DigitalFriend Blog

January 2021

You Can't Rush Art & Outsourcing the Inner Critic

Tue, 26 Jan 2021 16:12:29 +1000

By: gosh'at'DigitalFriend.org (Steve Goschnick)

A long time ago when I was 15, I made a complete Chess Set, board and box in my woodwork class at high school. I still have the Chess pieces - see figure 1 below.

Apart from my gained skills in woodwork, it taught me a few things about life in general, including that the design and creation of things that are good and worthwhile, usually takes a lot of time. A lesson well condensed in a line from Toy Story, that: 'You can't rush Art'. That, of course, is likely to clash with the values of the modern world where speed is further up the ladder than it should be.

However, time is time and any rearrangement of values doesn't generate more time, and so doing one thing often happens at the expense of another. That was the case back in my Year 10 auxiliary lessons from woodwork, where I had to drop a second term subject in order to finish off my Chess set, board and box, in Woodwork term 2. The costs to me included: needing to drop the Cookery subject with later consequences such as - when I began cooking my own meals later on in 2nd year uni, I often had just steak and eggs, where other people in the shared kitchen had more balanced meals were left aghast at mine. Another cost was that it gave me the chance to score a maximum 9 Honours that year instead of the 10 I landed the year before.

Figure 1. Self-made Chess Set.

Figure 1: Self-made Chess Set.

My straight honours in all subjects in middle high school were an early indication that I would always have trouble specialising on just a few things - another value that modern society doesn't rate very highly. Society very much prefers to put you in an easily managed and understood box. In retrospect, I was on fire in middle high school, my unquenchable desire to learn (something you can't teach) was a consequence of several things: two of my very good friends were killed in a car crash and I wanted to change the world for the better in some meaningful way; and secondly, I had my first relationship with a steady girlfriend. How these led to that, takes a little more explanation.

During the morning of the evening my two friends were killed, they'd come up to my place to coax me into hitch-hiking out to see the local football match at a nearby town (Thornton, about 13k from Alexandra) - hitch-hiking was not too unusual a mode of transport back then in small towns where everyone knew something of everyone. I was sitting on a large cube stone-lined post at the front of our property, watching the cars streaming by, up from the city en route to the water-world that was Lake Eildon. Many were impressive cars and often towing powerful glittering speedboats, heading out for a weekend of skiing. It was the age of the petrol-head and country towns in Australia were in the full grip of it (e.g. think American Graffiti and The Fonz but with Australian-made cars).

Teenage kids from large families were often relatively free agents in country towns, and so whether to go with them or not, was pretty much a personal choice. I didn't want to go, but they put collective pressure on me - there were four of them pushing all the buttons that peers know how to push. However, I stuck to my choice to not go with them. It was the ride back from that town late in the evening, with the four of them across the back seat in a souped-up Holden piloted by a drunk driver, when it slammed into a tree at very high speed. The two near the doors died, the other two cushioned in the middle between them lived. The driver's wife and child in the front seat also died. It was a major tragedy in a small country town, one of many such tragedies right across rural Australia before drink-driving and seatbelt laws came into existence. School counselling in those days consisted of: lining up the whole school as a guard of honour to watch the hearses go by en route to the cemetery. Personally, it was unsurprising that post university, I ended up working for the national peak road research body - the Australian Road Research Board. Nor that I've never let peer-group pressure override my decisions since that day forward.

How the early girlfriend relationship figured in the firing of my intellectual side so much, was harder to understand (I'd gone from a rabbit trapping, duck plucking hunter with one or two haphazard school honours per year, to 10 honours and class dux in rapid short time). It was at that same research organisation many years later where I got a key psychological insight into it. As a national research organisation, the place was advanced in many things, including the welfare of staff. As most people were desk-bound all day at their mainframe-powered computer terminals, there were organised exercise choices in the morning and afternoon tea/coffee breaks, to keep one alert and in shape. The main offering was called the 'Stretching and Breathing' session led by a wonderful human being with all the flexibility of a yoga guru and in appropriate attire. One day she said to me: "I never feel embarrassed in front of a big group of people, and I've seen that you don't either." In her case it was demonstrated in leading this group of academic high flyers through low down contortion routines. In my case it was public speaking, evident in the running of courses and seminars to all and sundry. I had never had a problem with public speaking, it certainly didn't make me nervous, and so I was perplexed when I first learned that it was generally one of people's biggest fears in life, in Australia at least.

So I asked her what was her secret to such a lack of embarrassment? "I'm an epileptic" she said, "so, after dealing with having fits at school, at random, nothing else much bothers me in public." Mmm, that surprised me - I'd been unaware that she was epileptic, and surprised at its positive affect in her later life. She then asked me "What's yours?" I didn't know but it had long been a puzzle to me. Her story made me think more deeply upon my own early schooling. I'd been moved through 4 different Primary Schools in my first 6 years of schooling (no kinder or prep years in those days). The first 3 were in rural Queensland where the primary and secondary students all went to the same school - years 1 to 12. Very few did 11 and 12, but nonetheless, the school yard and the school bus could be very intimidating and sometimes brutal places, particularly with my non-anglo surname. The way to deal with it, or at least the way I dealt with it, was to criticise myself before anyone else got the chance to. That had led to a giant but hidden inner critic.

What happens in early relationships is that one is most attracted to someone else that may well have an explicit trait or two that you have hidden in your own psyche. My first such serious relationship was indeed with someone who was a great critic, a critic that was for me not against, someone that was a natural in quality control - thats where good critics are most effective - Quality Control. Once you are in a serious relationship where you have a hidden but powerful sub-personality, such as a hidden inner critic, it no longer has such an inhibiting influence on you, it has been outsourced to someone who's much more overt and professional at it. So, in my case, once in just such a serious relationship my self esteem and confidence skyrocketed. If I overstepped the mark anywhere, someone else close to me would tell me about it, so I didn't need to be so cautious in striding forward.

Getting back to other tacit lessons from making the Chess Set, another was about the benefits of old versus new technologies. I had made the box with the chess board depicted on top of it, all done in thin wood veneers of two different colours. The woodwork Teacher and Craftsman, a relatively old gentleman named Herby Friedel, was originally from Germany and he retained the accent and many woodwork techniques from his former country and era. He wouldn't let me use a modern PVA-based glue (i.e. they can stick wood together stronger than the original wood) to hold down the veneers - I had to use the old technique and traditional glue. He gave me a pot of warmed-up glue that was made from horse hooves. After you stuck down a piece, say a single square on the chess board, you had to rub it with a silver spoon (silver so it wouldn't mark the wood), to maintain the temperature of the glue via friction, then slowly slowly reduce the motion over 5 to 10 minutes, necessary to let the glue cool slowly enough to set properly.

Needless to say, the Chess board in the figure is not my original, since its veneer panels peeled off long ago, but is a more recent import from SE Asia. Had I been allowed to use a modern glue designed to bind wood at the cellulose fibre level, I would still have my original box and board intact, to match my intact pieces. And, I probably would have got to do that Cookery subject I sorely missed out on to many peoples' detriment. The old ways and technologies have very often been superceded with better products and methods, for good reason. Just not always. You can't rush Art, or fundamental Research for that matter, but you can save time and resources through technology and innovation in the Crafts, in Engineering and with incremental Scientific advances too.



Steve Goschnick (gosh'at'DigitalFriend.org)



January 2020

The Late Premier 'Honest John' Cain, Electricity and Computing at the SECV - 1984

Tue, 28 Jan 2020 17:29:21 +1000

By: gosh'at'DigitalFriend.org (Steve Goschnick)

Today I stumbled across the web page for The Victorian Premier's Literary Awards - touted as 'The nation's best writing & Australia's richest literary prize' - on the website:

https://www.wheelercentre.com/projects/victorian-premier-s-literary-awards-2020

It caught my eye that these awards were inaugurated by The Honourable John Cain, Premier of Victoria in 1985, some 35 years ago. In doing so, that reminded me that in the recent hasty days in late December 2019, when everybody was trying to tidy-up from office parties, the office, and do some shopping before the Xmas break, that the very same John Cain had passed away. It was with less fanfare than he deserved or would have got at a different time of year**. It was just before Christmas on the 23rd of December 2019. The 3-term winning Premier - a record for the Labor Party - reached 88 years of age and had left a significant mark on the State of Victoria, Australia, way beyond just those literary awards.

Personally, I had always preferred to call him by his nick-name during his time in power, which was: Honest John. Honesty, being an unusual trait for a politician, anytime and anywhere, was a large factor in why he had won 3 elections straight. I was a young technocrat at the time of his first election, an Analyst/Programmer. John Cain had caused a lot of meticulous computer work to come my way throughout most of 1984 at the SECV - the then State Electricity Commission of Victoria, a large State-owned monopoly. He had won his first election in 1982 and by 1984 the SECV was undergoing something of a revolution, at his direction. Such state-owned enterprises were thereafter deemed to pay a dividend from their profits into the State's coffers, which was 10% of $100 million by 1984 from the SECV alone, very good money at the time. They had set up a new Department called 'Forecasting & Tariffs' and I was one of the new hires at the start of 1984, adding 'Senior' to Analyst Programmer, and raising my salary by about 33% over my prior role as an Analyst/Programmer at the ARRB (Australian Road Research Board).

Not only was the department new but the very concept of 'forecasting' was new at the SECV. Previously, the SECV had divined the 'forecast' energy needs for the State of Victoria, directly from the national GDP forecast coming out of the Federal government's Treasury forecast for the expected growth for Australian GDP (Gross Domestic Product). They simply multiplied Australian GDP by a 'magic number' to determine what electricity they would need to generate in the coming years! There had been no allowance for new technologies, nor the forthcoming more efficient electrical appliances in the pipeline, nor for advances in power transmission technology, nor variance in the growth of Victoria versus the whole country, nor the changing mix of population and industry within Victoria, and so on.

As bad as that was it wasn't the worst of it. Prior to this change at the SECV, they had actually started preliminary work (secretly) on siting a nuclear power station somewhere in East Gippsland (the place that just got burned down by massive bushfires on New Years Day 2020), to cover that future expected demand - all based on the 'back-of-a-matchbox' linear extrapolation from the Federal GDP forecast! So, John Cain's new government changed all that, and thereafter the SECV did some proper energy forecasting. And with that same clean sweep of the broom the new managers also wanted to rationalise the many different electricity tariffs to a more equitable and simplified set of tariffs. E.g. there were about two dozen different tariffs and some customers where paying way way less than others, for the electricity they used. E.g. there was the flat-rate 'F' tariff which was a 'Commercial Cooking' tariff known colloquially as the Fish'n'Chip tariff, who paid as little as 1/20th what an average general domestic (GD tariff) customer was paying for a kilowatt-hour. Another one I remember clearly was the 'hot-water heating' time-of-use (TOU) tariff, which was very low, that kicked in at 2am when most of industry was not in need of electricity. It was soon discovered that the meters at the domestic dwellings, which were mechanical clock-based, were all set at different times instead of just the designated 2am. However, when new management decreed that the meter department go out and synchronise them, as per the published tariff, the long-time engineers pointed out that such an action would cause a spike in demand at 2am which would be much greater than the peak demand in the middle of a working day caused by industry! I.e. the 'old hands' on the ground had deliberately unsynchronised the meters across the State, to avoid such a calamity (and in doing so possibly saved Victoria/Australia from going down the nuclear power station path).

Figure 1. Loy Yang Power Station A. (Courtesy: Marcus Wong Wongm [CC BY-SA] )

Figure 1: Loy Yang Power Station A. (N.b. There is still 400+ years worth of brown coal in Gippsland at the current rate-of-consumption)

(Image courtesy: Marcus Wong Wongm [CC BY-SA] )

The new enlightened management wanted to merge this mishmash of inequitable historical tariffs, towards just a handful of much more equitable tariffs. However, this is where 'Honest John' intervened. He had promised the voters, that during a transition to a more equitable system, "No electricity customer will receive a rise in their electricity bills greater than the CPI (Consumer Price Index - the measure of inflation) in a given year."

This led to me being tasked with guaranteeing that Honest John would indeed be keeping his promise with-respect-to electricity prices, even as the SECV was streamlining the score of ancient tariffs toward a handful of 'modern' equitable tariffs, also decreed by John Cain. Clearly, given the large levels of entrenched inequity such as with the aforementioned Fish'and'Chips tariff, the transitions would have to happen over a number of years (a 5-year plan), via a series of little-step changes, each and all of which, would not invalidate the Premier's public pledge regarding electricity prices and the CPI, for any single customer bill!

I got access to the previous 12 months of billing records, which amounted to over 9 million bills - domestic customers were billed quarterly while industry customers were billed monthly - which lived on magnetic tape, as only the previous bill and the forthcoming bills were keep on fast access hard-disk, itself a valuable storage commodity in 1984. I set about taking random samples of about 10,000 bills to keep on disk, to run prospective tariffs against, which involved the new forecasting models too, then, when one seemed like a winner from all angles (i.e. from numerous managers, policy creators, and forecasters), I would run it against the full 9 million records held on tape, to verify that Honest John wasn't lying, not for any single customer on any single bill issued over the previous year. This wasn't a directive that my manager had devised, no, it had come through him straight from on high, from Honest John himself. His nickname was far from tongue-in-cheek. He was the genuine article. He meant what he said, and did what he said he would do, as far as humanly possible.

While the 10,000 record samples were nicely handled within SAS (a Statistical Analysis Package with its own built in language - think the 'R' language), I needed better tools to deal with the 9 million records on tape, a sequential and relatively slow medium. I had some trouble getting started on that as I needed to use the PL/1 programming language (an IBM language specific to IBM mainframes and compatibles at the time, optimised for speed on them), and the Computer Services Department would not give me the PL/1 manuals I needed. They required that I do their in-house 5-week 'PL/1 Course' - regardless of my prior programming experience. I certainly didn't have 5 weeks to spare with the State Budget looming, which included that 10% of the (yet-to-be-finalised) forecast profit at the SECV for the following year.

From my terminal I could access all the tools on the SECV mainframe - all the IBM system software simply came with the hardware in those days, so it was all there for free, manual or no manual - so I simply phoned IBM directly outlining my dilemma, and they posted me a set of PL/1 manuals the very next day, and off we went.

As it happens, I ran hundreds of such tariff models before we (the Tariff & Forecasting Department) settled upon those published in the State budget papers in 1984, which was a long and tedious process, and I was the bunny doing the hard yards on that processing. My manager, had keep me highly motivated by promising me that I could design and build a new tariff research modelling tool, based on the knowledge I'd picked up over those long hours and late evenings. About six months in, with budget models all tucked into bed, my time had come for some innovative design and development work, promised to me from early on. I had already researched all the tariff models in all the other Australian states, and several internationally, the most sophisticated of which, were from the US state of California. Even back in 1984 California had small private electricity producers, who were putting energy into the system as well as taking it out - the forerunners of todays solar, wind and other alternative energy generators. They also had very sophisticated time-of-use tariffs and meters to go with them, well beyond the simple mechanic clocks the SECV had set for 2am, pre-1984.

Via such a broad-ranging study I had devised a universal tariff model and designed the new research tool which I tentatively called GENSEL (General Selection). However, my manager wouldn't look at it seriously***, as he now revealed that he had "some great software" back at his former employer (the SEQEB - in Queensland) from years before, that the SECV "could simply purchase off the shelf at a reasonable price". I did an evaluation trip to the SEQEB but their software was highly conventional and little better than the SAS + PL/1 data wrangling tools I'd cobbled together in the previous 6 months, under duress. In short, my manager had proved considerably less honest about tariff modelling tools than Honest John had proven himself time and time again all-round, and so my journey with the SECV didn't extend into 1985.

Postscript: What happened?

The SECV: When I worked at SECV headquarter in William St Melbourne in 1984, there were about 7,000 employees in the building, and about 11,000 employees State-wide (it had already been whittled down from about 19,000 at peak employment). In its drive for efficiency and profits the SECV continued to make a significant contribution to the State governments annual budget, and eventually downsized its total workforce to about 7,000 in total. It had become an extremely valuable asset, and the Kennet Liberal Party government that came after John Cain's Labor government, divided up the SECV's State-wide assets and sold them off to a multitude of private companies. Many of the middle-level managers and admin staff had been made redundant, some with considerable golden handshakes, eventually got jobs back in the newly privatised enterprises that took over the SECV's long built-up infrastructure, coal mines, power stations and business. A controversial example was the Hazelwood Power Station: a brown-coal fired power station said to be the most polluting in the OECD at the time. The SECV were looking to decommission it in 2005, but the Kennet Liberal government sold it to several multinationals for over $2 billion dollars in 1996 "with a projected 40-year operating lifetime". It was eventually decommissioned in 2017. Unbeknown to most people, the Gippsland area within Victoria still has well over 400 years worth of brown coal deposits at the current rate of consumption.

My ICT journey for the rest of the 1980s: I never got to implement my universal tariff modelling tool, as my aforementioned Manager never allowed it. Pissed-off with the fact that the software from SEQEB wasn't fit for our service, he then insisted we stick with the SAS+PL/1 processing I'd thrown together on-the-fly during the lead-up to the 1984 State mid-year budget. So, to keep my brain alive I bought a tiny Commodore64 game console/computer for some fun at home with sprites and other colour graphics, something that the mainframes at work didn't do - they were all text-based terminals. Having been a mainframe-only programmer up until that point in time (6 years), I was genuinely amazed at what you could do on a so-called 'toy' Commodore64 computer, with a local IDE called G-Pascal. At the beginning of 1985 I resigned from the SECV and I took to the road spending 10 months travelling throughout Europe, rarely stopping for more than 2 days in each place, followed by 1 month in the US on the way home. On landing back in Melbourne I got offered a Manager role at the Australian Road Research Board, who'd been my original employer straight out of uni (where I'd become an Analyst Programmer, prior to working for the SECV). The new position was in the Computer Centre of what was a highly computationally intensive, research-oriented organisation, which I took up in early 1986 (staying with them until late in 1989 - as the Manager for PCs and Networks). I also picked up a new Commodore Amiga 1000 en route, which was something like a Mac with 'colour', when the Apple Machintosh was simply Black and White (B&W). I'd wanted IBM PC compatibility too, and I got that via what was called the 'Amiga Sidecar', which plugged into the large, long 'Zorro Slot' along the side of the Amiga, giving me an MS/DOS machine - literally as an add-on. My Sidecar also came with a (then) 'massive' 20 Mbyte hard-drive in it, which I partition between MS/DOS and AmigaDOS. I then started writing and publishing shrink-wrapped (i.e. inexpensive) software packages. As good as the Amiga and AmigaDOS was, the marketplace for software publishing startups was on the MS/DOS based IBM-compatible PCs, and so thats where I ended up writing and publishing my first two commercial software applications, one in Borland's Turbo Pascal, the other in the C language. I registered my software publishing business name - Solid Software - in 1986.

I have some other tech stories from my year at the SECV in the 1984 (the year of Big Brother vs the Macintosh), which I should relate some time - a Preview:



Steve Goschnick (gosh'at'DigitalFriend.org)


** Note: There is a recently announced State Funeral for the former Premier John Cain coming up on the 3rd of Feb 2020.

*** This is a common problem that the Information Modeller and Systems Business Analyst ofter still face today: Using information modelling techniques from first principles in Information Theory, it is often possible to come up with a better information model than that of the domain experts who have been on the ground in that domain for 20 or 30 years - whether its Tariff models or Astronomy they are often reluctant to even look at the newly devised data models. And that had been my SECV Manager's reaction back than: "I've been doing Tariffs structures for 20 years, how could you possibly come up with a universal tariff model after 6 months!"


December 2018

The first Foundry658 Boot Camp!

Fri, 7 Dec 2018 14:06:10 +1000

By: gosh'at'DigitalFriend.org (Steve Goschnick)

Over the last 4 weeks my partner and I attended the very first Foundry658 Boot Camp for startups, two and three days per week. We have built up eBook Dynasty .net (a publishing imprint of Solid Software P/L) over the last 5 years, as a two-person show. Via this imprint we have published over 120 books in Chinese, most of which began life in the English language, and many of which Christine personally translated to Chinese (I'm the tech guy, she's the human language expert with a PhD in Chinese Literature and several translation certificates).

Figure 1. The Interface Guide built into the App is accessible via tabs along the bottom of screen.

The pair of us (and the Home office) are currently the bottleneck in growing the business, so we set about replicating ourselves many times over with a whole platform that can scale what we do, even without us if need be. It was this need to scale the business startup that got us a spot in the first ever Foundry658 Boot Camp - a preliminary workshop that leads to the Foundry658 accelerator: a 3 month programme focused on high-growth potential and market-ready projects in the creative arts.

Foundry658: creative industries accelerator - is a new startup incubator collaboration between the State Library of Vic, Creative Victoria (Creative State Strategy) and ACMI. (http://foundry658.com ). We were in the first of two boot camps. There were 17 teams participating in our boot camp, which culminated in a pitch night (see team snapshot insert), that was impressive, creative and highly varied (said the judging panel).

In our case, we have a three-pronged approach (value propositions in three target segments - got the right jargon now:) with: a platform for authors; translators and other book professionals; a social-networking platform for readers with our very own eBook reader file format (and eReaders) for the Chinese language (and some other languages to follow).

[Nb. in direct contrast to my previous blog in November 2018 on age-discrimination in IT - one of the great advantages of being an Analyst/Programmer of my seniority is having a lack of distractions when writing a complex application like our own ebook format and eReader (desktop, Android, iOS), i.e.: I have the skills and experience and repertoire of my own toolbox built up over 3+ decades of both coding and AI/ICT research - and I will not be diverted from that task via approaches of high-salaried roles coming my way unasked . . . i.e. Such diversionary offers simply don't happen any more in IT when you are over ~50, so you can stay fully-focused on your startup platform, day and night:) ]

Back to the Foundry658 bootcamp: it was excellent value with very experienced presenters, high calibre invited speakers who were all generous in their advice, great venues, thoughtful mentors, challenging exercises, and an excellent set of notes/toolkit from Value Proposition-to-Growth marketing and Pitching - all professionally organised. In particular, it reminded me of the hard lessons that Usability Lab's brought to Designers in double short time, back in my IDEA Lab days: there, a Designer behind a one-way mirror or video camera would see-for-themselves how their website or app interface failed in the hands of real users. In this bootcamp, we got to see how our imagined/stereotype customers, we're not really who the real customers for our services were. Through Customer Validation Testing we were able to overturn a few gross assumptions about the problem we were actually trying to solve.

I thoroughly recommend an application to future Foundry658 boot camps to anyone with a new creative-industries startup idea, or an existing creative-industry-oriented business that is ready to scale, as they will surely run again later in 2019.

Steve Goschnick (gosh'at'DigitalFriend.org)


November 2018

On Age Discrimination in the IT Workforce

Mon, 3 Dec 2018 21:55:01 +1000 (updated)

By: gosh'at'DigitalFriend.org (Steve Goschnick)

I'd heard that age discrimination in the job market was rampant (certainly in Australia e.g. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-12-02/ageism-rampant-discrimination-problem-in-the-workplace/10550704), but wasn't aware of how much it was true until my own personal incident or two or twenty . . .

A few months back, a head hunter (HR firm) sort me out via LinkedIn as a 'C Programmer'. His Client company was paying up to $140K and it turned out they were after 4 such experienced programmers for a large conversion of two systems, via a merger of two large companies. They got my interest at a number of levels, one of which was that I'd gone back to doing a significant C project myself in the months before (after programming mainly in Java for years - I've done very substantial systems in C and C++ over 3 decades, and even taught the C language to companies and colleges (e.g. teach-the-teacher) back in the early 1990s when it was a newer language).

After the initial Interview with the HR firm I was required to do an IKM online test for ANSI C89 / C99. Here's my result summary of that adhoc test:

Figure 1. The Interface Guide built into the App is accessible via tabs along the bottom of screen.

The HR guy came back quickly, impressed enough to tell me that my 88% (which would be a H1 at university) was the highest score by some margin of all the applicants, and that he was instructed by the client company to shortlist for interview, all those candidates who achieved 60% or higher. That transpired to 6 candidates for 4 position. He couldn't see how I wouldn't get an offer - "though it may or may not be a little less than the $140K".

My interview with the HR firms Client was the following week. I'm no spring chicken, but I was certainly not going to start dying my hair for an interview where one's skill-set was the first-and-foremost the requirement, and where they had used an International testing agency of considerable reputation to measure that, and my team-player skills were also high, and valued during my considerable employment record.

I arrived at the Client's site about 12 minutes early for a 3pm interview. Between the reception desk and a meeting room there was an open C-shaped lounge-chaired area (pardon the pun) with a coffee-table of newspapers and a book or two, and a large TV screen on the wall with various live sporting events.

I took a seat and read a newspaper, having not layed hands on one for a year or two. About 10 minutes to go, two fellows - both between 30 and 45, perhaps, came along and went into the meeting room, to prepare for the Interview, as it transpired. They never gave me more than a fleeting glance as they rushed in to plan their questions and approach.

At 3pm they both emerged from the meeting room and looked about for the candidate, questioningly. Looking straight thru/past me, the older of the two checked his watch wandering why the candidate was now apparently late! Just as he began walking toward the Reception desk he looked back to me, as I'd now stood up moving his way with an 'excuse me . . .', and he then asked incredulously "Are you Steve?" To which I acknowledged and we all went into the Interview room and so it proceeded for the next 50 minutes or so.

They asked several standard team-player oriented questions, but mainly they asked technical questions about the C language. Of the 35 to 40 questions there were just 2 or 3 where I said something like: "No I haven't used that particular library of code for a while, so I can't tell you the specific method call and parameters I'd use off the top of my head, but I'd easily look it up in the online documentation". The rest were straight forward. They kept on searching for the allusive question that I couldn't answer at all, but it didn't come. The more senior of the two, certainly knew his C - and he would probably cherish remaining top-gun in the organisation in the C-language stakes.

The HR guy rang me the following Friday and apologetically told me the client didn't want to hire me, much to his own amazement, and that no reason was given. I said: no-matter, one gets used to these sorts of outcomes after 2 or 3 years - it was he that approached me after all - I'd long given up on seeking out such fruitless encounters and would happily get back to my own programming projects and writing endeavours. At the very least I enjoyed his conversations and the online test too - as it was a variable test, dynamically altered for the individual in its presentation and so it couldn't be fudged - which in itself was refreshing in the testing world.

There you have it: many people in IT don't think that people over 60 can even use a computer never mind program one at a very high level, never mind be an expert at it - with or without independent, international-standard testing! Despite even that I've been called upon in Court as a C-language Expert Witness, no less.

Ironically, the fact that I've programmed in C and C++ since about 1988 (i.e. 30 years), means its burned into my brain, and will probably still be clearly there the day I die.

They probably thought the younger candidates, though scoring much lower on the IKM Test, could be quickly brought up to speed. Unfortunately for the greater Client organisation itself, the C language is probably the least language that programmers can be moved across to quickly, from other, moderner, safer languages. C is very unforgiving to the uninitiated and the undisciplined. It runs counter to the modern programming paradigms and mindsets. To the unwitting Project Manager who may be used to teams working in Java or JavaScript+CSS or C# or even pure C++, throwing lightly-skilled C programmers coming from those other languages into C-proper, will blow their timelines and budgets out-of-the-water, and give their competitors a significant advantage because of the resultant delays and persistant bugs.

While I do wish the Client company good luck with their system merger, when one has age discriminatory hiring practices at the coal-face, when it comes to systems written in the C language, its going to cost you, significantly! Steve Jobs himself no less, pointed out that when it comes to system-level code (i.e. mainly written in the C language), the difference between a very good programmer and a mediocre one, is about 20+ to 1. While that ratio doesn't hold in the modern languages, purpose-built to curtail certain risks, it remains true for the C language, itself now 40 years old and only lightly enhanced. No place on earth knows this better than Silicon Valley and nearby Seattle, where most system software in the world is still written and maintained in C. It certainly seems that project managers further afield are less experienced in the peculiarities of the individual languages. . . which of course, adds to those advantages that Silicon Valley has and retains.

I looked up the HR policies on the website of the Client company in question here, and they clearly state they have Diversity in their teams: "We are proud to have teams with different backgrounds and experience. It inspires diverse thinking that in turn underpins everything we do". However, beyond those two sentences, the rest of their PR Diversity blurb is just about gender diversity. From that and my own experience, any concept of age diversity is far from their thinking or concern.

While age discrimination is wide-spread, it is particularly acute in the IT field. Companies are bringing in new younger IT programmers/analysts on work visas, claiming they can't find the numbers with the skills needed, already here. From my own experiences like this incidence here, that is often bullshit, simply because they don't even consider most people the other side of 50, or even the other side of 45, or else they only want to pay new graduate-level wages or less.

Age discrimination is hard to prove, and when someone like me chooses to raise attention to examples of it, a typical response/thought is likely: 'proves the point why you wouldn't employ such a whinging old/middle-aged privileged white guy, not used to knock-backs, who probably has a house and no mortgage to pay, with kids who have flown the nest' - all assumptions of convenience and often false, which shouldn't even enter into the 'on merit' (i.e. see test above) argument in the first place.

And yes, contrary to the usual retort about older workers, like many, I continually update my skills: Programming for me is a pleasure not simply a tool of my vocation - I've always kept my hand in it even when not programming fulltime - i.e. when project managing, researching or lecturing in other things. As well as being a long-time expert in the languages C, C++ and Java, I'm not bad at JavaScript and I'm simply loving the new Swift language from Apple, which I've chosen to learn most recently.

Steve Goschnick (gosh'at'DigitalFriend.org)


June 2017 (Updated 03 Aug 2017)

Second Call for Papers: Special Issue on Coding with the Raspberry Pi


International Journal of People-Oriented Programming (IJPOP)


Special Issue on Coding with the Raspberry Pi


Submission Due Date

31 Aug 2017

Guest Editors

Steve Goschnick & (Guest Editor) Christine Sun

Introduction

The unassuming Raspberry Pi, an inexpensive credit-card sized computer, was awarded the UK's highest engineering accolade last month - the Royal Academy of Engineering's MacRobert Prize (http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-40444356 ). It has clocked up over 14 million sales since launch in 2012, making it the third best selling general purpose computer of all time. The Raspberry Pi Foundation, a non-profit, designed the small but versatile marvel with the joint aims of teaching Computer Science to a new generation of students, whilst also servicing a growing cohort of startups and digital makers in prototyping their heavily divergent technical dreams.

The latest version (Model 3, with integrated WiFi and Bluetooth), launched in early 2016, is their biggest seller so far, perhaps following a pattern of Version 3 maturity touching the spot (e.g. Windows V3; iMac). There have been several public ponderings since then as to whether the Raspberry Pi has become disruptive (e.g. OReilly Podcast). Two of the largest players in the industry, Microsoft and Google, have launched respective IoT (Internet of Things) products that target it in recent times, namely: the Windows10 IoT Core and the Android Things (Google's IoT platform). That makes it plain and simple: the Raspberry PI has become disruptive in the IoT space, at the very least - nothing less warrants that sort of high-profile attention from across the pond.

Recommended Topics

Our interest in the Pi for this Special Issue is in the other main part of the original goal: how has the Raspberry Pi been travelling with regard to teaching and related research, in particular with respect to bringing programming to a new and more diverse generation. We are seeking papers around coding on the Raspberry Pi, including but not limited to the following topics and questions:

Some readings

  1. Website: Raspberry Pi - Teach, Learn and Make with the Raspberry Pi. Raspberry Pi Foundation (2017), https://www.raspberrypi.org
  2. Podcast: The Raspberry Pi 3: Is it good enough? The Raspberry Pi is starting to look disruptive (2016), https://www.oreilly.com/ideas/the-raspberry-pi-3-is-it-good-enough?imm_mid=0e1bd2&cmp=em-iot-na-na-newsltr_20160317
  3. Article: Google launches first developer preview of Android Things, its new IoT platform (2016), https://techcrunch.com/2016/12/13/google-launches-developer-preview-of-android-things-its-new-iot-platform/
  4. Article: How to Install Windows 10 IoT Core on the Raspberry Pi 3. https://www.windowscentral.com/how-install-windows-10-iot-raspberry-pi-3
  5. Article: The Raspberry Pi and CoderDojo join Forces (2017), May, 26th. https://www.raspberrypi.org/blog/raspberry-pi-and-coderdojo-join-forces/
  6. Posts: Wolfram Language and Mathematica for the Raspberry Pi. Accessed 2017, May, 31st. http://www.wolfram.com/raspberry-pi/?source=nav

Submission Procedure

Researchers and practitioners are invited to submit papers for this special issue on Coding with the Raspberry Pi on or before 31st August 2017. All submissions must be original and may not be under review by another publication. INTERESTED AUTHORS SHOULD CONSULT THE JOURNAL'S GUIDELINES FOR MANUSCRIPT SUBMISSIONS at http://www.igi-global.com/publish/contributor-resources/before-you-write/. All submitted papers will be reviewed on a double-blind, peer review basis. Papers must follow APA style for reference citations.

All submissions and inquiries should be directed to the attention of:

Steve Goschnick & Dr Christine Sun

Editor and Guest Editor

International Journal of People-Oriented Programming (IJPOP)

E-mail: sgoschnick@swin.edu.au


September 2016

The Rise of the Fit Bit Kids

Thu, 8 Sep 2016 01:05:06 +1000

By: gosh'at'DigitalFriend.org (Steve Goschnick)

(Note: this article was published first on TheConversation.com )

The rise of the fit bit kids: a good move or a step too far?

Steve Goschnick, Swinburne University of Technology

The concept of tracking your fitness with wearable technology is not new but the rate at which activity trackers are being worn by school children, is. And it's causing quite a range of reactions.

In the UK, a mother withdrew her child from primary school because it stopped him from wearing his electronic fitness bracelet, although following protests the school later allowed pupils to wear Fitbits (except during physical education class).

In New Zealand, high school counsellors said they were concerned the Fitbit devices could become a fixation, particularly with girls trying to lose weight and keep fit.

In Australia, students in some schools are wearing these devices (for example, nine of the 24 in my daughter's grade 4 class) despite terms-of-service such as Fitbit's saying users should be aged over 13 to use its service.

As for older students, Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma said earlier this year it was giving new students the option of wearing of a Fitbit as part of its ongoing fitness program. However, this caused some concern and sparked an online petition over fears it could promote eating disorders.

Fitbit's come in many colours. Flickr/Melies The Bunny, CC BY-NC

What gets children moving?

You only have to witness the magnetic attraction between kids and their small screens to realise why the modern parent is looking for an antidote to the exercise aversion of their offspring.

There's no doubt most kids thrive on structure put around their lives, such as enforcing some screen-time limits. The introduction of self-governance for kids at home is generally one of gradual steps and missteps.

An attractive feature of activity-trackers is that they come with an app that children are able to locate and install at kid-speed.

Your average self-tracking device does daily tallies for: steps-taken, kilometres-covered, calories-consumed and so on.

Dashboard of daily stats on the Fitbit app. Fitbit/Screenshot, Author provided

Parents will be happy to see children push up their daily step-count, and watch their young charges spending more time perusing exercise metrics and rewards, over first-person shooters and the demolition of rival buildings in Minecraft.

One reassuring aspect of the Fitbit daily dashboard, from the point of view of parents with slovenly kids in the home-zone, is that primary school kids are generally clocking-up lots of activity during their school day.

Self improvement

Researchers in pervasive computing see self-tracking as a significant tool in behavioural change in optimising one's self. From a sociology perspective, self-tracking is seen as heavily correlated with selfhood and identity.

These devices collect new information about one's self, capturing raw data that was previously hard-won or totally unavailable, and then present it visually for reflection, all with little-to-no effort by the individual. In doing so they offer a new source of rich knowledge about oneself.

Australian research into the phenomenon of self-tracking points to a philosophical grounding offered by French philosopher Michel Foucault. That individuals have a moral and ethical imperative to take up practices that help them achieve happiness, healthiness and wisdom. Practises that nourish both body and soul.

But despite the emphasis on self in this whole new scheme of smart things, the information being collected by these devices is also held by corporate entities beyond the individual.

Employers, with a vested interest in their employees' health and well-being, are also getting enthusiastic about these fitness devices.

In September 2015, the US retail giant Target offered more than 300,000 free Fitbit Zip devices to improve the wellness of employees, and the corporate image.

Some health insurance companies in the US and elsewhere, are now offering savings for people that wear such devices.

Any concerns?

So, what is the range of the growing concerns being raised about these self-tracking devices?

The computer scientist Jaron Lanier, author of Who Owns the Future?, was strapping technology onto his body back in the 1980s and has a good overarching measure of the dangers inherent in self-tracking:

There are two dangers: one is compromising privacy and the other is (that) participants can narrow themselves. Extreme adherents hyperconcentrate on certain kinds of numbers about themselves, and it can make them a little more robotic than other people.

Nonetheless, he missed the problem of low-grade devices. Fastfood giant McDonalds recently issued STEP-iT Activity Bands with Happy Meals in the US with 33 million Chinese-made wristbands set to go, only to recall them this month when burns and skin irritations were reported.

A growing concern is that self-tracking is becoming self-surveillance. And yet, in the public health domain self-tracking technologies dovetail nicely with the emphasis on self-management, on moving some personal responsibility and control back to individuals who require care.

It largely comes down to who has access to the data, what they use it for, and whether they have appropriate permission to do so.

Still, if it gets children off the couch and doing more exercise in the real world, by the time they are fit and healthy young adults they may well have cast off the activity tracking bracelet.

Or it just may evolve into a permanent augmentation, facilitating an optimised human life, from cradle to grave.

The Conversation

Steve Goschnick, Adjunct Professor, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


August 2016

App Review: ScratchJr (Scratch Junior) for both iPad and Android

Fri, 12 Aug 2016 11:09:15 +1000

By: gosh'at'DigitalFriend.org (Steve Goschnick)

My app review of Scratch Junior got published in the International Journal of People-Oriented Programming, 4(1), pages 50-55.

As a simple 'app review' I'm quite surprised the publisher put it behind a paywall, and so I've put a copy here on my Blog site where it can be freely accessed (with the journal publisher's permission).

Its linked here as a .pdf file for your convenience: http://www.DigitalFriend.org/document/ScratchJr-AppReview-IJPOP4(1)pp50-55.pdf

I highly recommend it if you are thinking of getting a 7 to 9 year old into Coding - its very suitable for that purpose.

Enjoy, Steve

Figure 1. The Interface Guide built into the App is accessible via tabs along the bottom of screen.

Figure 3. Enacting the four on-screen game-controller-like buttons.


January 2016

Call For Papers: Kids and Other Novices Learning to Code

Mon, 4 Jan 2016 01:10:05 +1000

By: gosh'at'DigitalFriend.org (Steve Goschnick)

*************************** CALL FOR PAPERS ***************************

2nd CFP: Kids and Other Novices Learning to Code: Insights, Tools & Lessons from the Visual Programming Frontline

Special Issue of: International Journal of People-Oriented Programming (IJPOP)

ISSN: 2156-1796, EISSN: 2156-1788

Editors: Leon Sterling & Steve Goschnick

Submission Due Date (extended): January 31, 2016

We are interested to hear of your research and experience with using and/or providing languages and programming environments designed to take whole new cohorts of people into Coding. Of interest is the whole span: 8 and 9 year-old school kids and younger, through to life-long learners who never thought about programming as a realistic option for themselves.

The well-known options include: Scratch, Alice, Greenfoot, AgentSheets, FLIP and various derivatives of Scratch (e.g. Snap!/BYOB, App Inventor, Blockly, FlashBlocks), derivatives of Blockly (e.g. Code.org, WonderWorkshop, Blockly Games, etc.), and various other approaches, including executable flowchart environments (e.g. LARP).

Topics include but are not limited to:

We are interested in submissions from educators, facilitators and researchers with experience in the new coding environments, that delve into any of the above topics, and others that are closely related.

Some Readings:

Article: Want your kids to learn another language? Teach them code. The Conversation (2015), https://theconversation.com/want-your-kids-to-learn-another-language-teach-them-code-47409 ... and repeated Below, on this page.

Article: Five reasons to teach robotics in schools. The Conversation (2015), https://theconversation.com/five-reasons-to-teach-robotics-in-schools-49357

Article: An education for the 21st century means teaching coding in schools. The Conversation (2015), https://theconversation.com/an-education-for-the-21st-century-means-teaching-coding-in-schools-42046

Article: It's back to school for Facebook, and it's personal (a personalised learning environment). The Conversation (2015), https://theconversation.com/its-back-to-school-for-facebook-and-its-personal-49804

Journal paper: Judith Good (2011). Learners at the Wheel: Novice Programming Environments Come of Age. International Journal of People-Oriented Programming, 1(1), pp.1-24 (Via http://www.igi-global.com/article/learners-wheel-novice-programming-environments/53807 )

SUBMISSION PROCEDURE:

Researchers and practitioners are invited to submit papers for this special issue on or before 31st January 2016.

All submissions must be original and may not be under review by another publication. INTERESTED AUTHORS SHOULD CONSULT THE JOURNAL'S GUIDELINES FOR MANUSCRIPT SUBMISSIONS at http://www.igi-global.com/journals/guidelines-for- submission.aspx. All submitted papers will be reviewed on a double-blind, peer review basis. Papers must follow APA style for reference citations. This journal is an official publication of the Information Resources Management Association www.igi-global.com/IJPOP

PUBLISHER: The International Journal of People-Oriented Programming is published by IGI Global (formerly Idea Group Inc.), publisher of the "Information Science Reference" (formerly Idea Group Reference), "Medical Information Science Reference", "Business Science Reference", and "Engineering Science Reference" imprints. For additional information regarding the publisher, please visit www.igi-global.com.

Editors-in-Chief: Steve Goschnick & Leon Sterling (sgoschnick@swin.edu.au | lsterling@swin.edu.au)

Published: Semi-annual (both in Print and Electronic form)

All enquiries and for this Issue should be directed to the attention of: Prof. Leon Sterling, Co-Editor-in-Chief International Journal of People-Oriented Programming E-mail: lsterling@swin.edu.au

All manuscript submissions to the issue should be sent through the online submission system: http://www.igi-global.com/authorseditors/titlesubmission/newproject.aspx

**********************************************************************


September 2015

Teach Kids to Code

Mon, 28 Sep 2015 22:10:05 +1000

By: gosh'at'DigitalFriend.org (Steve Goschnick)

(Published first in TheConversation - see link at bottom of page)

(Published first in TheConversation - see link at bottom of page)

Want your kids to learn another language? Teach them code

Steve Goschnick, Swinburne University of Technology

Among Malcolm Turnbull's first words as the newly elected leader of the Liberal Party, and hence heading for the Prime Minister's job, were: "The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative."

And near the heart of the matter is the code literacy movement. This is a movement to introduce all school children to the concepts of coding computers, starting in primary school.

One full year after the computing curriculum was introduced by the UK government, a survey there found that six out of ten parents want their kids to learn a computer language instead of French.

The language of code

The language comparison is interesting because computer languages are first and foremost, languages. They are analogous to the written versions of human languages but simpler, requiring expressions without ambiguity.

They have a defining grammar. They come with equivalent dictionaries of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs; with prepositions and phrase patterns, conjunctions, conditionals and clauses. Of course the dictionaries are less extensive than those of human languages, but the pattern rendering nature of the grammars have much the same purpose.

Kids that code gain a good appreciation of computational thinking and logical thought, that helps them develop good critical thinking skills. I've sometimes heard the term "language lawyer" used as a euphemism for a pedantic programmer. Code literacy is good for their life skills kit, never mind their career prospects.

Scratch is one of a new generation of block programming languages aimed at teaching novices and kids as young as eight or nine to write code.

Scratch teaches code with movable instruction blocks. Screenshot from code.org

The Scratch language uses coloured blocks to represent the set of language constructs in its grammar. A novice programmer can build up a new program by dragging-and-dropping from a palette of these blocks onto a blank canvas or workspace.

The individual shapes of the blocks are puzzle-like, such that only certain pieces can interlock. This visually enforces the grammar, allowing the coder to concentrate on the creativeness of their whole program.

The Scratch language (and its derivatives) are embedded in a number of different tools and websites, each dedicated to a particular niche of novice programmers. The code.org website is a prime example and has a series of exercises using the block language to teach the fundamentals of computer science.

Code.org is a non-profit used by 6 million students, 43% of whom are female. It runs the Hour of Code events each year, a global effort to get novices to try to do at least an hour of code.

For a week in May this year, Microsoft Australia partnered with Code.org to run the #WeSpeakCode event, teaching coding to more than 7,000 young Australians. My local primary school in Belgrave South in Victoria is using Code.org successfully with grade 5 and 6 students.

Unlike prose in a human language, computer programs are most often interactive. In the screenshot of the Scratch example (above) it has graphics from the popular Plants vs Zombies game, one that most kids have already played. They get to program some basic mechanics of what looks a little like the game.

Hit the 'Show Code' button at it reveals the JavaScript language behind the coloured blocks. Screenshot from code.org

But code.org has a 'Show Code' button that reveals the JavaScript code generated behind the coloured blocks (see above). This shows novices what they created in tiles, translated into the formal syntax of a programming language widely used in industry.

It's not all about the ICT industry

Both parents and politicians with an eye to the future see the best jobs as the creative ones. Digging up rocks, importing, consuming and servicing is not all that should be done in a forward-thinking nation.

But teaching kids to code is not all about careers in computer programming, science and software engineering. Introducing young minds to the process of instructing a computer allows them to go from "I swiped this" to "I made this". From watching YouTube stars, to showing schoolyard peers how they made their pet cat photo meow.

It opens up young minds to the creative aspects of programming. Not only widening the possible cohort who may well study computer science or some other information and communications technology (ICT) professions, but also in design and the creative arts, and other fields of endeavour yet to transpire or be disrupted.

For most kids, teaching them to code is about opening their mind to a means to an end, not necessarily the end in itself.

The Conversation

Steve Goschnick, Adjunct Professor, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


 

 

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