Saturday, December 29, 2012

Brewing Club

This year, for solstice, I asked for a beer brewing kit.

I've got all of these grand ideas.

Firstly, nerding it all up. I've got an Arduino, heat pad, waterproof thermometer to plug into the Arduino and a relay module (although, it probably would've been quite a bit cheaper to buy a relay and do up the rest of the circuitry myself).

I've also got the use of a sleepout out the back of the house (a guest house in American terms?) and in there are a couple of old wardrobes. What if I were to modify those wardrobes? Put shelves inside, insulate with polystyrene etc. Then I could use the bottom of the wardrobes to hold a brewing tank, and the rest of the space could be occupied by bottles - those that are in the stages of being bottle brewed.

I'm quite lucky to have access to the sleepout as it means I don't have to have the smell of beer throughout the house. A friend of mine no longer brews at home due to this problem and the fact that he's got kids. It's just not practical. BUT what if we could share resources? If I'm already going to have the smell of beer around, then I might as well have a couple of tanks on the go.

And if that's happening, other resources could be shared. For example, when doing ginger beer, I realised that the most time consuming part of the process is preparing bottles - though I've since learnt that this doesn't need to be all that time consuming. i.e. labels can be removed by leaving bottles in a water bath with baking soda overnight and wiped off the following day. Sanitizing is much the same process (except that you can use bleach or buy sanitizing tablets for this purpose rather than baking soda). This allows for the reuse of bottles rather than buying plastic bottles (which admittedly, do make life easier but then, why throw away perfectly good bottles if you don't need to?).

And what happens when someone goes out of town? Do they then have to abandon their brew? Having multiple people looking after it would allow you to arrange for a brew-sitter. And if I'm not using all of my equipment i.e. I can't give my beer away fast enough, then I could then allow someone else to use that equipment (like the tank).

Of course, there are costs. For example, water being used for dealing to bottles. And if you're not having to deal with rent, then you could then save up for things like filters (though I think I've got an old water filter I can use for this purpose) and distillers. Perhaps a gas hob and gas bottle. Kegging system etc.

And while we're at it, it could lead to a bar type set up. A pool table. A bar fridge.

I'm thinking all of this could be covered by say... $20 a month per person (per wardrobe?) to cover off the costs and save for expansion. What do people think? Would this work? Could there be a whole network of brewing clubs? How would you form the social gatherings and intermingling of brewing clubs?

Worrying Trends

For the last few months I've been worried.

Steven Joyce summed up the problem for me at NetHui. His speech went something along the lines of:
People want more higher paying jobs. Business is exciting....
The problem with that is that it's a horrendously weak justification for only concerning themselves with businesses needs. And sure, they're important to the economy BUT what about people? Is it okay to dismiss people's needs or give weak justifications in order to protect businesses who, more than likely, are going to ship jobs offshore anyway?

Today I watched a documentary called "Food Inc." and while parts of it were horribly difficult to follow (mainly because it was made for an American audience. I'm starting to think that the insistence on the imperial system is so that points of comparison can't be made with other countries. Another way to make themselves insular), the same themes seemed to be coming up time and time again.

The documentary was a little disappointing in that they seemed to be naively under the impression that we can vote with our feet!

Why do I think this is horribly naive? Because everything is done to mislead us. For example, take free range chickens. The only difference that I know of between free range and factory chickens is that:

  1. They're not in cages. This doesn't mean that they aren't in horribly unsanitary, overcrowded, dark conditions.
  2. They are given the opportunity to get outside - and as far as I know, there's no minimum size on a door (i.e. if you have 2000 hens in a shed, with an door that only allows one chicken out at a time, then very few of the chickens will actually make it outside).
Labelling on food is kept to a minimum. We don't really know what we're buying. Terms are thrown at us such as "organic" (a buzzword if ever I heard one. Think about it - Organic Chemistry includes oil, man-made oil derived polymers etc.). We don't have to be informed of the fact that products contain genetically modified ingredients.

Likewise, when's the last time you saw ethical clothing which didn't cost the earth (i.e. you could buy from boutiques knowing that the clothing was made in the back of the store)? We've all been conditioned to believe that this is okay so long as we're getting cheap clothing. What if clothing was labelled with:
  1. The minimum age of the workers (sort of like a blended whiskey).
  2. The average wage of the workers.
Of course, this isn't going to happen. It would impact profits. But then, what would happen if all of them had to label their clothing as such? I imagine 1 of 2 things would happen. Either the prices go up significantly in order to protect insane profits (for which people would depressingly justify to themselves or others as if they were somehow responsible for a company's profits) or businesses would get out of the clothing business quick smart.

The Pacific Partnership Agreement seeks to give multinational corporations unprecedented control effectively asking those in the partnership to give up their sovereignty by making it possible for these businesses to sue a government if a government has affected their profits.

Food Inc. pointed out something that I only really heard about a few days ago. Around seed cultivation. It is no longer legal in America to cultivate your own soy seeds. This is also starting to happen in Mexico with corn. While you could cultivate your own corn or soy seed legally, traces of Monsanto's GM seeds (as happens with pollination) cause such practises to be illegal (or, if they're not, Monsanto has pockets deep enough to bankrupt farmers who try to do this). Why? Because it infringes on Monsanto's patents.

The last few years have seen an insane number of measures put around what was formally a civil crime - copyright. Think about the infamous S92A. The biggest objection around that issue was that the burden of proof isn't on the accuser but the defender. We can't possibly have businesses flipping the bill to prove you're infringing on their copyright. Instead, if I'm accused, it's up to me to either bend over, or go through the expense of fighting it. I'm guilty until I've proven myself innocent.

We the people no longer matter. Our laws, international agreements etc. are being written in favour of business. We need to get a lot more radical. New Zealanders need to be thinking outside of Labour and National to represent us. Of course, by the end of this term, it's probably going to be too late. The sorts of measures National are currently putting in are going to be with us for a very long time...

Friday, December 28, 2012

Google Going WAY Too Far to Protect Me

Every now and again I come across pages which apparently have malware. Often I want to proceed anyway but normally forget it as it's a bit of a hassle. This time I asked for details. Unix.com is quite often a good resource and so I was wondering what the problem is - so looked for the analysis.



Am I reading this right? Could it be that Google are now censoring results? By it's own admission, Google have found no problems with the site. The site hasn't hosted malware, hasn't resulted in the further distribution of malware and currently contains 0 pages that resulted in malicious software being downloaded.

In order for the owner of the site to remove their site from this status, they have to add the page to their webmaster tools - essentially creating the requirement to have a Google account in order to get visitors from the world's biggest search engine.

This goes too far! It's censorship and forced membership... Definitely time to start using a different search engine.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Value of Recipes

On Christmas eve I found myself desperately trying to find recipes on the Internet. It's a little harder than it sounds. For example, I brought all of the ingredients I need for my especially dark chocolate mousse and couldn't quite remember the ratios so I hopped onto the internet for a recipe. Reading through 5 recipes or so later, I gave up.

For your (and my) reference:

This recipe makes a very dark chocolate mousse that works with red wine or whiskey (my intention when making it). I don't really have much of a sweet tooth (and actually dislike milk chocolate) so it's a recipe that works for people without a sweet tooth - and of course, could be sweetened up using grated chocolate on top or.... a chocolate wafer or something.


Especially Dark Chocolate Mousse

1 big bar of dark chocolate (I used a 72% this time around). Avoid Cadbury chocolate - they don't do anything even near a decent dark chocolate.
6 egg whites, 4 egg yolks
Cream
Cocoa

In one bowl, whip egg whites until stiffened. In another similar bowl, whip up the cream - about the same quantity as the egg whites.

Melt chocolate using a double boiler (put some boiling water into the bottom of a large pot. Put a smaller pot in there. Do not let the smaller pot touch the water on the bottom of the large pot). Chuck in a couple of tablespoons of cocoa just to screw with the cocoa ratio. Add a touch of cream to chocolate to avoid it from setting. When the chocolate has only just melted, add the egg yolks. This adds a richness. Too hot, the yolks cook. Too cold, and the yolks and chocolate separate (while it tastes okay, the texture is a little odd).

Put chocolate into a large bowl. Fold in cream slowly (too quickly and the temperature differential causes the chocolate to set, again, giving it an odd texture). Once fully integrated, take one third of the egg whites, and mix it into the chocolate. Don't be too precious about the 1st third as it'll be quite difficult to fold it. Take the next third, and fold it in carefully. And again with the rest.

Pour into vessels and put into fridge (or, if you're as slack as I am, chuck some gladwrap over the bowl and chuck it into the fridge) for 12 hours or so. At this stage, it might be quite liquid. Don't panic.

Serve up with berries (something with a bit of tartness - canned works okay but a coulis thrown together from frozen berries works better) and maybe a touch of cream.

The whole thing got me thinking about recipes. In the good ol' days before the Internet, people would have to go through some effort. Writing out recipes on cards to fit into their recipe boxes or photocopying recipes. You'd only bother giving someone a recipe if the recipe was worth giving it.

The Internet however - it doesn't matter how incredibly crap the recipe, it's probably there. Distributed to billions. At times, it feels like I'm spending more time trying to find a recipe than actually cooking.

And there are LOADS of recipe sites out there. Whether they're vetted or not is a completely different story. And the country of origin is never really stated. It shouldn't make a difference, but I find it infuriating when recipes list a particular brand in their recipes. The pizza dough recipe (The vegetarian option this year) called for, not only a particular brand of yeast, but also a pre-measured amount - i.e. it's not cool to say "one sachet of". So, either recipes need to be made to be universal - sans-brand names and easy conversion of measurements OR their country of origin stated.

So, we're looking for reputable recipes. Probably the most successful ones I've come across have been on people's blogs. This one for passionfruit friands for example.

Except... I don't really record which recipes I've tried and haven't tried. So every year during Christmas, I make bread (a loaf of Ciabatta). It never quite works as intended. My first attempt was all air in the top and dense on the bottom. Last year didn't really work at all - it didn't raise at all really. This year's was pretty good. The texture was perfect BUT it hadn't risen (Up. It went sideways). That was a no-knead recipe and I'm convinced it's going not perfect as due to the humidity and temperature during the proofing period.

But back to the original point (I seem to be doing loads of tangents at the moment), recipes have very little value nowadays. Good recipes though... where do you find them? BBC Food's pretty cool. Blogs - after a trial (I found a chocolate chip cookie recipe on a blog that was pretty much chocolate chips suspending in caramel with a touch of flour) - can be a fairly decent source. But surely, there's got to be a source of recipes, for foods that you're specifically looking for recipes of, which doesn't require weeks of trial and error in order to find a decent recipe...

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Happy Solstice!

So it's Solstice (give or take a few days). What a day!

I admit to being horribly anxious about the day. There was the thought that the saddest thing would have been finding no orphans for my normal orphan's Christmas. I'd just about completely given up on it when I got an instant message asking if something was happening. Then last night, an email, asking much the same thing.

And so it got to the point that we only just had enough seating. And, surprisingly, the TV went off. It was fantastic! Normally the "tradition" has been, sit around, watch movies, fall asleep on the couch. But with the TV off, it was soooo much better. People sitting around talking, joking and basically, solving the world's problems.

Prior to this, there was a Christmas do - the only one for the year that I attended (I was invited to another though unfortunately, due to health reasons, I was unable to attend) - at one of the school's of the Manaiakalani cluster. The bit that struck me as interesting was that the bits that I realised I had been taking for granted (by, as I admitted to one teacher, "teaching around"), the computer skills and behaviour due to a consistent message, aren't taken for granted.

An amazing combination of people, the support (though people are so much more amazing given the right support) and the facilities to accomplish a common goal leads to all sorts of really cool results. And while I'm here patting those people on the back, it's worthwhile pointing out that amazingly people are only amazing when they're not feeling de-spirited.

While we're on the subject, I was reading a post on the possible use of instruction videos for education. Not in watching them but more in producing such videos. The post then went on to go on about integrating it into a school curriculum and assessment model. That has the sound of support to me. Teaching methods shouldn't be dismissed because assessment may be hard. Instead, knowing that one of THE most effective ways of learning is to teach, then do the teaching as a method to reinforce a lesson rather than for assessment needs. I argue that it's the learning that's important, not the assessment.

While we're heading towards new years, I have to wonder what next year is going to bring. While it was supposedly the end of the world on the 21'st, I have to comment on just how unremarkable the day was. So next year, I'm looking at just how awesome I can possibly be.

I have a few different projects on the run. The new image for Manaiakalani which leads into Tartare Source. I'm convinced I'm going to get "Trading Post" up and running. I've got an interesting prospect ahead of me though I'm not entirely convinced I'm the right person for that particular job. A project of my own for use by school's (I'm not really ready to announce what that project might be at this stage). And finally, lesson plans around electronics and arduinos (to do the heavy lifting).

Of course, these things always take more time than you anticipate. So I guess if I'm able to accomplish half of these things next year, I'll be pretty pleased with myself.

But, the main point of this post....

Happy Solstice one and all. May your new year bring less doom days.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas News

I haven't really been watching TV lately. Tonight though, I find myself wanting to punch someone. TV3 news seems to find all new interesting ways to scrape the bottom of the gutter.

I think we need to establish some broadcasting rules around Christmas. Things like:
  • If a story is going to be run within the first say... 20 minutes of the news, and includes the words "Christmas" and "Business", the story should be removed. Why is the emphasis around Christmas around sales figures? Should we really care?
  • If the story generates the same reaction from people as shows like "America's Funniest Home Videos", "The Zoo" or "Wipeout" then the story should be removed (and shifted to say... Campbell Live or whatever).
Broadcasting standards my butt...

What's got me so irritated? Besides me being a little grumpy because I've put myself on a diet, 3 News decided to put on a story about people buying presents for their pets.

Firstly, can we just get over the whole Christmas thing? Calling it Solstice (and holding it a couple of days earlier - on solstice...) is a hell of a lot more inclusive. Just about every culture has some sort of way to celebrate solstice.

Secondly, this story was put on BEFORE the propaganda piece about guns in America (it being true makes it no less propaganda - i.e. if an issue has existed for a long time but the media only just starts reporting on it, then it can probably be considered propaganda. They're pushing for some sort of political message. The debate and protests on this one is going to be terrible). There was a joke on the last episode of "7 Days" for the year. I paraphrase:
"Personally I like seeing gay men holding hands in West Hollywood because I feel safe. Those are 2 hands that I know aren't holding guns."
There's a fair argument to be made around the fact that the guns aren't the problem. The infotainment film "Bowling for Columbine" points out that Canada has more guns per capita than America but significantly lower instances of gun related crimes.

There are a whole lot of things that happen in America that I just don't understand. For example, quota's. "You must have [x] percentage of Jewish staff" etc.

Imagine for a moment that I'm a complete racist. I throw the word Nigger around as part of everyday language. And then suddenly, I'm told I can't say the word Nigger any more. The fact that I don't use the term doesn't make me any less of a racist, just as the use of the term doesn't necessarily make me a racist. So all we've really done is attempt to hide racism. Getting rid of the term doesn't get rid of the problem. Personally, I think the distinguishing factor is the intent behind the words.

So guns aren't the problem - it's the intent behind the guns. Funnily enough, while generally I think that toughening gun laws is a good thing, I'm sceptical as to whether it'll have any real effect on gun related crime. It has the feel of closing the gates after the horses have bolted.

We need to find the reason people are willing to shoot other people. I suspect it's to do with Capitalism. Capitalism is kind of Nationalism on an individual scale. Rather than a "them" and "us" mentality that enabled things like the mass murder of Jewish people during World War II, the kind of rampant capitalism practised in the States has a kind of "Me and Them" mentality that enables people to be dismissive of the less privileged because it'll cost them a little more in taxes.

If it's all about money, and we'll only care for those pesky under classes if it doesn't cost us, it's not too hard a stretch to sete how shooting someone given that they're not the same as me... Likewise, from the other point of view, it could be considered reasonable to threaten someone's life in order to acquire money - on the condition that others are dismissive of those people due to capitalist ideals.

Look! Lots to talk about there! So why the damn puff pieces TV3? Most of us watching the news do so in the hopes that we might learn something of what's going on around the world... By reporting mostly puff pieces and only a few international stories, there's a them and an us. We, the great uninformed and them, the others - who we know little about...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Open Source Battle Grounds

I often find myself at odds with a lot of FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open-Source Software) people due to my attitude on office suites.

To me, they're not the place to start introducing FLOSS. Those ideals about interoperability are lost when people then find they're having to adjust bullet points and the like when those same files end up on a different office suite. This is fiddly work (which I'm of the opinion should NEVER be a problem).

The matter is even more confused when there's already a de facto standard used in businesses everywhere.

The fact is, trying to replace MS Office with LibreOffice/OpenOffice and formerly StarOffice, is setting up for failure.

It's my belief that bringing FLOSS to a business should ALWAYS extend their functionality. Introducing GIMP to crop images in place of packages too expensive for most businesses to contemplate (in which case, a cost benefit is seen immediately) or building a database (a real database - which is NOT a spreadsheet or multi-sheet spreadsheet - more rubbish that I hear perpetrated) to help ensure data integrity and enable future expansion (i.e. a database can then be offered via a web front end or used with other information to build a more complete information management system) adds value rather than asking people to sacrifice something - whether it's as simple as user interface elements or more complex like sharing documents - they're losses. Introducing FLOSS should not cause a loss if you want to promote it.

I'm also not a fan of Google Docs. Sure, they're great for collaborative work - in fact, for this purpose, they just can't be beat. However, instead of the office suite being the limiting factor, the limiting factor has turned into the browser. Page breaks in a word processing document appear in different places depending on what browser you're using. There ALWAYS seem to be annoying nags if you're not using Google Chrome (OS, the Browser or Chromium Browser).

I'm a big fan of getting rid of office suites. I consider them to be HORRIBLY outdated technology.

Spreadsheets are great for small quick tabulated, the presentation is more important than data integrity, sort of quick jobs BUT extending the range that spreadsheets can handle (i.e. previously you couldn't have more than 65,536 rows) has confused their purpose even further.

They should be replaced by databases. This then introduces the opportunity to make a system work to a business rather than a business trying to work around a software package.
And no... I don't mean sqlite. Sqlite is probably good for stand alone programs but for the most part, those databases that are vital to a businesses everyday operations, need to be shared by multiple people. A more server-centric database:
  1. Has locking features which make them scalable (i.e. if one person has a spreadsheet open, then generally, the whole spreadsheet is locked (collaborative features aside - although in a version of Office, this caused all sorts of headaches). Having the capacity for an information system to scale brings with it an incredibly positive message - you're working with the business to help with it's growth.
  2. Clears the way for expansion such as having it work with other data in a consistent way.
  3. Helps with data integrity by ensuring everyone is accessing the information in the same way (hopefully by web based interfaces - even if not available on the Internet, designing interfaces for the Internet generally creates a OS/device agnostic interface).
The word processor could be a whole lot smarter. Rather than presenting you with a 20,000 formatting controls (on an individual character basis), I'm of the opinion that you should instead be able to use styles - yes, the same concept as web pages. Lyx, which describes itself as a document processor, is close except that it doesn't make it easy for you to define your own styles. Other word processors have a cursory nod in this direction but do incredibly badly at enforcing it (a friend of mine wrote up a document, sent it away for review, and then went through it again to fix up the structured nature of it - as pointless and just as busy work like as fixing up bullet points). Currently, writing up a document is a mad frenzy of content and formatting. What if, you could concentrate on the content and then quickly mark out blocks of text (That's a heading. That's a sub heading etc.) and let the computer take care of the rest?

I'm of the opinion that presentations are, in the normal course of things, done INCREDIBLY badly. The few good presentations I've seen have been from people who do presentations for a living. The likes of Lawrence Lessig and Al Gore. These presentations were used to illustrate something. I don't believe that the lack of presentation applications would have stopped either of these people from having brilliant presentations. They are the exception and people who have gone to exceptional lengths to have good presentations. Otherwise, they're bullet points - points to talk to. They don't engage the audience. It's much better to have vital information - that which you need illustrated - behind you such as charts. Something that helps to illustrate a point (when I was told I needed to have some slides behind me I agonised over it. I didn't want them. I didn't need any charts and I think they're more of a distraction than an aid when you don't actually need them. I spent more time agonising over those slides than I did actually thinking about what I wanted to say - fitting a speech to slides just sucks. The speech was awful as I was feeling horrendously anxious about the slides.) is so much more engaging than putting up bullet points.

So I think FLOSS has a huge part to play in advancing technology here. Instead of fighting a losing battle with trying to perpetuate existing terrible practises (based on MS's profits), FLOSS could instead be used to show people better and more efficient ways of doing things.

This really came home to me when I was trying to compile a report on warranties. Essentially, while trying to break down the types of repairs across each of the school's, I was finding I was having a hell of a time trying to get the formatting consistent. The problem would be the same regardless of which office suite I was using. Instead, I really should have been able to create a template and then select which sheets it should use to generate a finished report - charts and all.

Office Suites create bad (and soul destroying) work practises.

But back to the original point, when making a proposal, think about what value it's adding. Is it adding value? Is it adding value perceived by the intended audience? The revolution that oh so many Linux people talk about isn't going to happen by replacing like for like. Instead, it needs to be something better. Something that the intended audience sees value in. Something that revolutionises the way people do things. Things that encompass the best in Open Source Software - flexibility, scalability and, horribly important to me, customizability. All derivatives of the core concept of Free (as in Freedom)...

Monday, December 17, 2012

What's so wrong with TPPA?

I'm not sure how many regular readers of this blog know what TPPA is and I think the protesters have done a really bad job of conveying just how bad it is.

TPPA stands for the Transpacific Partnership Agreement. It's an agreement between a whole bunch of countries such as Brunei, New Zealand, Malaysia, Australia, and probably the most problematic, the US. It's also a growing phenomena. Japan is currently in there as an observer, and South Korea has expressed interest in joining.

The agreement attempts to create a "free trade" agreement. There's some discussion on the merits of free trade. For example, New Zealand's manufacturing sector could essentially disappear due to our free trade agreement with China - we can't compete with China's pay rates. In New Zealand, our politicians are quite happy to sacrifice various sectors for dairy and meat - basically, Fonterra and The Alliance Group Limited.

Which brings up this really interesting problem. Previously issues dealing to the profits of individual companies were considered civil matters - so the burden of proof was on the company (or a representative). So things like copyright for example.

At some point, things changed. I assume this is to do with campaign contributions. Suddenly there's a movement to make the disruption of these company's profits a criminal matter. So now, as with S92A, the burden of proof is on the accused. For example, if I get a warning about copyright infringement (which adheres to NZ laws - I haven't read up on any instance of a notification actually adhering to NZ laws thus far. Anyone know of anyone getting such a warning? - and I don't mean the usual buckshot type emails sent out which aren't actionable), it's up to me to prove that I wasn't infringing copyright.

So how does this effect TPPA? Currently New Zealand has Pharmac - a government entity that:

  1. Handles which medications are going to be subsidized.
  2. Leverages bulk buying by essentially buying medications for the country.
Pharmac has been a thorn in the side of pharmaceutical companies since the 70's. Such companies have argued that competition would drive down prices but it's been the position of New Zealanders that the leverage of this single entity far outweighs any perceived benefit of competition (perceived because a controlled number of entities does not necessarily drive down prices. Look at our supermarkets for example).

So the TPPA could actually make it so that we HAVE to introduce other pharmaceutical channels into the country.

But much more worryingly to me is the pressure it puts on New Zealand laws. It seems that if the NZ government were to put a law in place that, as a consequence, affected the profit of that company, then that company has the right to bring a case against the NZ government. So before laws are put into place, the government would first have to consider the profits of any company trading within the country.

Like probably all international trade agreements, this one is being done in secrecy. We aren't being told what we're trading away. Our sovereignty is at risk for commercial concerns. Our access to low priced medications is at risk. John Key is being offhanded about these issues claiming that any agreement would have to go through parliament. This is untrue. The power to make a deal lies with the executive (John Key). The only thing the government can do is to stop laws from going through to implement such deals - essentially putting us in breach of such deals and subject to any penalties that non-adherence might incur.

So we need some transparency around what's actually being traded away (currently we're reliant on leaked documents). I also feel that we need a change in laws around how these negotiations are made. We can not, and should never have, relied on a horribly small number of people to make these deals. In a democracy, our elected officials at the very least, should have to vote on any such deals. I'm sure this need will become more and more apparent as deals such as this - where the scope of such is extended to protect, not the people of New Zealand, but the large multinationals - become more and more common. They're entirely too common for my liking as it is.

Essentially, we the people, have absolutely no influence on such deals. The scope of these deals seem to represent, not us, but companies. This feels like a great big giant corruption of democracy. Of course, our elected officials NEVER swear to represent the people who elected them. Something else I would love to see changed...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Neighbour Communications

I find the way that neighbours communicate with each other in this community (Mt Eden) infuriating.

During renovations, the builder had his ute parked in the driveway but his trailer partially over the driveway. Rather than knocking on the door and having a 2 minute conversation, one of the neighbours rang the council who then sent a representative from a company contracted to OSH. Given that the site was safe, he had no cause for complaint and really, checking a working site over a complaint that a footpath was partially obstructed feels a little over the top to me.

One of the immediate neighbours apparently complained about vege garden - at the time there was a fairly good crop of chilli plants - to the council. Apparently it was attracting rats... A 2 minute conversation there could have saved what has ultimately turned into a toxic relationship with the neighbour.

Mt Eden is essentially a whole lot of terraces. So our neighbour to the other side is looking to replace the rockery with a retaining wall. Rather than talk to them, my mother is threatening to call the council - full guns blazing.

When did we stop talking to people? Even worse, why does the council encourage this sort of behaviour? We're in constant fear that the relationship is going to go bad that we essentially throw any relationship with neighbours right out the window while trying to avoid problems leading to soured relationships with neighbours...

So while I'm looking at trading post as a way to meet the neighbours, concerns around boundary lines and liability make the effort effectively pointless.

I'm a big fan of "front lawn" solutions. That is, speeding traffic down your street can actually be reduced by having people doing stuff in the front garden - drivers have a tendency to slow down around people. When neighbours talk, a lot of those problems that the council are ever so keen to get involved with, suddenly disappear. Boundary issues are talked through and concerns are quite often alleviated and often work out to be beneficial to both parties.

The question is, how do you encourage more front lawn solutions?

Usian Bean

Just a quick note before I get started... I've just noticed. This is this blog's 300th post!

Mr C.K. has probably been wondering when I was going to do this post. There's been a little bit to think on.

So I've been spending a little bit of time at another school. It's been a bit of an eye opener. When the offer to go to the school first came along, I was told I could take 2 or 3 kids at a time and teach them how to super impose images.

I had to do a second take. I can easily take 8 kids at a time. Except... that these are kids without netbooks. To the left is one of the images we came up with - I only got around to a few students throughout the day unfortunately so there weren't any other interesting images to do though... I've since decided that I think I'd have a lot more fun doing tessellations with the kids. i.e. show the class the method for creating simple tessellations, get a group to come up with more complicated forms using squares (hopefully they'd discover that lines of symmetry can lead to more complex designs), another group to figure out what shape M.C. Escher's lizards are formed from (Hexagon) and how he did it etc.

Anyway, so kids without netbooks. It's easy to start taking things for granted. I found myself having to, first off, check what skills they did have. Questions such as "Do you know what Ctrl-Z does?". There was also the novelty factor. It was incredibly hard to work with 2 kids when everyone else in the class would then stand around rather than getting on with their own work. I probably spent half my time telling them to get on with it and having to explain that they wouldn't get a turn if I was having to spend all of my time having to tell them to get on with it.

When I first started at the schools, I was horribly awkward. There was a whole lot of uncertainty. Such as what can I do and not do in terms of discipline. I also went on a field trip with these kids and found myself horribly surprised by the ... lack of interaction with the adult helpers. It turns out that the uncertainty I felt when I first got started isn't all that unusual. Here I am telling kids off for throwing rubbish around (no sooner had I gotten one kid up to pick up rubbish that one decided it was a good idea to throw a bottle about - he also got a bollocking and made to pick up rubbish) or kicking other students and the other adults just seemed to be almost paralysed with indecision.

So it turns out that even though one or two of the kids looked at me with askance - wondering what authority I had to tell them to pick up rubbish, given the right tone of voice, they were actually quite receptive to it. And while I'm telling off the occasional child, I found myself a little annoyed that things that shouldn't be ignored were ignored by one of the teachers. Rather than going off and getting ready as the rest of the kids were doing, 2 kids decided it was a good idea to not only loiter, but then to do something they were specifically told not to do... twice. I told one of them off. The other was told to hurry up and get dressed rather than the misbehaviour being dealt with.

Blame all of that on Super Nanny. I've probably watched enough of it to know that 90% of it is simply setting limits and sticking to them. It's absolutely pointless to set rules but not enforce them.

The point though... schools all over the country are in completely different states. The criteria used to compare them is ineffective and the resulting kids are going to be quite different depending, not only on their on their own individualism, but also on the school that they went to and the opportunities that school afforded them. The difference between a school with a computer lab compared to those running 1:1 programmes are light years apart for example. At one of the schools within the Manaiakalani cluster, the kids spent all of their time initially, not on the internet exploring all of that horribly interesting stuff like other kids in the cluster, but instead sat there taking photos of themselves.

Which then brings up the question of zoning. Schools must accept students from within the zone and they get funded based upon those numbers. Kids from outside the zone may be accepted at the school's discretion BUT don't receive funding. This doesn't sit well with me. If I had a child, I would like to think I could chose what I felt was the school that offered them the best opportunities with an ethic that I felt was appropriate for them rather than having that dictated by where I lived.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Why are the USB Ports Locked?

I was at a school recently where the USB ports of the computers are locked down (on the student's log in). This struck me as counter to learning. Your students ability to share is greatly diminished. So what's the justification? Security. They might get virus'.

This to me just means that MS Windows is not fit for the purpose of education. If education needs to suffer to keep a computer system secure in a school, then it's a no brainer. Chose something that doesn't require you to sacrifice education - especially if that's your primary purpose.

I know MS Windows is good for some things. Microsoft Office is a top notch application for example. You can do things in MS Office that you can't in other office suites. But that's only important if those features of MS Office used.

Is the ability to create a pivot chart all that important in education? I would argue that if it's only in MS Office, then you've probably got more important things to be learning or teaching. Database theory i.e. relational databases - is probably more important anyway.

I think Linux has something to offer here. A lot of people would probably be surprised by the amazing things that can be done using Open Source software - and for the most part, without software licensing costs. Take GIMP for example. Although not photoshop, it is incredibly capable. You can do all sorts of things in it that teach a whole range of interesting concepts such as layers, filters, super imposing etc. There's a social lesson in there too - just because you see a photograph, doesn't necessarily mean that something is real. Removing a few pimples, stretching out a persons neck etc. isn't all that hard.

So what's stopping Linux in schools?

Firstly, the perception that Windows if free for schools. Actually, quite a lot of money goes towards the MS schools agreement - money that could be used elsewhere.

Secondly, who offers schools help with Linux? I was replaced in my last job by a Windows person - not a Linux person. There seem to be very few companyies offering Linux desktop support. Given that school I.T. support is tied up in just a handful of I.T. companies, who are all willing to perpetuate the "Windows is free for schools" mantra, where do schools go for Linux support?

Thirdly, is there any real efforts into making Linux suitable for schools? Some might argue that edubuntu is going in this direction but... well look at their goals:
Our aim is to put together a system that contains all the best free software available in education and make it easy to install and maintain.
So the first part talks about free educational software. The second part is pretty much what Ubuntu provides anyway. So basically, it's a copy of Ubuntu with a few education applications added. And while I hate to criticise Open Source software (although I do fairly often), a lot of it is made by geeks for geeks. This is incredibly evident in the educational software sector where educational games often lack lasting engagement.

When looking at what schools are already using on their desktops it's not unusual to see a set up identical to what a secretary in a small business might have. The operating system, a browser and MS Office. All of which (LibreOffice rather than MS Office) are installed in most desktop Linux distributions anyway.

What does Windows offer? A whole lot of management. This isn't a road I would like Linux taking as I think it just stifles education anyway. Instead, I think a school set up should be concerned with keeping kids safe - an I.T. system should look after itself without limiting education.

So what does this look like to me?

Kids as the admins. They should be able to install whatever applications they need to accomplish a task.

A fall back position - currently there are PXE boot options. I think it needs to be more local than that - a rescue partition. Perhaps PXE for the initial load OR usb sticks. A compete restore should taken less than 10 minutes.

Some small amount of management - applications that can or cannot be installed for example. Internet security done on a network level, not an individual machine level.

If you find yourself justifying something on the desktop for security, then you have to ask seriously ask yourself, what is it that you're protecting? It should no longer be enough to just play the security card by default. There's a cost to security. This needs to be understood.

Cloud or server based storage. The individual machines should not hold files vital to a child's work. This makes back ups a whole lot easier - even better if you can outsource that to someone else. Of course, there's the whole "off shore" issue. i.e. government agencies do not store information offshore.

I guess this post is really just a great big justification for Tartare Source. It's not the only use. I think a similar set up could be incredibly beneficial to a business for example. Less overheads in terms of licensing tracking and security concerns. Freedom for people to work in the way that they feel most comfortable etc.

So I guess the question is still, where would you find the support? With the user in mind and "best practise" considered inappropriate in civilised company...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Programming a Programming Language - Gherkin

I've found myself essentially writing a programming language. It's nothing fantastic and I'm sure there are probably much better ways of doing this but having worked through a couple of structures now I find myself surprised by just how simple it is really.

Why am I doing this? For the Manaiakalani project I wrote a program which, lacking creativity, I called "InitialLogin". Basically, when a computer has just been imaged, the computer has to be set up by the user. Given that I only ever wanted to maintain one image for ALL of the schools, I wanted certain things to happen when a user selected which school they belong to.

Things like set up network settings (wireless mainly), install any programs that the specific school wanted etc.

And then there's the whole flexibility/usability problem. If I wanted to add another school, I should just be able to throw together a bit of a definition file, spend a little time on branding (you'd be surprised at how much value people see in a simple image change) and have a completely customized set up for them within a week.

And it's all worked fairly well (There's still one bug that I haven't been able to fully solve) except... I realised that it needs more. Take a high school setting. Things are a little bit different. As well as school wide settings, there are also applications that could be installed for particular subjects. Sort of like a computer version text books. You'd only issue text books to the students taking those particular subjects. There are applications that can come in handy for electronics or music or example.

So we're now into flow control. For those now in the know, a lot of programming is basically being able to control the flow by using constructs like "if... then... else...". It's actually a really natural construct. I giggled when I heard someone leaving a message on an answering machine:

"Hi, it's Bevan. Unfortunately I've missed you. If you're able then give me a call otherwise we'll talk some other time".

Okay - so the language isn't exactly the same but an else is just so much shorter to type.

And loops (something I'm not accounting for though I can imagine what it'd look like) - being able to tell a computer to rinse, repeat. Much easier once you've figured out how to evaluate conditions.

What does this mean? The piece of the project that I'm most proud of in terms of technical coolness is only going to become cooler. The extra flow control is only one of the changes. I'm also looking to have it do a quick survey of the wireless points around and make an informed guess of the school that it's currently in to take away one more question (or to limit those choices). Given that I'm looking to have a rescue partition on every device, then the answers to various questions could probably be stored on that rescue partition so the next time a user decides to reimage their machine, the initialLogin program could then seek out that file, confirm that the user wants to use those settings and go on it's merry way - a 2 second setup single click setup rather than a 3 minute one on subsequent reimages (with the option to change those settings of course - for those who move schools for example).

Anyway, this all means that I'm that much closer to releasing my first application as an opensource project - one that encourages more collaboration rather than the more backdoor - download the source from a repository and use it for yourself. The gherkin in my tartare source.

Of course, this also means I'm going to have to make be all sorts of justifications.

For example, I find procedural programming simpler and more stable in certain situations rather than object orientated programming.

I want to be able to plug in different interfaces depending on need - i.e. qt, ncurses, gtk - the only one of which I'll be working on, unless I have a personal need, is gtk. This leaves a question around which version (2 or 3?). Currently I'm finding 3 frustrating as the documentation just isn't up to the code. For example, I love using indents to better arrange information. The object I was using in gtk2, alignmentbox, to achieve this is just really poorly documented (previously you needed 2 arguments to initialize. Now it only takes one... but which one?). I guess I could change the way that I display things or better yet, go through the code and try and document it myself, but for the time being, I'm quite happy to write gtk2 code as closely to gtk3 code as possible (to make the transition easier in the future).

Part of open sourcing something is letting it go... Whether that means the code is opened up for modification by a community with community decisions, or whether forks are strongly encouraged to enable it to be built for differing situations (with a view to try and merge as many of those forks where it makes sense) is something still to be figured out. Personally, I favour the second one as I think it leads to a greater range of diversity and hopefully a clearer landscape in terms of purpose.

This could be compared to the relationship between Debian and Ubuntu. While Ubuntu is derived from Debian, the development that goes into Ubuntu feeds back into Debian - in a much more community and stability focused way. So 2 distributions with very different purposes essentially evolving with each other.

What do others think? This of course assumes that I can grow a community interested in this sort of deployment/these sorts of tools.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Human Face on Redevelopment

I went to a meeting last night about the redevelopment happening in Glen Innes. I think I mentioned bumping into some people that I know while in Wellington for the NZ Open Source Awards who were down there to protest the redevelopment.

Here's the thing. We know that the redevelopment probably would have happened under Labour. Hell - it probably needs to happen. So what is the problem?

Firstly, think about Housing New Zealand. While people are being moved away and getting letters from Housing NZ about their having to move at some point in the future, people have to talk to a voice on a phone - assuming they can get through and don't get hung up on. It takes the human out of communications.

A point was made about "grid blocks". Sounds horrible when talking about housing right? It turns out a grid block is essentially a block i.e. an area of land surrounded by roads. It was actually a really good indication of just how badly the communication has been thus far.

The change manager in me wants to say something about engaging the stakeholders. I should probably explain the word "stakeholders" as it oh so often goes wrong.

I heard of a university research project whose end of project dinner didn't include any of the people being researched. Given that research should ultimately result in helping those being researched, they are stakeholders. A big portion of NZ'ers and the National government probably don't see those living in those houses as stakeholders but...

One person was pointed out as having received a letter from Housing New Zealand back in April about having to move. She lives next door to her auntie. She doesn't know when she's got to move out. Is it worth planting some tomatoes? That feeling of uncertainty has left her in a state of limbo.

Another woman got up and spoke about the fact that she too has received one of these letters. Her family all live close by. She works in one of the schools in the area and her kids go to another one near by. She walks everywhere. Her moving out of the area would detach her from family, work and friends. Her whole life.

And then there's the school's problem with staffing. If people are moved out of the area, then school rolls go down and funding decreases leading to staff cuts. If you have a programme - such as Manaiakalani - being developed, then there's a considerable amount of investment in staff. Professional Development and the type. This is nothing to scoff at.

Come on down Len Brown. Len Brown was late to the meeting due to the destruction and deaths caused by the hurricanes in Hobsonville. I'm a bit of a fan boy of his. I loved the cap put on gambling machines in South Auckland. He's a very humble and approachable person. I couldn't have thought of a better person to take on the mess that is the "Super City". Actually - I was a little annoyed this morning when I looked for news on the hurricanes and was surprised to see that Len Brown wasn't mentioned at all. John Key however.... In terms of putting a human face to the destruction, John Key is not an ideal choice. Bob Parker was always my go to face for the destruction in Christchurch. Likewise, I feel that Len Brown should be the human face on this disaster. Perhaps a little coaching on the right wording i.e. it would be political suicide to try and compare the 2-3 - apparently one is missing and most likely dead but unconfirmed - deaths and damage to homes to the Christchurch earthquakes.

So Len Brown talked about reopening the Housing New Zealand office in Glen Innes. How he would be working with the local board to try and improve communications and see if people could be kept within the community while these changes are happening. Any help in reducing the uncertainty that Housing NZ and our government seem so unconcerned by would be a majour win.

But I find myself worried. We've got Len Brown! I've great confidence in him and I think we're in for interesting times BUT what about those other areas going through similar redevelopment? The National Government are REALLY bad at engaging with people. Even if we have our champion here, who's championing in these other areas?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Computer Gambling (and not supporting local business)

Nope. This post isn't about online gambling.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was going to have to take my laptop in for a warranty claim. I tried to do that yesterday except that it turns out that PB Technology's Auckland City branch and Penrose branch don't share databases - so no proof of purchase.

Anyway, when I showed them the issue, the guy looked a little surprised. "Did you drop something on it?"

Ah crap. They're going to dispute that it's a warranty issue...

This got me thinking about the whole process. Currently, if something breaks and it's still under warranty, you take it into the store and, in the case of computers, they send it away to a "service provider". If the service provider disputes the cause of damage, you're left to pay a bill. Usually about what they charge for an hour of their time.

Under the Consume Guarantees Act, we're afforded certain rights including an expectation that your purchases last a "reasonable" time BUT as far as I know, no one has ever really fought for these rights. Why? The time taken to dispute these things is worth far more than the cost of repair or replacement. So we're stuck with extended warranties and the like.

But what does a warranty really get you? The power is ALL in the service provider's court. If they decide it's not a warranty fault you've really got no recourse. You're stuck paying for an hour of their time which is probably more than the cost of the parts needed.

In my case, I could take it to Penrose and take the gamble as to whether it'll be covered under warranty (even though the problem has occurred from normal usage) OR buy the parts needed off eBay and do the repair myself.

Unfortunately, I don't know the odds. A free repair under warranty or paying silly amounts for work I could do myself (at least $80) vs. the certainty of doing the repair myself - $50 worth of parts.

And about supporting local businesses. I've found myself buying a bunch of things off eBay. Things like electronic components. I know I can get these things in New Zealand and support New Zealand businesses, but honestly, they need to pick up their game.

It's no longer enough to just have things to sell - not given that a lot of those things are now accessible directly from manufacturers. Retailers now have to start thinking about the service around such things. For example, a battery for my laptop from China cost around $35 whereas the cheapest ones off Trademe run at around $80 delivered.

What are you really getting for the extra money? A warranty? What's that worth really?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Damn Twitter

I hate to say it, but for once, I wish I was on twitter as I think I could fit this into 140 characters or less. Sod it - I'm going to avoid that limitation and ramble a bit.

The Internet has certain faux standards - more suggestions (much like Indian road laws and much to the same effect). .org - an organisation. .govt, a government entity. .com, a commercial enterprise.

So imagine my annoyance when I see the following URL (Uniform Resource Locator - or the rather more catchy - web address): http://aotearoaisnotforsale.com/

I'm quite anal about choosing the right top level domain for sites. Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand) is not for sale with a ".com" address turns me off right away. While I agree with the sentiment, the address just has me wanting to hunt down these people and punch them.

While I'm on the topic, while I was in Wellington for the New Zealand Open Source Awards (I want my name associated to it - something I'm struggling with. It seems that while my name was associated directly in the speech about the award in education, in print/text, my name is a no show) I bumped into a bunch of people I know from Auckland. They were in Wellington to protest about the housing relocation happening in Glen Innes.

Basically, huge trucks are showing up to shift houses (Houses - not contents. Houses...). Quite a few of these are houses that have been occupied by families for generations. As in Zimbabwe, the way to get rid of the poor isn't to remove houses. What I hadn't realised, and what Hone Harawira has done a lousy job of conveying, is that this isn't just happening in Glen Innes. There were people from all over the country there.

And okay, I'm not at all naive enough to think this wouldn't have happened under another government. In fact, I'm pretty sure the wheels were already turning on this project. However, I think it would have been handled a hell of a lot better under Labour. I want to make a comment about the rich white bastards in power at the moment (as a side note: I saw a video clip with a speech from Hekia Parata, the New Zealand Minister of Education at the moment - a terrible portfolio to hold. She started her speech with something about the beautiful names of the children who greeted her at the gate - something that I feel only infuriates teachers while their pay is STILL problematic) but it's implied.

The problem is that the whole process isn't currently seeing people. More housing, good thing. Displacing people. Bad thing. Pick your battles. Get the community involved and work out how this could be done and you're probably onto a winner. As things currently stand, the current government and Housing New Zealand have handled this so badly to the point that protesters are forced to remain outside of public events.

So - back to what this post is really about - a tweet:

Define oxymoron (or simply moronic): aotearoaisnotforsale.com

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How Stupid was I?

I had one of those moments tonight. You know the ones. The ones where you've got this set view on things and then suddenly, you realise that you were so completely and utterly wrong. And the more you think about it, the more you realise that you should have spotted this sooner. I had the same thing when it came to Open Source vs. Free Software.

I'm a big advocate for OLPC - One Laptop Per Child. A few years (last year?) ago I was talking to some people about helping out with a deployment - Note: this is while working on the Manaiakalani project. I was feeling a little unhappy about it because I had felt that the technical specifications being given weren't the ones that should be given, even though all recommendations were just that, recommendations.

For example, when working with networking gear there were recommendations given around network switches and PoE (power over ethernet). I felt that choosing switches based upon their ability to do Power over Ethernet was silly given that:
  1. PoE injectors probably worked out cheaper (and much more flexible. Without looking at the standard and going on my own experience - PoE injectors seem to come in different voltage requirements. I've seen as low as 5V and as much as 48V. Is there a standard around this?).
  2. Given that wireless networking gear is relatively cheap, and an alternative exits in terms of PoE injectors, shouldn't the emphasis instead be put on what features the switch supplied outside of PoE features?
  3. Most switches that advertise PoE capabilities in their switches only offer it on half of their ports. If you're looking at an emphasis on wireless network, then half isn't going to cut it. In fact, for most third world implementations, you aren't looking at wired solutions at all. It's so much cheaper in terms of real estate. There's a very good chance that you're going to need PoE on the majourity of your ports - a 1:2 ratio just doesn't work.
They were instead working on Professional Development. I felt that not getting the technical details right made the PD pointless.

But there's a whole other layer. One that, at the time, I should have realised was there, but I didn't.

And here it is:

One of the big take home messages for me from the OLPC project was that for any successful technology roll out in aid of education had to have a sense of ownership. In fact, I called a politician a bollocks for not realising this. I apologise as I realise how stupid I've been. I apologise not because I was wrong, but  for how short sighted I was. Had I been more vocal and less confrontational, I might have gotten the point across.

I did say I'm a big fan of the project. But what I now realise that the project gets wrong is it's lack of emphasis on community. Not only do the parents have to follow through with this horribly exciting new gadget in the home, but the community have to be willing to keep those kids safe while carrying those devices.

The problem, as was pointed out to me tonight, is that the teaching goes to pot without community engagement. There were actually several conversations that lead to this point. 

I was having a conversation about steps taken by a school for actions taken outside of school.

Uniforms make it a slightly clearer problem. If the perpetrators are wearing their school uniform at the time, then it is definitely within the school's realm. However, out of school uniform, it's a murky area. There's a certain partnership that needs to happen between the school and the parents and/or the community at large.

For example, say a stunning student gets caught shoplifting outside of school out of their school uniform. Should they still get the same privileges, held out as being great, as someone who shows, while possibly not the same degree of academia, a greater moral character? The argument is easy for me - school's have a burden to the community at large. Not just the school (or it's reputation).

And the other person I spoke to on the subject tonight said decisively and categorically, that the OLPC project fails when it comes to community. So while I was feeling frustrated about the technical aspects, and the project was focused on teaching, I should have realised that the sense of ownership - that bit that I point out and imagine that the little I say on the subject will have great consequences on the people I'm talking to - doesn't go far enough.

Ownership has it's place. It's important. Obligation has an interesting piece of the puzzle. So while during that conversion on a school's obligation I'm talking about liability - i.e. how much liability does a school have on the actions of it's students outside of school while not in uniform? - the person I was talking to had absolutely no doubt. The school, while not said to me, has a greater obligation to community. The schools help to create valuable members of society in which case, how can you possibly create valuable members of society if you're not willing to look at the actions of that student outside of school?

I keep coming back to the word community. Community... it rolls off the tongue. To some extent, living in a large city (though horribly small on a world stage), we've lost it. For example, it turns out my neighbour, while living next door, now has a 3 month old that I didn't notice. Tangleball was about creating a community - the idea that we could share skills was ALWAYS the most exciting bit for me. The local pub attracted me because there was a certain community to it. Trading Post is likewise about creating community in a very organic way - while I would love to never pay for lemons and limes again, I'm more excited by the prospect of meeting those who live around me.

I talked to woman who had worked at the primary school I attended who said that the parents were a problem. I found myself wondering if more community engagement was the solution. i.e. if one parent is making loud noises to benefit little Johnny, then surely, another parent trying to benefit Contrary Mary is a good thing. Think in terms of research. You might come across someone like me who didn't like the movie "The Lion King". A sample size of 1 is lousy. However, my voice added to 199 others is probably a good thing.

So community helps us gain perspective. It's no longer about Little Johnny. Contrary Mary has a voice as does Snotty Thomas and Adam Bomb or Potty Scotty (for those old enough to remember "Garbage Pail Kids").

Theft could be a problem. What happens when those shiny learning machines get stolen? The machines themselves have little value - although, I was surprised to learn that a few netbooks were stolen rather than shiny iMacs. A hocking outlet rang up to say that they believed to be in possession of stolen goods. Should the outlet in question not know of what was going on in the community, such an act probably wouldn't have happened.

In pub culture, a friend had a van load of tools stolen. One group of people helped to secure the van against further theft. Another group searched - online and through second hand dealers - to find the tools in question.

A friend's email account got hacked. There were appeals for funds to help him out of whatever troubles he'd gotten into - on the otherside of the world. The online community did something I found a little surprising. Some of us went away to figure out how to get some funds together to send to this person. Another few people went about verifying the authenticity of the email. The email, it turned out, wasn't authentic, but the community did jump to action.

But all of these are just fringe benefits. Community has a bigger part to play...

Can you imagine it now? In a few years time chances are I'll be talking about how society has a bigger role here - and then realise that the mess we're in seems to be due to an emphasis on profit over people in which case I'll conclude that capitalism is the source of our problems.... whoops ;) (I swear, this is the one and only time I'll end a blog post with a emoticon).

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Google are at it again

I go through great pains to make sure that my Google searches are done with google.co.nz. When first installing a browser I find that it uses google.com. Why is this important to me? It's to do with the way I buy goods online.

First off, I normally check trademe and ebay (ebay can put me directly in touch with manufacturers). After which, I then have a look to see if retail is any better. In which case, I do a search on Google and restrict results to New Zealand. Sometimes, if buying gifts, and figuring it's actually cheaper (I'm frugal) to buy from within that country than to have it sent here and then paying another lot of shipping, I'll go to that regions Google page and do the same thing. i.e. for Australia, I'd use google.com.au.

Imagine my surprise when I found that the option is now gone. Well... not gone exactly. Hidden. Instead of a single click, it's now 3 clicks:-


One to expose search tools, one to show the drop down box and finally, one to say I want Pages from New Zealand.

In terms of usability, this is a fail.

At one stage I was working as a data entry temp and saw some pretty old systems. The sorts of systems where the instructions went along the lines of enter in /1;5;13;1 to get to such and such screen. With these systems, even if only using it for a couple of hours, I'd spend the first 3 minutes or so making sure that no matter what, I was able to get back to that screen.

Basically, at the first menu, press 1. Then you'd find yourself at another menu and you'd press 5 etc. The system was huge and would work in one screen at a time (80 columns, 25 rows). What you couldn't fit in a screen would end up being on an entirely different screen. Reading through those menus you'd often find that you would never have been able to figure out a logical flow between those menu entries and the screen you were trying to get to. So, /1;5;13;1 would get you from anywhere to that screen.

So context menus were actually a big deal. People have a fairly good idea what's under the "File" or "Edit" menu (although options, configuration etc. seem to pop up in different places). Nowadays modern OSes are talking about more "spacially aware" interfaces. That is, the user picks up quickly where to find these things (though I would argue that the ribbon interface on MS Office lacks consistency and leaves the user wondering what was wrong with the good ol' context menus of yore) on a screen.

Enter Google with, while probably not that big a deal to most users, leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. A backwards step. Instead of making the information easily accessible in a predictable place on the screen, suddenly they've decided it's best hidden behind 3 clicks.

The only reason to do this is if things are getting cluttered. i.e. if you have 5 applications installed on your Android phone, the apps interface probably isn't so bad. If you have 500 applications, the apps interface could probably do with some sort of contextual sorting.

Enter in the Unity interface - Ubuntu's abomination that really should be taken out to the woods and shot. Why do I hate it so much? One of my main reasons of it's use of "magic" keys. If you don't know about the keys, the interface is virtually unusable. In programming terms, we use sensibly named variables - we avoid magic numbers like the plague. An interface should follow suite (much of what makes Blender inaccessible to users is it's use of magic keys).

It turns out that to restrict results to a particular region, I can do a search typing in: site:co.nz at the end of it which will restrict it to results from domains with .co.nz. Okay - it's a solution. It's a particularly ugly one as you'd have to search around for it. It's a magic phrase. Utterances where a bold click was enough.

I guess I've now got to wonder - if I'm going through the trouble of learning these obscure utterances, is it now time to ditch Google as a search engine and go with something else? DuckDuckGo for example? Having tried alternatives in the past, I often find that I end up back at Google because I know what to expect. For example, doing a search for "Nevyn Hira" (yes, I'm really that vein) in DuckDuckGo gives me a pipl.com result first whereas on Google, it's a link to one of the posts on this blog (I'm not sure why it's that particular post). The blogpost probably says more about me than anything pipl.com might have to say.

What do I really want from a search engine?
  • To be private. I don't really care if the ads are targeted or not. I don't read them. That's a poor excuse for tracking my activity. In fact, I go through pains to make the ads not so visible.
  • I want to be able to customize it. For example, while searching there are often domains which seem to pop up more and more with unhelpful results. I would love to be able to say "I don't want any results from X website" (experts-exchange.com is a pain in the butt for example - while you can see the questions, you can't see the answers).
  • I want it to be easy to use and have sensible options (searching within a region for example).
  • I want it to be license aware i.e. I should be able to do a search on media released under creative commons licenses for example.
  • I would like - but do not need - the ability to have on display options of my choosing. i.e. Not everyone uses a region search but may have other search criteria that they apply to a mass of search results i.e. -porn (i.e. exclude anything with the word "porn" in it).
And while I'm pointing out a usability issue with Google... there's the interesting screen real estate issue. Compare the images below:



Why is half of my screen real estate always taken up by information that is sometimes there?

So it's now time to start searching for a suitable replacement. What are other people out there using?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Profits to Authors - Part II

I just had a thought (funny - I seem to be having a lot of those at the moment). The bit that's missing - conveniently from my last post on this subject is the question of print books. Ebooks are all well and good BUT they do leave something to be desired.

For example, I hate reading Robert Rankin in ebook form because of his use of footnotes. After reading a page you sometimes realise there's a footnote there which you missed the anchor to. So you go back and find that anchor and read the footnote in context. The ebook version: you find a link, awkwardly place the cursor over that link and then follow it. Duokan - the alternative Kindle interface - lacks the ability to go back to your place. Kindle itself does allow you to go back. But how many footnotes (jokes) do you then miss?

And when I grow up i.e. get a place of my own, I really want a library. A room dedicated to reading. Bookshelves that are a dusting nightmare fill of volumes. I really like books. Browsing a person's bookshelf is a treat - a way of getting to know them.

So printed books have their place. They're important. So what if such a website also offered a sort of "Kick starter" programme? The author could chose to take a risk in offering a printed copy. People could then pledge to buy a copy when/if available. If more than a certain percentage of the total printing  cost is pledged, the author can then chose to have the book printed. There'd have to be something about a timeframe in there. i.e. if demand is high enough that the book reaches a targeted pledge amount within a week then there is less risk to getting the book printed than a book that takes a year to reach a target pledge amount.

If anyone wants to "steal" the idea for such a site - go for it. An acknowledgement or a few thousand dollars when you make your first million would be nice...

Friday, November 23, 2012

Silly Stories

In high school I had probably the best maths teacher possible. He was engaging and interesting and did well to set expectations (to the point where I was given the opportunity to teach my class while he was away).

For trigonometry he had a story involving a prince and Gertrude. It started with Pythagoras' therom - getting Gertrude out of a tower surrounded by a moat and ending rather abruptly with Rambo parachuting in all guns blazing. This extended over the span of several weeks - teaching various concepts along the way - including an almighty war cry of "SOHCAHTOA!".

I had a thought this morning:

Snow White seems like the ideal choice for learning economic concepts.

The dwarfs are miners - a special unit that is able to mine in places where others aren't due to their small stature. During rough economic times, the people in the village are no longer able to afford their coal and the dwarfs turn to banditry. Economics has an effect on other social aspects. There's also the supply demand equation.

Snow White takes the path of the Buddha. Having lived in luxury her whole life, she sees the village and realises that she has been isolated from the realities of the kingdom. She sets out on her own and lives with the dwarfs - effectively horribly poor. You could probably do something around passive protest here - Snow White staying out of the fight vs. Snow White attempting to get the village working together to find solutions outside of the structure of taxation. Ice coins in the winter for the village to trade amongst themselves? Kind of a raw look at what money really is - being a token of value to overcome the issues of bartering.

The evil queen would be effectively greedy. While she over taxes people she gives little back and little regard for the people, she is effectively hapless. You could then explore the purpose of tax and it's effectiveness.

There could be a struggle with trading with external partners - importing and exporting. Enter the prince.

This is where my thoughts fail me... how would you end this story? It kind of has to have a happily ever after just to leave students with a positive feeling. Economics isn't really all that scary. I guess there's a bit of development to be had here. But it's a start... Anyone want to chime in?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Profits to Authors

There's been a bit of a discussion on one of the mailing lists that I'm a member of around libraries and it got me thinking.

Recently, the Humble Bundle people put out the "Humble eBook Bundle". Humble Bundles, started out with computer games. Amongst some very cool ideas such as cross platform games i.e. you could download the games for Linux, Mac OSX and Windows, they also allow you to pay what you like with 3 sliders - one for the developers, one for charity and one for the infrastructure (i.e. the website).

The really nice bit about this model is that the purchasers make the decisions. If I buy a book for say... $30, how much is going to the author? Given that I was able to buy a hard copy of "Nation" by Terry Pratchett soon after release for $10 at Borders (when Borders was still around), I would guess that the author gets VERY little for each copy sold.

Books are a fickle beast. They have no real secondary income. Movies and the like have merchandise. Music have concerts. What do authors sell in support of their books? More books. So the age old security problem comes into play. If you make it hard for your users, your users will work against you. Take the good old password - changed fortnightly. Can't be the same as previous passwords. You can almost guarantee that at least one person will have a post it note around their desk (sometimes right on the monitor) with their password on it.

If things are difficult with ebooks - such as DRM (Digital Restrictions/Rights Management) - then you can guarantee that people will find ways of circumventing DRM. A friend of mine had a voucher to purchase music online. He went and downloaded a song and tried to move it off to his MP3 player. It was a no-go. So he figured "fair enough", and brought another copy. Same thing again. He was trying to do the right thing.

And then there's the whole ebook compatibility problems. Kindle for example, will not work with the Auckland Library's system - the most popular ebook reader on the market. This situation only arises due to DRM.

Taking all of this into account, I'm proposing the Humble Bundle model applied to individual works with minimums set and some improvements.

  1. Take publishers out of the equation. Currently they're not really doing much for the industry. I've brought books recently that have had me wanting to tear someone limb from limb due to bad copy editing (i.e. typos that have been printed. Okay if you find a couple in a book. Irritating when you find 1 every 3 pages or so). Marketing really only results in books displays in book stores.
  2. Create a crowd sourcing framework. Allow readers to correct typos. Introduce a kind of updating framework - so that a downloaded book could be updated. I have a copy of "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman in which he talks about the various versions of that book.
  3. Crowd source marketing. Take various metrics such as the average amount spent on a book, the ratings and reviews given by readers etc. to determine whether a book is "featured" or not.
  4. Set a minimum contribution to the author based upon what they get per book at the moment. This gives people a bit of transparency into the current practise and allows them to buck the system and contribute more - to the authors. Not the book store. Not the publishers.
  5. Offer the works DRM free in multiple formats. People, for the most part, want to act in moral ways. In which case, they'd be willing to spend the money - and they'd feel better about it if they knew it was all going to the author. So the little piracy that did happen would only really be as bad as the trade of second hand books - of which the authors aren't currently making anything anyway.
So okay, there's a danger here. The quality of works could be just plain awful. While I hate to point out that a lot of the music released under a Creative Commons license has you thinking of a 16 year old boy alone in his room (I'm not sure which activity is worse), there are some really stand out artists as well. And the same would apply here. Perhaps you'd have a few people who would read the works and give them an initial ranking. How much can you tell from a synopsis? A kind of biography would help too i.e. Has written 10 works - 3 of which got above a certain ranking etc. Basically, these aren't insurmountable problems.

I guess the real question is: How would you get started? The way I see it, you need 3 parties around the table. Authors - because such a framework would be useless without content. Developers to put the frameworks into place and change that framework to need (because let's face it - you never really know how something is going to work until after it's been built) and buyers.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Appliances

In the last year I've brought a coffee maker, ice cream maker, bread maker, lawn mower (it's a long story). I love appliances. But there's something that I'm finding very concerning in the computer world.

I could do without a toaster. I mean... an oven does a very similar job right? I mean... it's just an element inside a box. I could heat up the oven, chuck a couple of bits of bread in there, turn them over, take them out etc. But, of course, it takes a whole lot more effort and time to do so. It's convenient to be able to chuck in a couple of pieces of bread and push a button.

I remember getting my first IBM compatible computer - a 486 - and the excitement over being able to do EVERYTHING! The computer and printer cost a whooping $3,000. From then on I was able to do some programming (Though I found it hard in Windows. Compare this to the humble little Amstrad I had prior to this), watch movies (although, they were horribly choppy and pixelated. I remember a group of friends and I gathered around a computer watching a movie as this particular computer had a MPEG decoder card - meaning you could watch a vcd quality movie without all the choppiness), do assignments (although word processors were thin on the ground. You basically had 2 options back then - Word Perfect or MS Word) and even play games! My beast of a 486 was brilliant!

Fast forward to today. Nowadays I don't actually have a desktop computer (and I'm fretting the fact... My laptop is going to have to go away for a warranty claim leaving me without a usable computer). I have a phone which is basically a really funky touch screen mini computer which is, while not great for consuming media, is really crap for generating it. I have an ebook reader which runs Linux on an ARM processor - making it a computer as well. I have Raspberry Pi's around the place which I'm using for various purposes (mainly development of really funky things).

This scares me a little bit. Not the fact that I have lots of computing devices around, but that they're now seen like a bit of a toaster. They're appliances. So what happens when your toaster craps out? Do you get it repaired? Even if you take it in for a warranty claim, they chuck out the old and replace it. There are brands of TV's that operate in this way - they're actually made to be hard to get back in.

So what happens when we start to apply this to computers?

  1. Computing devices become limited in scope. They're only made for particular tasks. The customer is being unreasonable to expect them to do more. A chromebook is just for browsing the Internet and interact with a few things that Google think you should be able to do.
  2. Computers become a whole lot more disposable. That 486? I had it for around 4 years before replacing it (though there were upgrades - more memory, a faster video card etc.). Would you even contemplate repairing/upgrading a tablet?
  3. Computers are controlled not by the owner, but by the manufacturer.
With the launch of Windows 8, the TV3 News story actually said something about the the desktop computer being replaced by appliances. That box that you could do things like add more RAM, add a network adapter, replace the hard drive or add more hard drives.... all gone.

Google are even limiting things further. Their Nexus phones/tablets - don't have the normal sdcard slot. You have to buy them by their memory (at a hugely inflated price of course. i.e. the 16GB model is US$50 more expensive than the 8GB model. Compare that $50 to the cost of a 16GB sdcard). So say you brought the 8GB model, and found you needed more memory. Your only choice would be to ditch your old device and buy a new one.

And should we even open up the can of worms that is the iSheep culture? Don't know what the iSheep culture is? It's a bit of a play on the whole Apple naming scheme. The way that people will ditch perfectly functional devices that they were singing the praises of only 12 months earlier just to have the trendiest device - with very little in terms of change of functionality. The difference between an iPad 2 and iPad 4 for example is more RAM, a faster processor (1GHz to 1.4GHz) and a denser pixel screen. It doesn't matter that the functionality hasn't really changed. What's important is that they have the latest and greatest.

To me this is all an environmental nightmare. We may feel good about ourselves sorting our recyclables from our rubbish (Although it's mileage is debatable. Often the products are recycled into something that's quite nasty to the environment - milk bottles into road paint for example. And just because things are recyclable, doesn't mean they are recycled. Mixed plastic media - yoghurt containers for example - don't have a demand thus aren't recycled) and in my case, using fountain pens to avoid having to throw away bits of plastic (as well as the added benefit that they're just a hell of a lot nicer to write with) and DE Razors because there's no real reason to use that much plastic to shave etc. but we seem to be being sucked into this horribly wasteful culture.

Not only that, but I really like owning my devices. I wouldn't have bothered with Raspberry Pi if it wasn't for the fact that I was prepared to hack away at it and come up with my own interpretation of something (i.e. I'm not happy running XBMC - I want to create my own Media Centre). If I want to do something outside of X manufacturer's way of doing things (I like being able to just plug into my printer without having to check for Internet connectivity first) then I don't want to feel that I'm fighting to do so. I really like being able to use my devices to what I think is their useful life (really this is a matter of usage. If I'm just using a tablet as a remote for another device, then there's no reason that I couldn't use a horribly outdated tablet) is rather than having to go with X manufacturers sales cycle. Owning my device is really important to me. It's the Free in Free Software.

So this post is basically a call out to people out there to consider their impact on the environment before that next insubstantial upgrade and a call to consider what you're really going to use the appliance for and what limitations these devices have on you.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Manaiakalani Film Festival 2012

Just before I get into it... I found some photos from the NZOSA gala. It's just a pity they got my name wrong (Newyn Kira?!?!?). I'm now on a bit of a campaign to try and get my name associated to the award.

A couple of nights ago was the 2012 Manaiakalani Film Festival. It was a sell out! And for the 2nd year in a row, I had a little cameo. The video that I appeared in (actually it was a really bad day to let kids film me - loud shirt day and in desperate need of a shave). So here it is. My second cameo for a Manaiakalani Film Festival.


So the rest of the videos for the film festival can be seen here.

For those of you who haven't seen it, the first part of that video is based upon a video clip by "Walk Off the Earth". I kind of prefer this video over Goyte's.



I'm starting to wonder about capacity for the Film Festival. This year it was .. 9 schools and the gala event was a sell out with some people at the doors asking if they could come in with me. Next year, it'll be 11 schools. Over the course of the day, all of the kids (I think) get to go to the festival. With 9 schools that's quite an exercise in logistics. 2 more schools (actually, the cluster is gaining another 3 schools - it's just that 1 is closing down at the end of the year) is probably going to be a massive ask.

Does this mean there's the possibility that the film festival could grow? Imagine a multi-day event. And what if you could buy tickets? For myself, I was only given about a week's warning (and ended up in the cheap seats). But imagine if this could turn into something that people could see on the big screen rather than reading about it on this blog and viewing a few random videos off a website.

And this could turn into a bit of a showcase for how interesting education can be. Having kids being able to stay something to the world at large. This probably isn't as far fetched as it sounds...