Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Converging Problems and Solutions

Kellan has a nice addition to the Twitter (and social software in general) scaling discussion. Interestingly, he's giving a talk at OSCON entitled "Beyond REST? Building Data Services with XMPP PubSub."

XMPP PubSub is (part of) what makes collaboration work in Sugar as well, and that's got its own scaling issues on a school server. It isn't the "how do we handle hundreds of thousands of users with a rack of blades (or whatever)" problem, but the "how do we maintain very chatty collaboration between hundreds of kids on an inexpensive school server that's also doing 10 other things at the same time" problem. It seems to me that OLPC probably needs a heavily optimized server to do what they need, and finding someone to do that won't be easy. It is one reason I think Sugar needs a couple years and not a few months of love.

XMPP Pubsub is also the best route to a modern, open source SIF implementation (not that I expect to ever see one).

Regardless... more attention to XMPP PubSub will be a good thing for everyone.

Like the Sixties Never Happened


First of all, there was way too much going on in too short a time - the pace of life, at least for Americans plugged into the news and culture, was much faster than it is today. In the space of one month in 1967, say, one would have to absorb news of mulitple riots, an assassination or firebombing, a steaming pile of lies about Vietnam, protests of those lies, and the release of a half dozen or more songs many of which are as beloved now as they were then. And the next month brought more of the same.

This is something I've never understood about baby-boomer led educational technology rhetoric. It doesn't seem consistent with their own life experience or my understanding of recent history. For example, I did a paper for a linguistics class riffing on Tom Frank's Conquest of Cool, looking at the changes in ads in women's magazines during, I think, the summer of 1968. Almost instantly the entire presentation of advertisement changed from a static style that dated from the late 19th century to the generally hip, inventive design style that still dominates. And that's just one semi-random example.

Technology makes things churn faster, but I don't think the culture has changed as quickly or profoundly as it did in the late 60's.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mary Lou Jepsen @ Brown

Mary Lou Jepsen gave a talk at Brown on Saturday at their Commencement Forum (Robert Redford was speaking in a tent just outside). Sorry I didn't give you the heads up, I found out at the last minute myself. She was in town to pick up the Horace Mann Medal from the university. No earth shattering news was announced, but here are some points from my notes:

  • She stared by citing some statistics about the correlation between telecom (cell phone) and computer penetration and GDP growth in the developing world. This is far from the "constructionism" argument, but I think a good one.
  • Her overall argument that in the future we'll buy a screen that comes with a cpu rather than vice versa is probably correct.
  • I've been vaguely "anti-touch" (that is touch-screen) for low-cost computing, just because it hasn't been cost effective. If Mary Lou can make a touch screen as cheap as the regular XO display, I'll quickly become "pro-touch." She thinks she can, and she's earned some faith in her display wizardry.
  • I did get annoyed when, in answer to a question from the audience she said OLPC became an "unwitting flag-bearer for open source."
  • OLPC was basically Jepsen and NN for a long time.
  • As I've been saying for a while, the biggest question with OLPC is "Can they keep the ball rolling?" I left thinking "Yes," but Jepsen must have a pretty good reality distortion field herself to have gotten the XO into production in the first place, so I don't know if I should rely on my feelings. But if they can keep making and distributing some computers for, say, two more years, I think there is a good chance the remaining pieces (e.g., software) can fall into place.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Don't Mourn Utah Phillips, Organize!

Sheila Lennon passes on the sad news that "folksinger, storyteller, railroad tramp" Utah Phillips has died.

I've had a lot of Utah on my iPod the past few years, and when I'm reading people mooning over technology and "participatory culture" and the like, Utah is in my ear talking about the power of the long memory of the struggles of working folk in America. Keeps things in perspective and more than a touch contrarian.

RIP Utah.

Young Women In Peril

For some reason my copy of Young Women in Peril Weekly is showing up with a cover that says The New York Times Magazine.

Seriously though, the only difference between The NYT Mag and Laci Peterson-era CNN is that CNN exploited individual attractive white young women in peril, and NYT exploits them as a group. Over-exposed, over-trained, over-ambitious, what's up next week?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Is Barack Obama Muslim?

Is Barack Obama Muslim?


You Need To Understand This, At Least A Little


Consider the messaging problem:

Nothing is as easy as it looks. When Robert Scoble writes a simple “I’m hanging out with…” message, Twitter has about two choices of how they can dispatch that message:

  1. PUSH the message to the queue’s of each of his 6,864 followers, or
  2. Wait for the 6,864 followers to log in, then PULL the message.

The trouble with #2 is that people like Robert also follow 6,800 people. And it’s unacceptable for him to login and then have to wait for the system to open records on 6,800 people (across multiple db shards), then sort the records by date and finally render the data. Users would be hating on the HUGE latency.

So, the twitter model is almost certainly #1. Robert’s message is copied (or pre-fetched) to 6,864 users, so when those users open their page/client, Scoble’s message is right there, waiting for them. The users are loving the speed, but Twitter is hating on the writes. All of the writes.

How many writes?

A 6000X multiplication factor:

Do you see a scaling problem with this scenario?

Scoblewrites something–boom–6,800 writes are kicked off. 1 for each follower.

Michael Arrington replies–boom–another 6,600 writes.

Jason Calacanis jumps in –boom–another 6,500 writes.

Beyond the 19,900 writes, there’s a lot of additional overhead too. You have to hit a DB to figure out who the 19,900 followers are. Read, read, read. Then possibly hit another DB to find out which shard they live on. Read, read, read. Then you make a connection and write to that DB host, and on success, go back and mark the update as successful. Depending on the details of their messaging system, all the overhead of lookup and accounting could be an even bigger task than the 19,900 reads + 19,900 writes. Do you even want to think about the replication issues (multiply by 2 or 3)? Watch out for locking, too.

And here’s the kicker: that giant processing & delivery effort–possibly a combined 100K disk IOs– was caused by 3 users, each just sending one, tiny, 140 char message. How innocent it all seemed.

Now, are there any questions why twitter goes down when there’s any kind of event?

See, this is the difference between "small pieces loosely joined," e.g., lots of blogs on various platforms connected by RSS feeds, and a centralized service that does everything, for free no less. Keeping the centralized system going gets harder and harder, until they finally sell out to megacorp, who try to make some money off the thing, and it starts to suck and you leave if you can.

City of Men

Jennifer and I just finished watching City of Men on DVD (from Netflix). It is basically The Wire meets an After School Special, set in one of the favelas of Rio. That is, it captures the social dynamics of the city and was shot on location with excellent acting and cinematography, but it focuses on kids, is mostly self-contained, and has an overall pro-social message that resolves itself within a half hour. The show manages to consistently maintain the integrity of the story of the kids lives, while not as relentless or baroque as The Wire, every victory is balanced with some cost or setback. Well done, and some of the episodes would be appropriate for middle school students, although some have boobies, gangland executions and, iirc, swearing in subtitles.

Anyhow, highly recommended for adults and older kids.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Educator Driven Development

In general, I agree with Bryan Berry's take on "educator-driven development," in fact, it is what SchoolTool's process has evolved to and is working well for us. Mark Ahlness has a wonderful post today illustrating another example of this process, using XO's in his classroom in collaboration with developers from the University of Washington.

It is important to remember that open source development of learning software doesn't and shouldn't just come from grassroots hackers. It has to be a multifaceted approach, lowering development barriers so that educators can contribute code themselves, engaging local government in funding development, working closely with existing projects which promote open source in education, evangelizing the platform to technology educators and researchers accustomed to proprietary platforms, making it easy for existing software that isn't education specific to be used in schools, and more. OLPC has considerable room for improvement in all those areas.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008



NodeBox is a Mac OS X application that lets you create 2D visuals (static, animated or interactive) using Python programming code and export them as a PDF or a QuickTime movie. NodeBox is free and well-documented.


Alternate Hypothesis

If education as an industry has the lowest intensity of IT use, might that not indicate that the IT companies working in education have done a terrible job? The list of six, seven, and eight figure disasters in educational infrastructure projects is not short. Whose fault is that?

We need better schools, sure, but better IT too.

Let's Write Another New UI!

I'm baffled on so many levels by Negroponte's new prototype. Who is going to write the UI for this thing?

Not a World I'd Want to Live In


...a world in which Clinton became the nominee would be a world in which there was no conceivable political upside to opposing any war ever.

Monday, May 19, 2008

275 Gallons of Oil

I got the news last week that our old oil furnace is shot. That's a pain, but at least we can take a serious look at a high efficiency gas system. One big headache though is that the oil company topped off our tank around the time their technician discovered the problem with our old furnace, so I've got 275 gallons of oil sitting in my basement. That's a pretty large sunk cost. If I can't get rid of it and make some money back in the process, as a rational economic actor, it would make a big difference in my total cost of ownership calculations. Anyhow, anyone have any experience in getting this much oil out of your house? One problem is that you can't just let Earl start siphoning it into Jerry Cans without risking him turning the basement into a Superfund site.

This Has a Certain Poetic Symmetry to It

Wayan Vota resigns as editor of OLPC News.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Blog it Out

For some reason, in my RSS reader Chris's post on the hot new video from Pearson and COSN (can't you see the guys in the boardroom, "We go viral, we get on the net and blog it out!") didn't include his commentary that followed the video, so it looked like a brief endorsement from him. I headed over trying to think of a slightly more polite comment than, "This is a bunch of horseshit," but, happily, once there, I discovered that Chris had already written the long, polite form, which you should read in its entirety.

I can't believe how easily people seem swept away by such dinky little web videos. Digital literacy indeed.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Even Moreso for IT in K-12 Education


The truth is that there is no IT "profession." Most of what IT managers know about IT they learn from vendors, consultants, and folks like Gartner. Because they feel isolated, and because the IT vendor/consultant/media system encourages them to worry about such things, IT managers tend to feel they must have their important decisions validated and Gartner is the most popular place to find validation. [...]

Much of this comes down to the decided lack of professionalism in IT, which is after all a very new job classification. There is a huge difference, for example, between someone with an engineering degree and someone in IT who calls himself an engineer. Real engineers are often valued employees. Their opinions matter and they have real responsibilities. Good companies know engineers are important to their business and treat them accordingly. But IT workers are a commodity and are treated as such. Many IT workers are clueless about the technologies they are working with. They aspire to be project managers and are often not very good at that either.

Into this knowledge vacuum come the vendors, who want to sell stuff, and the consultants like Gartner, Forrester, IDC, and the Yankee Group, who need IT managers to feel uncertain about every decision except the decision to buy something, anything. Then look at the number of "research reports" that are commissioned by vendors. Uh-oh.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

One Reason I Declined My Invitation to the Ed in '08 Blogger Summit

Laura Varlas:

Huffington Post contributor and author Dan Brown related his experience as a first-year teacher in a high-needs N.Y. elementary school and basically asked how we can disentangle high-stakes testing from accountability. Paraphrasing his remarks,

The testing environment is terrifying, and my students' scores did not reflect their ability. High-stakes testing and accountability have been conflated. Is there research and development looking at alternatives beyond the high-stakes test? 

Ed Trust's Amy Wilkins responded bluntly, "Why were you in that high-needs classroom?"--Implying that inexperienced first-year teachers shouldn't be working with challenging student populations.

By my way of thinking, the only proper response to a question like that is a torrent of profanity.

Only with Thin Clients

Yeah, thin clients have drawbacks, and they probably aren't going to take over the world, but this is a pretty sweet anecdote from Tom Wolfe on the K12OSN list:

This winter I was away, as I often am in the winter, for a couple of weeks and an electrical contractor working on an addition accidentally piped 220 VAC into three classrooms. Literally there were flames and smoke coming out of 20 P3 IBM Netvistas. Fortunately I had a stack of "spares" in our storage room, and the teachers, remembering my exhortations of "hey if it ever craps out just throw it in a pile and grab new one" took me at my word, and when I returned a week later it was like nothing had happened... Except that I had 20 destroyed workstations lying in a pile. All the labs were operational. Wow. How much did this cost the school? Well... how much was the labour cost of these teachers grabbing a new one and plugging it in? If they had been shiny new Optiplexes running Vista, the cost would have been massive, to say nothing of the down time until I replaced them.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Refining Sugar

Ivan and I seem to be on the same page regarding the future of Sugar:

The core mistake of the present Sugar approach is that it couples phenomenally powerful ideas about learning — that it should be shared, collaborative, peer to peer, and open — with the notion that these ideas must come presented in an entirely new graphical paradigm. We reject this coupling as untenable.

Choosing to reinvent the desktop UI paradigm means we are spending our extremely overconstrained resources fighting graphical interfaces, not developing better tools for learning. … It is most important to recognize that the graphical paradigm changes are inessential both to our core mission and to the Sugar core ideas.

On the other hand, I think the first half of his post obscures more than it reveals. I'll be happy if I never have to listen to programmers point/counterpoint on "constructionism" again. It is difficult to calculate how much Seymour Papert's incapacitation crippled the heart of OLPC's mission.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Reconsidering the Lego Robotics...

Nat Torkington:

I think there's a lesson here: doing something in hardware isn't automatically cool, particularly for kids. It's harder to make things happen, so we veteran geeks get a thrill from it. We think that because it's physical, real, and a Robot, kids will automatically be excited. But for kids who are learning, and who don't appreciate the significance of the challenge, it's just hard and unrewarding.

My impression is that robotics programs in primary and secondary schools is that many have been successes, but limited successes. I mean, the relative expansion of Lego robotics in schools has coincided with a virtual collapse of computer science US K-12 schools in general.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


Let's say I'm a mathematics professional developer in an urban school district. A new superintendent comes in with a new math program which goes against everything I believe to be true and good in mathematics education. Given that I've got seven years until I get my pension and this super will surely be gone in three or less, I'm hardly going to resign in righteous protest, I just have to ride it out.

I'm a professional, so while I'm on the clock, I do what I'm told, and train teachers to use the crappy new curriculum just like I did the last one. When I go home, I work on my new professional blog, Mathematical Malpractice, explaining in great precision why this curriculum does a disservice to our kids.

Whether or not I have any legal protection from reprimand at work for doing this (I suspect the answer is, "sort of, but not really"), I at least have moral justification for expressing my concerns as a citizen outside of work time. But if I put a link to my blog in the footer of every email I send out, including, for example, those setting up PD for the math curriculum in question, is this any different than starting my presentation by saying "Today I'm going to introduce you to the new math curriculum, which is inferior to our current curriculum, but the superitendent says you have to use it." Can I be justifiably reprimanded for that?

I would argue that the DOE should provide professionals with blogs, but it should be clear that they are just as accountable for its contents as they are for any other email, memo, lesson, lecture or test they create. But blurring the line between personal and work expression really helps nobody. It is just a disaster waiting to happen.

Institutional Illiteracy

This kind of thing strikes me as being embarrassingly naive. How many large businesses would want their employees including links to personal websites in the footer of their official communications? Would a law firm? A hospital? A car dealership? The Department of Motor Vehicle? No. Why would you expect anyone who isn't a web startup to allow it?

If you work for an organization, you need to maintain a clear line between your work work and personal work, to avoid this kind of hair pulling.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Credit Where Credit is Due

I just randomly noticed that CPMP-Tools, software designed to be used in conjunction with the Core Plus math curriculum, has been released under the GNU GPL.

I'm no math expert, but I like Core Plus. In fact, it was a brouhaha over the proposed adoption of Core Plus at Coventry (CT) High School that led me to discover the Coalition of Essential Schools ten years ago, go to Brown, and in other words start me down the path to where I am today.

Someday, when the NSF gives out money for a project like Core Plus, it will be a stipulation that all the materials be released under a free content license, and then people like Dan Meyer will be able to take their lessons, which are probably about 80% of what he wants, add a little dy/dan sex appeal, redistribute his own version, customized for his local standards, yadda yadda yadda.

Someday. We're getting closer though. Inch by inch.

Also, we need a bridge between these US academic developers and Linux distributors. Open source in education advocates wonder where all the good software is, and when it is written and freely licensed, it is often kept secret.

Whither Sugar?

Greg DeKoenigsberg on the OLPC Devel list:

If we're just (badly) reinventing a new WM (window manager), what's the point?

This is, at the moment, the crucial question.

Liberating the Schoolhouse

I don't have time for a long post on this, but let me say that this TruthDig article, "Liberating the Schoolhouse," by Wellford Wilms, resonates very, very closely with both my firsthand experience of urban high school reform and my understanding of the theory and philosophy of education and management. Highly recommended.

This is the reality of 21st century school reform within a district structure.

Logins for 25 Kids

Chris and I were discussing single sign-on support as a priority for SchoolTool development, in particular, explaining to my developer that it is more crucial than he imagined. I just remembered a concrete example of why.

Back when I was teaching 7th grade English, I set up a Slashcode server in my classroom. Believe it or not, this seemed like the best classroom blogging option circa 2000. Anyhow, I quickly discovered that a whole 47 minute period was eaten up just getting the accounts set up for all the kids in a class, with, I think, 8 workstations in the room. Obviously, better classroom management would make that quicker, but probably not as much as you'd think. If kids are doing this over and over again for different systems in every class, it is a non-trivial waste of time, particularly when they forget their passwords, give the password to their friends who abuse them, etc.

Good IT integration increases learning time.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Annotated Bibliography

Doug Johnson:

Here is my modest proposal... ADD the requirement that each citation include a sentence that argues for the authority of the source.

I don't know why this hasn't caught on already.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

This is Exactly Right


The problem of excess teachers is the interaction between managements' reasonable desire to control staff deployment and unions' understandable desire to protect senior members through collective bargaining agreements. It's complicated tangle, but arose from managements' decision in the 1970's to give unions more control over hours and working conditions, when the ability to offer higher wages was constrained by stagflation. It was a short-sighted decision.

The responsibility for individual competence lies with each teacher; the responsibility for incompetence at scale rests with school management. Administrators - from principals to superintendents - have failed to put up the resources required to pursue staff termination on performance grounds. (I suspect they have also failed to do an adequate job of screening candidates up front, or providing support to "improvable" staff.) The firing process itself isn't incredibly complicated, but it does take time and effort to put together a credible record that will support termination. In this regard, school systems are no different from any large organization; line managers are not incentivized to spend the time required to coach, counsel out or end the careers of poor employees - or punished for failing to do so, and so they don't.

Understanding those 70's decisions is important, particularly to understanding urban systems. I know teachers who were around then, and they did take those rights in lieu of real money.

Thursday, May 01, 2008



One of my new lines when print journalism types start fretting about the blogosphere is to remind people that the emerging media landscape can't possibly be worse than 24 hour cable news, which often seems to be going out of its way to be uninformative.


Goldberg has misled The New Yorker's readers for years. Now he's misleading Slate's readers. And, when you think about it, why shouldn't he? After all, he rode his misrepresentations all the way to a great job at The Atlantic. All the incentives have aligned for him. Why stop now? It's not like 4,000 Americans have died or anything.

Open Screen Project

I'm not sure what all this means:

To support this mission, and as part of Adobe’s ongoing commitment to enable Web innovation, Adobe will continue to open access to Adobe Flash technology accelerating the deployment of content and rich Internet applications (RIAs). This work will include:

- Removing restrictions on use of the SWF and FLV/F4V specifications - Publishing the device porting layer APIs for Adobe Flash Player - Publishing the Adobe Flash® Cast™ protocol and the AMF protocol for robust data services - Removing licensing fees - making next major releases of Adobe Flash Player and Adobe AIR for devices free [...]

“Consumers always want more from their devices,” said Doug Fisher, Intel Vice President and General Manager, System Software Division. “Flash Player already reaches the vast majority of Internet-connected computers, and our deep technical collaboration with Adobe will optimize Flash technology and Adobe AIR across a broad range of devices, including a version of Adobe AIR for the Mobile and Internet Linux project, Intel’s broad and rich hardware and software ecosystem combined with Adobe’s Open Screen Project will help us deliver a full Internet experience, whether it be in your pocket, on your lap, at the office or in your living room.”

I mean, I suppose it is bad news if you're holding out hope that Flash will just go away. Otherwise, it is probably moderately positive news.

Note that the issues around Flash video are very complicated. In particular, as I understand it, and I don't understand it well, patents on the video codecs used are a big stumbling block, and it isn't clear to me one way or another how that comes into play here.