Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Hour of Code

On December 9th 2013 when the Amazing Grace Hopper would be 107 years young -
As mixed opinions pour in about this campaign (nothing can never really placate those critics), it makes us wonder what the Hour of Code is trying to achieve. Is coding knowledge really that important, or should the societal norms of division of labor continue and coding be left to the geek Gods? Yes technology has come a long ways since, but do we need to learn coding? Do we need to understand how the apps that do magical things like automatically fold laundry actually make it happen? This post is a personal reflection on the topic. You can choose to agree, disagree, read through or entirely ignore it.

Let me start by saying that so far I am not aware of an app that folds laundry, and second, the “smartness” of smart phones, tablets and much of what computers can do today is NOT magic. However, to someone born in the 80s, 70s or before, a lot of present day technology would seem fascinating. We know its not magic, its all very scientific, its a result of several logical steps put together to achieve a certain functionality. But to think we grew up in a time we relied heavily on postal service to stay connected, or paid $5/minute for a trunk call,  it is certainly awe-some be able to do a FaceTime  or Google Hangout, all for no charge.  We cannot help but marvel at the rapid technological advancement over the past 15 years.

For my 5y and 1.5yr olds however, issuing a print command from my phone to the printer over wifi, or streaming content from a tablet to the TV is quite the norm of day to day life. The marvels of technology as we may call them are things that they take for granted. Like them, most of the next generation - millennials and later - were born when the Internet was already mainstream or when the iPad was already invented. As such it is no surprise that they take these advancements for granted and end up being the natural consumers of technology that they are. Similar to how we took electricity for granted but most of our previous generation (at least in India) did not have electric connections till they were well into adulthood.

And so, for both those who marvel and those who take it for granted, it could be a good idea to create awareness about the inner workings of computers, the basis of almost all day-to-day technology, and set their notions right. When Grace Hopper was a child, she dismembered several alarm clocks in order to figure out how they work. It is quite fitting that the campaign that teaches us to break down computing similarly, is launched on Grace Hopper’s birthday. What could be a better tribute than creating widespread coding awareness in the honor of the “first lady of computing”.

While it is great that this initiative will demystify computer programming for many curious adults (like will.i.am or Ashton Kutcher), the larger point is that for young ones around the world, computer education needs to evolve as rapidly as the trends in computing. Education needs to be relevant as well as current. The US Department of Education coined the term STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to keep up with Technology education. A great concept, except that Technology in itself is a very broad term. I am not sure if “Technology” education should encompass Computer Science or keep it separate but it is important that education about computers become more mainstream. The challenge may be that there may not be enough educators in the field just yet. And so it may be worthwhile for leaders and experts in the field to start a campaign like the Hour of Code and make the T in STEM more meaningful.

I recently attended an open house at renowned and reasonably expensive private school in my neighborhood. It was going very well until they started to boast about how they were so technology focused that every kid grade 6 and above needs to have a MacBook and in lower grades a ChromeBook, but when I asked if they are introduced to programming or basic systems the answer that I got was that “we’ve recently installed a 3D printer” (in other words my question went unanswered with more boastful shallow statements). For the staff and students at this school, having the latest cool gadget is the same as being a technology focused school. They seemed of good intent so maybe they just lack the guidance or resources to impart computer education. I have heard similar concerns from parents of older children across the country. The Hour of Code is exactly the kind of thing that this, and many other schools across the world can benefit from. It was started by code.org which not only is committed to bringing computer education in schools but comprises of people with solid experience in the industry. It is a perfect example of how the world is more connected than it ever was before and how hungry everyone is for knowledge. It is fun, its a great exercise, it certainly teaches coding and who can’t relate to Angry Birds? Which is a brilliant use case by the way. I tried the first few puzzles with my 5yr old. She thoroughly enjoyed the game and was happy to “tell the computer” what you want it to do in a few simple steps.

That is the beauty of the Hour of Code. It is simple, elegant and to the point. As the debate about whether computer science should be taught to little kids in schools continues, I find it extremely exciting to work on the Hour of Code with my little Angry Birds fan, thereby hoping that she will learn to break down problems into smaller chunks, appreciate that it takes many steps for those Angry Birds to define their trajectory from catapult to green pig, and hopefully eventually learn not to get mad when the my phone occasionally fails to find the printer on the home wifi network.

So if you haven’t done your Hour of Coding yet, go ahead, give it a try.

Here’s to Grace Hopper!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Words words and more words

At 15 months, the words and gestures she has mastered -
- diddi, diddi ayi (for didi)
- mamma mamma
- papa papa
- dadi
- mamaji
- aati (aunty)
- naain (nani)
- baby
- khakha (food)
- maain (maani, pani)
- holds a camera or cellphone to her eye and says cheeee
- shoe
- wag a finger for no
- pee pee
- putty (potty)
- aadu (ankush)
- batte batte batte batte (rambling words)
- baajate (bahar jate)
- tata tata
- mann (moon)
- bookabookabookabooka (book)
- bo (balloon)
- kaa gayi (kahan gaye)
- tata tata tata (also says this when asked - ghumne jana hai?)
- nana (for nahana)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

How to make the best of Orlando.

Many books have been written on how to plan a trip to Orlando and how to make the best of your visit.
We went there 2yrs ago when our now 5yr old was 3 and she had a blast.
I took a book with me (borrowed from a colleague) which was really helpful. Its excessive though to carry a book, so if you want to avoid that, you could just print this page with a summary of key learnings from Disney guide books and travel experience.

1 - The number one tip to keep in mind, get to the parks early. Hard to do but totally worth it if you can manage! There will be lines everywhere. From parking to entrance to the rides. So if you can get in early it will save you a lot of waiting later on in the day.
2 - take print outs of the park maps beforehand and decide which rides you want to do beforehand. Some rides are very popular and will get crowded if you delay. So attack those rides first. 
3 - there are several smartphone apps that will tell you how much the current wait time at each ride in each park is. Download them and use them. Very helpful
4 - if you can, pack some food. Muffins, bagels etc so you dont have to worry about breakfast since you will be going early (I hope). Also, food inside the parks is pathetic and expensive. So its best to have some of your own supply, especially if you have picky eaters with you.
5 - Divide and conquer - you and your spouse can wait in lines for separate rides so that your little one has to wait in one lesser line. Some people will give you the eye roll when you are joined by the rest of the family but hey, its not your fault if you are smart enough to devise a time saving strategy and they are not. It may seem like a tacky thing to do but the parks are huge and so are the lines and its impossible to get a little kid wait in an hour long line.
6 - all Disney parks have the concept of Fast Pass. Meaning at certain times they will issue Fast Pass tickets for some of the shows/rides. Don't miss these. These are free and a must have. I don't remember the exact details of this so read up on this beforehand.
7 - Child swap - there are several rides which kids cannot go on. If you want to go on them you can do a child swap here. Meaning that you and your husband can stand in line with the kid and go till then end. One of you can go on the ride and one waits with the kid. They give you an express ticket to the person waiting and when your spouse is back give an express entry onto the ride, no waiting in the line again.

Now, on which parks to go to. I highly recommend Universal Studios. If you get there early you can do the Harry Potter rides within 15mts or at most half hour, and later in the day the wait for these is easily 1.5 hours. Universal also has the Dr Seuss section which kids will love. Universal does not have a free Fast Pass but you can pay and buy an Express Entry ticket, which I would recommend getting if you can.
Among the Disney parks, for kids of this age the Magic Kingdom is great. Animal Kingdom is good. You can try Disney MGM also inrs interesting. Epcot was a little boring for a 3yr old but a 5yr old might like it, I am not sure, check their reviews beforehand. 
You can checkout Sea World if your kid is into dolphins and sea animals.
Also check out Disney Downtown, nice for an evening walk, and free.

Booking and cost wise, your best bet is to book directly from DisneyWorld.com. The more days you buy passes for the cheaper it gets and you get authentic tickets. There are several fraud sites and sellers out there.
Accomodation - if you stay at a Disney resort you get special privileges like extra park hours, discounted parking etc. We didnt stay at Disney but next time we might. We stayed across the street from Disney downtown.
Also check out MouseSavers.com. They have good deals and good tips on saving.

If you are going in May, watch out for Gay Days. There is one week in May where gays from all over the world get together in Orlando and visit each park on different days. Not an issue with gays but its just that the parks and hotels get crowded. Also the hotels may sometimes block access to amenities like pools because they would be having gay convention events. We didn't know and were there during gay days and could not use the pool or kids play area etc since that entire area was blocked for other events! Not to mention that the hotel was so crowded with skimpily clad hot men. (A little uncomfortable but no harm done.)
Here is another link that will help determine which are the most crowded seasons for Disney world, and you can plan accordingly -

Food - If you are particular about eating at Indian restaurants, you will not be disappointed. There are several to choose from. I just used urbanspoon on my phone to find the restaurants in the area and most of them were decent. Here is the list from urbanspoon. I think we went to Passage to India and Clay Oven and both were decent.

As I mentioned before, food options in Disney parks are quite hopeless. (Universal is better that way). However, when was the last time you heard someone say - oh my vacation was a disaster cos the food sucked? :)
Exactly, you will get by and have fun. During the day when you are stuck in the park it might be an issue but you can always make up for it by having a nice dinner.

So get set, do some homework to figure out what suits you, and enjoy the warm weather, sunny skies and hassle free parks of Orlando. Meanwhile it continues to rain and snow in dreary grey New York!