Category Archives: technology

Snake Eyes

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Python is killing me.

My enthusiasm of two months ago is drying up and all the things I thought I was going to love about Python, I now hate.  I miss JavaScript. The comforting closure of the semi-colons. Those curly brackets were always more fun than I gave them credit for. They told you where things went. They provided structure, style and whimsy.

Python is all empty space. And while the basic logic is still there, why do all computer languages have to do things differently?

Mostly, I guess I just resent that it’s hard. Which is probably a life problem, not a Python problem. Why do we always think that life is going to get easier?  I’ve been baby stepping my way through, but I’m falling behind.  I was on track to finish Code Year on time, and every week my percentage of completion is getting a tiny bit lower. I feel like a marathon runner who’s fading in the last mile.

Must. Get. The. Passion. Back.

Yesterday I was thinking about the programming satori experience that got this blog rolling. I remember how I felt after I got through the Snake Eyes  challenge. The world took on this complex, computational beauty that I never  would  have seen If I’d given up . For the week after that challenge I was thinking in code. I felt enlightened, stronger.

I’m sure Python has something to teach me too. I just have to be willing to re-commit and set a challenge to make up the ground I’ve lost.

One of the advantages of being the mother of a twelve year old is that I have many inspirational Hollywood movies to choose from in this mission. A scene from  the Karate Kid remake comes to mind. The one where they visit the Taoist monastery and Jaden Smith learns that the snake is not controlling the nun. By copying its movements the nun is controlling the snake!

There is some profound metaphor in there that I don’t quite understand yet. But I will find some way to make that allegory work.

Because if I’ve learned one thing from a year of learning to program, it’s that it’s usually right at the point when nothing makes any sense that the magic is about to happen.

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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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Further reading in GitHub

TED Blog

The open-source programming world has a lot to teach democracy, says Clay Shirky.

In this fascinating talk from TEDGlobal 2012, Shirky harkens back to the early days of the printing press. At the time, a group of “natural philosophers” (who would later adopt the term “scientists”) called the Invisible College realized that the press could offer a new way to share and debate their work. However, because printing books would be far too slow for this purpose, they came up with a new invention — the scientific journal.

So what does this mean for us today?

Shirky explains, “If I had to pick a group that I think is our Invisible College — our generation’s collection of people trying to take new tools and press them into the service of, not more arguments, but better arguments — I’d pick the open-source programmers.”

Shirky explains a fact that any programmer…

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The Intention Economy

“Doc Searls On Becoming Part of The Intention Economy,” Fast Company, May 3, 2012.

When my mom was starting her busy protoyuppy family, back in the 60s, one thing was easier. She had relationships with saleswomen at a few downtown department stores. “I could call one up and say, I need some back to school clothes, and she’d just put together a couple of outfits for you guys. And that was it, we’d just go down, take a look at them, buy the best option and I was finished.”

Think of all the time we spend now, comparison shopping, and all the energy and money that goes into convincing consumers that they have some kind of special relationship with a brand.

Imagine if the web could bring about a mass return to the kind of economy where customers had real sustained relationships with sellers. That’s a possibility put forth by Doc Searls in a book I started reading last week. The Intention Economy grew out of an article he wrote for Linux Journal back in 2006. Much has changed since then, but the kernel of his argument seems to be even more possible. What if the current trend of vendors, using technology to track and prompt buyers, shifted instead towards encouraging buyers to simply state their buying intentions up front. What if this brought about a more direct, open and respectful relationship between buyers and sellers. Wouldn’t almost everyone profit?

For instance, imagine you have an app that enables you to list the things you intend to buy in the near future. On this app you put the things you want to buy: a new car, a reconditioned Ipad for the kids, a coffee table that would match the living room you posted on pinterest, a grocery list that you don’t have the time to check with the latest flyers. Let’s say this app has enabled you to form a network of trusted vendors. Over the next days you receive bids, offers, helpful information from various vendors, a calculation of what your groceries would cost at three different stores. Some of these vendors have sold to you before, so they’re willing to cut you a better deal as a trusted, known customer. Let’s add some bonus features, like a terms of service contract  overseen by a good consumer protection group. A contract that the VENDOR clicks the agreement button on. And a seriously well insured way for the buyer to pay that doesn’t make her vulnerable to identity theft, or credit card hacking.

Imagine the money saved on advertising and marketing for the smart vendors who adopt this early. In a couple of years small to medium sized businesses could build a steady web of reliable clients in a stable, sustainable economy.

Everything is moving towards mobile technology, but I have yet to come across a market evaluation that doesn’t predict mobile technology is going to be even tougher to monetize than the web.

Unless it’s not. Unless vendors use it as a way to bypass the high cost of adverstising, marketting and branding altogether. Unless buyers (and yes I’m talking to you women, whose brains are fried from the responsibility of making most of the small purchasing decision in your household) start using mobile technology to find new ways to recover the authentic power they once had.

Imagine that.  Or better, why don’t we start forming a collective intention to make that happen.

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: