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.


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.


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.


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

Junior Robotics at the Learning Centre at Te Hāpua: Halswell Centre

The Learning Centre at Te Hāpua:  Halswell Centre recently staged the first ever junior computer science competition in Canterbury, called The Buzz Off. Students from year 1 to 3 came from a number of schools to compete in Beebot robot challenges.


This event was organised with the support from Professor Tim Bell, University of Canterbury – Computer Science guru. MTA (Modern Teaching Aids) donated a first prize of $300 to a well deserving Ladbrookes school. You would have thought we had given them a million dollars by the looks on their faces!

Two ladies from Google Australia kindly made the trip to support this venture and donated gifts for all children who participated.

The great thing about this competition was that it was run by students for students. St Margaret’s, Casebrook, St Peter’s and Kaiapoi North student helpers supported, guided and celebrated the younger students learning.

For many of the teacher/adult helpers this was their first visit to the Te Hāpua Halswell Library. They expressed lots of enthusiasm and many expressions of “This library is fabulous and we will definitely be back”.

You can experience BeeBots at the Fun Palaces at Central Library Peterborough and see more robotics related classes.

In our Learning Centre, students experience eLearning programmes aligned with the New Zealand Curriculum document. These programmes provide learning in a technology-rich environment and the teaching within these programmes keep abreast with the latest teaching philosophies and strategies.

If you are interested in working with us to tailor an existing programme or work alongside us  please contact us Tel: 941 5140 or

Having computer problems? Tearing your hair out? We can help!

Do you feel like stamping on your phone some days? We can help.

Woman with dark hair lying on grasss

Even if it is an iPad, tablet or smartphone. Bring it along to one of our Library drop in sessions for help.

Computer Drop in Sessions

There are digital device drop in sessions at New Brighton and Spreydon Libraries too.

View our 1.42MB PDF of Community Connections for Adults

Learning how to use your computer

You’ve been given, or have finally decided you must have, a computer/tablet/e-book reader, but you’re haven’t really worked out how to use it? What to do?

Libraries are very aware that their customers have a need to know more about using computers, both generally and  specifically in relation to libraries – using our e-books or databases for example. We are endeavoring to meet that need wherever possible. Here’s some of the things we can offer you:

  • Pop down to  your local library and ask someone to help you locate some useful computer  books
    like the Computers for dummies series or other introductory computer series
  • Get yourself booked into a free or low cost session at a library.
    The Learning Centre brochure lists six week courses which are run each term. Other sessions are sometimes offered at individual libraries. For example, Central Library Tuam is about to start a four session course called Introduction to your new laptop (beginning on 3 April) and your local library may be planning something similar.
    Many libraries also run regular drop in sessions which are tailored to individual needs, from using a mouse to downloading an e-book.

If these don’t work for you try our community information database known as CINCH . It will direct you to any number of other computer study options around the city.

All too hard? Just have a chat to your friendly librarian about how to access our classes and resources.

Learning opportunities at our libraries in 2013 – Community connections

pampletIf you don’t know what Delicious and Pinterest are, or how you might enjoy using them – read on. Our Community Connections for Adults programme for the first half of 2013 is out and it is full of great learning opportunities in our Learning Centres. Under the themes of Get creative and Get comfortable with your computer you are sure to find something to suit you.

Explore the creative possibilities of your digital camera, get into blogging and writing or learn about Delicious and Pinterest. Learn about local Maori History while exploring our Ti Kouka Whenua website.

We have drop in sessions, Computers and Coffee for both beginners and beyond beginners. If you got an eBook reader for Christmas and you are struggling with it there are courses for you. Is the Social Network a mystery you want to explore? Again – courses for you.

There is also a Community Connections for Families programme.

We have learning centres at South Library, New Brighton, Upper Riccarton and Parklands. If you follow us on Facebook and Twitter we also advertise learning opportunities at other libraries in our network as they come along. And don’t forget – if you can’t make one of our courses but still have a question about using our computer resources our friendly librarians may be able to help you.

Computers, fashion and humanism – Our selectors share cool new stuff

CoverComputer book publishers obviously think that so-called seniors need plenty of books to help them with  their computer skills judging by the amount of books that are published for this group. Admittedly older readers have not been brought up with computers in the same way as their children, but I always find myself being slightly offended with the idea that being older means that you are not up to date with technology. Anyone unfamiliar or less confident with computers will find them useful.


If you are a lover of fashion this is the book for you. The Beautifully illustrated Fashion: The definitive history of costume and style by Susan Brown traces the evolution of fashion from Egyptian dress to Space Age and grunge. Published by DK Publishing in consultation with the Smithsonian, it contains a mix of original fashion plates, archive images and commissioned photography of over 1,500 costumes. It focuses mainly on Western dress, and shows changing fashion and style, with features on designers and trendsetters. Simply stunning.

A.C. Grayling is a well known English philosopher and his new book The God argument is due out in a couple of months. It is an intriguing look at the arguments for and against religion. His argument for humanism – a philosophy that has gone out of fashion somewhat – is interesting. His ideas are not in the same camp as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who have slagged off religion but haven’t looked a lot at an ethical framework which would work for people who don’t accept some of the precepts of religion. Also coming up is the latest book from the Dalai Lama How to be compassionate in which he looks at how compassion for others can make us happy

Safari Books Online: your guide to the wilderness of technology

I like to think I am a pretty literate person. I love to read, debate the issues and communicate. Yet there is a world out there that eludes me – the world of technology. If you watch that brilliant comedy The Big Bang Theory,  then I am the character Penny (without the flat stomach, blonde hair and bone structure). When the I.T  department comes to play with my computer they tend to lose me  right after the word “file path”.

I am not an inherently lazy person it is just that I get the impression that even if I learned all I needed to know – within a week I would be out of date!

Not everyone shares my bewilderment. There are people out there who love all the challenges that changing technology  presents. There are also those who don’t have an I.T. department to save them when things go wrong!  This is where the library can help.

We provide access to Safari Books Online, an electronic reference library of technology, digital media and business texts. Safari has it all from artificial intelligence and mark-up languages to desktop publishing and networking.  If the words HTML, Java, Perl and Android applications full you with excitement then you are in the right place. If you know that “Python” is not just a really big snake and that “Perl” is not just a knitting pattern then this resource will be a bonanza for you. You can search across all of Safari’s texts or simply flick to the page you need at any time of the day or night.

Access this and many other useful topics at the Source with your library card number and PIN. Bazinga!

Get ya geek on: Really useful resources for NCEA Computing

Cover image of "Create your own wesbiteDream of becoming the next young IT whiz who transforms the technological world and makes billions? Take the first step towards your goal by studying hard for NCEA Computing.

So where did we find these great resources? On The Pulse, the library’s website for teens.

Seeking the riches of geekdom – Software Freedom Day

CoverSoftware Freedom Day (18 September) sounded great – prize giveaways and demonstrations at Central and  South Libraries, including an install fest.

Boldly I sent forth my chic ubergeek agent for the inside story. She sloped off, dodging tech-head techno-babble and returned saying she recognized Tux the Penguin, before going back to her Nintendo for the rest of the afternoon.

The library’s free internet computers have Open Office – an open source software, and I wanted to know more. So Indiana Jones like, I set off to discover the hidden riches of computer geekdom.

Ubuntu I discovered is an operating system; Open Office is for documents, spreadsheets and presentations; and Firefox, of course,  is a web browser.  Kontact groupware handles your email and calendar; while Konqueror is the file manager.

It all sounded a bit much – but I was told the GNU/Linux Users ~ Sydenham GLU teach and give support for newbies and the Lucid Dojo is a place where you can upskill and learn at your own pace.

Software  freedom day is held each year in New Zealand based on the  principles of the user’s freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. You can read more about the four freedoms on the GNU website.

Find out more from our website:

Find books and electronic resources in the library catalogue:

You too can have hips narrower than your head!

Recently, a Ralph Lauren advertisement campaign gained online infamy because the model’s figure had been so warped in post production editing, she had become horribly unhuman. The model has since been sacked from the fashion label for not being able to fit the clothing, and the blogger who first criticised the photo has had the full force of Ralph Lauren’s legal team down on him for copyright infringement. Ouch!

Adobe Photoshop is the professional program used for this sort of editing, but there are other programs which are great for editing photos. In this case, the editor went a little (maybe a lot) too far.

We have some great books on Photoshop in the library which should teach you how to avoid this kind of blunder. On the other hand, you could turn yourself into Barbie, if you so wish. We also have, a free imaging program, installed on all our library computers.

Have you seen any good (or bad!) edited photos lately? Let us know in the comments …