Saturday, December 29, 2007

GNota on XO

Gnota is the gradebook client I mentored Leandro Lameiro on for last year's Google Summer of Code. We used Python and GTK in part to ensure easy portability to Sugar. Getting it running on my XO was pretty easy, just sudo yum install python-elixir bzr python-nose, and all you really need is Elixir to just run the code. You can get the source from Launchpad and fire it up. It looks pretty good:

I guess there is a Sugar GTK theme that makes GTK apps look Sugar-esque even if they aren't fully Sugarized.

But half of the tests fail and the responsiveness is horrible (like, click a cell and get a cursor 5 seconds later). I suspect the failing tests (and a good chunk of the performance problem) comes from Fedora using a different version of Elixir and SQLAlchemy than Leandro used. As the serious-minded mentor, I should have forbade the use of those still rapidly evolving libraries, but I couldn't resist the shiny either.

Jennifer really wants a gradebook for her XO (and I'm sure she's not the only one) and she can't connect over the school's network to use a web-based tool, so I'm going to have to take half a crack at making this usable.

A Brief Recap


And that is our history as we know it. Starting in the 1970s, at about the time of the Lewis Powell memo, an interlocking network of right wing billionaires and theocrats began to fund the institutions whose dominance we take for granted today: The American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, The Family Research Council, the Federalist Society, the Brookings Institute (over time), and on and on. During this period, College Republican operatives like Rove, Abramoff, and Gary Bauer became important figures in this network, as did the ex-Trotskyite neocons who broke away from the Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic Party. The period was also marked by the steady retreat of the press from reporting, under the twin pressures of the right “working the refs”, as Eric Alterman put it, and winger billionaire owners slashing news coverage in favor of “entertainment,” and by the steady advance of Rush Limbaugh and, later, Matt Drudge. And if you got hooked into that network, you got the cradle to grave protection typical of socialism: You always had a job, whether as a “fellow” or “scholar” at the AEI, a shouting head on Crossfire, as a columnist, as a contractor, as a political appointee or staffer, or as a lobbyist, and so on and on and on. You always got funding. You were made. Just for the sake of having an easy label for this dense network of institions, operatives, ideologues, and Republican Party figures, let’s call it the Conservative Movement (instead of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, since it’s not really a conspiracy, except possibly an emergent one. The billionaires don’t — except for Scaife during the Arkansas project, or Rupert Murdoch playing editor — generally pick up the phone and give orders; rather, they manage the Conservative Movement like an investment portfolio of entertainment properties; some start-ups (Politico), some stars (FOX), some cash cows (Limbaugh), some dogs (American Spectator). Slowly but surely, well funded and well organized Conservatives pushed their ideas from unthinkable, to radical, to acceptable, to sensible, to popular, and finally into policy, in a process described as The Overton Window. As surely and ruthlessly, progressive ideas were marginalized, and then silenced altogether. And spending what it took, the winger billionaires used the Conservative Movement to restructure politics, and having restructured politics, economics. To their economic benefit.

Whipsawed Again

The music industry was certainly not clever enough to come up with a way to get a whole generation to take a big step backwards in fidelity, but the fact that it happened is about the only tiny bit of good news they've got these days, since it means that they'll be able to re-sell you higher fidelity versions of stuff you've already got. Of course, people still won't necessarily pay for those lossless remasters this time either, but filesharing 10x larger files will be more of a pain, and if you don't know the provenance of the file, it is harder to feel like you're, you know, really getting higher fidelity. You might just be downloading a re-encoded mp3. Of course, this won't be a bonanza on the scale of the introduction of the CD, and the main beneficiary will probably be Apple, since it justifies the need for a 250, 500, 750 gig iPod. Update

Thus far the growth of traffic on has been fairly slow and linear, despite the link from OLPC News and the official OLPC community news (so go ahead and blog now if you'd like).

Right now (1:00 AM, EST, Saturday), I've got 363 registered users with 75 online. The load average is at 0.99, ejabberd is using 183 megabytes of RAM (of 295 total) and usually floating around 10% of CPU. I'm a little unclear on whether or not this is a "virtual" CPU or my share of the real CPU.

Bandwidth hasn't become an issue. I've got 200 gigs a month, and I can't see breaking that. There are definite spikes when someone shares a video with a bunch of people, but since there is a limited pool of users (compared to, say, the entire internet) and the video is only available as long as the creator keeps it open on his or her XO, it doesn't seem like the kind of massive runaway bandwith loads we're used to seeing when things go viral or get dugg or Slashdotted will occur.

I haven't rebooted the server since I put it up 10 days ago. I also haven't restarted ejabberd since the first day or so I had it running. Its memory consumption is slowly creeping up. My understanding is that OLPC ran into trouble with runaway memory consumption at around 150 users online. Note that the core ejabberd server can handle way more than that. There must be some problem with the OLPC extensions. Hopefully when I hit that wall I can set loose some erlang hackers to find the bugs. Also, at that point the XO's neighborhood UI should be pretty much maxed out.

Once things start breaking down, I'll cap the membership. I'll try to post at more length about the my perceptions of the sharing functionality for the XO's tomorrow, but definitely the buggy and incomplete nature of the collaboration tools has contributed to keeping the demands put on relatively modest.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Anyone Playing Eve Online?

A couple weeks ago when we were snowed in, and I was waiting for my XO to arrive, I started playing a little EVE-Online. I like it, but I don't have enough momentum at this point to find people to play with via in-game interaction. However, if any of my readers are playing and wouldn't mind me tagging along in my Minmatar frigate, I'm up for trying just about anything. Or if someone else would like to get into interstellar mining and transport, you could start a new character, and we'll work together. I'm not super-ambitious about this game, but it seems like one could find an interesting niche without spending too much time and effort.

So if you're interested, drop a comment.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Another Holiday Ruined by Technology

So around lunch time Christmas Day I'm rendering some of the video I've been shooting of Vivian for a proper DVD on Mom's Mac Mini and blammo, I get a hard crash, followed by the dreaded question mark when I try to reboot. So the evening of Vivian's first Christmas and the day after were spent by me in a haze of frustration and profanity trying to recover Mom's data, including all her painstaking genealogy and family photograph restoration.

As usual, only DiskWarrior could save the data, but you know, I still hate Alsoft for not providing a download of a bootable disk image. They know as well as I do that if I'm really in a jam, and I have one Mac with a corrupt disk, downloading an unbootable disk image from them is just going to send me into a rage. I hate them. I wish Apple would buy them and just put DiskWarrior on a bootable ROM chip so when your crappy HFS+ filesystem gets corrupted you can just hold down a key, boot into DiskWarrior and solve your damn problem instead of having to find a 6p-6p Firewire cable (why Mom had one, I don't know, but it saved us), put your laptop into target mode (thanks for target mode, Apple), and boot your Intel Mini off your G4 PowerBook (thanks for universal binaries, Apple) with DiskWarrior installed on it.

Anyhow, yeah, it was pretty much a disaster, although we did recover the essential data, and a good reminder of why many sane people don't want to have to rely on the computers in their classroom working.

Monday, December 24, 2007

IPython on the XO

It is worth noting that IPython, an enhanced Python interactive shell, is included in the standard XO builds. You can do all kinds of high-end wizardry with IPython, but the most immediately useful in this context are object introspection and syntax highlighting. When most of the system is written in Python, good object introspection makes IPython a quick route for figuring out how the parts fit together, particularly in the absence of a real IDE.

It is Christmas eve, so this isn't a good time to follow through, but what is needed is just a special config that automatically adds the relevant system libraries to the path of an IPython session and sets the highlight colors to ones that work with the Sugar Terminal settings.

You Can't Make This Shit Up

So... Ian Jukes likes a column by David Pogue on "The Generational Divide in Copyright Morality," so he decides to write a post, changing the name to "The Generational Divide of Copyright Morality," wherein he says:

A terrific article by New York Times Technology columnist David Pogue, who writes about about a big problem facing TV, movie and record companies: Right now, the customers who can't even see why file sharing might be wrong are still young.

Now, I hope you picked up on the fact that the words "Right now" were the beginning of a quote of Pogue's article, because, in fact, the rest of Jukes' post is a quote of the entire article, without quote marks, blockquoting, or any other recognized indication of quotation in the English language.

So then Doug Johnson comes along, doesn't pick up on Jukes' meager citation, and gives Jukes credit for David Pogue's words, as an intro to still more hand-wringing discussion of the morality of copying and sharing content in the digital world.


Seriously, though, am I the only one who actually reads this stuff? And what would it take for someone to start losing credibility on the issue?

Built to Hack

Brian Jepson:

I've owned some pretty sweet devices in the past, but nothing compares to (the XO). At every turn, I find something new and cool about it, and there always seems to be a way to do the things I want to do.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Tabbed Browsing on the XO

I'm sure in the long run the best browser on the XO will be a native, open source one (probably using WebKit), but at the moment, if you want tabs, and, if you're like me, you need tabs, then you need to get Opera running. The install is a little kludgy (by XO standards) and if you've upgraded to a recent development build (as I have, natch), you might have to launch from a terminal (opera) instead of the launcher.

Note that the OLPC Wiki instructions are better than the OLPC News Forum instructions, because the forum instructions have you use the tarball instead of the .rpm package, and you should always use the .rpm if you have the option because it makes it much easier to reliably update or uninstall. Also, the forum tells you to install the activity in /usr/share/activities, instead of the more proper /home/olpc/Activities.

The big fly in the Opera ointment is that it doesn't handle GMail's layout. Also, it is not keeping up with my typing in this Blogger textbox, so I don't know what is up with that.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Posting from my XO

Random thoughts... I love the balanced feel of the laptop when you're carrying it, especially from the two small holes that flank the handle. It lets you hook a few fingers in there and get a really solid grip, even with the laptop open. Having kids carry around conventional laptops, particularly cheap ones, even with high school students, can be a real headache. Also, carrying a regular laptop and a baby down a twisty Victorian staircase can be hairy. I appreciate the industrial design here... I'm really looking forward to someone hacking the gamepads to control the mouse when the XO is in tablet/ebook configuration. Basically, what I want is an activity that opens Google Reader in full screen mode with the Reader sidebar collapsed and the screen in portrait layout... I'm really happy with the quality of the reflective, black and white mode. You just need strong enough light to read a book comfortably to use this mode. It is really sharp, and easy on the eyes if you've got the right lighting... The lack of tabbed browsing is a serious problem... The size of the keyboard is probably the biggest problem for adults using the laptop... The chat client that shipswith the g1g1 machines is badly broken. It jumps down every time someone makes a comment and then you have to scroll way up to see what was said. It will drive you insane but is apparently fixed in later developer builds... The XO doesn't seem to handle running out of memory very well, but then again, who does? ... Jennifer is unhappy about the lack of a spreadsheet... Overall, this is a great start, better than I feared for version 1.0. Up

I'm having a feeling I'll regret having done this, but is now up and running. If you've got an XO you can point it at my Jabber server by popping open a terminal and typing this:

sugar-control-panel -s jabber

Then hit ctrl+alt+erase to restart Sugar. You should then see the other people logged in to the server in the "Neighborhood" view. That is essentially the widest view. You should be able to see other users and shared activities, and share your own activities with them, including video.

This is, however, the bleeding edge of the bleeding edge, so don't expect perfection.

Also, this is a cheap shared server account, so I have a feeling it will fall over pretty quickly. Please don't trumpet this on your blog; if I get 1000 users tomorrow I'll probably just have to turn the whole thing off and start over by invitation only, but we'll see. I have no idea, really.

And, while you can connect to the server with a regular Jabber client, it doesn't appear that you can talk to XO users with it. Also, it seems like you should be able to connect with an emulator, but it didn't work for me.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007 Update

Spent part of the day on #olpc on IRC getting the skinny on running a Jabber server for XO's. I'm afraid things are in a bit of a state of disarray right now in that department, although I don't think anything's insurmountable. "mog," aka Matt O'Gorman debugged my installation and isolated a problem with the olpc-ejabberd RPM packages, which should be easily fixed. In the meantime there is still some thrashing about over whether it would be better to switch to different server software. ejabberd is the official one for now, so I'll stick with it until told otherwise.

In other news, my laptops appear to have progressed from Illinois to Connecticut today, so perhaps I'll see them tomorrow. It would be great to get the server running tomorrow as well.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I just picked up a (cheap virtual) server and the domain with the intention of running a community Jabber server for XO users. That is, non-local chat and, I think presence, on the XO is done via the open Jabber or XMPP protocol. Schools will have their own Jabber server on their school server, OLPC has their own, but they're not really up for the task of maintaining a server with hundreds of thousands of users. I'm not really either, but I should be able to handle a smaller load. Also, this is strictly an experiment. I make no guarantees it will work.

For that matter, I should make no guarantees it will even get off the ground, notwithstanding that I've now invested $60 in the effort and written this blog post, which kind of puts me on the hook. But hopefully I'll get the configuration right and once I get my XO and figure out how to do it, I'll tell you how to connect to my server. I don't think it will strictly matter which server you use -- you should be able to chat with people using different servers, but I'm not 100% sure. Figuring out how it actually works is part of the motivation here.

Also, the XO's use the Jabber PubSub extension which, as I've written in the past, could reasonably used as a replacement for SIF's oddball architecture in doing various sorts of data integration within schools, so I have a professional interest in working through the possibilities there in more detail, now that it looks like there will suddenly be a lot of schools running Jabber PubSub servers.

Also, if you've got a Mac OS X server at your school, you can turn on a Jabber server with a few mouse clicks, although it won't have all the same extensions the XO's are using, so ymmv.

2008: Setting the Agenda on Filtering

In case you missed it, Chris Dodd's filibuster succeeded in blocking the version of the FISA bill which includes retroactive amnesty for telecom companies who were, by all appearances, complicit in massive illegal spying operations conducted on US citizens since the beginning of the Bush administration. Glenn Greenwald and Jane Hamsher lay out how it all went down, from the beginning, if you need a refresher. Greenwald:

Without question, it was those efforts, spontaneously created and driven by blogs and their readers, which led directly to the principled stand Chris Dodd took yesterday in defense of the rule of law. This was not a process whereby some Beltway politician announced a campaign and then citizens fell into line behind it. The opposite occurred. The very idea for the "hold" originated among a few citizens, was almost immediately exploded into a virtual movement by tens of thousands of people, and was then made into a reality by a single political figure, Chris Dodd, responding to that passion by taking the lead on it.

Here is Dodd himself last night explaining that this is exactly what happened, that his virtually solitary efforts (eventually supported by a handful of his Senate colleagues) were propelled by the hundreds of thousands of citizens supporting what he was doing:

This is, to me, more significant than blogs being used for fundraising or mau-mau-ing journalists. The most basic and fundamental principles of American government that we teach in Civics 101 are being threatened: this is a nation of laws, not men; our government is made of three separate but equal branches. Not to mention the relationship between corporate power and government power, which is a grave issue going forward for this country. Bloggers and blogging have done a great service to this country these past few weeks.

I think, looking forward into 2008, considering the myriad issues around web filtering in schools, we should take this experience as a focal point. There is a natural tendency for the debate about filtering to either stick on abstract principles, should there be any filtering or none; or to focus on somewhat gray areas, like MySpace or YouTube (let me just say that I've worked in a few middle schools held together with baling wire and twine where a couple viral videos and abrupt de-friendings a week might tip the balance between barely controlled chaos and pandemonium, so yes, I can conceive of a school justifiably blocking them).

I would propose that people and organizations who want to see a change in filtering policies in schools (and frankly, I have no real pull in this area, so all I can do is suggest) should focus their attention where the argument against filtering is most clear. Schools, that is, the government, should not block political speech from coming into schools. I am sure, a key player in this debate over the fundamental principles of American government, is blocked in many schools around the country, just because it is a blog. This is completely unacceptable. It should be anathema to any patriotic American. This is where we should start returning to a position of freedom and sanity on this issue. And it isn't a decision for the IT staff, or some hired contractor, it ultimately should be a school board decision. This is a winnable debate, and that's what we need right now.

Where Are Your Buttons?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Crowd-Sourcing a Filibuster

Chris Dodd is going to be reading letters submitted via blogs during his filibuster of the telecom amnesty bill today. This one's a humdinger:

I thank Senator Dodd for the opportunity to participate in this debate. For the Senate’s edification: I’m twenty-three years old and a new voter who isn’t going away any time soon.

The United States of America is founded upon the rule of law. Senators and representatives swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” According to the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution—a document for which centuries’ of blood and tears have been shed—“the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Yet here the Senate stands, poised to grant immunity to telecommunications companies for profiting from the warrantless and lawless spying perpetrated upon the law-abiding citizenry; here the Senate stands, poised to usurp the judiciary, the branch of government responsible for determining whether the laws of the land have been broken and meting out punishment where appropriate; and here the Senate stands, poised to usher in its own irrevelancy—and, worst of all, in exchange for nothing: no promises that this flagrant lawbreaking will cease, no testimony to be offered in the course of real and rigorous investigation.

“Give me liberty or give me death,” said Patrick Henry. “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither,” said Benjamin Franklin. Now the telecommunications companies lobby the lot of you, saying, “Give us immunity, or we’ll suffer the consequences of our lawbreaking.” Now the President comes before you, saying, “Give my partners in crime immunity, or there’ll be investigations and findings that taint my legacy.”

Never mind the judiciary. Never mind that it’s the job of the courts to ascertain whether any laws have been broken. So Congress rushes in to save the day! Immunity for profit-driven corporations, amnesty for lawbreakers!

I submit to this body that the Founders are rolling in their graves.

Voters could be forgiven for not realizing the Democratic Party won control of both houses of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections, for there’s so little evidence of any checks being brought against President Bush, whose polling to date is both abysmal and deserved. Yet now Democrats brandish the majority and usher in much of the same: more war, more lives lost, more of our tax dollars pouring into places I’ve never even heard of, and here we’ve got next to nothing to show for it. I hear citizens of other countries get something for paying their taxes; I can’t even imagine what that’s like.

And what are Americans to think, except that they’ve been betrayed by both parties? I congratulate Democrats and Republicans for their breathtaking cynicism, for how well they’ve worked together to engender so much apathy among voters that millions of Americans stay home on election day. What choices we have!

The legislature abdicates oversight, puts blind faith in the executive, and extends immunity to lawbreaking telecommunications companies. Are those companies to be pitied for going along with the President’s plan in direct contravention of the law and raking in cash? Are they, along with the President, to be congratulated for their foresight, considering that this warrantless spying upon Americans is reported to have gone on well before 9/11? (And mind you how well all of that illegal surveillance served to protect us on that awful day.) Are these companies to be respected more than voters? Are they to be granted immunity for lawbreaking, in return for nothing? Congress doesn’t even appear to be interested in leveraging immunity in return for testimony.

What will I tell my children? It’s fine to break the law if the president says so? It’s fine to break the law if you can lobby Congress to grant you immunity? It’s fine to break the law if you can stuff cash into the coffers of senators and representatives? What country is this? I say again: the Founders are rolling in their graves. For the past fifteen years, I’ve watched the news and felt disgust for the whole sorry lot of you.

You who purport to lead, yet cower like beaten dogs before the President, as if he were king. You who vote upon legislation you likely don’t even read. You who coif your hair into absurd, unmoving helmets and whiten your teeth and don designers suits and appear on TV, daring to tell me you represent my interests. You who pass pointless, meaningless resolutions condemning commercials and congratulating professional sports teams for winning while Americans go hungry, while Americans go without healthcare, while Americans work two jobs to make ends meet, while Americans die in Iraq and Afghanistan. You who swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution and flatter yourselves by conflating your re-election with the interests of your country and constituency. You who fret about keeping your powder dry until the are barracks overrun.

You who tell me to live in a constant state of fear, but to keep on shopping; do keep shopping. How proud my children should be to be born American! They’ll shop in the face of constant fear with fists full of credit cards. And I’ll say to them, “What shall we buy tomorrow, children?” But, of course, I have my own ideas: our very own Senator, our very own Representative, our very own President. I should buy the whole sorry lot of you to be heeded at all.

And so here is the Senate in all its majesty. Where are the Patrick Henrys, the Benjamin Franklins? God save America from her greatest enemy: a pack of pathetic, self-serving cowards.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Breaking the Web Standards Stalemate

This appears to be true:

Until we get some great new (non-standard) CSS features out Mozilla, Opera, and IE nothing will get better to the extent that we will again be optimistic about the future (Safari earns a pass). The size of the improvements they deliver in the future are directly tied to our expectations of how different the future will be. Only when there are large and divergent ideas of how to proceed expressed through competing, successful implementations will standardization really work to whatever extent that it can reasonably be expected to.

Let that sink in a bit. To get a better future, not only do we need a return to “the browser wars”, we need to applaud and use the hell out of “non-standard” features until such time as there’s a standard to cover equivalent functionality. Non-standard features are the future, and suggesting that they are somehow “bad” is to work against your own self-interest.

Web developers everywhere need to start burning their standards advocacy literature and start telling their browser vendors to give them the new shiny. Do we want things to work the same everywhere? Of course, but we’ve got plenty of proof to suggest that only healthy browser competition is going to get us there. Restructuring the CSS WG or expecting IE8 to be “fully standards compliant” is a fools game.

Put simply, Zeldman is hurting you and only you can make it stop. Neither the CSS WG nor the HTML 5 WG nor, indeed, any W3C working group can define the future. They can only round off the sharp edges once the future becomes the past and that’s all we should ever expect of them. As much as they tell us (and themselves) that they can, and as much as they really would like to, the W3C cannot save us.

How US Geeks Should Support OLPC

OLPC News has a guest post from Mike Smith on how interested managers and developers in the US might approach working with schools in the developing world. This is a problem which I've been working on for three years for SchoolTool, and all my experience indicates that Mike's method won't work. I've tried to connect (paid) open source developers to remote schools. Not even in the developing world at this point. Just US and (mostly eastern) Europe. Even when everyone speaks good English, has good connectivity and a solid understanding of computing, it is very difficult to collect requirements, and testing and bugfixing remotely just doesn't happen. It is too difficult at that remove for teachers to integrate these unfamiliar processes into their already overloaded work lives. In real life, it takes lots of push and cajoling to get teachers to follow through on complex, abstract, inessential projects. Pretty much only the principal can make that happen in a school. You can't do it via email and IRC.

I don't say that to slag on teachers. I was a teacher, my wife's a teacher, my parents were teachers, my grandmothers were teachers, etc. It is just that the life of a school is so alive and in your face, and then you've got a bunch of mandated paperwork, and once things get rolling you just have to prioritize, and it is pretty hard to make working out software requirements via internet chat a high priority. You need to work with teachers face to face. You need to have local developers.

Also, schools are full of business processes which are, to the people in the school, regarded as the state of nature. There are endless details about how the school works that will inevitably go unspoken and cause misunderstanding and miscommunication between teachers and developers in different countries. You could try to overcome that by subjecting the teachers to long, intensive questioning at the beginning of the process, but that seems unlikely to make them very enthusiastic about the whole thing.

US geeks should do one of two things. If they want to personally develop an application kids and teachers are going to put their hands on, they should find a way to write open source software for a school in their community and do it in a way that has good internationalization support, and is maximally compatible with and portable to Sugar. If they write software which works for kids in their neighborhood, there is a pretty good chance that it will be useful elsewhere, at least, in my estimation, a higher likelihood than they'd have collaborating directly with distant, foreign schools.

The other option is to strengthen Sugar as a platform and make it as easy as possible for students and local developers to write software that will suit their needs. Mike Fletcher's email is a good starting point for these tasks, and I'm sure the core development team has a long list as well.

One last point. Greg implies that he would gather the requirements and then the "open source community" would write the code:

Work with the schools, open source community and others to build the needed applications.

Yeah, that's not going to work. There is no magic "open source community." If you want to be the manager in this process, your first step is to assemble a team of programmers (volunteer or otherwise) who you know have the skills to do the necessary work and the time and motivation to follow through. Right now, this means knowing Python and the GNOME infrastructure pretty well. You'd better make damn sure you've got those guys in hand before you start asking teachers to dedicate their time to the project.

Going Down with the Palm

The slowness of the response here is pretty impressive, as is not knowing what eToys is. It only goes back to what, the mid-1990's, started by one of the greatest living computer scientists with help from a couple little corporations called Apple and Disney?

My first thought was that perhaps Tony was hoping to be able to retire before learning a new platform, but he doesn't look that old. On the other hand, being years behind in technology isn't really a liability when talking to teachers. (via Stephen)

Eduspaces Shutting Down

Something else I keep trying to warn you about. And yes, it will happen to Blogmeister eventually. It has to.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

T-Mobile Blocking Twitter

I keep trying to warn you about this kind of thing. Perhaps you'd like to read Mark Bernstein's commentary on the subject.

Moderate Trolling

Of course, one big problem with the "radical center," etc. is that "moderate" tends to mean "whatever I believe." Another problem in terms of politics is that right now we have a lot of radicals on the right and a very fragmented left, so if you just pick a mid-point, you end up with something quite far to the right by historical standards. So now the "moderate" positions are things like accepting the premise that it is ok for the executive branch to ask corporations to break the law, reasonable for corporations to do so, and that those corporations deserve retroactive immunity for their illegal acts. Or that "moderates" accept that waterboarding is a reasonable middle ground on the question of torture

But, focusing in Doug's post on a "radical center" on ed-tech issues, let's just skim over the particular issues he mentions:

  • reading methodologies - This has become weirdly aligned along a left/right axis in the US, but the right is way more rabid about it. How many Democrats who aren't elementary school teachers sit around talking about whole language and phonics? Not very many. How many Republicans are up in arms about it? A lot.
  • filtering - The problem with the filtering debate is that it doesn't involve the people who are doing the filtering, nor does it seem to usually encompass the full range of legal issues that the people doing the filtering believe themselves to be addressing, nor does anyone seem to know how substantive those issues actually are.
  • DRM - I'd say the centrist position is that DRM is a bad deal for schools. How does a school benefit from buying DRM-ed content? It doesn't. What will happen if they simply refuse to buy it? Look at the music business. They're giving up on DRM and giving consumers what they've wanted all along. It's not complicated, and it isn't a radical position.
  • Open Source - Open source is not controversial or radical in the technology industry as a whole. It is a widely accepted, successful and often profitable model. Of course, you can take it to a radical extreme and demand that people only use open source software, but who is doing that other than Richard Stallman (who would, of course, phrase it a little differently) and a handful of geeks? There is not a single person with any power or influence in US education who makes that argument.
  • copyright/copyleft - What's the current US copyright practice? Every creative expression by everyone is automatically copyrighted virtually in perpetuity. That's radical. Copyleft and Creative Commons licensing are built on the copyright system. They aren't in opposition to it, but they are an alternative available to creators. I think that's a moderate position. Who is against copyright entirely? More assertive fair use, perhaps. More sanity about things like photographing public spaces, sure. I'm personally in favor of restoring the "founders' copyright" as US law. I find it to be a very moderate position.
  • constructivism - This one is enough of a definitional nightmare to just leave alone.
  • e-books - This must be a librarian thing. I don't understand.
  • fixed schedules - Another librarian thing? Certainly schedules are a point of contention in any school, but I'm not sure what the arguments about their "fixed-ness" are.
  • Mac/PC/Linux - Ah, yes. Every veteran ed tech consultant's nightmare, having this religious war flaring up full strength again. Look, it is Microsoft that is the monopolist, Windows is the OS that doesn't play nice with others. Who has the weakest case for the next decade? Windows. If there is a rationale for remaining dependent on Windows going forward, I'd like to hear it. The moderate position is all of the above.
  • OLPC - OLPC is so multi-faceted it is hard to pin down what one would address about it in this context.
  • fear-mongering - There is not a moderate response to fear mongering! If you are "fear mongering" you are by definition wrong and should not be indulged.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Admin-ing the XO

Doug writes (in comments) of his XO:

It will be upsetting for techs not to have an "admin" user login. Hopefully it is not necessary. I would think a login screen for privacy purposes is critical, but then maybe kids don't have much to be private about?

First off, if you want to understand what's going on technically with security on the XO, you need to read about Bitfrost. I'm going to try to accurately represent things based on my understanding of the design, but further exploration on your part of the spec is recommended.

Essentially there are no logins on the XO (see the Bitfrost page for the rationale). It is a single user machine. It is almost like an Apple II or Vic 20 in that respect. Those were, in some ways, the good old days for educational computing. Here's one reason: remember how you booted the operating system? By sticking your DOS boot disk into the floppy drive (or cassette deck). The computer loaded the OS into memory and then you took the DOS disk out of the drive and stuck in the disk containing whatever program you wanted to load. One implication of this is that your subsequent work couldn't render your computer unbootable by screwing up your core OS, because your DOS disk wasn't even physically in the computer, and if it was, it should have had that little read only notch covered up, so the computer would refuse to write any changes to it. At least that's how I remember it. I was snorting a lot of Pixie Stix at the time, so my memory might be a little hazy.

Anyhow, while the XO doesn't have a boot floppy (thankfully), it does keep the core OS files on a read-only file system. Users are free to install software on the system, but there are multiple layers of protection to make it difficult for a rogue program to damage the system.

You can modify the underlying OS if you've got a developer key, which, if I understand correctly, can be obtained both by the user of a single laptop and by a site administrator for a whole range of laptops. So that mechanism probably functions close to what Doug is thinking of in providing an "admin login," since it will allow updating any software on the machine.

One advantage of this approach is that if you have an "admin" or "root" user, a common route for exploits is to crack a user account and elevate the permissions to the root user through a second exploit. Since you don't have a true root user, you can't take that approach (although there will be others, to be sure). Also, people often just use admin accounts as their personal accounts, which neuters that protection.

Regarding privacy in general, there was discussion on the mailing lists about whether or not all documents should be shared over the network by default. A surprising number of people, mostly from outside the core team, I think, seemed to think they should be shared by default. That's nuts, and in the shipped version, they're private by default.

Framing and Flogging

If I was going to write a post framing Johnny Chung Lee's Wii-mote hack in terms of memes I like to flog, I'd point out that Lee is a canonical Maker, and his project, and his whole body of work, is typical of the content and spirit of Make Magazine. In fact, Lee's $14 Steadycam was featured in Make #1 and every school that has a video camera should have one. The "Maker" meme doesn't seem to be catching on in ed-tech as much as other O'Reilly spawn "Web 2.0" and "Foo Camp," which is a shame because it is the most interesting for schools, I think. Whether or not science and technology oriented schools are picking up on the spirit of Make, I don't know. I hope so, though.

New Coaster Needed seems to have, um, popped, which suggests that the field is open for anyone wanting to update the historical real estate prices roller coaster video, which should by now be beginning a rather sickening drop. So if you've got a student who'd like to launch their own YouTube viral sensation and has a copy of Roller Coaster Tycoon, you might make that suggestion.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

And So It Begins...

Doug Johnson got his XO today, the first confirmed G1G1 delivery.

It seems like more ed-tech leaders in the US have ordered one than I thought would. I guess I'm pretty used to the idea that folks aren't really interested in controlling the cost of hardware, having a durable machine actually designed for kids, free software, Python, ZeroConf networking, Jabber, Squeak and the dozens of other things that I like and are baked into the XO. So from my point of view, this is an ed-tech coming out for a whole stack of things I've advocated for years.

The problem here is that what people are going to see and form the basis of a big part of their opinion is the Sugar shell. I have no idea if it is going to feel fully baked. So... fingers crossed!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Libre Knowledge?

I'm pretty much baffled by Stephen's endorsement of generally approving link to the Declaration on libre knowledge. First off, it doesn't seem to address at all his concerns about commercial distribution, which seemed to me to be his most substantive objections to the Cape Town Declaration.

Overall, the declaration is so half-baked and leaky that I can't even come up with a coherent critique of it. By my reading it says they seek a licensing mechanism which would control the terms under which I could use the ideas in a text, which, aside from lacking any legal basis, is practically impossible. I'm supposed to keep track of what knowledge in my head I've obtained from libre knowledge sources and remember to only re-distribute it as libre knowledge?

I see absolutely no reason to use this statement instead of the Definition of Free Cultural Works, which is, in comparison, mature and tightly reasoned.

Pushing Vicki

It is always nice to hear Vicki praising civil liberties and the teaching thereof, but I can't quite square that with the fact that she seems ok with her school searching her students without probable cause.

You can't have it both ways.

Monday, December 10, 2007

OLPC Critics Show Off Their Knowledge of the Developing World

Chris Dawson quotes him some John Dvorak:

The World Health Organization estimates that one-third of the world is well fed, one-third is underfed, and one-third is starving.

OK, think about that for a second. Two billion people are starving? That would be the equivalent of everyone on the continent of Africa and the country of India starving, right now. I think I would have heard about this. Wikipedia's better sourced "world hunger" page counts up less than 1 billion "undernourished." So Dawson and Dvorak are only off by a factor of four, or, put another way, 3 billion people. They're only off the number of underfed by half the population of the world.

As far as I'm concerned, passing along this data this pretty much disqualifies them from having any authority whatsoever to explain to me the needs of the developing world, because the world they imagine is not the one which exists.

Where, you may ask, did they get this data? From, a project of the Oracle Education Foundation.

So, kudos all around: ZDNet, PC Magazine, Oracle Education Foundation -- you guys rock!

One big chunk of reading I did this year that I haven't commented upon is Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below Zero, Sixty Days and Counting trilogy. I'm not entirely sure I can recommend you read all 1500 pages, but I have found its themes have stuck in my head, so I guess I've found it worth the investment. But anyhow, one interlude in the book I enjoyed was essentially a "read aloud" (you English teachers should know what I mean) tracking what's going on in the scientist/hero's head as he's reading a paper:

Pleasure is a brain mechanism. It's a product of natural selection, so it must help to make us more adaptive. Sexual attraction is an index of likely sexual pleasure.

Frank stopped his reading. Was this true?

The introduction to the book claimed the collected sociobiological papers in it studied female sexual attractiveness exclusively because there were more data about it. Yeah right. Also, female sexual attractiveness was easier to see and describe and quantify, as it had more to do with physical qualities than with abstract attributes such as status or prowess or sense of humor. Yeah, right! What about the fact that the authors of the articles were all male? Would Hrdy agree with any of these justifications? Or would she laugh outright?

Evolutionary psychology studies the adaptations made to solve the information-processing problems our ancestors faced over the last couple million years. The problems? Find food; select habitat; stay safe; choose a mate. Obviously the brain must solve diverse problems in different domains. No general-purpose brain mechanism to solve all problems, just as no general-purpose organ to solve all physiological problems. Food choice very different from mate choice, for instance.

Was this true? Was not consciousness itself precisely the general-purpose brain mechanism this guy claimed did not exist? Maybe it was like blood, circulating among the organs. Or the whole person as a gestalt decision maker. One decision after another.

Anyway, mate choice: or rather, males choosing females. Sexual attraction had something to do with it. (Was this true?) Potential mates vary in mate value. Mate value could be defined as how much the mate increases reproductive success of the male making the choice. (Was this true?) Reproductive success potential can be determined by a number of variables. Information about some of these variables was available in specific observable characteristics of female bodies. Men were therefore alwasy watching very closely. (This was true.) ...

This is pretty much how I read, and it is the way kids should be taught. It is a habit of mind. It is frickin' information literacy or whatever you want to call it.

Friday, December 07, 2007

No, That's EXACTLY How OLPC Envisioned It

Wayan Vota is, as usual, making a jackass of himself over on his OLPC News, using some decontextualized video of the OLPC pilot in Nepal Thailand to claim that OLPC is working, but it isn't working the way the Foundation envisioned it, it is working the way Wayan Vota envisioned it. You see, he was right all along.

So in the two videos, you see a kid controlling the TamTam synthesizer with the XO's large trackpad, making weird noises (not unlike me let loose with an electric guitar). In the second video, we see kids sitting on the floor in a semi-circle, playing a local tune.

Vota says:

Now exactly who thinks that either of these accomplishments came from a random TamTam activity without a music teacher to guide the children in learning musical scales, melody, tone, and temper?

This is wrong on two levels. First off, there is good reason to think at least some of these results came from self-directed activity with the laptop. Vota only links to Vota, but if you find the OLPC report from the Thailand pilot, you find this quote:

One girl quickly started playing the village's local tune within an hour of exploration.

That seems pretty definitive. Certainly the kid making weird noises with his trackpad looks like... a kid undertaking some self-directed play, but I'll let you decide.

But on a deeper level, Vota is insinuating that the OLPC model is that adults should be excluded from the use of the computers, that somehow any time teachers are helping and guiding the kids, that's a failure of the OLPC model. Of course it is not.

What OLPC has said is, in effect, "We think giving every child a laptop is so important, we will not let the lack of a qualified teacher, or literate parents, or a specifically trained teacher, or a reliable source of electricity at home, or anything stand in the way." And they say, in effect, "We cannot know what will work and what should be taught in every village. Local customization and innovation will arise." But the point was never to not include teachers, the community, the nation, etc.

These videos portray OLPC working exactly as it was envisioned. Vota's remarks are typical of one strain of OLPC criticism which I generally have avoided commenting upon. The basic form is "OLPC is doing it wrong, they should do 'X.'" Where "X" is either exactly what any of the principles on OLPC have designed OLPC to do and have implemented in their (decades of) previous experience, or "X" is a simplified version of that.

That's Not Exactly What I Meant...

Will writes:

But I also don’t fall all the way to the Tom Hoffman side of the fence that says citizenship is little more than what many (though not Tom) would call information literacy.

Will and I had a brief IM chat the other day, while he was on his way to a conference stage somewhere, and I guess I didn't make my points very well.

I don't think that having critical habits of mind are the entirety of citizenship. In fact, I'd say that preparing young people to be citizens -- citizenship -- is the primary function of a public school. So virtually everything you do, from government class to the pep rally, should ultimately be seen as teaching some component of citizenship, finding your place in the polis.

One feeling I keep returning to is that the fundamental error in discussions of "information literacy" "digital citizenship," etc., is a confusion of ends and means. Analyzing different points of view, interpretation, criticism, questioning and determining what is "true" (or if "truth" exists) -- these often come off not as the pinnacle of the educational process, which they are, but as a pre-requisite for writing a research paper.

Bridging Social Capital and Facebook


Social capital - benefits we reap from our relationships with others. Like other forms of capital it has real value. Bridging social capital is linked to weak ties - provides useful information or new perspectives for one another, but typically not emotional support. Bonding social capital reflects strong ties with family and close friends - support network.

Survey items about FB intensity. Facebook intensity is a good predictor of bridging social capital. Bridging social capital may be especially important in the period of emerging adulthood (18-25). They found that FB helps students with low esteem build bridging social capital more than students with high self esteem. (emphasis added)

Thursday, December 06, 2007

SchoolTool & SLA in 2008

The SchoolTool 2008 budget finished working its way through the complex SchoolTool bureaucracy this morning (that is, Mark replied to the email I sent him Monday night). So now I guess it's "official" that SchoolTool and the Science Leadership Academy will be working together in 2008. I put "official" in quotes because the complex SLA bureaucracy pretty much consisted of hanging out in Chris's office for an afternoon and buying Marcie lunch.

What this entails specifically is SchoolTool (i.e., Mark) paying Alan Elkner to act as "programmer in residence" at SLA from January to December, turning the increasingly close to ready SchoolTool into Chris's "Killer App." SLA is the perfect site for this, since Chris not only knows what he wants and wants the right things, but he can often pull up an example of something he wrote 10 years ago that did it (but isn't portable, not to mention unit tested, i18n aware, etc). The key was Alan Elkner, who was working on CanDo, moving from DC to Philly. We've found you really need a local developer, and once we had that, things clicked into place.

So, yay!

New Providence Grays Site Up

Once every 10 years the Grays like to update our website (literally). I launched the new and improved version last night. Two years ago I tried just moving everything over to a WordPress blog, but basically, to make that work to everyone's satisfaction I would have had to do some serious template hacking, which I didn't feel up to. And then WP just stopped working entirely last spring at the worst possible moment (I suspect it had something to do with the host environment), which helped convince me I didn't want to be an amateur sys admin for PHP web apps.

So I finally decided that the most practical thing would be to do a few pages laid out by hand in iWeb, along with a Blogger blog, and a free PBWiki account.

I'm pretty happy with how the iWeb parts came out. Trying to create an authentic 1884 website is obviously futile, but I was able to stick to appropriate fonts and the pennant motif has precedent in the period, although less geometrically rendered.

The main feature at this point is the photo galleries. We actually had almost 3000 photos of vintage baseball games and tournaments that people had taken of us over the years that we hadn't done anything with. I went through most of them over Thanksgiving in iPhoto (it held up quite well) and set up annual galleries and other features. I'm hoping to get a lot more content into the wiki over the coming months, but I'm glad to get the main site up successfully.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

I Guess You Could Call It Steampunk

This is the Grays' new umpire's mask. It is an 1890's Reach cage I got on eBay, with exellent replica leatherwork by Lincoln Shoe Repair on Reservoir Ave. The cage is in really good shape, but I wouldn't want to let a catcher hurl it to the ground over and over again. Plus, it is a good look for the umpire who wants to intimidate foul mouthed ball players.

It is Not Quite This Simple, But...

I think the basic thrust of this study (which I referred to last week):

In an award-winning study of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, Dr. Leana found that in the schools where teachers talked to each other the most about their jobs, and where the principals did the best job of staying in touch with the community, students had noticeably higher reading and math test scores.

Says a lot about the "ledge" angst explored in this dan/tmao/frizzle. I don't think a radical solution (to this particular issue at least) or, for the love of God, merit pay, is necessary. I'm particularly partial to looking at student work. Critical friends groups and lesson study are also good models.

Read Some Scholes, I Mean It

Adding to Gary's list of fairly heavy holiday reading, I'll take the opportunity to re-iterate my recommendation of Robert Scholes work on the discipline of English, most notably Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English and The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline. These books have been around for a while, but the still set the table for understanding what "reading" (and thus, "literacy," if you must) means today, regardless of medium, and what the practical implications in the classroom (at the high school and university level) are.

Digital Media Schadenfreude

Slashdot links to the first report of one of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning grants ending with a whimper. The central problem in this case seems to have been simply underestimating the difficulty of creating a contemporary mmorpg. It is a little like a grant proposal on studying gender roles in cinema that starts with shooting a feature film. It isn't very practical.

They are, after the fact, making their work publicly available.. Of course, it is dependent upon a proprietary engine and proprietary tool chain, and they simply say nothing about the license, so it is all pretty unappealing and amateur-hour.

I'm not sure how this could have been avoided, other than being realistic about the economics of gaming. The visionary strategy would have been for MacArthur to use their money to bootstrap the open source infrastructure that is needed to really go forward with games in education, basically requiring that all the projects they fund be built on 100% open source, and encouraging the projects to collaborate on the same environments -- so that instead of each grantee writing their own game, they'd write one codebase with mods for different research questions. Whether or not that would actually work, I don't know.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Citizenship is a Political Role

First off, my interpretation of the fundamental meaning of teaching "digital citizenship" is not teaching "citizenship in the digital world/nation," but "the extension of real world political citizenship into the digital realm," although I'm sure that distinction could be the topic of a very long discussion itself.

Citizenship is a political role, and if you look at it outside of political history, and, for Americans, American political history, you're going to come up with a bunch of nonsense.

Is literacy a fundamental part of American citizenship? No. Efforts to make it so are bound up with the history of black disenfranchisement and Jim Crow.

Etiquette is also a method of social control. It is not your responsibility as a citizen to be polite, particularly when polite is defined by those in power.

Safety? That's an open question at this point, in the US. Do you, as a citizen, have an obligation to fasten your seatbelt, not smoke, etc? Perhaps, but I'd argue that it is hardly central to the role.

Learning strategies? That's just out of scope.

Look, we've already got a great framework for building schools around the idea of citizenship, digital or otherwise. I'll quote a little Deborah Meier blogging:

The "five habits of mind" (see below) were a rough, unfinished attempt to get at what such "play" might look like at some Sizer-led schools. These "habits were an effort to describe the essential responses of adults in their vocation of citizenship (and, fortunately, useful for a lot else as well)...

Briefly, the five habits that defined "using one's mind well" in some of the Coalition "progressive" schools are summed up as follows. Being in the habit, whenever confronting something of interest and importance, of asking:

  1. How do we know what's true or not true? How credible is our evidence?
  2. Is there an alternate story? Perspective? How might this look from another viewpoint?
  3. Is there a connection between x and y? A pattern? Have I come across this before?
  4. What if... supposing that…? Could it have been otherwise if x not y had intervened?
  5. And finally, "who cares"? Does it matter? (And, perhaps, to whom?)

If you go over Alec Couros's list of things he's freaked out about, I think you'll find those questions to be quite useful. We don't have to start over with "digital citizenship," just apply the best thinking about educating citizens in general, and I think you'll find it applies quite well.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Can Anyone Explain to Me... letting coaches call timeouts improves the game of football in any way?

Experiencing the XO

OLPC sponsor Nortel coughed up a couple XO's for Jeff Elkner's programming students to start porting some of their Python projects and Jeff's programming curriculum.

You can follow student Matt Gallagher's progress on his new blog, Experiencing the XO, and I recommend you do so.

Hitting Overachievers

OK, this is the clearest explanation I can come up with for why Scott McLeod's analysis of gross state production statistics is just meaningless (see also the less clear explanation and subsequent discussion).

Gross State Product (GSP) measures the economic output of a state. It is an important number, but not very useful for comparisons between states, one obvious reason being that some states are vastly larger than others. So statistic that mitigates that problem is per-capita GSP, the GSP divided by the population of the state.

Now, let's look at baseball. One important number is hits. The problem with using this number to compare players is that all players don't have the same number of chances to get hits. So in 1869 Henry Chadwick started publishing a table of hits divided by at bats -- the batting average -- which allows you to compare the effectiveness of hitters who have a different number of at bats.

In Scott's off the cuff analysis, he's finding the difference between the rank of each state by the raw (not good for comparison) number and rank of the state by the average (better for comparison) number. In baseball terms, this would be like comparing a hitter's rank in hits to their rank in batting average. For example, for 2007 (hits, avg):

  • ISuzuki: -1 (#1 hits, #2 avg)
  • M Holiday: -2 (#2 hits, #4 avg)
  • M Ordonez: +2 (#3 hits, #1, avg)
  • H Ramirez: -3 (#4 hits, #7 avg)
  • A Rodriguez: +3 (#24 hits, #27 avg)
  • D Pedroia: +33 (#53 hits, #20 avg)
  • C Beltran: -18 (#74 hits, #92 avg)

This information (that is, the difference value) is useless. Yes, a high number is good, because it means you have a high batting average. But this additional calculation implies that a good batting average with few at bats (thus a lower hit rank) is better than one with more at bats. The entire point of calculating the batting average is to remove the number of at bats from the analysis. Adding it back in does not clarify the information, it creates noise, period.

The same point holds for comparing the difference between GSP rank and per capita GSP rank. A state with a small population will get a high ranking differential compared to a large state with the same per capita GSP. This is telling us nothing.

Defining Citizenship

I've probably said this before, but "literacy" + "safety " + "etiquette" + "learning strategies" + "networking" does not equal "citizenship." It may equal something, but "citizenship" isn't a good word for it.