Thu07242014

News

Obama visits Los Altos area

Obama visits Los Altos area

President Obama made a fundraising stop today at a private residence in Los Altos Hills, an appearance that spurred traffic disruptions, helicopters scouting overhead and protesters. In the wake of his visit, unknown persons, apparently no fans of ...

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Schools

MVLA rolls out laptop integration this fall

MVLA rolls out laptop integration this fall


Town Crier File Photo
Starting in the fall, daily use of laptops in the classroom will be standard operating procedure for students at Los Altos and Mountain View high schools as the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District launches a pil...

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Community

Generations blend behind the scenes at 'Wizard of Oz'

Generations blend behind the scenes at 'Wizard of Oz'


Altos Youth Theatre and Los Altos Stage Company rehearse a scene from “The Wizard of Oz.” ELIZA RIDGEWAY/ TOWN CRIER

A massive troupe of young people and grownups gathered in Los Altos this summer to stage the latest iteration of a childhood sta...

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Sports

Football in July

Football in July


Town Crier file photo
Mountain View High’s Anthony Avery is among the nine local players slated to play in tonight’s Silicon Valley Youth Classic.

Tonight’s 40th annual Silicon Valley Youth Classic – also known as the Charlie...

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Comment

Pools should be included: Editorial

Los Altos residents should be receiving calls this week from city representatives conducting a survey to determine priorities for a revamped Hillview Community Center.

Notice that we did not say “civic center” – chastened by a lack of public support...

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Special Sections

Looking for life without lows, local diabetic tests artificial pancreas

Looking for life without lows, local diabetic tests artificial pancreas


Photo by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Dr. Trang Ly, left, reviews blood sugar readings on a smartphone with Los Altos resident Tia Geri, right, and fellow participant Noa Simon during a closed-loop artificial pancreas study for Type 1 diabetics.
...

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Business

Palo Alto law firm coming to 400 Main

Palo Alto law firm coming to 400 Main


Ellie Van Houtte/ Town Crier
Longtime Palo Alto law firm Thoits, Love, Hershberger & McClean plans to open an office at 400 Main St. in Los Altos after construction is complete in November.

A longtime Palo Alto law firm plans to expand into L...

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Books

"Frozen in Time" chronicles harrowing WWII rescue attempts


Many readers can’t resist a true-life adventure story, especially those that shine a spotlight on people who exhibit supreme courage in the face of adversity and end up surviving – or not – against the odds.

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People

RICHARD PATRICK BRENNAN

RICHARD PATRICK BRENNAN

Resident of Palo Alto

Richard Patrick Brennan, journalist, editor, author, adventurer, died at his Palo Alto home on July 4, 2014 at age 92. He led a full life, professionally and personally. He was born and raised in San Francisco, joined the Arm...

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Travel

Travel Tidbit: Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe offers spa getaway

Travel Tidbit: Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe offers spa getaway


Courtesy of Ritz-Carlton
The Ritz-Carlton in Lake Tahoe offers fall getaway packages that include spa treatments and yoga classes.

Fall in North Lake Tahoe boasts crisp mornings and opportunities to spend quality time in the mountains. Specially ...

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Stepping Out

PYT stages 'Shrek'

PYT stages 'Shrek'


Lyn Healy/Spotlight Moments Photography
Dana Cullinane plays Fiona in Peninsula Youth Theatre’s “Shrek The Musical.”

Peninsula Youth Theatre presents “Shrek The Musical” Saturday through Aug. 3 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts...

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Spiritual Life

Foothills Congregational: 100 years and counting

Foothills Congregational: 100 years and counting


Courtesy of Carolyn Barnes
The newly built Los Altos church in 1914 featured a bell tower and an arched front window. Both continue as elements of the building as it stands today.

Foothills Congregational Church – the oldest church building ...

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Magazine

Festival features fun for everyone

Festival features fun for everyone


TOWN CRIER FILE PHOTO
The Los Altos Arts & Wine Festival boasts more than 375 craft and arts booths.

This weekend’s 35th annual Los Altos Arts & Wine Festival promises to be jam-packed with fun activities for just about everyone. The eve...

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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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