Good ways allow the computer to easily "compute" new information.


An algorithm (see Algorithm) is a set of specific steps to solve a problem. Think of it this way: if you were to tell your 3 year old neice to play your favorite song on the piano (assuming the neice has never played a piano), you would have to tell her where the piano was, and how to sit on the bench, and how to open the cover, and which keys to press, and which order to press them in, etc, etc, etc.

The core of what good programmers do is being able to define the steps necessary to accomplish a goal. Unfortunately, a computer, only knows a very restricted and limited set of possible steps. For example a computer can add two numbers. But if you want to find the average of two numbers, this is beyond the basic capabilities of a computer. To find the average, you must:

  1. First: Add the two numbers and save this result in a variable
  2. Then: Divide this new number the number two, and save this result in a variable.
  3. Finally: provide this number to the rest of the program (or print it for the user).

Encapsulation and Abstraction and Complexity Hiding

Computer scientists like to use the fancy word "Encapsulation" to show how smart we are. This is just a term for things we do as humans every day. It is combined with another fancy term: "Abstraction".

Abstraction is the idea of "ignoring the details". For example, a forest is really a vastly complex ecosystem containing trees, animals, water paths, etc, etc, etc. But to a computer scientist (and to a normal person), its just "a forest".

For example, if your professor needs a cup of coffee, and asks you the single item: "Get me a cup of coffee", he has used both encapsulation and abstraction. The number of steps required to actually get the coffee are enumerable. Including, getting up, walking down the hall, getting in your car, driving to a coffee stand, paying for the coffee, etc, etc, etc. Further, the idea of what a cup of coffee is, is abstract. Do you bring a mug of coffee, or a Styrofoam cup? Is it caffeinated or not? Is it freshly brewed or from concentrate? Does it come from Africa or America?

All of this information is TOO MUCH and we would quickly be unable to funciton if we had to remember all of these details. Thus we "abstract away" the details and only remember the few important items.

This brings us to the idea of "Complexity Hiding". Complexity hiding is the idea that most of the times details don't matter. In a computer program, as simple an idea as drawing a square on the screen involves hundreds (if not thousands) of (low level) computer instructions. Again, a person couldn't possible create interesting programs if every time they wanted to do something, they had to re-write (correctly) every one of those instructions. By "ecapsulating" what is meant by "draw square" and "reusing" this operation over and over again, we make programming tractable.


The idea behind encapsulation is to store the information necessary to a particular idea in a set of variables associated with a single "object". We then create functions to manipulate this object, regardless of what the actual data is. From that point on, we treat the idea from a "high level" rather than worry about all the parts (data) and actions (functions) necessary to represent the object in a computer.

Brute Force

Brute force is a technique for solving problems that relies on a computers speed (how fast it can repeat steps) to solve a problem. For example, if you wanted to know how many times the number 8 goes into the number 100, you could do the following:

          count = 0;
          number = 100;
          while the number is greater than 8
             subtract 8 from the number
             add one to the count
          end // start the while again

Of course this is a silly way for a computer (or a human) to solve this problem. The real way we would do it is:

          count = 100 / 8;   // divide by 8

When in doubt, you can often use "brute force" to solve a problem, but it often saves time (at least computer time) to think about the problem and solve it in an elegant manner.

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