Moss Code Vs. The Illuminati

all-seeing eye

Image: Filip Filkovic

The government has thrown public services to the dogs. Adult education – so key, so vital – has been cut to the bone. This is the scenery. Is it possible to rock up in Moss Side with a laptop and big ideas and expect it to run smoothly? Is it?

Into the gap vacated by the State, where infrastructure and law centres and libraries should be, tales of Illuminati conspiracy run rampant.

When I first realised the anti-science whispering that proliferates on social media is taken seriously by many, I bristled – but who should take a bullet? Not ordinary people, struggling to make sense of the world while on the run between benefit sanctions and food banks. I have asked:

How does a community that had really been the object of scientific and medical scrutiny for generations — with really negative outcomes — come to see science and technology as a positive thing, or something that can be used for self-knowledge and liberation?

I now understand that this is an opportunity for discussion and broader, better teaching. Here’s an example of the confusion fermenting in private WhatsApp groups and other such channels:

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A Woman’s Work

enter image description here Original source. (via Dangerous Minds)

It has always fascinated me that women were so well-integrated into the fabric of computing from its very inception. Famously, the first computer programmer was – shock! – female. Programming was seen as unimportant “women’s work”, while the business-end of this emerging, embryonic technology was inside the hardware and integrated circuits – wrongly, as it turned out. They dominated the ranks of the field then and played storied parts in the celebrated code-breaking team at Bletchley Park.

Honeywell Kitchen Computer Honeywell Kitchen Computer concept from 1969`(via Wired)

These photographs are a fascinating window into the late 1960s – all Polaroid pastels and cute hairdos – but evoke in the imagination the possibility of what equality looks like in our computing future.

Flying Dragons & Plasticine

Something is afoot. Ideas are on the run. The seed I’ve planted is starting to take hold. We’re starting as a class to have broad, free-wheeling conversations in-between the practicals. We had a special guest in – a neuroscientist – and it was nice to see the young ones light up in her presence.

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So, what is actually going on? I do suppose it would be useful to devise some kind of syllabus, but there is rough plan growing even if I’m winging-it just a bit.

on twitter

“Can we create a nanotechnology to create clean water in polluted environments?” came a question. That’s a good question. Code is glue. It binds ideas together like an intellectual plasticine, and people are beginning to see it. I’m excited.

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Learning Mathematics In Formation #CauseISlay

I’m not suggesting a new mathematics regimen that makes learning hard sciences even more generally joyless than they already are. Rewinding to Black History Month, all 28 days (the shortest month of the year!), Bey dropped wax that set pop culture alight with “Formation”.

It’s her hat-tip to the grassroots and activists fighting for social justice.

Cleverly, this teacher has managed to wrangle an entire maths class based around the tune! How good is that?

 

I’ve always wondered how hip-hop culture could leverage rhyme, repetition and rhythm to augment the learning experience. It could make remembering gnarly bits of boring detail quite fun. The brain has mechanisms for the acquisition of language – is the same true for learning?

brain illustration

Remixed. Link.

Somehow, seconds into the opening bars of long-forgotten pop songs, I manage near-perfect recall of the most obscure lyrics. They somehow manage to surface seconds in, clinging to the cracks of my memory. Can the same process be used as a way to retain useful information for study? It can be the basis of a new kind of culturally-driven learning.

Directions In Black Thought

Miles Davis used to sign off his albums with the curious expression “Directions In Black Music”. I have always imagined that this meant musical exploration at the edge of the known universe, like Voyager 1 drifting out beyond our solar system and tumbling into interstellar space. In that free-wheeling spirit of enquiry, Florence Okoye interviewed me for How We Get To Next.

Next is here.

Bitches Brew

7 Things I Learned Teaching My First Programming Class

Wanna to start a code club? No money? No equipment? Shit. Well, you better have some brass neck, mate. Here are some things of note you may learn along the way:

1. People care about this

There’s a hunger for learning. People in threadbare communities know just how important this stuff is. They are smart, capable but lack resources and opportunities.

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2. Collaboration is wonderful

Encourage it in your students. Learning new technical skills is hard, so pairing people together is a good approach. It makes class immediately more social, supportive and fun.

3. Some people need more help than others

Class is only as successful as the most challenged student. If you can bring them along with patience and creativity, you’ve won. Remember, it’s a foreign language.

4. Hustle!

Beg, borrow and steal everything you need. Being a shameless self-promoter matters. It’s not a natural pose for me, but I suppose my being talented and good-looking helps. See?

5. Make allies

Lots of people want you to succeed. Who can help you get this done? I’m trying to find that out.

6. Share the load

Doing this alone is hard work. I know. Ask for help, and lean on your students. I’m going to do more of this next week.

7. Find inspiring stories

Everything has it’s cultural context. Starting the class with the Mae Jemison story was an electrifying entry. It said, “This is your house. There’s a place for you here, too.”

Here’s how it went down:

One Small Step For Moss Side

Mae Jemison

Who knew that life in Outer Space was so fragile?

Watching Tim Peake’s spacewalk on StargazingLive had the nation on tenterhooks and me on the edge of my seat as the obvious became apparent, for the first time: this Starman stuff is an extraordinarily dangerous life-and-death gig.

Nigerian Mummy on Tim Peake: “How come he doesn’t fall when he is The Space? I think there’s something fishy going on.”

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Ikem Nzeribe on Friday, 15 January 2016

 

“Who’s heard of Mae Jemison?” I asked last night as I kicked off our first Hour Of Code. I was dazzled by this all-singing, all-dancing Superwoman in my teenage years, but I understand why there’s such ambivalence to science and technology in our communities.

How does a community that had really been the object of scientific and medical scrutiny for generations — with really negative outcomes — come to see science and technology as a positive thing, or something that can be used for self-knowledge and liberation?

So asks Alondra Nelson in The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations And Reconciliation After The Genome. It’s one hell of a question – and this is a beginning – so my answer would be: “With baby steps.”

The Inaugural #HourOfCode

The Hour Of Code Cometh

We’re hosting our first event! Hour Of Code is a global initiative to get total beginners climbing the first rungs of computer literacy. It’s simple and fun – which is how learning new languages should be. Poetry and great novels may flow afterwards in time, but in an hour one can learn how this new tongue feels. Does it sound romantic or rhythmic – and how can I say “hello!“? That’s about the shape of it, and there’s more programming than there is prose or Pushkin, along with the most important question: did I like it?

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The Future

What Is Moss Code?

Moss Code is the future. Our goal is to introduce computer coding lessons here in Moss Side where it’s sometimes a struggle to stay afloat in hard times. It means exploring programming languages with exotic-sounding names like Scratch, Lisp and Ruby on Rails. People here are unlikely to have access to 3D printers, Arduinos “maker spaces”, despite the thirst. This grassroots project is a baby step in restoring the balance.

Digital is more important than ever. Those who author apps and web services will hold the keys to tomorrow’s technological castle. We exist to wedge open the door and broaden access, just a little bit. Anybody can come along, experiment and slowly master the tools (and build new ones) – from debugging Javascript, to creating something new from first principles. It takes time, but Moss Code is a seed from which electric dreams can grow.

Scratching The Surface

Moss Side – and places like it – are left off the map when we discuss where we think the future lies. Scratch the surface of places like these and there are stories to tell. Settled by African seaman in the first half of the twentieth century, Black people came in waves after fighting the Second World War. Their arrival met with institutional racism and resistance, but these pioneers made lasting contributions that moved British society forwards.

 

Moss Side hosted the 1945 Pan African Congress, a conference of politics and thought that lay the ground for the “Winds Of Change” that foreshadowed the successful independence struggles for African nationhood in the middle of the last century.

The Vision

As the code-cracking heroics performed at Bletchley Park at the dawn of the computer age fade into history, it’s a fair question to wonder whether this country can compete in the era of the Web. Tim Berners-Lee may be a Brit, but we didn’t do much with that; instead, we collect cast-off ideas from Silicon Valley like a digital Rag & Bone Man. It’s not enough to have a great idea when access to resources and expertise is so throttled by the crust of class and privilege. In reality, tales of California wunderkinds boot-strapping billion dollar startups from a garage on little more than genius, caffeine and a drive to create the next billion-dollar company are a mirage, but make a rollicking good read! Every culture needs it’s origin myth. What we’re left with here are warmed-over ideas, Like London’s Silicon Roundabout – packed to the rafters with Red Brick university graduates and well-to-do kids from the metropolis. We can do better.

enter image description here Moss Side. Photo: Alex Pepperhill

Futures are born here too, in terraces and community centres far away from the sprawling steel-and-glass buildings that Google and Microsoft call home. Under-resourced Manchester districts well off the radar of The Verge and Wired magazine can give birth to The Next Big Thing – or just wonderful little things. There’s energy here. We need our own vision, and it’s made in places like this.