Monthly Archives: January 2012

Talking Coding on Norwegian radio

The interview I did about learning to code went out on Norwegian Public Radio this morning at about 8am.  It was part of a 9 minute package by Lars Bevanger who writes about the UK for various European audiences.  You can listen to it!  I’m towards the end.  Even though it’s Norwegian, all the interviews are in English so you won’t get too lost.  It also features Dr Lucie Green and Manchester GirlGeeks.

My geekiest week EVER

Coding, data journalism, coronal mass ejections and an interview on Norwegian Public Radio about why we should all be geeks.  What’s happening to me?

I’m assuming this is some variation on a mid-life crisis, a need to reinvent myself and explore previously alien fields of knowledge.  I can highly recommend it!

I was never anti-geek.  In fact, I really liked maths and physics at school and about six years ago I did Maths A-level (just for the fun of it!!)  But on the whole, I studied arts subjects, my degree is in Russian and I have no scientific/tech element to my life.

At school, I didn’t really divide subjects into Arts and Science.  My classifications were more personal.  There were subjects which involved washing-up at the end of class (art, chemistry, cookery, sometimes biology), subjects which involved drawing (art, biology, geography) and all the rest.  I liked the subjects which were in the “all the rest” group whether it was Latin or Maths or English Lit.  I disliked and did my best to avoid the ones which involved drawing and washing up.  I think that’s an extremely sensible approach to managing your educational choices.

So, how geeky has my week been?  I’ve done much more coding thanks to the Q&A discussion boards that have been added to each lesson at Codecademy.  It’s frustrating for a total newbie like me to be just doing the exercises without really understanding the context and importance of each new concept.  It’s also annoying when I make a mistake but can’t work out what I’ve done wrong.  Chances are, somebody else will have exactly the same problem and has already asked the question in the relevant forum (just a click away from the actual lesson so super handy).

The answers others supply don’t always sort me out, but they usually do.  The other plus is that the forum creates a sort of community around the lessons – which is nice!

With my head still ringing with arrays and substrings, I went down to Birmingham City University on Wednesday for a one day introduction to Data Journalism with Paul Bradshaw – expert on all things data, investigative and online.  It was organised by the Centre for investigative Journalism.

It’s a really important area of journalism these days that I know nothing about – extracting meaningful, journalistic information and ideas for investigations from big data sets.  We were mainly working on a huge Excel file with information about Birmingham Council’s expenditure for November.  I did genuinely get a buzz out of using formulae to work out how much an individual company was being paid as a percentage of overall council spending!  And pivot tables are amazing.  But it was a lot to take in so I need to invest some time playing with spreadsheets to see what I can come up with.  I’ll be using Paul’s online notes to help me.  They’re a useful resource for anyone interested in this area of journalism.

Much less hard work was the Manchester Girl Geeks Tea Party on Sunday.  The space scientist, Dr Lucie Green, (you might have seen her chatting about the Sun with Prof Brian Cox on Stargazing last week) was giving a talk about her specialist area – Coronal Mass Ejections (there have been quite a few in recent days so it was very topical).

The sun as Dr Lucie Green sees it

The ManchesterGeekGirls do monthly talks and events at the MadLab – an amazingly idiosyncratic workspace in Manchester’s Northern Quarter – and they’re aimed at bringing together women (and their families) who share an interest in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths.)  I’m a bit of a fraud since I don’t really fall into that category;  I’m just an enthusiastic outsider.  But it was great fun.  Lucie Green is a brilliant speaker, the standard of questions from even the children in the audience was impressive and everyone brought along sun-themed cakes to share afterwards!

And news of my geekiness has spread as far as Oslo!  My friend, Lars Bevanger, is a freelance radio journalist who was polite enough to show an interest in my humble efforts to learn javascript.  It even inspired him to pitch a programme idea to Norwegian Public Radio – efforts in the UK to get girls interested in STEM subjects (his pitch was probably a bit better than that, to be honest.  Now you know why I’m not a freelance journalist!).  He interviewed some of the organisers and attendees at the GirlGeeks event and has just been round at my house to record me flailing around in some Codecademy exercise and then interviewed me!

It’s broadcast on Wednesday 25th January so make sure you tune in to NRK!

Can I learn to code?

  1. Everywhere I look at the moment, there are people telling me I must learn to program for the good of mankind.  The Guardian and Michael Gove are well and truly on my case with their special reports on computer science in schools.   This video is pretty inspirational in that it scares me into rushing headlong into a programming course.  If I don’t, I’ll be contributing to the downfall of mankind and I’ll be facilitating the emergence of a terminator-style future.  I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t want that on my conscience.
  2. Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff
  3. So here I am, doing my Codecademy course.  It’s a free online course and “everyone” is talking about it.  This is a screenshot of me doing quite well in one of the exercises.  There are plenty of exercises where I do pretty badly. 
  4. I’ve no idea what my 3 achievements are for.  Is three good?  So far, the course has talked me through basic Javascript – declaring variables,  arrays, strings and all manner of nonsense.  We have also established that my name is not Sam (part of the if/else exercise).  Reassuringly, there are plenty of people out there tweeting under the #codecademy hashtag about their experiences/suffering.
  5. My New Year’s resolution is to learn to code with #Codecademy in #2012 ! Join me. #codeyear
  6. Finally, learning coding!! LOVE #codecademy
  7. #swtor #skyrim #BF3 – with all these great games out what I am currently addicted to? #codecademy
  8. Just completed #codecademy . Good for beginners but that’s about it, very basic. Brilliant introduction to #javascript though !
  9. I’m completely new to this so it’s a steep learning curve and it’s very frustrating at times and there are some awkward glitches on the website.  Don’t think it’s just me because other people seem to be having similar problems. 
  10. i’m stuck on #codecademy and it’s making my head hurt :-(
  11. @madtante It’s definitely not as easy as I thought it’d start out being ^^ #codeyear #codecademy
  12. Anyone else having trouble with “Getting Started w/ Programming”, Lesson 8, Section 4? It’s freezing my browser :( #codecademy
  13. Help with #codecademy lesson 7 q 1&2 (Bringing it up) – I can’t get it to get up to 2 or down to 0, yet the site says “That’s correct!”
  14. will be live in the next few days. Those of you needing help, let us know which problems you’re stuck on! #codecademy
  15. So that’s something to look out for.  I’m still committed to getting some level of programming literacy.  Can I tempt you to join me?

Journalism nerds

  1. So we all know that journalists of the future will be flying round MediaCity on their jetpacks whilst wearing their silver space suits.  But what will they actually be learning on journalism courses?  
  2. The New Year seems to encourage people to gaze into their non-existent crystal balls.  I shan’t be doing that but I am interested in the recent trend to encourage journalists to be programmers – or vice versa.  Is it the future?  More to the point, I’m wondering whether I should learn some basic coding.  It’s hovering in the vicinity of my “2012 To Do” list.  Apparently, coding is the new Latin.  I quite liked Latin at school.  (It’s not quite on the 2012 To Do list yet.  Should it be?  What do you think?  Codecademy looks like it’s the in thing at the moment.)  So what do the clever people say about “hacker journalists?”
    5. The Rise of the Journo-Programmer. An ambitious hybrid of journalist and computer scientist is what some have in mind as part of the future of journalism. As Columbia was launching its dual-degree masters in journalism and computer science (more), Northwestern last winter announced a $4.2 million Knight News Innovation Lab run by the journalism and engineering schools (more). Other schools are focusing on just making student journalists smarter about doing data within their journalism courses, becoming adept at everything from simple programs like spreadsheets and web-based visualization tools to more sophisticated software like Flash. Influential online journalism educator Mindy McAdams proposes all J-schools have a full-fledged data journalism course, something a few schools appear to be doing (Columbia is one; CUNY is another). Meanwhile, the explosion of smartphones and tablets – the latter are starting to show up more in classrooms, though not without debate over best practices – has encouraged some schools to explore app development, whether through simple thought exercises or by actually building apps from the ground up in dedicated courses.
  4. Columbia University in the States is one of the first to offer a dual degree in journalism and computer science.  “Embrace the digital revolution,” prospective students are urged.
  5. Dual-Degree: Journalism & Computer Science – Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

    Columbia Journalism School and The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science have created a dual-degree Master of Science in Journalism and Computer Science. Students will receive highly specialized training in the digital environment, enabling them to develop technical and editorial skills in all aspects of computer-supported news gathering and digital media production. The goal of the program is for its graduates to help redefine journalism in a fast-changing digital media environment. The program will offer the highest caliber of computer science and journalism training at Columbia University.

  6. Bill Grueskin, the Dean of Academic Affairs at Columbia, envisages creating journalists who can create “a lot of their own tools.”  That’s quite a sophisticated level of programming, isn’t it?  Can it be done on a master’s course alongside all the journalism stuff?  I thought programmers had to do hundreds of hours of programming to master their art.
  7. So how do you go about creating journalists who can program or programmers who can do journalism?  Dave Winer is a bit of a pioneer in this field and is now a visiting scholar at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.  That’s the home of Studio 20 which offers “master’s level instruction with a focus on innovation and adapting journalism to the web.”  
  8. In most university departments, there’s a permanent paid staff that manages the websites for students and faculty. It seems to me that if your goal is to boot a new class of journo-programmers, this activity should be brought into the curriculum, and every student should participate in managing and developing his or her own publishing infrastructure.
  9. We’re not ready yet to teach how to do this, but a few semesters after the students start, we will have a very good idea of how to accelerate the process and produce more reliable results. And eventually we will be able to teach it alongside the other skills that make a programmer a programmer and a journalist a journalist.

    We will also have a much better idea where existing tools are insufficient, which will lead us to the next phase where the students not only manage the infrastructure, they develop key parts of it. At NYU, we learned we have students that are this ambitious with the Diaspora project.

  10. Sounds kinda scary to me but the staff and students in this NYU video look like they’re up for it. 
  11. Studio 20 – New York University
  12. OK, so I’m feeling seriously inadequate now and a sad old dinosaur.  But it turns out not everyone out there thinks this kind of dual degree or emphasis on hacker journalists is the way forward.  John Hillman wrote on about his concerns.
  13. The digital trinity
    Good digital publishing requires expertise in three completely separate disciplines, all of which are callings in their own right.
    As journalists we’re all here because we want to tell a good story, so we apply our presentation skills, written, audio or visual, along with our ability to make an intelligent overview.
    To ensure that our work then reaches the largest possible online audience we work with designers, who are highly artistic, and web developers who tend to be mathematically astute computer scientists. When it all works together the result can be great, interactive, accessible and attractive online content. Victory.
    So much as any attempt to bring journalists closer to technology should be warmly embraced, there has to be an understanding that shoehorning a journalist into a programmer’s role, and vice-versa, probably isn’t going to produce the best results. These are much more likely to come from having a good team around you, by understanding each other’s limitations and, above all, by working well together.
  14.  I guess the risk is that you dilute the amount of time given to journalism itself.  Are journalism schools going to be turning out jack of all trade/master of none journalists?  Will these journalists be more interested in creating new toys rather than developing the skills and ethics of investigative journalism?  Or will they be creating a new generation of hacker journalists who will have the design skills to match the tool to the story?  Or at least convey these ideas to a “specialist.”  
    As an aside, I was speaking to a senior editor at C4 News recently (as part of an academic paper I’m working on) who said that modern news organisations need people with adaptability, an aptitude for learning and technical (i.e. IT) aptitude.  I guess if you’ve got those skills – and the original journalistic mind and skills to go with it – then you’re reasonably well-equipped.  Similarly, part of being a journalist is having the skills to go out and acquire the knowledge you need using your research instinct – albeit on a fairly basic level at times – to keep up to date.
    But if any UK university should be looking at bringing in some level of computer science into its journalism courses then surely it has to be Salford given its location and research interests.  
    And maybe 2012 is the year when I should add coding to my To Do list.