The Year of Code. What’s that all about then?

I’ve just come across this website by accident. It’s called “Spiral of Hope: My Programming Style“.

I do a bit of coding myself, usually in anger to fix something that’s gone wrong, so am always interested to find out how others do it. Particularly if they do it for fun! Because doing it is one thing, and having FUN doing it is something else.

I get a kind of fun hacking through the code undergrowth and shaking out the bugs. So much fun that sometimes I forget what I was doing in the first place. So I’m interested in finding out how other people deal with that. Do they tell themselves enough is enough, or do they carry on resolutely determined to go the whole way with it? No matter how much it costs and how long it takes? Here’s the page that first caught my eye:

Spiral of Hope Programming Style

Why do I assume that the author of this website must be a guy? I’ve found nothing so far that would confirm it one way or another. If I check out the Home and About pages maybe I will?

This is a personal web space run by my hand-crafted compiled website engine. It’s a proof-of-concept for a philosophy (see compiled website reasoning) as well as a working host for my reviews and writings. You can also learn more about me.

There’s nothing there to say whether it’s a girl or a guy, and clicking on the “about me” link won’t tell you either:

The very act of describing myself is an act of arrogance anyway. I’m using a pseudonym because a name not only doesn’t matter but it detracts and distracts from one’s work.

In short, I’m nobody. Stop wondering and get on with your life.

Well, I ask you! What kind of an attitude is that? What work does this guy (and I’m now pretty sure it is a guy) do that makes him so irrelevant, that makes who he is not matter? And what is this “hand-crafted compiled website engine” he’s talking about? Why would he want such a thing? Is it handcrafted purely to his own personal idiosyncrasies  or is it something I might want too?

Reading what he has to say about “My Programming Style” reveals this:

The real problem arises when I create magical code on one day and then on some other day I am completely unable to comprehend it.

Yep. We’ve all been there in one way or another. You do something one day and the next day you can’t remember how or why you did it. Give it a rest might be some people’s advice. Laugh it off, forget about it and move on. But this guy seems determined to crack the problem. To shake the bug out of the machine.

To achieve that he’s been:

  • Breaking my problems down into sometimes embarrassingly-small pieces
  • Each with its own test
  • Usually with somewhat redundant comments.
  • I’ve also thrown away regular alignment conventions.

Yep. That’ll do it. It will be interesting to see how it goes.

In contrast, a coder I know for definite is a guy, because I know his name and seen his pic, is Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, the “hand-crafted compiled website engine” running this blog,

Matt Mullenweg
WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg

This is what Matt thinks about code:

Code is Poetry

Well, that’s simple enough. Easy enough to understand. But as well as being an “online social media entrepreneur” and “web developer” he’s also a musician with a passion for jazz, so his perspective is going to be a bit different to the overage coder.

So what about us Brits then? What’s our programming style?

Well, the government thinks that teaching children how to code is so crucial to the future of the economy they’ve declared this year to be … drum roll please:

The Year of Code!

Yippee! They’ve started to take it seriously at last … and they’re actually going to do something about it. Not only that,but  they’re saying it’s one of THE MOST important things kids need to learn.

So who are they going to get to head up the teaching initiative then? To be the chief role model and mentor, to set the standards the kids and teachers can all aspire to.

Matt Mullenweg? Linus Torvalds? Richard StallmanSteve Wozniak? Mark Shuttleworth? Those guys are such enthusiasts they’d probably do it for expenses. If it was genuinely for the kiddies that is. Let’s face it. Nobody outside the craft of coding has ever heard of them. Don’t you think that might bother them just a little bit?

Bill Gates would be the obvious first choice , but he’s a lawyer rather than a coder, and he really does have much more important things to do with his time – which is true of all the other big American multi-billionaire coders – Mark Zuckerberg and the like.

So who are the most talented and well known coders living in the UK at the moment? Sir Tim Berners-Lee perhaps? What’s he doing with himself these days? Does he even live in the UK? He didn’t when he invented the World Wide Web, that’s for sure.

No other names spring to mind. Except … take a deep breath … hang on to your hat … are you ready for a really radical idea?

Well, if you’re going to inspire kids to want to learn something you’ve got to start off with things they can understand. If you don’t, you’ve lost them before you start. So ideally you need someone who was an enthusiast as a teenager, learned how to code in their bedroom and went on to achieve international celebrity from Washington to Shanghai.

OK. So who would that be then?

Well …  I did say take a deep breath. Are you ready? Julian Assange

WHAAAT? You want to let a rapist loose on the kiddies. OK, alleged rapist. What’s the difference? He may not have a criminal record but he’s still locked up.

Mmmm. Yeah. You’re right of course. So who can we find to head this thing up? I know. Any coder we can think of will come with their problems. Right? Their own prejudices and preconceptions. So what we need is a clean sheet. A fresh breath of air. Someone  who knows absolutely nothing about coding at all. Then they’ll be neutral. Then they will need to take advice on everything and won’t be running anything at all!

OK. But there is a downside. No such thing as a free lunch. What about all the coders? What about the art, craft, skill and talent of coding? The enthusiasm. The love. The passion. Where is that going to come from? What kind of coders will want to get involved in something led by someone who, up to now, has not had even a passing interest in what they do?

What kind of coders will gather behind that flag? The best or the worst of them? And what about the sheer waste of natural talent being ignored and resources being spent on training people who don’t have any natural interest in what they’re doing either? What will they learn? To just follow orders, just follow the curriculum and do what they’re told?

Absolutely. Yes. Perfect, don’t you think. It will be dispiriting, yes. It will be painful. It always is when you’re going against nature, planing against the grain. Splinters will fly. People will get hurt. Accidents will happen. Big chunks will fall off by accident rather than design. Excuses will be made. The victims will be blamed. More protective regulations will have to be introduced to stop people hurting themselves. It could easily kill interest in coding amongst young people for many generations to come. Perfect, don’t you think?

Let’s do it! Get on the phone to Michael Gove and tell him we’ve found the answer. And while you’re at it, give Newsnight a tinkle and set up a one-to-one with Jeremy and whoever we’ve found for the job by this time next week.

Er, OK. But this person we find to head up the Year of Code teaching initiative might not know anything about code, but they will know something about teaching, yes? I mean they have at least to be qualified as a teacher, so the teachers they teach can at least relate to them?

Nah. Why bother. If we’re going to kill coding we might as well kill teaching whilst we’re at it. Two birds with one stone so to speak.

So it was that Year Of Code Director Lottie Dexter, caused an internet storm when she revealed on Newsnight that she doesn’t know how to code.

Google that and you’ll discover lots of links to this car crash interview with Jeremy Paxman:

And you’ll discover that all the videos have been taken down after complaints of copyright infringement. Handy that, don’t you think?

That’s the Civil Service for you. That’s what we pay our top officials to do. To make it as difficult as possible to do what we’d been doing before they appeared on the scene.

For those that missed that car crash Newsnight interview, here are some highlights (with my own thoughts in brackets):

The most illuminating moment happens 6 minutes into the item when Jeremy Paxman says:

Isn’t this whole initiative though based on a falsehood?

(Wow Jeremy. That’s pulled everybody up in their tracks. You’re saying this official government initiative is based on a falsehood? You’re saying either that the government is too stupid to know the difference between truth or falsehood , right or wrong, or they’re deliberately promoting a falsehood? Which one is it? Is it done with intent? And what falsehood could it be, that the sainted Dr Jeremy of Oxford can see what the most learned experts in Whitehall, Westminster and Regent Street can’t?

The idea that it is essential to learn how to code

(Well, yes. That’s the reason why anyone would want to do it.)

It’s not essential to know how to code

(Wow. Hang on a sec here Jeremy. You’re not just treading on the toes of a government PR campaign, you’re trampling on the feelings of all those of us who make a living out of our understanding of how things work. From the mechanics who maintain your motorcar to the electrician crawling around in the gantries above your head.)

“It’s not essential to know how a light bulb works is it?”

(Not if you’re Jeremy Paxman it isn’t. That’s because you make a living talking about things, not doing anything yourself. And there’s really only one thing anybody lucky enough to find themselves in a similar position to Mr Paxman needs to know. What side their bread is buttered on. Which Oxbridge college did you go to? That’s really all that matters.)

Being a youngster, Ms Dexter’s attempt at a reply was well intentioned, but hopelessly inadequate nevertheless:

“I think that in the modern day economy, code is really a vital skill. I mean technology has completely changed our economy, our labour market our society and unless we …”

“But to know how to do it?” interrupts Paxman, lining Lottie up through circled fingers, setting her firmly in his sights.

“But  unless we understand technology we don’t really understand how the world works” pleads Lottie.

And she’s got a point. A point that gets quickly lost the more she tries to justify herself as Paxman moans on.

What might the electrician think, climbing around in the gantries in the heavens above Dr Jeremy’s head?  Checking wiring, changing light bulbs. Surviving day-to-day, feeding a family on his understanding of how light bulbs work. Dr Jeremy might not have to understand them. But if nobody did, then the esteemed Dr Jeremy would be sitting reading the news to himself every night in the dark.

How much can the learned Dr Jeremy afford to be contemptuous of things going on above his head which he can’t be bothered to understand? That’s the question.  Quite a lot it would seem, judging from the respect he gets from the establishment … and how little respect he shows them!

Those of us who remember Sir Robin Day in his heyday wonder if the learned Dr Jeremy  may yet match up. If the esteemed future Chancellor of some  Oxford College or other didn’t ask himself that question occasionally it would be surprising.

But, for the average coder, a more relevant question might be: How much would you want to be involved in a government programme aimed at shoving the things you love down the throats of those who have previously demonstrated little or no appetite for them? How much would you need to be paid to want to do something like that?


Those interested in what the Guardian has to say about The Year of Code might be interested in this:

Year of Code already needs a reboot, The Guardian

The conclusion is:

The project to educate teachers to exploit the new computing curriculum is too important to be drowned in squabbles. It needs all the help it can get from both grassroots organisations and the commercial world. The logical thing to do, therefore, is for the Year of Code initiative to be re-engineered…

Mmmm. Yes it would be the logical thing to do, but since when has logic ever had anything to do with the way the British establishment works?

There’s an interesting postscript there too. The writer of the Guardian piece, John Naughton, one-time TV critic for the Observer and currently a regular Guardian columnist and Professor of some Cambridge college or other, got so much flack for it from what could loosely be called the “coding community” that he felt obliged to toughen his stance considerably in a later blog:

Why the obsession with “coding” misses the point

The first thing to be gleaned from reading the Guardian is that The Year of Code isn’t a government initiative at all. It’s a private consortium that has pulled off a PR coup, whilst the new Newsnight big cheese, put in place after the Jimmy Savile scandal, is still “wet behind the ears.”

That made me go back through the Newsnight piece. Why did I just assume it was a government initiative. Why didn’t I notice when the BBC told me it wasn’t? Well maybe it had a lot to do with the way Jeremy Paxman introduced the item:

There is now to be a serious effort to encourage teachers to pass on coding skills….

“Serious effort” suggests official backing.  “Serious commercial effort” would have been different, but he didn’t say that. So there’s a heavy suggestion of official backing and very little effort to make a distinction. But Zoe Conway’s commentary in the video “setup” package hits it right on the nose:

The government has announced, through this ad, that 2014 is the Year of Code.

So that’s official then. But what ad exactly are they talking about. Freeze the video there. Not the ads on the notice board surely? No, they must mean the video segment they’re showing now, which must be from the ad. Which cuts to the Rt Hon George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, which is about as much of what you’d call government backing you get. And next up is what looks at first sight like Sir Tim Berners-Lee but is actually someone called Mike Warriner, UK Engineering Director of Google, which is almost as impressive.

And 3:30 in Zoe Conway tells us:

it’s a pilot for the lessons the government is introducing in England ad Wales from September

So it is a government initiative after all. Which turns the question upside down. Why did the Guardian think it wasn’t?

Today’s schoolchildren will inherit a world that is largely controlled by computers and software. The choice that faces them is “Program or Be Programmed”

says John Naughton on his blog. Yep. That neatly sums it up. Program or Be Programmed. So which one of those might the establishment prefer? You don’t need to be a programmer to figure that one out.

If we don’t educate them about this stuff, then they will wind up as passive users of powerful black boxes that are designed and controlled by small elites, most of them located abroad.

Er, yeah John. So don’t you think that might actually be the point? You are assuming the label on the tin is accurate, when what’s actually inside might be something entirely different, aiming to destroy what it claims it will protect.

We don’t want them to grow up as technologically clueless as the parliamentarians who are supposed to oversee GCHQ; or indeed as Paxman

Why not? They get paid handsomely for only “overseeing” GCHQ, not for having to work overnight shifts there. You can do that kind of job from the golf course. You can phone it in. Nice work if you can get it. And you get it by what exactly? By boasting about not knowing how to change a light bulb. But why would anyone want to do that? To effect an air of Gentlemanly Capitalism, perhaps? To distinguish oneself from “trade”, which is only allowed to creep in through the back door? Nah. Couldn’t be that. We’re all classless in Britain now aren’t we?

The other aspect of this is that, while learning to program is desirable, it’s not the most important part — which is about having a good critical understanding of the technology. And much though I love Raspberry Pi, teachers can achieve a lot of what I would like to achieve without ever touching a piece of hardware — as the wonderful Computer Science Unplugged project in New Zealand demonstrates.

Amen to that John. Thanks for coming out in support of honest programmers and coders in the end. Computer Science Unplugged would be a much better way to do it. But you’d have to understand programming to understand that. And if the lady at the top doesn’t then what chance anyone else ever will?

Just follow the numbers as Jack Gittes always used to say.

Half a million pounds is to been pledged by the government to train up more than 170,000 primary and secondary teachers in coding over the next six months.

Half a million pounds is 500,000 pounds, the value of one half-decent house in London these days. Divided between 170,000 teachers that works out at almost exactly £3 per teacher.

Wow.!That’s significant don’t you think?  £3 per teacher for six months of training. And who should get the money, the trainers or the trainees? Or should they divide it equitably between themselves? Answers on a postcard below please.

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