Friday, March 30, 2007


Wara has been waxing ecstatically about scratch so I had a closer look at the program itself and did some background reading about it. You can download scratch from

I think wara may be correct. Scratch could emerge as the best current choice for introducing young people to programming concepts. Here is a summary of some of the features:

Lineage and Interface:
Scratch is written in Squeak (SmallTalk)

It impressively combines features from:
  • LogoBlocks and Squeak EToys (programmable building block approach),
  • Logo microworlds (user interface and page navigation),
  • Boxer (program variables are visible manipulable screen objects),
  • AgentSheets (encourage sharing of projects and components on the web),
  • PicoCricket (artistic creations with lights, sound, music, and motion)

It's possible that they've taken the best features of all these programs and combined them successfully into Scratch!

The design criteria are based on experience with computer clubhouses in disadvantaged areas and include:

Building block approach to programming skills: Learners build procedures by snapping together graphical blocks much like LEGO bricks or pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Different data types will be represented by blocks of different shapes, with pieces fitting together in only syntactically-correct ways. This approach eliminates the possibility of syntax errors (which have proven to be a major obstacle for learning text-based languages), allowing youth to focus on the problems they want to solve, not the mechanics of programming

Programmable manipulation of rich media: Young people like to manipulate images, video, and music - for example, Scratch includes image filters similar to the ones in PhotoShop or GIMP, but provides programmable control over these filters, so that youth can create videos in which the parameters of these filters vary over time

Deep shareability: Meaning that youth will be able to share objects at all levels (from procedure blocks to animated characters to full projects) and to exchange them between all types of devices (desktops, laptops, tablets, handhelds, mobile phones, embedded devices)

Seamless integration with the physical world: Youth can program physical objects (such as motors, lights, MIDI synthesizers) in the same way they program virtual objects on the screen – and use input from physical sensors (distance sensors, motion detectors, sound sensors) to control the behaviors of both physical and virtual creations

Support for multiple languages - they have committed to multilingual development

The developers include experts from the Squeak community (eg. John Maloney), the Logo / LEGO community (eg. Mitch Resnick, Brian Silverman) as well as at least one expert on girls in computing (Yasmin Kafai)

Licence, Source Code, Platforms:
Scratch is a “closed development, open source” project ... the source code will be available by mid-2007 under the MIT License so that others can experiment with extensions and variations. However, unlike a conventional open source project, they do not seek code contributions from the community

Scratch is currently available for Windows and the Macintosh and they hope to have a Linux version available by the end of 2007

Harvard surprise: Harvard University is using Scratch as an introduction to programming concepts for a Java course and feedback from their students has been very positive!

Unknowns / Questions:
Scratch has been released but is still undergoing further development. I've only had a brief play with it so far. So maybe some of the items mentioned in the initial planning have not yet been implemented. I'm not certain about the ability to transition to text code for more complex programming or the seamless integration with the physical world feature mentioned above.


A Networked, Media-Rich Programming Environment to Enhance Technological Fluency at After-School Centres in Economically Disadvantaged Communities by Mitchel Resnick, MIT Media Laboratory, Yasmin Kafai, UCLA and John Maeda, MIT Media Laboratory

Scratching the Surface: Interview with John Maloney (Squeak developer)

Videos - the Intro and Image Effects videos provide a quick first impression of what the program is capable of

Scratch for budding Computing Scientists - use of Scratch by Harvard University

Saturday, March 24, 2007

"we are impatient, we don't want to lose another generation of kids"

Video featuring Nicholas Negroponte, Seymour Papert, Walter Bender on the educational philosophy behind the One Laptop Per Child Project (OLPC)

The term computer literacy is deadly

There really is an image some people have that the children have to learn about computers, that they have to learn about PowerPoint, Excel because its going to help them in life and they are going to feel "included" in some way

Which is almost tragic as a point of view because children don't have to learn PowerPoint, they have to learn learning - and learning learning is what OLPC is about
The real breakthrough is the network, we are giving the children a constant high bandwidth network to each other ...

We are building an expression machine - not just personal expression but criticism, dialogue, collaboration

The most subversive thing on the software front is the ebook reader as a wiki - you get the world's literature - some of it's great and some of it's not - then two things happen:
  • every page in every book has a discussion thread
  • every page in every book can be augmented, changed and illustrated
The long term goal is to transform school and to transform learning - that is something that takes change across the whole of society - we are impatient, we don't want to lose another generation of kids
Education as being an element of security - eliminating terrorism by eliminating poverty, by eliminating the lack of communication

Sunday, March 11, 2007

school reform idea

That all parents in Australia (for instance) who are dissatisfied with the current education system create a virtual on line school for the (partial) education of their children - the other requirements could be met by home schooling or part time schooling at a physical campus

I don't see why such an idea could not be implemented - a sufficient number of parents might already exist to create such a school

Under the Howard government it has become easier to create Private schools than previously

It might be easier initially to set it up on a State by State basis since States control education in Australia

Sunday, March 04, 2007

the mind body problem

ASPECTS OF THE MIND BODY PROBLEM (the relationship between mind and the physical world, which has been thought about at least since the time of Plato ...)

I was thinking of trying to open up these questions for discussion at the TALO swap meet later this week. I put myself down to discuss, "What is knowing"? The format is informal, its an "unconference". I thought it would be best to raise a few "big questions" for discussion and just see what happens.

three contradictions:

1) difficult / easy contradiction

Hard problems are easy to solve and easy problems are hard to solve. It has been easier to get computers to play good chess and solve calculus problems than to build a robot to navigate a crowded room.

possible resolution: Evolutionary approach and situated / embodied AI

2) parallel / sequential contradiction

Our parallel processing pattern recognition brains have also somehow become competent, even excellent, at language based linear, sequential thinking

possible resolution: With the help of language have built a serial processing virtual machine on top of our parallel processing brains

3) meaning /materialism contradiction

"the brain is a meat machine" - Marvin Minsky

We are material beings who search for the meaning of life. Our brain is a meat machine and yet we have strong beliefs that make up our personality, the thing that sometimes seem most important to us

possible resolution: Dennett argues that it is legitimate to discuss in terms of the intentional stance, to assume for discussion purposes that we have beliefs, that we can think about our thinking etc. He elaborates more on the philosophical question of freedom in Freedom Evolves, but I haven't read enough of it to summarise

I have mainly been influence by these authors:
  • Daniel Dennett (philosopher) - more information at the behaviourism and consciousness pages of learning evolves wiki
  • Andy Clark (cognitive scientist) - more information at enactivism page of learning evolves wiki
  • Rodney Brooks (AI researcher) - more information at the AI_behaviour page of the learning evolves wiki

Saturday, March 03, 2007

the machine is not yet us

"We are the web ... we are teaching the machine ... we teach it an idea"

The Machine is Us/ing Us by Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Kansas University, is currently the most popular video on YouTube

I enjoyed it too and had similar enthusiasm when I wrote about the original Kevin Kelly article on which it is based, in 2005

There are some important underlying ideas in there about the separation of style and content in XML and how this enables automatic data exchange which can be aggregated and programmed into the semantic web. The Michael Wesch video adaptation is a dynamic, engaging production that draws you in

But something is not quite right here, something which I missed earlier

Both the Wesch video and the original Kevin Kelly article go beyond saying that the internet is an intelligent assistant. They are saying that with more of the same, us humans teaching the machine, that the machine itself will turn into an autonomous thinking intelligence. This is more hinted at in the video but is explicit in the Kevin Kelly article:
It has already surpassed the 20-petahertz threshold for potential intelligence as calculated by Ray Kurzweil. For this reason some researchers pursuing artificial intelligence have switched their bets to the Net as the computer most likely to think first ... We will live inside this thing ...

The human brain has no department full of programming cells that configure the mind. Rather, brain cells program themselves simply by being used. Likewise, our questions program the Machine to answer questions. We think we are merely wasting time when we surf mindlessly or blog an item, but each time we click a link we strengthen a node somewhere in the Web OS, thereby programming the Machine by using it
- We Are the Web
They are saying that the internet is like a human brain and that when we tag we are bringing that brain to life. I don't think that's right.

I take Rodney Brooks as a guide here, that the Ray Kurzweil singularity idea is too simple. That we need more conceptual breakthroughs about human cognition and how it works before we can make predictions such as the above. Brooks challenges the idea that exponential growth in itself will automatically produce the dramatic changes envisaged by Kurzweil.

For example, AI has been working on generic object recognition for 40 years but still can't do it.

We don't have a conceptual model of how the brain works. Theoretical, conceptual breakthroughs are required. Growth itself, even though exponential, is not sufficient.
A long time ago the brain was a hydrodynamic system. Then the brain became a steam engine. When I was a kid, the brain was a telephone switching network. Then it became a digital computer. And then the brain became a massively parallel digital computer. About two or three years ago I was giving a talk and someone got up in the audience and asked a question I'd been waiting for — he said, "but isn't the brain just like the World Wide Web?"

The brain is always — has always been — modeled after our most complex technology. We weren't right when we thought it was a steam engine. I suspect we're still not right in thinking of it in purely computational terms, because my gut feeling is there's going to be another way of talking about things which will subsume computation, but which will also subsume a lot of other physical stuff that happens.
- Rodney Brooks

Connection is not everything and progress requires more than more tagging. We still need deep analytical human thought and breakthroughs to work out the future.

discussing a murder

"A WEB of secret internet message boards could be crucial to solving the suspected murder of South Australian teenager Carly Ryan"
- Web hunt for teen murder clues
Should jackals like Rupert Murdoch have a field day airing their propaganda uncontested, dressed up as objective reporting? Or should a more truthful view be presented as well?

So, I decided to discuss the murder of Carly Ryan (15 yo girl who was murdered in Adelaide last week) with my Year 12 class and I have decided to write this blog about it.

Rupert Murdoch has no shame. Not only does he own the newspaper that links Carly's murder to her MySpace account but he also owns MySpace itself. So he profits from the sensationalism in the first instance and he profits from the notoriety gained in the second instance. As the newspaper man knows, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

The current state of reported truth is that there is no known connection between Carly's MySpace web profile and her murder. Of course, it is possible that there is a connection but a simpler explanation is that the police are required to follow all possible leads.

It is the choice of the Murdoch press to make a headline out of it. It sells papers and frightens parents about self directed youth autonomous activity. Money and moral panic, what a grubby combination.

Those of my Year 12 students who are in the know, because they have their own accounts, understood the point quite clearly. Although it is possible that she met the person who murdered her through MySpace there had to be a very big extra factor involved to take things to the next stage - to turn an online meeting into a face to face meeting. Those students who already understand protective behaviours understand that. As one of them said, "I feel in no danger at all from having a MySpace account"

It's a disgrace that some Schools block MySpace and then turn a complete blind eye to the fact that many of their students have signed up to it at home. If there is some danger involved here for naive students who haven't learnt how to protect themselves then this approach is not in those students best interests.