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Mike Holmes/First Second Books

6 Ways Parents Can Introduce Their Kids to Coding

Mike Holmes/First Second Books
Mike Holmes/First Second Books

Gene Luen Yang is the award-winning writer behind graphic novels like American Born Chinese and the ongoing Superman comic. His newest graphic novel, Secret Coders, is about students who try to figure out the mysteries of their school (which is full of four-eyed birds and robot turtles). To solve these mysteries, the students must use logic puzzles and the fundamentals of computer programming and binary code.

A coder himself, Yang got his undergraduate degree in Computer Science and programmed professionally for two years before teaching high school computer science for over 15 years. As a father of four, Yang encourages his own kids to experiment and embrace the joy of programming, and he shares with us his tips for sparking that interest with your own kids.

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As computers make their way into every corner of our lives, our computer science education has weakened. From 2005 to 2009, the number of introductory coding classes in American high schools dropped 17 percent, and the number of Advanced Placement classes dropped 35 percent. Forward-thinking educators are working hard to close the gap between the skills of our students and the demands of our workforce. But in the meantime, parents who want to expose their kids to coding will need to take things into their own hands.

My wife and I have four kids—a son and three daughters. I don’t know if any of them will grow up to be coders, but I want them to at least know what it’s like. I want each of them to experience the coder’s high—that euphoria you feel when the program you’ve worked on for hours actually runs—at least once.

Here are six strategies I’ve used with my own kids.

1. EXPLAIN CODING IN SIMPLE TERMS.


There’s a misconception that coding is so complex, it can only be understood by an elite few. That just isn’t true. While not everyone will become a professional coder, anyone can understand the basic concepts.

Simply put, coding is giving instructions to a computer. Every software application is a list of instructions. Microsoft Word is a list of instructions that teaches the computer how to change keystrokes into text documents. Firefox is a list of instructions that teaches the computer how to visually display HTML files.

I used to tell my students that if they liked telling people what to do—giving instructions, in other words—coding just might be for them.

2. USE GAMES.


The most-backed board game in Kickstarter history is called Robot Turtles, created by former Google engineer Dan Shapiro.  It’s since been picked up by games publisher ThinkFun, and you can now find it at your local Target, shelved right next to Monopoly.

Robot Turtles is pretty old-school, with a fold-out board and tokens and cards. No batteries, no sounds, no lights. Gameplay consists of giving robot turtles instructions to move them to their gems.

My three- and five-year-old daughters love Robot Turtles. The five-year-old struggled with putting her instructions in the right order at first, but now she wins pretty consistently. The three-year-old doesn’t totally understand what’s happening, but she still asks to play. Even in the age of video games, a well-designed board game has plenty of appeal, and this one helps teach the basic ideas and tenets of coding.

3. GET ARTISTIC.

My eight-year-old daughter is the artsy one. She paints, folds origami, and makes the coolest jewelry out of little rubber bands. I tried to get her interested in coding more than once, but what finally got her attention was an old programming language called Logo.

Logo was first invented in the 1960s. It enjoyed immense popularity in elementary schools during the 70s and 80s. If you’re like me and learned how to code in those decades, chances are you learned Logo. I have a deep affection for the language, which is why I use it in Secret Coders.

In Logo, there’s a little turtle that you can give instructions to move about the screen and draw. (Dan Shapiro has a deep affection for the language, too—Logo was the inspiration for his Robot Turtles game.) When I showed my eight-year-old how to make a multicolored snowflake with a few lines of code, her eyes lit up.

Logo interpreters (software that teaches your computer the Logo language) are still around.  My favorite is UCBLogo, freely available for Mac, PC, and Linux. 

4. UNLEASH THE ROBOTS. 

I recently bought an Ozobot, a $60 robot that’s about the size of a ping-pong ball. It has a color sensor on its bottom, and it can follow a felt-marker black line.You also program the Ozobot by drawing colored dots to which the robot will respond. You can control its speed and direction, and you can even make it dance. Printable games and other activities are available on the Ozobot website.

Our eight-year-old is particularly taken with it because of the art connection—she can code by drawing with her felt-tip markers.

5. START SMALL.


You don’t need an expensive computer to start coding. Our 11-year-old son has a Raspberry Pi, a $35 computer that’s about the size of a credit card. He hooked it up to an old keyboard, an old mouse, and our family television set. We installed a Raspberry Pi–specific operating system called Raspbian, which includes the programming language Python. Now he’s teaching himself Python on his Raspberry Pi by watching YouTube tutorials.

6. DON'T FREAK OUT.


Parenthood is fraught with insecurities, and technology is a great way to introduce more. Coding is a wonderful discipline that trains students to think clearly and logically. But, as I said before, not everyone is meant to become a professional coder.

Our goal with coding, as with all aspects of parenting, is to expose our children to life’s possibilities. Coding should open doors, not close them. If your child doesn’t take well to coding, that’s perfectly fine. As parents, we need to remember that our children aren’t computers. At some point, they’ll need to follow their own instructions.

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Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes goes on sale Sept. 29 in bookstores and comic book shops everywhere.
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music
New AI-Driven Music System Analyzes Tracks for Perfect Playlists
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Whether you're planning a bachelorette party or recovering from a breakup, a well-curated playlist makes all the difference. If you don't have time to pick the perfect songs manually, services that use the AI-driven system Sonic Style may be able to figure out exactly what you have in mind based on your request.

According to Fast Company, Sonic Style is the new music-categorizing service from the media and entertainment data provider Gracenote. There are plenty of music algorithms out there already, but Sonic Style works a little differently. Rather than listing the entire discography of a certain artist under a single genre, the AI analyzes individual tracks. It considers factors like the artist's typical genre and the era the song was recorded in, as well as qualities it can only learn through listening, like tempo and mood. Based on nearly 450 descriptors, it creates a super-accurate "style profile" of the track that makes it easier for listeners to find it when searching for the perfect song to fit an occasion.

Playlists that use data from Sonic Style feel like they were made by a person with a deep knowledge of music rather than a machine. That's thanks to the system's advanced neural network. It also recognizes artists that don't fit neatly into one genre, or that have evolved into a completely different music style over their careers. Any service—including music-streaming platforms and voice-activated assistants—that uses Gracenote's data will be able to take advantage of the new technology.

With AI at your disposal, all you have to do as the listener is decide on a style of music. Here are some ideas to get you started if you want a playlist for productivity.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Essential Science
What Is Death?
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The only thing you can be certain about in life is death. Or is it? Merriam-Webster defines death as "a permanent cessation of all vital functions." The Oxford English dictionary refines that to "the permanent ending of vital processes in a cell or tissue." But determining when someone is dead is surprisingly complicated—the medical definition has changed over the centuries and, in many ways, is still evolving.

DEATH, DEFINED

For most of human history, doctors relied on basic observations to determine whether or not a person had died. (This may be why so many feared being buried alive and went to great lengths to ensure they wouldn't be.) According to Marion Leary, the director of innovation research for the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania, "If a person wasn't visibly breathing, if they were cold and bluish in color, for example, they would be considered dead."

As time went on, the markers for death changed. Before the mid-1700s, for example, people were declared dead when their hearts stopped beating—a conclusion drawn from watching traumatic deaths such as decapitations, where the heart seemed to be the last organ to give up. But as our understanding of the human body grew, other organs, like the lungs and brain, were considered metrics of life—or death.

Today, that remains true to some degree; you can still be declared dead when your heart and lungs cease activity. And yet you can also be declared dead if both organs are still working, but your brain is not.

In most countries, being brain dead—meaning the whole brain has stopped working and cannot return to functionality—is the standard for calling death, says neuroscientist James Bernat, of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "A doctor has to show that the loss of brain function is irreversible," he tells Mental Floss. In some cases, a person can appear to be brain dead if they have overdosed on certain drugs or have suffered from hypothermia, for example, but the lack of activity is only temporary—these people aren't truly brain dead.

In the U.S., all states follow some form of the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which in 1981 defined a dead person as "an individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem."

But that's not the end of the story. In two states, New York and New Jersey, families can reject the concept of brain death if it goes against their religious beliefs. This makes it possible for someone to be considered alive in some states and dead in others.

A BLURRED LINE

In the past, if one of a person's three vital systems—circulation, respiration, and brain function—failed, the rest would usually stop within minutes of each other, and there was no coming back from that. But today, thanks to technological advances and medical breakthroughs, that's no longer necessarily the case. CPR can be performed to restart a heartbeat; a person who has suffered cardiac arrest can often be resuscitated within a 20- to 30-minute window (in rare cases, people have been revived after several hours). And since the 1950s, machines have been used to take on the role of many of the body's vital functions. People who stop breathing naturally can be hooked up to ventilators to move air in and out of their lungs, for example.

While remarkable, this life-extending technology has blurred the line between life and death. "A person can now have certain characteristics of being alive and others of being dead," Bernat says.

People with severe, irreversible brain damage fall into this mixed category. Many lie in intensive care units where ventilators breathe for them, but because they have minimal reflexes or movements, they're considered alive, especially by their families. Medical professionals, however, may disagree, leading to painful and complex debates about whether someone is alive.

Take the case of Jahi McMath, whose tonsil surgery in 2013, at age 13, went terribly wrong, leaving her brain dead—or so doctors thought. Her family refused to believe she was dead and moved her from Oakland, California, to New Jersey, where she was provided with feeding tubes in addition to her ventilator. After several months, her mother began recording videos that she said were proof that Jahi could move different parts of her body when asked to. Additional brain scans revealed that although some parts of her brain, like her brain stem, were largely destroyed, the structure of large parts of her cerebrum, which is responsible for consciousness, language, and voluntary movements, was intact. Her heart rate also changed when her mother spoke, leading a neurologist to declare last year, after viewing many of her mother's videos, that she is technically alive—nearly four years after she was pronounced brain dead. By her mother's reckoning, Jahi turned 17 on October 24, 2017.

Organ donation adds another layer of complications. Since an organ needs to be transplanted as quickly as possible to avoid damage, doctors want to declare death as soon as they can after a person has been disconnected from a machine. The protocol is usually to wait for five minutes after a donor's heart and breathing have stopped. However, some believe that's not long enough, since the person could still be resuscitated at that point.

Bernat—whose research interests include brain death and the definition of death, consciousness disorders including coma and vegetative states, and ethical and philosophical issues in neurology—disagrees. "I would argue that breathing and circulation has permanently ceased even if it hasn't irreversibly ceased," he says. "It won't restart by itself."

THE FUTURE OF BRINGING PEOPLE BACK TO LIFE

As resuscitation technology improves, scientists may find new ways to reverse death. One promising approach is therapeutic hypothermia. Sometimes used on heart attack patients who have been revived, the therapy uses cooling devices to lower body temperature, usually for about 24 hours. "It improves a patient's chance of recovering from cardiac arrest and the brain injury [from a lack of oxygen] that can result from it," says Leary, who specializes in research and education relating to cardiac arrest, CPR quality, and therapeutic hypothermia.

One more out-there possibility—which had its heyday in the early 2000s but still has its proponents today—is cryonic freezing, in which dead bodies (and in some cases, just people's heads) are preserved in the hope that they can be brought back once technology advances. Just minutes after death, a cryonaut's body is chilled; a chest compression device called a thumper keeps blood flowing through the body, which is then shot up with anticoagulants to prevent blood clots from forming; and finally, the blood is flushed out and replaced with a kind of antifreeze to halt the cell damage that usually occurs from freezing.

The idea is highly controversial. "It makes a good story for a movie, but it seems crazy to me," Bernat says. "I don't think it's the answer." But even if cryogenics is out, Bernat does believe that certain types of brain damage now thought to be permanent could one day be subject to medical intervention. "There is currently a huge effort in many medical centers to study brain resuscitation," he says.

Genetics provides another potential frontier. Scientists recently found that some genes in mice and fish live on after they die. And even more surprisingly, other genes regulating embryonic development, which switch off when an animal is born, turn on again after death. We don't yet know if the same thing happens in humans.

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