The Coding Kids Fallacy

Beta Antunes thinks that children should learn to write programs. Speaking as a professional developer and father of three, I think this is utter nonsense.

I don’t want to pick on Beta specifically, but her article does contain a lot of the silver bullet thinking that makes articles like this so incoherent.

So here goes.

The article starts with the observation that software is everywhere, which is true enough. Beta also makes the obvious point that that coding skills are essential. Clearly, all of this code needs to be maintained, but the next sentence in the article strikes me as a pretty unjustified assertion:

The question that remains should not be “why?” but “how?” How can I inspire my child to learn to code, when should I start, and what are the many benefits?

There’s much to unpick here, starting with: why shouldn’t the question be “why”? Or, more to the point, what do you think you are going to achieve by pushing your kids into coding classes?

Software development is an increasingly specialised set of disciplines and being proficient in one area does not make you even competent in another. For example, I make a living from developing and maintaining interfaces between the large and often unwieldy applications large companies use to run their business, and I think I am pretty good at what I do. But you would not want to let me loose on a self-driving car. Ever.

So the fact that software is everywhere is a bit of a red-herring because most people do not look at most source code. While it is useful to have a broad understanding of how applications and how best to use them, being able to write a specific type of application using a specific set of languages and tools isn’t going to help you.

But it gets worse:

It is the parent’s job to encourage children’s interests and help them develop life skills. My personal philosophy is to start children coding early, and make it fun!

Again with the unjustified jump from the obvious to the nonsense. Of course the parents have a responsibility to encourage children’s interests and develop life skills. Writing programs is not a life skill, and since Beta is making the assertion without any justification, I shall refute it without any justification.

As we all know, learning by doing is much more impactful. Children are innately curious and love to explore. They love discovery… picking things up, examining them, smelling them, touching them, and asking why?

“Picking things up, examining them, smelling them, touching them.” Notice how these are all physical ways of interacting with the world and, therefore, completely irrelevant to the point of beta’s article.

Children are curious and it is far better to let them follow their interests. Trying to force them into following your interests is a surefire way of killing stone dead any curiosity they might have had.

And the rest of the article follows much the same pattern: A statement of the obvious followed by an unsupported assertion about the value of coding. My irony meter almost broke when I got to the claim that coding teaches logical thinking — it clearly didn’t for Beta.

I have three sons and, over the years, they have planted and grown fruit and vegetables, helped build a compost bin, chopped wood, built (Lego and Meccano) robots, helped build a chicken run, played games, watched films, talked film, read books, helped care for animals, designed games, built machines, and much more. Whenever we do something, we involve the boys, finding them things that they can and want to do, allowing them to organise tasks among themselves and encouraging them to take pride in their achievements.

By doing this, we are (hopefully) encouraging them to recognise that the world is full of interesting things — both to see and to do — and teaching them to compete gracefully, co-operate effectively and to do things well. These are skills that are transferable to pretty much any walk of life, any career and any hobby.

We are also demonstrating that some things are worth doing for their own sake, and not because there is some monetary reward attached to it.

Children are individuals and each has his or her own interests. The role of the parent is to encourage those interests, not ride roughshod over them in pursuit of some mythical panacea.

Paris: Some Links

They have the guns. Fuck them, we have the champagne!
They have the guns.
Fuck them, we have the champagne!
Over the past week the press has — not surprisingly — been full of the attacks on Paris, the aftermath and where we go from here. Plenty of opinions have been offered and I really don’t have anything to add. So, instead, here are a few links to articles that particularly struck me.

Starting with Charlie Hebdo, whose absolutely brilliant cover can be seen to the left of this post. It turns out that they also have an English translation of their current edition’s Riss Editorial (click quickly as the layout of their website suggests that this will be replaced when the next print edition is published).

After the horror of the attacks, another ordeal is to be expected. The harassment of analyses, explanations, theories. And it started on Friday night, live on television. So-called specialists pretended that the attacks were the consequences of the French bombings of Daesh’s oil facilities. The hostages of the Bataclan had yet to be released and the same guilty speeches were already delivered. We had been attacked because we had done something wrong. As was the case with the Mahomet cartoons that supposedly spurred everything that went on afterwards, the victims were made responsible. The French would be guilty of taking a stand, of being committed. Of simply existing. In reality, for these criminals, there is no beginning and no end to the responsibility of France. Human rights, free speech, secularism, for them, these values are enough to legitimate their crimes. We are being given “explanations” that sound like “reasons” and end up becoming “justifications”. It is too early yet, but in a few days, when the emotion calms down, the professional scavengers, who always find excuses for the killers, will start to roam around the dead. It is always the same process after an attack –– horror, emotion, acceptance, justification.

During these tragic days, lots of words were uttered. Except one, “religion”. Religion has become embarrassing. Nobody dares say the word but everybody knows that religion was what motivated the murderers, not pseudo geopolitical issues. Even if there are thousands ways to believe and worship and even though you can obviously be a believer and a democrat, have faith and still respect the diversity of opinions, we also know that religion can be turned into a weapon. The other word that is so hard to pronounce is “Islam”. For the past twenty years, Islam has turned into a battlefield on which radicals vowed to exterminate non-believers and to submit moderates by force. French Muslims must feel ill at ease when they see killings committed in the name of their religion while suspicion is creeping around them. And since they cannot expect any support from the Muslim religious authorities in France, who have always been useless, French Muslims must fend for themselves. Threatened to be sidelined by the rest of French society or to be swept over by fundamentalism.

The only ones who have an interest in seeing the French people clash are the terrorists. It is what they are craving for, to see hatred take over the French the same way it took over their brains. Terrorists always seek to draw the rest of the world into their own violence because it is their language and in this field, they will always be stronger than we are. But to avoid the trap of division does not mean we should renounce the right to criticise religion simply because this right can sometimes be seen as irritating. Among all the fundamental rights essential to our lives, this freedom is also what the killers attempted to destroy on Friday night.

In The Guardian, Agnès Poirier strikes a similar note:

France and its capital city seem to have been a particular focus of their abomination. Other European cities have been hit – Madrid, London and Brussels, for instance. But the viciousness those terrorists reserve for France is notable. For obvious reasons: France and Paris are the cradle of the Enlightenment, the birthplace of secularism and the separation between the State and the Church, a beacon of freedom of thought, scepticism and powerful satire. It is also an active player in fighting Islamists in the world, for example in Mali.

Many people will ask questions about failures in intelligence gathering and sharing, about prevention of such acts and they will be right. However, when the danger is so diffuse, no democracy that values freedom of speech and movement is completely safe.

In Politico, Carrie Budoff Brown makes a point that bears repeating:

There was, in fact, a kind of syllogism of terror at work here: a movement that begins by targeting Jews and writers will end by targeting the West at large. Those who extenuated those earlier attacks by pointing to Israeli policies or cartoonists’ provocations may now realize that terrorism is not a form of critique, but a form of attack. Religious pluralism and free speech are the glories of liberalism, and so they are what the enemies of liberalism attack first.

Sadly, I suspect we will continue to see more cases of the ideologically blinded insisting that everything that happens everywhere can only ever be explained n terms of UK/US/EU foreign policy — as if such a coherent thing actually existed.

Bruce Schneier also weighs in with a few links of his own.

Bruce Schneier:

But our job is to remain steadfast in the face of terror, to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to not panic every time two Muslims stand together checking their watches. There are approximately 1 billion Muslims in the world, a large percentage of them not Arab, and about 320 million Arabs in the Middle East, the overwhelming majority of them not terrorists. Our job is to think critically and rationally, and to ignore the cacophony of other interests trying to use terrorism to advance political careers or increase a television show’s viewership.

The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn’t make us any safer.

Paul Krugman:

So what can we say about how to respond to terrorism? Before the atrocities in Paris, the West’s general response involved a mix of policing, precaution, and military action. All involved difficult tradeoffs: surveillance versus privacy, protection versus freedom of movement, denying terrorists safe havens versus the costs and dangers of waging war abroad. And it was always obvious that sometimes a terrorist attack would slip through.

Paris may have changed that calculus a bit, especially when it comes to Europe’s handling of refugees, an agonizing issue that has now gotten even more fraught. And there will have to be a post-mortem on why such an elaborate plot wasn’t spotted. But do you remember all the pronouncements that 9/11 would change everything? Well, it didn’t — and neither will this atrocity.

Again, the goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of. And the most important thing our societies can do in response is to refuse to give in to fear.

And an article from Cracked which was written after the attack in January in which Islamic militants massacred an office full of comedians.

The final word goes to those comedians. If you don’t speak French (and even if you do), the text on the cover reads “They have the guns. Fuck them, we have the champagne!”

If only all politicians were as rational as this

Jonas Gahr Store, Norway’s foreign minister on why his country refused to treat the mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik any differently from other criminals:

I believe that the same basic principle holds true in the global fight against terrorism. Osama bin Laden successfully provoked the West into using exceptional powers in ways that sometimes have been in conflict with its commitment to human rights and democracy. This only strengthened the case of extremists, and it shows that we should try to avoid exceptionalism and instead trust in the open system we are defending.

This is not a soft approach. It requires and allows for tough security measures. But it is firmly anchored in the rule of law and the values of democracy and accountability.

That the open public square can be an impressive antidote to extremism should not be surprising. This is not only a bedrock democratic principle. We also have ample historic evidence that extremist views thrive best when confined to the gutter.

Open debate is our strongest tool in standing up to extremism. The far more dangerous avenue is to force extremist ideas underground, where they can fester without competition.

Learning From Norway’s Tragedy via Boing Boing

Quote of the Day: Sexual correctness gone mad

And in a slight deviation from my usual Quote of the Day posts, I’m going to give you two quotes from the same article because it’s that good:

[H]ere’s an experiment you can try at home: go to any porn site that ranks its most popular clips, and have a look at the top 100 clips that people actually pay for – the range of outfits, body types, situations, ages and skin colours far exceeds anything you’ll find in FHM’s list. When it comes to what people find sexy, there’s a truth in porn considerably purer than the sterile, manufactured consent of glossy magazines.

Sexual correctness is a fundamental failure of journalism, and not just in the moralistic right-wing end of the press. I can’t remember the last time I saw an informed discussion of porn in a mainstream news publication. Many of those touted as ‘sexperts’ simply aren’t; a situation not helped by the craven attitude of bodies like the British Psychological Society. Features on alternative sexual choices, lifestyles or fetishes invariably resort to cheap smirks at the expense of its subjects; while journalists interviewing figures in the adult entertainment industry seem compelled to demand that they justify their ‘aberrant’ behaviour.

Both quotes come from Martin Robbins

Some people deserve a patronising response

Some bunch of utterly childish anti-GM crops activists have taken it upon themselves to destroy (via) years of publicly funded research into a genetically modified wheat that can repel insect pests by emitting a repellent-smelling substance.

Their reason:

Matt Thomson, from Take the Flour Back, told The Independent yesterday that action against the Rothamsted site would go ahead as planned.

“The concerns that we have are not addressed in this letter,” he said. “The way that Rothamsted have publicised this trial has been patronising. This wheat contains genes that are not naturally occurring.”

Frankly, anyone who seriously thinks that going out and vandalising years worth of research into a staple food – research that will help us avoid crop failure and famine – because they didn’t like the publicity has no sense of proportion, no idea what they are talking about and no concept if the impact of their actions.

Sense About Science has a more measured response and petition you can sign and circulate.