Archives for January 2011

Book review: Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett

Monstrous Regiment was a pleasure to read, it's a very good story -- and the first Pratchett I read in English! Don't know if it's this particular book or reading in the original language, but I didn't get any pun-overdose related headache this time, yay.

The book works very well as a stand-alone, for readers like me who are not exceedingly well versed in the Discworld universe. We follow the story of Polly, as she dresses up as a man and pretends to be one, to go to war and find her brother. Her regiment also includes a vampire and a troll, hence the title. The story sometimes pushes "suspension of disbelief" a bit far but I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy every page anyway! The feminist thread of the story is incredibly well done, with the related thoughts and internal conflicts beautifully characterised in Polly's head, all along the story.

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Next teaching plans

I'm preparing my next course at the moment. Another introduction to Python for beginners, but in a different context: this is for a group of political sciences students, who use R for statistical simulations and are encouraged to look up Python for the next level of that module.

...Well I hope to be teaching them, we're having a bit of a hiccup securing a room at the moment! In any case, I'm reshuffling my material to use the feedback received last time as well as insights from a couple of education articles and books I've been looking at. It's a different angle from what I've done before: although they need to learn programming basics they'll also clearly want to be able to solve some specific problems on their own afterwards. I hope to find a way to satisfy this. One of the great issues I'm encountering when teaching is how difficult it is for students to decompose a problem into smaller manageable steps; I hope to include some level of doing this from the very beginning... We'll see how it works.

What would I like to do next, after that?

Crash courses

I mentioned them last year and people loved the idea, but end of years being what they are it didn't happen then. Someone pinged me about it again this month though, and it generated so much interest before that I'm really keen on preparing that one. Once I have the format worked out, it should be very easy to repeat it many times (and considering the number of people that expressed an interest in the past that definitely wouldn't hurt!) because it won't be a time-consuming one -- an afternoon -- which is quite exciting.

Teaching young people

This is what I "meant to do next" after my last course already :/ Adult courses are so much easier to organise: someone expresses an interest, I get excited to see someone interested, we plot when to set it up and it's obvious it'll be in the evening because I have a job and they have a job, other people join -> learning!

When I was talking to schools on the other hand, the schedule where they could fit me clashed thoroughly with work (between the time to teach and the time to get there and back), and sometimes they also suggested I teach as part of the mandatory computer class, which is not something I'm quite ready for (teaching a full class of uninterested teenagers... nope!). I was also very excited when I visited the Computer Clubhouse and talked with the people there, but unfortunately I have to admit I work too far and presently it would be too stressful to try to make it there on time to do something interesting before they close.

I'll have to think hard about this and figure something out (post-first crash course runs, though!). Summer camps could also be an option.

Teaching girls

This is an idea I've been toying with for a while and once I figure out the scheduling bit I want to give it a shot as well. I'm seeing many accounts that suggest knowing one will "not be the only girl" helps removing the intimidation factor and get interested girls to join a computing or programming class.

(Doesn't mean I'd stop teaching mixed classes, I still can't resist the appeal of someone interested wanting to learn :))

Teaching students

That's something I mentioned briefly here before, the idea of teaching an introduction to programming using Python to college CS students before their course begins, particularly targeting minorities to level up the playing field (and here's a blog post on the topic I linked to before). I've also been flipping through 'Unlocking the clubhouse' lately for references and I'm disheartened to link some of what I read to women I know who were initially interested in CS but dropped out just recently.

Initially when I started wanting to teach young people, my hope was to be an evident living proof for all genders that of course there are women who are enthusiastic about programming, and hopefully encourage a few girls to consider it as a career choice. I feel a bit like I've fallen short of my goal, though it's possible I'm just being too impatient :)

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Book review: The dip, by Seth Godin

The dip is a very short book, less than 80 pages, that aims to answer a single question: whether you should quit or whether you should stick to something (just like it says on the cover!). It could apply to a project, a market, a relationship, a career decision...

The book starts strongly on giving a sense that "it's ok to quit", which I personally found a bit overstated, but perhaps this is because I realised a while ago that sometime it's time to cut your losses and accept a change of strategy. Later on the author lists some reasons why you should quit, and others why you shouldn't (e.g. you shouldn't quit because you're scared -- that's not much of a strategic decision).

According to the book, your main goal or drive should be to "become the best in the world", and to keep that in mind while making your decision: that is, if you can't become the best in the world, find another problem to solve. I'd say for some of the questions you might be thinking about, it's not always the appropriate answer/goal but it doesn't make the book any less relevant.

Overall I enjoyed and appreciate the description of what is essentially a framework for making a specific kind of difficult decisions. I found the end of the book clearer and more helpful in deciding whether it's the right time to abandon an effort. The first 2/3rd really aim to hammer home why quitting is ok (sometimes) and why you should consider it, or even consider considering it.

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Teaching begins on Monday

After a bit of tension over securing a room, someone sorted us out and I will therefore be teaching another introduction to programming with Python, to a group of beginners, starting Monday! Exciting. I have a draft of everything I want to do on the first day, I need to print it out proper before the end of the week as we probably won't have Internet access during the class. I'll be teaching adults again. The class that I meant to cap at 8 students now has 10, admire my ability to say "No" :) (Update: Though I'm told only 5 confirmed for this Monday! Typical.) Hope it works out.

In the meantime, here are a couple of interesting links about teaching programming to kids, that I want to be able to find again later:

  • Teaching Kids to Program, or Don't Try to Teach 8-Year-Olds Java Subclassing. High-level, describes a way to get involved with schools and different approaches to teach kids to program (surprisingly, or not when you think about it, programming Lego Mindstorms proved a failure. For robots perhaps programming Roombas would work better, as they should be less prone to randomness... (?))
  • Umonya. This sounds like my "crash course" idea but on steroids and targeting kids, which makes it a ton more awesome and about that much more scary-insane. The presentation I was linked to says 18h + 6h optional over one week-end, which is... wow!

Both these links actually come from recent posts on the WoMoz mailing list, which seems to be straying from "getting more women involved in Mozilla projects" toward generally steering and encouraging women, girls, and young people in general towards programming. Interesting.

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Book review: Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell The Power of Thinking without Thinking

Blink talks about using our instant instinctive reactions to our advantage (as opposed to overthinking things), as well as how they become more useful and accurate as our experience builds up. The book also spends a good amount of time describing the dangers and dark side of these instinctive reactions, as they easily bring up unconscious prejudice against people -- say, against the blacks (as mostly criminal) and women (as mostly pertaining to domestic life).

To illustrate all this, the book brings up various stories of war and politics. There are lots of insane statistics; for instance we tend to associate "being tall" with an impression of leadership, and this reflects in e.g. the representation of tall people in Fortune 500 CEOs (14.5% of American are 6 feet or taller, while 58% of those CEOs are).

The book continues with other ways the "blink" effect can be used and what we currently understand about first impressions. An example of this: if you ask people to explain their first impression they will either make it up, or change their mind and usually become less accurate. There's a "select the best jam" story illustrating this -- people would get it right when tasting and saying directly what they thought, but would change their choice (poorly) when asked to judge factually on the texture and other attributes.

I found the first few chapters a lot more engrossing, perhaps because when the book begins and we're not familiar yet with the concept it's all mind-blowing amazing stuff. Then the reader gets used to it :) Or it could be that there's a lot more that affects me personally at that stage of the book, as I don't physically match the expectations of what someone good in my field usually looks like. The short Implicit Association Test in the early chapters is quite powerful in surfacing various levels of unconscious prejudice and bias, that you end up having whether or not you believe you do, due the myriad of societal messages surrounding us. The IAT site I linked to contains a few sample tests, if you want to understand what I'm talking about.

I really recommend this book:

  • to understand yourself better, as a human being. You'll gain a better feel for when to trust your instinctive response and when to question it, and sometimes understanding where an impression comes from;
  • for the many amazing stories, statistics, research results and incredible facts (the love lab, Warren Harding, the research on faces, ...).

I'll finish with a quote from page 97 of my edition, on how to counteract bias anchored deep into the brain.

If you are a white person who would like to treat black people as equals in every way -- who would like to have a set of associations with blacks that are as positive as those that you have with whites -- it requires more than a simple commitment to equality. It requires that you change your life so that you are exposed to minorities on a regular basis and become familiar with the best of their culture [...].

The last story of the book is about gender equality in classical music orchestras. When context was removed and "blind" auditions began, where the musician plays anonymously behind a screen, the number of women in classical orchestras suddenly increased fivefold. Until then no one thought or realised that they were also listening with their eyes.

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A few notes from the first session Teaching again

Post-session #1 thoughts (from Monday's scribbles):

  • Note to self: Re-read carefully the lesson's content beforehand, to remember it all. Knowing what's "print" and what's a variable like the back of your hand doesn't mean you remember how to explain them to someone encountering the concepts for the first time. Very embarrassing, I never want to introduce any concept like this again.
  • PhD students are SMART.
  • It's a shockingly different experience than what I'm used to. People read things once and Just Get It (TM). Unfortunately they also call to me less and so I don't have a chance to see their progress and correct mistakes, share tips, point out inefficiencies or just help in general. I'm making plans to try to mitigate this.
  • Overall I will have to work very hard to keep things interesting. It's both exhilarating and super scary.
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   I'm going to FOSDEM 2011
/ \

I will be attending FOSDEM again this year (weather and airline strikes permitting -- fingers crossed!). I'm also hoping to drop by the Gnome meetup on Saturday night and say hi to a few familiar faces.

Very much looking forward to it!

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Teaching, teaching Session #2

I thought before I started this course, "oh, it's the third time I do this, it's all old hat, I'll just have a general recap blog post rather than weekly ones" but heh, as long as I keep learning and questions and topics to ponder come up, I'll keep writing them down if only for future reference.

I worked hard to have an interesting session with plenty of content this week. I mixed and mashed and added and transformed what usually takes 4-5 hours into an intense 2 hours session. It was worth it, I think it was a good pace for this class and the experience was rewarding.

It was really hard work though. It took such a long time to prepare that I'm not quite sure I can scale it, especially now that I need to create new material (and I'll be travelling the last 2 week-ends of the course). I'll see what I can come up with to keep things interesting without burning out on preparations -- all suggestions very welcome!

In parallel I've been reading an incredibly helpful book on teaching, and am using its tips and advice to structure my lessons better. I'm also figuring out things that are more specific to teaching programming ; for instance, having a code reading question when it's time to stop the exercises seems good at making students actually stop what they're doing and pay attention to the front of the class, rather than their screen. Then it's easier to move on to explaining a new concept.

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