The joy of coding

At school in England in the early 1980s I was given the opportunity to join an afterschool computer club. The only problem was that, being the early 1980s, our school didn’t actually have a computer. We had to write our programs in thick, dark pencil on stacks of cards that were taken away to a mysterious place, which we never got to see, where they would be fed into a computer.

Our teacher would bring the output to class the following week (or the week after that if there had been a glitch, or someone else needed the computer that week) and we would pore over the results with eager anticipation. Usually we quickly realised that we had made a fundamental error, and set about re-writing our program before waiting another week (or two) to see how things turned out. It was a glacially slow process, but an almost magical one. I don’t think I ever knew where this semi-mythical computer was, or what it looked like, but I imagined a strange colossal machine the size of a small house, similar to those depicted in Cold War science fiction films such as War Games, which were popular at the time.

Obviously, things are very different now. We are living in the age of the so-called digital native (although this may be a myth), but arguably because computers are so advanced now, we actually have fewer opportunities to tinker under the hood than we did in the early days of home computing. Early computers often required their users to manually input programs (written in languages like BASIC) before you could run them. You could buy magazines full of code for various simple games that you could type into your computer and then run. You could even change the code to alter the parameters of the game. This meant that we learned much more about how computers worked, and how to get them to do what we wanted, than is usually the case these days.

Modern computers are much less amenable to this sort of tinkering. Messing about with the code on your computer is likely to lead to a catastrophic system failure, so although computers are now embedded in almost every aspect of our lives, we often have very little idea about what makes them tick.

The ubiquity of computers in society, coupled with the general ignorance of most people as to how they work, has been recognised as a serious problem. Recently, there has been a strong push among educators to get kids coding. Code clubs have sprung up all over the place, digital technology is set to become part of the New Zealand curriculum, and lots of books have been published aimed at getting kids coding, with varying degrees of success.

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Recently, my 9-year-old daughter and I read a series of three graphic novels called Secret Coders, which aim to teach coding through the medium of storytelling. These books centre around Hopper, a young girl who finds herself at a strange new school. Along with two new friends, Josh and Eni (many of the names in the book reference famous computers or computer scientists, such as Grace Hopper and ENIAC), Hopper falls into a series of adventures that require the gang to solve various puzzles to figure out what’s really going on at the school.

Many of these puzzles require them to program turtle-like robots to perform particular tasks. The puzzles get increasingly complex. As the reader is encouraged to solve these puzzles for themselves before reading on, almost without realising it, by the end of the first book we were writing programs in a computer language called Logo. There are also some owls living in the school who have a very unusual way of communicating in binary, which adds to the air of mystery. The story is genuinely captivating, and kept us turning the pages. The graphics are engaging, the characters are delightful, and the puzzles are intriguing.

At the end of each book there is a link to a website where you can download a version of the Logo programming language and use it to write your own programs to create computer graphics. We tried it, and within minutes we were making snowflakes and other images using what we had learned from the books. A world of warning though – computer code is very unforgiving and one small typing error can give unexpected results, or even stop a program from working at all, which can be frustrating for young children; nevertheless, the necessary concepts were well within the grasp of my 9-year-old daughter. There’s also a nice website with extra activities, and you can even download a file for 3D printing your own replica of one of the robots from the book.

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We had a lot of fun with these books, and I think we learned a lot too. Each volume follows directly on from the previous one, in a continuous narrative, usually beginning with the answer to a puzzle that was set at the end of the last book. We’ve read the first three books, and it seems that there will be more in the series. There are still lots of loose threads to tie up in the story, and there is clearly a lot more to learn about coding. We’ve looked at a few other coding books aimed at kids, but these were the ones that captured our imaginations the most, and it’s not just about learning a particular programming language, but understanding computational thinking – how to break a problem down into its smallest discrete units, each of which can be translated into a simple instruction to a computer, which is a skill that is likely to be applicable to other areas of modern life.

We’re really looking forward to reading the rest of the series. This feel like the start of what could be a long journey to understanding more and more about computers and coding. We intend to keep learning about this stuff, and if we find other useful library resources along the way we will tell you about them in future posts on this blog.

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In the meantime, if you’d like to know more, there is an excellent new biography of Grace Hopper, namesake of the protagonist in “The Secret Coders” books, aimed at a similar age group.

For younger children, My First Coding Book makes a wonderful introduction to computational thinking, with ingeniously creative use of flaps, pull-out tabs, and other devices that kids will be familiar with, to illustrate coding concepts with various games and puzzles…

More about coding

Adult Learners’ Week – Celebrating the Value of Lifelong Learning

Lifelong learning is great for health, wellbeing and mental agility. Adult learners of all ages and backgrounds report benefits like better self-esteem, greater tolerance, confidence and career prospects.

Adult Learners’ Week/He Tangata Mātauranga runs 4-10 September and celebrates all adult learning whether it’s upskilling for a better job, preparing for further study, improving life skills or having fun. It is supported by the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO and incorporates International Literacy Day on September 8.

If you’ve ever been curious about our learning programmes for adults – sessions on learning how to use a new piece of technology, family history research, or polishing up your CV – Adult Learners’ Week is a great time to head along and try out what we have to offer.

Library events during Adult Learners’ Week

  • eResource Taster sessions, Central Library Peterborough –  Each session focuses on a different eResource. Learn about accessing/downloading digital newspapers (PressReader), eBooks (Overdrive), eAudiobooks (BorrowBox), and eMagazines (RBdigital Magazines) as well as tips for researching family history (Ancestry Library) or online language learning (Mango Languages)
  • Technology Help Drop-in Sessions, several libraries – Have a specific issue relating to a device or piece of technology? Drop-in and get some guidance.
  • ESOL Club, Te Hāpua: Halswell Centre – This club is for non-native speakers who would like to practice English in a relaxed, pressure free environment. Every week we will have a different themed topics to guide conversational practice.
  • Family History Help, Fendalton and Upper Riccarton Libraries – Looking for more help with your family history research? A volunteer from the New Zealand Society of Genealogists will be available to help you with your family history questions.
  • CV drop-in, New Brighton Library – A librarian will be on hand to assist customers who are needing help with their resume. We can offer guidance on creating, updating, and editing your CV.
  • Learner License Course, Aranui Library – This course, delivered by Literacy Christchurch, is designed to give you all the knowledge and confidence needed for best success at passing when sitting for your learners licence test. Laptops and devices will be available for use during the class times to sit practice tests and for researching questions.
  • How to organise and edit your digital photos, South Library – Learn how to organise your photographs and do some basic editing using online photo editing software. Please ensure that you bring your camera and USB download cables. Cost: $7. To make a booking please call 941 5140

Find out more

Papanui PlayStation Playoff!

Papanui Library is now hosting a monthly PlayStation 4 competition.

What?!?!? Sign me up, you say? Well, let me give you the lowdown:
The resident Gamemasters (Michael and Damien) select a game of the month and devise a wicked competition for all budding gamers to test their abilities. The challenge runs for a month and a leader board in the library shows the top 5 competitors!

The top player at the end of the month wins an AMAZING PRIZE (think movies and free!) and bragging rights for the whole month.

Any library member can rock up and join in – just ask a librarian to book the PlayStation and the Gamemasters will set you up (there are a few rules to adhere to). Make sure you show us your score too, no sneaky cheats in the library please…

This month’s game is Wipeout, a futuristic racer game but with guns – who said driving would ever be easy?

So what do you reckon? Are you a master of computer manipulation? Can you drive, drift and shoot at the same time? Can you top the table and topple the reigning champ? Come down and give it a go – we double dare you!

Here’s the current champion Steven Fletcher; he’s the Rocket League master and scored 37 to 2 in last month’s challenge. Woah! Way to go Steve!

Find out more about games and gaming at your library.

Damien
Papanui Library

We do things differently

Cover of We do things differently Every now and then a book comes along that packs a big enough punch that I feel as if I’m flying through the air. We do things differently: The outsiders rebooting our world has me landing feet first with the feeling I can walk into the future.

Travelling across four continents author Mark Stevenson sets out to meet people who have created, and are using, extraordinary new ways to help our world.

“I had one over riding criterion for inclusion in my itinerary. The innovators had to be succeeding right now in the real world. Whatever their idea, I wanted to be able to touch it, meet the people making and benefiting from it… It had to be working and I had to be able to see it working.”

From growing rice to running machines on air We Do Things Differently is a remarkable look at here and now.

Want to learn more?

*both of the websites above recommended by Mark Stevenson.

More from Mark Stevenson

Cool stuff from the selectors: Fashion, architecture and insects

9780714873343On Eating Insects

In theory I like the idea of eating insects, it makes sense in a world where food could become scarce – it would seem that we are unlikely to run out of insects or plagues of locusts, but what about putting this into practice? “Bee Lave Taco or Moth Mousse” anyone?

On Eating Insects is not just about exotic sounding recipes, it gives us a holistic view of the subject with thought-provoking essays and fascinating stories of field trips into the world of the people who have eaten insects for centuries.  The political, cultural and ecological aspect of eating insects is also examined, creating a book that will leave you thinking, and perhaps looking at that ant nest in your garden in a slightly different light.

9780847858521The Art of Dressing: Ageless, timeless, original style

Style icon Tziporah Salamon profiles the chicest and most celebrated older women of today, while imparting practical tips on how to put together beautiful outfits

With headings such as “Good shoes and a good handbag are a must”, “Consider the whole effect: you are creating a work of art, a painting”, and “Enlist the services of a good seamstress and tailor” you would be forgiven for thinking that this book is not for the average middle-aged woman – and you would probably be right. However if you love to pore over books that include colour, style and a touch of whimsy then this is definitely the one for you.

As an aside, what is it with older women and hats?

9781614282273The big book of the Hamptons

Another book to peruse, salivate over, and wonder how some people have all the luck. I have been obsessed with the Hamptons and their general surrounds since I started reading fiction set in this location. The Hamptons are always depicted as full of beautiful but comfortable homes nestled near the beach, eccentric but lovable families, arty types, romantics….wealthy but not pushy.  This book does not disappoint.  It’s big and it’s full of photos.

There’s a reason why artists and writers, movie stars and moguls, musicians and composers, fashion designers and decorators, architects and craftsmen, fisherman and farmers have flocked to the Hamptons for all these years.  They are drawn by the glorious landscape, the extraordinary light, and the promise of pleasure.

9780714873497Mobitecture: Architecture on the move

The Camper Kart – a pop top in a shopping cart, the QTvan, a camper for mobilty scooters or the A47 mobile library – all the buildings in this book are designed to move.  Some are practical and actually work, some are purely experimental, and others are art installations.  There is sure to be plenty of inspiration for anyone interested in the idea of small houses, camping ideas or houses of the future.

James Gleick at WORD Christchurch: No spoilers for Time Travellers

James Gleick does not want to offend anyone.

The author of numerous books of a scientific bent is careful with his words and keen not to ruffle any feathers. It’s speculation on my part, but I wonder if his experience is that, on the topic of Time Travel, passions might sometimes become inflamed?

A curious full house gather at the Piano for this WORD Christchurch session featuring Gleick and fellow New Yorker Daniel Bernardi (erskine fellow, film and media studies scholar, science fiction expert and documentary filmmaker). They discuss the ins and outs, twists, turns and paradoxes of Time Travel. Before long there is, as is the new tradition when two educated Americans speak in the presence of non-Americans… a jocular swipe at the current US president.

James Gleick and Professor Daniel Bernardi
James Gleick and Professor Daniel Bernardi, Flickr File Reference: 2017-05-16-IMG_0194

Fortunately this science-loving audience is not in the least offended by the joke.

Cover of Time Travel by James GleickGleick’s book Time Travel: A history is an exploration of the literature, science and zeitgeist of Time Travel. It’s far-ranging, smart and brain-expanding.

But what made him want to write on that topic in the first place?

I discovered this weird fact – that Time Travel is a new idea. That didn’t make any sense to me.

Why did it take until H. G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine for people to explore that as an idea? It seems a few things came together: photography and cinema were showing people a slice of the past in the present; instantaneous communication was suddenly possible making the lack of temporal alignment in different places more obvious; and time standards became a thing for the first time. As Gleick puts it, “the way people thought about Time was up for grabs”.

Then Einstein came along and things got really interesting.

Though Einstein’s theories allowed for the possibility of a sort of Time Travel, Gleick is quick to point out that it’s not the punching-a-date-on-a-machine or opening-a-portal-to-another-era kind. It’s really just the acknowledgement that there is no universal time. Everyone’s experience of time is personal and given the right set of circumstances (speedlight travel, for instance) your version of time can slow down relative to everyone else’s. This means that the Time Travel stories of the “Rip Van Winkle” (or Futurama) kind become technically possible. But Gleick doesn’t believe the imaginary, sci-fi type Time Travel that continues to excite our imaginations exists, or that it will. Though he seems apologetic about it, as if he’s mindful of deflating the aspirations of wannabe Time Travellers in the audience.

On the enduring appeal of Time Travel in literature and popular culture, Gleick feels that it lets people explore many things about families and relationships – it gives you the ability for “a do-over”. Like the movie Groundhog Day. He points out that a lot of Time Travel stories are about fathers and mothers, families and parents.

Take Back to the Future – isn’t this really just a movie about looking at your parents and realising they were once young like me, and wondering “what was that like?”

This is far from the only reference to Time Travel in popular culture, and many in the audience probably come away from this talk with a reading/watching list that includes:

  • A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – indicative of pessimism about the future of “our benighted country”.
  • Doomsday book – H. G. Wells never wrote about going into the past but Connie Willis does.
  • “All you zombies” by Robert Heinlein – An early short story that became the movie Predestination and is an interesting example of The Grandfather Paradox.
  • Looper – Movie that nicely skirts over the paradoxical plot difficulties by having Bruce Willis tell his younger self “If we’re going to talk about Time Travel sh*t we’re gonna be sitting here making diagrams with straws all day”.
  • Interstellar – Bernardi’s pick as the film that best visualises the science of Time Travel.
  • The Planet of the Apes series – Bernardi’s favourite for its use of Time Travel to address issues of gender and race.
  • Arrival – A film that Gleick feels works very well in performing a “subtle trick” on the audience. All Time Travel stories have to do this but in this film you barely notice it happening.
  • Twelve Monkeys – Another Bruce Willis film that deals with a Time Travel loop and deals with a death.
  • “Blink” – Gleick’s favourite episode of Doctor Who, in particular a scene set in a spooky old house, “old houses are great time travel machines”. It’s also the first episode in which the phrase “timey-wimey” is used.
James Gleick
James Gleick: a man in want of some straws. Flickr File Reference: 2017-05-16-IMG_0198

Gleick is at great pains to try and describe these stories in a way that does not reveal any important plot twists. In the case of Planet of the Apes this is… is adorable the right word? The movie came out in 1968. But no spoilers!

Another appealing aspect to Time Travel is that it’s a way of escaping death. After all, (spoiler alert!) Time will kill us all in the end.

When we hear Time’s winged chariot it’s not delivering good news.

But what is Time (other than universally deadly)? Scientists may tell you that Time is the 4th dimension and that it’s similar to the other physical dimensions in that we inhabit one spot and the rest stretches out away from us, both backward and forward. This rather flies in the face of what Gleick says we know “in our guts” about Time i.e. that the past has happened and the future hasn’t.

It seems an oddly obvious statement to have to make, and Gleick says it’s not a scientific one but a religious one.

Some of the audience questions delve into this idea of religious thought versus Time Travel and at this point I get lost, draw a spiral in my notebook and label it “loop of confusion”. Questions like “is God in Time with us?” and “doesn’t an interventionist God imply that the future isn’t set?” do somewhat “screw my noodle”. Given the heady topic, it seems inevitable that I lose the thread of the discussion at some point in proceedings. Perhaps it always has, and always did happen?

Other questions posed include one from my colleague Fee (who wrote her own post about James Gleick) and wonders if the future is set, then what about premonition? Which Gleick says (gently) that he does not believe in, though it’s a powerful idea.

Another question asks how it is that Gleick can explain such scientifically complex stuff in ways that non-scientist folk can understand. He says simply that he’s a journalist so he asks lots of questions and that a big part of it is just getting scientists to talk you as they sometimes “live in their own abstruse world”.

I am lucky enough to get the last mic grab of the night and ask my own question (which if I could have a Time Travel do-over for, I would make slightly less waffley). It’s with reference to the way we think about Time in terms of spatial metaphor. In the Western world we conceive of the past as being behind us and the future in front of us but in Māori culture this is flipped around – the past is known and therefore visible before you and it’s the future that approaches you from behind. In the course of researching had he found any other cultures that view Time this way? Gleick replies that the language we use, the words that we use to describe Time really shape how we think about it and that in some Asian languages Time travels on an “up and down” axis or “right to left”.

And if I thought my noodle was screwed before it definitely is now. As I exit the theatre along with the rest of the audience I concentrate on travelling forward through space and backwards/forwards/vertically through time.

More information

Samoan Language Week – Vaiaso o le Gagana Samoa 2017

Talofa. Samoan Language Week 2017 will take place from 28 May to 3 June. Here at Christchurch City Libraries, we welcome you to join us for:

  • Storytimes in Samoan
  • Samoan computer session Thursday 1 June (1PM to 3PM) South Library. We will look at the latest online news, music and videos online from Samoa. E mana’omia lo outou susū mai tatou fa’ailoga fa’atasi le Gagana Samoa ma fa’ata’ita’i le fa’aaogaina o le Komeputa. E a’o’aoina ai le su’eina o tala fou, musika ma nisi mea aoga mai Samoa i luga le upega tafa’ilagi (internet).
  • Samoan Se’evae Tosotoso (Jandal) Craft Activity
    Create and design your own Samoan Se’evae Tosotoso (Jandal). Participate and enjoy learning some new Samoan words and greetings.

See the full list of Samoan Language Week activities.
Subscribe to the Facebook event.

Samoan Language Week

Samoan language resources

Find more information about Samoan Language Week and Samoan language. Our Samoan Language Week webpage includes links to books and resources in Samoan. There is a booklist Samoan language books and resources for children, as well as videos and audio. It features our wonderful colleagues Tai Sila and Jan-Hai Te Ratana performing some short Samoan songs:

Mask Making at the Makerspace Workshop

Come and check out our mask display at the South Learning Centre. Students at the Marker Space Workshop afterschool programme investigated the meaning behind masks and why people wear masks. They then researched and drafted their own mask ideas. Their brief was to incorporate an accessory that could be 3D printed.

masks

Marker Space Workshop afterschool programme delved into the World of Wearable Arts (WOW). But it was more than just costume making – it involved a trip to Creative Junk and sewing lessons with a sewing machine – but also circuit making with LEDs and Arduino chips.

Students were asked to create an Kiwiana outfit which included an electronic circuit with flashing LEDs.

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Booking and enquiries

To book a place on one of our courses please phone (03) 941 5140 or email: learningcentre@ccc.govt.nz.

I draw the line

Art Before BreakfastIn any interaction where I mention that I try to draw every day, there is a point straight after the words leave my lips when I can hear the drawbridge being cranked up, and see the intervening moat filling up with tablets, apps, Pokemon and the sundry small, useless products of 3D printing. And, as if from a distant galaxy, I hear the person on the other side of the moat say some variation of the following: “Oh I can’t draw a thing. I can’t even draw a stick man.”

And let’s say, just for the moment, that you are stick-man challenged, still I bet you had the chance to draw and paint and play music when you were at school. What is a great concern for many educators nowadays is that the swing to a predominantly technology-based education system like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) means that many children will be deprived of the opportunity to develop their own direct, tactile creativity, and will be doomed to a life of thinking that creativity is the manipulation of someone else’s genius.

ArtlessWhich is why I am such a huge fan of The Big Draw – The world’s largest drawing festival. Most education systems nowadays focus on STEM curricula. The Big Draw is part of an initiative to change STEM to STEAM through the addition of the Arts. And we have a chance to be part of this initiative at Art Box Gallery in Christchurch until Friday 28th October. Art Box is the venue for the Christchurch Big Draw which has invited 20 New Zealand artists to show us just how important drawing is. How we simply cannot afford to let Art slip through the cracks. How the British Arts Education Trust believes  “Art can change lives”.

I went along to The Big Draw with my colleague and art-buddy, Masha. Debra McLeod was in attendance to share some arty gems with us – she is always so welcoming and knowledgeable. It was a struggle to drag Masha past Ina Johann’s Parallel Lines – mapping another life (and it was only exhibit 2 of 20), and I wanted my little drawing books to morph into the likes of Mario Luz’s Sketchbooks.

All the artists in this Big Draw exhibition are known in their field and for sure you will come away with a different slant on life. But here’s an idea – maybe the next Christchurch Big Draw could feature the sketchbooks of ordinary, everyday sketchers: the people who draw though they will never be known for it, and the children who are just starting out on drawing.

Back we meandered to Central Library Manchester – just that little bit altered. There to search out more beautiful drawing books. Paul Klee is reputed to have said that drawing  “is the act of  taking a line for a walk”. To-day Masha and I took a walk for the lines!

Roberta and Masha with Sandra Thomson's Coral Reef and Fated.
Roberta and Masha with Sandra Thomson’s Coral Reef and Fated.

Inspiring girls to work in STEM – Ada Lovelace Day 2016

Today is Ada Lovelace Day – a celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and science. It’s celebrated on the second Tuesday in October.

STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is a field that needs more women. Careers NZ looks at where women are working in STEM, and job opportunities.

Having inspiring examples for girls and young women is an important part of adding balance into the sector. Curious  Minds – He Hihiri i te Mahara does it well – Increasing girls’ and women’s participation in STEM publishes profiles of women in science, technology and engineering, and new profiles are added each week. Dr Victoria Metcalf’s New Zealand women in STEM – talented and diverse is a cool look into Curious Minds.
Like Curious Minds on Facebook and follow on Twitter.

Fabriko Electronic Stickers Fun Palace
Fabriko Electronic Stickers Fun Palace, Central Library Peterborough. Sunday 2 October 2016. Flickr 2016-10-2-IMG_6300

STEM at libraries and learning centres

Science Snippets in the library hosted by Science Alive! After school sessions start back next week Monday 17 October.

Anna and Gen from Science Alive!
Anna and Gen from Science Alive!

See also:

Books to give girls STEM inspiration

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Our previous Ada Lovelace Day posts