Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It

I'm not ready to sign my name to all the the solutions outlined by Jonathan Zittrain in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, but his clear explanations and definitions of the problems we're facing today, in schools' IT as much as anywhere, are more than enough to recommend the book to anyone working in ed-tech.

One key concept Zittrain lays out is "generativity:"

By design, the university workstations of 1988 were generative: their users could write new code for them or install code written by others. This generative design lives on in today’s personal computers. Networked PCs are able to retrieve and install code from each other. We need merely click on an icon or link to install new code from afar, whether to watch a video newscast embedded within a Web page, update our word processing or spreadsheet software, or browse satellite images.

Generative systems are powerful and valuable, not only because they foster the production of useful things like Web browsers, auction sites, and free encyclopedias, but also because they enable extraordinary numbers of people to devise new ways to express themselves in speech, art, or code and to work with other people. These characteristics can make generative systems very successful even though—perhaps especially because—they lack central coordination and control. That success attracts new participants to the generative system.

If you're reading this blog, that probably describes the technological world you want to live in. If you're in ed-tech, it is particularly important that you not read that excerpt as a metaphor for something you're experiencing, but literally describing your situation, or as in these comments, the lack or loss of generativity in your IT systems. It is tempting to see issues of control in school IT as simply extensions of ongoing power struggles in the school writ large. And to be sure, the two overlap. But it is also "about the technology" and its design as well.

Zittrain clearly prefers a generative environment, but much of the books are about the its challenges:

The flexibility and power that make generative systems so attractive are, however, not without risks. Such systems are built on the notion that they are never fully complete, that they have many uses yet to be conceived of, and that the public can be trusted to invent good uses and share them. Multiplying breaches of that trust can threaten the very foundations of the system.

Whether through a sneaky vector like the one Morris used, or through the front door, when a trusting user elects to install something that looks interesting without fully understanding it, opportunities for accidents and mischief abound. A hobbyist computer that crashes might be a curiosity, but when a home or office PC with years’ worth of vital correspondence and papers is compromised, it can be a crisis. And when thousands or millions of individual, business, research, and government computers are subject to attack, we may find ourselves faced with a fundamentally new and harrowing scenario. As the unsustainable nature of the current state of affairs becomes more apparent, we are left with a dilemma that cannot be ignored. How do we preserve the extraordinary benefits of generativity, while addressing the growing vulnerabilities that are innate to it?

"How do we preserve the extraordinary benefits of generativity, while addressing the growing vulnerabilities that are innate to it?" That is the essential question for school IT. It should be central to our conversation. It focuses the basis of my concerns about advocacy for cell phone use in schools at the expense of general purpose computers, for example. Like rms, I'd make the case more strongly than Zittrain does that software freedom and the creations of open source developers are the best tool we've got to deal with the problem.

One other key idea is what Zittrain calls the "'procrastination principle'—sending a technology out first and adjusting it (or letting others adjust it) later." This is an idea that flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about technology deployments in schools, and it is something I've advocated for without having a catchy name for it. Sure, it makes sense to have specific goals and metrics around big technology purchases, you don't want to just throw computers at a problem, but, we also have to recognize that we need to foster the innovations that we don't anticipate beforeforehand. It sometimes feels like what people really want is for teachers to innovate with their use of technology before we buy it for them and their students. That's obviously not going to happen.

Anyhow, this book should be required reading for anyone from district CIO to school IT guy to technology integrator.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

One for Lauer


Sunday’s win put the Cubs in first place in the National League Central. Given that the White Sox are in first in the American League Central, I was wondering when the last time both Chicago teams simultaneously led their respective divisions.
– Tom B., Streator, Ill.

Tom — The Sox? Why do you care about them? You think Sox fans care about you? How often are the Cubs in first place at all? Next to never? We get to first and you bum my high out with a Sox question? Nice. As for our being number one at the same time as a team that’s managed to post only one more Series win than we have since 1908, and nowhere near our 16 pennants, I’d have to say not too often is the obvious answer. I think the Cubs in first at the same time as that 1-in-40 million giant asteroid hitting the earth is more likely. Don’t write mailbag with any more Sox questions. You’re banned from mailbag for a year.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Obligatory Future of Sugar Post

As everyone has been rending their garments over the future of Sugar and direction of OLPC, I might as well lay out my thoughts on the issue.

As I see it, Sugar is a set of tools for writing creative and collaborative activities for children. I think a lot of the confusion about, say, "porting" Sugar for Windows mis-places the reader's emphasis on Sugar as a window manager, rather than Sugar's potential advantages for the activities (née applications) which are built on it. Put another way, what's most important about Sugar is not what I see and do up to the point I launch an activity, it is how the activity works.

As an English teacher, here's what grabbed me about Sugar: it was designed to make it as easy to pass a copy of a student's work across the room electronically as it is to carry a piece of paper across the room. A close second in importance is automatic saves that don't use a hierarchical file system. Not using a hierarchy isn't such a big deal in high school, but if you've ever sat in the back of a room full of third graders while their teacher tries to make sure they've all saved their PowerPoints to the right folder in a networked drive, you'll understand the value (although the computer teachers tend to have internalized the idea that that teaching 9 year olds to use tools ill-suited to their needs is part of their job).

What is important is not just that the Sugar HIG requires that functionality, but that the Sugar libraries should make it easy for a developer to generate it. With mature Sugar, it should be possible to create a basic implementation of what I describe above by importing a Python-wrapped GTK rich text editing widget, doing import sugar and writing 100 lines of code or so to tie it all together.

In a sense, the whole OLPC project is designed to maximize the opportunity for kids to undertake collaborative Sugar activities. That's why you need a cheap laptop with great power consumption and mesh networking. In this context, porting Sugar to other platforms is simply furthering children's access to those activities.

As a teacher, if one kid fires up an OLPC running the full Sugar shell and clicks on the Write icon in the frame, and another kid double clicks on a icon on his desktop or selects Write from his Start menu, I don't care as long as they can easily collaborate. I don't really care if on Windows Write opens as a regular window, with a separate window for the neighborhood view. I can deal with that. I don't care if my Windows desktop running Write has any concept of mesh networking, because it is plugged into an ethernet jack anyhow. I just want my kids to be able to have writing circles with the least technical hurdles possible.

In a perfect world, Sugar would pre-date OLPC by about three years, and the relationship between hardware and software would be more apparent -- we've got this revolutionary learning software, now we just need to design a device to get it to as many kids as possible! Back in the real world, however, "Sugar" is the software written to run the OLPC, not vice versa, and it is all getting really confusing.

From where I sit, there has been a distinct lack of interest in Sugar from the "learning sciences" and other communities that are involved in research and development around software for kids. They have not seen Sugar for what it is, which is the one chance in this generation,and I'm talking human generations here, not technological ones, to create a common set of open source tools specifically for writing applications for kids. They don't seem to get that this is a singular opportunity to invest in the foundation of their discipline. I don't understand why, but one hope I hold out for Walter's software spin-off is that he can engage this community. However, I only see that happening if Sugar is not limited to OLPC or Linux. Also, it is certainly true that as long as Sugar is a subset of OLPC, OLPC doesn't have a strong motivation to dedicate resources to non-OLPC platforms. Sugar needs an home outside of OLPC that can look at the software in a broader context.

And if you think that "once in a generation" line is an exaggeration consider about the amount of attention around the world OLPC has gotten. Now think about the number of people actually working on Sugar (like, four). If OLPC can't make people care about solving this problem, nothing will, it simply won't be solved and everyone will just use Flash for the next 15 years.

Friday, April 25, 2008

I Want My Lovecraft

Andrew O'Hehir:

And I'm riding a major bummer if del Toro is shelving "3993" (the third of his Spanish history-fantasy trilogy, after "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The Devil's Backbone"), his adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" or his "Doctor Strange" blockbuster. All three of those projects are vastly better fits than the hairy-footed little guys and dragons.

Veal Stock

Carol Blymire (via Mark Bernstein):

There are those who believe veal stock is unnecessary. Those people are idiots.

I finally made some veal stock this winter, and it is amazing stuff. I used the rougher Les Halles technique than the more refined French Laundry process Carol outlines. I'm going to have to try that technique next time though.

It is a moral imperative to make something delicious out of every part of the poor little veal calf.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

SchoolTool Spring 2008 (Hardy) Release Notes

The Spring 2008 release of SchoolTool is the final snapshot or "alpha" release of SchoolTool prior to SchoolTool 1.0, scheduled for April 2009. The next major release will be SchoolTool 1.0 beta, in October 2008. As an alpha snapshot, the Spring 2008 release is incomplete, but provides an update on the current status of the project. Of particular note is the implementation of a complete build/package/distribution tool chain via which allows non-technical users of Ubuntu Linux to have a running student information and calendaring system with a few simple commands, and which automatically builds and pushes software updates via Ubuntu's package manager. This release includes: Calendar -- SchoolTool's calendaring features have been further refined. SchoolTool provides web-based and iCalendar compliant calendaring services, including a school-wide shared calendar and individual calendars for persons, groups and resources, such as the library or a computer lab. We provide unique integration for a wide range of school timetables, including rotating schedules. Resource Booking -- Integrated into our calendar are tools to find available shared resources within a school and manage reservations. Journal -- An integrated gradebook and attendance log of the style used by classroom teachers in Eastern Europe. The journal allows a teacher to assign each student a score or indicate an absence for each meeting of a section. The journal uses AJAX to quickly update individual scores without refreshing the entire page. The Journal will be the basis of SchoolTool's attendance system. Demographics -- By default, SchoolTool now tracks a small set of data about each student. We've worked on making this extensible and customizable, and future releases will have a more comprehensive default demographics schema. Navigation -- SchoolTool's navigation paradigm has been redesigned for much greater ease of use. Coming attractions: in addition to the above components, we are currently working with schools to develop and test an "American style" gradebook, a competency tracking system (CanDo), and an intervention tracking and narrative report system. These tools will appear in future "core" SchoolTool releases or as add-on components. We will also be creating many web and .pdf reports for all this data. Administrative features:
  • Installation and updating via Ubuntu package management.
  • Proper init scripts for controlling startup/shutdown.
  • Installation conforms to Debian practices; files are in standard locations.
  • Custom access control policy for SchoolTool allocates permissions based on group membership or relationships.
  • Access control partially customizable through the web.
  • Automatic generation of large-scale sample data for testing.
  • Data import through CSV files or custom Python scripts (LDAP and CAS single sign on support under development).
  • Server control and database maintenance via the web.
  • Uses Ubuntu package-managed Python 2.4, Zope 3.4 and Paste.
  • Full i18n and unicode support throughout. Existing translations are out of date, but will be updated in coming months via Rosetta on
  • SchoolTool is now a WSGI application, allowing the use of any WSGI-compliant web server, including Apache with mod_wsgi, and WSGI middleware.
Backward compatibility: Unfortunately, SchoolTool 2008 is NOT compatible with previous SchoolTool Calendar and SchoolBell releases. Given the long delay between releases, there were extensive internal changes not only to SchoolTool itself, but also to Zope 3, which rendered backward compatibility support quite expensive. Given our limited development resources and the small size of the legacy SchoolTool userbase, we reluctantly decided not to attempt to support backward compatibility. Forward compatibility: Given that this is an alpha release, which should not be trusted in production use, we may not support full forward compatibility to October's beta release. We have to focus on completing the basic feature set. From that point on, we will support forward compatibility into production versions of SchoolTool 1.0. Installation: For the forseeable future we are only supporting deployment on Ubuntu Linux (currently, Gutsy and Hardy). Since we aim to support installation by school personnel, we need to require a relatively controlled environment that we understand intimately. In 2008, it is usually easier to install Ubuntu on a server or virual machine than to manually install and maintain the host of libraries required by SchoolTool on a system where they aren't under package management. 1) Add SchoolTool's Launchpad PPA to your Software Sources. Either manually edit /etc/apt/sources.list or go to the System menu, select Software Sources and select the Third-Party Software tab. Add these lines: If you're running gutsy: deb gutsy main deb-src gutsy main If you're running hardy: deb hardy main deb-src hardy main 2) Update your software list. Either type "sudo apt-get update" in a Terminal or, if you've got the Synaptic package manager installed, go to System > Administration > Synaptic Package Manager, launch it, and click "Reload." 3) Install schooltool-2008 Either type "sudo apt-get install schooltool-2008" in a terminal (and answer "y" to the subsequent questions), or in Synaptic search for "schooltool-2008", select it for installation, and hit "Apply." If all goes well, many, many small Zope components will be installed and you'll have a SchoolTool server running on http://localhost:7080. The login is "manager" and the default password is "schooltool".


You need no greater evidence of the deep polarization of the Democratic party than this simple fact: not one single person who voted for Hillary in a primary also cast a primary vote for Obama. The overlap is literally zero. Clearly, with this kind of division, the Democratic Party is doomed in November.

apt-get install schooltool-2008

Today, SchoolTool has its first easily installable release in, well, a while. Announcing it and documenting its many new features will keep me occupied for a few days, but if you want to be the first on your block to try it, and you've got an Ubuntu box, just add a couple lines to your apt sources.list. Either manually edit /etc/apt/sources.list or go to System > Software Sources and select the Third-Party Software tab and add these lines that way.

If you're running gutsy:

deb gutsy main
deb-src gutsy main

If you're running hardy:

deb hardy main
deb-src hardy main

Then do sudo apt-get update and sudo apt-get install schooltool-2008, say "y" a couple times, and soon you'll have a SchoolTool server running on http://localhost:7080.

The really nice thing now is that using Launchpad's personal package archive feature, we've got an automated process to push out updates to schools less than two hours after we make an important fix.

At this point, SchoolTool is still "alpha." We've got a number of essential features to add before we go beta in October.

Much more to follow...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Reversing Agricultural Disinvestment

Andrew Leonard on the butter shortage in Japan:

The problem: You can pour milk down the drain in an instant, and kill off your herd of cows in a blink of eye. But you can't reverse the process so quickly. Building up a productive dairy herd takes years.

Unfortunately, I think it will also prove to have been easier to build exurban developments on farmland than to return the land to local agricultural production.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Decoupling OLPC

Walter Bender on leaving OLPC:

My personal interest is in helping build a community of developers, educators, and learners dedicated to advancing the quality of free and open source software for learning and the sharing of pedagogical approaches in this community by adopting the spirit and methodology of the open-source movement.

While my goal is to create a complementary effort to broaden the reach of the software and pedagogy--a free and open framework in support of "learning learning", I hope to continue working with the great team at OLPC as well as the various groups that have formed around the world in support of one-laptop-per-child deployments.

This statement leaves a lot of room for interpretation. If it means that Walter is going to build a community and or organization around continuing to develop Sugar, that's probably a good thing. Right now, I'd love to see either the hardware or software envisioned and created by OLPC survive. As long as they're both dependent on a tiny start-up-sized non-profit with no apparent plan for growth, each part is dependent on the success of the whole. Sugar is a long way from having enough momentum to survive if the OLPC Foundation would stop. If the software finds a second independent, complimentary home, and the hardware innovations live on in Pixel Qi, at least, we'll have a more robust ecosystem. Also, what kind of software and firmware Pixel Qi's products use, if they come to fruition, will be a big factor too.

Also, you should probably subscribe to this.

Future Problem Solving

I agree with Yglesias:

I really worry sometimes about things like The New York Times Magazine giving advice on how to reduce your carbon footprint. Not only are these kind of "personal virtue" efforts insufficient to tackling the challenge of global warming, I think talking about them too much is actually counterproductive.

Note to Bloggers and Billionares: This is Particularly True about Education


The general rule to remember is that if some discipline seems less developed than your own, it’s probably not because the researchers aren’t as smart as you are, it’s because the subject is harder.

Also, a bonus quote for the ed-tech bloggers:

How do the changes in the way we live between 1958 and 2008 compare with the changes between 1908 and 1958? I think the answer is obvious.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Reading Forums, Eve, etc...

I've managed to avoid reading web forums pretty much entirely. I just can't stand the interface. I never know where to look. I've finally accepted that I have to learn how to do it though to know what's going on with my alliance in Eve. Kind of annoying, but what are you going to do? There is lots of good info in there.

On the other hand, if you're looking for informative Eve blogging, you could read Jade Constantine for CSM, where the candidate lays out her platform to join the new player governance council. It is a good explanation of the appeal and current problems in the game, as if you care.

I'm trying not to explode my brain by thinking about spaceship combat and 19th century base ball at the same time, but this week I also discovered the skill training planner in the Eve-Mon utility. This is just geek crack. I might as well take up day trading.

So I know that sometime Sunday during my second double-header of the weekend, Tuttle SVC is going to finish completing his training for Gallente Frigate IV and nobody is going to be there to start him on a new skill, wasting 12 hours of training time! And delaying my purchase of a new Vexor! Agh!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

I Think We'll Be Ready For This In 2012

Reed Hundt:

Why not just part company with ABC and empanel a group of thoughtful bloggers like Josh Marshall, Duncan Black (who lives in Philly!), and any number of others; plop HC and BO in front of them; turn on the cameras and liveblogvideo the whole thing?

Note that there is a big difference between the above and the networks taking suggestions for questions from viewers via the net. I'm much more interested in the former than the latter.

OTOH, if we don't have a Democratic incumbent running unopposed in 2012, I may be living in Vilnius anyhow, and it is hard to imagine the Republicans doing it.


Red Hat:

Perhaps most visible over the past year was our development of the software for the One Laptop Per Child project. With the design and first implementation completed successfully, Red Hat handed the finished project over to the OLPC organization last year (emphasis added).

Finished? Finished?

I've always gotten the impression, although nobody has told me directly, that creating a new desktop environment from the ground up was Red Hat's idea. It would fit with their intermittent quixotic forays in to cutting edge desktop concepts (e.g., Mugshot) which don't go anywhere, justifying their continued retreat into the enterprise market.

Full disclosure: I work for Mark Shuttleworth, of Ubuntu Linux, thus, a competitor.

Take This Job and Shove It

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Two and a Half

Tomeu Vizoso on the Sugar mailing list:

Currently three people are payed for working on Sugar: Marco (half-time, payed by Red Hat), Simon and me. We are in the process of hiring one more full-time developer, ideally based in Cambridge.

Marco maintains sugar-base, sugar-toolkit, sugar, artwork, hulahop, and maybe something else. Simon maintains Browse. I maintain the Journal and, as OLPC hasn't hired nobody for this, the datastore.

Technical decisions are taken in committee, with the participation of members from the community and other OLPC people.

The roadmap and strategy is given by Kim, who normally asks for the participation of several members of OLPC.

Last time I was told, Walter and Kim would work together and decide how the tech team could better answer the needs from pilots and deployments at every release.

This is not a formula for successfully implementing what amounts to a ground up re-imagining of how you interact with your computer. Sugar is comparable in scope to the iPhone OS. How many people do you think are working on that? This is really pretty close to the size of the SchoolTool team, and I know how fast we're able to move on a project that shares a number of characteristics with Sugar development. Two, or three or four developers is not enough people, and adding more people probably wouldn't help.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Small Town Pennsylvania is Full of Bitter, Religious, Gun-Toting Xenophobic Rednecks

I grew up there; it is true; anyone living there knows it. However, the aforementioned rednecks aren't a large bloc in the Democratic primary, so the idea that Obama made some kind of serious gaffe in pointing that out seems kind of peculiar to me. The Democrats who live among the rednecks are more painfully aware of their failings (and, apparently enough of their charms to not pack up and move to Providence) than anyone else. On the other hand, there is a sort of "talking behind our backs" element to it that I suppose some people might find annoying.

None Dare Call It Freedom

My latest comment on the MacArthur Spotlight blog:

One has to wonder if somewhere in its institutional memory the MacArthur Foundation remembers that it gave a genius grant EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO to Richard Stallman for his pioneering work on the ethics of digital media, i.e., the creation of the free software movement. The way his theoretical and practical (that is, completely changing the way the software industry operates, forever) work has been written out of this discourse, of which the New Media Literacies paper is just one example, is chilling.

You've made him an unperson.

I've made some good calls and bad calls in the past ten years, but I might have been most wrong about believing that US philanthropy and academia would support free software in K-12 education. They just don't believe in it, don't want you to know about it, don't want you to understand it. More than anything else, the academics just don't want to have to write it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The "Financialization" of the American Economy

HTWW on Kevin Phillip's new book:

Phillips has warned for years about the inevitably malign consequences of what he calls the "financialization" of the American economy. Sometime in the mid-'90s, he writes, financial services overtook manufacturing as the biggest chunk of the U.S. gross domestic product. If you believe, as Phillips does, that all the furious activity on Wall Street masterminded by the likes of Citigroup and Goldman-Sachs and Merrill Lynch is just a bunch of speculation and froth that doesn't actually result in the creation of anything real, then there has never been a better time for triumphantly pointing out the disasters that ensue when the rest of the world also realizes that Wall Street is wearing no clothes.

This is the element I've not understood about the "Whole New World is Flat" futurism. It implies that finance will become less important in the future, which in turn implies a massive and painful realignment (or "crash") in our economy, but that isn't really explicitly stated. The creative class and research and development is only your best bet if bankers and stock brokers start making a lot less money, which I'd be happy to see, but that's really your lede: "Finance Collapses" not "Great Storytellers Will Always Have a Job."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Free Software Reading List

Doug Johnson asks Peter:

...if you could recommend any “seminal” documents on the free culture philosophy (or however you describe someone with your POV), I’d appreciate it.

My take on this is that, while some people find Richard Stallman off-putting in various ways, and I can understand why some people wouldn't think rms is a good person to, say, keynote an ed-tech conference, I think Stallman's writing (well, I guess some of this isn't 100% his work) on the Free Software Foundation's website is your best primary source on the philosophy of the free software movement.

In particular for Doug:

Those are all short.

Also, Mako's writing has influenced my thinking quite a bit:

Kathy Schrock's Odd Definition of Fun

Earlier this week, Best Buy started carrying the Asus eeePC with Windows XP Home installed. Mine arrived yesterday (no suprise there, eh?) and I have been having some fun with it... The Windows XP Home version, at the same $399 price point, comes with Microsoft Works 9 in addition to the default Windows operating system applications. Since the Windows OS is larger and uses up a substantial portion of the 4gb hard drive, I had to make some application decisions since I was planning to use this device as a traveling and presentation device. I deleted the Windows Live applications and Microsoft Works, and installed PowerPoint XP (I figured it was smaller than the current versions) and some really old, tiny versions of FTP software and HTML editing software which will do what I need them to do while on the road. I also installed a very old version of Paint Shop Pro which will give me the capability to do image editing if need be.
Bottom line: "the suite of apps on the Linux version would be nice to have for students."

Rethinking NCLB

This sounds pretty good to me. Monty Neill:

In addition to pushing for more funding, educators, civil rights groups, parents and communities must unite on a few key principles for structuring the version of ESEA that will replace NCLB. To further that discussion, here are some brief proposals.

First, a new law would establish that the primary purpose of federal funding is to facilitate school improvement. This would replace test-based accountability as the primary approach, though accountability for improvement processes and ultimately for results would be part of the structure.

Second, the law would recognize that the heart of improvement is school-based collaboration among educators to build their capacity to serve all children well. Thus, a significant share of Title I funds, particularly for schoolwide programs, would be allocated to pay for time for educators to work together on curriculum, instruction, assessment, evaluating student needs and how to meet them, and related core activities. That is, federal funds would be used to help schools become communities of learners, both adults and students. A portion of those funds could be used by the local educators to employ outside expertise.

Third, Title I funding would be used to strengthen the capacity of districts and states to assist schools, which should be their main function. These higher administrative levels often have imposed requirements, monitored compliance, and engaged in forms of centralized control over teaching and learning that are counterproductive. Even if they try to provide useful support, they tend not to have the resources to do very much. This must change. Much of this assistance might be to encourage more successful schools helping less successful neighbors serving similar populations, as Designs for Change has proposed for Chicago.

Fourth, the federal government would fund a series of ancillary activities all aimed at supporting this core approach. That can include developing new curricula or assessments, creating banks of useful performance assessment tasks, and developing opportunity-to-learn indexes that reveal the degree of equity in key components of learning (faculty, libraries, buildings, technology) and in the communities that schools serve.

Fifth, the federal government would support more extensive research. For example, it could fund a new version of NAEP that would rely entirely on extended performance tasks to indicate whether students had learned and are able to apply key concepts in core subjects.

Lastly, a new law would restructure accountability. Title I schools should be expected to develop, implement, evaluate, and revise improvement plans. Inability to implement such plans, or inability to make reasonable progress (given inputs and assistance) as indicated by multiple forms of evidence of student learning, should lead to stronger interventions.

Red Hat

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Teach for 30 Years...

...and then they let you go to the beach.

XO Woe

Specifying that Ivan Krstić is in no way a disinterested observer at this point, here's a new quote from him:

Right before leaving OLPC, I was tasked with re-architecting the tremendous mess that is the OLPC datastore, Sugar’s persistent data storage subsystem for applications. The system was written by an external contractor without OLPC oversight (after I interviewed him and explicitly warned against his hiring!), and is generally a stunning show of incompetence both in software design and implementation. It eventually shut down and rendered inoperable — even after reboot — hundreds of XO laptops in Uruguay a day before the children were supposed to leave for their summer vacation. Left unfixed, it would have soft-bricked all seven thousand deployed machines.

This is painfully reminiscent of Chandler's datastore problems, and I think you have to give Jim Fulton some props for making the ZODB, the "original" Python object store, work.

So I decided to check out Ubuntu Mobile, aka Intel's Moblin, on my XO, following these instructions. This stuff is using Hildon, which is the core of Nokia's Maemo environment for their web tablets. Unfortunately, Ubuntu Mobile still has a long way to go to hit Maemo's level of maturity, but at least they've got a head start by sharing open source components. I don't know why Sugar didn't take that route.

My perceptions of Ubuntu Mobile are somewhat skewed by the fact that at the same time I was trying it out, my XO's ctrl and alt keys started sticking, which is a common problem. So, I don't know, I may have to look into returning it. I'd be happy to just buy a new keyboard.


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Google App Engine and You

I think Dave Winer nails the first gloss on Google App Engine (via Farhad):

3. Now, what Google announced is really exciting! I'm not kidding. It's even better than I hoped. Yes, it's only Python, but IBM's PC-DOS was only BASIC and Pascal when it first came out, and it didn't matter. Yeah, I preferred C, but I coded in Pascal because that's what you had to do to get an app running. What you're going to see here that you've never seen before is shrinkwrap net apps that scale that can be deployed by civillians. That's a mouthful, but that's what's coming. Why? Because here is a standardized platform that can be stamped out in the billions of units. Maybe Google can't do it, but the perception is that they can. Who is willing to stand up and say Google hasn't nailed scaling? What PCs did in the 80s, Google is doing now. PCs took the black magic out of owning a computer. Now Google is taking the black magic out of operating a scalable web app. Python is the new BASIC.  

Say you want to run a weblog at your school now. You've got a few possible strategies:

  • Use a hosted service which give you little control and limited integration, but is hopefully reliable and requires no expertise on your part.
  • Install the software on your servers, which are of course professionally administered. This is probably the best-case scenario, but it can be difficult for teachers in particular to push innovation up the chain of command in this way, even when the excess technical capacity exists.
  • Set up or lease your own server to host the application. This gives you maximum freedom to install whatever software you want, and tune the entire environment to suit your needs, but it is relatively expensive and inefficient -- you're taking on a whole additional set of administrative headaches (a whole server) to run a web app.
  • Get a cheap web-host account and run software on that. This will work, but the degree of difficulty is deceptive. The ability to use this kind of environment is the one massive advantage of PHP. If you take this route, it is easy to get your apps running without really knowing what you're doing, but it takes vigilance to keep them up to date and secure, especially over the longer haul.

The niche that Google may be opening up here for schools is a more rubust alternative to blindly Fantastico-ing WordPress into your GoDaddy account. In addition, if you've lifted the burden of spam filtering off your taxpayers by switching the district to GMail, your blogs get authentication for free using Google Accounts. But, you're not running Blogger, you're running open source software that hopefully has been customized to fit the needs of teachers and students.

Beyond that, and perhaps more importantly, Google App Engine, and similar services, provide a way out of the scaling and maintenance trap that plagues smallish free hosting projects like Class Blogmeister. Starting these things up is easy, but scaling and maintaining them gets harder and harder and more and more expensive. Handing them off to someone else isn't easy right now either, because you've got a whole stack of crap which wasn't designed to be moved. Someday, whoever started the thing is going to decide it isn't worth the expense and bother anymore, and mothball it. Or, they will die. Either way, it is inevitable.

Google App Engine should change this equation. One imagines there will be some technical scaling issues at various points, but you won't run into the "everything slows to a crawl until I have the time and money to lease a second server and learn how to do load balancing, which I will screw up at least once" scenario. Mainly, it will just steadily cost more for the host, but it should be a reasonably predictable curve. Beyond that, one hopes that it will be easier to pass on such an application to a new maintainer.

In case you're wondering, this particular platform wouldn't work for an SIS, because it won't do batch processing of long-running jobs, like generating report cards.

I'm not really worried about being locked into Google's service here. As Ivan Krstić writes we will see multiple implementations of Google's API very quickly, so moving to your own servers should be feasible.

And this is a huge win for Python, Django and WSGI, all good things. It is good for innovation, in general, because it further lowers the cost of startups, and the cost of failed startups in particular.

The Brutal Math of Open Source SIS's

There has been some chat lately on the sf-uk-mais list by a new round of people interested in putting together an open source student information system (as we call them in the US). I'm reminded of the brutal way time rolls up on this kind of project.

Let's say that it takes one person six months to write and deploy a simple SIS for their school. That's optimistic, but doable, and if they are on-site, they can correct bugs as they go for the first couple years. Anyhow, if you started that project today, you'd be ready to deploy in October 2008.

Now, if you want this to be an open source product that other people can install and deploy themselves, you've got what Frederick Brooks calls a programming product. If you haven't taken this step before, you might guess that it would add 20-30% to your development time. Say, you'd have this part done by the end of the year. No. Brooks rule of thumb is 3x development for a programming product over an internal program, and my experience has borne that out. So then you're looking at having your 1.0 (or 1.0 beta) ready by October 2009. Which is good timing, because that's when people start looking for SIS's for next year. So if you start now, you can have something deployed in schools for August 2010.

This is, of course, assuming that you've just got a very small team and not much money. Also, the 2010 date is for schools you aren't actively (i.e., paid) supporting. You can do it quicker with lots of hand-holding. But getting it to the point where people can download, install and configure an SIS themselves, will take a loooong time, both in developer time and just general product maturity.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Mike Wallace Interview

I've enjoyed this weekend a few episodes of The Mike Wallace Interview, thanks to Boing Boing. These are television interviews from 1957 and 58. Kind of similar to Charlie Rose, actually. In particular, there is a series of interviews on "the problems of survival and freedom in America," featuring some of the leading public intellectuals of the period, including Aldus Huxley, Erich Fromm and Mortimer Adler.

I feel a strong connection to this period, just far enough away from World War II to work out a coherent response to it, and to be confronted the "organization man" phenomenon that followed. I suppose it is the influence of my mother; in particular these shows would have closely mapped to what she taught in "Problems of Democracy" class in her first teaching assignment at Juniata Valley High School.

It is striking how much broader the scope of political conversation and possibilities was in the 1950's compared to the past thirty years. We've been living in the era of TINA - There Is No Alternative for a long time.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

On Twitter

Tim Bray:

Since the process of conversation is close to the essence of what it means to be a human, even small changes in the enabling machinery can have pretty big impacts. I mean, Twitter isn’t that different from IRC or blogging; but even that slight delta seems to have found a significant niche in the ecosystem.

It isn't Just Sugar

John Gruber's take on the history which has lead to no 64-bit Photoshop on Mac OS X (meaning that the next version of Photoshop on Windows will be significantly faster) is also useful context for understanding what's going on with Sugar. That is, OLPC isn't the first or only organization to overpromise and underdeliver on their API's, leaving application developers in a bind. Complex software projects running behind is the norm. The question is what the real time constraints on OLPC are.

Mesh on Edubuntu

Chris Dawson:

Another particularly cool feature is the inclusion (on the Classmate 2) of full 802.11s (mesh networking). While this does not yet work on Windows XP, the Linux models support it now, enabling immediate collaboration among users, with or without an access point.

Really? I'll need some evidence of that.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Chilling Effects, Take 872

Basically, a circuit court judge has ruled that private emails sent by teachers from school workstations are "open records." The story isn't detailed enough to tell exactly what the bounds of this ruling would be -- does this count for personal email accounts or just work accounts? What if they had laptops and sent the emails from home? etc...

More reasons this stuff is harder than it looks. It isn't just that teachers are a bunch of obstinate luddites and IT directors are insufferable pricks.

Ed-Tech Advocates Wrong-Footed Again

O'Reilly FYI:

...Dan (Saffer) and Adaptive Path’s Todd Wilkens, one of the four-member author team for “Subject to Change,” think it’s high time high-techie types switch off their Blackberries, Sidekicks, iPhones, and all other buzzing and vibrating communication devices during biz meetings. Even more radical, they hope to persuade us to go topless–meaning close our laptops (laptop-less)–and make eye contact instead.

More precisely, here's a list!

  1. No rules without reasons. Don’t just ban laptops and handhelds with no explanation. Make sure to point out how important it is that the group focus on the task at hand. It’s very hard to argue with that.
  2. Be the bad guy. Someone has to be the one to stand up to the social pressure. It can be an uncomfortable prospect but it is necessary. Luckily, you’ll find that many people secretly want to have the excuse to disconnect and focus. They just don’t want to take the risk of making people upset. Don’t be afraid to make people a little uncomfortable in the name of productivity.
  3. Consequences. You don’t need a slap on the wrist or a time out to make this work. Social pressure is powerful. No one wants to be called out in front of a group. Make sure they know you are not afraid to do this if you see them breaking the rule. (Note: I learned this trick teaching sociology to undergrads.)
  4. For short sessions: point out that there are few things that you will get via email that can’t wait until the end of an hour meeting. If you need to deal with a phone call or urgent message, get up and leave the room.
  5. For long sessions: include regular 15-20 minute breaks and let people know these are there explicitly to give them time to check in on things.
  6. Out of hand, out of mind. Have everyone put their phone/mobile device in a box or on a counter in the corner of the room. We all know that it is nearly impossible to ignore a vibrating device in your pocket. Just admit it and account for it.
  7. State the costs. If you are a consultant, remind them that they are paying you $XXX an hour to watch them check their email. I’ve found that to be extremely effective.

For the record, I'm in favor of every kid and teacher having a networked laptop, with the understanding that they don't have the right or responsibility to use it all the time, ok?

Total: 4316 tests, 0 failures, 0 errors in 10 minutes 38.729 seconds.

How complete is your student information system's test suite?

Tasty Quotes on "21st Century Careers"

Titus digs up some tasty quotes from this discussion over at (ug) Megan McArdle's. Variously relevant to a number of threads that run through this blog. Each paragraph is a distinct excerpt, if that's not clear from the formatting:

I have a PhD from MIT in Chemistry, over half of my friends in a variety of disciplines left science for patent law, consulting, or finance because of the money. In my experience a rough average for my friends who stayed in their field was ~90-100K after 5-6 years of grad school. Patent Law (150K) and consulting (130K) start considerably higher. A career in medicine will generally have far better lifetime earnings, better geographic flexibility, and better job security as you age.
It's possible to get a half-decent-paying job out of college after spending 4 years of high school staring at the wall and 4 years of college drinking bong water and shotgunning six packs. Who would go through the relative hell of a science major when there are plenty of jobs for the reasonably intelligent yet unskilled?
A-grade engineers are unfortunately similar to Welsh longbowmen: devastatingly potent compared to their peers, but you have to start their training at age 10 or so. Simply upping the salaries of A-grade engineers won't magically create more of them. We know this, as we tried exactly that experiment in the boom.
In software development, the usual results of C-grade engineers is work that is of low quality, poorly tested, doesn't meet specifications, and is so poorly estimated as to take many times longer than expected. Sometimes it's so bad that it actually makes the code around it worse, through mere proximity (no, that's not an exaggeration). It takes very little of that in a typical software project to drive total costs above expected value. Because of that, it is not uncommon for C-grade software developers never to have actually shipped a system, because their projects were all shut down as business failures long before they were ready for production, or (much worse) yanked shortly after shipping to production. Hence, negative business value, as their salaries, benefits, and hiring costs have to be written off, as well as a good portion of the time of their co-workers to fix their messes.
The topic of "why H1Bs" has been done to death numerous times in forums beyond counting. I haven't yet seen a better explanation as that of ROI: becoming an A-type engineer as well as a hard scientist is a lifetime commitment. I like the Welsh longbowman analogy too; throw in Shao-Lin monks here as well. And what do you get out of this hard work, on average? A comfortable salary and engaging work, if you're lucky; engineers come out better on the salary front and scientists get more interesting work. Compare that with a career in sales or business management. Or, if you're not outgoing enough, in law. I'm sure the averages there look better and also there's a much likelier shot at real wealth. So why would someone -- who grew in this country, has a reasonably wide social network, speaks English natively -- invest more to get less?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

"Fair use is shaped, in part, by the practice of the professional communities that employ it."

Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use:

Fair use is shaped, in part, by the practice of the professional communities that employ it

This is a key concept which has been completely lost on educators. If you've got an inherently interpretive area of law where you're balancing the rights of different groups of actors, like copyright holders trying to extract the maximum rent from their property and educators seeking to maintain and expand the scope of their own fair use, then you expect those sides to at least assert their positions. In this case, however, we've got the copyright holders aggressively pushing their case in every possible direction and... librarians and educators also pushing the copyright holders' case. It is a kind of false consciousness, and I'm very happy to see cracks finally forming in the dam.

Now, we just need some people to help ed tech people do the same thing for CIPA and the Federal Rules for Civil Procedure.

I've Got Mine


This is one of the odder artifacts the government has sent me.

Looking Into the Echo Chamber

I have no idea what this is referring to, but everyone seems wound up about it:

Now, in early 2008, things have changed. Whilst it’s great that there’s more educators than ever blogging, tweeting, etc. the focus has shifted. Those that were formerly in the classroom and relating the changing world and tools available to everyday educational experience are no longer in those positions; educators who have no desire to transform education are blogging. The edublogosphere has changed from being about ‘the conversation’ to being part of ‘the network’. It all smacks a little too much of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and, to be honest, viral marketing of Web 2.0 apps.

Of course, I have found that there is nothing like a vague assertion ("modernism" anyone?) with no examples that gives everyone space for their own free-form interpretation to get lots of conversation going on the blogs.

On a somewhat related note, when's the victory party for "21st Century Skills?" The terminology war has turned into a rout! Every educational plan in the US from the department level to the US Department of Education will include this phrase for the next decade. Bloggers, take some pride in your contribution to this great achievement. You have changed things already!