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...

Monday, November 12, 2012

Mad Hacking Skills

I always find myself vaguely embarrassed when someone tells me that they wish they had my hacking abilities. Why? Because it's just a natural progression. It's not something I have or not have. It's an accumulative thing. It's a bit like maths...

I told a friend recently that exponents was just a natural progression and then I had to go on to explain it. If 2+2+2+2 is long hand for 2x4, then 2⁴ is short hand for 2x2x2x2. When you think about it in those terms, it becomes something not so special and just a natural progression.

Just as a side note: 2ⁿ is demonstrable by folding a piece of paper. 1 fold gives you 2 rectangles, 2 folds 4 rectangles, 3 folds 8 rectanges etc.

If only angles were that easy to explain... eg. why do we work off 360°?

So last year I showed one of the kids how to hack the high scores in a game that seemed to be running rampant in that particular class. The idea being that it was a teachable moment. Rather than berating them for playing the game, I figured it'd be much more interesting to teach them something - like a little bit of hacking. Fire up a text editor, show them how to make hidden folders/files visible and edit a file.

The game then became about how high they could set a score without getting an overflow error (basically, a computer stores information in a certain number of bits which gives them a range of numbers they can represent. Go over this value and you get an "overflow error". So in a 8 bit number, I can represent values up to 255. If I try to put 256 in there, I get a wrapped around value - in this case, 0 - actually, there's a little more to this. If I'm dealing with a "signed" value - that is, being able to represent negative and positive numbers - the wrap around value is quite a bit different. And it gets even more complex with "floating point" numbers - where I can represent a "real" number - those with decimal points in them).

This year I learnt that this same kid has learnt how to use the "javascript console" in Chromium browser to hack his online maths games. While possibly a loss for maths skills, I can't help but feel a certain amount of .... pride.

So in terms of hacking - it's actually really not hard. You're simply building on the efforts of others and yourself. You learn you can edit a text file. And from a text file, you can figure out how to parse (process) that file. And now you're in the realms of programming and soon realise that a lot of programming is maths and parsing strings with a bit of flow charting.

To my mind, a much more interesting skill is being able to see requirements and use those hacking skills to produce something that solves the problem in question.

Of course, this isn't in line with the whole media inspired anti-social definition of the word "hacker" - but that's a whole other story.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Open Source Awards

So it's a few days after the NZ Open Source Awards. The Manaiakalani Project won! The presenter for the award in education, Paul Seiler, did mention the fact that the award was really about 2 things. The project itself and the use of Open Source Software and the contribution by me (sorry - ego does have to enter in at times - I'm awesome!). So my time to shine. I'm thinking about doing a great big post about the evolution of a speech. I'll post my notes, which I didn't take with me here though:
  • Finalists
  • Community
  • Leadership
  • Synergy
  • Personal
Half way through my speech I'd realised my accent had turned VERY kiwi. Sod it - carry on.

Anyway, I did say in a previous post that I'd look at the awards and process a little more closely. So let's do that!

Nominations are found by opening it up to the public. This runs for a few anxious months. i.e. I didn't want to nominate myself as I felt this would be egotistical. However, with the discussion going on - the lack of mention of Open Source Software on the Manaiakalani website etc. - I was fairly confident the project had been nominated.

The judges are all involved with various projects. It's such a small community that it'd be difficult to find people who knew what to look for who weren't involved in the community in some way. They have to do this with full disclosure.

Amy Adams opened up the dinner with a "Software development is important to the government" with emphasis on the economic benefits. Of course, what she didn't say was that we spend far more money offshore on software than we do onshore. Take this as a criticism - we have the skills in New Zealand to be able to take our software into our hands and make it work to how we work. We don't have the commitment from the New Zealand government or businesses to be able to do this.

The dinner itself it's a little strange. Here you are sitting at a table of your peers and you can't help but think that all of the finalists should probably be getting their bit in the lime light. So at our table we had a sort of mock rivalry going on.

There was:

  • Nathan Parker principal at Warrington School - the first school in New Zealand to take on a full Open Source and Open Culture philosophy. I've idolised Nathan for awhile - the guy's a dude! So the school itself runs on Open Source Software - completely. It's small enough that they don't need a Student Management System. As well as that, they have a low power FM station running 24/7 that's been run for the last 2 years, by volunteers. This station plays Creative Commons content. They also do sort of a "computers at homes" programme done right i.e. the sense of ownership is accomplished by getting people to build their own computers.
  • Ian Beardslee from Catalyst I.T. ltd. for the Catalyst Open Source Academy. For 2 summers now, Catalyst I.T. have taken an intake of students - basically dropping that barrier of entry into opensource contribution through a combination of classroom type sessions, and mentored sessions for real contributions.
Personally, I don't think I'd liked to have been a judge given just how close I perceive all of these projects to be. Paul Seiler, who I was sitting next to, did kind of say that you're all accomplishing the same sorts of things in different ways.

And I saw a comment in a mailing list about those projects that are out there doing their thing but no one nominated. This puts me in mind of yet another TED talk that I watched the morning after the NZOSA dinner.

There was lots in that video that resonated with me. Things like me wanting to learn electronics but having a fear around it due to what people kept saying around me - "You have to get it absolutely right or it won't work" - paralysing me with fear of getting it wrong and it not working. The same thing was said to me about programming though I learnt fairly quickly that I could make mistakes and it wasn't the end of the world. In fact, programming is kind of the art of putting bugs in.

But more importantly, and more on topic, the video kind of defines why there are likely a whole lot of projects that should have been nominated but weren't due to weird hang ups.

And in a greater sense, shame is probably a huge threat to the Open Source Community. I don't think I've ever contributed more than a few lines of code openly because I'm convinced that whatever code just isn't good enough. That I'll be ridiculed for my coding style or assumptions etc. And I've always said that I'll put out my code after a clean up etc.

Take the code for the Manaiakalani project. It often felt like I was hacking things (badly in some cases) in order to get the functionality we needed - things like creating a blacklist of applications for example. I'm sure that there's evidence of the fact that I'd never coded in python before the project in the code as well. And yet, it's not the code, but the thoughts behind the code, that's award winning. Even if the code is hideous, it's what the code is accomplishing or attempting to accomplish that's important.

So for the next NZOSA gala, I would love to see, not just a list of the finalists, but also a short list of nominations (those that are deserving of at least a little recognition even if not quite making the final cut). I'd love to see the organisers and judges complaining about the number of nominations coming through. I would love to see the "Open Source Special Recognition" award become a permanent fixture (won by Nathan Parker this year). And hell, greater media attention probably wouldn't be such a bad thing.

On a very personal note though - I now have to change from being a "Professional Geek" to being an "Award Winning Geek". Feels good on these ol' shoulders of mine.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Education Preference

A quick "What the [insert obscenity here]?!?!?"

The Honourable Hekia Parata has once again put both feet in a pile of excrement... willingly.

Wanganui Collegiate School, a private school, is to become an integrated school.

What is an integrated school? Basically it's a solution to a tricky problem. In days gone past, the government would no longer fund schools of a religious nature. However, early on, a big proportion of the schools were of a religious nature - if they were to close down, then schooling facilities would disappear.

So a solution was put into place. Basically, the government would fund staff of those schools and the schools (boards, trusts) would be responsible for facilities (buildings upkeep and expansion).

At the same time the government is trying to cut costs. Suddenly schools would not receive funding for tech teachers - i.e. those teaching those more interesting things like woodwork and metalwork. Of course, these schools were unwilling to cut these subjects and so the result would have been increased classroom sizes.

Christchurch is facing the closure of 13 schools with 25 said to go through some sort of "merger". The use of the word merger is interesting - schools, while in theory a business, are in practise a community center.

Given it's prestigious reputation, I would imagine a lot of politician's children going there. If not for the education, then for the name at the very least. Part of what the news announced was that the fees would go down as well.

Given the especially stupid cost cutting measures being taken, and then this shock announcement, I can't help but feel that Wanganui Collegiate School is getting preferential treatment. And while I don't wish to see any school close, I am of the opinion that schools need to be treated with a certain amount of consistency. Are those closures essentially paying for a bailout for, what those in the education sector would jokingly call, a "decile 10z" school?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Finding the Problem

I've been looking at more classroom modules. Thus far it's been GIMP. i.e. here's something cool we can try. However, that's simply not good enough.

When I left high school one of my biggest problems I had was trying to contextualise things. Why would I be designing a database? At what point do I lie in order to sell an I.T. solution to a business without understanding what issues they were trying to solve? etc. I credit the lack of contextualisation as my biggest factor in failure in my education.

So, if you wanted to teach something - in this case, electronics - what would the problem be?

I have a tendency to work backwards. So I brought an ultrasonic distance sensor off ebay. And then thought to myself that measuring the height of a classroom full of kids might be kind of cool (fun). So, when the program starts, figure out how high off the floor the sensor is. When the height changes, send a computer that height. Take the highest height (or the top few and average them out? Before anyone says it, we'd be looking for the smallest distance assuming the sensor was over a door) and send that figure to a computer to record the results. Perhaps chuck it into a spreadsheet and wait for someone to put that child's name in.

Hell, this could even have a practical use. At a height change you've got an event which could trigger other things to happen - such as taking a photo. In which case, you could take a height and a "description" (i.e. a photo). Something that would be handy for bars with slot machines and jewellery stores. But I digress.

So if we're recording heights, what is the problem that we're trying to solve? I finally figured it out tonight. If we're going to buy skipping/jump ropes, then we need to grab an average height of the users of said ropes. So there's science - how do ultra sonic sensors work? And math - how do we calculate an average and how do we use them? A sense of scale i.e. if we were to measure a school full of kids, how long would it take us using a measuring tape? and assuming that we need to do this year by year, how much time would this take over 2 years? 3 years? etc. How much time do we save by having an automated system?

So... what do others think? Are there teachers out there who might want to give this sort of thing a go?