Coding practice, making new neurons, and the trouble with analogies

It may not look fancy, but this class exercise, executed all in HTML and CSS, was a success for me.

It seems that a big part of learning to code is simply spending lots of time practicing it — getting things wrong, getting frustrated, asking for help, and getting them a little better next time (hopefully). In that sense it’s like learning to play a musical instrument — you can think and talk about it all you want, but if you really want to learn it you need to get your fingers moving and be willing to sound really crappy for quite awhile.

Yeah, I know: Duh. But it’s one thing knowing that piece of obviousness, and another to really knuckle down and do it….

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Coding lesson 1: The tiniest things will drive you batty

comfort zone shirt

First off: As I writing this it’s about 5:30 am. I’ve been up since about 1:30 am. Welcome to Codeville.

Wednesday I attended my first Da Vinci Coders class in web front-end development skills. I started a little behind; I missed the real first class on Monday because I was away giving a presentation in Chicago.

Right away I was in over my head. But I expected that. Hence, the motivational t-shirt.

Our instructor, Richard Jones, did a pretty good job of catching me up on what was covered in the first class. I like his approach — he sets the context with the higher-level concepts so we first learn to think like developers, to think very carefully about the nature and purpose of content on a page, and make our decisions about how to use HTML5 and CSS based on that assessment.

For our first assignment he gave us a PDF file exported from a webpage that was a very textbook-like discussion of the Pacific Temperate Rainforest. The topic doesn’t really matter, though. I was really only paying attention to the structure of the content. I do a lot of writing and editing work, so it was somewhat of a relief not to have to consider whether the content made any sense. I only had to pay attention to the structure of the content — what sections, figures, and other major elements it comprised.

That relief didn’t last long….

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Stop whining! Lisa Williams on journalists learning to code

Placeblogger founder Lisa Williams is a media person who taught herself to code. That does not make her a magical unicorn. You can do this too -- and you probably should.

Why should journalists and other news/media professionals learn to code? More importantly: HOW can they learn to code?

Today my good friend, mentor, and fellow ass-kicker Lisa Williams (founder of Placeblogger.com) gave a great presentation on this theme at TEDXPoynter, a one-day event at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, FL. I watched the livestream, and I’m sure Poynter will post the video online later. (I’ll embed that when it’s up.)

Lisa is a media professional who took the initiative to learn how to code — in part so that she wouldn’t be totally dependent on other people to realize her ideas, and also because “Corruption sucks!” Having basic coding skills gives you the power to visualize data and create other resources which make it harder for the powers that be to claim that the problems you’re spotlighting are mere “isolated incidents.”

(More from Lisa about this and other reasons why media pros (or anyone) should learn to code: Code to make a point; code to make change; on newshacking. Plus her learn to code resources guide.)

Lisa observed that when she talks to journalists about learning to code, they often ask her, “But isn’t storytelling important? Do we really have to learn how to code?”

Her response: Stop whining!

I’m totally with Lisa on this. Which is why this summer, after I move back to Boulder, CO, I’ll be devoting regular time most days to learn how to code. And you can do it, too…

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Social Media for News Sites: J-Lab learning module, live chat

Recently I helped co-author a new learning module from the Knight Citizen News Network: Likes & Tweets: Leveraging Social Media for News Sites. It’s a pretty detailed resource, intended primarily for online local news startups — but the lessons there could be applied by local news orgs in legacy media, as well as anyone trying to connect with a community online.

I only played a small role in this project — the vast majority of the work was done by Susan Mernit and Kwan Booth –┬ámy Oakland Local cofounders and partners in the House of Local media consulting group.

Yesterday, Susan, Kwan & I participated in a one-hour live chat hosted by J-Lab about this learning module. You can replay the complete transcript. We got really great interaction on this. J-Lab told us that this live chat attracted far more readers and participants than its other live chats. It was fun, and I’m glad it was a success!

Failure as Taboo: My She’s Geeky Tweets Part 2

Back in January I attended — and live-tweeted — the She’s Geeky unconference in Mountain View, CA. Very slowly, I’ve been mulling over what I tweeted from there. Especially from Susan Mernit’s Jan. 31 session on that taboo of taboos, especially for women in business and tech: discussing and dealing with failure.

(For more context on failure, see this consummate resource.)

NOTE: This is part of a series based on my live tweets from At last weekend’s She’s Geeky unconference in Mountain View, CA.

Series index

Perhaps more than any other She’s Geeky session, this one resonated with me. Right now, I’m in the process of ending my marriage, relocating from a community I’ve loved and called home for nearly 14 years, entering midlife, and dealing with much emotional backlog that has accumulated while I’ve kept busy busy busy for so many years.

That’s a lot of stuff to handle, on top of work and ordinary life. Frankly, it’s been hard for me to admit to myself — let alone anyone else — that because of all these issues I am not currently operating at the 1000% (not a typo) level I typically expect of myself, and often deliver.

So first, here are my tweets from this session, followed by some results of my mulling on this. Note that I deliberately did NOT identify speakers, except for prompting questions by Susan Mernit. Discussing failure leaves people vulnerable, and the attendees of this session agreed to make it a safe space. Everything appearing in quotes below is from an attendee…

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Continental 1404, Pan Am 103, and thoughts on dodging bullets

This morning, before I’d even had my tea, I learned via e-mail that at my local airport last night a Continental flight 1404 veered off the runway and crashed, injuring 58. AP reported that local resident Mike Wilson tweeted his experience immediately after he escaped the burning plane.

Two tweets from Wilson especially caught my attention:

Mike Wilson's first post about the Denver plane crash he survived

Mike Wilson's first post about the Denver plane crash he survived

And then, a couple of hours later…

Mike Wilson reflects on a similar bullet he dodged earlier

Mike Wilson reflects on a similar bullet he dodged earlier

…Next I was making breakfast, listening to Colorado Public Radio, which was (of course) reporting on the Denver airport accident. They followed that with a story that stopped me cold for a bit: Witnesses, Families Remember Lockerbie Bombing. Yes, today is the 20th anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 — a terrorist attack that killed 259 on the plane and 11 on the ground.

On the evening of Dec. 21, 1988, I was a 22-year-old journalism student packed up and ready to head back home to NJ after spending a semester in London. I’d been at the office Christmas party for the business magazine where I’d been interning. When I entered the house I’d been sharing since August with five other students, my housemates who hadn’t yet departed for home were sitting in the living room, crying. Mindy said, “Diane’s plane crashed”…

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Tipsheet Approach to News: The Launching Point IS the Point

Typically news is presented in narrative story format (text, audio, or video). Often, that works well enough. But what about when people want to dig into issues on their own? What if they want to learn more about how the news connects to their lives, communities, or interests? Generally, packaged news stories don’t support that leap. It generally requires a fair amount of reading between the lines, initiative, research skills, and time — significant obstacles for most folks.

The growing number of citizen journalists (of various flavors) obviously are willing to do at least some of this work — but they don’t always know how to find what they’re seeking, or have sufficient context to even know what might be worth pursuing beyond the narrative line chosen for a packaged news story. Also, lots of people who have no desire to be citizen journalists still occasionally get interested enough in some news stories to want to check them out further first-hand. They just need encouragement, and some help getting started.

Therefore, it helps to consider that news doesn’t always have to be a finished story. In some cases, or for some people, a launching point might be even more intriguing, useful, and engaging. Here’s one option for doing that…
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