[IAEP] Sugar Digest 2016-02-09

Walter Bender walter.bender at gmail.com
Tue Feb 9 16:26:39 EST 2016

== Sugar Digest ==

Ten days ago, my mentor and friend Marvin Minsky passed away. As one of the
co-founders of the field of Artificial Intelligence, his passing has been
widely covered by the press and many notable colleagues has blogged about
his numerous intellectual contributions. I have little to add regarding his
contributions to AI, although I had the pleasure of many conversations with
him about the ideas he discusses in Society of Mind and The Emotion Machine.

Perhaps less well known are some of Marvin's writing on learning. He was a
long-time colleague of Seymour Papert and made significant contributions to
Logo and the core ideas of Construtionism. (He built one of the first Logo
"turtles" and, along with Ed Fredkin, invented the digital synthesizer,
which he interfaced to Logo.) While I was at One Laptop per Child, I
commissioned him to write some essays on learning (See [1]). Alas, we will
never get to read the final four essays in the series (Future Essays).

Spending time with Marvin was always a pleasure: the range of topics
discussed, the challenging of every assumption and convention, the
unquenchable curiosity, and the generosity with ideas, critique, and
reflection is in my experience unmatched.

I promise to take the time to share some recollections from our time
together over the coming months, beginning here with a scenario I saw
repeated on numerous occasions. In the days of overhead projectors, when
Marvin would give a lecture he would (I always presumed deliberately) drop
his slides on the floor as he approached the projector. He'd then look
down, pick one up seeming at random, put it on the projector, and then dive
into a fascinating discourse, not necessarily on topic, but always well
worth the time and attention of his audience. Marvin was always at his best
when he was unleashed.

Marvin had a beautiful mind and a beautiful spirit. He is dearly missed.

1. A warm welcome to the new Sugar Labs oversight board: Walter Bender;
Lionel Laské; Adam Holt; Sameer Verma; Claudia Urrea; Tony Anderson; and
José Miguel García. We'll hold our first meeting this Friday at 16 UTC on
irc.freenode.net #sugar. Please join us.

Many thanks to Daniel Francis, Gonzalo Odiard, and Chris Leonard whom have
served many years on the oversight board and continue to make numerous
contributions to the Sugar community.

2. Google Code-In is over and the mentor team has selected our two
grand-prize winners: Piotr Antosz (from Poland) and Ezequiel Pereira Lopez
(from Uruguay). While it is never an easy decision -- we had many strong
contenders for the top two spots -- I am quite pleased with the decision as
both Piotr and Ezequiel did great work and have deeply engaged with the
community. Congratulations to both of them. And, again, thank you to all of
the contestants and to the mentors.

3. One topic I hope to discuss on Friday is Google Summer of Code 2016.
I've set up a preliminary page in the wiki [2] to get the application
process start (I am presuming that the oversight board will agree to
participate again this year). Please add project suggests to the wiki.

=== In the Community ===

4. I just returned from Constructionism 2016 (See [3]), a "bi-annual
gathering of researchers and practitioners of the constructionist learning
philosophy is intended to be a place to showcase lessons learned,
innovative learning tools, new case studies, and novel approaches that has
been happening throughout the world." A number of Sugar Labs community
members were there, including Cynthia Solomon, Claudia Urrea, and Devin
Ulibarri. Devin and I spoke about Music Blocks and along with Cynthia and
Claudia, we ran several workshops for children and teachers. Lots of great
feedback and many new and renewed connections. (Our host, Khun Paron, has
been an advocate for Sugar for almost a decade.) The entire conference was
videotaped and will be posted online soon. Be sure to watch Cynthia's
keynote address in which she reviewed the history of Constructionism, which
has had a great influence on the design and development of Sugar.

5. Music Blocks is a fork the Turtle Blocks program that we began last year
during GSoC. Our goal is for Music Blocks to be an open-ended, yet
musically relevant tool—one that invites learners to explore fundamental
musical concepts that are both intrinsic to music yet transcendent of a
specific discipline.

The structure of our workshops included the concept of a "Power Piece". A
power piece is a melody or a song that is taught because it is powerful and
becomes more powerful as it is taught. Children took phrases of some
familiar music as a basis of exploring and manipulating the music through

As a result of feedback from the workshops, I have made a number of
improvements to Music Blocks [4]. It is much more robust and internally
consistent. Please do try it (there is a guide at [5]) and give me
additional feedback.

By coincidence, I subsequently read in Stephen Wolfram's blog about Marvin
Minsky that "Marvin immediately launched into talking about how programming
languages are the only ones that people are expected to learn to write
before they can read. He said he’d been trying to convince Seymour Papert
that the best way to teach programming was to start by showing people good
code. He gave the example of teaching music by giving people Eine kleine
Nachtmusik, and asking them to transpose it to a different rhythm and see
what bugs occur."

Papert did speak of the need for guidance, both in the programming
environment itself and in the teacher’s facilitating a child's exploration
of it. Power Pieces introduce rich musical ideas that can be studied,
analyzed, transformed, and
re-imagined, they are ripe for open-ended explorations as part of workshops.

During the workshops (and at the conference) Devin and I both stood on our
"soap boxes" in support of Free/Libre Software. Using computers and
programming software to run on computers is a powerful means to drive
learning. Free Software raises the ceiling by enabling student
contributions to the design, the documentation, and the code itself.

Tip of the hat to Sawaros Thanapornsangsuth, who translated Music Blocks
into Thai for our workshops.

=== Tech Talk ===

6. The Sugar Labs systems team has been busy upgrading our servers. Thanks
to their efforts we have had very little down time in the past few years.

=== Sugar Labs ===

7. Please visit our planet [7].


[1] http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Marvin_Minsky_essays
[2] https://wiki.sugarlabs.org/go/Summer_of_Code/2016
[3] http://e-school.kmutt.ac.th/constructionism2016/
[4] https://walterbender.github.io/musicblocks
[5] https://github.com/walterbender/musicblocks/blob/master/guide/README.md
[6] http://blog.stephenwolfram.com/2016/01/farewell-marvin-minsky-19272016/
[7] http://planet.sugarlabs.org


Walter Bender
Sugar Labs
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