on computers and female geekism

computer kit with lots of components

build your own computer kit

I and most of my family headed to Margate today for GEEK 2013 (Games Expo East Kent). I and one son went last year and enjoyed the talks and discussions that took place. I was disappointed that there didn’t seem to be scheduled talks this year, and I felt the whole event was much more about looking back and being a games consumer than looking forward and being a games creator, whereas last year the balance was better. Still, there was the main hall full of games consoles for people to play (didn’t spot any ZX81s this year, but spotted a couple of BBCs and Commodores with things like 10 John was here 20 goto 10!) and the upper hall with stalls and exhibitions.

Youngest son enjoyed the halo and minecraft most, of course. Hubby and I found more of interest in the upper hall, where alongside the cosplay there were also electronics demonstrations. The Pi and Arduino workshops turned out to be a couple of people showing what they were and promoting them, and I had an interesting chat with one man about computers and schools and programming and electronics.  There was also a gentleman selling kits to build your own computer. The kits cost £20, and the end result was a tiny circuit board, smaller than a pi or arduino, that included a fully working keyboard (8 keys), plugs into a TV and can be programmed to produce simple games – think of a ZX81 DIY kit, but much smaller.

We decided to buy two, one each, and left the man with our padded envelopes full of components. The instructions are available via the website, and there is also a support group who we are told are active in producing listings and ideas.

Expect to read more about this project over the coming weeks as and when I get a chance to build it and play with it, but the other thing that struck me during the day was how male-oriented the event was. Everywhere you looked, there were boys crowded around screens, playing, watching, discussing, and females were definitely in the minority. There were a couple of talks in the end, unadvertised but announced on the day, one about the history of games and promoting the speaker’s book, and another from a couple who were promoting their film on the games industry in the UK, and through those there was also definitely the message that the games industry is dominated by men. (There was another unadvertised talk, too, a Q and A with indie games developers, but that was scheduled at the same time as the movie talk, which was rather irritating as I would have liked to attend both.)

So why is the computer industry so male orientated? This was something I pondered as I returned to the house and sorted out making tea and organising the washing machine and dryer, pottering around doing various household tasks before finally managing to sit down and get the laptop out.

Is that part of the reason? That the boys who dabbled in computers grew up into men who dabbled with computers, while the girls who dabbled grew up to take care of the house and children and had no time left for playing? That the boys are eager to try things, and the girls much more likely to step back and watch them? The same thing that makes men more likely to figure things out for themselves and women more likely to ask for help? The same thing that makes men more likely to be competitive and women more likely to be co-operative?

Is this innate or is it culture-related? While men are those making games, they will make games that appeal to men, which means men are more likely to want to enter the industry and make more games. While women are content to step back and let the men get their way, how can they change things?

When I studied a foundation course with the open university, as part of the science module we learnt about how it was not until women joined the scientists that a whole new side of the way gorillas behaved was recognised. In the same way, it’s not until women really push themselves into the computer industry that the industry will grow properly and become more balanced.

The idea of introducing computing right from the start of the educational progress is a big step towards that, if done in the right way: if we can introduce it in a way that doesn’t alienate half the population. In the same way that we need to get over this “cool to be useless at maths” attitude, we need to get over the “I can do email and facebook, what more do I need” attitude about computers.

Getting back to the kit, I feel like I’m on a quest to find out how computers really do work. The programming side is straightforward, and I understand the theory/software side of things. What I don’t understand is how the hardware makes these things happen. That’s part of what my electronics experimentation is about, and I welcome this chance to take my knowledge back a stage further, but at some stage I still want to know how the software is acted on, how the processors themselves work.

In the meantime, it’s back to school next week…


An amazing summer

It’s nearly time to go back to school, so my time spent blogging/playing with computers is likely to drop rather, but I just wanted to look back on what turned out to be an amazing summer, completely different from the previous few.

It started with me realising that while many years ago I looked up to those older than me, and more recently that has crept to admiring the work of my own generation, suddenly I’m finding that those younger than me are doing wonderful things – somehow it feels like life has passed me by and moved on, and it’s the next generation now pushing things forward.

I’ve learnt about things like hackspaces, where people gather to share ideas and make things, and I’ve learnt about coderdojos, where people, including kids, come together to develop their programming skills.  I’ve learnt about hackdays, where people come together just to get some concentrated coding done and to learn and share.  I’ve learnt that if something doesn’t exist you don’t just complain, you go out and build it, and make it look good into the bargain, and the end product can matter less than the learning from the process.  I’ve learnt to solder, and started to learn basic electronics.  I’ve learned that people do indeed use HTML to create clean-coded web pages, and that reading other people’s code can be fun as well as a learning experience.  I’ve played around with several different programming tools, and learnt some of the advantages and disadvantages of them.  I’ve revisited a lot of my learning and discovered that I haven’t forgotten as much as I thought, and that I can do more than I always imagine.  I’ve improved my multimedia skills as well as programming skills, because communicating is just as important as programming when it comes to a complete project.

I’ve learnt that it’s an amazing, exciting world out there for someone who wants to learn, because there are so many ways to find things out – not just books, as there was in my youth, but websites with written content, images to look at and even demo videos to watch.  There are colleges and universities out there offering learning for free, and plenty of people to share the learning with.  Many people who are out there working on various projects are able to do it not because they studied officially for years, but because they went out and got the learning they needed, in whatever way they could.

Kicked into action by this, I started to do things for myself, instead of just sitting wishing, and so I’ve done a lot of coding, both on projects from books and on my own projects.  I’ve written games and apps, and developed my understanding of how and why games work, and how computers can control so many things around us and why it’s so important to know exactly what you want and to be able to explain it clearly.

I’m ending the summer a lot more confident about what I can do and what pitfalls to look out for, and with a conviction that the time is coming when more and more people are learning to make and do things for themselves, and that for those in that position there are many opportunities to succeed.

I just wish there were more opportunities locally to meet up with like-minded people, because however much fun it is to meet people in cyberspace, it’s got to be even more fun to get together in person, with the fun and games that can ensue from that.

More on robot surgeons

The idea of a robot operating is terrifying – until you read that the robot is less likely to have a shaky hand and are really making operations far more accurate and successful.  With a real live surgeon in control at all times, of course.

Rise of Robodoc: They can operate on everything from your heart to creaky knees – but would you put your life into the hands of a robot surgeon? | Mail Online.


Another step towards Star Trek’s Data?

Eerie to see.  Reminds me of my project to create a virtual pet.  Why do we see a difference between loving a real living animal and one that’s made out of electronics and programmed?  Will we always see that difference, or will we one day build real relationships with items built from technology?

Rise of the Machines: Meet Bina48, the robot who can tell jokes, recite poetry and mimics mankind with startling ease | Mail Online.

Surgical robots?

This seems like an idea out of science fiction – amazing to think it’s becoming fact.

The next generation of surgeons will be robots – and the bad news is they’re shaped like snakes and will crawl inside you | Mail Online.

The iPad generation

I’ve seen a lot of teachers arguing about the relative merits of ipads in the classroom.  The thing that concerns me most is managing a class set, with updates and saving work etc.

The iPad generation: Pupils as young as four taught lessons with a touchscreen | Mail Online.

3D printing

Another example of how the line between creators and users is blurring rapidly.

3D printing gets social: New Cubify printer allows you to create, upload and SELL your own inventions | Mail Online.