Teaching What You Don’t Know

I was talking about technology on the internet the other day. It’s a half-hearted pastime. I’m not at the top of my game, but I like listening to other people talk. And the topic turned to how we teach minors **ahem** children about technology.

Specifically, the question is: how much does a teacher need to know to teach about a specific technology? You could see the battle lines being drawn. On the one hand, there were people who felt that the teacher should know everything. And on the other hand, there were people who were frustrated that in a world where kids are taught so little about technology in the first place, that anyone would squash a willing teacher’s enthusiasm.

Full disclaimer: I know nothing about teaching. I know nothing about children. And what I know about technology? Well, all my best work is still on my development server.

Still, I was probably the first kid in my district to have a computer in front of me starting in kindergarten.

And that means I had a lot of teachers who…

Well, they understood that computers were the wave of the future, and they understood that kids should be learning technology…

But they didn’t actually know anything about technology.

So, computers were plugged in and turned on, and time on those computers? Well… There were five computers in the school (less than one per class), so go ahead and do the math. You had your hands on a keyboard, you knew the clock was ticking.

And, exactly what does a hundred and eighty-four year old Civil War veteran** teach kids about computers?

Well, back in the day, we got holiday-themed, pre-boxed lessons.

You got a handout with about a million lines of code typed on it.

And if you typed that code into the computer exactly as it was written (assuming there were no typos in the original) a recognizable, holiday-themed shape (Hearts, shamrocks, Christmas trees, etc) would appear on your computer screen.

There were exactly two possible grades: Perfect, and do it again. And what did you get wrong? Well, the teacher could see there wasn’t a recognizable, symmetrical heart.

And that was about it. She couldn’t narrow down the place where you made your mistake, so you’d go over the code line by line, looking for an error. If you asked for help, she’d stand over you, and read off the code, character by character, while you went over what was on the screen.

I left grade school typing 60 words a minute with 99% accuracy.

And computers–coding–well, that was about the last thing on the face of the earth that I ever wanted to do again.

I’d never gotten to the logical part of it, and I’d certainly never gotten to the creative part of it. Somehow, it never really clicked that I could do other things. The perfectionism and the rigidity of it overwhelmed me.

So, my thoughts on how to teach something you know nothing about?

  1. Tell the Truth: I don’t know much about this, but I’m going to give it my best shot because I think it’s important because… Did you think I believed my teacher was a computer genius? No? Well, the insecure authoritarian approach doesn’t work all that well. It keeps everybody from asking questions.
  2. Acknowledge Students’ Personal Motivations: If there’s something you want to do, let me know, and I’ll try to point you in the right direction. Because the truth? Nothing’s more frustrating than spending hours and hours drawing a heart that you wouldn’t have spent twenty seconds drawing with a pencil.
  3. Be Open to Two-Way Communication: What do you think? How could we change this? At some point, I did learn to recognize variables, and see patterns in the thinking. I got better at spotting those typos than the teacher.
  4. Encourage Experimentation: Why do you think that happened? Is there anything else you could do with it? If it didn’t go quite right, what did you learn?
  5. Know Where to Find The Answer: Go to the library. Ask Joe Smith. Try it and see what happens. You don’t know every detail of your preferred topics, either, so why respond differently just because you know less? What’s the name of Charlemagne’s horse? Look it up.
  6. Tell the Truth Again: I’m not an expert. Keep going. You can do more. You can go as far as you want to. Be honest with yourself. You may have taught them everything you know, but that’s not everything there is.

I hated coding. I’d learned that it was stressful, and time-consuming, with ridiculously disappointing results. I avoided it like the plague til graduation. I got back into it later, under my own steam and desperation, but that’s a story for another day.

**Teacher’s actual age and previous occupation may have been exaggerated.

Lemming Electronics

I must buy my electronics in batches. I’ve been thinking about replacing my computer… and my phone… and sometimes, my tablet just isn’t what it used to be. Now, naturally, I’m also wondering If I actually need a computer and a tablet. One or the other might be plenty. And a phone might replace a tablet… or maybe I want to go back to e-ink.

At  any rate,  it seems they all want to go at the same time. (Look, an extra space, followed by a space I had to add in because my keyboard is being difficult.)

I’m seeing keyboard errors in the pages I’m revising, and it’s just a little more time than I would like to spend fixing things. I can actually type… and yet, certain letters are missing, or keys are sticking. If it weren’t a laptop of a certain age, and if it weren’t already damaged, I’d probably already have a new keyboard.

But it’s getting up there. Time to strip out the parts I want to keep and move on. I just don’t have a clear idea of what I want to move on to.

And I’d actually like to start with a new novel on the new computer, which means finishing up the one I’m revising, right now. It’s not a necessity, really… just a psychological preference. And querying on a new computer has to be good luck, right? Better than sending out quiche, anyway.

The tablet is more batteries than anything else. It’s fairly old, and the battery life is sliding.

And the phone? Well, the phone is a bargain-basement pre-paid that has done pretty well, but which no longer has the memory or power or whatever to run all of the apps I’d like to be able to take with me. (It hasn’t for a while.) I do not need a phone that can do stupid dog tricks. Not really. But I’d like to be able to check email… and twitter… and… okay. Stupid dog tricks. But it doesn’t need to play games, or things like that.

Thoughts? How to be a complete cheapskate and still get the latest electronics?

And I’m Back…

So, here I am, and everything appears–for the first time in three days–to be back to normal with my web host. I’m looking at a very normal control panel, and a very normal editing screen. Yesterday, I wound up with a situation where I could only see my own website from my phone (not my home computer) or from a different network, but at least some of my readers got through. And the day before that it seemed to be completely and totally down. (although the thought that I could get there on my phone hadn’t actually occurred to me, yet.)

So, this is a free speech issue.

Dreamhost has a policy of hosting any content which is legal in the United States, and the hack-mob didn’t like it. (specifically mentioned, a neo-nazi website) Neither did the Department of Justice (which feels that Dreamhost should turn over records regarding users of a website that organized Anti-Trump Protests.)

And here’s the thing… the neo-nazis managed to piss off Dreamhost with a terms of service violation. (They’d already been thrown off once, and when they came back–for about a week–they got thrown off again.)

In the course of that week, the mob brought down 400,000 websites, and gave freedom of speech a real nice shiner.

The way this particular attack works–and it takes basically no skill–is that the annoyed teenager (lots and lots of annoyed teenagers) downloads software to his mom and dad’s computer, and then sets it to load the same websites (in this case, my host’s DNS servers) over and over and over until the server can’t handle it. There’s a twitter account, or a website that sends out “calls to action.” Type in the new information for whatever reason the guy on the other end of the IP says, and away you go.

Suddenly you’re smashing in shop windows in shops you had no idea even existed, and putting people you don’t know out of business.

There’s a lot of collateral damage.

And I’m sure that most people–regardless of age–just see that one website they want taken down. That one neo-nazi site, or that one Facebook page with the embarrassing picture of them when they were six.

There are a lot of people I’d like to shut up.

There are.

But I’m aware that when you curtail freedom of speech, you’re handing a set of ready-made laws and precedents to whoever happens to be in power at the moment. And in a democracy, sometimes, that’s the other guy.

And if you’d like it to stay a democracy, you probably shouldn’t build the censorship laws for him.

Web Hosting Woes

My website spent a good chunk of today not functioning. The general reason–as I understand it–is that someone attacked the host’s name servers, and as a result… basically everything attached to those name servers went down. I’ve been debating changing hosts on and off for a while. This afternoon was a little bit of an **aha!** moment. A while back, I got a letter that suggested I upgrade to a snazzier server because I’m straining the resources on my current plan.

Well, I contacted them, and asked for a ballpark figure on how many views my account should be able to handle, and was told–I don’t know if I should be surprised–that it had more to do with my use of resources, than a specific number of views.

Uh-huh. So, I got to optimizing databases, and started looking askance at photos. Is that picture too big? Uhm… Well, maybe a few fewer pictures. I’m sure you’ll be able to see where it changed, if you look back at posts.

I don’t know what number I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t anything close to what I had been getting. But you know how it is. Lack of experience, and willingness to accept the idea that this is my fault.

So, fast forward, and now the whole system is down because of a Distributed Denial of Service attack on the name servers.  Well, **aha!** That sounds a lot like the kind of thing that might be presaged by resources being gobbled up.

I’m thinking warm fuzzy thoughts about changing hosts.

I’ve found one that advertises a number of views with a hosting plan that costs… well, about the same as mine… And their number is 200k per month. Well, I’m not actually going to do the math, but–uhm, yeah… carry the 200–that’s more than I’m getting.

And it’s WordPress specific hosting.

I know it won’t be exactly the same for everyone, but I do like having at least a broad figure.

I’m still doing some thinking. I have a while until my term ends. I’m not crazy about the hassle of moving, and I’m not 100% sure what the new host will be. I also kinda want to revisit the issue with their customer service, and perhaps be much clearer about the reason for the questions.

I also have a friend who has some deep and soul-binding connection with them (I didn’t ask) so I might run the questions by him, just on basic principle. (Or I might not. I don’t know if setting myself up for second-hand preferential treatment is a good long-term choice.)

So, while I’m out there collecting information… Anybody in love with their host? Or, you know… ready to commit justifiable homicide? Recommendations? Warnings?

A-to-Z Challenge: Content Management System

A content management system is basically a computer program that manages content, and typically the content of a website. So… well… WordPress springs to mind. There are plenty of choices out there.

So, once upon a time, I had some grade school teachers who decided (or possibly were told) that computers were the wave of the future. And since they were teachers, clearly this meant that they would be teaching computers/programming/technology-a-plenty.

The not so obvious flaw in this thinking was that they did not actually know anything about computers/programming/technology-a-plenty.

So… about that…

The school board procured lessons.

By which, what I mean is a series of “programs” that were intended to result in a specific and recognizable outcome. So, if it was Christmas, you were programming the computer to draw a Christmas tree. If it was Valentine’s day, you’d be looking for a heart. And so on.

These programs would be handed to you–no assembly required–on a Xerox handout, and you would type them verbatim, letter by letter into the computer while the 4th grade teacher (A former Marine who raised twenty-seven of her own children on nothing but MREs and Communist tears) loomed over you, waiting for a Christmas tree to appear.

One typo… anywhere, and the result would be either a blank screen or a shamefully lopsided Christmas tree. And of course, you would have to find that typo in a page of code that neither you nor the teacher understood.

Suffice it to say, I learned how to type.

I probably wouldn’t have learned to program at all, ever, and let’s be honest, after an introduction like that, I would have been perfectly happy with that arrangement.

I wound up building my own content management system later on, when I came up with a reason to do it. (Apparently, Christmas trees that would take twenty seconds with a crayon are not particularly motivating.)

I didn’t have any idea how big the project was before I was actually doing it. If I did, I probably wouldn‘t have done it. But I had an idea, and I couldn’t find any out of the box software that would do what I wanted, and besides, how hard could it be?

Yes, I hear you laughing.

Maybe “hard” isn’t quite the right word. Maybe “big” is better. It’s a long project, and you work on it a little bit at a time, until it starts to do the things you want it to do. You learn as you go along. You learn the things you need to know, so there’s a lot more motivation to do it.

This year, my inspired Alphabetical Challenge theme is “The Letter M”. I’m working my way through the alphabet, one M word, M, person, or M place at a time. No, I don’t have any idea what my Muse was thinking on this one.

If you want to learn more about the A-to-Z Challenge, or join in, the website is here.

This Is NOT The Time to Rebuild a Computer.

Maybe it’s all the giraffe videos, but right now, I can really hear the Computer of Theseus straining, lately. Forget jet engine taking off… the thing sounds like ice being fed through a garbage disposal. I think it’s the fan on the power supply, and I think I’m probably going to have to get another one before summer kicks in, and I actually need a fan on my power supply.

This is an old power supply. It may actually be the last component from the original build, or at least, the last one I’m using on a regular basis. I bought it cheap, back when I wasn’t sure I could make the thing work, and didn’t want to spend a lot of money, if it flopped.

It’s modular with UV reactive cables (there has never been a UV light in my computer, BTW) and it has more power than I could even slightly imagine using back when I started building the thing.

Since then, the machine has developed into a scrap-yard behemoth. Anything salvageable winds up there. Maybe not always plugged in and running, but… we don’t like to throw things out.

I repaired the thing once, when the fan grill came loose in shipping.

Very, very carefully, because a power supply can hold a charge for a long time, and opening it… well, it’s probably the only piece that can kill you.

Maybe I should have replaced it back then, and I know I should replace it, right now.

And maybe there are a couple of case fans I could switch out, too.

And you know… well, some of the new processors look pretty good.

Of course, that would mean a new motherboard….

Which would lead us to new memory.

I should probably just swap out the power supply and be done with it. Everything else can wait, at least until after I get through with the writing conference.

Computers, Church-Sale Bargains, and Cadavers

Have you ever noticed that when you have the least time, you’re absolutely going to run into the person who has the most to say? I was on my way to meet someone after work when I ran into one of those chatty types. You know the ones: likeable, outgoing, and just old enough that you’d feel like a genuinely awful person if you ducked out of the conversation a single second early?

He’s a little more on the science-y tech-y side of my life than this blog, but he told me about the computer he and his son built, and the computers that have been donated to his church to sell off to the highest bidder. They’re a good deal–he says–at twenty dollars a piece, and if I want one, I should stop by. The truth is, I could probably pull one apart and get more than twenty bucks worth of parts out of it, (if I choose wisely) but I’m not even slightly in the mood to go spelunking in a strange church basement. (strange to me, not strange in general. They’re mainline Lutherans.)

I’ll pass the information on to a couple people I know, who could probably use a “right now” computer on the cheap.

Here’s the thing. I can and do build my own computers. I do not run a mad-scientist type workshop out of my basement or garage. I have one ship of Theseus type monstrosity, and I play around with the parts, but they’re either parts from my own computers, or  they’re new parts that I’ve chosen for lifespan (out of a dread of moving files around). And it is a monstrosity. It’s sorta… evolving as I go.

This guy… well, he may have the biggest mad-scientist workshop in town. He buys it, fixes it up, and–hopefully–sells it, although exactly how much actually leaves the workshop is anybody’s guess.

So, I heard about the computer he built–which is probably a Raspberry Pi–and the channels/programs/downloads he can get using it. I guess the question here should be something along the lines of “is it legal?” but I’m pretty sure I already know the answer. And then, about the computer he fixed up (one marketed for the audio, which apparently can actually blow you through the roof.)

I never seem to get exactly what he’s doing… just a vague overview.

And from there, we moved on to the latest gossip from his end of the world. I now know more about the private details of his church than I ever wanted to. Suffice it to say, the phrase “waiting on a cadaver” came up.

Coding as a Foreign Language

Florida’s fine senate has approved making computer coding a “foreign language” that will fulfill the 2 years required to get into Florida’s public university system. The kids would be able to take coding instead of a foreign language.


I took foreign languages–of a human, organic variety–in high school. More of them in college. I taught English as a Foreign language (briefly) after I graduated.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I value language.

In fact, when I started coding (not this website), I chose my first computer languages based on their similarities to human languages I already knew.

There’s a lot of overlap between human languages and computer languages.

But they’re not the same thing.

In an ideal world, I’d argue that it shouldn’t be an either/or proposition, and that every child should do both.

But we’re not living in an ideal world, and even high school kids are mortal.

I absolutely believe every child should have the opportunity to learn computer languages. And they should also have the opportunity to learn human languages. They should probably dabble at least a little in both.

But with more and more information in the world, it doesn’t surprise me that they’re beginning to split off into specializations  younger and younger.

The question that I have here… is how you ensure that children are on a path they have the enthusiasm and talent for, rather than the one their parents or the school system feel is important, right now.