Monday, July 30, 2012

Art Vibe

I've got a vibe again! The other day I was on the bus thinking about something and decided to take out my phone and take a few photos. I realised my battery was running flat and so rushed through town taking more photos. Nothing quite like rushing to get things done. So I ended up with a bunch of photos. Some good. Some, which if I'd just taken some time, would have come out great.

So anyway - once I had all of the photos it occurred to me that I'd be kind of fun to play with them in GIMP and see what I could get from them. So I've done 2 of them so far. I'm going to post them in small batches as I do them.

From Inside a bus. The weird whale/volcano thing was actually a lens flare but I kind of like the whole whale/volcano thing that it lends it. Taking photos out a bus Window is probably much harder than it looks. In this one, the original photo has a blurry road sign ruining the shot.

This is basically what I see every evening when getting off the bus in Britomart. The photo itself is actually pretty cool and didn't really need funky things done to it. But where's the fun in that?

I'm wondering if this could turn into a bit of a "Maker" game. i.e. get a few people together. Set time limits for going around getting photos. Meet up in a pub or public space (like a library) and then set another limit for "post-processing". i.e come up with one work that you're proud of using the photos gathered. I might pop down to TangleBall at some point and suggest it.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Reconciling That Image

So... that image... You all probably (hopefully) know what I'm talking about. My last post.

I don't often get to play the fool. I'm often looking on as teacher's play various characters in immersion assemblies and the like. Given my fear of crowds, that's probably not the best thing for me to do anyway.

Last year I wrote about showing the kids how to use filters in GIMP to create their own planets. This year, I'm at it again. I've gone for something a little more complex. How to super impose images. I'm sure there're 20,000 odd youtube videos for doing something quite similar though I think this is probably the easiest way (less cutting, more automated tools) to accomplish it. So here it is, the first draft.

If any of you use it, let me know how it goes - If it's overly complicated or is missing something (it's easy to take some things for granted). Of.. if there's a "hen" (or other typos) in there...

Remember, you can contact me "OffBlog" if you want to message me privately. Oh - and in terms of "licensing". Consider it a Creative Commons work - attribution would be nice (but I'm not going to get precious about it).

Update: I managed to get that image being the first image result on Google if you type in "Nevyn Hira". My parents are proud....

Friday, July 27, 2012


This is the start of a piece of documentation I'm working on. Details to follow. Just thought this was way too good not to post..

Oh - and just because I would LOVE for this to turn up under an image search on Google for the term "Nevyn Hira", I have to write this bit... associating the image to "Nevyn Hira"....

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Manaiakalani Shininess Part II - Initial Login

Just a note about the title of this post... "Shininess"... This is stuff that has been made for the Manaiakalani programme (I heard that it's no longer a project as a project implies some sort of end) - it's not THE programme.

Initial login is exactly what it sounds like - something that runs the first time a user gets on the netbook. Basically a set up program. It started as a way to create a user account but turned into something quite... well... versatile. It's nowhere near complete - I have all sorts of plans for it - but it's starting to show it's promise.

So basically, to set a up a "site", you put a bunch of packages in somewhere (those you would want to install for that site - this leads to a bunch of sins. I'll describe that particular issue in a minute) and write a definition file. The definition file describes what you want to happen. As an example, consider the following:

 get USERNAME text "Username" "Please enter in your username."  
 get PASSWORD password "Enter a password" "Please enter in a password.\n\nThis should be at least 8 characters long and should be something you can remember."  
 add_user USERNAME PASSWORD dialout,cdrom,plugdev,adm,lpadmin,admin  
 install /usr/local/packages/school/*.deb  
 install /usr/local/packages/geogebra/*.deb  
 remove xterm  

Basically, this definition file asks for a username and password. Adds that user and makes them administrator. It looks inside /usr/local/packages/school and installs any packages in there and does the same for /usr/local/packages/geogebra. And then removes xterm (or whatever else you may need to remove).

So all pretty basic stuff. Those sins I was talking about... There's an incredibly strong temptation to package up deb files. For geogebra for example., there's a package called "initial-login-geogebra" - which contains the packages needed to install geogebra. The approach works but it feels a little... wrong. It gets worse when the packages needed for something are packages that I've made (rather than just downloaded) and packaged up in this manner. It works but it's ugly.

Okay - so all very cute... but not shiny yet... Not really. Except... due to how I saw this working, I'm able to do whole conversions of the image. The same image that is used for Manaiakalani can be used elsewhere. The branding can change. The applications that are included can be changed (removed from and added to). Configurations (each of the school's have their own bookmarks for example). In fact, there are a couple of sites that deal with completely different concerns i.e. "entity" owned machines.

The only real drawback to this is the time needed to make the conversion when the user first logs on. i.e. child gets brand new pretty netbook. They put in their username and password, and then have to wait... That wait is what I refer to as a perceived performance issue. i.e. it doesn't really matter what's going on there. What feels important is how long it's taking before being able to explore the machine.

There are bits that I really want to clean up. Inputting text - I have no checking on it as of yet. So the plan is to be able to specify a regular expression in the definition file. The program asks "Are you sure you have gotten all of your details right?" but doesn't show the user the details. This is because... well... it's complicated. The definition file can insert parameters without user intervention and doesn't really keep track of what it's asked. This isn't insurmountable. It just means there needs to be a "confirm" flag somewhere.

So, basically, one of those things that started as a really simple idea and became really complicated as I realised how powerful it could be. Despite it being a bit of a mess, I have to say I'm horribly proud of it. This is the component I can see evolving to quite a large degree. I'm already planning a successor to Keys to the Castle. For this part, I'm only seeing ways of improving it.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Revolution

It's time for revolution. For people to start recognising the difference between a "technician" and a "engineer" when they're dealing with their I.T. needs.

I liken it to a chef and cook. A chef is a whole lot more creative - they seek something else. My mother. - she's a cook. She'll take direction but she struggles to create something new. When she does try to create something she seems to struggle to imagine a taste profile and so ends up with some really odd combinations (I like gherkins and I like ice cream - and gherkins, in the grand scheme of things, aren't entirely unlike Strawberries. They're both fruit...).

So I think the term "engineer" needs to be used for someone who looks for solutions. A good engineer probably looks for solutions with the customer/client in mind. i.e. RSync is a fantastic tool for backing up files BUT is a horror to use if you don't understand it.

I was trying to explain this to someone yesterday. That I don't call myself a technician because I look to find solutions. That the terms "Best Practise" and "Security" don't have the customer's needs in mind. i.e. Security is almost always a sacrifice in functionality or usability (i.e. security needs to be built around those things rather than the other way around and the effect on usability/functionality needs to be understood) and "best practise" is more about maximizing profit.

In fact, if your I.T. person is using those terms - kick 'em in the shins. Better yet, start looking for I.T. solutions that suit your needs and people who are willing to work with you to achieve those solutions. Loyalty in the I.T. industry is overrated...

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sexism (Women in I.T. Part 3)

Okay - so we need to expand the scope of the discussion. The thing that kicked off my comments was a  "Women in I.T. breakfast" at NetHui. it was appropriate at the time. Probably not so much anymore.

I was at "EduCamp Auckland" - an unconference for educators with a technology focus. Last year at NetHui I met someone who I've seen around since. It turns out we've got all sorts of connections (people that we both know).

I pointed out my blog (she asked me what I thought of NetHui). While I think it's the most valuable conference I go to (or have been to), I do think they kind of let themselves down a little this year. If it's a budget thing, then I have to ask about the projects they're helping to fund and their value in comparison to NetHui (i.e. If the World Internet Project seems to be a rather sad plaything for researchers and Computers in Homes only has a 15% success rate, then perhaps it's worthwhile looking at the benefits of those projects in comparison to the benefits of NetHui and allocating funds accordingly). Of course, the benefits of NetHui aren't really measurable (there's another blog post just in that sentence.... I'll get around to it I'm sure).

But that's besides the point. She went to the blog and saw the "Women in I.T." heading and asked me what that was about. I let her know that I was.... irritated at the fact that males were turned away from the Women in I.T. breakfast. That the event felt exclusive.

We got into a rather loud discussion - we had to stop to explain what we were talking about to the people around us. Some of the things she said have got me thinking. For example, "if males had been allowed to attend they would have been trying to come up with the solution rather than allowing women to discuss the issue".

And it occurred to me - that's exactly what I've done (that and the fact that our discussion got a little loud proved her point). I am part of the solution. If I notice the things around me, I can point out that the woman at the back of the room has had her arm up for the last 5 minutes while X Y and Z guys have just interrupted. If I find myself in an uncomfortable position, I can air my discomfort and let the person/people around me know that I consider what they've just said or their attitude as inappropriate.

I would like to think that if enough of those guys (I think they're in the majourity) who saw this sort of thing as horribly inappropriate did the same, that the situation would get a whole lot better. There we go... I've found the solution!

I'm going to play devil's advocate here.

I don't normally see race. When I moved down to Christchurch, racism became a problem. Before getting jabbed in the jaw by a skinhead, I had cause to look around me and realise that there were very few people of colour within a crowd. This had me thinking about reverse racism. A kind of reaction to perceived racism. Basically a belief that a crowd of white people HAD to be racist by virtue of being white - "Why aren't you coloured?!?". Further down the rabbit hole, I realised that even those things I was perceiving as racist were a reaction to not quite knowing the limits. I remember this one incident where I was in the kitchen making dinner when my flatmate's best friend's little boy ran into the kitchen, ran into me, looked up, saw my face and had this look as if this were the first coloured man he'd ever seen.

How would you react in his position?

And at NetHui, I had a few awkward moments. I had asked a woman if I could buy her a drink who indicated her boyfriend and said "I've got a boyfriend". That's nice... I wasn't actually interested. I felt awkward around her the following day.

We deal with the perception of things. It doesn't matter what happened or my intentions. The perception is so much more important. Ever said something in all innocence (I went out for dinner one night where 3 of us decided to share dishes - 2 of us had already decided to share. One of them then said "Great! Let's make this a threesome". She'd not meant it in THAT way) and realised it was completely the wrong thing to say?

This does happen and probably more frequently than we think. I think a lot of this comes down to the relationship with that person. i.e. if I gave someone an egg poacher, it could be taken in one of two ways - as a thoughtful gift (assuming that the person in question had mentioned an egg poacher), or as a bit of a slight i.e. "Cook me some eggs". Intention is contextual.

So it's not enough for males to do their part and step up when they're feeling uncomfortable. There's also an important element around coping mechanisms involved. I could be bitter and twisted about the bits of racism I've had throughout my life. Or I could learn to examine each case and decide whether it was in the context in which I perceived it in. In one case, I'm thinking "auto-eroticator" (I've so got to trademark that word!). In the other case, I'm thinking "Give 'em the benefit of the doubt".

Of course, I'm still doing what males are accused of doing - looking for solutions. Is this discussion productive? (Please let this be a discussion...)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

One Hand

I've been saying that I'm horribly tired. I'm also starting to get grumpy. Those things that I would normally let slide just really start to frustrate me.

A phone message left during the school holidays saying "if you've got nothing to do...". There's never nothing to do. I'm always having to make compromises and prioritise.

The assumption that there was a whole team working on developing the image. Not to take anything away from the "Hackers Group" - the group primarily asks not only the technical, but the ethical questions using their own time. They often help in the form of testing or helping via email but for the most part, it's me trying to keep track of all of the packages, what each of them do, what bugs exist or what development needs to be done and then developing based on the priorities I've set. It's quite an exercise in memory and concentration.

A comment today was interesting. "You need to work smarter, not harder" followed by "What? It's the same image on all of the machines?". I can just imagine trying to maintain 10 odd images (The image currently caters to 10 different entities). That would be pretty dumb...

The suggestion that I'm not doing enough compared to what the schools are paying. This one was interesting. I could be making a whole more doing a whole lot less (I have earnt a whole lot more from doing a whole lot less). Of course, I guess, if I'm doing my job right, they're not seeing the work that's going on behind the scenes.

A teacher saying "The difference is that you care". Does she not?!?

The attitude - the "Oh, I'm not technical. That's what you techies are here for". Firstly, that almost pride in not being technical, in much the same way as saying "I don't type my own letters. That's what my secretary is for". Hint: WE HATE THAT! It's demeaning. It's rotten. It's as demeaning to us as it is to secretaries. I've heard the argument that a computer technician is like a mechanic. "We expect it to just work and technicians are just there to provide a service". Of course, it falls down when/if those people only realise that I.T. people are there to help enable them - to find solutions. Secondly, I'm not a techie. I'm a developer/operating environment engineer getting feedback on my work to make that solution all the better (It irks me that I spend so much of my time fixing hardware issues - no I don't enjoy it).

I think I can count the number of people who have some idea the scope of what I'm doing on one hand with room to spare.

I can think of a few choice words to use... I'm not going to do that... instead - imagine I've said one.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Manaiakalani Shininess Part 1 - KttC

Whenever I'm doing a job I'm doing my best to try and make myself redundant. This is a combination of opportunity (if you give people the opportunity to step up, they may just do so), education AND technical development (we're now into the software realm here).

KttC (Keys to the Castle) is a little of all of those things.

So my first mandate was to be able to give the kids a usb stick (drive, pendrive etc.) to be able to image machines with. If they couldn't solve a problem within 5 minutes, re-image.

After a bit of time, I found myself hating the idea of reimaging everything when a simple file system check (almost a joke within the Linux world - fsck) would solve what ailed their machines or a password, if you know how, isn't all that hard to change (though there are a bunch of horribly manual steps to it). Removing a users settings (this is normally only really done within the first few weeks of a 1st year netbook teacher's rein within the classroom) is really simple to do. In fact, this probably constituted the majourity of the things I was having to do.

So I conceived of this idea - to put the administration into a single stick that could not only reimage a machine, but do all of those things described above. Keys to the Castle was born (although the suggestion was made that I call it "Nev on a Stick". NoaS doesn't have the same ring as KttC.

So, to achieve imaging, I was already using Clonezilla Live - a USB Debian based (the same distribution that Ubuntu is based off) live (i.e. the entire system exists on the USB stick thus not needing to touch the hard drive) system with the goal of simply taking images of a machine and putting them back on the same or other machines. It turns out that Clonezilla is actually pretty convenient in terms of customizing it. I won't lie - there are some serious problems there i.e. scripts that don't get maintained between releases, but, for the most part, not too bad.

You can find the documentation that I did up for the teachers here (it's out of sync with the current release of KttC but covers off the important bits. Also, for all of you FLOSS people out there, this is probably one of the biggest mentions of Open Source Software in the project - most of the teachers get that document - it's on every KttC). The comic is just because someone had asked me if there was a way of doing comics on the netbooks. That lead to this post. This is another part of my job - enabling or facilitating whatever the teachers want to be able to do.

I realised today that this is probably the only bits of code that aren't online ANYWHERE except for bits of it on an rsync server that isn't publicised anywhere (I'm thinking I'll probably throw it into my public folder on Dropbox although I probably need a little more space if I'm to throw the image up there as well. I guess I'm going to have to do the whole "if you sign up, please use me as your 'referrer'" bit. Please don't take that as a suggestion to sign up to dropbox. My main reason for using it is the same reason I was using HotMail - backing up and transfer of files online). I'll post a link to the file once I've got it up there.

Nowadays, due to how powerful KttC is, teachers take custody of them. They can then give kids the stick and get them to do their own admin tasks. So, they've got the opportunity to do a lot of their own administration. They do need to either read the documentation or the menu and I usually go through a few tasks with them - education. And of course, the development of the stick (I can't describe my frustration while do this - I was using a live Ubuntu build and then found that the "magic" live scripts were trying to read things off the hard drive which made the sticks useless if there was file system corruption - one of the things that the sticks set out to solve. I then realised I could adapt Clonezilla Live to my needs but then discovered that they don't have a python interpreter. In which case I had to convert everything to bash. I'm really not a perl programmer) is ongoing.

The hope is that I can come up with a simple GUI for it. Something that can display a barcode for the serial number (so that it can be scanned straight off the screen) and do all of the things that it can currently do. In the immediate future I'd like to reduce the boot time (around 60 seconds at the moment).

It's the same stick and image no matter the school or entity but supplements and customizations for the school/entity can be applied when the user is setting up their netbook for the first time. This involves things like bookmarks, wireless network connections (after setting up, the user is normally already connected by the time they go to log in), applications applicable to that school (one school has Geogebra. Another has KdenLive). I'll talk about that particular piece of shininess in another post.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


I just realised something. Blogs are cool! They're a great big soapbox where people can come and read the things you have to say (and you don't even have to wait for your chance to talk) BUT they don't offer you any chance to respond to the person writing the posts without making those comments public.

While I'm all for transparency, there are those times where you want to just make a little confidential comment so.... I have this email address which is used for nothing more than syncing my contacts for my phone (it's a work phone and besides, the people I interact with online are a world different from those which I interact with in meatspace. The two do meet but then, I don't call or text a lot of people. It's mostly a work thing) so... I figured I could just use that. But then, if I'm using that email address, I might as well allow it to become a spam magnet... in which case...

If you want to contact me without the world seeing what you have to say, send me an email at: nevandroid67 (a and put "OffBlog" in the subject line - I'll just forward those emails to my main account.

And yes - I get the irony. Here I am talking about how scary and creepy Google is and yet I use their services. It's a bit of an addiction. I've admitted to the problem. Now I have to figure out how to solve it.

The Distance

"No trophy, no flowers, no flashbulbs, no wine.
He's haunted by something he can not define."

I've just woken up still wearing my jeans. I think I used the term "fundamentally tired" in a recent post. This time I just "had to get it finished". The latest image for Manaiakalani is done. Finished. The last iteration of this version. From here on in, we're looking at Ubuntu 12.04 as a base.

Does anyone remember Windows 95c? With it's little humble "With USB Support". Back then "Plug and Play" was referred to "Plug and Pray". i.e. you'd plug something in and hope that it didm't rain fire and brimstone. Seriously. I've had things start to smoke when I've plugged them in. Microsoft were very much at the forefront of a whole lot of technologies that just didn't seem to deliver (back then. They eventually worked and we all took it for granted).

I imagine I'm feeling a bit like the developers behind the release of Windows 95c. It had changed. Windows 95 could now be considered a brand name. 95c was very different from the first version that had been released.

So with 2 years working on the image, I think (I hope) I've finally got it right. No keyring issues or Flashplugin problems. Bookmarks that actually work (though I had to drop support for Firefox much to my annoyance - I'm not sure I'll get around to talking about this but it does irritate me). The final barrier on sound (while the machines have had microphone support since the beginning of the year, their webcam application still didn't record with sound by default) is sorted. The boot screen identifies when it's taking too long and displays a message that usually fixes things (Please press the 'f' key). The thing they run when first setting up their accounts has finally been debugged to an extent that I would use it semi-confidently in a large deployment of say.... 2,500 odd machines.

So after having finally finished it all at 6am this morning, I went home, grabbed a shower, and headed back out to work. Imaged a few netbooks ("Aww sir. Do we HAVE to have it reimaged?") and finally got to have that celebrational (hmm.... I wonder if that word is trademarked. So long as I don't use "Muppetational" I should be alright) drink I'd been imagining since around 2am.

In terms of acknowledgement of the image - I got to the office on Sunday (Saturday was for testing and a much needed sit down with friends over a pint) and finally found my personal cellphone - it had been left in the office. There was a missed call from Friday. I text the guy to find out what was up. He'd wanted me to go into one of the schools to sort out a netbook. Not netbooks. Netbook. If the school's don't understand that there's a whole lot more going on than just tech support or the time this sort of effort takes, and the lack of time in which I've got to do it in, the kids have no chance.

Love the FLOSS community at the moment (you people rule!). Tired... wheezy tired....

"The sun has gone down and the moon has gone up,
and long ago somebody left with the cup"

Saturday, July 14, 2012

NetHui Part 10 - Networking

10 posts in 3 days. I'm on a roll!

For an awkward nerdy type I found myself terribly busy talking to people for the entire three days.

Today I met a deputy principal who restored my faith (oh let's face it - yesterday's rant about the education stream was a reaction to what I was hearing and didn't reflect the good work that a lot of people are out there doing).

He was talking to another man who was asking, "If you had to put in an application for money to improve education outcomes for say, $100,000, what would that application look like?". The question came up about how to measure the success of any such project. And then it hit me. It was very "Dead Poet's Society". The scene where Robin Williams is telling his students to rip out the first two chapters of a poetry text book. That poetry could not be judged in scientific terms. It's a bit like my thing about art. Art is a very personal thing. The same piece of art has different contexts and relationships to different people. On my wall I have a piece of art entitled "Opening Doors" which features the skeleton of a bird. It could be perceived as negative (i.e. death) but there's a very positive message in there. I should probably take a photo and post it up on this blog at some point. Actually, I'm going to be doing a blog post about the "Orcon Great Blend" - which is going to be on art.

So, how do you measure the success of a student? As far as I'm concerned, it's not quantifiable. Besides which, teaching has to be around the ability to adapt and change for the ever changing world around them. There was a computer game designer at the conference who got up and asked educators if there was any area of the National Standards that he could focus on for educational games. This is an attitude that I feared. If we only teach to National Standards, we're on a horribly slippery slope. It means that we're no longer focused on the students but rather, the standards. Remembering that each and every student learns in different ways on different days.

I've been thinking about the whole idea of valuing contribution to society. As a volunteer I was using up quite a lot of money - bus fares and the like. I was tapped on the shoulder by someone who might actually have a solution for me. The proliferation of cheap cell phones (mine cost around $200 and in terms of functionality isn't as far away from an iPhone as you'd expect given the price differential) and the emerging standards around payments via cellphone (Parts of Africa have been doing this for a while) make it a real possibility that we could value volunteers a lot more highly than we currently do.

By combining both of our efforts we could probably put together something quite usable. My thought was that people genuinely want to do more but are time poor. Those that aren't time poor generally (we're talking very general terms here) quite often don't have the support or funds to be able to take on the costs of volunteering.

What if a volunteer was able to get some sort of token of value based upon their contribution measured on some criteria such as the amount of time spent or scope of the work done (hell, it could be a set of different tokens - more on this in a second)?

How does this differ from money? This wouldn't be as much of a closed system. At the end of it, you'd have a "sink" - i.e. somewhere that the value would have to disappear. Where is the value?

Say I have built up volunteer value. I want to hop on a bus. The bus company could chose to accept this "volunteer value" by allowing all or partial payment to be made by this volunteer value. That would make the bus company a "sink". What do they get out of it? They're doing something positive for the community by supporting those who are out there doing the work.

And how does this fit in with cell phones? Cell phones are essentially computers. They're able to calculate and store value and pretty soon, we'll all be seeing ways of paying for goods/services using our cellphones. A single swipe/tap could have the bus fare paid taking what it could from the volunteer value (based upon the value stored and the conditions set by the payee) and a monetary value to pay off the remaining difference.

You could even have differentiating values. i.e. if I were to work on a project that involved a particular suburb and the merchant/sink only wanted to support work done in that area, then having a tag on that value - i.e. Kansas - would allow them to make that differentiation.

So fun times ahead. And if anything comes out of it - you'll have heard about it here first ;)

I get the feeling that traffic to the blog is about to explode. A lot of people seemed interested in visiting the blog to see what I had to say. So watch that little monthly counter on the side. I guess that it's almost a measurable metric of how well I networked.

Anyway - the most value to be had at these conferences is in meeting people and gaining perspective. Perhaps finding points of collaboration (I also want to see if I can work with libraries to get some interesting hacking things going on - around Arduinos and Raspberry Pi's when they become more available). I had the rather odd situation of someone having heard my name before. After a while of talking he mentioned Tangleball - the creative space that I helped establish in Auckland. I had a very excited "That was one of mine!" moment - as if I had done a great deal of those sorts of projects.

Next year NetHui is in Wellington. I've got a year to decide if I'm going. In terms of conferences with value, NetHui would have to be the best for me (thus far). Oh - and there's another TEDx event in Auckland on the 11th of December. Unfortunately pricing doesn't appear to be up (I expect that it'll be horrendously expensive. I wonder if I could a presentation on Manaiakalani in exchange for a ticket)...

NetHui Part 9 - Women in I.T. Part 2

Day 3 and the final day of NetHui. Day 3 had Judge David Harvey doing a keynote, another panel (truth be told, I'm not a big fan of them - far many of them had politicians pushing their own agendas rather than contributing in real ways to the subject matter) discussion and a bar camp.

For those of you who don't know what a bar camp is - I found myself explaining this a few times. The term "fubar" has been used in I.T. since... well... I don't really know. It stood for "Fornicated up beyond all recognition". O'Reilly Media started a conference that they called "Foo camp" (Friends Of O'Reilly). This event is via invitation only though it's format was very different from other conferences. It was more of a think tank. The term that seems to best describe it is a "meta-birds-of-feather" session (though nowadays it's referred to as an unconference).

As a reaction to the closed off nature of it, "bar camps" were established using the same sort of method. So participants put up topics that they would like to talk about and people sign up (attend) sessions that they're interested in. This is all generally done on the day.

One of the sessions was "Women in I.T.". Given my interest in the area I attended. I didn't actually speak at all during the session. I was there to listen and get a different perspective.

During one of the earlier sessions (there were 3 though I only attended 2) I noticed the way that participation seemed to favour the males. I don't think it was malicious but it was interesting. The females in the room would tend to raise their hands. The males would quite often butt in and respond immediately.

I had been relating some of my unease at times in a female dominated industry (this is very much dependant on the culture of any one school rather than something I'm likely to encounter on a regular basis) but after the session had to add the fact that I had never felt unsafe. Just a little uneasy.

I also have to admit to having not identified a joke by the MC on the first day as being a sexist slur (though I did pick up on the racial slur). So I'm as guilty as anyone else of not considering those around me.

The discussion centered on coping mechanisms. How do you deal with it? There were a lot of good things said. I don't think this is the appropriate forum for it but would like to instead direct people's attention to this site. I have to say that the woman in this discussion were very accommodating to the 5 males in the room and stated that they appreciated that males had turned up. After the session a couple of them even came up to me and asked me for my take on it.

One guy had said that he wanted to hire females but hadn't had any female applicants.

There's a lot to be said around culture. Last night I offered to buy a girl a drink - she was the first person I'd seen last year and this year when I'd gone to NetHui and so I had just thought it the friendly thing to do. I had been buying all sorts of people coffee all day and, had it been a male there that I'd recognised, I'm pretty sure I would have offered to buy him a drink as well. She had thought that I was hitting on her.

Seriously, if we're to get the best results in any endeavour, we need to gather a whole different set of perspectives. Excluding females is that endeavour's loss. We don't need anyone (including females) reinforcing those outmoded ways of thinking.

Friday, July 13, 2012

NetHui Part 8 - Women in I.T.

One of the things that keep coming up is Woman in I.T. This has been a particular interest of mine for years BUT we seem to constantly think that the way to support woman in IT and mitigate the potentially hostile environments is to get them all in a room together.

Just to give you a bit of context, I have, at times, been in scenarios where being male is a problem. Just as a case in point, being in that breakfast would potentially be that very same scenario.

So, what is the problem? During a conversation with someone she was talking about the idea of being an older woman with long hair. I never even imagined that this might be an issue... for anyone. And she described having met a guy who said he had nothing against long hair but was of the opinion that they should dye their hair. What an absolute load of bollocks!

So there are people out there who have absolutely no qualms about making a place hostile. I'd say that it's completely unfair to paint this as males being the problem. There are times where males are also quite uncomfortable.

So, to me, it's a culture problem. I interjected in a conversation discussing the value of the breakfast and asked, "Is this not something that could be more inclusive? Could males not also be supporting woman in I.T.?". The answer back surprised me - from a woman - "most of the woman wouldn't speak. The presence of males would inhibit discussion".

Wow! So the culture is to reject support. I remember a few months ago going into a kebab shop and a group of Islamic woman were sitting around discussing their religion in relation to Christianity (particularly from a gender platform). The bit which I found interesting, from the bits that I was overhearing, was that they were sitting there reinforcing each others ideas. They weren't attempting to get things from another point of view. They already had an idea.

So, the purpose of this post - am I off kilter? Is there something I'm missing? Can males really not be part of this dicussion?

NetHui Part 7 - Fornication

Given the title of this post, it's probably not what you're thinking. Instead, I'm going to write this post with what I was really thinking and then just do a search - replace. If you're in any doubt as to what I mean by the words "fornicating" or "fornication" stop reading now. This post isn't for you. Why am I choosing to go down this path? While I respect Kurt Vonnegut's view that cursing is an excuse for others to stop listening, I believe it provides an emotive device to, for the most part, describe frustration.

The education stream at NetHui left me with wondering what hope does education really have in this country?

A bold statement. Not unjustified given today's sessions.

I was tired today. Like, horribly fundamentally tired. I missed a session because my sense of timing had completely died. I almost missed a second one due to the same reasoning. I think if I had attended all of the sessions today I would have burst.

So the background. Tired - not surprising. My buzzword for today was "empowerment". I think this is the word that encompasses my frustration from yesterday. i.e. we don't give the kids netbooks. We empower their family's to invest in their kid's futures. The sense of ownership is, not only important, but fundamental to a project of this type.

So I went to a Netsafe presentation where the aim was to build a policy around the idea of cyber safety. I didn't repeat my dislike of the branding. Safe - just not cool. The geeks also pointed out that cyber isn't a great word and besides - cyber, in urban dictionary, is almost exclusively defined as "cybersex". Instead I pointed out that last year, where the focus was on kids, that the big take home message was that the kids are the solution. I applied this to a wider audience and said that any policy around this has to center on the idea of "empowerment".

This lack of empowerment as a theme had me frustrated for the rest of the day.

I went into a session late where they were talking about the idea of collective power to negotiate deals on buying computers. Just a hint - this isn't where the cost is. You can buy computers dirt cheap. The real cost is in support. This was pointed out. I was being very careful not to try and push solutions at people. They need to own those ideas.

Is there really a real cost in getting cross-school co-operation in things like hiring support? Or even, purchasing Internet? If schools were to start working together on small things like negotiating support and Internet deals, perhaps they may even start thinking collectively about other solutions....

In terms of these collective deals, it is something that's happened in the Manaiakalani cluster.

What really worried me is that a fornicating load of the collaboration, at NetHui, went into coming up with problems. One of the sessions had me feeling completely alienated while I was thinking to myself "This isn't a problem. It's a self imposed barrier". i.e. why the fornication would you think that sharing information is illegal and why do you think the only solution is to go to the extreme? The default position on copyright in schools is that it is owned by "The Board". The solution proposed is that schools (and by extension, the board) need to adopt a creative commons framework by default and only reserve full rights on those works that may present a potential risk. I can see why boards might be hesitant to make such a move. If you were to say "I have created x, y and z content and want to share it", I believe that most boards, if not all, would be quite happy for teachers to do so. Hell, flood the board with requests to share information. They'll probably give you permission to use any of the work you've generated with other schools. Remember, copyright doesn't instantly make copying material illegal - you can still seek out permission from the copyright holder to replicate that material.

Is there really competition between schools? i.e. a school's funding is based upon "bums on seats".

I would counter that with another question - "Is your concern around funding or do you acknowledge a higher mandate to educate children?". There's a question around scope here. Does a school only have responsibility to it's own students? Should not all children be included in this mandate? i.e the default position being inclusion.

But what really frustrated me - "why can the government not help with....?". Are you fornicating with me!? Any really good project comes from the grass roots up. Those at the top have absolutely no idea what's needed at the grass roots. Just take the National politician yesterday. He was quite happy to strut around talking about the how the Manaiakalani project is happening but, despite having seen him taken around for a bit of a tour of one of the schools, he seems to have absolutely no interest in understanding what's going on or the scope of it. It's a political point to be able to say that this is happening. If you're going to change the culture around schools, then you have to do it from the bottom up.

During all of this, I'm telling myself not to be the smug person in the corner. I've been noticing things on mailing lists that I participate with. I'll say something and then someone will counter with something that I consider the only logical conclusion of what I've just said. I consider it condescending for me to lead people down the garden path and so have this really bad tendency to point out that path but not to go down it with them.

So - to those in schools who are moaning that the government or Ministry of Education aren't meeting a particular need: fornicating get off your donkeys and start doing something! You're perfectly capable of implementing solutions. Stop looking for others to solve your problems. And for fornication's sake, quit moaning about it as if you're all helpless. Consider how this kind of "woe is me - I can't do anything" attitude looks to your kids. Are you empowering them or are you taking something fundamental away?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

NetHui Part 6 - About as Terrifying but not as ... graphic as you'd think.

Just a note about NetHui - The NetHui is a meeting of minds about the Internet. Pity they couldn't provide anything near usable Internet for the conference. I can't express how frustrating this is.

I'm sitting here at NetHui in a rather awkward position. Steven Joyce is up on the stage self-pleasuring himself. Companies are exciting. The National government are doing all sorts of interesting things around UFB and RBI and momentum is building. Amy Adams has been talking about cyber safety. Throw in a few "e"'s (I thought we had moved on from "e" to "i") and you've essentially got his entire presentation.

What he didn't talk about, at all, is people. The closest he got: We need skills. There's a shortage of ICT skills (though I would argue that there are an awful lot of graduates struggling to find jobs and this is a result of the tough economic times. Companies aren't fostering skills - they're hiring them in. The shortage is industry generated NOT a result of a lack of interest).

But other than being a resource, people don't really get a show in.

Last year a few people got up with a passionate point or another. Today there seems to be a collective boredom. In terms of a presentation to be motivated by, Steven Joyce probably would have been more successful dropping trough and polishing the family jewels.

David Shearer, the next speaker, basically threw fabric at a brick wall to see which bits would stick. No content but what sounded like content - he didn't pause long enough for you to actually realise there was no guts to anything he'd just said. For all the effort he put in to engage the audience (none), he might as well have been talking to himself. (this felt like a lesser form of self-pleasuring).

Due to the appalling Internet, I'm only just able to put this post up (around 8 hours after having typed this post in a text editor).

NetHui Part 5 - Jurisdiction

And finally, I'm back to the start of the day. Actually, I'm going to combine 2 separate sessions into this post as they were related. Ha! That's got to be a record for me. 5 posts in a day.

One of the keynotes (the other keynote for today doesn't bear speaking about - it was lip service to the fact that there was a conference about the Internet going on. So glad the Mayoral office put someone up) was an American woman, the former U.S. Federal Trade Commissioner, Pamela Jones Harbour talked about how there are efforts to clean up privacy laws multinationally.

What was really interesting was the fact that Google, Facebook and Twitter had all received penalties from the FTC for breaking their own privacy policies. In the case of Google, it was during the introduction of Google Buzz. I remember it - I suddenly found a plane showing the names of a bunch of people and we'd discussed how to disable this annoying thing that had suddenly shown up in our Gmail pages which we'd never enabled. Anger and frustration that we had to opt out...

There was also a lot of talk around 3rd parties (those that the data won't be shared with) and affiliates (those who that data will probably be shared with). I've never really understood the difference. It's a tighter tie. Google has over 60 different services/affiliates with which it can share it's data with without breaking it's privacy policies (the situation is worse than you may think having just read that figure. Remember the unification of the privacy policies?).

She also stated that the Internet is the 5th largest industry (though I can't find any figures to back this up). Assuming that this is true, we'd have to take it as a primary industry. i.e. oil, gold, coffee, coal etc. The term "data mining" seems oh so very apt. Instead of the earth being dug up for these things, it's us - our information, that's the resource being sought.

Let's think about that for a second.

Someone pointed out that she didn't have to have a Facebook account for a picture to be tagged as her (and no recourse to get it removed or untagged) - even though she's avoided ever having put a picture in public online.

Every time I get on a bus I swipe a convenient card which records where I got on and where I get off. This information is visible to me so I know it's been collected.

Google knows my phone habits - who I call. Given their unscrupulous nature (i.e. recording information on wifi routers when doing Street View drive bys), they probably also know how long each phone call was. This is over and above my cellphone service provider who also collect this information (otherwise how would they bill for it?).

Advertising companies everywhere can probably paint a fairly accurate picture of which websites I visit and when given the use of cookies.

My cellphone is also a GPS device which is quite capable of recording where I am and when I was there. How do I know this information isn't being synced to my ever so convenient Google account? Remember - Google were in trouble for breaching their own privacy policy.

A couple of years ago I went to a meeting where a "service" had been described as a bad idea on steroids. Basically twitter for your credit card. It's possible to track credit card purchases.

So much information! And those are just the ones I know of or suspect! Remember what I was saying about corporate creepiness?

It's all very nice that the FTC seem to be moving to tighten up the privacy around these services, but, I'm in New Zealand. And let's face it - it's all moving rather slowly. These penalties were received well after the act. What interest does the FTC really have in protecting the privacy of New Zealanders?

There was talk about negotiations for an international privacy framework. While it seems like a good idea, there are concerns. Firstly, it's unlikely to be negotiated in a transparent way (I believe it is currently in the works though I can't remember the "letters" for this one). Secondly, there's always the risk with such international treaties that the U.S. will flex it's "Intellectual Property" muscles and slip other, further reaching, clauses into such an act under the guise of privacy.

When asked about the U.S.'s bargaining power in relation to New Zealand's and how New Zealand's best interests can be protected in such an act, Pamela flattered (read: "politicianed" her way through without answering the question) New Zealand in saying that we were one of the most outspoken during negotiations and that Marie Shroff's input was respected.

So we come to jurisdiction. How is bad behaviour handled on the Internet? In New Zealand we are looking at a Communications Minister and a Communications Commission. This would be a lower court designed around being cheap and speedy. The question is, what constitutes "bad behaviour" severe enough to go to this court? What remedies, given that the crime has already happened, and it's very hard to take content off the Internet once it's out there, would be available to such a court?

I can't help but bring up an example of something that could be considered defamatory in the course of this presentation. The host, Judge David Harvey, said during the course of the session:
The problem is not technology. The problem is behaviour. We have met the enemy and he is us.
This was tweeted. Right now I can throw the following terms into Google: "judge david harvey the enemy us" - and the first hit leads to a tweet that says:
We have met the enemy and he is the US
Sound like defamation? Given his dealing with the Kim Dotcom case, this could have some interesting consequences.

Just a note about the quote. It's an extension of a Pogo quote (a comic strip done by a man by the name of Walt Kelly).

To be completely honest, the session was scattered. It jumped around. There was no cohesive discussion going on. What it did bring up though was that the jurisdiction of such a court is problematic. Extraditions on people outside of New Zealand who are breaking NZ laws under our requirements? Take down orders - fair enough. But what if the accused doesn't comply? If the server is outside of NZ jurisdiction, what recourse does this court have to have that "information" removed?

Let's face it. We're in the age of the cloud. There are no longer any easy answers and the physical jurisdictions no longer really apply. So how would/should these issues be tackled?

Amendment 15/07/2012
Apparently Judge Harvey did substitute in "the US" into that quote during a panel discussion. Oh - and he's become a bit of a hero for me (if only I could get him to now wear a cape). I was saying to a friend today that I want to be Judge David Harvey when I grow up.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

NetHui Part 4 - A Cold Day in Hell

For one of those missed sessions, I spent my time talking to the guy on the Microsoft stand. I have to admit to having been ingenuine when I'd met him last year. It was a bit of a joke to have found him, and acquired a business card. There were a few jokes going around at the time (as he participates on a mailing list I also participate on but none of my friends had seen him).

He showed me MS Windows 8 on a touch interface. Unfortunately they didn't have a MS Surface to show off but it at least showed me the bit I was really interested in - the interface.

It's based on HTML 5 and javascript (sound familiar? Gnome shell is based on javascript, and I'm willing to bet that they'll be integrating HTML 5 support - I really should do my research on this but it's getting late and I've got at least one more post to do after this one).

It's a HUGE shift from what we've seen on a Windows platform before - doing away with... well... windows. Applications run full screen. I'm not entirely happy with this. On a big enough screen I'll have 3 or 4 Windows visible at any one time.

It does feel like you're operating on a cell phone. This has been a huge gripe of mine. My computer does not have a touch screen and should not try to operate as one! However... On top of this interface, you can run a desktop like interface.

So the title of this post? I thought it'd be a cold day in hell when a Microsoft Operating System appeared to have more options than a Linux one. This is ingenuine and unfair of course. I have the choice of KDE, Unity, Cinnamon, MATE etc. But, to offer the choice in a single package - switchable quickly (it runs on top of the cellphone looking interface like an application) is massive! I hope the FLOSS people are watching. It doesn't have to be one or the other. The two can co-exist. While it does feel like a bit of a token effort on MS's part, I think we could actually get this right. It doesn't have to be a separate X-Session. It could be an Android type interface which you could switch with a single key press (Windows key anyone?).

This has great implications. Imagine if you could take the Galaxy Note (the worst of both worlds! Too big and unwieldy for a phone, too small for a tablet) and have it as your desktop as well! i.e. put it in a docking station, switch to a desktop like interface on a bigger screen.

All we really need is that modular design I was describing for Gnome-Shell.

NetHui Part 3 - How Not to do Research

The World Internet Project got up again and went through some rather wishy washy "facts". Some of the politicians who came after did point out the fault that I spotted last year. If the primary form of data collection is via the phone, then the information being gathered is favoured towards those that are more likely to have the Internet, thus, not only the fact that they possibly have access to the Internet, but their usage of the Internet is within a particular context.

Put that against the options nowadays. Internet via mobile and naked broadband or, only mobile phone access or even, no access to the Internet or phone.

I took great exception to their presentation this year though.

They had snapshots of 3 different "people" (extrapolated from their mean data I'm guessing rather than inferring to particular individuals) through their 3 different surveys (2 years apart).

In the first one, an early twenties Asian male didn't consider the radio important to his entertainment at all in which case, it appeared as a "negative" (a score of 1). The second one is where things got a little hinky. The Maori male, in his 60's, in 2007, had never used the Internet, and never intended to use the Internet. Yet, the importance of the Internet for that first year appears as a score of 3 - "neutral".

There was a question around the form of the media. i.e. if a newspaper is now read online, does that appear in the:

  1. Newspaper column?
  2. Internet column?
  3. Both?

I wasn't impressed by the research last year and I find myself even less impressed this year. It's kind of a really tragic version of the Berenstain Bears. If it costs around $20,000 per question for research of this type (a figure I heard recently), but the research is fundamentally flawed thus making it useless, what could that money have been used for? How many people could it have benefited? A perfect example of how not to do research.

NetHui Part 2 - The Digital Divide

This was probably the most interesting session of the day. They started out with 2 people speaking as an introduction to the subject. The first one was a heart breaking tale of where she'd come from and what the "Computers in Homes" programme meant to her and how it had changed her life and, probably more importantly, her outlook on life. I'm not going to relate her story but at the end of it, while she had had a few moments where it sounded like her voice was going to crack and she had to suppress a couple of sniffles, the crowd got on their feet for a standing ovation and there were more than a couple of people with tears in their eyes. I wasn't the only one feeling a little choked up by it all.

The second person was a blind man who spoke about how the Internet had changed the way he interacted with the world. He spoke about "The Cornflakes Problem". Basically, prior to being able to use the Internet to go shopping, he'd have to pick his time to go to the Supermarket (not too busy) and try and get someone to help him get things off the shelf. If we're annoyed at the movements of products on a supermarket shelf, it's 10 times worse for a blind person.

But why are cornflakes so significant? They'd pick the first pack off the shelves - never mind the options. The Internet made him realise that there are dozens of different options - different brands and sizes. Boxes or bags, prices etc. He'd supposed there were only 1/2 a dozen different options or so.

The difficulties in getting around, not knowing if a venue would have facilities etc. would lead to avoiding events and thus social isolation. Now, with the Internet, all of this can be looked up online and planned for well before the actual event. And if you really couldn't attend, you could still interact in some way with the event online.

There was a great big appeal at the end of it. When building a website, please adhere to W3C standards so that the website can be rendered for use with accessibility in mind.

But the digital divide. What happens when you get a panel of people up on stage to talk about it?

The facilitator for the presentation seemed to think that the digital divide was shrinking but that we've still got some way to go despite some of the comments made around how New Zealand governmental services are moving online at the expense of physical presence and thus being online has to be considered a basic human right in the same way that electricity is seen in much the same way (though I would argue that if electricity truly were a basic human right in New Zealand, there would have to be regulation around pricing).

3 of the people on stage were politicians. The one who mentioned the Manaiakalani project did the project a bit of a disservice (so I felt). He said that the project gave the kids devices. I was the first to jump up to a microphone and issue a correction - that the project empowers families to invest in their children's futures via a device paid for over 3 years. That it creates, not only the ownership of, but the sense of ownership, for the device. I hold little hope for this politician (a National politician) though as I'll explain. He didn't seem to understand the point about the sense of ownership - I'll get back to this point.

Given that we were talking about the digital divide, the analogy of bridge building came up. "If we build a bridge from this side, how do we know they're going to use it on that side of the divide?". An interesting question but ultimately the wrong approach. That politician mentioned above (but not named - really, if you wanted to find out who it was, you could look it up, but, it's not important. I've come across the same sort of thinking before from politicians and they don't seem to have the context to understand. So not unique to this person) said something about engaging with the community at the beginning. Another guy, not a politician, made the point that bringing all of the stakeholders, and being conscious of those absent, is a challenge in itself.

My reaction to all of this? The question isn't about what we can build. The question is more about how we can enable them to build. So to carry on the analogy, the solution is to find some way to the other side of the divide and work with them, all the way through the process - and be humble enough to be a servant - i.e. working with others at their direction only suggesting (and not forcing) methods based upon your own experience - to help them find a way across the divide.

This all reminds me of another conversation I had about a month ago. I was talking about how I would love to introduce the sort of things I've seen applied within the schools I work within in other places (regions, countries etc.). The comment came up that often "do-gooders" come along, do something and then abandon it (install a water well with no instructions on what to do when the seals have given out), or, have difficulty getting any traction due to suspicion around their motives. Actually I'm merging two different conversations into one here. I'm hoping I've now got something of framework, in terms of approach, where I could actually be successful in approaching a community and help out while mitigating these issues. It's a stretch, but I think I've got the attitude... It's what I'm aiming for at least.

The Green candidate picked up on the comment about ownership. In fact, there were a couple of turns of phrase I had said that she seemed to pick up on immediately. I don't know if I've said just how important, not only ownership, but the sense of ownership really is.

The National candidate though looked blank after I'd said my piece.

One of the big findings of the One Laptop Per Child programme was that communities had to have a sense of ownership of the devices. They should go through some effort to fund raise for the machines - even if it is ultimately useless (a drop in the ocean). Why? How much value do you give to free anti-virus software or .... something else you don't really know the price of that has just been given to you? For the most part, the kids in the Manaiakalani programme know that their parents are paying for the netbooks and that there's a financial burden to it. They own the devices. They know they own the devices. This leads to more care being taken of the devices (though this isn't the only piece to this particular puzzle). Simple things like locking them away when not in use. Carrying them and making sure siblings aren't pulling off the keys etc. They're not the government's computers. They aren't owned by the school. They're the family's/child's.

So the problem isn't around money. Because, let's face it, if we wanted to give kids computers, we could raise the funds, and what business wouldn't wanted to be associated to such a programme?, and buy all the machines needed to do so. The maintenance would be an absolute nightmare. And you've just removed a whole bunch of benefits. By owning the device, they're then learning about warranties, insurance and excess payments, automatic payments and contracts etc. They're empowered.

I know I said it to a politician last year, and I hope there are other politicians (and hopefully the same one I said this to last year - they didn't seem to understand it) reading this, hopefully understanding the implications - The solution is never "We'll give them all computers".

I'm going to crowbar in the Home in Schools conversation I had. These are people I can actually relate to in some part as they're also working within the poverty cycle. They know it's not as simple as "giving people jobs".

However, for 10 hours of training, people are given computers and a discounted?/free? (I'm not clear on this point) Internet connection for a year. Apart from the fact that they're giving them machines with Windows 7 installed (there's a conversation in here to be had about sustainable computing - yes I'll get around to that post eventually), I don't believe they've got it quite right. Where is the sense of ownership? Where is empowerment? Do the machines have a positive impact on their lives or do most of them become horribly slow and obsolete within a couple of years without any real use?

I'm going to sound a little cocky here but.... the computers aren't learning devices. If their use isn't integrated into the school, then you can safely beat on the fact that they're going to be used as toys. I'm sure they've a lot of success stories. I think they'd get even more success if they took ownership, and a more integrated approach, into account. Working with the families AND the school to come up with a programme that integrates the machines into their learning.

They can't all be Manaiakalani.

NetHui Part 1 - Is "Safe" a sexy word?

Day one of Nethui. For those not in the know. Hui essentially means meeting (though it's probably a little more accurate to say "a meeting of minds"). So a meeting of minds about the Internet. It's a conference, now into it's 2nd year. Heavily sponsored and so the entry fee is really low. A mere $40 - for 3 days.

This low point of entry means that people of different walks of life can attend. I'm critical of conferences where the only way to attend is to get your work place to pay for you to go. So this conference is right down my alley.

So while I was in this conference I was writing a bunch of notes (I tend to go in with a pad and fountain pen - the idea being that as I transcribe things into a digital format, I have a bit more time to digest what I've heard) and realised that the best way for me to digitize this stuff would be to do it as a bunch of blog posts. I think I have enough notes for 3 or 4 blog posts? And that's just after one day with me having missed 2 sessions (more due to a lack of interest in what was happening at the time).

I'm going to go backwards - from the stuff fresh in my head to the bits from this morning.

So this evening's session was on a campaign run by NetSafe. This is an organisation that deals with online awareness. Things like avoiding identity theft, being aware of the dangers of viruses and the like.

Something did come up which is going to be a big point in my next post (on the digital divide). It turns out that some ISP's (Internet Service Provider) offer free virus scanning software but that the installation rate is low. What I find interesting though is that all seemed to center on Windows. We all know that Mac OSX now has a significant (although lower than MS Windows) number of viruses and portable devices are more and more like desktop computers. Thus, unless all of those other platforms are catered for, it's always going to be a bit of a token effort.

But, back to the topic of the post, I asked them if the campaign could possibly be "sexied up". Safe is so uncool. In terms of kids "Don't do that, it's unsafe" has a lot less impact than "Don't do that, you'll hurt yourself". ACC (The Accident Compensation Corporation - sort of New Zealand's way of avoiding the mess of frivolous lawsuits that seems, according to tv, prevalent in America) don't talk about safety on their ads. They talk about accidents. Australia ran a campaign where they used the term "Cyber Savvy". Manaiakalani uses "Cyber Smart". Safe just isn't sexy. It's not something to aspire to.

Of course someone had to take it too far and suggest it needed vampires.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Has Open Source Become a Buzz Phrase?

I remember going to meetings and walking out again thinking "Bingo". Why? I'd be in these meetings listening to buzzwords and buzz phrases. There was actually very little content - anything of substance - to these meetings. It was possible to play a game of "buzzword bingo" although, if you can only announce that you've got bingo at the end of the meeting, the game becomes pointless. Because EVERYONE would have won by then.

I would perk up when I used to hear the term "Open Source". Companies weren't advertising the fact that they were using open source products and so to hear the term was brilliant! This is around the same time that a document crossed my desk saying that we should avoid "Shareware" and "Freeware". This document came with a copy of the GPL (General Public License). Scariness personified and a sentiment that did not match reality. The reality was that a lot of back end stuff was running under open source software. Some of the product development parts of the business were also using open source tools such as 'R'. As far as I know, the document was largely ignored.

Hell, New Zealanders have contributed a lot to open source software. Mahara, e-portfolio software, was developed here. Silverstripe, a content management system, was used by the American Democrats for their national convention website. Koha, an integrated library management system, was also developed here (though there is some dispute brewing around the use of the word "Koha". This is a conflict of commercialism and community).

A few years ago I had an Internet router. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it ran Linux (busybox). It had a problem where a delay was set just low enough to cause me problems. It would try to reconnect 3 times and then wouldn't do anything else. You couldn't get it to try again afterwards. It was essentially a brick. It would work but if it became disconnected, there was a very good chance that you'd never get the damn thing on again without resetting it.

But it's running free software! I can just get in there, change a couple of values and everything will just work! No such luck. I couldn't make any permanent changes. In fact, most of the configuration was hidden. I asked the company about the source code. They were quite happy to supply it with a $30 distribution fee (it takes that amount to send a couple of files over the Internet?). Oh, and it still wouldn't allow me access to the inner workings of the router. i.e. I could have the source code. I couldn't put anything modified on there.

This is known as "Tivoization" - something that the GPL v3.0 tried to address. Has this helped? Well... it probably would have if it weren't for the fact that some people had objections to the GPL 3. Linux (I'm talking about the kernel here), for example, is still under GPL 2.

Apple's OS X, and iOS, is still opensource. The opensource bits are downloadable as "PureDarwin". It doesn't include any of the GUI bits and instead, Free software fills the gap with windows managers and the like. Does it make either OS X or iOS platforms any more Free?

The question is, does open source inherently make something more Free? This is the question I was missing a few years ago. That router - essentially useless though I did end up finding some horribly patchy way of making it work (sort of). My phone? Runs Android and yet the vendor does not support updating on Linux (or Mac OSX for that matter). My mother owns a TomTom device (Sued by Microsoft a few years ago over a frivolous patent involving Linux). It's based on a Linux infrastructure and it's update facility is built on top of a Mozilla framework that was made to be run on multiple platforms, yet TomTom will not support Linux based systems.

I used to think that Richard Stallman was a bit of an extremist. That the distinction between Open Source and Free software was all just semantics. But as time has gone on, I've come to realise that there are some really important implications to the term Free. The open source part of "FLOSS" (Free/Libre/Open Source software) doesn't cover the bits that actually matter to me. It's not just about being able to see the source code, but also, to be able to run the code. Otherwise, what's the point?

As more and more companies embrace an open source model, it's becoming more and more apparent just how many holes there are (and why the GPL 3 is such a good thing) in the GPL 2 and the term "open source".

The problem though, open source has a relatively low point of entry. It just takes a bit of sharing. To be told that you're not Free - that you don't actually own the shiny, unibody, aluminium device you're holding only gets people's backs up. Capitalism doesn't really account for abstract ideas such as Freedom either - another barrier. Though the argument can be made that the Freedom to customize a piece of software to a business' operations is a HUGE benefit (rather than the normal pattern of making a business work to a piece of software).

So has Open Source become a buzz phrase? Well... no. It has meaning. It's what it's lacking that really makes the difference.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Corporate Creepiness

I have been becoming more and more concerned about the sort of terms and conditions corporations are setting. You buy something... at least, you think you've brought it.

The big darling child of this sort of mentality is Apple. They'll keep you safe by not allowing any applications that they don't deem to be fit for your device to be installed. Never mind what you might want on there. People - you don't own an iPhone or iPad. You've paid for the rights to use Apple's shiny toy. Just wait - they'll do this to their desktops too if they think they can get away with it.

But Apple aren't the only ones pulling this sort of stunt. Oh no - there are other creeps waiting in the shadows. Cisco want you on their cloud service and are watching. Downloading something that they deem unfit? They're able to disable your router! Sorry - their router.

And then there's the horribly upfront creep. "So... where are you? What are you doing?". They needn't ask. They probably already know. I'm talking about Google. There are various "features" on Android phones (which admittedly you have to turn on) that can broadcast your location to a few trusted friends... Want to use Flash? On Linux Adobe are cutting support of Flash plugin and so the only way you'll be able to view Flash content is to use Google Chrome (the non-opensource version that is) or one of the horribly inferior opensource versions (if Adobe don't want to support it anymore, how about opening up the source code?). Google chrome, when you first start it up, keeps asking you to log in. Hell, if you set a home page, it'll open the sign in page AND the home page. And then there's the really creepy stalking - i.e. taking information about your wireless router when doing the Google street view drive bys.

But Google are convenient you might say. They allow us to print to anywhere (Google Cloud Print) and give us email and docs. Need to buy something? How about giving Google Products a go? Published a book? Yay Google Books! I recently left AuckLUG (The Auckland Linux Users Group) because they choose to use Google Groups - something that I felt wasn't in the spirit of Linux people (if we wanted easy, we probably would have just stuck to using MS Windows. It was already installed after all). Google even have SMS services in some countries. Hell, I could go on, but why not just visit the rather useful wikipedia page that lists the services? See which ones give you a chill down your spine.

Just wait... they'll be pulling an Apple/Cisco trick next - sell you hardware that you don't actually own! Oh.... wait...

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Who's Singing The Open Source Mantra?

A question came up recently about the Manaiakalani project. "The website is great and has loads of documentation but why is there is absolutely no mention of the use of Ubuntu or opensource software?". Followed up by, "Would the project have been possible without the use of opensource software?".

I guess that would fall onto my shoulders to explain. The project isn't about the shiny machines or the software being run on them. The research, although I do think the researcher did overstep her bounds a little by commenting on the technical assistance (I can demonstrate where those problems were more social than technical - i.e. me not following up on emails quickly enough, not being told of the problem,  people not being sure of procedure etc. None of which is something that can be fixed with more technicians). There is a question of time in there (i.e. I'm not JUST supporting the netbooks out there. I'm also developing the image and constantly struggle to find the time to do so but that's a whole other story. I think the only time I really get a rest is if I'm sick - at the moment I'm on antibiotics and working some hideous hours to have the new image ready for next term), is around learning outcomes. But what if I said "It's not just about the children?". Every time I think I've figured out the project and how far it reaches, I realise there's a whole other layer.

So children get these pretty shiny machines with software customized to them and their needs in order for them to learn. They're administrators of their machines too. They're only locked down enough to keep them safe (i.e. some software isn't installable via the Ubuntu Software Center). So occasionally I'll come across a kid with a lot of accounts on their computer. When asked, the answer is usually "That one's for my mum, and that's my brother's etc..

So parents and siblings are also getting some benefits. The hope is that they're using it for their own lives. Things like online banking.

But there's more to it than just access to a computer. What about people who've never owned anything? There are contracts to be signed. Automatic payments to be made. Insurance issues to be understood. A child's future to invest in. These are all things that most of us take for granted. They're just things that you have to deal with.

At ULearn last year I did a rather woeful (I am a REALLY bad public speaker. It got worse from there on as a phobia took hold at dinner that night but that's a whole other story) talk on my part of the puzzle. As you can probably tell, I hate public speaking. So I was nervous and I had it in my head not to go into an Opensource is great rant. At the end of it I realised I hadn't mentioned Opensource at all. Whoops.

When you start looking at the project, you realise just how little my part is even though I go to great lengths to try and keep up my part of it (I was thinking about the amount of time I get allocated for development of the image. 8 or 9 weeks per year in school holidays and a day scheduled for every week though I think on average, I only manage around 1 of those for every two months. The rest - the evenings and weekends - is all unpaid and I'm still susceptible to sick days). It's a platform. It's a bit like a building. A project would use a building but they probably wouldn't rant and rave about how wonderful the building is or describe the design of the hammer used to construct the building. But the use of that building is quite likely horribly important to the running of that project.

Would it have been possible without Open Source Software? I don't think so personally.

Quite apart from the licensing costs (not just per device, but also the costs around keeping track of those licenses), I don't think the project would have gotten quite the same benefits if a proprietary vendor was supporting it. For example, taking into consideration the needs of children who aren't old enough (according to the Terms of Service) to go onto Facebook or really don't need the option of installing X piece of software (those that have "unsafe" themes). They own the device so there's an ethical question to be asked about those proprietary vendor's solutions to those problems i.e. locking the thing down to a point that it's almost useless. The iPad is a great example of where a vendor simply doesn't seem to care. While they'd have huge benefits in a classroom for young kids, Apple, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that the iPad is a personal device that shouldn't be shared and thus, their configuration has it working that way. Quite different from how a school would like to purchase software for it or maintain it.

What happens when there's a bug? Admittedly in some cases I've just had to wait (like when we couldn't get the microphones working) though in other cases, I've been able to download the source code, make a fix or three, and have then been able to deploy it fairly quickly (the choice of wxcam over cheese is a pretty good example here). How much care does a proprietary vendor take in answering the calls of kids?

And there's the plethora of software available.

One of my big reasons for switching to opensource software was that I was finding myself pirating software so that I could then support that software. So a criminal who ultimately works to support those same people that are calling him a criminal. As a student, it really just didn't make any sense whatsoever. Opensource software gave me the opportunity to learn without being painted with those negative brushes.

So, I consider opensource software educational friendly. The kids can use GIMP or Audacity without fear of being labelled a criminal or spending ridiculous amounts of money. And when they leave, they can still use that software whether they're still students or not. And they can upgrade to the next version of that software!

There's also the option of getting into the guts of it. I was talking to a high school student about programming languages. We were debating the pros and cons of various languages. I had to tell a couple of boys to go and sit down because they were curious as to what I was doing. This isn't uncommon but at the time I was doing something I'd really rather they didn't play with - checking settings on the BIOS which could potentially lead to having to write the machine off.

I've been thinking about a slightly different branding: Sustainable Software. How often has a company had to migrate from a piece of software because it just isn't supported anymore? Your company has brought a piece of software with a 5 year support contract. Then 5 years later they find that the software is horribly woeful and they're just going to have to migrate away from it leading to a whole lot of expense (project management costs, licensing, hardware refresh etc.). This is a post for another day. But for now, I'll just drop in the term "Sustainable Software" and direct you to the fact that the netbooks are generally (there are options) brought on a 3 year contract (and so more recent shiny OSes still need to run on these devices).

I've decided I really have to talk about this stuff a little bit more. So if you have any comments or questions, leave a comment here... I swear, this blog really does feel like I'm talking to myself at times. I have very little idea of what people think of the content - whether I'm being a bollocks, making relatible/valid arguments/points or whether the hits I do get to the blog is the result of spammers/spiders from mars/bots trying to find an email address...

Monday, July 2, 2012

Gnome Shell (And Where I Think Canonical Can Play a Big Part)

Gnome shell is going under another change. This one I think is quite possibly the worst thing ever. They're removing the categorised menus in favour of a more "spatial" approach. i.e. the same interface that you have with your Android phone, iPhone, iPad etc.. That is, a grid of icons with all of your applications. I don't think that interface works terribly well. For those interfaces, people then have to have multiple desktops and arrange their applications in some sort of order that makes sense to them. I find myself wanting to yell at them. "My computer is not a phone or tablet! It's meant to be productive!".

So what do I think they're doing wrong? Gnome shell has the potential to be a platform for building interfaces. It could be just a little more modular and portable. If Gnome shell was to become the foundation and the interface bit (i.e. the javascript - the bits under /usr/share/gnome-shell/js) was called something different, then I think we'd all be a lot happier.

So what's Canonical's role in all of this? Canonical is designing Unity. Personally I don't like it terribly much. There are some features I really dig but one of my fundamental problems with it is that it has that same problem that the Unbuntu Netbook Edition (yes, I'm criticizing my favourite interface thus far). It is based on a code base that is glitchy. Ubuntu Netbook Edition had maximus - nice idea. It didn't have the foundations to be stable. Unity is much the same. For their 3d effects, they're relying on Compiz. We've all seen compiz right? The funky spinning cube, wobbly windows etc. I consider it a proof of concept. It got people excited about the desktop all over again. It was a patch though. Consider the first GUI. Any idea what it was called? What it got renamed to? It didn't actually get continued. The people who worked on it took the ideas and what they'd learnt (Most of this work had to do with buffering) and went and developed other Interfaces.

Gnome 3 and KDE have both taken compiz and created their own window managers + compositing managers which suit the user interface.

What if, Unity could be built on top of Gnome Shell? It would be in Canonical's best interest to use Gnome Shell as a foundation, thus removing the slightly glitchy compiz. How would this look? If Ubuntu made some contributions to gnome shell that enabled it to look in alternative directories for the Javascript elements, and built Unity (rather ironic that they would call it Unity when it does have the feel of going away and doing their own thing rather than working with the Gnome community) using the javascript, you could have any number of different interfaces all based upon the same code. So someone like me who wants something similar to the Netbook Interface could have it as a different session option when logging on. And it means that the efforts into the foundation (gnome shell) are unified rather than having to fork it every which way (i.e. Cinnamon).

Of course, this is more likely to come down to ego...