This blog is about Simon, a young gifted mathematician and programmer, who had to move from Amsterdam to Antwerp to be able to study at the level that fits his talent, i.e. homeschool. Visit https://simontiger.com
If you’re interested in why #covid-19 tracing apps are important and the most privacy-friendly way to implement them, please read this interactive essay by Nicky Case and play with the colorful simulations of all our possible futures. For Simon, this has been the entrance into the Nicky Case @ncasenmare universe (first recommended by 3Blue1Brown). Simon has been gulping down the playable essays on human networks and the spread of complex ideas, self-synchronization in nature, the shape of society and several other burning themes (like coming out and anxiety) and watching Nicky Case’s talks, like this one. Nicky is a self-made indie artist, programmer and writer making very edgy, very 21st century multimedia products that are both profound in content and have an engaging/interactive interface. It’s as if reading an informative piece is turned into a game. And that’s exactly what Nicky stands for: learning through play and messing about. Maybe that’s why Simon has embraced his works so eagerly, Nicky has proven to be one of those perfect matches for our self-directed learning style.
Last Tuesday, May 19, was somewhat a historic day as Simon created his first Discord bot (actually, two bots: one that does polls and count-downs and another programmable one that sends messages). In order to make the bots work, Simon first made a new server called a “bot playground”.
Simon and a friend also practiced in hacking each other:
And finally, he found himself in the centre of a great prank: everyone in his group of friends who wasn’t called Simon changed their names to something containing Simon and all the Simons in the group became Gregs:
Simon had been taking part in the Spring Challenge 2020 for several days and reached bronze level.
However he quickly realized that the 11 days of the competition felt too cramped for him to try various algorithms and still be able to work on his other projects. So what he did was recreate the whole PacMan game from scratch in p5.js, so that he has an “archived version” of the challenge and can play with new AI versions later.
We’ve developed a whole new subculture here, based on the typing course called Typetopia. Simon’s sister Neva was the one doing the course. It took her 42 days to finish and do the end exam. By now, she touch-types with a speed of 147 characters per minute and a neatness score of 7 (6 being the minimum). Simon found it fascinating to follow along, both because of the thrilling scifi-comic-book-like story that forms the backdrop for the course and because he liked to observe Neva learn the finger positions and practice her touch-typing speed and neatness. Simon even came up with a formula to calculate her character-per-minute improvement (see photo below). Neva was actually crying after she passed the exam and got her diploma, because she didn’t want the course to end. The Typetopia characters (not the characters-per-minute but the fictional characters from the scifi story) live on among us, constantly popping up in our conversations. The color purple now seems forever associated with the course’s villain Aphasia and the music Neva and Simon turned on to help Neva type more rhythmically has become the Typetopia music. We might even revive the whole routine this June, when I’m expected to take the course as well, terribly mocked for my slow typing.
Thanks to the lock-down, Simon’s got new friends. For a little over a month now, he has been part of exciting daily discussions, challenging coding sessions and just playing together with his new gang (warning: playing always involves math). We’ve never seen him like this before, so drawn to socializing with his peers, even taking the lead in some meetings and initiating streams.
And then we realized: this is how social Simon is once he meets his tribe and can communicate in his language, at his level. Most of his new friends are in their late teens and early twenties. Most of them didn’t use to hang out together before the crisis, probably busy with college, commuting, etc. The extraordinary circumstances around covid-19 has freed up some extra online time for many talented young people, creating better chances to meet like-minded peers across the world. Finally, Simon has a group of friends he can really relate to, share what he is working on, ask for constructive help. And even though he is the youngest in the group, he is being treated as an equal. It’s beautiful to overhear his conversations and the laughter he shares with the guys (even though sometimes I wish he wasn’t listening to a physics lecture simultaneously, his speakers producing a whole cacophony of sound effects, but he likes it that way and seems to be able to process two incoming feeds at once).
Last week, Simon took part in a World Science Scholars workshop by Dr. Ruth Gotian, an internationally recognized mentorship expert. The workshop was about, you guessed it, how to go about finding a mentor. One of the things that struck me most in Dr. Gotian’s presentation was her mentioning the importance of ‘communities of practice’. I looked it up on Etienne Wenger’s site (the educational theorist who actually came up with the term in the 1990s):
A community of practice is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. This definition reflects the fundamentally social nature of human learning. It is very broad. It applies to a street gang, whose members learn how to survive in a hostile world, as well as a group of engineers who learn how to design better devices or a group of civil servants who seek to improve service to citizens. their interactions produce resources that affect their practice (whether they engage in actual practice together or separately).
It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop personally and professionally, Wenger wrote in 1991. But communities of practice isn’t a new thing. In fact, it’s the oldest way to acquire and imperfect one’s skills. John Dewey relied on this phenomenon in his principle of learning through occupation.
It has been almost spooky to observe this milestone in Simon’s development and learn the sociological term for it the same month, as if some cosmic puzzle has clicked together.
Of course, it would be a misrepresentation to say nothing of the internal conflict the new social reality unveiled in my mothering heart as I struggled to accept that Simon started skipping Stephen Wolfram’s livestreams in favour of coding together with his new friends. 👬Yet even those little episodes of friction we experienced have eventually led to us understand Simon better. We sat down for what turned into a very eye-opening talk, which involved Simon asking me to take down the framed Domain of Science posters we’d recently put up above his desktop and pointing to those infographics depicted on the posters that represented the areas of his greatest interest.
Simon simply guided us through the Doughnut of Knowledge, Map of Physics, Map of Computer Science and Map of Mathematics posters as if were on tour inside his head. And he made it clear to us that he seriously preferred pure mathematics, theoretical computer science and computer architecture and programming to applied mathematics (anything applied, really) and even computational physics, even though he genuinely enjoyed cosmology and Wolfram’s books.
“Mom, you always think that what you’re interested in is also what I’m interested in”, he told me openheartedly. It was at that moment it hit me he had grown up enough to gain a clearer vision of his path (or rather, his web). That I no longer needed to absolutely expose him to a broadest possible plethora of the arts and sciences within the doughnut of knowledge, but that from now on, I can trust him even more as he ventures upon his first independent steps in the direction he has chosen for himself, leaning back on me when necessary.
So far, in just one month, Simon has led a live covid-19 simulation stream, programming in JS as he got live feedback from his friends, cooperated on a 3D rendering engine in turtle (🤯), co-created Twitch overlays, participated in over a hundred Clashes of Code (compelling coding battles) and multiple code katas (programming exercises with a bow to the to the Japanese concept of kata in the martial arts).
Last month, ten young programmers including Simon formed a separate “Secret Editors’ Club Riding Every Train” group on Discord, uniting some “nice and active” people who met on The Coding Train channel (they also included Dan Shiffman in the group). Simon really enjoys long voice chats with the other secret editors, going down the rabbit holes of math proofs and computer algorithms. Last Tuesday, he was ecstatic recounting his 3-hour call with his new peer Maxim during which Simon managed to convince Maxim that 0.999… equals 1 by “presenting a written proof that involved Calculus”:
We even talked about infinity along the way, aleph null and stuff. There was a part where he almost won, because of the proof I showed him when we talked about infinities. I was almost stumped.
The guys have now inspired Simon to take part in the Spring Challenge 2020 on CodingGame.com, a whole new adventure. To us, the lockdown experience has felt like an extra oxygen valve gone open in our world, another wall gone down, another door swung open, all allowing Simon to breathe, move and see a new horizon.
What has been your silver lining during this COVID-19 crisis so far, in terms of self-directed learning? Simon is happy that Grant Sanderson, Stephen Wolfram and Brian Greene all have more time now to make frequent streams and tutorials. In fact, he can’t even follow all of them live as they often overlap!
Luckily, years of homeschooling have allowed us to develop a very flexible approach to daily routine, enabling us to embrace learning opportunities from across the Atlantic, that mostly present themselves in the evening hours. Our learning is circular, cyclical, not linear (we learn around the clock and Simon often returns to the topics he has already covered before but at a new level).
Brian Greene publishes daily videos called “Your Daily Equations” on the World Science Festival channel, and viewers can “order” which equation they want to discuss next. He also does a weekly live Q&A.
It’s funny how both Wolfram and Greene are Simon’s professors as part of the World Science Scholars program, but he seems to have gotten a better chance to engage with them personally now that we’re all stuck at home (through the live chat and comments) than during the official World Science Scholars sessions!