Archive for February, 2008

February 25, 2008

Hanging Out and Doing Stuff Leads to More Hanging Out and Doing Stuff

We began President’s Day weekend with a flurry of activity out of the house, and then returned home to a cozier flurry of activity inside the house. Some of us chose to doodle, while others dabbled in 3D programming, while still others cooked and wrote and read.

Mr. Enigma sat down to draw in his sketch book. The Duke walked by on his way to do something else, noticed that Dad was drawing, peeked over his shoulder and asked, “What are you drawing?”

Monkey see, monkey do

Monkey see, monkey do

They talked about the drawing for a moment while my husband kept working. Suddenly, The Duke grabbed a chair and pulled it up alongside Mr. Enigma’s recliner. Then he went into his room, grabbed his sketch book and pencil, and sat down next to his Dad and began drawing.

They worked that way for at least half an hour, and what a special, bonding time it was. Completely unplanned and uncoerced, creativity begot creativity.

daughter programming in Alice

While this side-by-side drawing was going on, my daughter was hogging my laptop, programming her first 3D animation in Alice. She took the tutorial and spent about an hour noodling around. Her finished piece was, as she put it, “A Shakespeare kind of thingy,” by which she meant a whole bunch of characters fought, declared their love for each other, and died, all in a 20-second animated movie.

What was I doing? Well, my daughter was using my computer, so I read, started getting dinner ready, and took pictures of my family just hanging out and doing stuff. It was a good day.

To see scenes from my daughter’s first movie, click the link below.

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February 18, 2008 Free Programming Tool for Kids

My family spent Saturday afternoon at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Family Day in Boston, where we saw all kinds of great stuff. I’ll post more about the expo a little later, but I want to tell you first about one particularly outstanding product we learned about while there: a free programming interface for kids called Alice.

I’m excited about this program because my 9-year-old has said she wants to learn how to make her own computer games, and we’ve been looking for a child-friendly application to help her learn how to do that. We couldn’t find anything that looked like a 9-year-old programming novice would be able to learn quickly and easily. Half the battle with helping young kids maintain their excitement is to enable them to complete a project in a short period of time (like two hours on the first try). Everything we looked at either had a huge learning curve or would have probably been too difficult for our daughter right now.

And then, Saturday, we just stumbled upon Alice by accident.

Carnegie Mellon developed Alice, a drag-and-drop programming interface that allows you to create 3D worlds in a Java-like language. Sometime this year, a new version (3.0) of Alice will be released which will enable actual Java programming, not Java-like programming.

In the meantime, two versions are available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, standard Alice, designed for high school and college-aged “kids” and Storytelling Alice, for middle school-aged kids. I think even some younger kids will be able to use Storytelling Alice, given that my 7-year-old son sat on my lap this morning and explained to me how he thought it worked. After watching me for a few minutes, he definitely understood the basic idea behind how to build a world and make the characters in it do what we wanted them to do.

Both versions of Alice come with a library of scenes and characters; each character has a handful (or more) of ready-to-use methods (actions), so that if you want your character to walk, run, talk, turn, smile, cry, think, etc., you can just drag that method from a list and drop it into your program. You can also create new methods.

I took the 30-minute tutorial for Storytelling Alice and then spent another 30 minutes playing with the software. In that hour, I learned how to create a new world, add characters to it, and program those characters to do what I wanted them to do. I also learned some programming terminology, like what a method is. I finished a brief movie in about 30 minutes. Not too shabby!

The website also offers free instructional materials, a user forum, additional characters and scenes, and other helpful information. When I have time to play with the tool more, I’ll learn how to do programming loops, “while” statements, and other standard programming thingies (pardon my technical language) that will allow my characters to interact more naturally. Eventually, I suppose I’ll let my daughter have a turn. It was her idea to learn how to program, wasn’t it?

And did I mention that Alice is free?

My only disappointment thus far is with the publishing capability. The “publish as movie” function doesn’t work yet (at least not in Storytelling Alice). And if you publish as an HTML page, anyone who wants to view the page has to have Java, Java 3D, and Java Media Console installed on his/her computer.

Otherwise, Alice rocks. Check it out at

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February 5, 2008

Giants 17, Patriots 14: Winning a Championship Is Exhausting

Whew. I think I’m finally recovering from all the excitement - I’d forgotten how much energy it takes to win a Super Bowl!

Michael Strahan celebrates his sack of Tom Brady

So which one is Goliath?

The Giants deserved the win. They won three tough playoff games on the road, including the NFC championship game in Green Bay where it was so cold it looked like Tom Coughlin’s face was going to fall off. And on Sunday, they played hard the entire game and even recovered from a couple of big mistakes. As the lead changed hands for the final time in the 4th quarter, it was hard to contain my exuberance in a room full of Patriots fans.

So I didn’t.

It’s a shame we live in hostile territory, too far from NYC to take the kids to the parade today. They were rooting for the Patriots — silly kids — but I bet they would have enjoyed the celebration in NY. It might have even helped them put their sports loyalties in the proper perspective.

I’m thinking about taping the front page of yesterday’s local paper to the window next to my front door. It sports the headline “Super Shock” with a large photo of a dejected Tom Terrific.

Would that be mean?

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