Thu10022014

News

LA Council race adds 3 new faces to city politics

LA Council race adds 3 new faces to city politics


The Town Crier chronicled the first election of Los Altos City Council incumbent Jarrett Fishpaw in 2010 and documented the Los Altos candidacy of Jean Mordo, who volunteered as a longtime public servant in Los Altos Hills before moving to the flat...

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Schools

St. Simon launches web-based learning management system

St. Simon launches web-based learning management system


Courtesy of St. Simon Parish School
St. Simon fifth-grader Matthew Cummins uses a laptop in class last week. The school’s cloud-based Schoology system boosts organization and collaboration.

Families at St. Simon Parish School in Los Altos laun...

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Community

Los Altos to celebrate 100 years of library use with 'Centennial Faire'

Los Altos to celebrate 100 years of library use with 'Centennial Faire'


Town Crier File Photo
The Los Altos main library is among the more popular branches in the county library district system, set to celebrate 100 years.

In 1914, Babe Ruth made his debut with the Boston Red Sox, wages hit $5 per day, the first ste...

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Sports

Eagles eye another stellar season

Eagles eye another stellar season


Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Los Altos High outside hitter Carmen Annevelink, right, goes for the kill Thursday against Palo Alto, as teammates Sarah Tritschler, left, and Lulu Kishton prepare to play defense. The Eagles won the match in straight ga...

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Comment

Torok, Walter, Dave for MVLA board: Editorial

There’s really nothing major you can criticize about the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District. It offers a diverse array of effective programs for all types of students. Its instructors, with few exceptions, are outstanding.

Howe...

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Special Sections

'Funabout' Fiat

'Funabout' Fiat


Photos courtesy of Fiat
The 2014 Fiat 500e uses 29 kilowatt-hours per 100 miles, which the engineers claim is the equivalent of 116 mpg of gas use. It has a sticker price of $33,095.

If you believe in climate change, would love to see alternat...

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Business

App developer eyes First Friday as testing ground

App developer eyes First Friday as testing ground


Ted Fagenson

An East Bay app developer is testing his newest creation in downtown Los Altos.

Ted Fagenson, co-founder of Skrownge (pronounced “scrounge”), told the Town Crier that he’s beta testing his mobile gaming app this week ...

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Books

From story to bookstore: Local journey highlights Halloween

From story to bookstore: Local journey highlights Halloween


Courtesy of Dee Ellmann
Jenny Hurwick self-published her picture book last month after decades of storytelling.

During her years working as a teacher and a Los Altos mom, Jenny Hurwick loved to tell stories. One tale she crafted for her son just se...

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People

VINCENT (TIM) MURPHY JR.

VINCENT (TIM) MURPHY JR.

July 27, 1953 – August 12, 2014

Native Los Altan died Medford, OR. Graduated Bellarmine Prep. Married Josephine Domino, 1950. Licensed Auto Mechanic, Private Pilot, skilled Computer Scientist. Tim “could fix anything”. Afflicted with cancer 2001. ...

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Travel

Taking a Turkey trek: Winging it during the World Cup

Taking a Turkey trek: Winging it during the World Cup


Rich Robertson/Special to the Town Crier
The sun sets over the Aegean Sea in Bodrum, Turkey, left.

Tours that whisk you from Istanbul to Bodrum in 11 days are as plentiful as souvenir hawkers in Turkey, but traveling from the Blue Mosque to Topkapi ...

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Stepping Out

'Gypsy' on its way out

'Gypsy' on its way out


Chris Berger/Special to the Town Crier
Alison Koch of Los Altos plays Dainty June in “Gypsy.”

This is the final weekend to catch the Sunnyvale Community Players production of “Gypsy” at the Sunnyvale Theatre. The musical is slated to close Sund...

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Spiritual Life

Ugandan pastor visits U.S. to raise support for children's ministry

Ugandan pastor visits U.S. to raise support for children's ministry


Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Herman Lukwago educates children in Uganda.

Imagine life if your father had 25 children and you were raised in poverty in rural Uganda.

Now imagine that you and your siblings were orphaned at an early age and you ass...

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Magazine

Local events add color to autumn calendar

Local events add color to autumn calendar


Van Houtte/town crier Visitors make their way through the Children’s Alley.

As Los Altos’ signature Chinese Pistache trees exchange their summer green for vibrant hues of yellow, orange and red in the fall, an abundance of local events also ad...

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Will code for cookies: Volunteer network introduces youth to computer science


Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier
Sheena Vaidyanathan looks in on Emily Zhang, left, and Ashley Zhang at CoderDojo Mountain View.

In a big room at Microsoft Corp.’s Mountain View campus last month, children propped elbows on tables and intensely tapped away at laptops. Loops, conditionals and variables marched down screens, but so did zombies and cats as goofy sound effects pinged on command.

CoderDojo, a network of volunteer groups that introduce young people to computer science, plays up the fun inherent in digital creation. The Silicon Valley chapter gathered children, parents and mentors in the Microsoft conference room July 27 with the idea that anyone can edit and create code – computer science is accessible to more than a narrow niche of the community, and certainly not limited to college- or even high school-level study.

“There’s a lot of awareness and interest in this area, but not always somewhere to go to keep learning,” said Brian Skinner, one of the primary mentors for the Silicon Valley CoderDojo.

The Dojo aims to create that place, tapping into a community of adult mentors who understand and support the goal. The Los Altos School District offers a weekly computer science program in its elementary schools and hosted a coding showcase and competition last spring. Sheena Vaidyanathan, who teaches computer science in the district, led the recent CoderDojo session, introducing Scratch, a programming platform custom-made for young people. Students from all around Silicon Valley turned up with their parents in tow.

Scratching below the surface

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab developed Scratch as a colorful, visual tool for creating, sharing and remixing programming projects. Children use building blocks explicitly drawn from the computer science taught at MIT and commercialized in Silicon Valley, but they do so using animation, storytelling and game play.

cat scriptcat sprite

Users customize a character to suit their whimsy – often a cat, to start – and then build scenarios for that creature to act out using the art and logic of sequenced instructions. Students use a menu of color-coded building blocks to find action ideas – rotate, repeat, generate a sound. The blocks echo the physical world, representing chunks of code but looking like LEGOs, which snap together to build something greater than its individual parts. Imagination, not technical knowledge, becomes the limiting factor as you animate your creature in an increasingly complex universe of your own design.

At one table, sisters Jacky and Sophia Moore vetted a cat and mouse game with mentor Steven Ragnarok. Multiple characters were already in play, a mouse devouring bits of cheese as a cat chased it across the screen. Jacky, 14, explained their process of accelerating game difficulty, with the cat speeding up as the cheese gets eaten.


Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier 
Jacky Moore experiments in Scratch, with an assist from Sophia Moore and mentor Steven Ragnarok.

Ragnarok works at Github, a San Francisco-based company that has become a first stop in the world of writing and sharing code. He described the way a hodgepodge of computational concepts can be introduced obliquely through play with objects like the mouse/cat duo. Abstract concept-building gives way to doing and discovering.

The project helps young people to “forget about the computer for a while and think about the language and the world it builds for you,” he said. “Scratch has its underpinning in a world of live objects you interact with. It’s easier to understand what’s going on if you don’t peel back the layers of the onion yet.”

Mitch Resnick, the MIT professor who helped found the project in 2003, noticed that digitally adept young people were very good at interacting with digital devices, but often couldn’t go a step further and become creators. He described it as if one could read, but not write. As you become fluent in speaking and writing a language, you can tell jokes and write letters. Similarly, as children pick up Scratch or other educational programming languages, they can animate a greeting card or build a game. The idea of productive, creative fluency underpins Scratch’s creation.

Scratch Practices

• Procedure: Map out a big project by planning a series of smaller tasks. Work iteratively and incrementally, writing a little bit, testing it, and then writing some more.

• Fixes, not frustration: Test a project and when you find a problem, debug it. Generating silly errors and resolving bugs can be part of the game.

• Remixing: Find inspiration and solutions in other people’s ideas, and share your own work. Scratch has compiled more than 3 million projects that are part of the “Creative Commons” – a shared intellectual space free of copyright that encourages the growth of ideas upon ideas.

Some programming languages provide description – for instance, CSS shows a webpage what color to make words and how big to display pictures, and SQL can tell you how many stories in the Town Crier’s database mentioned Bullis Charter School last week. Other languages, such as JavaScript or C++, are procedural, directing actions such as starting and stopping a sound effect. In Scratch, beginners get a feel for both description and procedure as they design action and the environment in which it happens.

Collaboration and cookies

The educational languages’s personalization and visual style capture attention – a coding error feels relevant if you watch your avatar get devoured by a zombie. Beyond that, programs like Scratch also chase the bigger idea that computation leads to creation, and that making projects with and for others feels powerful.

“I think magic happens when kids get to know each other in a social environment, teaching each other,” Marcy Delgado said.

She co-founded the Silicon Valley CoderDojo after attending an event hosted by the San Francisco branch with her son.A high school student in Ireland started the first CoderDojo in 2011 and since then new chapters have sprung up around the world.

Scratch Concepts

• Sequence: Envision an action as a series of steps. For a cat to chase a mouse, the mouse must move, the cat must sense that movement and then follow it. Find the building blocks for each action, and put them together in order.

• Boolean logic: Structure questions for which the only possible answers are “true” or “false.” In Scratch, for instance, you can have your program answer the true/false question, is my cat touching a wall? IF a cat is touching a wall, THEN it should meow and rotate 90 degrees so it doesn’t get stuck. You’ve kept your creature in motion and, along the way, you found an introduction to the math that helped build search engines.

• Parallelism: Learn how to make things happen at the same time, and work through the unexpected consequences of concurrent actions. You can program multiple characters to move around the screen simultaneously – what should happen when they collide? What if two cats catch the same mouse – which gets to score?

Delgado said that parents often help find venues for the group to meet, and that over time the Dojo is developing a core group of returning students who are advancing into more complex programming projects.

The bimonthly events in Silicon Valley are free but tend to book up early. Donations support the snacks that fuel hours of hacking.

“At events like this, the cookies are done – we always need more cookies,” Delgado said ruefully. “If we could have one thing, we want money for munchies.”

The Dojo is also constantly recruiting new mentors who circulate at events helping young people debug their projects and dream up extensions for an idea.

“We need technical people who are passionate about what they do. It’s the enthusiasm and the encouragement that really make the difference,” Delgado said.

In addition to introducing beginners to Scratch, the Dojo encourages students who want to pick up other languages such as HTML, CSS, Python and even Unity, a 3-D game development tool.

“Starting young, there’s not really a hurry,” Skinner, the Dojo mentor, said.

Programming “is seeping into every aspect of the world,” he said, but to engage with it, people have to know they can have fun. Even starting from scratch, young programmers can tackle complicated problems – and do it with style.

To connect to a local CoderDojo, visit coderdojo.com. To explore Scratch, visit scratch.mit.edu.

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