Category Archives: Personal

Code Club, a talk at Refresh Cambridge

At this month’s Refresh Cambridge event a couple of weeks ago, I gave a short talk about Code Club; what it’s all about, how to get involved, and what it is like to try to teach kids how to code. This is a summary of that talk.

Code Club

Code Club logo and cartoon robots

Against a background of media scare stories about a lack of British talent in massive global industries such as game development, and a more general feeling that children today are not given the opportunity to learn how technology actually works, a nationwide network of volunteer-led after-school coding clubs was born. Set up by two women, Linda Sandvik and Clare Sutcliffe, in April 2012, its goals were ambitious — a club in 25% of UK primary schools by 2015 — and it has since become a player in the emerging conversation around re-introducing programming to the national curriculum. (From September 2014, coding will be back on the school timetable for every child aged 5-16, making the UK the first major G20 economy in the world to implement this on a national level.)

Code Club is entirely dependent on volunteers, who come from a range of science, technology and engineering backgrounds. You don’t need to be a professional programmer to volunteer, although obviously an understanding of the basic logical structures underlying computer programming helps. It’s also not just restricted to schools; other venues such as libraries, community centres or museums could also be the perfect venue for a club.

As a volunteer, your commitment extends to not much more than one hour per week (plus travel time and a little bit of preparation) during school term times. Many volunteers find that their employers are happy to allow them the time off to volunteer for a good cause.

Projects

The projects, enough for an entire term’s worth of sessions, are provided by Code Club as downloadable PDFs. Each project walks the children through a logical progression of concepts, introducing more advanced ideas as they master the early simple ones. Topics covered at the moment are Scratch (a basic game and animation construction kit, encompassing many common programming paradigms), HTML and CSS, and Python.

Due to its visual nature, Scratch is a great place to start with the children (Code Club is aimed at ages 9 to 11, or years 5-6). They are walked through the basics of creating and naming sprites, assigning movement and actions through the use of loops and collision detection, and considering gameplay questions such as keeping score and determining win conditions.

As well as the PDF student handouts, the Code Club website also provides teaching materials covering the best way to deliver key concepts, and reminding you to allow the children space to explore and diverge from the plan. You can also download and print out supporting material such as door signs and badges — important stuff if you’re 9 years old!

All the lesson material is also open-sourced on GitHub, so if you find a mistake or want to contribute an improvement it’s only a pull request away.

What is it like?

Despite having been a school governor for a few years in the past, it was still intimidating to enter a classroom in the role of what seems, at least to the children, to be  a teacher. Giving a talk in front of an audience of adults is very different than trying to explain relatively complicated ideas to 9 and 10 year-olds, particularly when they have no qualms about interrupting with questions that would never have occurred to you to expect. Luckily, the children at our local school have been well-drilled in the right way to ask questions (hand in the air and wait), and once we had got through the initial basic introduction to Scratch and I had dispensed the project sheets they were all extremely excited with the material and eager to learn.

The most surprising thing was how engaged they all were. With my own children, I have plenty of experience in how difficult it is to hold their attention, particularly with anything that you have any enthusiasm of your own for, but in the classroom all the children dived straight in and were soon experimenting with their own ideas, from renaming sprites or choosing different ones to trying out different values for animation commands.

They were also genuinely helpful with each other. As you might expect there were one or two in each class who quickly grasped the concepts and rushed ahead, finishing the basic exercises quickly, but they would always (after proudly demonstrating their finished game to their friends) offer to help out the other members of the club, explaining where they had gone wrong or offering helpful advice.

Challenges

Of course, nothing is perfect, and information technology in primary schools is rarely of the highest quality. Teachers can also be very busy, particularly in small primary schools were one person can be filling several roles; often in such small schools, the person responsible for the ICT curriculum is not exactly what we would consider an expert.

There is also the occasional moment where the children’s attention will wander, or they will decide en masse to test your authority. But one of the main principles of volunteering at a club is that you are not there as a teacher; there should always be a member of staff present during the lessons, and it is their job to manage behaviour or dole out punishment, not yours.

How to get involved

If you’re interested in getting involved with a Code Club near you, or think your local school would benefit from hosting one, it’s very easy to get started. Contact the head teacher or ICT leader and arrange a visit to explain about Code Club (there are helpful materials on the website to help you). If they’re interested, they might ask you to attend an assembly to explain it to the children.

You’ll also need a criminal background check (DBS, what used to be known as a CRB check), and then it’s simply a matter of agreeing the regular time slot with the school. Some clubs run at lunchtimes, but most seem to be after school, from 3-4pm.

There is lots more information on codeclub.org.uk.  If you’re not in the UK, the new codeclubworld.org site provides information and advice about setting up a Code Club in other countries.

Ten years

On this day, ten years ago, I published the very first post on The Watchmaker Project. At the time, I wasn’t even using the URL, just a temporary Blogger address, but I wanted to join my voice with those discussing and guiding the web design community via blog articles and comment threads in every corner of the virtual world.

The internet, and web design and development, looked very different back then. There were very few content farms, churning out articles at the rate of several per hour. There was no Mashable, no TechCrunch, and no Smashing Magazine. A List Apart documented groundbreaking new techniques and thoughtful articles, and 9rules was the first blog network that had arisen as the acceptable face of the 90s ‘webring’, but other than that, everything was being generated by individuals writing on their own blogs, and commenting on each others’ sites.

It was great.

Within the first week of blogging, I was thrilled to receive comments from luminaries like Jon Hicks and Andrei Herasimchuk, and I soon felt as if I was part of an important community: those who cared about the web and wanted to take an active part in its future. I eventually got involved in initiatives like the biannual CSS Reboot, and later became a volunteer editor at Digital Web Magazine, eventually becoming its Editor In Chief in 2008.

These days, blogging seems so much less important than it did back then. One doesn’t need to share advice on how to achieve a particular effect or work around a nasty bug, because there are a thousand answers on Stack Overflow (or CodePen.io, or GitHub) already. Long gone are the days when everyone had specific Position Is Everything pages bookmarked. Now Google has all the answers.

Still, this will be the 426th post on this site. That’s an average of almost one per week, for ten years; a (theoretically) permanent reminder of a quarter of my life. And you know what? I don’t even care if nobody is reading any more. As Zeldman said:

The Habit Trigger

The concept of a habit ‘trigger’ is not a new one. It is mentioned in the Wikipedia definition, as “the cue [...] that causes your habit to come about”, and discussed in articles about how to break or change habits. By identifying those situations that “trigger” our bad habits, the theory goes, we can consciously avoid them.

When it comes to engendering new habits, triggers can also be incredibly useful ways to alter behaviour. I’ve found that making sure to  identify or place a clear trigger right in your own path is the best way to trick your brain into remembering to perform the new actions you want to eventually become habit.

In my own attempts to introduce two new regular parts of my day — exercise and writing — I am making use of both physical and locational triggers. To remind myself to exercise every morning, I’ve placed a calendar next to my desk, so that it is one of the first things I see in the morning. Combining this with the Seinfeld “Don’t Break The Chain” method provides a visual trigger that prompts me to do my morning exercise.

To encourage a daily writing habit, I rely more on a location-based trigger. I get into work early and write over that first cup of coffee while the office is empty, or if I’m away in a hotel room I will setup my laptop so that Scrivener is ready and waiting when I wake up. Of course, this method has its drawbacks — at weekends or if working from home, it’s easy to get swept up in work or play and forget to find time to write. At times like those, a trusted to-do list that supports recurring tasks is invaluable.

Ultimately forming a new habit relies mostly on self-discipline, but anything you can do to hack your brain to make it a little easier to keep going can only be a good thing.

Resolutions, 2014

For the last two years, my New Year’s resolutions have been pretty similar. Make more stuff. Write more stuff. Something about fitness. It’s tempting to come up with something completely off the wall for 2014, and declare that I will learn to speak Russian or take up water-skiing. I think the fact that I will be turning forty towards the end of the year is another pressing factor; these arbitrary lines in the sand have such psychological meaning to us, despite the knowledge that there really is no significance to this age or that.

My 2013

Looking back at 2013, I think I did reasonably well with my resolutions for the year. I wanted to finish building my own GTD application, and I think I’m 80% of the way there. Ruck is a PHP-based system built on CodeIgniter; it’s missing a few pieces of functionality and needs a bit of polish, but it’s working well for what I want from a project/task management system. I haven’t done much work on it recently, as I think tackling the latency by converting it into a JavaScript-powered app is the next logical step, and that’s a little outside of my comfort zone at the moment.

Despite reading fewer actual books than I did in 2012, I still feel I did alright in terms of trying to “read more”. And “write more” was definitely a success, to the tune of 75,000 words plus over the course of the year in various places, including a couple of experimental articles on my new favourite place on the web, Medium.com.

My final resolution, “more varied fitness”, unfortunately didn’t really go anywhere. I went on a couple of bike rides and took the kids swimming most weekends, but I still mostly confined myself to running. I even had a couple of half-marathons planned until foot issues laid me up for the last couple of months of the year.

For 2014

  1. Take more photos. To start with I’m going to resurrect a resolution from 2012 which I never made much progress with. I’d like to take more photos, but carrying around a heavy SLR all the time is not really an option. However, this year I have a new favourite toy — my shiny new iPhone 5s — and with that high-quality camera constantly in my pocket, I have hopes that I can manage to take more photos than the odd Instagram of my dinner.
  2. Be a good role model. There are a bunch of different things I could put here — keeping myself fit and healthy, making the CodeClub I’m starting next week successful, being a better manager and leader at work — but I think this covers all of those plus a bit more besides.
  3. Do something different. Aside from the photos, all I ever seem to do is web-based. This year I should really try something else occasionally. I have no idea what that might be, though.

So, more conscious self-improvement? Or just another arbitrary list against which to judge myself in another year’s time? Time will tell.

Oh, and I think I might get a tattoo; it seems a more sensible way to act out a mid-life crisis than buying a motorbike.

Reading List 2013

After skipping a couple of years, in 2012 I once again started to record a summary of the books I had read over the previous twelve months, using my handy Goodreads account (not that I ever use the site for anything else).

Looking back, this year seems a paltry amount compared to last, although I suppose the fact that I undertook a literature history course in 2012 skewed the results somewhat. I’m not going to bother splitting the fiction list up into fiction/fantasy this time due to the shortness of the list; any links are to my reviews blog.

Fiction

  • Ed the Happy Clown (Chester Brown)
  • The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway)
  • Apocalypse Nerd (Peter Bagge)
  • Player One (Douglas Coupland)
  • The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Tigana (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Great Gatsby (F Scott Fitzgerald)
  • Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)
  • Speaker for the Dead (Orson Scott Card)
  • The Shambling Guide to New York City (Mur Lafferty)
  • A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway)
  • The Fellowship of the Ring (JRR Tolkien)
  • Sweet Tooth (Ian McEwan)
  • The Bloody Red Baron (Kim Newman)
  • Mentor (Tom Grimes)
  • Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel)
  • Stoner (John Williams)
  • Redshirts (John Scalzi)
  • Bring Up The Bodies (Hilary Mantel)

As per usual the start of the year was dominated by Christmas presents, including a set of three Hemingway novels; I greatly enjoyed A Farewell To Arms, and still have For Whom The Bell Tolls to read next year. I also finally read Ender’s Game, just in time to not bother going to see the movie, and finished the year with Hilary Mantel’s pair of Booker prize-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell.

Non-fiction

  • Don’t Forget To Write (Pam Hobbs)
  • Getting Things Done (David Allen)
  • The Stranger’s Long Neck (Gerry McGovern)
  • The Naked Jape (Jimmy Carr, Lucy Greeves)

This list is a bit of a fib to be honest, since I finally finished the first two books which had been in a partially-read state for years. The one book I read for work, The Stranger’s Long Neck, was thought-provoking for anyone involved in UX.

Highlights

Out of the 23 books I managed to read, I think I’d have to put the pair of Mantel novels near the top of the pile. Despite their provocatively misleading style, they are beautifully written. Stoner is the other book I would recommend anyone pick up if they haven’t read it (and it seems to be one of those “best book you’ve never read” kind of hidden gems).

What I Listened To In 2013

I’ve been writing this yearly overview of what I’ve been listening to for several years. And yet, despite feeling that I am discovering new music every year, the top few bands somehow remain the same. This year seems particularly bland and uninspired, with hardly anything new in the list. Maybe Spotify has made me complacent about listening to new music; despite feeling that I’m experiencing more different music than ever before, it’s all an illusion.

Top 10 Artists listened to in 2013

  1. Metric
  2. Ginger Wildheart
  3. The Wildhearts
  4. Hey! Hello!
  5. Pearl Jam
  6. Young The Giant
  7. The Joy Formidable
  8. Guns N’ Roses
  9. The New Pornographers
  10. David Bowie

Comparing this year’s top ten artists to last year’s list, the top three remain the same, albeit in a different order, and two more entries from 2012 are still in my top ten. I don’t even remember listening to that much GN’R or New Pornos over the last twelve months, yet somehow they still manage to wind up near the top of the list year after year.

Top 10 Albums listened to in 2013

  1.  Synthetica – Metric
  2. Young The Giant – Young The Giant
  3. Hey! Hello! - Hey! Hello!
  4. The Big Roar – The Joy Formidable
  5. The Very Best of Ella Fitzgerald
  6. Tricks for Dawn – Mary Lorson
  7. 555% – Ginger Wildheart
  8. Copper Blue – Sugar
  9. Black Pudding – Mark Lanegan & Duke Garwood
  10. Fantasies – Metric / Spilling Blood – Oceanographer

Now this list of the top albums I listened to is at least a little more interesting and varied than the artists list.

I discovered Metric towards the end of last year, and I’ve spent a lot of time listening to their back catalogue, particularly 2012′s Synthetica. This year I also finally listened to Sugar’s excellent debut, Copper Blue, 20 years after everyone else in my generation. A single album that was actually released in 2013 sneaks in, in the form of ex-Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan’s collaboration with Duke Garwood. And I spent quite a while listening to the various excellent projects produced by ex-Madder Rose singer, Mary Lorson.

Track of the Year

According to Last.fm the track I listened to the most over the last year was actually Massive Attack’s Teardrop. But a close second was this standout track from my #1 album – Breathing Underwater by Metric:

Getting ThinkUp installed on MediaTemple (gs)

Via Meri Williams on Twitter I heard about Gina Trapani and Anil Dash’s new app, ThinkUp, a couple of days ago. It calls itself “a social data insights engine” which, as far as I can tell, translates as: “Klout, but useful.” They are currently soliciting donations in the form of yearly subscriptions to the service, in an App.net, users-should-pay-for-stuff-they-find-useful kind of a way.

However, the system itself is actually open source and available to fork on GitHub so you can host your own install. That’s what I did on my MediaTemple (gs) shared server; here are some of the issues I ran into and how I fixed them.

Install this and this and this

Forking the GitHub repo and then cloning it on my server was easy enough, but the installation process immediately complained about a couple of missing components. Firstly the session.save_path wasn’t set; this MediaTemple Knowledge Base article explains how to fix the problem (and this one tells you how to edit your php.ini file if you haven’t done so before).

The second issue was a little trickier. ThinkUp requires that PHP has the ZipArchive class installed; okay, no problem, this Knowledge Base article explains how to install PECL modules on (gs), and this blog post includes some more pointers. The ZipArchive class is actually named “zip“, by the way. However, when I downloaded and tried to install the module, it threw a bunch of parsing errors during the make step. Bugger. Eventually I figured out that 1.12.1 is a beta version of the module, so all I had to do was delete what I’d downloaded and try again with the stable version number (1.10.2 as of this writing):

wget http://pecl.php.net/get/zip-1.10.2

With that it compiled correctly, the ThinkUp install process was happy, and I was able to get it all up and running.

Cronplaining

One more issue cropped up when I tried manually running the data import tool from the command line:

Warning: curl_setopt(): CURLOPT_FOLLOWLOCATION cannot be activated when safe_mode is enabled or an open_basedir is set in <redacted>/ThinkUp/webapp/plugins/expandurls/model/class.URLExpander.php on line 113

That cURL option tells the cURL request to follow any ‘Location:’ headers returned by the request. I’m not sure whether it has any effect on the quality of the data it gathers, since I don’t know whether any API calls would return a redirect (and it seems unlikely), but maybe someone will come along who knows more about this sort of thing than I do and can explain.

So, ThinkUp

Once I got it all going and the “insight generation” script had done it’s thing, you’re left with a ton of imported data from the various services it supports out of the box (and they plan to add more), plus some interesting ‘insights’ into what you’ve been doing on social media.

Screen shot of ThinkUp insights

I kind of suspect that it will be of most use to people who 1. have a lot more followers than I do, and 2. are a lot more active on social media than me; but it’s still an interesting alternative view of the loosely joined pieces of yourself online.

Coursera – Online Games: Literature, New Media and Narrative

Continuing my ongoing adventures in free online education, this month I embarked on my fifth Coursera course. Online Games: Literature, New Media and Narrative is a six week course run by Nashville’s Vanderbilt University that aims to explore “remediation” — the transplanting of one form of media into another — via the book-to-film-to-game transition of the ‘world’s greatest work of literature’, JRR Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings.

Students (more than 40,000 of them according to this Penny Arcade piece) are assigned both reading and in-game assignments in addition to the pre-recorded video lectures delivered by enthusiastic nerd-in-chief, Jay Clayton. It is fascinating watching experienced gamers and those totally new to any kind of computer game, let alone the complexity of an MMORPG, working and learning alongside each other in the course forums and online. Many established LOTRO players are incredibly generous with their time and resources, supplying new classmates with enhanced items and organising special sessions to achieve in-game rewards.

So far we’re only on Week 1. I’ve re-read The Fellowship Of The Ring, and re-watched Peter Jackson’s film of the same name (and bored my wife by pointing out all the discrepancies between the two); Discelas the Elf has reached level 16 and met Tom Bombadil, and I’m all set for another five weeks of relaxed study.

Lapsed Gamer

After such a long break from my semi-serious Warcraft days, it’s strange to be back playing an MMO again. The seductively easy gameplay and progression in LOTRO is not quite as seamless as WoW, but the addition of the background mythos and characters from Lord Of The Rings provides an added depth and impetus to carry on playing through the main questline, a key aspect of the game that WoW conspicuously lacks.

It has reminded me of the reasons I gave up playing WoW, though (and subsequently EVE Online, Warhammer, Defiance, and one or two others). The constant “live”-ness of the game world, and lack of a Pause button, elevates the action in the game to the importance of real life; you can’t turn away from the game for a second to speak to a child or kiss a partner, and the further you progress in the game, the more this anti-social monkey on your back demands attention, and for longer and longer periods of time.

Add to that the lack of any real-world output after countless hours of effort, and you have a recipe for a wasted life. I gave it up to concentrate on making something tangible, and I think I’m happier for it.

Learning to write more proper

This weekend I completed my third online course provided via the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) provider, Coursera. After the lengthier Fantasy/Sci-Fi and Film Theory classes I took in the last twelve months, this time I opted for a shorter, more straightforward course on writing, entitled: “Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trade.”

The course was an introduction to writing in English, and covered everything from the basic building blocks — nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, and so on — through to types of sentence and how to approach a writing assignment.

The first couple of lectures, delivered in a rather basic fashion, initially led me to think I might have made a mistake signing up for the course. I’m a native English speaker who has been writing for decades; surely I don’t need to learn what a noun is! However, it turns out that while I may have internalised many of the rules relating to subject-verb agreement and past/present/future tenses, my actual ability to identify pronouns, or explain what a preposition was, was sorely lacking. And, while I might know how to spell ‘gerund’ and be familiar with phrases like “irregular verbs” or “past participle”, that didn’t mean that I completely understood what they were.

It seems that in all online courses the rate of attrition is high. The tutors reported that 43,000 started the course, but five weeks later only around 3-4,000 completed the final assignment. Considering that we only had to write a single paragraph, it was surprising that so many would drop out of the course.

As with the literature course I took last year, peer review played a large part in the grading process; and, like last year, the forums were full of students complaining that their peers didn’t have a clue how to mark correctly. I spent one evening trying to make the case that the peer review process is as much (if not more) about the benefit it provides to the reviewer than the score of the reviewee, but unfortunately there are still many who believe that an online course attended by tens of thousands should be subject to the same rigorous grading as an intimate study group in meatspace.

Anyway, I feel I benefitted from taking the course, not least because it blew away the last few cobwebs of doubt I had when helping my children with grammar-related homework. I’m still not entirely sure what “conjugate the verb” means, but at least I can tell my infinitives from my appositives.

The next course on my schedule, and the final one I have registered for so far, starts next month. “Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative” promises to be an interesting combination of study and gaming … two of my favourite ways to spend time.

Getting ‘Getting Things Done’ things done

At the start of 2012, one of the things I stated I would do was get a handle on my personal time and project management through implementing a definitive GTD process. Twelve months later, I was still looking… or rather, I had decided the only solution was to roll my own. Back then it was running on Laravel. A few months later, reworked in CodeIgniter for greater development speed, I can honestly say it is up and running.

I’ve been using Ruck for the last couple of months to manage most of my work. I’m also re-reading David Allen’s book again, and the combination of discovering what works and what doesn’t in the alpha app, plus identifying the aspects of the GTD process that are missing or not quite implemented in the right way, is developing into quite a buglist.

Design-wise I was fairly happy with the layout I had worked up a couple of months ago, but as time has gone on I’m finding it more and more inflexible or just plain ugly to live with for much longer. I’ve sketched up some replacement ideas, but I hope this isn’t the first sign of the same endless redesign itch with which my blog was infected. It’s hard to avoid the standard Mac-style “menu on the left, large content area” layout, but I’m not convinced it’s the most efficient way to display different types of content together. Allen says that “hard edges” are important; keeping a clear delineation between your calendar items and other ‘next action’ tasks — to me, that suggests the UI should reflect that separation in a clearer way than just splitting a list with a header.

Once the UX is finalised I think I should be able to get through the various tasks I’ve set myself fairly quickly. The biggest annoyance right now is the delay-after-click that comes from using an online application. Pages have to load, database queries have to fire, and it’s enough to make you feel less than 100% efficient. I did briefly consider starting with a native application, and even got as far as spending an evening reading Objective-C documentation, but common sense prevailed — much better to have a working app that I can use and finesse, than spend six months struggling to make Xcode do what I want it to. When the HTML5 version is done and dusted I’ll move on to converting it for the desktop (and iPad, iPhone and whatever else looks like fun).