Saturday, March 30, 2013

Is Your Child's School Keeping Up With Technology?

For the last couple of years I've been wondering about the MOE's (Ministry of Education) content filtering offerings. For a long time now, schools have had 2 options - Schoolzone and Watchdog.

Schoolzone has offered total solutions involving email and being an ISP (Internet Service Provider). And it was relevant... was... Why "was"? Schoolzone offered a great big giant proxy. Not sure what a proxy is? Basically a proxy server caches content. It was relevant for slower connections. If multiple users were requesting the same information, then all subsequent requests (after the first) would download the content from the proxy server rather than the website in question. This would make things faster.

The speeds offered by Schoolzone, in most cases, are no longer relevant to today's Internet. Furthermore, the configuration requirements of each machine presents a real usability issue. I have to question the role of proxy servers overall. The big ticket items, such as youtube, actively make caching their content difficult. So the savings by using a proxy server are minimal at best. Even if you find a solution for youtube videos now, chances are, a few months down the track, you'll be looking for a new way to circumvent youtube's latest anti-caching measure.

And Watchdog? Watchdog's free offering only really offered for a very generic filter. In an ideal world, school's would realise that Watchdog offered a great fallback position but that some sort of onsite filtering might also be required. I don't know of any school who also have some transparent (i.e. proxyless) filtering in place.

Otherwise, Watchdog is pretty good. BUT, is also no longer relevant to toady's Internet speeds. The solution implemented by Watchdog doesn't seem to be keeping up with faster connections and is actually presenting somewhat of a bottleneck. Meaning that even if a school is paying for a fairly fast connection, chances are pretty good that their content filtering via Watchdog is holding that connection back. I've got to credit Watchdog - they seem to be attempting to keep up but so far I've been unimpressed by their offerings (moving servers into the school but failing to scale these servers according to need appropriately).

So I guess this is the bit where I bring this back to a social issue. If content filtering is causing us so many woes, is it time to:
  • Start looking for other solutions?
  • Take this as an opportunity to teach our kids "Cyber Safety"/"Cyber Smarts"/"Cyber Intelligence"? (and yes, I know, loads of people have an objection to the term cyber... get over it. Smarts and Intelligence have some sex appeal. Watching a guy strap himself up before getting on a chair to change a light bulb was never appealing in the least).

The Importance of Media

I went for a walk when I found myself talking about newspapers and real estate. It turns out that real estate makes up the majourity of newspaper advertising revenue BUT the media can also greatly influence market prices. For example, one street that I went down had 4 or 5 houses all on the market. While apparently the media was commenting that the real estate market is on the up.

A friend of mine made the comment that the recession didn't really properly hit New Zealand at all. News of the recession did. What this means is that news of a recession lead to a mass tightening of the belts leading to less flow of money. Basically a recession - but one based upon what the media was reporting.

The media need to have some responsibility. Clare Curren is always talking about how important the media is to the democratic process but I question whether the media is truly relevant in this context.

Why? Because the media has some serious sway. When they're not talking about three legged dogs "shoplifting" (which became WORLD news), or who wins in a fight between an alligator and a lion, the media has a surprising amount of sway. How did you feel about the Maori occupations in the last 20 years or so? Do you really know what the Gulf War was really about (George H. W. Bush in 1990)? etc.

There's also instances of the media trying to pedal their own crap. When this blog first started there were issues around "NZ's Next Top Model" appearing on the news. It's almost unfortunate that I have no recent examples as I no longer watch the news. Likewise, in the newspaper there was the NZ Herald piece of an electrical storm, or rather, how one of their photographers had rushed down to a beach to photograph said storm.

My question though - if the media is so important, and influences global economic situations, real estate pricing and availability and is essential to the democratic process... who oversees it to make sure it's relevant, has some integrity and isn't just some sort of self promotion?

Friday, March 29, 2013

Donglegate - Who Really Cares?

Recently I popped by Tangleball. There were a couple of people there and someone had mentioned "Donglegate".

Never heard of it? Neither had I. Basically, at PyCon (a programming conference based around Python), a woman, Adria Richards, had heard a comment made by two guys about "forking" (taking open source software and making their own version about it) and big "dongles" (anything that's "inserted" into a computer externally - i.e. Monitor dongle, usb dongle etc.) and as a result twitted a picture of the guys making the comment with the most offensive content of the tweet being about it being "uncool".

It's all lead to horribly sexist comments and 2 people (Adria Richards and "one of the guys pictured") losing their jobs.

My research, after having gone to Tangleball, has resulted in me learning of Adria Richards, who had gone to a conference, heard a, what she interprets to be, a derogatory comment, "joke" (I put joke in quotations as it's subjective to the audience) made at PyCon and that 2 people lost their jobs. Her, and and one of the guys pictured.

To which I issue a great big "WTF?". It's created this great big frenzy of comments. At Tangleball the comment was made "Why did HR make a big enough issue of this as to lead to people loosing their jobs?", which I agree with, but more importantly, this is being portrayed, perhaps not purposely, in the media, as a malcontent making waves leading to her and "one of the men in the photo" loosing their jobs.

Okay, so it was her choice to tweet about it. I blogged about sexism in I.T. during NetHui. Woman in I.T. suffer some, to me, surprisingly, injustices in I.T. I've heard of females feeling unsafe during conferences. But for me I'm always surprised by a woman not being employed by the industry. If I.T. is all about problem solving, then having a different perspective on things, has to be an asset. Best practise only goes so far.

I think, a comment made about a big dongle can only go so far, and that forking is likewise, I suggest to people that judgement needs to be withheld. Why? We don't really know what the comment was. But more importantly, to me at least, is the way the media has handled this. Adria Richards is portrayed as a malcontent (I've heard comments about it being an over-reaction though we're talking about twitter - 140 characters or less). Only one of the two guys pictured (and not named) also lost their job (benefit of the doubt - what if it was the other one?).

So to me - this only really emphasises the sexism within the I.T. trade and funnily enough, how we accept this as true. While we comment that it's a male dominated field, we seem okay with the idea that females have little or no value. You know what I'm gonna say to that... What The Fornication!??

[Update]
After having just read this post, I'm feeling inclined to clarify my position a little more. I'm not taking sides. As the post reference says, death by a thousand cuts, or, the straw that broke the camel's back. While the comment was indeed intended as a joke (after a little more research), there's the whole final straw phenomenon. We can get slowly angry about one thousand things - people laughing at us, sexist comments, people recycling the old horribly sexist and terrible joke (that's what she said) etc. But we see the sudden burst at the 1001'st thing as an over reaction rather than taking it as part of a whole. I actually think that females in I.T. should be fostered to an extent - at the very least, we need to start listening to what they say rather than dismissing it. I know this doesn't sit well with the whole equality thing but given the different ways of viewing things, I think that discussion and actually coming up with the best fit solutions rather than worrying about where the suggestion came from is a good thing to all concerned.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Dialog Command

Geek speak alert....

A while back I said something about using this blog as a place for some notes (I'm unlikely to lose my blog....). So here goes. Dialog is this brilliant tool for making your bash scripts look... well... just a little more friendly. It's got a few oddities though. For example, responses are sent to stderr. The only examples I could find to make this work was to make a file in temp that contains responses and then read that back in. So it looks something along the lines of:

#!/bin/bash
RESPONSE="/tmp/ans$$"  
 dialog --title "A title" --menu "Some text" 20 50 20 \  
  "1" "Option 1" \  
  "2" "Option 2" \  
  2>${RESPONSE}  
 ANSWER=$(<$RESPONSE)  
 case $ANSWER in  
  "1") echo "Option 1 was selected" ;;  
  "2") echo "Option 2 was selected" ;;  
 esac  
 rm ${RESPONSE}

I wanted to do something a little different. I wanted to show the progress of copying files - to copy a usb stick. The information I found on the Internet for doing this was around doing a file count. I have one file that's a couple of GB's big though while the rest of the files are small. In which case, it just wouldn't give me the information I need. Or at least, not a meaningful representation. So... given that I didn't really care too much about accuracy but wanted an indication for how long times were going to take, I came up with the following:

 #!/bin/bash  
 SOURCE="/mnt/SOURCE"  
 DEST="/mnt/DEST"  
 SOURCE_SIZE=$( du -c $SOURCE | tail -n1 | cut -f1 )  
 cp $SOURCE/* $DEST & CP_PID=$!  
 (  
  while [ -d "/proc/$CP_PID" ] ; do  
   PERCENTAGE=$( echo "scale=2 ; $( du -c $DEST | tail -n1 | cut -f1 ) / $SOURCE_SIZE * 100" | bc " cut -f1 -d "." )  
   sleep 1  
   echo -e "$PERCENTAGE\n###\n$PERCENTAGE %\n###"  
  done  
 ) | dialog --title "Copy Progress" --gauge "" 6 50 6  

So it relies on the du command. There are probably ways of making this a little more accurate (though I'm not sure I care). Perhaps using apparent size for the du commands?

Anyway... the whole point of this post... Given that I wasn't able to find the information I wanted and had to hack it together myself, hopefully putting this information here will help someone with similar needs.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The End of Tax Troubles?

I got the phone call of my life yesterday. While I NEVER look forward to dealing with IRD (for those not in NZ, it's the tax department), this phone call had me celebrating. Really long time readers of this blog might know what I've been having problems with IRD for years. When I had the resources to sort out the issue, I did so, only to get another great big debt issued during the time that I wasn't working (officially - I still found myself horribly busy with OLPC, AuckLUG, the establishment of Tangleball, and of course, Manaiakalani).

So I'm coming to the end of a contract and asked that all progress payments be held off till near the end of the contract. This would allow me to have the funds to clear up any and all (well not quite ALL but close to it) debts. It was kind of depressing thinking that I'd have very little left over after around 5 months of work.

As it turns out this phone call was just what I needed. It was taken as an electronic submission and involved writing off various penalties, filing a tax return and eventually resulted in a tax refund that covered any debts remaining! With just a little left over!

That little though? Well it doesn't really matter. What matters is that I had allocated funds towards getting this sorted and that's now all freed up.

Of course, I'm a little sceptical. The last time I thought I was in this position I got another letter from IRD... Knowing this... I'm going to be ready.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Fresh Eyes

Last night was my first testing session for Gherkin. I was completely unprepared. I'd been pushing myself pretty hard to be ready (I slept ALL day today as a result) but just couldn't pull it out of the hat. On the plus side, there's that whole spoiled thing going on...

During Christmas my mother remarked on the fact that none of my friends competed with each other. We, the awkward through school and picked upon. I think it has to do with an open source attitude. Recognising other people's strengths. And of course, there's the whole school environment. It's not about trying to prove ourselves. It's about trying to do something as a whole. So while what I had produced thus far is in such an incomplete state, there wasn't any sort of negative comments about the fact that it needs quite a bit more work.

But the fun bit - there was someone there who's only just seeing this work for the first time.

A 3 minute imaging time excluding the 1 minute needed to boot and 1 minute to shut down (I'm using Clonezilla as an environment at the moment which is silly for my needs so that 1 minute boot can probably be reduced) which can be done by ANYONE.

Which leads to a rant I had ages ago. The desktop is not the place for security. The desktop should be about being comfortable and productive. Your users should be able to install applications and customize things to their needs. And sure, I don't mean in all cases. Shared computers can quickly put a stop to this sort of thing. But if they're using the same computer day in, day out, then they might as well be comfortable.

This leads to another rant. Unity, Ubuntu's unified interface across devices (in a great big dirty case of irony, the keyboard short cut overlay doesn't appear on all devices - we tried it on a Mac running Ubuntu last night and it doesn't work on screens with a lower resolution than 1024x768 meaning it doesn't work on netbooks), removes options. Things like having your shortcuts (in the case of Unity, this is the launcher) on any side of the screen is GONE. Gnome shell isn't much better. Why are we being told how to use our computers?!?

But yeah... so I'm excited again. A customizable system that puts the power back into user's hands. Let's give users the power to ordain their own environment and see what happens - have a fallback. Is it all fire and brimstone? Can the virus threat be dealt with?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Soap Dispensers

So I've become kind of obsessed with homebrew. My first batch of beer is just heavenly. Over carbonated so it's got a very dry finish to it. Tastes more like a beer probably should - notes that could offend some palettes. It turns out my big dislike for Millers - the least offensive beer ever (soda water with an alcohol content) - is actually really common. Sure, they might not go as far as to make it as bland and tasteless as Millers, but fining agents do tend to take something away.

Oh... and those fining agents? Totally not needed. It turns out that the solids tend to settle on the bottom of the bottle anyway. A careful pour into a decent pilsner glass (I was seen in K-Mart in the weekend looking at their pilsner glasses looking a little crestfallen. While the price on these glasses was brilliant, the imperfections just had me irritated) later and it's perfectly clear.

I think I mentioned that my beer kit came with carbonation drops - sugar (and corn syrup). During bottling, you drop one of these "drops" into the bottom of the bottle. It provides sugar for the yeast to do it's thing - produce CO₂ in order to carbonate the beer (and also results in a little more alcohol). It seems silly to buy lumps of sugar when I can go just about anywhere for sugar - The bulk bin store, supermarket etc. - rather than having to make a trip out to the brewing shop. The thing is, the drops are just convenient.

So someone at Tangleball has been using a soap dispenser. It's a classy idea. Rather than using dry sugar that fizzes as it comes in contact with the beer, he makes up a syrup - which reacts with the beer a lot less violently.

But there's something else rather cool about this approach. What if you wanted to have a play with different flavours? The one I'm keen to try is a lager or pilsner with a honey after taste. Something else occurred to me today. Lime... Using a lime cordial, assuming that it's mostly sugar, would probably (hopefully) give me something close to that abomination which is Monteith's "Radler" (I'm still rather irritated by the whole "Radler is trademarked" thing).

This leads to one tiny 'lil problem... Assuming I want just a plain, plastic, can see the fluid levels on the side type of bottle, and I don't want to use something that's been full of a scented soap... where do you find these from? I've seen tiny ones at the dollar store (I've decided the American, more generic term for these shops is better than the brand name "$2 shop"). Clues anyone?

Update 6/3/2013
So after an hour or so of wondering through town... A total of 4 dollar stores, the Warehouse, the Body Shop, a Chemist, a health food store - I finally found the perfect bottle...

Monday, March 4, 2013

What Happens to Lipstick on Glasses?

I'm working on a much larger post at the moment (it's feeling a bit like an essay in my head) but in the meantime....

Ever been to the local pub and been given a glass where a lipstick stain is still seen? Lipstick is a bit of a mission for bars. The dishwashers in bars generally aren't of the same kind that you would find in the home. While you might think it's a bit more industrial, they have a different aim from the dishwasher you might have at home. They aren't made to "clean" glasses - they're made to sanitize glasses.

Which means, Lipstick stays on the glasses...

So how do bars deal with lipstick? There are two main approaches that I've seen.

The first is to the right. This is generally placed in a container with detergent and water. Before placing a glass in the sanitizer (dishwasher like device), a glass is given a quick scrub. So the brushes hopefully dislodge any solids and the detergent should deal to any oils.

The second approach is to do a weekly clean by soaking glasses in diluted solution of bleach and then put through the sanitizer.

But what goes into a bleach? A lot of reports out there will tell you that there are 2 different types of bleach - food grade and laundry bleach. While the American's have branding on food grade bleach (a NSF logo - National Science Foundation), it seems that in humble little New Zealand, we don't really go for that sort of stuff.

But what are the risks? A lot of sites will say that there's a heightened risk of cancer - there are a lot that will tell you that it's chlorine that causes the problem which means the difference between a food grade rated bleach and a non-food grade rated one is negligible in this regard. We're all used to these sorts of warnings by now. Barbecues can also increase the likelihood of cancer. So I guess we need to find an objective study on how big this risk really is i.e. is it smoking big or barbecue big?.

The active ingredient in bleach is sodium hydroxide and usually makes up around 4% of household cleaners. The question is, what is the other 96%? The NZ civil defence site (Get Through) site advises that you should keep a bottle of bleach for water disinfection purposes but has a few other suggestions - avoid those with any additives (including scents, surfactants etc.).

General advise for roof water is also to use a household bleach. This page for example (from the Napier City Council) suggests 2/3 of a cup of household bleach per 1,000 litres of water.

I'm kind of the opinion that it doesn't really matter. Bleach is probably just as bad as the Chlorine in our water for our health. So long as people adhere to concentrations that make sense, and buy the cheapest possible bleach - those that advertise themselves as being a Bleach rather than having brand names on them - and avoid scented ones, then does it matter? Sure, some sort of stamp on ones that should be considered food grade would be nice, but... actually we're getting into long post territory here. I'll save this for another time....

Friday, March 1, 2013

Tartare Source - Progress

Geek speak warning... you have been warned.

So I've spent the last couple of months working on Tartare Source. It's got some really cool stuff going on.

Gherkin (what I had previously called the uninventive "initial-login") allows for entities to be set up to their needs at first log in. This means that each of the schools in the Manaiakalani project can have settings that fit them, individually. I've added a new feature where I can present a list of options to the user and have things happen based upon those choices. So if a user is taking music and electronics then the applications needed for each of those subjects can be installed automatically. Suddenly they've got MuseScore and whatever PCB layout software they need. This should mean there's less class time taken up in trying to get all of the learners installing these applications for themselves. It's just there.

Capers is the update system. There's something that feels a little... futile about it. If you give your users access to install their own applications, then all bets are off. They are the administrator to the system. So the goal is to at the very least slow certain things down. I was asked today why I wouldn't do a more infrastructure type approach - restrict the repositories down that they can install from (the less known chattrib could be handy here). There are a couple of reasons for this.

  1. They still have full admin rights. So it's simple enough for them to add their own repositories. Much easier than trying to figure out why those blacklisted applications aren't appearing in their software lists (assuming that they notice that something isn't showing up. You don't know what you don't know).
  2. The admin overhead is just not something I'd want to take on. Sure, for the most part it could be automated, but there's still a world of pain there.
Meanwhile, capers is more than capable of blacklisting applications. I've been a lot more thorough this time around. If an application is blacklisted then it no longer appears in the index files AND disappears from the Ubuntu Software Center as well as the good old mechanism that was in place last year which is using packages to conflict with those blacklisted applications. It's a bit like putting a chain on your laptop. It probably wouldn't stop anyone, but it will slow them down.

I was wondering if this particular restriction could be removed. If a user is able to install applications in their home folder for example. Unfortunately, given that most libraries are hardcoded into those applications, this wasn't a possibility (though something I think could be solved).

One of the problems I had last year was that one school wanted to blacklist applications which I didn't think should be blacklisted. With the approach I was taking, it was difficult to blacklist it for them and not for the entire cluster. I've addressed that in this build as well.

The other bits are going to have to wait. I have to start on the actual implementation. So taking a vanilla build of Ubuntu 12.04 and making it a bit more school friendly. Banners can be removed from the software center. Error reporting shouldn't default to on (what were they thinking?!?). I've got an issue with a learning tool that tries to sell things to kids so disabling things like music purchases from the music player and paid for applications in the software center. And then there's the whole stability testing bit. In the last couple of weeks there have been an incredible amount of updates to the kernel for Ubuntu 12.04. None of my computers are able to go into suspend mode at the moment - something that definitely has to be addressed on the netbooks as this would have a profound effect on battery life and the user's experience.

The browser is something else I'm going to have spend quite a bit of time on. While Chrome removes the pain of flashplugin (and it's perfectly legal to distribute Chrome browser with flash inbuilt as opposed to it being against the Terms of Usage to distribute the flashplugin) it brings with it a host of other issues. Chrome browser is as much of an application framework nowadays as it is a browser. Which means that extensions should be viewed as every other application on a system. This is terrible news in terms of safety and security as it means users can install whatever they want - things to circumvent security for example (though a poisoned DNS server on a network would probably solve this one by pointing known proxy servers to somewhere where they can't do any harm... The hosts file locally).

What this means for Tartare Source.... Capers will probably need to take that into account and actively remove known bad extensions (as well as any other measure that may further hinder the use of troublesome extensions).

So in a few months time I should have finished this implementation, been paid for it, and the code will then appear on the Internet under the GPL v3 license. Exciting times...

Tomato and Avocado Season

Generally in food, this is my favourite time of year. Not only are the tomato plants in the backyard ripening nicely (and they're also relatively cheap at the supermarket) but it's avocado season. I've had to step outside of the $2 project (it doesn't matter - I haven't been all that stringent on it anyway though some of the people around me are now cursing about the cost of food) for this event. All for one reason... Tomato Salad.

This is the simplest thing EVER!

Tomato Salad

Ingredients

  • Two or three tomatoes
  • A clove of garlic
  • Half an onion
  • A couple of stalks of parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • A splash of olive oil
  • A splash of balsamic vinegar

Method

  • Cut up your tomato into bite size (approx. 1cm²) pieces and throw into a bowl.
  • Finally chop the onion - throw it into the bowl.
  • Finely grate your garlic and throw it in.
  • Chop up the parsley and throw it in.
  • Throw in the rest of the ingredients and mix well.
The raw garlic creates a kind of spiciness to the salad whereas the parsley starts to mellow it out a bit. Anyway, the reason this is soooo good during avocado season? There's nothing quite as good as avocado on toast topped with a spoonful of the tomato salad.

Have it on the side of pizza to cut through the grease of a store brought pizza.

I'm not sure but I think this might be a Jamie Oliver recipe - I saw it on TV a while back and only just had a go at making it.

A friend of mine suggested I try avocado and honey toast... Anyone here tried it?