Category Archives: People

The TED talk linked to above is an enlightening and empowering testimonial on how parents can inspire self-study.

TED Blog

As computers have gotten more complex, even tech literate users have become detached from the basics of how they function. This is what Shimon Schocken and Noam Nisan noticed with their computer science students in Israel. As Schocken explains in this talk from TEDGlobal 2012, the pair decided to have their students build a working computer, from the ground up, so that they would “understand how computers work in the marrow of their bones.” They broke down the process into a series of bite-sized, stand-alone units. While students start with building “Nand,” a simple logic gate, and they end by writing games like Pong, Snake and Tetris.

“You can imagine the joy of playing with a Tetris game that you wrote in Jack, and then compiled into machine language in a compiler that you wrote also, and seeing the result running on a machine that you built,” says Schocken

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Montreal Mini Maker Faire

The best  thing I did at the inaugural Montreal Mini Maker Faire last weekend was solder my very own LED  pin.  Ben didn’t want to go anywhere near that soldering iron, and I’m glad I didn’t cajole him into it.  He has wonky fine motor skills and I burned myself at least once.  A simple little flashing pin took me half an hour, after I’d fixed up all the goopy metal.  And even then I kind of got it wrong (I slotted one of the conductors backwards). Still, getting a concrete sense of the labor that goes into making stuff we throw away without thinking, has really been an eye opener. As was  sitting around a table with a group of first world mothers and their daughters, and thinking of all the families around the world that actually do this all day for a living.

A sobering thought.  Good thing there was a bar right next to the soldering tent.

Kidding.  I don’t drink and solder.  But there was a bar.  Our Montreal Maker Faire was an afternoon event that preceded a music festival at the Olympic Stadium.  We overlapped by a couple of hours.

The main tent had some very cool exhibits. Videogames hacked in all kinds of bizarro ways, hooked up to playdough, skin sensors and voice sensors. There was the usual array of 3D printers, eggbots, steampunk, robots and innovative DIY toys. I liked tweletype, an old fashioned teletype machine hooked up to twitter.

On the upper level there were quadracopters, camera obscura, home made bikes,  and the Concordia women’s engineering department reconstructed a replica of the brooklyn bridge out of K’Nex.

But Ben’s favourite event was the Quidditch workshop, overseen by the McGill Quidditch team (current national champions!).  Here’s the golden snitch, giving the kids a pre game rundown:


The game ends when someone grabs the tennis ball from his tail.

Good times!

Happiness Engineer

This weekend I went to WordCamp here in  Montreal.  I didn’t go to both days because Saturday was Ben’s birthday.

It had occurred to me, when I first heard about this gathering of the wordpress community, to see if I could  sneak off in the afternoon.  But then, over at SkillCrush, I read these wise words  from an experienced lady programmer: nothing is ever important enough to miss your child’s birthday.

We had a great day on Saturday, hanging out, playing Little Big Planet and video game shopping. Sunday morning when I headed off to WordCamp, bright and early, I was brimming with healthy ambition.  When  I saw the number of people struggling through hangovers from the Saturday night social, I had no regrets.

Hangovers notwithstanding, the energy at WordPress camp is so warm and nurturing and fun, I vow to make this a yearly ritual. And hopefully next year it won’t conflict with another one.
In the  morning I went to the developer presentations:

  • Responsive Design (how to design your web pages so that they fit mobile devices, as well as desktops).  Lots of technical stuff that I mostly understood and will probably better understand next year. The takeaway: code semantically. i.e. start learning now how to design webpages that are low on marginalia. 100% column widths. Sliding panels. etc.
  • Theme Building. This was my favorite, even though I have zero intention of ever becoming a Word Press theme builder. But Kirk Wight is such an entertaining speaker, I might actually consider it. Either way I was  proud to be one of the people in audience who knew how to write a function.  I feel my work this year has been vindicated. Keep an eye out for Kirk’s presentation on WordCamp TV
  • Child Themes. You don’t actually have to know much CSS to build really cool websites.  There’s basically a separate console that allows you to write just a little CSS and dramatically tweak the core code.  The CSS for the child theme will always override the CSS for the parent theme (not unlike life.)  The takeaway: don’t ever touch the core code!  Use the separate console for child CSS. This could be a really cool project for kids, learning just enough CSS to mash their own cool website designs  from available themes.

At lunch I had a great chat with the developer who has adapted Word Press for Post Media, one of the largest media conglomerates in Canada (National Post, Montreal Gazette). One of the things he pointed out is how little  envy there seemed to be at WordPress camps. Unlike other conferences where  networking always has a kind of edge, there’s so much work these days for developers, the vibe is open and generous.

In the afternoon I went to presentations that were a little more local, content oriented, and French, so I won’t summarize them here.  But at the end of the day I was so impressed with the whole WordPress organization that I found myself  trawling through their job postings.

The one that caught my eye,  Happiness Engineer. What an awesome job title.  If I understand the job correctly, it’s enlightened customer support.  Requirements are good writing skills, a working knowledge of HTML/CSS, and compassion for people grappling with information technology.

Maybe I’ll apply. But in the meantime, I have my own little startup here at familycoding, and the job of Happiness Engineer has just been filled.

Hello Python!

This week at Codecademy we started Python.

Not that I resent the eight months that I’ve spent mastering the fundamentals of JavaScript, HTML/CSS and JQuery, I’m sure it’ll come in handy some day. But if I’d known about Python, this is where I would have started.  And something is telling me that this may be where I’m going to stay.

First off, where is the crazy making syntax!  Oh, those first weeks of JS, where every rule  was such an affront to my sensibilities as a writer.  Semi-colon over use.  Periods in the middle words. Capitalization of second words.  In the early days,  my brain rejected JS like it was a kidney of the wrong blood type.

Python is made for writers and I’m guessing much better made for families. It’s also made for people with a sense of humour. The name of the language comes from Monty Python, which makes it particularly appropriate for my family. My mother went to Oxford, and was once in a skit with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Bragging over. She played the American girl with a nice rack. Still,  British comedy was pretty much a side dish at dinner where I grew up.

Python tutorials are known for their cultish flourishes, and use “spam” and ” eggs” as introductory variables.  Over at Skillcrush, (an exceptional ed tech startup directed particularly at  women),  I recently learned that Python is used for  sites like Youtube, reddit, and Yelp.

I can’t tell you much more about the language, since I only started learning it yesterday. But in keeping with our theme of comic relief, here’s the funniest thing I’ve seen this week. Yelp reviews read by actors.  Just an example of the joy that Python is bringing to the world:

The Women


Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, surrounded by her team of programmers

One winter Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, became obsessed with a puzzle that had become popular in the circles of Victorian aristocracy. Peg Solitaire starts with thirty-two pegs arranged on a board in the shape of a cross around a central, empty space. The goal is to jump over adjacent pegs, which are then removed, until only one peg remains.

Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, the rock star poet of the Romantic Movement. A bitter divorce meant that Ada never met her father.  As an eccentric antidote to what her mother, Annabella Millbank, baroness Wentworth, perceived as an insanity rooted in a talent for poetry, it was arranged that Ada be tutored from an early age by some of the era’s great mathematicians and scientists.

At the age of seventeen, she met Charles Babbage, creator of  the first computer prototype. From the questions she asked about his “Thinking Machine,” Babbage could tell Ada was a better mathematician than most of the university graduates he knew. They developed a collaborative correspondence that would last the rest of their lives.

Ada’s winter of peg solitaire produced an inspiration and she wrote to Babbage: “I have done it by trying & observation & can now do it at any time, but I want to know if the problem admits of being put into a mathematical Formula, & solved in this manner …. There must be a definite principle, a compound I imagine of numerical & geometrical properties, on which the solution depends, & which can be put into symbolic language.”

From that point on she put her talent and education towards understanding this symbolic language, and wrote what is now regarded in the history of computer science as the first recursive algorithm.

“The Analytical Engine does not occupy common ground with mere “calculating machines.” It holds a position wholly its own. . . A new, a vast, and a powerful language is developed . . . in which to wield its truths so that these may become of more speedy and accurate practical application for the purposes of mankind than the means hitherto in our possession have rendered possible. Thus not only the mental and the material, but the theoretical and the practical in the mathematical world, are brought into more intimate and effective connexion with each other…We may say most aptly, that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

This is why if you take Stanford’s online course Introduction To Computer Science: Programming Methodology you will learn from its charismatic professor Mehran Sahami that Ada Byron is considered the first computer programmer. If you signed up last week for Stanford’s five week Human Computer Interaction studio course, offered free through Coursera, you would have learned from associate professor Scott Klemmer about Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, the inventor of the first compiler.  Hopper  is not only credited with the word “debugging”, after a moth was discovered in the lab, she conceptualized machine independent languages and oversaw the team that invented COBOL.

If you don’t have time to take a free Stanford course, at least read this digest of Stanford talk by CS historian Nathan Ensmenger. Talking about his book The Computer Boys Take Over: Computer Programmers and the Politics of Technical Expertise, Ensmenger explained how the world of computer programming was once so dominated by women, that it was stereotyped as a female profession. In the early 1940s the University of Pennsylvania hired six women to work its ENIAC machine, generally considered one of the first computers. The “ENIAC girls” are considered the first computer programmers in the U.S.   When Cosmopolitan interviewed Hopper in 1967, she explained why it was such a particularly good career choice. Programming she explained was “just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so that it’s ready when you need it…. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”

What happened? A job shortage in the 60s resulted in the equivalent of an affirmative action program to make the profession more appealing to men. Newly created professional associations actively discouraged the hiring of women. Computer industry campaigns linked women to error. Programming aptitude tests, the results of which were widely available in fraternities and Elks lodges, were introduced to further advance the prospects of men and set barriers up for women. The ongoing job shortage, however, meant that women continued to be hired. By 1985, women still represented 37% of computer science graduates. That was the year that Radia Perlman invented the spanning-tree (STP) protocol. Because STP is so fundamental to building computer network bridges, Perlman has been called “The Mother Of The Internet.”

Currently women represent 18% of computer science graduates in the United States.

I knew none of this when I signed up for Codecademy’s Code Year challenge, in January. But by June 2, when the New York Times ran an article on a highly publicized sexual harassment case in Silicon Valley, I knew enough to balk at the lede: “MEN invented the Internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolized Mr. Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died. Nerds. Geeks. Give them their due. Without men, we would never know what our friends were doing five minutes ago.”

Fortunately, at least one other woman did more than balk:
“What a steaming turd of an opening line in David Streitfeld’s otherwise serviceable New York Times piece about the Ellen Pao/Kleiner Perkins sexual harassment lawsuit, and gender discrimination in Silicon Valley” Xeni Jardin blogged in Boing, Boing. When she tweeted her post she was s greeted with enough Hell, yeah’s that her  storification of Twitter responses reads like an instant oral history.  A history written not only by women, but by men who had learned programming from their mothers and who proudly traced their programming lineage back to grandmothers who were pioneers in the profession.

Much, perhaps too much is made, about the need to find ways to “attract” women into the field of computer science. How about we re-frame this as a restoration of the place of women in computer science?

Let’s go a step further. Let’s restore it as a place that is welcoming to the average citizen. Nothing against geeks, I consider myself one, and have no shame about that. But it’s time for computer science to stop pretending this is a skill that can only be learned by boy geniuses.

There will always be a place for boy geniuses, and a need for programmers both men and women with advanced math skills. But more natural, user friendly languages and tools are being invented every year to make basic programming skills more accessible to children and adults of any age: from MIT’s ingenious Scratch to last week’s release of Blockly, Google’s first visual programming language.

The time has come for everyone to occupy the world of information science. It doesn’t matter whether people choose that world as a career, a leisure time obsession, for one month, one year, one winter, or hopefully, this summer. It doesn’t matter whether people start it at Stanford, Codecademy, or Code Hero (a role playing video game that aims to teach code literacy under the mentorship of Babbage, Lovelace and Alan Turing.) It doesn’t matter when or why we learn to code. What matters is that a critical mass of people start somewhere so that we can reverse, or at least buffer, a growing trend towards techno-elitism.

To use the three important words that have been used by mother coders since the dawn of time, before the invention of computers, and if all goes well, for millennia to come.

Just try it.

RosiePy: 12 year old programmer from U.K

I firmly believe that 10-12 years old is the best time to start learning how to program.  But I just found out that it’s also an awesome time to starting teaching programming.  I don’t know much about RosiPy, yet.  I only discovered her yesterday when she liked my post on parent programmers.  I wouldn’t be suprised if I start hearing more about her.

She’s a twelve year old girl living in the U.K. who started a youtube channel a couple of weeks ago, teaching kids how to program Scratch.

Here you go, check it out for yourself.  Ben loved it, and who knows maybe it’ll inspire him to start teaching a little JavaScript sometime soon.

RosiePy’s blog.

Alan Turing to be featured on British stamp

Alan Turing

Thanks to Lisa Williams over at Life and Code, for the scoop on this.

I first found out about Turing when my mom took me to see “Breaking The Code,” a West End play in London, starring Derek Jacobi. Turing was considered one of the founding fathers of computational thinking, until the mid 1950s when he was outed and convicted of homosexuality. It didn’t get better. He committed suicide and the world lost a brilliant mind.

More at Life and Code.