Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Book Review: "Tools and Weapons"

"Tools and Weapons" by Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne is a look at some important computing issues through a Microsoft lens. It is a pretty revealing look as the authors write seriously about the thinking behind Microsoft’s dealing with issues like the Snowden leaks, suits against the government about over reaching subpoenas, protection of users data, transparency, cyber security, and more.

I really like this line from the introduction "When your technology changes the world, you have a responsibility to help address the world you helped create."

There were several threads moving through the book. One was the need for building guiding principles for looking at technology and its uses. An other was the need for diversity among people developing technology and the guiding principles. There is frank talk about embedded bias in algorithms and how diversity is essential to fixing that problem. Responsibility for what technology does is another key thread. Without using these words, the book suggests that “should we” is as important if not more so than “can we.”

The chapters on Artificial Intelligence and facial recognition are the best look at the pros and cons I have read so far. Many people seem to have a doomsday view of AI but Smith and Browne have a more nuanced look; one that is not apocalyptic but more practical and near term. There is a lot to think about in these chapters but the picture painted is more about how we need to think about issues going forward than that we should either panic or be unconcerned.

I found the chapter on China very interesting. It was clearly written carefully to outline cultural and political differences without appearing to attack anyone. I might have preferred a stronger stance but I’m not the president of a global company.

One clear takeaway for me is that today’s Microsoft is not the same Microsoft as it was under Ballmer or Gates. Satya Nadella is a different sort of leader altogether and ethics and principles of a company are set at the top. Where Gates was naïve in some ways and Ballmer was focused on the bottom line Nadella, while not losing sight of the bottom line and still naïve in some ways (remember his gaffs about women getting ahead) looks at things differently, listens better, and is interested in the better good.

His decision to release Windows XP patches for the WannaCry virus for free is one I have to wonder if Ballmer would have made the same way. Maybe he would have but that I have to wonder is telling.

The book is not a difficult read. The language is non technical and technology is explained in layman’s terms. That is not to say that the book is only for non-technical people. I think technical people should read it. So should policy makers in both government and the private sector. It would make a great supplemental reading for an ethics course, especially for an ethics course for technical people.

One last interesting thought from the book. No one graduates from a US military academy without taking an ethics course but many people graduate with technical degrees without taking an ethics course. Maybe that should change.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Password Checking Tools

Neil Plotnick shared some Password Checking Tools on Facebook recently. I’ve used some of these in the past and find them useful and instructive.

The more security aware of my students always ask me how safe it is to use these websites. I tell them to use things they think are good passwords but not ones they actually use. Some of the sites make the same recommendation.

The first two sites above give an estimate for how long it would take a computer to brute force crack the password. The estimates don’t always agree. This is not surprising as they are probably based on some slightly different assumptions. The time scale is more important than the actual number though.

The third site explains why a password it strong or weak which is very useful. One thing that is interesting is the impact of special characters. I have run into a number of sites that don’t allow special characters in passwords. I find that surprising and wonder why that is. I’d rather require their inclusion.

Having students in a programming class write their own password checker is a great exercise by the way. It helps reinforce string manipulation, general parsing concepts, and password safety all at the same time.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing

This is a great program for high school girls interested in technology. I have had several students get awards at the state level and they all say it has been a good thing for them.


Hello Educators! Applications for the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing are now open! The deadline is November 5th, 2019. As an educator, you play a pivotal role in supporting the next generation of technologists. When 2018 AiC Award recipients were surveyed about their motivation to apply for the award, 65% of respondents named outside encouragement to apply. When asked about who most influenced the award recipient to apply, 62% of respondents named Teachers/Educators. Encourage your students to apply and spread the word!

When you endorse a student’s application, you are eligible and encouraged to apply for the NCWIT Educator Award. Applications are due December 2nd, 2019!

https://www.aspirations.org/participate/high-school

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

The Scratch Course For Teachers

This looks like a valuable free professional development course for teachers interested in incorporating Scratch into their curriculum.


"The Scratch Course" is a free, six week, online workshop style course for teachers interested in learning more about programming with Scratch. Originally created through funds from Google's CS4HS program, this course has served over 1000 teachers from around the world in the last five years. We are preparing to offer our fall 2019 section of the course starting on Monday, September 16. For more information about the course and to pre-register, visit: https://csed.uni.edu/scratch-intro/

Monday, August 26, 2019

Updating and Expanding Programming Projects

I’m always looking for new projects. I found an interesting example in the book “The Creativity Code” (Creativity Code review here). It was a poem generator that took random adjectives, adverbs, verbs, and nouns and fit them in “missing” spots in a template. It looked like fun but as I thought about it, it was really just a different version of a MadLibs type of game. It’s also similar in some ways to the Shakespearian insult project (have you seen the Shakespeare Insult Kit at MIT?)

What I would like to do is expand a project. That is to say I would like to take an existing project, like the Shakespeare Insult project and add something to it. Projects that grow and build as new knowledge is learned can be highly motivating.They mean students don’t have to start a project from scratch. This also reinforces the idea that programs can, and often are, modified and enhanced.

Currently my Shakespeare project teaches about parallel arrays. What I have been playing with is adding a class to this project later. An object of this class would store  array lists of strings and have a method to return a random string when asked. Retro fitting the new class should be fairly easy for most students. They will see how this simplifies code

insults.Next()

being easier than

insults[r.Next(0, 50), 0]

While simple at first I have realized that there are multiple constructors that should be created for this new class. An empty list and an object initialized with an array (or other list) at a minimum. Similarly there should be an Add method which would have several overlays – individual strings and an array of strings are two obvious examples. I am sure that student will think of others as we go along.

I’m optimistic that this idea will lead to some useful discussions about thinking ahead about how a class might be used and how it could be written to be useful in a number of different design cases. At the very least I had fun reviewing ArrayList as I wrote some code as a thought exercise.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

What I Want from Computer Science Education Professional Development

The CSTA 2020 Call for Proposals is out and as usual it has me thinking.   Two questions come to mind. One is, what can/should I propose to present? The other question is what do I want to learn? I think I have been to every CSTA conference (since it was the CS & IT conference) so I have attended a lot of sessions. I’ve presented quite a few times as well. So I have a lot of history to think about.

I don’t currently have any sessions or workshops I want to present. I keep asking myself is that is because I am not working hard enough to innovate or create new ideas. I suspect that a lot of people doubt if they are doing anything special enough to present. Some of those people are right but a lot of them are wrong. So I need to think about that.

I’m thinking more about birds of a feather sessions to propose and looking at my projects to see if I have something really nifty for the nifty project session. Birds of a Feather (BoF) sessions are very interactive and are great for refining ideas. And nifty projects are, well, they’re nifty.

What do I want to see presented? That’s actually hard these days. Why? Because my brain is already full of more ideas than I could learn or teach in a lifetime. Artificial Intelligence, cloud computing, Internet of Things, game development, virtual reality and on and on. Content! There is a lot of possible content out there.

What I really want to learn is how to teach better. I’m doing some reading (Computer Science Education is my current read) and I’ve been learning a lot from Mark Guzdial’s blog for a while. If you ever get a chance to hear Mark talk about how to teach computer science GO HEAR HIM! There are a number of his talks on YouTube BTW.

Lots of people want to promote a new tool (software or hardware) as a silver bullet for teaching. I’ve heard enough of them. Given a few myself. The more I teach though the more I think there is more to becoming a better teacher than a cool new robot, a fancy new IDE, a great new “educational toy.” or what ever.

Teaching is ultimately about establishing a relationship between teacher and student. It is about communicating well and sharing passion. That’s what I want to learn how to do better. And if you have research to back up what you are teaching about how to teach I really want to hear from you.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Vicki Davis Interviews Alfred Thompson

Over the summer Vicki Davis interviewed me for her Ten Minute Podcast. Vicki and I have been friends for a number of years and it is always a pleasure to talk with her. We talked about a number of things including Project-based learning. Passion-based learning. Problem-based learning.