Monday, November 24, 2014

Go Candy Robot!

Today I visited the Koodikerho (Code Club) at a local school in Espoo, Finland, hosted by Marko Klemetti from Eficode. Marko has been doing these code clubs for some time already and it shows! He has a really nice relationship and a laid-back attitude with the 3rd to 6th graders attending the club.

There were two 45 minute sessions, one for the 3rd / 4th graders and one for the 5th / 6th graders. For the younger ones we did a Candy Robot exercise, where the kids write down instructions for the Candy Robot that has to pick and sort candies from a bag into 4 cups. If it succeeds to place 2 candies in each cup, the kids get the candy. The challenge is that the robot only understands a very limited number of commands and takes everything literally.

The Candy Robot exercise worked extremely well. It took 2-5 iteration for each team of kids to get to the correct solution so that they can eat candy and play with iPads. It was fun and taught the basics of programming quite well.

With the 5th / 6th graders we started the Codecademy Javascript program on which I have mixed feelings. On the other hand, it teaches a language that's really relevant today; it's the language of the Web. However, the Javascript program on Codecademy is in English only and has quite verbose text sections that are tough especially for the 5th graders. Also, I think it's a bit boring. Nevertheless, the kids did surprisingly fine. It was really tough, but they mostly kept focused and asked a lot of good questions. I hope this builds their skills faster than it kills the joy in programming :) Soon enough, they should be able to build their own programs in Javascript.

Later today, I tried the Candy Robot exercise with my 5-year-old at home. Not surprisingly it was a lot tougher for her and she required a lot more help than the kids at school. For a while she got frustrated but eventually, with enough help, she came up with a working program. Maybe I should have used real candy with her too, instead of the Hama beads...

Her program looked like this, before we gave up on actually writing everything down.

But what really made the night for us was the exciting game of Go, which was the first one for her. I only gave her easy time for the very beginning of the game until I discovered that she'll kick my ass. She was brilliant and ruthless and took no prisoners.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Lesson 62 - Basic Basic

Today I refreshed my Commodore 64 programming skills by reading the C64 Wiki. Meanwhile my daughter was playing some games on the net. It took just a little while to for her attention to switch to what I was doing. I guess the animated bird was the selling point. 

A fun thing about the Commodore Basic is that if you want a delay, you do it with a for-loop:

    FOR X=1 TO 300:NEXT

Anyway, she wanted to change my "waves" program to one that would print her name all around the screen. It took a sec to get used to the way programs are edited on this old machine. 

For instance, you always edit in the overwrite mode. And you have only 2 arrow keys, so that you have to the SHIFT key to be able to move to all directions.

Yet, she made it! So her first BASIC program looks like this.

In case you wonder what the semicolon does, it prevents the otherwise automatic line-feed.

And managed to save it too. Now she's looking for the disc that says "Bubble Bubble".

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Bubble Bobble

Yesterday I mentioned that I have a bunch of old computers in the storage room and promised to show them to my girl. I also promised that we'll look inside them. So today, when she was a bit reluctant to do her violin homework I promised that we'll have a look at the old computers after she's done with the violin. She started playing the violin immediately!

Meanwhile I dragged an old Commodore 64 from the storage room. Then we assembled it together. You have to plug in the power cord, the floppy disk drive (the infamous 1541 unit) and the joysticks (Tac 2 of course). Finally you have to plug the s-video and audio cables to the TV. I asked her whether she thinks if you can connect to the Internet with this device and she guessed right. The net didn't exist when this machine was designed.

She wanted to see how this computer is programmed so I showed a simple basic program involving the easily accessible graphical symbols on the keyboard.

What a beautiful bird! Then I started trying to do some for-loops and animations but failed miserably. The girls grew anxious and wanted to see (or even code!) games. So I gave up with the Commodore Basic and found the Bubble Bobble floppy disk. It was fun to see how she struggled to insert the disc into the disc drive. With some instructions, she succeeded of course.

Then it was time to

    LOAD "$", 8

And see what's on the disc. Bubble Bobble seemed to be there as promised on the cover. So

    LOAD "BUB*",8,1

It did take quite a while to load it of course and we had a brief discussion on what old computers are like. I had to admit that you never know whether the game will eventually load and work as expected. But in a couple of minutes the game had loaded!

She typed


And then some weird ASCII graphics happened and in a while we were playing Bubble Bobble. And in fact, the girls are still playing it and they love it. You have to appreciate a game that ages this well!

Maybe we'll get to Commodore Basic coding next time. It's pretty fun indeed, with the graphical symbols easily available on the keyboard. The downside is of course that it's pretty verbose and the editor is weird. But she already manages vim so it shoulnd't be an issue. Good times!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


I just published the first chapter of my online coding book Koodikirja (in Finnish).

This is something I've been hacking on every now and then from the start of this year or so. It teaches some basic computer programming using my Turtle Roy learning environment.

Check it out! And watch out, this is only the beginning!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Turtles and Tanks

Last weekend we visited my friend in the beautiful town of Loviisa and her lovely daughter Amanda and played some board games.

We started with Robot Turtles, that I covered in my previous posting too.

The thing was, they had two cats. So we played Robot Turtles with Amanda while my daughters chased and petted the cats around the house. Turned out Amanda liked the turtle programming game a lot and quickly hacked how to capture the diamond with a "program" that's a sequence of moves. She also learned how to debug: try something, run it, then try again. 

Many times she decided to start her somewhat complected program from scratch instead of trying to fix it. That's what a programmer sometime has to do!

She also learned to use the LASER card to melt icy obstacles into harmless ponds of water.

Then something unusual happened.

Her turtle was surrounded by tanks.

Guess what she did?

Well, she calmly constructed a program that made her turtle eliminate all of the tanks with LASER. And she succeeded with her first try too. Each tank exploded with a huge BOOM!

So we switched to a hex board and gave her seek and destroy missions. Tanks a plenty were destroyed. 

Meanwhile my girls had messed Amanda's room quite badly. I ask Mila to have a look at what Amanda was doing and the joined their forces to take out a platoon of tanks with their flawless programs before we had nachos.

Who said girls can't destroy tanks?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Robot Turtles

Today Päivi from Sanomat borrowed me the Robot Turtles game.

The idea of this game is that kids "Turtle Masters" play Code Cards that guide their Robot Turtle toward a gem. Everyone who gets to their gem wins. An adult is the Turtle Mover who will move the players' turtles according to the code cards that the kids play. And it has a progressive set of rules where you introduce new features as the players seem to be familiar with the current ones.

After reading the rules I was a bit disappointed. Where's the game? Where's the challenge? But then I took a step back and realized that I had the perspective of a professional programmer who has played a lot of complicated board games like Puerto Rico. This is a game for kids starting from the age of 4 it says on the package. So we gave it a try. Me as the Turtle Mover and my 5 and almost-3 year old girls ad Turtle Masters. 

First we started with the basic rules where there are no obstacles on the board. You play a "forward", "left" or "right" card to move/turn the turtle accordingly. There's about 8 moves to the gem, involving one turn. It was dead easy for the 5 year old coder girl. Even the almost 3-year old wannabe coder girl made it to the gem after several tries. This was enought for her and she went to lay down some stickers instead.

But with the older girl we played some more. Next I put some obstacles on the board and she started planning her route to the gem. She planned the whole route almost instantly and we agreed that we won't play one card at a time. Instead, she wrote the whole program consisting of about 10 cards at once in about 2 minutes. And it turned out correct and was fun. As per game rules, I kept making funny noises for each move of the turtle and we had fun.

We played yet one more round, with a "laser" card that you can use to melt an obstacle made of ice. We also added some obstacles made of rock. The different to the ice obstacles is that you can't melt the rocky ones. This time the route was a bit tougher and she had to try like 4 times before getting the complete and correct program. But she made it and it was fun. I think the earlier coding lessons have paid off. Dunna. Should try with some other 5 year old to verify that assumption.

After the game I asked if it was fun and she said "tosi hauskaa", which means very fun or something like that.

- Do you find this game to be at all like coding?
- Yes, a bit like Turtle Roy
- Is it easier or harder?
- A bit harder
- Really?
- Daddy, this was the first time we played it!
- Do you want to play again?
- No.
- Really?
- I meant I don't want to play again right now.
- But later maybe?
- Sure!

So I guess the game works. And it's a brilliant idea to introduce game features gradually, so that you don't have to memorize too many complex concepts at a time.

And I think it'll be even more fun with 4 kids or so. Gotta try!

Still I have this feeling that we need a more hardcore coding game. With more control structures, memory access and such.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Lesson 61 - Board Games

What about an educational board game for learning programming? I haven't heard about anything else than Robot Turtles which I still haven't ordered because of the high shipping fees. Silly me.

We made our own today. I mean, made the first prototype. The idea had been growing in my head for a few days. 

Not going to go to details but the key thing is that you'll be programming a simple computer with assembly language. Programming instructions are given using Code Cards, each of which does a simple thing like reading a value from memory to a register or writing a value to "standard output". Of course, you'll have flow control cards like IF and JUMP. The players together will simulate the computer that runs these instructions.

I did my best to come up with a simple instruction set, some game rules and a "garden" theme, to make it less scary. Replace binary numbers with fruit and the computer memory by a garden. Represent a minimal instruction set as drawn symbols and the program and memory pointers with a robot and a gardener. I tasked my little girl to draw some of the graphics of course.

We had a nice hour or so drawing, cutting and gluing things together while discussing games and computers. In the end, we had 2 board games. Mine/ours and hers. We played both. Her's was better, partially because it was the classic Memory game with a twist: instead of two pictures, you have to connect a picture and a starting letter. Nice for teaching the alphabet for the younger girl! In fact, even the 2-year old had fun playing it.

So here's her game.

And here's mine.

What worked well was that it was fun to simulate the computer using the Code Cards and a pointer. What didn't work so well were my game rules. You've got to appreciate actual game designers. There's a long way from a nice idea to a well balanced, enjoyable board game.

I'm not saying it wasn't fun though! And I think the main concept is valid, it just needs some more game design. Good times!