My geekiest week EVER

Coding, data journalism, coronal mass ejections and an interview on Norwegian Public Radio about why we should all be geeks.  What’s happening to me?

I’m assuming this is some variation on a mid-life crisis, a need to reinvent myself and explore previously alien fields of knowledge.  I can highly recommend it!

I was never anti-geek.  In fact, I really liked maths and physics at school and about six years ago I did Maths A-level (just for the fun of it!!)  But on the whole, I studied arts subjects, my degree is in Russian and I have no scientific/tech element to my life.

At school, I didn’t really divide subjects into Arts and Science.  My classifications were more personal.  There were subjects which involved washing-up at the end of class (art, chemistry, cookery, sometimes biology), subjects which involved drawing (art, biology, geography) and all the rest.  I liked the subjects which were in the “all the rest” group whether it was Latin or Maths or English Lit.  I disliked and did my best to avoid the ones which involved drawing and washing up.  I think that’s an extremely sensible approach to managing your educational choices.

So, how geeky has my week been?  I’ve done much more coding thanks to the Q&A discussion boards that have been added to each lesson at Codecademy.  It’s frustrating for a total newbie like me to be just doing the exercises without really understanding the context and importance of each new concept.  It’s also annoying when I make a mistake but can’t work out what I’ve done wrong.  Chances are, somebody else will have exactly the same problem and has already asked the question in the relevant forum (just a click away from the actual lesson so super handy).

The answers others supply don’t always sort me out, but they usually do.  The other plus is that the forum creates a sort of community around the lessons – which is nice!

With my head still ringing with arrays and substrings, I went down to Birmingham City University on Wednesday for a one day introduction to Data Journalism with Paul Bradshaw – expert on all things data, investigative and online.  It was organised by the Centre for investigative Journalism.

It’s a really important area of journalism these days that I know nothing about – extracting meaningful, journalistic information and ideas for investigations from big data sets.  We were mainly working on a huge Excel file with information about Birmingham Council’s expenditure for November.  I did genuinely get a buzz out of using formulae to work out how much an individual company was being paid as a percentage of overall council spending!  And pivot tables are amazing.  But it was a lot to take in so I need to invest some time playing with spreadsheets to see what I can come up with.  I’ll be using Paul’s online notes to help me.  They’re a useful resource for anyone interested in this area of journalism.

Much less hard work was the Manchester Girl Geeks Tea Party on Sunday.  The space scientist, Dr Lucie Green, (you might have seen her chatting about the Sun with Prof Brian Cox on Stargazing last week) was giving a talk about her specialist area – Coronal Mass Ejections (there have been quite a few in recent days so it was very topical).

The sun as Dr Lucie Green sees it

The ManchesterGeekGirls do monthly talks and events at the MadLab – an amazingly idiosyncratic workspace in Manchester’s Northern Quarter – and they’re aimed at bringing together women (and their families) who share an interest in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths.)  I’m a bit of a fraud since I don’t really fall into that category;  I’m just an enthusiastic outsider.  But it was great fun.  Lucie Green is a brilliant speaker, the standard of questions from even the children in the audience was impressive and everyone brought along sun-themed cakes to share afterwards!

And news of my geekiness has spread as far as Oslo!  My friend, Lars Bevanger, is a freelance radio journalist who was polite enough to show an interest in my humble efforts to learn javascript.  It even inspired him to pitch a programme idea to Norwegian Public Radio – efforts in the UK to get girls interested in STEM subjects (his pitch was probably a bit better than that, to be honest.  Now you know why I’m not a freelance journalist!).  He interviewed some of the organisers and attendees at the GirlGeeks event and has just been round at my house to record me flailing around in some Codecademy exercise and then interviewed me!

It’s broadcast on Wednesday 25th January so make sure you tune in to NRK!

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