Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Can a $35 computer put some of the fun back into programming?  That's the goal of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a British charity that has created one of the most interesting new products of 2012.  Initially there was considerable delay in getting one, due to huge demand: more than 100,000 were sold the very first day.  Over one million have now been sold, but production has ramped up and you can get one from many vendors without waiting months and months.  You can even buy more than one at a time.

(1-3-2013 update) Check out the excellent  Raspberry Pi Education Manual (free download) released today. Announcement here.

"The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video. We want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming."

A recent profile of Eben Upton, co-founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, explains the motivation behind the project.   Upton was in charge of computer science admissions at the University of Cambridge and was disappointed that the number and skill of applicants was dwindling.  He wanted to turn this around by making computing more accessible.  In this 3 minute video, Upton makes several interesting comments about kids and programming.

"There’s a 5 to 10 minute period at the start of any child’s engagement with programming  where it all seems baffling and complicated.  Once they’ve made their first couple of modifications to the program and gotten a good result,  that’s what gets you hooked, that’s what gets  a significant number of people hooked." 
This is a very basic, but very important observation.  Once we get kids past those first 10 minutes of baffle, their motivation, resilience and learning soar. It's true for adults too, but adults are even less comfortable hanging in there uncomprehending for those first 10 minutes. If they do, the barriers to enjoyable coding are lower than ever.  
"One of the advantages children today have with some of these programming languages like Scratch, is that a lot of that framework is already provided for them, so they can concentrate on the interesting stuff."
Raspberry Pi is a pivotal technology in a modest package.  Kudos to Eben and his Raspberry Pi Foundation.  
"We don’t claim to have all the answers. We don’t think that the Raspberry Pi is a fix to all of the world’s computing issues; we do believe that we can be a catalyst. We want to see cheap, accessible, programmable computers everywhere; we actively encourage other companies to clone what we’re doing. We want to break the paradigm where without spending hundreds of pounds on a PC, families can’t use the internet. We want owning a truly personal computer to be normal for children."
Go ahead, buy a Pi (and perhaps a User Guide) and see what you can do.
 "We expect to see a lot of innovation enabled by the fact that we’ve reduced the cost of computing."

Raspberry Pi in the news:

Sunday, December 9, 2012


Grace Hopper was a dynamite speaker.  I was lucky to hear her early in my career, in September 1983 at an ACM meeting in Minneapolis. A tiny, wrinkled old woman, prim in perfect Navy regalia, she struggled up to the stage carrying a huge coil of wire which she dumped onto the podium and then ignored.   With a commanding voice, a wicked sense of humor, and a few well placed scowls, she launched into a powerful vision of the future of computing. 

She made clear that what had been invented and accomplished so far was just a meager start on a field of unlimited potential and vast application.  Her brilliant, prescient vision was punctuated by palpable specifics:  she laid out examples of what networks of computers could do, and gave a vivid, memorable  example of what a nanosecond means in practice (captured here on video.)

But more than any technical detail, I remember her toughness and her energy.  Being in the same room with someone so vivid,  so focused, so accomplished, so strong of will,  is breathtaking.  It remakes your conception of what a human being can be, and do.  Grace Hopper radiated power and technical desire.  I owe a lot to her;  many many  people do. 

And I remember her challenge.  “I have one piece of advice for you young people,”  she announced at the end of her talk.  She smiled briefly, then glared at us, each one of us.  “DO IT!” she commanded, loud and abrupt. “If you want to accomplish something,  just DO IT.  Don’t make excuses.  Don’t ask permission.  By the time the authorities have caught up with you, you’ll have it working, and they’ll be too glad to have it to care.”

It’s Grace Hopper’s birthday today, December 9.   She was born in 1906, so she’d be 106 this year.  In her honor, it is ComputerScience Education Week, a “highly distributed celebration of the impact of computing and the need for computer science education.”   Details and data here.   Inspired?  Try this.

Grace Hopper would be pleased (but not complacent) about the CSEdWeek effort.   In her own words  "The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, “Do you think we can do this?” I say, “Try it.” And I back ‘em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ‘em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances."[ref]

Happy birthday, Grace.  And thank you!


P.S.  For a fascinating read, get Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age by Kurt Beyer.  More about that book in a future post…

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Girls Who Code is a new organization working to educate, inspire and equip 13- to 17-year-old girls with the skills and resources to pursue opportunities in technology and engineering.

This organization is doing a terrific job of raising the visibility of closing the gender gap in the computing profession. Their publicity launch last summer touted articles by the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Time and many more, plus financial support from Google, E-Bay, General Electric and Twitter.  

 Anneke Jong of the Daily Muse summarized the background and vision of Girls Who Code in this excellent article.  The goal is to teach 1 million girls to code by 2020.

The pilot program was an 8 week summer course for 20 high school girls in New York.  Two months later, these girls presented their work in a gala celebration at the New York Stock Exchange.

Another article by Bianca Bosker in the Huffington Post features the gala itself and also links to a video of Simon Constable from the Wall Street Journal interviewing Reshma Saujani, the Founder of Girls Who Code.   Here are some highlights of the interview, which is worth listening to in full:

Wall Street Journal:  How to get more women into computing and engineering?

Reshma Saujani:  Even though women are 56% of all college graduates, only 1 out of  7 engineers are women...   74% of young girls say they are interested in STEM, but then they're not opting to go into STEM careers...  Girls want to change the world.  They're passionate about their communities.  So part of what we are doing at Girls Who Code is bringing in hundreds of speakers who say that technology can be used to solve blindness, technology can be used to solve poverty, technology has so many different aspects in making your community better...
We had a really interesting week last week.  We asked the girls to design a product, and all the girls decided to design a mobile app.  And all the applications that they came up with … one was how to find a protest in my neighborhood,  how to find a family-friendly place for my dog, how to get the fastest route to class – and not one game, even though 60-70% of all mobile apps are games.  They think about the world differently.

WSJ:  Do those apps have the same appeal to the general population?  Because you have to get people to use the apps as well.

RS:  Absolutely.  Well guess what?  85% of all consumer purchasers are women.

WSJ:  Okay. .. So what else happens in class?  Is that coding or what?

RS: We’re teaching the fundamentals of engineering.  We taught them Scratch, robotics, how to have a conversation with an engineer and articulate your business plan, how to build a web application, how to build a mobile app.  We’re going to have a competition at the end of the summer.

WSJ:  What else do you have planned for this?   I mean a course which is 8 weeks is great, but then you go back . . .

RS:  It’s not a summer course;  it’s a movement.  It’s a movement to get girls all around the country to raise their hand and say “teach me how to code.”  It’s to change this perception that coding is not for them, and it’s to have a different conversation about education in our country.  I believe that computer science should be mandatory not only in high schools but in middle schools.  I mean, what I learned, what you learned, what your father learned has not even changed, even though the world has changed so much.  Part of Girls Who Code is to have that conversation --- that technology plays a role in all our lives, that every kid, regardless of if they want to be a doctor or a politician needs to learn it.

Girls Who Code plans to expand to another 6 to 8 cities across the country in 2013.  Kudos and all the best to Girls Who Code in the future.

P.S.  Here's an excellent short video featuring Reshma Saujani (Founder of Girls Who Code) with great talking points for why teaching girls to code is critically important, right now.   Well worth watching -- maybe even memorizing.   (Added 12-9-2012)