Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Digital Information Age

This is one of those times that I struggle with blog posts. I've been thinking. Quite a lot. And these thoughts all kind of do this weird merging with each other. I want to do a blog post. But it kind of just merges into the same area as the last blog post. How do you write a stand alone piece when the last post describes a perfect example of what you're talking about?

3 deep breaths. Into the fold.

An invitation went out recently to talk about how to avoid PRISM. The invitation said things like "Meeting at Tangleball next Sunday" and then went on to describe what PRISM is. What was missing was "where is Tangleball?" and "What time should I get there if I am interested?".

So it turns out that given the digital information age, we now seem to expect people to look up that information. Tangleball's address isn't that hard to find. Finding the time for the meeting at Tangleball, ironically, required finding it on Facebook.

We say things like "Skype me". We do this knowingly. We're promoting one brand over another. The technology hasn't yet shown us how we can possibly be brand agnostic (Think courier companies. For the most part, we shouldn't have to worry about which company is doing the delivery. The contract is between the sender and the courier company thus, as the recipient, it shouldn't matter to us) so we're stuck promoting one brand over the other. For my money, I think that Google Hangouts are very compelling in terms of functionality and accessibility (though I've disabled it in Google Chat myself).

So the whole scenario has a feel of a "secret decoder ring". If you don't have the contacts who are more knowledgeable in the area to show you the way (Facebook in this case), you're out in the cold. In other words, knowledge is power.

It's exactly the same thing with TLAs (Three letter abbreviations). It's now gotten to the stage where I just won't read emails from particular people because I then end up spending 15 minutes just to search for the meanings to the various TLAs used in the email. The writers of those emails assume either:
  1. We all know exactly what they're talking about when they say their TLA (Whereas an abbreviation I've come across recently, CK, I've got associated to a person, rather, the product Content Keeper and Mr. CK are not the same things).
  2. We all have the time (and inclination) to look up the meaning of those TLAs which implies a certain arrogance. i.e. I expect you all to go out of your way in order to be able to communicate with me.
Basically, we expect others to do all the work in order to engage with us, while taking very little effort ourselves. This is a trend that's been happening for a while now. Instead of mailing a letter or sending an email, we now seem to put all of our details online and expect people to keep in touch by reading information that we've broadcast.

There's an attitude adjustment needed here. Currently, we create a barrier to entry. In order to use Skype to contact your [insert friend or family member here], you need to install Skype. Installing Skype requires that you agree to their terms and conditions etc. In the case of the almost tragic invitation described above, what are you willing to put up with? Should you need to find the address and time yourself? So the attitude has to use "barrier of entry" as a metric. Am I getting my point across and am I communicating in a way that the reader understands, or am I making it difficult for them?

Just because we've got access to the information doesn't mean that we should be forced to look up that information just because someone can't be bother to expand their communication to include the long form of an abbreviation.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Teaching Skills and Technology - Not Brand Names

One of the things I cringe at when I hear people talking is the use of brand names. For example, Word documents. Excel sheet. Skype. Google Docs etc.

Open source types have been whinging about this for years. It's not about teaching a particular product. It's about teaching skills. The general principal of a mail merge is the same across the different office suites (though I don't think Google Docs does it natively. Instead you have to script it and given it's scripting language, it's cludgy at best). Formatting fonts is exactly the same (though I'm of the opinion that we need to separate out font and paragraph level controls and give the user the option as to how they'd prefer their workflow).

I've been having a discussion with people about Skype. Skype was this incredibly compelling technology - making video calling accessible. Faster Internet speeds and some proprietary codecs (how the video and sound information is packed up for sending across the Internet and unpackaged on the other end) have made this possible.

But I argue, the day of Skype is gone or going. Technology is moving on and no longer do we need to have a separate client running on our machines sucking up resources. Rather than opening Skype every time we log in, most of us probably organise a time to meet some other way (email?) and only open up the client when we're expecting or making a call. So for the most part, we leave the phone off the hook.

There's another big problem. Skype is a single use application. It's only used for video calling (or voice calling landlines - something that's probably cheaper through VOIP services like calling cards). If you want to talk to someone, they've got to have a Skype account as well (and the software).

Enter in an age of Web 2.0. Skype teams up with Facebook. Google have hangouts. Google Hangouts is actually quite a lot of fun. I had a play when I was on Google+. It has functionality that's paid for in Skype (video conferencing). So in a Google world, you have to have a Google account.

Meanwhile, the Skype and Facebook connection isn't as integrated as it could be. Instead of having the one account to rule them all, you have a separate Facebook account and a separate Skype account which are then linked.

All of this aside, we've still got the problem of vendor lock out. Say I have a Google account and I want to talk to someone via video conferencing. I would then need to make sure that person has a Google account as well. Likewise for Skype. If I object to anything within the GoogleSphere or Skype, my choices are severely limited.

So the choice of which one to use isn't about functionality. Instead, it's about a brand name. Which brand name do the people you want to contact use?

I think those patented codecs need usable alternatives. The choice of client. If a central account managing piece needs to exist, then it needs to conform to open standards that any developer can design their software around.

We've got examples of this working. The Document Foundation seeks to create a set of open standards for documents giving the user the choice of word processor/spreadsheet etc. Unfortunately, it's uptake has been... impeded.

In 2007, Microsoft included support for ODF files but it's implementation did not adhere to the standards and thus, showed ODF in a negative light (this has happened before with Microsoft's implementation of OpenGL in a particular version of Windows - I think I have the reference in a book somewhere that I've leant to a friend. I'm sure if I had the book I'd be able to find a reference online to the particular events).

The other thing I'd really love to happen is the same sort of sharing permissions on a Google Doc being applied to video conferencing. Only require the person initiating the call to have an account on a particular service. Allow others to join using nothing more than a link.

So when we start seeing beyond a brand name, we can also look at functionality. What would you like it to look like? I think this is incredibly important as it opens the doors for progress. Instead of being complacent and taking what we're given, we can start to imagine a less vendor locked in future which is accessible to anyone.

Failing (but learning?)

The last couple of evenings have been frustrating. I've been trying to figure out LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) for a testing/development environment I'm building at the moment. Basically, what Windows calls Active Directory and Mac OSX calls OpenDirectory. In other words, horrible infrastructure stuff that us mere mortals shouldn't really have to worry about.

My main problem with it is that it's just really amazingly horrible and there seems to be very little "for beginners" kind of documentation out there. So I can set a up a server! Yay! Only... then you have to load it up with information. How do you load it up with information? You create a file with this sort of information:

 dn: ou=People,dc=example,dc=com  
 objectClass: organizationalUnit  
 ou: People  
 dn: ou=Groups,dc=example,dc=com  
 objectClass: organizationalUnit  
 ou: Groups  
 dn: cn=miners,ou=Groups,dc=example,dc=com  
 objectClass: posixGroup  
 cn: miners  
 gidNumber: 5000  
 dn: uid=john,ou=People,dc=example,dc=com  
 objectClass: inetOrgPerson  
 objectClass: posixAccount  
 objectClass: shadowAccount  
 uid: john  
 sn: Doe  
 givenName: John  
 cn: John Doe  
 displayName: John Doe  
 uidNumber: 10000  
 gidNumber: 5000  
 userPassword: johnldap  
 gecos: John Doe  
 loginShell: /bin/bash  
 homeDirectory: /home/john  

And then run a command such as the following on it:

ldapadd -x -D cn=admin,dc=example,dc=com -W -f add_content.ldif

Yuck. That looks like one of those sorts of usability things that I'm always whinging about. Reading that, I can figure out certain things. For example, the first bit creates a people.... structure? Your users live in there. On a Linux system, that would be /etc/passwd file. Check. Learnt something. The next bit, you create a groups structure. Again, just like your /etc/groups file. Brilliant. I'm getting somewhere! And then we create a posix group - so an actual group to go inside of that groups structure called miners. This is called miners. So we have:

com
 └── example
        ├── Groups
        │   └── miners
        └── People

It all looks all nice an hierarchical. I can make sense of this. Sort of. The rest of it, we create a user. In Linux, this is a single line in /etc/passwd (and another similar line in /etc/shadow):

john:x:10000:5000:John Doe,,,John Doe:/home/john:/bin/bash

John is a member of the miners group (Look see? You only have to notice the group id number. It's simple right?). I have no idea how I'd apply a secondary group i.e. on most desktop systems, new users are given their own group and additional groups (for things like accessing the cd rom for example).

So hey, I'm learning something. Only... the details elude me. See those codes? cn, sn, ou etc. What do they all mean?

A friend showed me an email thread he'd been involved with in which to update a website the maintainer told him he had to do a "git push". The question was quick and obvious. "What's a git push? It's not pushing annoying people down the stairs is it?". Anyway, it all ended with the maintainer saying something about CMS's. I told this friend that he should have asked if CMS stood for "Concurrent Merge System" - how is it different from git?

Abbreviations are generally a good thing except when the speaker expects everyone to know what those abbreviations mean. I've seen some people who continually use TLA's (Three Letter Abbreviations) to the point that you just stop reading the emails because you're well and truly sick having to look up the abbreviation and then try and figure out which one they mean based on the context.

Anyway, a quick search on the Internet, and I find someone who's asked exactly the same question. Which then leads me to a site with the answers.

Right... sod all of that. It's dumb. For starters, I wouldn't want to fire up a text editor every time I wanted to change something and then have to run a command on whatever file I created. And who the hell wants to specifically keep track of group id's and user id's? System admins are people too dang nang it!

So surely someone's made a nice GUI for it. And hey, it's a network administration thing so it should be web based right? It's open software so there's no issues with trying to sell administration packages or anything. Sure enough, I found one called GOsa. From the screenshots, it ticks the boxes. And hopefully it understands that when I add a user, it should have a bunch of predetermined fields. Hell - it should just look like your standard user management on a Linux system. Nice and easy.

All I've got to do is install it, point my browser to it and follow the on screen instructions. So... three deep breaths and on into the breach! It's looking good! I ascertain there's an admin ldap user so enter it's credentials in. Everything is looking green. And then it tells me that the admin user doesn't have the rights to be able to write to the LDAP database.

2 a.m. and I'm feeling really lost. Why wouldn't an admin be allowed to edit the LDAP database?

A bit of search eventually finds me this little passage:

there is no administrative account created for the slapd-config database. There is, however, a SASL identity that is granted full access to it. It represents the localhost's superuser (root/sudo).


Wait... no administrative account. What the hell is an "SASL identity"? And why did the installation ask me for a administrative password if not to create an administrative user? Is this like a root thing? Can I get around it by running a one liner? i.e. assigning a password to root? Argh! I'm so confused...

Okay... 3 more deep breaths, so read the documentation more carefully. Surely, if I have a user - admin - who can authenticate with LDAP, then it's just a case of granting permissions to that user. Which means I'd also have to learn ACL's (Yuck). The tutorial I've been reading has a section on ACL's but doesn't say anything about how to alter them.

This feels like a hell of a lot of effort to not have to learn all of this and gain a level of abstraction on it so that I'm able to do very simple things. And this is just setting up LDAP. This isn't yet getting a client to authenticate to it. It's 3 a.m. on the second evening of this....

Now I feel like I've hit a wall. I only want to be able to do a few simple things with a nice simple interface. The funny bit though - I've learnt a hell of a lot about LDAP. I've failed. I'm asking for help (and no one on the mailing list I've asked on has come back with a response). I don't know how to proceed. I know the UI (User Interface) is there so making it work should be the hardest thing about it... so I'm loathe to go back to editing files.

The failure in and of itself has had me learning more. I've gone back and figured out what all that cn, sn etc. stuff is. I've learnt that there's an admin account that can't do anything (why?!?) - who's not really a real user. I'm probably going to spend a crapload of time learning ACL's.

There's so much more learning (though often frustratingly so) to be done through failure...

Gearing Up For NetHui

Yesterday night a friend and I worked out our accommodation and travel details for NetHui. Even the money issues were dealt to. I'd booked my NetHui registration fairly early on. So I hopped onto the website to sort out his.

No dice. Unfortunately, he'd have to go onto a wait list. Well... far too late to cancel the trip. We'd brought non-refundable tickets to keep costs down. So I emailed the NetHui organisers to ask them how long the wait list was.

Sure enough, ask and you will receive. I got a very encouraging email saying that more seats would be opening up VERY soon and all those on the wait list should get in. Brilliant!

I was surprised when I got another email from the organisers of NetHui saying that over 300 people had already registered! Wait.... Am I reading this right? 300 people? That's less than your average Indian wedding. The first NetHui attracted 500 people. Last year it was 600. This year they only accommodated for 300 before deciding it was a good idea to perhaps find a way of opening more seats?

I've been really confused by the dates this time around as well. While in the first year it was held during school due to the messed up year (the rugby world cup caused an endless term and a term that just wasn't long enough). Last year they made a special effort to hold it during school holidays... this year though.... It's in the last week of term. So even if the education sector want to attend, it's right when things get crazy just before holidays.

So there doesn't appear to be any sort of education stream this year. Mores the pity. This has me worried. Has NetHui lost it's way? Is one of the biggest things I loved about it, it's focus not on the technology but rather on people, gone?

The first day looks like a complete mess. 6 "workshops". This could have been good. It would have been good. Except that the workshops are all very generic. There's nothing specific about them. The one I've registered for has a barcamp! Which of course... I hate. I hate it a lot. Be honest and call it what it really is. A really amazingly bad way to communicate with a mass of people. Unless steps are taken to give everyone an equal opportunity to communicate (within the parameters they're comfortable with i.e. you can not say that it was an equal opportunity to communicate if the only ones who got to communicate were the loudest because expecting everyone to be just as loud is unreasonable), a barcamp is somewhat worse than listening to one speaker. At the very least, one speaker has had time to prepare, think about what they're going to say and has a take home message in mind.

So a little under 2 weeks away and I'm really concerned. Is this going to be a great big giant mess? Of course, we're going to be "treated" to InternetNZ's latest pet, ultimately useless, project (in 2011 it was "The World Internet Project" - essentially a great example of the third type of lie - "lies, damn lies and statistics". In 2012 it was Computers in Homes which is nothing more than a public relations stunt. Notice how results of the whole project are never talked about. My experience with providers under this scheme is that they're horrendously protective of their income stream rather than being interested in empowering people).

Of course, while I've liked past events, a conference is always about the people. Talking over a coffee about what we're excited about and what has us concerned. So even if the conference does turn out to be a mess... well... at the very least I'll have been able to talk to people. No doubt there'll be a whole deluge of blog posts about it (assuming the Internet infrastructure is better than last year).

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Clarifying my Views on Google

I was at a meeting tonight where we were talking about Chromebook issues and the like. Given that there's been a great deal of activity on some of the mailing lists I'm on, mostly from myself, I thought it might be a good idea to do a post on it (actually, I should probably doing this straight to an email on those mailing lists except that I don't want to...).

Firstly, a disclaimer. I have a vested interest in not going the Chromebook route. It's a direct competitor to "the image". The image is awesome. For me it represents a completely different way of looking at computers. The user has the control. This is from my "Holy crapballs on toast. Why are we even debating giving these people control?" perspective from a corporate environment. At one point I was asked to go to an office and enter in a password for someone for people who's jobs (developers) required that level of access. So I jumped into a taxi, went down to the office and entered in the password. Going on a hunch, I stuck around. And sure enough, it timed out on them while getting a coffee, and I had to enter in the password again (it had just cost me $15 in a taxi to get there in the first place).

Heart breaking...

So the Chromebooks. The Chromebooks are interesting. Remember in the mid to late 90's when Microsoft were having issues about their bundling of Internet Explorer into the operating system? The Chromebooks essentially do the same thing. They bundle a web browser into the... wait... the browser IS the operating system. There's no unbundling to be had.

From an options point of view, I find the Chromebooks to be terrible! Say you want to do something like... run minecraft for example. Minecraft has an education context (though I haven't yet seen it in action), runs under a VM (virtual machine) that is Java - made to be portable. Except that the Chromebooks explicitly blacklist Java.

In terms of functionality, they really are nothing more than a portable Internet kiosk. So the things you can do on a Chromebook are about the same as you can do at any standard airport Internet kiosk i.e. things to do with the Internet.

In terms of maintenance and control - I think they're TERRIBLE. From an organisational point of view, about the only thing you can do is lock down the version of the OS. The bit I heard tonight was "Version 25 works. 26 has bugs. 27 was pulled - it was that bad. Apparently 28 fixes a lot of the problems". This isn't a fix - it's more of a workaround from where I'm sitting. In terms of migration to other versions, it means you need to have a pilot group (in and of itself not a bad thing) to test for suitability of a particular version. Except that a pilot group is likely quite a small sample size. Can you be assured of catching problems at this level? So you'd then have to use a larger group for testing.

In and of itself, this is actually quite good practise. The problem for me is that you can't fix problems once they do arise. The only thing you can do is roll back the version of the OS. Get rid of you technicians - it's unfair to put them into this position of helplessness and it's silly to be paying technicians for something that you could be doing yourself.

So you have a problem with your Chromebook and you're having to rely on Google. So you file a bug report. Manaiakalani is in rather a privileged position and the same things that have worked for it in expediting fixes are unlikely to work for every organisation/school in New Zealand. How soon does that bug get fixed? Roll back to a version of the OS that sucks the least and sit and wait... Run tests at the next major version. Hope it's been fixed.

The hardware is brilliant. For the Samsung Series 5, it's the hardware that we should have had with netbooks. Unfortunately, the form factor of netbooks was dictated by Intel. So a 10" screen. Furthermore, the dream of having a nice really fast to boot system using a SSD (solid state drive) was unfortunately out of reach for Windows. The amount of space the OS and updates needed (and once you added MS Office...) made an SSD impractical. Never mind the Linux users who found the SSD great. Netbooks were also plagued by really bad design. The battery on the Chromebook is brilliant too. I get up to 10 hours from mine. No more having to sit next to a power point. My charger doesn't even go out with me on most days.

It's unfortunate that Google have, in their infinite wisdom, chosen to have the "scary boot screen" that displays for 30 seconds... a life time in computer terms. They couldn't go with a more sane value such as 5 seconds. 30 seconds. So even when you do decide to go with something a bit more flexible, you're stuck with the scary boot screen. Sure, you can hit Ctrl-D when the face appears. But it just soils the experience. There's something really off putting about it. It just feels like it's sulking. "What do you mean you want your computer to be flexible?!?!"

The level of lock down with the Chromebooks has been seen elsewhere - such as gaming consoles. But then, gaming consoles have never been mission critical. Should a child's learning be interrupted by a vendor's whims?

So basically, no, I wouldn't recommend a Chromebook in an organisation. I think there are much less risky options with a lot more functionality. If you don't want to operate in Google's way, you'll find yourself frustrated by things like having to set up your printer for Cloud Print. Needing to use particular (web front end) scanners etc.

As a personal machine, I still wouldn't recommend them unless you're willing to hack at it to make it more functional. However, this is dependent on your use. I'm sure there are lots of people out there who just want to be able to use the Internet. And it's probably fine for them. All power to you.

Can the risks be mitigated? Sure... I think a back up plan of usb sticks (I believe you have to run a command from the terminal - only accessible once you've entered developer mode - to enable usb booting but it's doable) is really smart here. I haven't tried it myself. This is about the closest as you can get to dual booting on a Chromebook.

As for Google, the company, it irritates me that they're such a PR machine. I saw "The Internship" last night and it was mentioned tonight speaking to Google's character. In my opinion, Google should be seen as any other business. Just like MS did with their products, Google are giving the first hit for free. They're unlikely to suddenly start charging for their services - for education at the very least. They have set a precedent in terms of their business services which were free for small organisations initially have since moved to a paid model. It might be altruistic. It likely is. Is it always going to be?

I find some of the approaches really irritating. I get the impression that I'm a dinosaur if I don't want to work Google's way (think scanners, printers, interface changes - particularly to gmail).

However, their services have opened up worlds. We've seen collaborative editing within documents that just work in real time. Their hangouts product have brought teleconference functionality to the masses. Gmail revolutionised the way that we think about our email. Their spreadsheets application should be shot at dawn (actually... why wait? Kill it now). The blogging platform isn't bad (though it's not great either).

I've said it before and I'll say it again. The use and development of Hapara's Teacher Dashboard is just brilliant. It's done amazing, you'd have to see it to believe it, things to education. I have absolutely no problem recommending that combination - Teacher Dashboard and Google Apps For Education (GAFE).

But this does not mean that critical thinking should fly out the window. What they're doing for education is great. Not all things that they do are going to be great for education. Run a critical eye over it. Look for pedagogical reasons and drivers. If it doesn't fit within an educational context, perhaps revisit it later on down the line. A decision now doesn't mean that it ALWAYS has to be that decision.

Remember... Google are a commercial entity. They collect a whole lot of data about you (and apparently our access points) and only anonymize it after 18 months (while still keeping the rest of the information).

At the moment Google have a privileged position. There's no one else offering quite the same things... or are they? Hotmail existed before GMail but didn't have the unlimited storage. So email and webmail in particular aren't new and alternatives can be found EVERYWHERE. Google Groups - you've got mailing lists. GroupServer looks particularly good. OX Text (and the rest of the suite when it gets done) offers docs functionality... The gap is going to close and all it needs is something to tie it together. Your eggs don't have to be in one basket.

The point is, Google are a commercial entity and have a history of some odd decisions (Gmail really does look completely crap on a 10" screen nowadays). But what's really important is that we know how to ween ourselves off. There's a risk that the functionality you rely on could disappear. What do you do? Are you so completely reliant upon Google that we've just got to sit back and dread the ride?

In other words, just because Google provide some really great services now, doesn't mean that we shouldn't be looking at alternatives. Yes, I realise that there are lots of people having trouble keeping up with the times (which is why I think I often get the impression that teachers are chasing logos a lot of the time). I don't think this is necessarily a question for the man on the ground but rather, is more of a management issue. You're managing risk. You're looking to the next big meaningful thing. You're looking at options. Eggs... basket... multiple...

As for me and Google... I fear we're soon to be parting ways. For no other reason than I really can't do the Google+ thing without feeling like a complete hypocrite around the whole names thing. Yes, I realise I can use Nevyn on there. People have pointed this out. BUT, it seems wrong that I was able to use the name Nevyn - a name I chose for myself - and others, who may be looking for an opportunity to reinvent themselves in some way, are unable to do so.

Anyway... The usual thing about how the opinions expressed here being my own. These views definitely aren't shared by a lot of the people I work with.

[Edit] 22/6/2013
I was talking to a friend the other night and I was explaining that I don't particularly mistrust Google. It's just that having that much power (information, communications etc.) in one place can not end well.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Abuse of Critical Thinking

I sincerely believe that schools have a responsibility to teach and encourage critical thinking... except, we do so badly at it ourselves. Critical thinking seems to take so much abuse as to make you wonder how our kids think at all.

One of my big agnostic rants is how I think religion interferes with education. If all of your life you've been told that the events and lessons in a book are absolute and you shouldn't question them, then:
  1. Can you really understand it? You aren't allowed to question (and in terms of Christianity, this removes one of the best things of the religion - the fact that it's the same events through different eyes. It's a religion based on perspective. It really shouldn't be seen as absolute).
  2. How does this effect your thinking for everything else? Does everything else have to then be looked at in relation to that book?
But it's more than that. Over the past few years I've noticed a worrying brand loyalty. If it's  got an Apple logo or a Google logo, you'll find there are teachers everywhere stating that it is the future of teaching. Not of learning - of teaching. It's an interesting statement. What this says to me is that teacher's are feeling horribly uncertain. They want to be part of the "big shift". BUT for the most part, they aren't looking at the pedagogy. How does the device help with teaching?

Perhaps I'm missing something. Perhaps the shift they're looking for is one that even they don't understand yet. Learning isn't just learning. Show someone 20 years older than me something on the computer and they'll take notes whereas for me it just annoys me. Read the screen, make connections. So those teachers may be right. Except.... that they aren't showing critical thinking...

Yep, critical thinking gets another punch in the face.

Why do we Google for something rather than search for it? Why do we Skype people rather than video chat with them? Why do we Photoshop (a horrendously expensive and specialized package) something rather than touch it up? It turns out even TXT is a brand name (Vodaphone popularized the term. Everywhere else you SMS someone). Putting together a Word document rather than... putting together a document.

Why is this a punch in the face for critical thinking? How much harder is it for other similar products to get a look in? Do people bother to evaluate the alternatives?

Take Skype for example. People still talk about Skyping someone and it's opened up communication channels with people everywhere. Does anyone talk about Google's quite similar offering? Google Hangouts generally have better functionality than Skype (built around the idea of conference calls), doesn't require anything but your browser and is more likely to lead to incidental contact (thought I'd pop by seeing as I was in the area).

It's the same with Photoshop. We talk about photoshopping something but for the most part, us mere mortals can't afford that much on a piece of software, so either the software is pirated (and really, this should be discouraged), or we use something else (in which case, it's no longer "photoshopped").

How many products end up failing because we're all locked into a particular vendor rather than evaluating our options? What are we missing out on and how far could technology have gone if the popular products were the ones with the innovative technology rather than the recognisable logo?

More importantly, if this is how things are done at school i.e. one brand to rule them all!, what are we teaching kids?

I say this while I'm trying to figure out the alternative to Ubuntu. I've used Ubuntu for years but am now finding myself uncomfortable going past 12.04 - due to the default inclusion of amazon search tools and the like.They've been including more and more crapware as well - Ubuntu One, Landscape (most users will have absolutely no need for it), the horribly bloated software centre etc. The interface designers who aren't at all happy to listen to the users... It's all leading me to look away from Ubuntu and look at the alternatives.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Vendor Lock Out

I'm sure I once had a few more friends than I do now. People I'd see quite often. And then something happened. It all changed. We stopped communicating on the Internet. I wasn't invited to parties any more. We never saw each other and that was that was that...

What changed? Social networking... The number of times I've bumped into someone and they've said something along the lines of "I would have invited you only you're not on Facebook" is enough to make me scream. Or, the really annoying "I don't use email anymore. I use Facebook". i.e. I no longer communicate with people who aren't cool.

There was also the really early days of Bebo - where a friend took some photos at a birthday party and when I asked for a copy, she sent me a link. In order to get access to photos of my own event I had to sign up...

There's a whole "You've got to be in it" kind of an attitude to it all.

As Google move more toward Google+ I think a lot of their products will stop being quite so accessible. For example, while I had a working Chromebook last night, this morning I'm in the same position as I was yesterday morning - trying to get Chrubuntu onto the damn thing (more kernel hacking).

However, the new script - the one script to rule them all - doesn't seem to result in a workable system for me. "Well he's a developer. He'll probably want some feedback." thinks I, "oh and he's using blogspot. That'll be easy". How foolish was I? I can't comment without having a Google+ account. If this script did work, I'd be able to install Ubuntu 12.04 onto a usb stick and have a couple of copies of the stick while hacking away at the kernel.

And given that I have moral objections to me being on Google+... I just can't get help. As Google move more and more down this direction, and people, in an effort to restrict spam, set their blogs to only allow commenting from people with G+ accounts, I think we'll start to see more of a them and us type of Internet. Those with Facebook get to hang out with the cool kids at their parties. Those with G+ get to comment on blogs and get help when they need it.

And the rest of us - a bunch of outsiders and malcontents that just aren't cool and don't use the Interwebs in such ways. Those looking in the window and seeing everyone having a good time... you want to be at that party don't you? Of course, eventually it ends up with a call to sound control (moaning about something to do with the party).

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Vendor Lock In - Part 2

I was at a cafe for lunch today when I found myself wanting to connect to my cellphone (as a hotspot) and use Google Docs. Except... my bonus data has expired.

Every time I top up my pre-paid phone on Vodaphone, I get some bonus data. I'm on prepaid just because I'm a terribly infrequent cellphone user. Sometimes I can go for months on $20. Sometimes $50 will only last me a couple of weeks.

So it seems silly to go on a plan. Only... I've now gotten used to having data. So with $30 on my phone, I'm considering buying another $20 just for the bonus data.

This is a perfect case of vendor lock in. I've been convinced that I should switch over to 2 degrees though whenever I've run out of credit (because this doesn't switch over when you change networks) I've needed the phone desperately in which case I've sucked it up and brought credit.

Of course, one could argue that the added benefit of the data makes Vodaphone much better value for money (given my use case)... So is it really vendor lock in via a switching cost if it's just better value? I think this one goes under the heading of "Pick your battles". If you think of cellular networks as a bunch of cartels.... does it really matter which service you're with?

Bumper Stickers

I've just about got the Chromebook up and running again. Though something did occur to me (after an offer for an antiquated laptop - an absolute beast at the time but still...). Bumper stickers for computers. Things like:

My other computer's a chromebook :(

Or:

My first computer was a TRS-80

Which has me thinking about the "good old" days. For as long as I could remember, I wanted something to do with robots (because in the 80's, robots had personalities and would do stuff for you. It was their mobile form factor that had people excited even more so the artificial intelligence) or computers. Actually... back that up. Computers were just these foreign machines on TV whereas robots were just plain awesome. That is until I went to this science museum type place in Canada where we spent an inordinate amount of time playing with the computers (although the liquid nitrogen presentation was cool too).

From that day forward I was hooked. Fascinating devices with funky control mechanisms (I really struggled with the mouse but at the very least walked away with a print out of my name drawn incredibly roughly with a mouse). The frustration on the guys face while trying to explain the mouse to me is the same frustration you see nowadays (nice to see that some things don't change).

That was when I was... 6? From that point on, any opportunity to have a play on a computer was tops! It usually resulted in going somewhere with my parents and finding that they had a console plugged into a TV and everyone watching on as I struggled to make heads or tails of whatever game. Sometimes they were just way too easy. Other times I just couldn't figure out what the hell I was meant to do.

I'm getting to a point... honest I am. The frustration of not knowing what I was doing was really quite normal. Anyway, when I was 11 or so, I had been asking for a typewriter. My presentation was just kind of crap and yet it seemed to be the emphasis at school. It didn't really matter about the content. If it didn't look good, you didn't get the marks. I came home and my mother handed me this leather pouch. I opened it and found something with a keyboard! My excitement about getting a typewriter lead to disappointment as I realised it wasn't a typewriter at all. It was a computer. It couldn't produce anything that I could use for homework / assignments. Still... it was a computer! And given that we weren't the wealthiest of people - and computers weren't terribly accessible (I remember my father coming home and me asking him if he'd made $550 that day because Farmers was selling Amstrads at the time for that amount) - just having a computer was pretty darn cool.

The problem was though, that I had absolutely no idea how to use it. It had belonged to my parent's insurance guy and had a few things on there related to his work activities - though I quickly figured out (by accident of course) how to blank it out. And then figured out that some programs needed files to exist (there was no hierarchy - you'd turn it on and you couldn't really tell the difference between text files and programs except that I think programs had bas kind of just glued to the end of the name). So the scheduler (calendar) and address book both needed some files to be manually set up.

I remember spending a day on a mission. That's what I used to call it. You had something and you wanted to find something about it. So you'd go down to the library and spend some time finding any sort of reference to what you had. And then you'd try stores - surely if they sold similar things, they could tell you a little something about it. Which more often than not, they couldn't.

It wasn't until I was in high school that someone showed me a bit of basic. Suddenly I was hooked. Programming was the best thing eva! I could put together quizzes and make it go *bleep* and even, eventually, draw lines (leading to Cartesian Planes being no problem when I get to them in maths).

Jump forward to today. It's hard to remember the sort of lengths you'd have to go to to learn something or figure something out. Nowadays I have boxes fill of electronics bits and pieces and know that if ever I need information on any of it, I can just look it up on the net.

Moreover - I/We take this for granted. We don't really remember just how lucky we are. The information age suddenly came along and while it was all new and fantastic, now it's just a part of life and being used for pushing information (marketing) at us in every which direction. I recently decided I should set up filters for all of the junk mail I get - clothing and computer retailers sending me stuff on a weekly basis that then gets pushed to me wherever I am via my cellphone (thus filtering them to another folder stops that from happening). So while we were imaging robots with AI in the 80's, I don't think we ever really anticipated that we would become the robots (the amount of information that we process through these days along with augmented technologies - i.e. your cellphone/tablet is an extension of your finger nowadays - go-go-gadget).

So while I'm whinging about Chromebooks (Chromebrick?) and the like - it should all be taken in context. This wealth of information has us with a fundamentally different outlook on life. The Bakers can get out of the bakery a lot more easily than ever before (The Bacchus', Baxter's etc.). If we're trapped the first thing we do is check our cellphone signal. Even swiping is a fundamentally different action than anything we've ever done in the past - my father really struggles with it and reminds me of my first attempts with a mouse.

So.... about those bumper stickers then...

[Update] It just occurred to me that this post catches me out in a lie. For any of you who have seen my speech for the NZOSA, you'll find that I contradict myself in regards to this post. I say something about doing nothing but playing Warcraft II and Command and Conquer on my first computer. That was a complete lie. My first computer (nor my second) was able to play any of those games. I desperately wanted an x86 compatible machine once I'd seen those games.

Making the Chromebook Unusable

I finally figured out how to compile a kernel on the Chromebook. Brilliant! I've been missing a few things. Zram doesn't work on Chrubuntu for example. And I've got an arduino thingee (FTDI cable) that the Chromebook just refuses to see - it turns out it's missing a module.

Yep... geekspeak. Sorry folks. So, after a few hours, I had zram... and no wireless. I can't for the life of me figure out what happened. It turns out you can no longer just build a module and put it into the right place any more... or I'm missing something? I had a go at hacking things and no modules would load. Undo the chances, find wireless isn't working, wonder what's going on. Do the whole installation again.... and the Chromebook complains. Not in it's usual "I'm going to be scary" way, but in a more... I can't do a thing sort of a way. I can only presume that it really wasn't happy with the kernel.

Bugger... ah well. The only thing I've lost is a couple of saved games (I'm making a concerted effect to relax a bit more). Download recovery media. Setting it up is horribly frustrating. The screen scrolls by with what you can only assume is going to be explained... only it sits there asking you to enter in your model number. The funny bit is that it doesn't want the model (and it seems there are 3 different bits of information, all called "the model number", that it could be asking when asking for a model). Instead, if you scroll up, you find that the bits of information that scrolled by are arranged into groups - find the number that corresponds to the model (which appears on the "I'm really sick" type screen) and wait around 25 minutes while the damn thing downloads and installs.

Once I had the media set up, put it in and it the complains about an unexpected error... Uh-oh. This really isn't looking good. Power it off. Flick the developer switch, try again. Same result. Weird... Okay. Starting to panic. Power off, shove a paper clip into the bottom of it. Turn it on and it boots into ChromeOS. Of course, it's ChromeOS... It just leaves me with a feeling of wanting to get out of there... and quickly. In fact, don't even bother with the EULA. I just don't want to go there. I don't want to read it. I don't want to use it anyway... The only thing I'm really using it for is to make the Chromebook a lot more capable (downloading Chrubuntu).

Back in developer mode - starting to feel a little more comfortable. Type in the commands for a long term support version and no desktop (I really do dislike Unity). A few minutes later and it's all done! Hit enter to reboot... and there it is! A freakin' sick computer screen. Bugger...

A Chromebook that'll only run ChromeOS... worse thing ever...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Why Do All Online Computer Stores Just Plain Suck?!?

I've been waiting to get a desktop computer. The way I figure it, the only real reason to have a desktop machine these days is for the raw power and so I really wanted to give myself an insane budget to get something spec'ed up something crazy to last me as long as my last desktop did - around 7 years before the fans started crapping out and the usability was really crap.

Anyway, I'm having a look at a project and decided sod it... I probably need 2 anyway. A low end machine that can be used for wiping and trying out all sorts of crazy stuff (development of appliance type things) and something insanely powerful that can handle VM's (Virtual Machines) - once again, it's all about development. I actually hate it when I have 3 machines around me (netbooks, chromebooks, laptops etc.)  and would love it if I could focus on one keyboard and use tools like virtual desktops to work between different machines.

So... for the low end machine (still more powerful than anything I've got or used), I decided to have a look at what was on offer. The specifications - I'm only really after a motherboard with integrated GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), the RAM, a CPU and a case - black on black... I'm really not into the naff silver trim or blue LED's - just give me something black and unassuming. Something introverted. It's probably going to end up living in my room and given my love of creative bits and pieces, there's probably a blender movie to be made and rendered overnight so chances are it's going to spend a great deal of time powered on (and LED's are surprisingly bright when you're trying to sleep).

There are some really obvious things that an online computer store could do. Picking a CPU?... - are you building a system? Then here are your motherboard choices for that CPU. And hey, you've picked a motherboard - here are the RAM options that suit. Oh and the motherboard doesn't provide X, Y and Z - do you need these things? And customizations to systems should be fairly simple - instead of adding a computer to the shopping cart, add it's component parts! Only one online retailer I've seen has the option to do this.

Want to sort by price? Not a chance. No.... instead you've got to go through by brand *sigh* - even on those really naff items like keyboard and mouse (not that I'm in the market, but still). Add the word "gamer" and things suddenly become 10 times more expensive.

A few years ago I tried to buy a printer online and found myself getting the run around at every point. The first printer I paid for - the store then rang me, told me they couldn't offer the printer at the price advertised and refused to send me an email to that effect (at the very least they were prompt with the refund).

The second retailer I went to online sent me a different printer than the one ordered - apparently an equivalent, though lacking the specifications for which I'd decided on the model of printer I'd chosen. The fact that they'd thought that it was okay to just change a persons order was ridiculous. In which case, if I'm buying online, I insist it has to be somewhere I can get to and scream at people if needed... What made the whole thing so much worse was the fact that the couriers kept failing to deliver (though there was always someone at home at the times they'd said they'd attempted delivery). A bit of running around resulted in a comical situation of me being at the courier depot while the courier supposedly had it on board and then a weekend trip, after phoning to make sure the printer was there, then went down only to find that it had been left at another depot (NZ Couriers are REALLY crap). In fact, I tend to shy away from any store using the Freightways Group (wouldn't it be great to have the option?).

And then there's the attitude when you go in store... Normally I've gone in for something very specific. I've done my research over the Internet. There are very specific reasons why I've chosen to buy what I'm in store to get. Only... sometimes... just sometimes... I get told that I don't really want the thing I'm in there for... "What you really want is....."

With all of this in mind, it's kind of surprising that computers are as big an industry as they are. The act of putting one together is just plain awful. There's an opportunity here. Someone to create something sane in terms of an online retailer. I'm reminded of PC Direct who's computers definitely weren't the cheapest at the time but their support was about the best you could get (though it was sold and the service seen as an expense and thus, it fell by the wayside). There are some pretty good stores - PB Technology for example is a nerd mecca without a bunch of people second guessing you... But of course, it's way too big to put together a carefully considered system.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Asking the Ethical Question (and taking a risk assessment approach)

School is a weird place. Our kids aren't really given a choice around things like the materials/resources used. What this means to me is that there's an ethical question to be asked around just about every choice made in the classroom (especially regarding resources).

In this digital day and age, these questions are even more important. For a long time I've had this thing about MS Office. MS Office is used in "the real world" so that's what's taught in school. On the other hand, MS Office is taught at school which leads to lower training costs by the time they get to "the real world" - essentially meaning that the licensing costs of MS Office are insignificant compared to the training costs around other products. MS have that market pretty well sewed up on this front. Don't get me wrong - MS Office is actually a pretty cool product. I can achieve all sorts of really cool things in Excel that I definitely can't do in Google Spreadsheets and might be able to achieve in Open/Libre Office if I were to take weeks to learn their scripting language.

So there's a solid example of us turning a blind eye to vendor lock in i.e. risk. How many people needed retraining when MS Office switched to the ribbon interface? What's the people cost around more cloud-centric approaches such as 365? Or the frustration from various people trying to do what they were able to do in MS Office in the Google equivalents?

So there's a risk involved... How can you mitigate the risk? Usually this involves controlling what version of the software you're using. However, all of that older data is already locked into a particular proprietary format thus a particular piece of software. So, in a risk assessment approach, you would need to have a migration plan. How would you switch to an alternative? Do those older documents need to be written to or would it be okay if they could just be read? In which case, is PDF a way of lowering the amount of documents that would need to be converted? What would you convert those documents to? And given the discrepancies in format shifting, how would you handle quality control? i.e. making sure the documents still make sense. In these terms, MS Office is actually a great big ugly risk.

With Google the question becomes a bit more interesting. Google (GAFE - Google Apps For Education) along with Hapara's Teacher Dashboard makes for an incredibly compelling environment for the classroom. Seeing teachers with big tubs full of books is suddenly a thing of the past and teachers can comment on a students work while the students are working on it (rather than having to interrupt the student in order to have a look at their work and the inevitable disappointment from the student as suddenly there are red "suggestions" everywhere). It revolutionises the student/teacher relationship - learning and consultation can (but doesn't necessarily have to) happen at any time. Assignments and the like are more likely to be handed in on time as those blocks can be removed by a quick 2 minute conversation over the Internet.

But Google are a profitable entity with their bottom line first and foremost in their minds. With the migration of all products to Google+ (I noted my frustration last night about a quick trip to youtube resulting in a Google+ profile being set up), I envision GAFE changing significantly. It seems unlikely that Google would want to maintain a separate code base for all of their products for education and so I imagine they'd want to instead change Google+ to allow for educator's concerns to be catered to.

What would this look like? I imagine it would be a play on the fact that by necessity, a school is actually a legal guardian of the kids (without quite the same rights. i.e. you still need a legal guardian's permission to take a child off school grounds) and so could sign up the student to Google+ under an education account (the terms and conditions would likely have to change a little though given the unification of terms and conditions and the precedent of GAFE, I think those changes would be minimal). The teachers would then probably be in control of who could and couldn't see a particular student's circles/content.

This is probably something that few would object to. But if you do object, what is the alternative? What if Google make a change that you absolutely object to? They do have a tendency to do this regardless of what their users want... Suddenly turn on Google Wave, switching the Interface on whatever etc.

Is there a migration plan in place? For documents, OX Documents is looking pretty good - and it's Open Source. Email's relatively easy (roundcube?). Wordpress for a blogging platform... Most CMS's have plugins to enable youtube like functionality as well as providing better than Google sites functionality. All this needs is development around a way to unify them into an education friendly environment - the teacher dashboard piece of the puzzle. Something that gives the teacher a view into the student's work without having to log into each account individually and also to have controls around deleted things (for control of abuse and the like). Resources toward development of this piece of the puzzle would mean that a whole lot of concerns could be catered for. Concerned about the way privacy is going in a particular country? Host the entire stack within your own country. Want to add another piece to the puzzle? Well... you're in control. Ditto if you want to remove something... You don't have to have advertising... contextual or otherwise! It'd be a bit like wordpress. It's the same platform hosted by lots of different entities.

To me the alternative is looking a whole lot more compelling (even if it's likely a few years off even if work starts now - for starters OX Office isn't even close to complete). But it's an exit strategy. A way of getting all of those things that are working now without being hooked to the whims, vendor lock in and inherit risks involved in dealing with a commercial entity who may or may not necessarily work within your classroom's best interest. Investment now could save a whole lot of pain in the future.

So even if you don't have a workable migration plan now, I think it's in a school's best interest to have a migration plan in the works (if only we could rely on the Ministry of Education for this). Looking to the future and mitigating the cost to learning is in everyone's (except perhaps Google's) best interest.

Is it ethical not to have a plan in place? Imagine the very extreme - it's deemed that giving students pain killers leads to less distraction and so is good in the classroom. Only, the use of drugs leads to dependence... knowing this, has the ethical question been raised/asked? If the reliance is not on the body but more on information (personal or otherwise), does the context of that question effect the question? Yes - I realise that's all hyperbole in support of a position... it may well be the answer is "pick your battles"... which is a valid answer. But the question needs to be raised before drawing that conclusion.

A Word Processor to be Excited About

I just came across OX Text™ (I kid you not about the TM... that's how it is on their heading) which looks really promising. Having a look at the preview though had me really excited. Like most of these applications, it requires a few too many clicks to get into a document. But once in, it looks like this:


Nothing to inspire any excitement except.... look to the right. They've separated Font and Paragraph formatting controls! (Finally, someone gets it).

Even better... click on the heading for any those categories and suddenly it's hidden!

The other really important feature for me is collaboration. I want to know that if I set up a document, I can share it with ANYONE and give editing rights to people whether they're with whatever service or not... All collaboration features have to work in real time (I've attended meetings via Google Doc).

So if it's cheap enough (and given that it doesn't have it's own file format, so a very small switching cost), this may become a viable alternative to Google Docs.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Google+ Keeps Trying to Drag Me Back In

For the 2nd time in as many months I've found myself having to delete my Google+ account. Various services are all being tied together including Youtube it seems. Gmail had something about hangouts in the chat feature (promptly disabled)... And Google are only too happy to try and trick me into having a G+ account...

The big shift can't come soon enough.

Vendor Lock In

Vendor Lock In is one of those terms that us open source geek types use quite often. I don't think the people around us quite get what we're saying. Fortunately for us, we now have a fantastic example in the Chromebook.

So something goes wrong with your Chromebook. I know! We'll just call our technician - they'll be able to help us! Only... alas, the poor helpless techie is effectively locked out (apart from a couple of small bits and pieces - flicking it into Developer mode to remove user preferences from the device, restoring it from a USB stick or sending it away for repair). There's no other choice - wait for Google to fix it. Don't like Google's response time? Tough bikkies. You have no other choice. You're now locked in. That's it. One vendor to rule them all.

But it goes beyond that into less obvious ways. Remember writing up a document on MS Word '95? Perhaps you were in school... and then you come out of school. If you still had the file, you might have been able to read it using another copy of MS Word (though there's a fairly good chance that you couldn't because you weren't using the right version of Word)... but you had to have MS Word. Word Perfect had some less than perfect import features for importing MS Word files in - so there was always that. The thing is, while the content of those documents may be yours, the format that it's stored in may have a much bigger effect on the longevity of that data or who can access it.

So when FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software) types talk about open data formats (and open data for that matter) they aren't talking about revealing all of your private information (in fact, I think most FLOSS types are probably disgusted by Facebook's stance on this), but rather, providing the means to give the user the choice for applications. For example, if everyone was using an open, very specific format to store their documents in, then people could just use the word processor that works best for them rather than having to go with the de facto standard (MS Word) because that's what everyone else uses and you must be able to share files. This is a type of vendor lock in.... The vendor has all of the power.

Nowadays we get things for free! Google give away email accounts. MS give away some software (MS Word Viewer comes to mind). Apple give away iTunes etc. But what do all of these things have in common? A switching cost...

Imagine if Google suddenly decided to start charging for your email address. You might be inclined to pay it just so that you don't have to change your email address. You could no longer view word files from other people because Word Viewer suddenly disappeared... if you were reliant on it, you might be inclined to buy MS Office. And iTunes isn't really free anyway... It's more a conduit to paid content. Each of these free products represent a form of vendor lock in. How much of your life would suddenly end up in disarray if you couldn't use those products anymore?

Vendor lock in should be seen as a form of risk. Is it acceptable to you? For me, the Chromebook is a fail on this point (though it can be mitigated by using Chrubuntu - for a "migration plan", if the worse does happen and there's a problem you can't fix, then having a bunch of USB sticks ready with Chrubuntu installed seems a smart idea).

Word processing really should have moved on (To put an emphasis on styles/structure and collaboration) but given the choice, I tend to go with LibreOffice - it supports a crapload more versions of various file formats or LyX though I don't tend to share LyX files. Oh and Google Docs for collaboration (back when people were first talking about Web 2.0 there were a spate of online word processors around. Why did they never develop?). iTunes... I still like cd's and it's legal to format shift in NZ (so I can store my music on my phone).

And of course, the big shift is coming... Wordpress (I can chose who hosts it without having to change the platform), something for email (suggestions greatly appreciated)... I'd love to hear suggestions on collaborative word processing...

Things I am Sick Of...

Given my mood of late (I've been a bear with a sore head), I thought it might be an interesting little experiment (assuming that people actually respond) to see if we could compile a list of things that people are sick of and perhaps put it all to the tune of "My Favourite Things".

I'll start:

  • "Educators" who are so enamoured by the "future of learning" but completely miss the "learning" part and go on to devices in all their glittery shininess and oh there's other devices to come... and turn a blind eye just to be the hippest in the playground... Empowerment is a huge part of learning and this doesn't change with shiny devices dang nang it!
  • Managers who try to manage their way out of problems but refuse to look at the actual problem. Back when I was working for EDS, I had to walk a floor of a huge office looking like we were doing something. When I asked if I could sit down and take a look, I was refused by my manager. 6 months later I was then asked to go in and fix that very same problem (it took me half a day and a few phone calls to a guy in Hamilton). This seems to be a favourite trick of managers. Have a look around. I'm sure you'll find an example or two.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

That's so Asexual

I've got this thing about people saying "That's so gay". It's dumb. How is being gay a negative thing? I especially hate that my like for something could determine my sexual preference. Say... if the kids heard me singing along to a little Simon and Garfunkel.

Not only are some of my friends gay (and bisexual) but it conjures up some disturbing images. It's one of those list things that you find on the Internet all the time.

I could be gay if...

  • I could stand the sight of those incredibly tasteless condom ads on bus stops at the moment (though I'm pretty sure the gay community should be offended).
  • I could not be completely repulsed by seeing another man's hairy behind (it's bad enough I have that I carry one with me everywhere)
etc.

So whenever I hear one of the kids saying it now, I've started doing something a little different. It goes something along the lines of this:
"That's so gay". 
"Asexual". 
"What?" 
"Asexual. I'm pretty sure it doesn't have any sexual preference at all. In fact, I don't think it's got the bits".
This normally earns me a "You are so incredibly weird" looks... so you know.... it's all worth it.

One of Those Days

I'm horrendously sick at the moment. Sore head, cough, slight fever and phlegm that just won't quit. I had to go into one of the schools today (exams online - *grumble*) and found myself letting rip with someone. Here I am fixing a mistake made by someone else and they're still seeing the whole situation as being unavoidable (as opposed to putting the resources in to figure out the mistake and throwing resources at it until it was fixed).

A school rejected a proposal... Admittedly there's only really been the one proposal around the idea of empowering the classrooms rather than waiting for technicians to come in, have things working for about 5 minutes after the technician has left and then all bets are off... It seems while the I.T. guys within the school were really keen, the teachers really didn't like the unknown.

Given the small sample size, I really shouldn't feel so discouraged... It's one school - and probably really not the sort of school I'd like to start with, but... well... I don't know. I've seen what can happen when teachers become empowered (I mean, when they all become empowered together, as opposed to the vying for position and effect that being more empowered - Why is this feeling like a George Orwell novel? - than everyone else can have). The classroom loses a whole lot of limits and Stella is a lot more likely to get her grove back.

Teaching can be fun with resources other than big pieces of cardboard with poems written on them. Suddenly there's a wealth of information from sources outside of our little spheres.

That pen pal in primary school might have remained a pen pal for more than 2 letters if the response had been instantaneous rather than waiting months for a reply. Things take on all new meaning in real time i.e. you're able to compare the weather (something my uncles do every time they call from Canada - they could be ringing to tell us that someone has just died, and they'd still start by asking how the weather is here). As a kid I think I would have been fascinated by the seasons if I could talk to someone on the northern hemisphere to do a comparison.

I'm really just... starting to stress about the immediate future. I can't afford to work for free anymore - and yet, here I am, once again, working for free. It's frustrating. It's discouraging and soul destroying knowing that I've got all sorts of interesting things to offer and yet, I'm getting absolutely no traction.

And dang nang it - I should be enjoying myself. Seeing Auckland through different eyes and losing myself to a more relaxed and happy version of myself. Instead... well.. I'm lying here awake at midnight stressing about how I'm going to make the next little bit of money...

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Could Chromebooks be the Worst Thing to Happen to the I.T. Industry?

A thought occurred to me tonight. Firstly, I do seem to be quite critical of Google. I don't really like the way that they operate. To the point that I'm now starting to look at my options around mail (it seems that's moving toward the way of Google+ as well). The blog will definitely be moving to Wordpress. My gmail account will probably stick around just because Google can't be beat on collaboration in documents.

But the Chromebooks have me gritting my teeth. After not going to a meeting tonight (but still participating via Google Docs) something occurred to me. That really annoying panic reaction of the tech's who contact me quite frequently is a symptom.

While I struggled along the learning curve for Linux in order to feel more empowered (it's true! I got into Linux, in part, because I was irritated at the idea that I had to do something illegal - pirating - in order to support software. The support, made that software more desirable. How many computer science students end up swapping pirated software just to pass their papers?), these tech's have no such... sense of control. Instead, they're wholly reliant on Google as a vendor.

Back at tech (polytechnic - for those not in NZ. It's like a university without the accreditation) I had this paper where you'd walk in and as you walked in you'd get a print out for all of the powerpoint slides that were going to be shown. Then the lecturer would proceed to show the slides, talk about them briefly and that was 3 hours of my life gone (I had a double period of it). It was the most difficult and boring paper to have to sit (and I still to this day don't really know what it was about - Business Context). Not because the subject matter was particularly difficult, but because it didn't allow you to use any skills. You couldn't take notes - the slides were too fast and besides which, you had them all in front of you anyway. It wasn't engaging - slides don't require audience participation. After failing the paper twice, I was ready to give up on business entirely (until I went to Christchurch, had to sit yet another business paper but found this one much more interesting and engaging and full of content that I found relatable).

So the Chromebook seems like this brilliant device. Google will take care of it. It'll be fine. But then you have a problem. Who do you call? Your techs... except that Google have so effectively locked anyone out of fixing anything for normal use (sure, you could go into developer mode and make a change but then, you've got the god awful scary boot screen). So your techs are now completely powerless. The only bits they have any sort of control over is the infrastructure - which nowadays, the client device dictates how it should be set up i.e. proxy servers on Android/iDevice devices.

Your techs can't solve problems... That's a biggy. You couldn't pay me enough to put myself in that position. The depression that would ensue simply wouldn't be worth it... That feeling of helplessness (it's bad enough with Flash) would send me into a spin.

It'd be like being a teacher and not being able to write my own lesson plans or an artist but never being able to do anything creative... I'd be damaged after a little while.

Oh - and something occurred to me last night. What I'm REALLY hating about the way that Google are marketing their products at the moment - as if you're somehow a dinosaur if you're not operating in Google's way. *Pfft* you're STILL using an old legacy printer rather than something that's enabled with CloudPrint™? What... you mean you want to do something other than use the Internet? That's so yesterday. You're so not cool if you want to keep using your old compose method. etc.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Kids and Robotics

Yesterday a friend and I went to Tangleball to have a play with Arduinos to see if they could be used in the classroom....

They're great kit. Readily available, very cheap and loads of free documentation. BUT quite complicated.

Meanwhile, Lego Mindstorms is horrendously expensive, in New Zealand only made available to schools, through a supplier in Australia who isn't great at communication... but they're simple

Nowadays we've got 3D printers (which can be used for printing things other than guns) and of course, Arduinos. Do we need Lego Mindstorms? How much fun would that be? Throw in opensource software, downloadable 3D models of various blocks and the like, some really basic electronics and a whole lot of lesson plans.... and you've got something normally horrendously expensive made accessible. That $1,200 Reprap becomes something infinitely useful...

I'm starting to think this could be a kickstarter project....

Vendor Reliance

There's a problem with the Chromebooks! Who are you going to call?

A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with someone. She was saying that when I was doing support for Manaiakalani, she never had to stress. She could be fairly confident that any problem that came my way I'd be able to take care of it. I explained to her that this was because I was in control. If there was a problem, I could find solutions on the Internet, write scripts to fix or workaround problems etc.

No one really talks about how these things go oh so terribly wrong. It's Google so it's going to be awesome and easy and just work.... only.... what if it doesn't? What if Google doesn't really acknowledge that there's a problem?

I've been hearing discussion from schools about whether to go with Chromebooks and the consensus seems to be that learning is being done in the cloud, there's no good reason not to use Chromebooks. There's something missing here. There are technical details. Of course, no one's really talking. How can you, or anyone, make an informed choice on the Chromebook if no one is talking about the problems?

The majour problems I've seen so far are being excused under the guise of cheap hardware - Google couldn't possibly be at fault. It must be the manufacturers fault right? Or... even your own for buying something cheap and expecting it to work.

Meanwhile there are comparisons to be made. We can prove it's not the hardware at fault here - by running Chrubuntu. Suddenly you can change the entire software stack (except the kernel) and see it running on the same hardware.

Of course.... if Google can keep palming off issues as being because of "cheap hardware", rather than their own software having issues, then they never have to fix the software. And yes... I know... I could download the source code and have a go at fixing it myself.... except that I wouldn't be able to run it anyway... Not on the Chromebooks without having to put up with Developer Mode anyway.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

To Be Online or Not to Be Online

Recently I've heard about a discussion on the Tangleball mailing list about whether an entity should be having discussions online or whether they should be constrained to physical meetings. Personally I refuse to participate with this group online (thus, I've only heard of the discussion).

There's a couple of reasons for this. Tangleball is a creative space. It's a physical space for people to come together and make stuff. An online presence is great for advertising but, is it fair for people to manage it from behind their computer screens effecting the use of the space by people who are actually in the space?

Secondly, the medium is the message.

There was this old episode of "The Cosby Show" where one of his daughters comes home overseas. It turns out she's gotten married while overseas. Bill Huxtable (Does anyone know why they called it "The Cosby Show" if they were going to use "Cosby" as the character's surname?) explains to his all new son in law, "Imagine the biggest plumpest juiciest steak. With roast potatoes and onions and all smothered in a creamy mushroom sauce. Now, take that meal and present it on a rubbish bin lid".

The fact that the meal has all the right things and someone has gone through all the effort to carefully craft it is completely lost within the fact that it's been served up on a rubbish bin lid. The content is brilliant! The medium... well... even the best meal loses it's meaning if it's been served up in a terrible way (whether that's terrible customer service or the surroundings - i.e. if you see cockroaches, chances are, you're no longer thinking about he meal).

How often do you receive a txt message and just can't understand what the person's trying to say? The next time you hear your phone beep, you dread having to decipher it. The contents of the txt are less important than the fact that it's been sent via txt. The rejection factor needs to be taken into account as well.. i.e. how does the person you're trying to communicate with communicate? Personally I don't like sending lots and lots of txts. I look for natural ends (though I've got a friend who always gets upset with me because apparently I never reply to her txts - completely untrue. I don't have long conversations via txt - I will, at some point, either decide that this is a good place to stop, or, if it's going on and on, phone the person). So the medium changes how people perceive things as well as how we communicate...

So now think about email. A lot of the arguments spring up because people disagree on VERY minor points and a lot of the time, they're talking in circles around each other. Get those same people who are SHOUTING AT EACH OTHER on the Internet and chances are, they'll either find their points are actually very similar, or, that they completely disagree but the way that they act is completely different. i.e. no shouting involved.

Also take into account that sarcasm is often missed - those tools like inflection and expression are completely missed.

The problem though: if you point out that email on it's own is actually quite a bad tool for management (having a bit of a grumble in person does wonders for all parties involved) whereas, it's got uses when used with actual meetings, people can end up accusing you of censorship.

This is especially prevalent within geek communities where social norms are sometimes modeled upon online behaviour. After a couple of arguments in "meat space" which shake a community, the "meat space" meetings can take quite a... subdued form. i.e. people become afraid to speak their mind for fear that it will devolve into a shouting match.

This is where meetings fail... people don't get their point across and end up talking behind each other's backs. Meanwhile, online, the discussion devolves into shouting matches... So this is actually quite a big discussion - how do you create a productive forum for communication?

Personally, I'd go back to the people. A face to face meeting is good BUT it's a lot of work to get people saying what's on their minds (once they've become a little shy). Generally speaking, this requires a few new members who can say what people are thinking. But it comes down to leadership to me. How are meetings conducted? How are disagreements resolved? I like consistency on this front. Lockwood Smith will go down in history as being VERY even handed as the speaker of the house. I think this skill needs to be fostered and those who do it well, to chair meetings. So it shouldn't necessarily be a leader - just someone who can calm things down, invite people to talk (in a way that doesn't just put them on the spot) etc. - to chair meetings.

Online stuff can supplement meetings quite well but should NEVER replace them...