Code Club

Friday 29th July 2016

I read about Code Club when it first started in 2012, and we've just finished our first term of teaching it at Lostwithiel School.

The idea is to encourage 9-11 year olds to start programming in after-school clubs, we had about a dozen kids coming along to our club and they all made fantastic progress!

 

Across the country

Code Club is entirely run by volunteers, across the UK there are almost 4,000 clubs with almost 50,000 children! That's about a fifth of the total number of primary schools on the country, which isn't bad for the first four years.

Code Club itself is run the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the same organisation that makes the tiny cheap computer which is the UK's best selling PC of all time.

 

CS First

We've been following Google's brilliant CS First programme, and for the first term we chose their Storytelling topic to teach the kids in our club to code using Scratch, a free visual language created by MIT that runs entirely in the browser so there's no need to install anything on the school laptops.

The Storytelling topic is great because its main focus is using the tools to tell interesting stories, rather than just teach while loops in a dry manner. It's brilliant, and I bet the kids didn't even realise they're learning anything!

 

Looking back

I've always had a computer, we got a Sinclair ZX80 in 1980, and my parents ran a small business hiring out ZX Spectrums and Dragon 32s in the early 1980s.

I spent a reasonable amount of my childhood typing in lines of Basic code from computer magazines.

10 DIM s(60): DIM c(60)
20 BORDER 0: PAPER 0: BRIGHT 1: INK 7: CLS 
50 GO SUB 370
60 LET z$="00"
70 CLS 

I kind of understood it, but not enough that I could write my own games.

Later on I wrote a couple of text adventures games on my Commodore Amiga and played about with the Amiga's Shoot Em Up Construction Kit, but never really seriously. I didn't learn any real structured programming until I started building websites in 1997.

 

Looking forward

When we're running Code Club I always think about how my life might be different if this had existed when I was young.

Everything I've learned about programming has been self taught, trial and error, or learning by reading other people's code.

The basics of coding aren't complicated, and I think they're well within the grasp of most 9-11 year olds. If someone had taught me code when I was nine I would be a much better programmer now!

Look what we've done with the current generation of programmers, a lot of whom are self-taught like me. Imagine what the next generation of programmers are going to be capable of building!

But something's been bothering me about this ever since we started Code Club, which was very clearly articulated by a Wired article back in May.

Machine Learning like Google's Go-playing AI or their self-driving cars aren't following computer programmes in the way that we're teaching kids to code, and it's only a matter of time before even the humans that created these tools aren't capable of understanding how they behave at their core.

How useful is it to be teaching this way of coding which might be going obsolete by the time they finish school?

 

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WTF is Pokemon Go?

Friday 22nd July 2016

In the three weeks since release, Pokémon Go has acquired more users than Twitter, and it's made owner Nintendo's stock price jump through the roof. But WTF is it and why should you care? I've been playing it for hours so you don't have to.

 

What's it all about?

The point of the game is to collect little cartoon creatures, grow them and battle them against other people's creatures. If like me you've never been exposed to the Pokémon (short for 'Pocket Monsters') universe before then there's quite a lot to take in, but let's concentrate on the basics. 

The game is only for smartphones and needs to have an internet connection and GPS active at all times. You wander around the real world and the game shows your actual location in a simplified map with your character in the middle, like this:

 

Where do they appear?

The game drops Pokémon randomly at locations around the planet and your first task is to collect them. There are more of them dropped into busier parts of the world. In Lostwithiel you can expect to find one every 4-5 minutes wandering around the town, but out on a friend's farm in the middle of nowhere we didn't find any in twenty minutes. 

Once you've found a Pokémon it's drawn on top of your camera's view - this is augmented reality. You have to throw balls at the Pokémon to catch it, and when you do it becomes part of your little zoo. As you can see in the image below right, dogs are able to see Pokémon in real life.

 

Why are there loads of kids outside my house all night?

There are two locations dotted around the real world: Pokéstops and Gyms. Pokéstops are refuelling stations that give you more items like balls to catch Pokémon with, and Gyms allow you to battle with other people's Pokémon and take control of areas.

Pokéstops are usually local areas of interest, for example in Lostwithiel the Duchy Palace is a Pokéstop as as well as the Earl of Chatham pub.

Gyms are also local areas of interest, but for some reason these seem to be mostly churches. This is so widespread that the Church of England has issued official guidance on how to deal with the influx of young people.

A number of people who live near these locations are justifiably upset. A friend who lives near one of the Pokéstops in Lostwithiel said:

 "My sleep is being blighted by a relentless horde of gamers into the night. They are arriving by foot, car and motorbike.

I am interested (*murderous) at how a huge corporation can implement a game with seemingly little consideration of its social impact."

 

I really don't care

You should, for three reasons. Firstly, this is the future of gaming. Pokémon Go is rather repetitive, extremely buggy and pretty basic, but it's the beginning of a completely new kind of game, and there are going to be hundreds more like this very soon. Hopefully some of them will be better. 

The second reason is much more important: if you don't understand at least the basics then you're taking the first step to becoming your grandparents. 

 

We didn't have games like this in my day

Exactly.

Watch someone twenty years older than you trying to use the internet, can be really frustrating. They will likely have significantly worse hand/eye co-ordination than you, because they have been gradually slipping away from current technology. 

This is the same thing.

Augmented reality has arrived, and its first real use is a silly game played by kids. But in ten years time it's going to be everywhere, and if you don't understand it then people are going to tut you at the supermarket while you desperately try to scan a coupon that's hovering above the Coco Pops shelf.

You really need to learn how to walk around concentrating on your phone without being run over because you're either going to get squashed or become increasingly frustrated and angry at technology. 

 

I'm already frustrated with technology!

Then you really need to start learning how it works, because it's getting exponentially more complex. Futurist Ray Kurzweil stated in 2001 that we made as much technological progress between 2000 and 2010 as the whole of the 20th century, and we'll make the equivalent of 20,000 years' worth of progress in the 21st century. 

If you don't keep up now you're going to look like a caveman by the time you're sixty. 

 

You said there were three reasons

Well spotted. The third is my favourite: it's a secret conspiracy by Nintendo to make young people do more exercise. Apart from having to physically walk around your town/city to collect items and visit Gyms, players also receive Pokémon eggs that eventually hatch into new Pokémon.

Each egg has a kilometre value attached to it, e.g. a 2km egg or a 10km egg. Longer distances give you more powerful Pokémon, and you have to walk that distance before the egg hatches.

In my first five days I walked 38 miles to get my eggs to hatch. This is taking the gamification of exercise to a whole new level.

 

So should I play it?

If you like, to be honest I'm pretty bored of it after a week. It's really frustrating to play because the game crashes at least once every ten minutes. It's very repetitive: walk around, catch some Pokémon, level up, battle, repeat. 

I think the hype is going to die down soon and hopefully a better AR game will be along shortly.

 

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Valencia

Friday 15th July 2016

We've just come back from a week's visit to Valencia, looking for a place to live for a few years. We've identified five areas that we like, and need your help to decide where to live! Each area has plus and minus points, both from a housing point of view, location and how well it would suit the dog.

This last one is an important consideration for us, and has occupied at least 50% of the time we've spent thinking about where to live.

 

Benimaclet

Benimaclet used to be a separate town that was swallowed by the city many years ago, but still has its own identity. A lot of signs here are in Valencian, the local language which has a lot of similarities to Catalan (although the locals would snarl at you if you say that) and it has a nice community feel, even its own website!

It's home to a lot of students who attend the university a short walk to the east. It's well connected by metro and bus, but parking might be a bit of an issue if we decided to buy a car. It's a twenty minute walk into the city from here, so we wouldn't necessarily need one.

The kind of place we'd like to rent here is a 4 bedroom house for €950 a month like this rather beautiful example. There are some nice quiet streets near to the town square and church.

From Stanley's point of view this is okay - he'd get a small yard or garden to lounge in, most of his walks would be in the city but it's not too far to the Turia Gardens for a long off-lead walk.

 

Alboraya

Slightly further out from the city than Benimaclet, Alboraya feels much more like a town in its own right with a population of about 25,000. It's separated from the city by a large swathe of low-intensity farm land, criss-crossed by running and bicycle paths.

We visited during one of the town's many fiestas, where they carried a shrine of the Virgin Mary through the town in what seemed to be a mock funeral, complete with a dozen mourning ladies in black.

We would get more for our money out here with a 3 bedroom house with a small garden going for €800 to €1000 a month (like this example), but we'd probably need a car to get about. There are two metro stations serving the town, but most evenings the metro stops by 11pm so if we went into the city for the evening we'd need to drive home. It's probably an hour's walk into the city from here, or a fifteen minute bike ride. It's still in the central metro zone.

Stanley would be pretty happy here: he'd have a nice garden, some larger paved areas for walks and a big chunk of farmland to walk around off-lead. The only thing really lacking is water for him to splash about in.

 

El Cabañal

Flanked on the east side by the beach and busy port, this part of the city is fascinating but not without its problems. In the 1990s the city government started a plan to extend one of the largest avenues down to the coast, through the middle of this neighbourhood. The residents naturally fought back, and the struggle continues to this day. What it means practically is that a lot of the housing in this area is rather run down, because landlords don't want to spend money renovating houses that may be demolished. Consequently there are a lot of poorer families living here, but also a lot of hipster types who take advantage of the cheap rentals on offer. There's a metro station or a walk of 20 minutes into the city.

We could get a lot for our money here too, with a 3 bedroom house in one of the nicer streets going for €850 per month (like this example). We wouldn't need a car day-to-day, but there's loads of parking on the streets so it might be worthwhile.

This isn't ideal from Stanley's point of view: there's quite of bit of rubbish in the street and some broken glass here and there. Most of his walks would be in the streets, or up and down the boardwalk at the beach - dogs aren't allowed on this beach.

 

Godella

Located twenty minutes out on the metro, Godella is definitely its own town. If we lived here we'd spend most of the time in the town, and only visit Valencia city from time to time. It's in zone B of the metro which makes it a little more expensive to get into the city. It's the most upmarket of the areas we like with some stunningly beautiful houses and villas which cost a little more - say €900 a month for a four bedroom house and garden with a swimming pool, like this example.

We'd definitely need a car to get around. It also has the novelty of not being completely flat, although these aren't hills by Cornish standards. There are a higher number of expats out here, and I don't think we'd have problems making friends but we'd definitely feel like we were out of the city.

Stanley would be pretty happy here: he'd have a good sized garden and some parks to play in close by. Still not a lot of water though.

 

 

Turia Park

The odd one out among our choices, this isn't one neighbourhood but a long sweeping arc, following a park through the centre of the city.

The Turia river used to flow through the middle of the city, and was famous for flooding. After a particularly bad flood in the 1950s the city government diverted the river to the south and turned the riverbed into one of the most beautiful parks I've ever visited. In fact its one of our main reasons for moving to Valencia.

Renting a house in this part of the city is out of the question; there aren't any. Our preferred option would be to rent a top-floor apartment with a roof terrace, which are a bit more expensive than houses we've looked at in other areas, typically going for €900 per month for a 4-bedroom apartment, like this example. We wouldn't need a car day-to-day because we're right in the middle of the city, so we'd have to rent one if we wanted to travel.

I don't know what Stanley would make of this: the roof garden might freak him out a bit, but he'd absolutely love the Turia Park. It's the only one of the options that allows him to mess about in water regularly, which is very important to him.

 

Summary

Here's a table summarising all of this:

Area Location Housing quality Housing cost
(more stars = cheaper)
Stanley's opinion
Benimaclet
Alboraya
El Cabañal
Godella
Turia

 

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What's going to kill me

Friday 8th July 2016

Bit of a light-hearted one this week! I'm a fit white non-smoking British male aged 40, what am I likely to die of over the next decade? Let's start with the basics and work inwards. 

 

Top causes of death 2013

The incredibly helpful Office For National Statistics publish an annual report on causes of death. The latest dataset I could find is for 2013, but I can't imagine that it makes that much difference. Here are the leading causes of death for males across all ages.

Check out the interactive graphic on their site if you're feeling morbid and want to investigate the data for your age/gender.

But looking at the data for all ages is pretty misleading, what if we look at just my age range, 35-49:

 

According to the last census, there are 13,463,000 British men in the 35-49 age range. Of those there were 6,861 deaths in this dataset (year 2013) which means that if I was a perfectly average member of society I'd have a 0.05% chance of dying this year. Looking good so far. 

 

#1 - Suicide (20.1%)

One in five of the men in the UK in my age range who die are taking their own lives. I can't decide if that's really serious, or just because there aren't many other things that men my age die from.

Kat and I took part in the incredible Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) programme a few years ago when we built their website, so I know that not all of these suicides are intentional.

The programme taught us that a large number of people who kill themselves don't mean to do it, and we spent a long time during the programme talking about people being 'at risk of suiciding' when they're unhappy or mentally ill.

The course is free and well worth going on if you have an ASIST trainer near you. 

Suicide is the #2 killer of males in the 5-19 age range, and #1 from 20 all the way up to 49. It drops to #7 for the 50-64 age range and disappears from the top ten from age 65 onwards. I couldn't find out if this is because men stop committing suicide after the age of 49 or it's just that other things start killing them more so that suicide isn't as prominent in the results.

Okay, so that's number one, but to be honest I don't feel that it's a big risk factor for me personally. Like most people I've considered suicide at one time or another, but never seriously. 

 

#2 - Heart disease (17.7%)

I wasn't entirely sure what this category included, so I read up and found that it covers heart attack, stroke, angina, aneurisms and many more. The good news is that 90% of these diseases are preventable and due to high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, lack of exercise, obesity, high blood cholesterol, poor diet, and excessive alcohol consumption.

So as long as I avoid these things I should be fine. My diet's not great, but I'm working on that.

 

#3 - Liver disease (15.4%)

Still enjoying this? Liver disease is another large category that includes infectious hepatitis, parasite infections, alcoholic liver disease, a bunch of genetic diseases and I think they're including liver cancer but I can't be sure.

I've managed to avoid any blood-borne viruses and parasites so far, I don't really drink and I had my DNA sequenced last year so I'm certain I don't have any of those genetic diseases, so this isn't a likely cause of death for me. 

 

#4 - Accidental poisoning (11.7%)

Ooh, this looks more promising. This category includes poisoning by household and industrial chemicals as well as deaths from alcohol and drug overdose. I couldn't find data specifically about my age range, but 67% of these deaths are illegal drug overdoses and 80% of those are opiates (including heroin), cocaine or benzodiazepines, none of which I'm into. The remaining third seems to be mainly alcohol, paracetamol and antidepressants.

I take paracetamol from time to time, but I know what a truly horrible way that is to die so I'm unlikely to accidentally poison myself with it. This doesn't look like a very likely candidate for my death after all. 

 

#5 - Cerebrovascular diseases (5%)

We're getting into unlikely figures now with just 341 deaths in 2013 in my age range across 13.5m men. This category covers blood either clotting in the brain or leaking into it, like transient ischemic attack, ischemic stroke and subarachnoid haemorrhage - try saying that after a few whiskies. Risk factors include hypertension, smoking, obesity and diabetes, so I'm quietly confident.

 

#6 - Lung cancer (4.5%)

I don't see this happening to me. 85% of all lung cancers are related to smoking (no matter what Nigel Farage says) and the remainder are split between genetic factors, asbestos, air pollution ... and radon.

Living in Cornwall we're at much higher risk of radon-related cancers as the map above shows, and we actually had radon detectors in our house for six months as part of an Environment Agency study. They said that we're just on the borderline of having to do something to mitigate the risk.

So that's a possibility, but it's pretty low risk, about 3% of total lung cancers - 1,100 people a year in the UK die from radon-related lung cancer. I couldn't find any data splitting that down by age and gender, but I assume that it's older people because the effects will be cumulative. For a reason I don't understand, you're at higher risk of developing cancer from radon if you smoke

 

#7 - Transport accidents (land) (3.8%)

About 1,700 people a year die in road accidents in the UK, down from over 3,500 at the beginning of the century. This category is the #1 cause of death for 5-19 year old males and #3 in the 20-34 age range, so it's already in steep decline as a cause of death for me generally.  

I think I'm also at a lower risk than most males because I work from home so there's no travel to work.

I occasionally take part in track days where you get to drive your car on a race track, and you might think this would up my risk, but organised motor sport events have very low fatality rates - lower than driving on the roads. For a start everyone is going in the same direction, the drivers are all awake, no-one is hungover and everyone is concentrating on what they're doing - rather than texting!

I don't think this is the one. 

 

#8 - Bowel cancer (3.5%)

This includes any cancer of the large intestine or rectum, and appears in the top ten causes of death for the first time at this age range. It's #4 in 50-64, #6 in the 65-79 and #8 in the 80+ age range. I've been unable to find out why it peaks in 50-64 old males. It's mainly caused by diet, obesity, smoking, and lack of physical activity.

The only one that worries me there is diet; looking further into the risk factors though, red meat and alcohol are the main culprits here so maybe that's not so bad after all. 

 

#9 - Lymphoid cancer (3.3%)

This category includes an cancers of the lymphatic system. Risk factors include infection with Epstein–Barr virus, family history, HIV/AIDS, immunosuppressant medications, some pesticides, and possibly large amounts of red meat. I think I'm okay here. 

 

#10 - Brain cancer (3.2%)

Finally we have brain tumours. The risk factors are largely unknown, but include our friend Epstein-Barr virus again, some industrial chemicals and ionizing radiation. Maybe our trip to Chernobyl will come with a high price?

 

Summary

I know this is all a bit bleak for a Friday morning, but I feel I've got a much better handle on what might kill me. I assumed that accidents with power tools or playing too much squash were my biggest risk factors, but it turns out to be suicide and heart disease.

What are yours and how do you feel about it? Click to open the graphing tool, select your gender in the top right and then your age range at the bottom.

 

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Five percent

Friday 1st July 2016

Back in May I made a silly bet with a friend that I could lose 5% of my body fat more quickly than he could. I learned a lot about nutrition and completely changed my relationship to food along the way! My diet has always been pretty poor and if I'm going to live to be a hundred I need to sort it out. 

We don't have any lawyers at Lost In Thought, but if we did I'm sure they'd say that I'm not a doctor, this isn't dietary advice and you shouldn't follow a diet from some random blog that you found on the web. 

 

 

Measuring time

I bought some body fat calculation scales which use electrical impedance along with your weight to calculate your percentage of body fat.

I started off weighing 68.4kg with 18.4% fat according to the scales. This means I'm carrying 12.6kg of fat around. Ew! This is a mixture of subcutaneous fat, under my skin, and visceral fat which surrounds my organs and is considered the bad fat.

An average range for a 40-year old adult male is 18% - 24% body fat. If I somehow manage to lose 5% I'll be in the fitness body fat category according to Wikipedia. I can do fitness.

This makes me smile because Alfie, who I'm competing with, is starting at 15.9% so he'll be in the athlete range at 10.9%. Not sure I could do athlete, but good luck to him.

However my calculations tell me that if I'm going to lose 5% fat I have to shed 7.5kg of fat and I'll weigh 60.9kg. I've never been that light in my life and I'm going to look skeletal.

The other way would be to increase the percentage of non-fat, either by gaining muscle or by drinking lots of water to increase my total weight. Another quick calculation tells me I could drink 27 litres of water to achieve this. According to this article six litres of water will kill a 75kg adult human, so that's probably out. I told you I'm not a doctor, right?

I'm going to have to work out a lot and keep an eye on my muscle mass (which the scales also tell me) and try to put on muscle as I lose fat. If I start losing muscle as well then it's going to take even longer.

 

Day 1

Today is pretty hard. The scales tell me that my resting metabolism is 1550 kcal per day, so I set that as my food goal in MyFitnessPal. I quickly realise that my diet has always been very heavy in carbohydrates and fat, very low in protein. This is bad, I need to be eating lots of protein to build muscle in between workouts.

So I start learning about nutrition for the first time in my life. I've only ever used MyFitnessPal to count calories before, but now I start keeping an eye on the ratio of carbohydrates to fat to protein.

 

Day 4

Hmm, I'm 0.9% fatter than I was when I started but 0.4kg lighter, so all I've done is lose muscle (or become dehydrated). The reading on the scales jumped about a lot during the first four days so I'm going to say that 19.5% is my new starting body fat and I'm aiming for 14.5%. Or am I cheating already on day four?

 

Day 5

I've been reading up on the best ways to lose fat and the consensus is that I need a low carbohydrate diet. This encourages your body start burning fat, but the constant low blood sugar is making me feel dizzy. I'm trying to eat 50% carbohydrates, 30% fat and 20% protein.

Here are the MyFitnessPal charts of my carbs (blue), fat (red) and protein (green) ratios for three days at this point, as you can see it's hard to stick to the ratios!

 

Day 10

Back to my original fat levels and lost 1.3kg. The dizziness has gone now. I've changed to 40% carb, 30% fat and 30% protein. This is a huge amount of protein: at least a chicken breast, a steak or a fish every day, which is unusual for me. My coffee intake seems to have gone up dramatically, not sure if this is related.

 

Day 15

Okay, we're starting to get somewhere. I've lost 0.7% fat and only 0.1% muscle so it looks like I've got the balance right at 35% carbs, 35% fat and 30% protein. My normal meals of pasta with some kind of sauce have been replaced by a grilled chicken breast, half a head of steamed broccoli and a small portion of quinoa. 

 

Day 20

After a weekend of serious walking I wonder if I might actually achieve this goal. I've now lost 1.8% fat and put on 0.8% muscle. The scales tell me that my visceral fat has gone down too, which is an unintended health benefit. I've eaten more fillet steak in the last month than the preceding 40 years. I'm really hungry a lot of the time though, which isn't a good sign. 

 

Day 25

Starting to get a bit bored of this now. One thing I've learned is that how much I need to eat during a day is very different to how empty my stomach feels. In the past I'd always eat when my stomach rumbled, but I realise now that I don't need to.

Eating loads of salad and loving it! Here are some more MyFitnessPal ratios:

 

Day 30 

I think I can keep this up for about another week at the most. I'm losing about 0.1% body fat a day on average, so I might make it to 14.5%. I'm down to 64.3kg, the lightest I've ever been as an adult. I've discovered that the best time to take my measurements is when I'm fully hydrated, so I've taken to drinking a pint of water mid-morning, waiting for my body to pee out what I don't need and then get on the scales. 

 

Day 35

This morning I step on the scales and I weigh 63.8kg. I glance at the mirror and I look too thin. I've been feeling a bit weird, light-headed and a little angry. I've lost a lot of weight and not much fat for the last five days, so I think I'm about ready to give up. It's been a really interesting experience, not one I'd like to repeat but I've learned a huge amount about nutrition. 

There's an increasing body of evidence to suggest that we shouldn't be counting calories but eating a high fat, lower carb diet. There's an interesting article here. To quote from it:

The EPIC study revealed that one can [of cola] a day (approximately 150 calories) was associated with substantially increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Conversely, PREDIMED revealed that consumption of a handful of nuts, (30 g of walnuts, 15 g of almonds and 15 g of hazelnuts) or four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil per day (approximately 500 calories) significantly reduced the risk of heart attack and stroke. 

 

Day 39

Done it, woohoo! I've been away for three days at a dance music festival, not eating or sleeping much. I hopped on the scales when I got home and I'm down to 14.5% fat! I feel pretty good to be honest, like I've got a younger body, a lot more energy and feel more alive (despite the festival). 

Here are the final graphs:

That was hard work

This has easily been the hardest thing I've done for Lost In Thought, but also one of the most rewarding. I've stopped logging my calories for now because I don't want to lose any more weight, but I'm still going to eat sensibly with more fat and protein and fewer carbs. I didn't think my 5% fat loss was going to be achievable without some serious weight lifting, and I'm really thrilled that I achieved my goal! I'm going back to weighing myself once a week instead of every day, as all the health professionals recommend. 

This is lunch today to celebrate. I know what it looks like, but this is actually what I wanted to eat for lunch. Kat's smirking reading this, because she can't believe I would ever choose to eat it. But in all honesty I've completely changed how I feel about food and drink in just over a month. 

 

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