Arduino (H)appiness!

So Santa brought me an Arduino UNO – a perfect toy for a programmer-electronic gadget-wiz wanna-be. All the fun in one tiny package!

My kit came with various configurations and all the necessary parts needed to make things happen, such as dimming an LED bulb or connected a photo sensor to control the dimmer. In the video clip below, my Arduino was reading and reporting temperatures in real time.

Sure I followed the diagram laid out in the little booklet that came with the kit; sure all the parts have been supplied and calculations done for me ahead of time. It was extremely gratifying nonetheless – like when I first knitted a hat, or sewed a pouch, or swapped out a computer hard drive for a bigger one.

Arduino – It does things!

Wish every school kid could have one.

Having fun with my #arduino – it's reading and reporting temperatures!

A video posted by Yumei Leventhal (@ymidtownl) on


Video: Dr. Chuck’s Interview with Douglas Crockford, developer and popularizer of JSON

The last of the enrichment videos from “Programming for Everyone” (“PR4E”): Dr. Chuck Severance interviews Douglas Crockford on his involvement in developing JavaScript Object Notation (JSON).

“PR4E” has introduced me to quite a few of these interview videos. All of the people interviewed were instrumental in the development of the Internet. Their work not only shaped the Internet, but shaped how users eventually would interact with the Internet. I am always shocked each time by how important these people are to my relationship with the Internet – and with computer technology in general. Yet their names are not household names, and uniformly they are humble people with no ego and no interest in self-aggrandizing.

Douglas Crockford emphatically and repeatedly stated that he was not the inventor of JSON: “… I don’t claim to have invented (JSON) …. (and) don’t claim to have discovered it.” Crockford simply saw its potential, had a vision, worked on it, made it into a standard, and remained actively involved in its development – sound close to an inventor in my mind.

Like the others in Dr. Chuck’s interviews, Crockford seems to be solidly grounded in reality, with a clear understanding of the bigger historical picture as well as his own “small” role in that big picture. “Amazing” is the word that keeps popping up in my mind as I watch this and the other videos.

All of those interviewed by Dr. Chuck must have a lot of accomplishments to their names, but the most distinct trait they share – and this likely reflects Dr. Chuck Severance’s own perspective and affected his choice of people for his interviews – is how each of them transformed what is highly technical into something that ordinary people can access. Empowering the ordinary person to participate and contribute seems to be the refrain. Crockford tried to “simplify (Javascript) as much as possible.”

JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) took a while to gain wide acceptance, partly because it was perceived to lack certain “credentials” – it was not a standard. Crockford, the entrepreneur, took action: “I bought and declared it a standard! That’s it!”

Sounds simple, today.


Video interview of Brendan Eich, Inventor of JavaScript

Yet another excellent video introduced to me by my Coursera class, “Programming for Everyone.” This time, Dr. Chuck Severance interviews Brendan Eich, the inventor of JavaScript. I love these videos for their rich insights, for the unique historical perspectives, and for reminding me of the amazing humans behind the technical innovations.

For all the stereotypical view of the dichotomy between the Machine and Man, between science/engineering and the humanities, the inventors of many of the building blocks of the Internet today struck me as incredibly altruistic and humanistic in their intent. They may not be household names or billionaires like Bill Gates, but their work made the personal computer and the Internet accessible – learn-able – to even grandmas and grandpas and people with a rudimentary education in remote areas and underdeveloped countries.

Like many others from the 1980s and 1990s, Eich acted as a conduit between the highly technical field of computer science and people with limited (or no) training in computer science. Eich wanted to pare down the complicated process of programming an interactive website into something most people could learn and master: “People didn’t need to know how to use a compiler to do programming,” he declared. So he created JavaScript for “a bigger cohort of programmers that were amateurs.”

Today, we pay homage to the revolution of the personal computer, to Microsoft and Apple, and yet, it was people such as Eich who built the bridge for the average person to cross over and tap into the power of the personal computer.

Most impressive is the underlying faith in the untapped creative power of collaborative work, something shared by Eich and his contemporaries. Eich wanted to create a “malleable program, … a multi-paradigm language” that allowed others to modify and improve, and ultimately,  “foster user innovation.”


Video: Rasmus Lerdorf, Inventor of PHP

Another excellent video from the Coursera class: Dr. Chuck Severance interviewed the inventor of PHP, Rasmus Lerdorf.

To be honest, I am not exactly clear what PHP does, except that it is a programming language, one of the languages one can learn on Codecademy in fact. But Rasmus Lerdorf makes a compelling case for the collaborative, open source model of the early days of the Web. Rasmus Lerdorf talks about PHP’s “humble” beginning as a program he wrote to simply make his work easier, and how it grew when he shared the code with others who subsequently corrected (“debugged”) errors in the code and continuously improved upon it. Rasmus Lerdorf attributed PHP’s success to 1. PHP being open source; 2. the collective and collaborative work of a large number of programmers. He marveled at the ability of people to self organize and create good things together. Rasmus Lerdorf specifically makes the point that letting go of control was key to PHP’s success.


The “Five Minute University”: Parody or Prophecy?

This short video (25 years old!), in which “Father Guido Sarducci” pitches ideas for his “Five Minute University,” may first come across as pure comedy. But, for people interested in higher education innovation, it offers a timely and poignant critique which is strangely resonant with the development of MOOCs. As MOOCs gradually establish their presence on the global education landscape, Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University remains both an apt parody and a clarion warning.


A Youtube Video: “Writing a Python Program – Simple Workflow”

Just watched a cool YouTube video: “Writing a Python Program – Simple Workflow” by Richard White. Richard White shows, on screen, how he constructs a simple program: How he starts, how he adds components, and how he does the debugging — i.e. checking for errors in the code. This is really cool!

Why is this worth mentioning? Watching someone write a program is like listening to a brief encounter (“hello,” “hello”) between two native speakers of the foreign language you are trying to learn. Will you be fluent just by catching these incidental dialogues? Maybe not, but the experience certainly makes the language real, and you pick up the subtle shifts in intonation and some other non-verbal elements that are a part of the native speakers’ conversation. And if you watch enough of these exchanges, you will become more fluent – which is why foreign language learners need to visit and live among the native speakers of that language. Watching someone write computer code is an aspiring programmer’s 24-hour study abroad trip.

In any case, this video was suggested by a TA for my Coursera class – in response to inquiries about some basic steps of writing code in Python. So the demand is obviously there.


Video Interview with Gordon Bell

Watched Dr. Chuck Severance’s video interview with Gordon Bell, “Computing Conversations: Gordon Bell on the Building Blocks of Computing” for my “Programming for Everyone” class. This is one of the things I love about this class: A regular infusion of the historical perspective on computing – to see the faces and hear the voices of the pioneers whose work was directly responsible for the Internet Revolution that has permeated every aspect of our lives.