Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Papa's Tech Class: Help your kids deconstruct a computer

My 8-year-old son I. loves taking things apart. He loves to see what's under the covers - and he also loves the destruction!

He's long had his eyes on the three old desktop computers lurking in our basement. Taking them apart was the first thing he mentioned when we started talking about what we'd do for Papa's Tech Class.

To give you an idea of the vintage, I built the newest PC to run betas of what turned out to be Windows Vista; there's also a G4 PowerMac one of my friends acquired when his employer was getting rid of obsolete computers, and an even older PC that once ran software like AudioGalaxy (in its awesome first incarnation).

If you have an obsolete PC lying around, taking it apart can be a fun activity with your kids. Unlike building a new PC, there's no worry if they damage anything.

Unlike most laptop computers, desktops can be disassembled with tools you probably already have around the house. You can get it pretty far apart with just a Philips head screwdriver (#2 and #1 sizes - the most common). If you've also got a small pair of pliers, that can help young fingers get a good grip to pull out on those really jammed-in cables.
All you really need to disassemble most desktop computers is a screwdriver with standard bits. A small pair of pliers is the next most useful tool.
For protection, check the metal edges of the case. Some PC's have pretty raw edges that can cut fingers — especially little, uncalloused fingers.

You can do this easily on a living room or kitchen table, but put down some newspaper or cardboard to protect the work surface and make it easier to rotate the computer.

Depending on your kid, you may have fun identifying the major components of computers (CPU, RAM, motherboard, input and output ports, hard drive, CD/DVD drive, graphics card & CPU). You can also trace the paths data flows through in terms of things the kids will be used to. For example, when you surf the web, the web page comes in over the network connection; when you put in a game disc, the software on the disk is read from the DVD drive and goes over these cables to RAM, and the CPU reads the instructions from RAM and follows them, then it tells the GPU what to draw on the screen, and the GPU sends a video signal out to the display, and plays sounds through the speakers...

Finally, if the thought of rendering a functional piece of hardware non-functional rankles you, you can always donate them - there are many eCycling options around Seattle. Another approach to consider for making use of PC's that can't handle current operating system versions is installing Linux. But here at PTC, we have a Raspberry Pi for our Linux hacking, which uses a fraction of the power - and we also have several unused laptops of more recent vintage.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"Papa Tech Class" - summer hacking with my kids

After completing graduate school, I'm taking the summer off with my boys, ages 8 (I) & 11 (Z). One of the things they asked to do this summer is "Papa Tech Class."

Today, on the first day of summer with just the three of us at home, Z asked to get a blog set up so he could write about one of his passions: soccer.

Z had previously asked about making web pages, and he learned how to do basic HTML by hand. He learned inserting images, creating links, and basic page structure. He could see the results by opening the HTML file locally in a web browser. We uploaded the file to a web server and he could see the page on the Internet. I think it's useful to at least see what's going on one layer down - though HTML and FTP are still pretty far above bare wire & bare metal!

To make the blog an ongoing concern, we signed up for a free blog hosted on WordPress.com. WordPress provides great blogging features like ready-made templates, WYSIWYG editing, and it's a very popular platform for blogs of all sizes. So it's got a great deal of room to grow, if Zeb wants to get fancier later on. So using WordPress lets Z focus on what he really wants to do: write about soccer.

I knew we wanted to have prior review & approval of anything Z wants to post, at least while he's getting started and learning the ropes. To set that up, I created one account for the parents to use, and created the blog during the sign-up process. So the parents' account owns the blog.

Next, I logged out of WordPress.com, and then created a second WordPress.com account for Z to use. During the sign-up process, you have the option to sign up for just a username without creating a blog, and that's what I did.

Finally, I logged back into the parental account, and added Z's account as a contributor to the blog. This way he can write articles any time he likes, but he can't publish them on his own. When he is done, instead of having a "publish" button, he has a "submit for review" button. This will send an email to the parents. We can then review the post and approve it, edit it ourselves, or discuss with Z what needs to be changed and why.

This isn't perfect; to make changes to the blog itself, like changing the theme or adding widgets, I'll need to log him in under the parents' account - but since I don't use that account for any other blogs, there's no worries there.

You can follow Z's blog at http://zebsoccer.wordpress.com.