Thursday, June 19, 2014

An Open Letter to Disney Imagineer Asa Kalama

Shay - Imagineering Videos
This is an open letter to Asa Kalama, a Disney Imagineer, host of a fabulous video series, and one of my son's personal heroes. (He's right up there with Bill Nye the Science Guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Mythbusters.) We would love to get the chance to meet him in person, so I'm turning to the Inter-tubes to try to catch his ear.

If you happen to have Mr. Kalama in your LinkedIn or Facebook contacts, or know of some other circuitous way to contact him, please forward him this blog post. We would be very grateful.


The hopeful father of a future Disney Imagineer

Dear Mr. Kalama,

When we first told my 9 year old son Shay that we were taking a road trip to Disneyland this July, the first thing he asked was "Can we meet Asa?”

Not Mickey, not Buzz, not Mater.


He then sat down and wrote you a letter (see below -- along with a "translation”) telling you how much he loves your The Science of Disney Imagineering videos, and how much he has learned from them. (In fact, they’re a hit with the whole family.) 

I suppose this reaction shouldn't have been such a surprise, because whenever Shay is asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?" he immediately replies “A Disney Imagineer!” This started when he first saw your videos at the age of 6, and he is now 9 years old...his answer has never wavered.

Shay is on the Autism Spectrum, and it would make this once-in-a-lifetime trip even better if we could take you to lunch, ask you lots of science questions, and maybe get some pictures and an autograph.

Thanks for making science fun and engaging, and for inspiring my son. We wish you every success!

Dear Asa Kalama,

I want to be an Imagineer of Disney Parks because I saw you on the Science of Disney Imagineering about gravity, electricity, energy, and more.

See you at Disneyland!

Love your friend and Imagineer Wanna Be, Shay

P.S. Dream it, do it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

HeartBleed - The Least You Need To Know

I've gotten several questions about the HeartBleed bug, so here's the least you need to know:
  1. This is a serious security breach.
  2. It is unlikely that your personal information will actually be exploited.
  3. You should change all your passwords over the next week or so.

If you're still reading, here are a few more details:
  1. While this security breach is serious (it affect 2/3 of all servers on the internet), it appears to not be as bad as initially thought. (Bruce Schneier, a leading security expert,  called it an “11 out of 10”, but has since dialed it back a bit.)
  2. The bug has been in the wild for over 2 years, but there is no evidence of exploitation. And any hacker that utilized it would end up getting somewhat random data that may or may not contain unencrypted passwords and other user information. So the likelihood of your personal information getting both exposed AND exploited are fairly small.
  3. This is a perfect excuse to switch over to a password keeper (I use LastPass), and use that to generate new strong, random passwords for all the web sites you use the next time you visit them. LastPass is great, because it will synch up across devices - you only need to create and remember one strong master password.

If you're STILL reading  and want to learn more, here are some helpful links to learn more about HeartBleed (ranging from basic to highly technical):

And here are some of the leading password keepers services / apps:

Finally, if you any of the major ecosystems, you should really consider turning on 2 factor verification:
I hope you found this information helpful - please leave a comment if you have further questions. Share & Enjoy!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Learning How to Code by Not Coding

I recently had the delightful opportunity to lead my daughter's 6th grade STEM class through a Technovation "Hack Day". This was not an advanced / accelerated / honors class...just an assorted group 24 sixth graders, ages 11-12 from the western suburbs of Minneapolis.

And all girls.

We spent the entire school day (9am - 4pm) developing apps with AppInventor (more on that below), and it was a rousing success. The kids stayed focussed, on task, engaged, and excited about coding. They went from knowing nothing about the platform (not even having a user account) to having apps on their (emulated) phones that displayed images and playing sounds downloaded from the web, accepted input from the accelerometer, took pictures, and even spoke to them.

Now, there was no actual coding per se. There was very little in the way of actual typing: mostly dragging and dropping UI elements and programmatic "puzzle piece" code blocks. But there was also no frustration due to typos or syntax or compilation errors. They got a great introduction to object-oriented programming -- including such core concepts as objects, events, procedures, encapsulation, and separation of concerns.

AppInventor is an offspring of Scratch, developed by MIT to allow users to create programs without programming. Previous iterations of AppInventor were unstable and a bit buggy, but I found the new 2.0 version (released this month) to be stable, polished, and (mostly) user friendly.

The special sauce that makes AppInventor extra cool include the following:
  1. It's totally web based. Kids can start a project at school, finish at home, and present it at school the next day.
  2. It's totally free!
  3. You can run your apps right on your Android device via USB or wifi, or on your computer in the Android phone emulator (which was slow and a bit tweaky).
  4. It creates Android apps that you can share with friends that will run on any Android device - phone or tablet.
  5. You have access to a most of the device's hardware capabilities:
    • Camera (still and video)
    • Audio Player / Recorder
    • Speech Recognition / Text to Speech
    • Accelerometer / Orientation
    • Barcode Scanner
    • Location Awareness
    • NFC
    • Contacts
    • Communication via Phone, Email, Texting
    • Social Sharing with Twitter
    • Local and Cloud DB Storage
    • Bluetooth (Client and Server)
  6. It integrates with LEGO Mindstorms for cool robotic projects (although I haven't gotten to try this yet).
  7. Did I mention it's totally free?
While it's reported that any Android device can be used with AppInventor (e.g. Kindle Fire, Samsung Galaxy phones), you may end up having to either sideload your apps (not too hard) or root your device (if you're ambitious and don't mind voiding your warranty). I think you'll have the most success if you use a Google Nexus device, which will sport the "pure" Android experience with the latest updates and patches (and no extra software from the manufacturer or carrier which might cause problems). I have a Nexus 4 (that I purchased to use for my Google Glass R&D), and it has worked flawlessly. The Nexus 7 tablet is currently going for $229, and the Nexus 5 phone goes for $349 (both 16Gb) on the Google Play store.

So for a couple hundred bucks, you can be up and running with some great tools for rapid prototyping or experimenting on mobile apps. I recommend you check out AppInventor, and walk through the Hack Day curriculum with your Geekling.

NOTE: Being a bit of an Apple fanboy, I’m disappointed that there’s nothing similar (that I’m aware of) for the iPad and iOS. The closest thing I've found so far is an app called Codea that utilizes Lua script. Watch this space for a review of this app sometime soon.