Archive/Current Events/2016-03-25

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Sugar Digest

Ten days ago, my mentor and friend Marvin Minsky passed away. As one of the co-founders of the field of Artificial Intelligence, his passing has been widely covered by the press and many notable colleagues have blogged about his numerous intellectual contributions. I have little to add regarding his contributions to AI, although I had the pleasure of many conversations with him about the ideas he discusses in Society of Mind and The Emotion Machine.

Perhaps less well known are some of Marvin's writing on learning. He was a long-time colleague of Seymour Papert and made significant contributions to Logo and the core ideas of Construtionism. (He built one of the first Logo "turtles" and, along with Ed Fredkin, invented the digital synthesizer, which he interfaced to Logo.) While I was at One Laptop per Child, I commissioned him to write some essays on learning. Alas, we will never get to read the final four essays in the series (Future Essays).

Spending time with Marvin was always a pleasure: the range of topics discussed, the challenging of every assumption and convention, the unquenchable curiosity, and the generosity with ideas, critique, and reflection is in my experience unmatched.

I promise to take the time to share some recollections from our time together over the coming months, beginning here with a scenario I saw repeated on numerous occasions. In the days of overhead projectors, when Marvin would give a lecture he would (I always presumed deliberately) drop his slides on the floor as he approached the projector. He'd then look down, pick one up seeming at random, put it on the projector, and then dive into a fascinating discourse, not necessarily on topic, but always well worth the time and attention of his audience. Marvin was always at his best when he was unleashed.

Marvin had a beautiful mind and a beautiful spirit. He is dearly missed.

1. A warm welcome to the new Sugar Labs oversight board: Walter Bender; Lionel Laské; Adam Holt; Sameer Verma; Claudia Urrea; Tony Anderson; and José Miguel García. We'll hold our first meeting this Friday at 16 UTC on #sugar. Please join us.

Many thanks to Daniel Francis, Gonzalo Odiard, and Chris Leonard whom have served many years on the oversight board and continue to make numerous contributions to the Sugar community.

2. Google Code-In is over and the mentor team has selected our two grand-prize winners: Piotr Antosz (from Poland) and Ezequiel Pereira Lopez (from Uruguay). While it is never an easy decision -- we had many strong contenders for the top two spots -- I am quite pleased with the decision as both Piotr and Ezequiel did great work and have deeply engaged with the community. Congratulations to both of them. And, again, thank you to all of the contestants and to the mentors.

3. One topic I hope to discuss on Friday is Google Summer of Code 2016. I've set up a preliminary page in the wiki to get the application process start (I am presuming that the oversight board will agree to participate again this year). Please add project suggests to the wiki.

In the Community

4. I just returned from Constructionism 2016, a "bi-annual gathering of researchers and practitioners of the constructionist learning philosophy is intended to be a place to showcase lessons learned, innovative learning tools, new case studies, and novel approaches that has been happening throughout the world." A number of Sugar Labs community members were there, including Cynthia Solomon, Claudia Urrea, and Devin Ulibarri. Devin and I spoke about Music Blocks and along with Cynthia and Claudia, we ran several workshops for children and teachers. Lots of great feedback and many new and renewed connections. (Our host, Khun Paron, has been an advocate for Sugar for almost a decade.) The entire conference was videotaped and will be posted online soon. Be sure to watch Cynthia's keynote address in which she reviewed the history of Constructionism, which has had a great influence on the design and development of Sugar.

5. Music Blocks is a fork the Turtle Blocks program that we began last year during GSoC. Our goal is for Music Blocks to be an open-ended, yet musically relevant tool—one that invites learners to explore fundamental musical concepts that are both intrinsic to music yet transcendent of a specific discipline.

The structure of our workshops included the concept of a "Power Piece". A power piece is a melody or a song that is taught because it is powerful and becomes more powerful as it is taught. Children took phrases of some familiar music as a basis of exploring and manipulating the music through programming.

As a result of feedback from the workshops, I have made a number of improvements to Music Blocks. It is much more robust and internally consistent. Please do try it (there is a Guide for getting started) and give me additional feedback.

By coincidence, I subsequently read in Stephen Wolfram's blog about Marvin Minsky that "Marvin immediately launched into talking about how programming languages are the only ones that people are expected to learn to write before they can read. He said he’d been trying to convince Seymour Papert that the best way to teach programming was to start by showing people good code. He gave the example of teaching music by giving people Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and asking them to transpose it to a different rhythm and see what bugs occur."

Papert did speak of the need for guidance, both in the programming environment itself and in the teacher’s facilitating a child's exploration of it. Power Pieces introduce rich musical ideas that can be studied, analyzed, transformed, and re-imagined, they are ripe for open-ended explorations as part of workshops.

During the workshops (and at the conference) Devin and I both stood on our "soap boxes" in support of Free/Libre Software. Using computers and programming software to run on computers is a powerful means to drive learning. Free Software raises the ceiling by enabling student contributions to the design, the documentation, and the code itself.

Tip of the hat to Sawaros Thanapornsangsuth, who translated Music Blocks into Thai for our workshops.

Tech Talk

6. The Sugar Labs systems team has been busy upgrading our servers. Thanks to their efforts we have had very little down time in the past few years.

Sugar Labs

7. Please visit our planet.