Computer Programming for Kids – 2 of 3

In the weeks since my oldest child began to use Alice, I have bought an Arduino and talked a lot about making and programming robots. This activity and discussion about microcontrollers is positively influencing the older two kids’ interests in programming and electronics. Just last night, we pulled apart two old disk drives to see what we could salvage from them. We ended up keeping a couple motors, an LED, and lots of tiny screws that might come in handy one day. Today, they wanted me to hook up the Arduino and make some LEDs light up. There is opportunity to be seized here! Continue reading

Computer Programming for Kids – 1 of 3

In the past couple months, I’ve begun to teach my kids how to program. I have three young kids. The oldest is  9. I want to teach them to program because I learned how to program at an early age. While others had the good fortune of learning piano, I was messing around on Apple IIe computers learning Logo and BASIC in elementary school. A few years ago, I tried to have my oldest learn Logo. It did not work out too good. I guess it came down to lack of interest. She asked about it a few times, but never really got into it.
For this second go around, I decided to change my approach to emphasize self-direction and initiative on her part. My role would be to facilitate her learning to program any way that grabs her interest. To find some programming tools for kids, I searched for “programming for kids.” These three resources were pretty good:

  1. 5 Tools to Introduce Programming to Kids
  2. 7 Sites That Make Programming For Kids Fun
  3. Teaching your kids how to write computer programs

From these websites, I downloaded the software to introduce my oldest to the following learning approaches and here is what she thought of them.

  1. Scratch. While Scratch seems to be very popular, my daughter only used it for 10 minutes before getting bored. She went through the tutorial quickly and then decided she wanted to try something else. I think the interface was too young for her. She wanted something for “older kids.” Scratch has a GUI interface in which you drag and drop code snippets.
  2. Hackety Hack. Hackety Hack teaches Ruby. I was hoping she would like this one because then she might learn a language that could be useful to her later on. She used it for 15 minutes and tried to go through the tutorials. I think the problem with this is that it is text based. The lack of images and graphics failed to hold her attention. I shouldn’t have been surprised. One of the strengths of Logo is that the turtle provides young children with instant and visual positive reinforcement.
  3. This site suffered the same demise as Hackety Hack for the same reason, lack of visual stimulus. Rather than Ruby, this one teaches Javascript. I’m sure it is awesome, but my daughter wanted out after 2 minutes on the website.
  4. Alice ended up holding her attention. Alice is like Scratch in that you drag and drop code snippets in a GUI interface. However, the interface is not as child-like and the programs create animations that can be output to video. The big difference here is that the tutorials really grabbed her attention. They quickly showed her how to drag and drop code snippets to move a dancer within an animation. She added speech bubbles to make her talk and interact with other characters.

Alice became her programming tool of choice. Sometime during the tutorials, she got the idea to create an animation using Alice for her upcoming science presentation. Completely self-directed, she must have spent over 40 hours carefully constructing her animation for the class. Mission complete!

Seeing his big sister doing programming, my son got interested as well. He is a bit younger, but fully able to grasp the concepts. I decided to try the same thing with him to see what programming environment would engage him the most. I introduced him to three applications listed in Marshall Brain’s Teaching your kids how to write computer programs post.

  1. Auditorium. This is a neat little game that teaches basic problem solving. He enjoyed it for a few days.
  2. Light Bot.  This neat little game teaches sequential thinking. The goal is to move a robot through a puzzle by specifying each individual action it must take sequentially. Once you chart the course, you hit “Go!” and watch the robot follow your directions. If your code gets him there, you complete the puzzle and move on. If he doesn’t make the blue box, the robot starts over and you get a chance to modify your code. My son really liked this game. He is still playing it.
  3. Scratch This approach worked for my son. He liked the simple and colorful interface and made a few little programs with it to move the cat around and say little things.


Light Bot needs to get to the blue box.

SeaMicro uses “lean engineering” to build servers economically in Silicon Valley

My wife recently found me a great deal on Bloomberg BusinessWeek to get a 3-year subscription for $18. While reading the first issue to arrive, I found a great story about a company in Silicon Valley that has created a flexible, U.S.-based manufacturing system for their product. The company is called SeaMicro. They make low-power servers for Internet companies like Mozilla and eHarmony. I liked what the CEO, Andrew Feldman, had to say about why they have taken the unconventional approach of building their servers onshore.

Feldman says that manufacturing locally will help SeaMicro compete with bigger, deeper-pocketed rivals. The company’s engineers constantly experiment with the latest and greatest components in a bid to lower the power consumption and quicken the performance of their systems. They can then take their changes down the road to NBS—less than a mile away—and start testing them in new systems immediately. “You don’t have to deal with working across the globe and shipping stuff back and forth,” says John Turk, the vice-president of operations at SeaMicro. “You can lose days with systems sitting in Taiwan or China.”

Even more satisfying is reading how two company executives were dismayed by BusinessWeek’s line of questioning.

When asked if the happy marriage between SeaMicro and NBS will dissolve should SeaMicro hit it big and shift toward mass production, consternation fills the faces of Turk and Maslana. “It’s not about us getting big,” Turk says quickly. “It’s about how do we stay flexible. That is what the big guys don’t have.”

It was an okay article, but I have a few questions of my own for the executives. How did you get the courage to buck the trend? What are the basic principles of your operating system? Why have you chosen those principles. As an operations manager, these are three questions that I am interested in having answered.

SeaMicro: Stars and Stripes and Servers Forever

Fukushima will not hurt California

For all those people in California and the rest of the United States who are worried about radiation from Japan, I made this simple chart. It shows how radiation from Fukushima scales to other sources of radiation. The important thing to note is that everyone gets 3650 microSievert per year from natural sources. You can’t escape that. This amount is 36,500 time greater than what a Californian might see from Japan. Put away your potassium iodide pills.