my MU100 blog

once more unto the breach



Not a word I’m normally associated with. But the OU supplied hardware of that name? What do I think of it? I’m going to give it an unqualified ten out of ten. Let me explain why…

Over the course of my studies the OU have sent me many a present in the post; generally books or DVDs. The Course-books I’ve liked, mostly, the DVDs have either been videos: again liked, radio programmes: liked, or software:… not always loved. But such is the way of software is it not?

One stand-out piece of software was MathCad which I hated for its all-round evilness. That was a stand-out though, an outlier on the bell-curve of horror. For the rest: some I still use, or keep around just in case, but most of it was used without a great deal of feeling one way or the other and then freed-up during one of my regular hard-disc purges.

TU100 is the first course that has ever provided me with hardware.

I enjoyed the box-opening process even more than usual, and I really do enjoy the drug-like rush of cracking open an OU brown-box-of-goodness, so we are taking a very good experience here. I spent a happy half hour intalling the software, testing the board and then I put it in the cupboard where the rest of the guff lives. I couldn’t think of anything that I wanted to do with it.

Thus it remained until the first TMA was due, when out it was got and played with. At that point I became slightly interested; I could see that you could do things with it. Indeed a course-mate, Stephen B., went all out and re-created pacman using it. A deeply impressive piece of work which spurred quite a few other students into the retro-game production business. That’s in a great part why I’ve given sense the ten out of ten – the ability to build stuff using it. The hardware itself is of course naff.

Sense, the hardware, is a glorified circuit-board with some sensors; what makes it work is a version of Scratch. [I’m assuming.] And Scratch is the real deal – because you can build your very-own tower of appalling rubbish in no time at all. This is important when you are starting out.

[That’s not to suggest that what Stephen B. et al produced was rubbish — it wasn’t, I was exagerrating for effect.]

I blush when I remember my first forays into programming — I really didn’t know how awful I was. What I did do was write lots of code, lots and lots of code and that code did things. Not the right things maybe, not every time and often it just went into a sulk for no apparent reason. What I didn’t lack was ambition, ambition and just the right amount of stupidity think that I could build that better mousetrap and just enough skill/luck to get part of the way there. I remember one particular piece of craziness — an XML/SVG/javaScript, drag-and-drop visual asset-management database. [Yes!] I almost got that working! Perhaps I could now? Would I want to?

The first requirement of the first coding language that you, the tyro-programmer, use is that you can fail badly trying to code something far beyond you and not get discouraged. Scratch is able to do that in spades, it almost encourages you to over-reach in a way that doesn’t hurt the ego. Couple that with the basic I/O of the SenseBoard and we have a winner folks!

I sense that Scratch was created to lure children into the craft but just because the GUI wouldn’t look out of place on a Toys R‘ Us shelf don’t assume that child-friendly looks are all there is to it. For example it does have the ability to run multiple threads, that’s not so toy-like. And as Steven B. and others showed you can build impressive things almost from the get go.

I think that scratch hits the sweet-spot that a start-off language has to hit if it’s to be of use. And that’s a hard sweet-spot to hit. But then maybe python, or javascript, or even visual basic has what it takes? I had roughly this conversation with one of the computer teachers today. She was showing me a [3D printed] robot doing a python inspired dance. It was impressive. The result of someone’s PHD project that got crowdfunded into a useful thing. I’m unsure that they will ever make any money but it shows a great deal of promise as a learning tool. And python is a good fit as part of the mix. It’s right up there with the sense/scratch combo.

Where visual basic, and probably javascript, fail is the visual. I’ve noticed that people spend too much time worrying about the look of that button rather than what it does. The robot/python/sense schemes concentrate the mind onto where it should be: the code.

As always there’s no silver bullet here — whatever way, i.e. language/device/robot that you use to use to cobble together your first broken-thingee© as long as it’s easy to grokk and it sucks you in to hubris it’s doing a proper job. But I’m more hopeful than I was that we are building the right set of tools to build the next generation of coders.


first TMA

Away. And I have to say that I almost enjoyed doing it. Almost — a bit of a weasle word that isn’t it? So let me un-weasle and say that, in a perverse self-harming type way, I did enjoy it. It’s a sad fact that in the general run of my life I’m not forced to use my brain much; so that when I am forced to do a bit cognition I find it fun.

It’s not that, in my day-to-day meat-reality I never have to think, it’s just that I don’t generally find what I do have to think about all that engaging. That’s not quite right; I often do have to think a bit and I do enjoy any type of thinking on the whole. I think what I mean is that TMAs feel more like fun puzzles than the dreary do-the-others-down bean-counting problems that life throws up. And everyone enjoys puzzles.

Funny that isn’t it? Everybody, without exception, enjoys a good puzzle, especially one with a reward at the end. How many people have you met who claim, “I can’t do maths”? And yet when you try to use this, ‘fact’ to diddle them out of their fair share of the pizza it turns out that not only can they do maths but they can do it faster and more accurately than you.

That it’s a puzzle is only part of it. There’s also the fact that it’s about a topic I’m interested in. [Well, much of the first TMA was about note taking which is of slight interest. But you know what I mean.] Then there’s the disipline involved in having to do it – I’m both physically and mentally lazy and being forced into doing things is good for me. [According to those like my wife/mother who seem to find their life’s-purpose in relentlessly harrying me anyway.]

Which brings up a question: is all this OU stuff doing me any good? Financially no. But in the ‘building a better neil’ sense? I think so. I feel sharper, I think I think better, I’m more aware of the bugs in my meat-ware. Sometimes I even consider what I’m going to opine before opening my gob. Which has got to be good news, if only for other people.

Next weekend I’ve got a tutorial which involves Sense programming so this week I intend to get the beast out of its dusty-cupboard of unused-thingees and christmas decorations and put it through its paces. I’ll let you know how that goes.


like a dog to its vomit…

I’m back coding big-time again. Mostly javaScript, that being my vomit-of-choice but some HTML, PHP … the chess site got finished, well finished in the usual sense that I finish things – quite a lot to do still. The contact form doesn’t work and the chess playing thingee©® remains incomplete. The chess playing thingee®© you ask? Well it occured that it might be nice to be able play over some over games; so I needed a javaScript PGN chess player. Such things probably litter the web, so I could just use one of these? Where’s the fun in that? So I built my own. Or rather I’m still building my own. Hence chess site: only mostly finished.

course-stuff redux

Getting there might be a good description. I’m the full way through the paper for block 1 [there being some web-based materials]. So up to where I should be according to the course map. Most of it has been about stuff that I already know, although as I have a TMA due in next week or so we’ll see whether that’s true.

The fact that I’m supposed to know all of this is a slight problem — for a lot of my course-mates this is new and very unfamiliar. I try to be of help but I’m never to sure that I am. I have a rambling problem [that you might have noticed] and my explainations are garbled. And because I’ve been at this computer lark for a while I often know things that might be interesting but are un-essential when you are trying to grokk a new concept. For example I know that the first click of a double-click is a file selection; does that matter?

On any OU course there are a range of abilities/knowledge-bases and on the whole that’s a good thing. If, we who know a wee bit more, can be of help. It’s just that I’m not sure that I am the right kind of person to be giving that help.

My problem is that I’m doing a level 1 course, one that I was supposed to do years ago, after doing the level 2s and 3s. However, other people come to this course with fairly advanced resumés too — how do they feel about the course? I’ll let them blog that themselves, which brings up…


I’ve edited the links along the bottom of this page to try to include only live blogs. As the course goes on I’ll try to find you some more.

as ever, plans

TMA 1 has to be tucked into its beddy-bo as the first measure of business. Then its the chess site and the chess playing thingee®© that need the most closure. Which is about enough to be going on with just now, give that I’m working back-shift, playing chess and dealing with the PTA wine-tasting next week. There’s also my pissing-about time to fit in somewhere along the line too. So off to it…


re-getting a work-ethic

I’ve never had much of one but that which I had seems to have been mislaid somewhere. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been full of good intentions and short on yer actual doing stuff. Nothing posted [or even read] in the early-bird cafe, no course books opened, sense board unplayed with. Bugger-all done in fact. So this weekend I resloved to change…

The plan was pretty basic—get something done: fixing the chess website [olde-stylee as of 2016-09-25] seemed to be a good place to start. A much-promised undone thing. So in between playing chess, messing around on Jinteki and doing the meat-life things I fired up XAMPP, made a few template files and popped some tags. I have to say that I had fun. I’d forgotten the joys of schlepping HTML. I’d also forgotten nearly all of the basics.

I started off trying to play like a grow-up coder. But there was a legion of cruft in htdocs folder, I’d not one scobbie about how to use tortoise, filezilla wouldn’t connect, and, although my hands seemed to want to do something the ancient HTMLkit and I were not getting along. The outshot: the htdocs folder was purged, version control could wait until I had a version to control, I’ll talk to my Dad about the site-credentials and I dowloaded Notepad ++. [Into which I type now.] So playing like a kiddie again. Good-good.


One thing I have done coursewise is to watch some of the provided videos. I was a wee bit distracted by the many shots of the photogenic-presenter striding around with a moody-look, to a thoughtful-tune in her best clothes. She was clearly having fun. Still, I found my thoughts being provoked by the subject-matter, which I suppose was the point. I haven’t thought much about the big-picture web/internet since the tts.I find myself with a hankering to discuss such things; so I’m in the right place.

So once I’ve brought myself to finish the chess site it’s time to hit the course-books so that I won’t be too ill-informed when the discussions start.


another course website goes live

And I’m excited. Not the same type of excitement that I had all those years ago but excited. New people, new stuff, box of books to arrive soon. All good stuff.

As ever I am chock-to-the-gills with good intentions—they’ve worked out in the past, haven’t they? We’ll see. For now it feels good to be back in this place.