The webcomics blog about webcomics

:01 Week Continues

As we saw yesterday, other things are occurring in webcomics — Tavis Maiden is Kickstarting print volume 1 of Tenko King and more than halfway there; Wes Molebash has launched his latest strip about family, Molebashed¹ — but you’ll have to follow up on those by yourself. Because today is dedicated to continuing our dive into the cornucopia of graphic novel goodness that Gina Gagliano at :01 Books was kind enough on me. I speak, naturally, of review copies, and we look today at the book that has the greatest potential to change lives.

I know that we all talk about how a particular book (or record, or movie, or whatever) changed our lives, but Secret Coders (words by Gene Luen Yang and pictures by Mike Holmes) may make the cliche literally true. In order to explain why, I have to tell you about three times that my life was nudged into the direction that ultimately stuck.

Firstly, I am of an age such that I experienced the educational experiment known as The New Math; along with the approach to teaching arithmetic described by Professor Lehrer, I was taught set theory at the age of six: sets, intersections, unions, differences, subsets, supersets, and Venn diagrams². Nobody gave much thought to what a six year old would actually do with set theory, so it lay dormant in the back of my brain.

In early high school, my father and I soldered together our first computer, a Sinclair ZX-81, and in my spare time I picked up a copy of Larry Gonick’s sadly out of print 1982 edition of The Cartoon Guide to Computer Science. I learned about names like Babbage and Lovelace, Hollerith and Turing, Von Neumann and Zuse, and Mauchley and Boole and Hopper and especially Claude Shannon. The others were obsessed with making machines to compute, Shannon was obsessed with the communication and density of information³, and that seed nudged me in the direction of communications and information theory during my college career.

About the same time, I was watching my four year old niece play on the computer — she showed me how drawing the lines and using the symbols would make a little raccoon dance — and it dawned on me that she didn’t know how she was being trained to think logically. The symbols she was drawing were logic gates and the lines she was drawing were were signal pathways; she was getting her own version of the Venn diagrams that I’d had nearly two decades earlier, until she got bored with the exciting low-res RGB display and it would enter its own dormancy period in her brain. Some time later, I stared my present career teaching databases, and those Venn diagrams became even more important so that I could describe relational theory and the whole thing came full circle.

The lessons, taken together, are these: you can teach very sophisticated ideas to very young kids; words + pictures have a uniquely strong impact when it comes to teaching; making it into a game (instead of math class) makes it more likely to make the jump from dormant to obsession.

Which is why Secret Coders might read as a somewhat simplistic story of a school with mysterious secrets, outcast students determined to figure them out, and reasonably obvious puzzles woven into the text with a Can you figure it out? presentation style.

Except the first of those secrets? It’s how to do math in binary. And those puzzles? The solutions are computer programs, in Logo to be specific. The characters might be middle schoolers, but the book is aimed at kids eight and up, just about the exact age cohort that got Venn diagrams 40 years ago and dancing raccoons 30 years ago. The lessons are hidden in the games, but the outcome is children will think logically, solve problems by breaking them down, and incorporate concepts like sequencing and recursion.

Yang (a computer geek since the summer after fifth grade, according to the afterword) clearly had his own version of those three moments, because the three lessons that I learned over the course of 25 years are fairly jumping off the pages. And if Yang’s figured out how to set out the puzzles in a way that grade schoolers can follow, Holmes has created vibrant, engaging, easy-to-follow illustrations for those abstract ideas so that the kidlings won’t get lost.

The ability to not just use technology, but to be in control of it, will be of greater importance to the kids that read Secret Coders than it would have been to me at that age; I am part of the last generation where the path of being completely non-technological would not be an impediment, but today it’s a necessity. The world needs engineers and engineers need to learn how to approach problems with the tools available and bash their way to solutions. Learn a little Logo without realizing it? It’s a quick jump from there to other languages, and from there to a controller that moves a robot, or gathers up data, or keeps a rocket on path. In twenty, thirty years somebody that’s changing the world is going to remember Secret Coders (and its sequels, this is a series) and realize it was the moment that everything got nudged into a particular direction.

Secret Coders releases 29 September; that’s enough time to find a ROM of Rocky’s Boots for the budding programmer in your life.

Spam of the day:

You must be aware that you will find ways to Prevent Identity Theft when you are working wirelessly.

Like not working on the access point named OMG SUPER FREE WIFI HERE?

¹ We at Fleen do not condone the bashing of moles, and are surprised that Molebash — a pastor! — would engage in such a barbaric practice. For shame, sir. For shame.

² Venn diagrams were the best thing of all because it let you do math by drawing with crayons. That habit never really left me, as I fell back in later years to graphical approximations in lieu of formulae to the consternation of every math teacher I ever had in school, but to the utter delight of my Electromagnetic Fields professor, Dr Frank Acker, who regarded approximation as the engineer’s birthright.

³ Also juggling, unicycling, and the construction of robots to juggle and/or unicycle. Also rocket frisbees. He’s basically my hero and the person that the 21st century most depends on that you’ve never heard of. That book fell apart from overuse fifteen years ago and I can still see every scribbly drawing of Shannon on his unicycle explain the concepts of signal, noise, and information.

I didn’t do Electromagnetic theory as an engineer, but even in physics solutions are a matter of finding the right approximation, because the field equations are freaking impossible to solve exactly.

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