Category Archives: Technology

NYCL Scratch Day Diary

We’ve been looking forward to Scratch Day for a couple of months now, and am happy to say it went off wonderfully.Facepainted 7 Year Old ready to lead his first Scratch DayIt was five months ago today that we checked out No Starch Press’s SUPER SCRATCH PROGRAMMING ADVENTURE from the library, and it was this past Saturday that Xander revealed Scratchy to 15 more kids, ages 7 to 12, as the culmination of his hard work.

After we shared his Scratchy themed birthday cake (he turned 7 in January) with the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT, I learned of ScratchEd (thanks @TwilightDreamWolf for the heads-up) and their role in helping to bring Scratch to more kids.  From their group, I learned of Scratch Day and looked into where we could go to meet other Scratchers in Toronto, only to find there wasn’t anything already organized.    Thinking about possibilities of organizing something to help foster his passion, I mentioned the idea to him and he said he’d love to teach kids to do it — which cinched it, this was going to happen if he was this keen about it.

There is an amazing technology vibe in Toronto, so I knew there would be many ways to go about the event.  Part of me wanted to see if people at UofT would want to be involved, to keep the university feel of Scratch, but I didn’t have any current contacts there to work.  Working the start-up vibe was another angle I considered, but was a bit wary of the sponsorship angles inherent with that culture.  When I was at an early Maker Series event at the Toronto Reference Library, in connection with their new Digital Innovation Hub, I saw they had the new version of the SUPER SCRATCH book in their collection (which isn’t available in the Library’s main collection). I inquired asked about the possibility of doing Scratch Day there, and they declined saying they didn’t have a kid friendly space.  This brought me to our local library, North York Central Library, which we have a good rapport with.

I introduced the idea to them, and they did some research to see if it might be a good fit.  We arranged to meet and Xander shared his enthusiasm for Scratch and we discussed some of the ideas for what the day could be.  We settled on a small introductory class for kids aged 8-12 accompanied by their parents as a trial run.  Coordination with the Learning Centre in the Teen Zone/Hub at the library, outside of the Children’s Department usual dealings and recruitment  within the Teen Department’s Youth Advisory Group to find volunteers to help mentor during the class was done.  Much thanks to Sharon Andic, and Kathryn Copeland for their work in preparing the program, and to Chantee, Charles, and Wendy for their work during the class helping the kids out.

We announced the class on a blog setup for the event at ScratchDayNYCL.tumblr.com and the library put it in their Spring Flyer of events.  Registration quickly filled up with positive comments from parents.  Xander practiced his instruction skills with a friend, going early to our Homeschool Group at the library for a few weeks.  We also arranged to tour the Learning Centre space to get a feeling of the room and what was available there and discuss the format and layout of the pairs.  Everything was set — I was more nervous than he was.

The biggest hurdle was going to get through introductions, as he was really struggling with that part in our practice session.  Kathryn agreed to introduce him which worked out great.

The class went very well.  We managed to squeeze in two extra groups who arrived morning of to see if anyone didn’t show-up.  Many smiles and much enthusiasm from the kids gathered (and a few handstands from the leader).  We made a NYCL Scratch Club Studio on the Scratch website to help encourage the kids to collaborate and build their skills together going forward.  We ran over our time estimates (of course) so we didn’t get to do the maze program he planned, and we didn’t get to show some of our ‘Connecting to the Physical World’ projects as we had hoped.  His response?  “We’ll just have to have another class.”

Naxder and his Dad leading Scratch DayNot only that, he came home and asked to start to write a book about Scratch, for his “55%”ers, those we know a bunch of scratch but want to do more advanced things.  When he started Scratch, he didn’t read and he learned so he could do more Scratch.  I guess it will also be his gateway to writing too!

A very proud Papa.

 

 

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Vulnerable Toronto Public Library Computers

After 7 years of not letting the children touch the Toronto Public Library‘s computers with a 10 foot pole, yesterday we had made arrangements with another family to introduce them to Scratch and since we were already both going to be at the library later that afternoon I gave it a try.

Here, I’ll document the issues I had with the experience.

  1. One of the machines is in its semi-regular state (I’ve observed over 2/3rds of the machines in the Children’s Department being in this state at once before) of needing to do a forced restart because the timer software has crashed, other is reporting some sort of corruption and requires a reboot.
  2. The temporary code slip to get 30 minutes of time included a capital letter in the card #.  The terminal would not allow one to enter a capital letter.  We finally tried it with the lower case version of the letter and got in.
  3. Upon starting Firefox (at least they are no longer calling it Fire Fox), we see a screen where it is checking the addons, but it just hangs at that screen and didn’t seem to make any progress so we cancelled itDSC07132
  4. We were presented with an error-ish screen in firefox warning that McAfee is trying to install an addon but maybe we shouldn’t trust it.  DSC07133
  5. Presented with another addon install screen for Java Console.  Again, continue without any action taken.DSC07134
  6. One of the three machines we were using wouldn’t open one of the sites saying that the plugin required was vulnerable.  Checking the Plugin Status reported many issues.  For example the Flash player v 11.3.r300 was released June of 2012, and 18 newer versions have been released since (here are some of the dangers with that).  The Silverlight Plug-in was using version 5.1.10411.0 which was released May of 2012 and 3 newer versions have come out since (and Silverlight’s vulnerability database).DSC07148
  7. I tried to do a favour and upgrade it so we could continue our project, but of course they have blocked software installation by users.DSC07149
  8. The timer software they use is terribly intrusive giving multiple warnings that you need to save your work and be prepared to leave the machine, starting as early as 50% into the time.
  9. There was no obvious volume control on the machines, and the song my son programmed was barely audible so we just didn’t bother with doing any sound related activities (our theme for the day was music sigh).

The library has a fantastic collection, and wonderful branch staff, but their technology department continues to disappoint.  I have such little faith in their webteam, but feel I have little choice but to use their catalogue.   I feel sorry for the people who don’t have alternative choices for using computers and are only exposed to such a poor experience when interfacing with this technology.

LifeHack: How to Replace your Toronto Public Library Card

tpl-logoAs you may know, we use the library A LOT (over 500 checkouts so far this year (track it yourself with athenaeum)).  Somehow or other, the barcode on the back of my library card is wearing out (darn you Friction!), making it more and more difficult to get it to scan at the self-checkout stations.  The kids helped me (they are short) find the keyboard locked under the shelf checkout station, and we learned how to unlock it, pull it out and type in the library card # to get by.  This lasted a while, until I was almost ready to go to the circulation desk to claim a new card, thus suffer the personal horror of being assigned a new number, and more terribly, a new location on the holds shelf — when I had an epiphany.

It is just a barcode.  I know how to make barcodes.  Why don’t I replace the barcode on my library card?  I could just paste it over top the worn out one and I’d be off to the races.  But wait, why stop there?  I carry around three library cards (mine, my wife’s and my son’s), taking up over 40% of the contents of my pocket on any given day, let’s solve that problem too.  I proceeded to print up a sheet with all three library card #’s barcodes so now I just have a tiny slip of paper and presto problem solved, life hacked.  For those who carry a smart phone, it is even simpler as you just can keep an image file on your phone and display that to the barcode scanner and be on your way.

Only times you need your card now are when you need to present official identification to government officials.

Don’t get carried away with this though.  You wouldn’t want to ‘cheat‘ any other systems by consolidating your barcodes, or heaven forbid alter something’s code.

I wonder if there is a keen enough library user who wants their library card for life that will get a working tattoo barcode of their library card?

sample library card numberWant to do it too?  Super easy way is to just follow this link here to Barcodes Inc’s Generator. and look to your browser’s address bar and change the number where it says code= to your library card number — make sure you leave all the other things in place.  I’ll state the obvious, the barcode seen in that link is not a valid barcode, it isn’t your library card #, you must type your own personal number in there (and know that there is a small chance someone somewhere will have a record of your number in a log file).  If you’re going to do it yourself using the form (click advanced options) or have other tools to make a barcode I tested and found that the “numeric only” codes are recognized by the library’s scanners.  Thus pick “Interleaved 2 of 5” or “Code 128-C” to get you started.  Once you have your image file of your barcode, do what you want with it in terms of laying it out to be printed, or encoding it to be tattooed, or sending it to your smart phone.  Good luck, and have fun!barcode-tattoo-10Note this should in no way be limited to the Toronto Public Library system.  Anywhere that has a self-checkout that uses a barcode can be hacked in this way.

Minority Report style UI getting closer with greenhouse

This morning I watched John Underkoffler‘s Pointing to the Future of UI Ted Talk where he discusses some of the design he did for Steven Speilberg’s Minority Report via the MIT Media Lab and where they’ve taken it since.  The talk was two years old and he said in 5 years it would be pervasive so I wanted to check quickly where things might be.
I saw he is now Chief Scientist with oblong industries inc where they have a few products available being used by Big Business.  More interesting for the pervasive factor is their greenhouse api they have available.  It is set up to use multiple displays (be it large tvs, desktop monitors, laptops or tablets etc), a spatial interface using motion style devices like the Kinect, WII remotes, iPhones or the upcoming Leap Motion device, and your imagination (combined with some coding talent) to turn any room into a large digital play space.
Will be interesting to see where it leads.