Hard Fun ... squeak!!!
by Thom

Thom: Hi Kim. Thom Gillespie here with cafeTechnos. Can I ask you where I have caught you?

Kim: I am sitting in an office in Glendale California at ViewPoints Research, which is the umbrella organization of Squeak.org and Squeakland.org. We have a small office in another company called Applied Minds, an R&D for hire organization founded by Bran Ferren who was the president of Disney Imagineering research and development a few years back.

Thom: Is Squeak still part of Disney?

Kim: No. We left Disney last June through a volunteer severance program at Disney. Because of economics Disney was looking to layoff nearly 4000 employees, so Michael Eisner sent a letter to every fulltime Disney employees saying 'Have we got a deal for you.' Our group meet to decide what we wanted to do with our futures and if the Disney severance package was a good deal for us. We decided to leave and found our own non-profit organization. Last August Alan Kay and I decided to create the non-profit Viewpoints Research institute to do research and development with Squeak.

Thom: Let me get this straight. Is Squeak a follow-up to the Smalltalk programming language developed by Alan Kay at Xerox Parc in the 70s? Or was Squeak developed at Disney?

Kim: Actually Squeak was first born at Apple Computer. We were all part of Alan's advanced technology group at Apple. Alan was there for 12 years and our small group ran a research project known as the Vivarium working with kids and schools looking at a variety of questions. Maybe the most basic was trying to answer the question of what is a computer when it is being its own medium and not emulating media such as books or radio or TV or a music player. What can this thing, the computer, be on its own and how can it amplify learning. While looking at this question we started to look at Java and Basic and existing programming environments and we decided we could do this better on our own and thus Squeak was born. We were a year in development at Apple when Disney lured Alan to Bran Ferren's fellows group to think about media and Disney. At that time Apple was going through a lot of leadership changes so we got together to decided what we wanted to do with our futures. One saying we have is 'the research stays the same but the funding often changes' so it didn't matter if we were at Apple or Disney as long as we had support for our research. At that time Apple allowed Squeak to become open source and put on the Internet. Apple holds the original license to Squeak but it is an open source license. When we came to Disney we explained Squeak as an open source project which could be used by Disney to create some interesting and valuable content and Disney would own the branded content developed by Disney but Squeak itself would continue to be open source and developed by a volunteer community.

Thom: Was Disney able to create content with Squeak?

Kim: Disney did create content with Squeak. They did a multi-player game called Oceanic Panic which still runs in kiosk form in Disney World in Florida. The intention was to develop Oceanic Panic as an online multi-player game but organizational changes within Disney's online division put a stop to that idea. Disney was having trouble trying to figure out what sort of service they should provide via the Internet to their fan base. At the time they had too much turn over and no agreement on the mission of Disney online.

Disney does continue to use Squeak to run an interactive character, I think from Lilo and Stich. I think it is the alien character. Kids can have an experience with this character, an intelligent agent. Kids think they are really interacting with this character which is all Squeak based. Disney still has a few people working in Squeak. Disney has done a few test projects which are Squeak based which have been given to park attendees on handheld devices to see places to eat, how long a wait for a ride, games they could played in related areas, little things like this. They could learn about the trees and the landscaping. Squeak turns out to be a very good rapid prototyping tool, which allowed Disney to turn around daily customer feedback over night into new applications. Nothing else such as Flash or Director was small enough and fast enough to offer this sort of turn around for small handheld devices.

Thom: So Disney was using Squeak for both rapid prototyping and finish work?

Kim: Exactly.

Thom: You mentioned that at one time you considered a multi-player online role playing game with Squeak? Is Squeak this powerful?

Kim: That is right. Disney wanted Oceanic Panic, a submarine game, and a four-player game online. We envisioned the game as allowing the player to create his or her own submarine in a shared environment, where the subs basically played collaboratively with each other, maybe shooting cupcakes at each other. The nice thing about this design and Squeak is that it was to be peer-to-peer, no servers. This was three years ago. Unfortunately, big organizations like Disney always say they want something different as value added for the customers but if they suddenly see a new thing and it looks a little too different, looks a little risky, the idea gets lost as Disney goes about its day-to-day work of putting out fires and managing existing work. Cutting edge usually looses out to day-to day reality.

Thom: Ok, let me ask you another question. You are not at Apple and you are not at Disney, so what is your business model to keep working? Is it always soft research money? How do you stay in business?

Kim: We are looking at a couple of models to keep us going. One is something along the lines of RedHat with Linux with ViewPoints providing support for Squeak as open source software to profit making companies wanting to use Squeak for development. We help them with the software and they provide us with operating funds for continued research to further develop the software. We are also looking at collaborations with universities where we might go in on some NSF grants for educational development. Remember, it has only been one fiscal year for us and it has been a learning curve trying to figure out how to stay alive and grow. We have talked to a lot of grant making organizations and a lot of for-profit corporations and we have learned a lot in that process.

Thom: Ok, you are open source, so how big is your community of developers?

Kim: I'd say several hundred people from around the world but it is really hard to know exactly. I work specifically in elementary education, in the eToys systems, so a lot of folks want to know how many teachers are working with Squeak? I actually don't know the answer to that. I know the core developers who make up what I call the SqueakLand community. We have the Squeak.org site which talks to the more technical community and the SqueakLand.org site which is there for parents, students and educators. I keep up more with the SqueakLand community but even then I get surprised every day such as when I receive a letter from a teacher in New Zealand who has been using Squeak with his or her kids for 5-6 months.

Thom: What pops into my mind is, I have both of the books from Prentice Hall for Squeak and neither of these books would be appropriate for teachers trying to use Squeak with kids in elementary schools.

Kim: That is right. I have been working with B.J. Kahn on tackling a project book for teachers. We have a draft of the first half of that book. B.J. has just gone back to the classroom and we are committed to getting this book out for teachers as a first step, showing a dozen projects a teacher could do with their 4th, 5th & 6th graders. This will be just to get them started with some ideas of what can be done with Squeak. I have to go back to when Apple first produced HyperCard. It was so unusual that no one knew what it was or what was possible so Apple created the 'Idea Stacks,' a dozen examples of what HyperCard could be and do, examples which users could adapt to their specific needs. We want this project book to be a similar beginning. We want it to be a call to teachers to share their developments in Squeak with other teachers. We will have needs for all kinds of content areas and all grade levels.

Thom: If I list in the article that readers can contact you for half of the book what do you say?

Kim: Not quite yet.

Thom: Come on Kim.

Kim: We have a short list a alpha testers and ... oh well, you can if you want. I'm sure there won't be hundreds of responses. Heck, it would be a good market indicator. For people who are interested I would really encourage them to subscribe to the Squeakland mailing list and make themselves verbal and to share if and how they are using Squeak. Tell us what is and isn't working. I'd really love to ramp up the number of people working at ViewPoints to make the eToys system even better but we don't have the funding. Hopefully in the future. Right now I'm working to solidify this first group of developers in eToys so we know each other, what we are working on, who we are working with and what our growing needs will be, hopefully a good body of sharable projects.

Thom: Kim, you know Idea Stacks were important for HyperCard but what really put HyperCard on the map was that first Danny Goodman HyperCard book. Danny Goodman was a journalist and he knew how to write for ordinary people. The Squeak Prentice Hall books are written by computer scientists and they are written like the follow up will be compiler design. I think Squeak really need the Danny Goodman approach for a general Squeak book.

Kim: I agree. Alan and I actually discussed finding Danny Goodman to see if he had time to do a Squeak book. There are a couple more books out there but they are still very much computer science. Both B.J. and I realize that our audience is students, teachers and parents. We need Squeak projects related to math and science such as here are the mathematical concepts your kids are going to be dealing with in this Squeak project. Some teachers may look at a racecar game in Squeak and think they are just making a game. How could that possible be math. Hopefully, the projects will show them the big ideas the kids are dealing with. How do you integrate this Squeak project into their existing curriculum? Squeak projects are not to be done as a stand-alone or just on the computer. The assumption is always that all projects are in conjunction with and in addition to off-computer activities. Squeak is just another way to see a concept. Some kids will get the idea on the computer and some will get the idea off the computer.

Thom: Let me go back a bit. Is Squeak just a follow up top Logo?

Kim: No. But, we really have to thank Seymour Pappert. Seymour was Alan's first inspiration for think about computing systems for kids. Seymour gave Alan the first idea of what computers are really good for, what kids could learn through Logo. The basics of Squeak can be found in Logo. I mean, you have this object, call it a turtle and you are giving it commands and it is doing things. I wouldn't call Squeak a follow-up to Logo. Maybe Squeak is Logo++. The basis for pedagogy and underlying epistemology has to recognize and acknowledge Logo and send deep and profound thoughts to Seymour who has always talked about powerful ideas for children. Alan and I and the teachers are continuing to pursue this because we believe it deeply.

Thom: I taught Logo 20 years ago in Alaska and there was a time when Logo was hot but then it faded and sort of disappeared when HyperCard came out. How do you keep Squeak from getting marginalized?

Kim: I think one reason this happened with Logo and maybe it will happen with Squeak is that a lot of people thought about Logo and might think this about Squeak "this is really hard.' That is right. It is hard but it is also fun. And, the kids say it is hard and the kids say it is fun. Both Alan and Seymour both talk about hard fun and soft fun. Here is an example, soft fun is watching people play baseball. Hard fun is playing baseball. And, soft fun is watching someone play the violin and listening to a concert and hard fun is you playing the violin. That is how we see Logo and Squeak, as constructive activities. It is harder. You have to use your head. It is not just putting other people's stuff together. Frankly, a lot of people stop using Squeak because it is hard and it takes time to learn how to use Squeak well. You don't learn to play a musical instrument in a couple of days, it takes time. It is a deeper learning environment. It is kind of anti what much of our culture and society is doing and learning and expecting these days. It is fast food, fast every thing. Quickly achieving your goals. It is not working a long time and getting a deep understanding. It is hurry up and getting the end of that chapter because someone expects us to be at the end, at a certain point of learning, at a certain time. Squeak runs contrary to a lot of currents in our culture. This is what we are doing. We are not going to say 'Forget it if the majority of the world thinks it is too hard.'

Thom: Ok, but do you think schools the way they are structured these days are actually set up for 'hard fun?'

Kim: No, I don't think they are but within those schools there are individual teachers who are set up for hard fun. They see the value of it and they are the hope, being the romantic that I am, they are the pioneers and maybe we can make a difference. Also, because Squeak is delivered over the Internet, schools aren't necessarily our prime target. Home schooling is an area, which is growing tremendously. Kids are learning on their own at home, through libraries and computer clubhouses. I think individuals and other environments are set up for hard fun and Squeak. I think the general infrastructure of a traditional school is not set up for hard fun. One thing we often come up against is a school where a teacher wants to use Squeak but the school has a policy, which won't allow downloading, and installation of plug-ins on their machines. Can't run Squeak without plug-ins. The poor schools are fraught with acceptable use policies and how to keep simple school local area network up.

Maybe this is subversive but we are trying to get in there and have some success to show people how great learning can happen when you focus on a powerful idea for several weeks and you don't just say 'Ok, today we learn everything about acceleration in the next half an hour.' Big ideas take time and if you really want the kids to understand the ideas and not just memorize something and parrot it back then it calls for hard fun learning.

Thom: If I asked you what your biggest success with Squeak were so far, what would you say?

Kim: Well, under Alan's guidance B.J. and I have been developing a curriculum to amplify math and science learning and we just saw 60 4th & 5th graders grasp some very difficult concepts in math and science and we feel that they were able to so because of some of the activities in Squeak. It wasn't just because of Squeak because we also developed off-computer activities because somethings can only be learned in the real world by dropping things off roofs. In this case the teacher reported that she couldn't have gotten the kids to the level of understanding they achieved without creating simulations in Squeak in conjunction with off-computer activities such as digital video recording as a kind of measuring device. We were able to bring this digital video into squeak and slow down the playback and examine what was happening. I mean, how much can you notice in a second? Not much unless you are able to slow it down and watch, literally noticing that which you didn't have time to notice in the real world.

Thom: Is there a report on this project?

Kim: Not yet. In the book we are working on it will be included.

Thom: I asked about success because I was thinking back to something asked of A.S. Neill in terms of Summerhill, the alternative school in England. He said what Summerhill never had was the BIG success which would have put it over the top in ways which little successes didn't. I was just wondering if you had a big success yet?

Kim: You asked me if it had been written up and I said 'no' but actually it has been video-d up by a professor at Ball State who needed a project to showcase technology they were using and he did it about Squeak and Alan and our work. This film is in process of final editing and there is a thread through this film of what we did with these kids in science and math education. We are hoping to pull 8 minutes our of this video which introduces what is ViewPoints research, what is Squeak, how might Squeak be used with kids in a classroom. This video also has Jerome Bruner at 87, Seymour Pappert and Quincy Jones all of whom are advisors and colleagues addressing why Squeak and what is Squeak. There is also a lot of footage from the classroom and the importance of powerful ideas in math and science instruction.

Thom: Do you have a contact for this person at Ball State?

Kim: Jim Shasky, jimshasky@bsu.edu 765-285-9079

Thom: Kim, what is your background?

Kim: Fine Arts and media studies. I am not a computer person. I had the joy of working and studying with Neil Postman at NYU. As an undergrad I was a Fine Arts major at UCLA. I started working with Alan in 1986 when there were no courses in multimedia or interface design. I have been in the classroom with teachers since 1986 looking at computers as a media, went down that track with Neil Postman.

Thom: Kim, I have to ask you this Question. So, if you have worked with Postman, do you think Neill would consider Squeak as yet another attempt to amuse ourselves to death?

Kim: No. Because of Squeak's constructive nature. If it were more a consumer technology I think Neil would consider it more amusement but since it is a construction kit that the user has to bring something to it and has to think about it, it is more than mere amusement.

ViewPoints Research Institute
1209 Central Avenue
Glendale, California 91201

Links: Books:
  • Squeak: Object-oriented design with Multimedia Applications, Mark Guzdial, 2001, Prentice-Hall. This is a college level Squeak textbook.
  • Squeak, Open Personal Computing for Multimedia, Mark Guzdial and Kim Rose
©2002 Thom Gillespie