Classes at North Star are wrapping up. This year, I taught a class on Arduino at North Star and the last class meeting was this morning. I had mixed feelings about the class: some things worked really well and other were more problematic.
In the fall, there was another adult helping coordinate the class. Having an additional adult helped a lot. But he didn't return after the winter break. Even worse, I took on some additional committee work at the University and had to miss a few of classes, so we were meeting only every other week -- and once, due to holidays, we missed two weeks in a row.
In the beginning, the kids were mainly just playing with the hardware and software. Making lights blink and motors turn was fun enough at first and easy enough to not really pose a significant challenge. Probably the most successful exercise was making a simulation of a 6-sided die with LEDs. Wiring up all the LEDs and addressing them programmatically took several weeks and offered about the right level of organizational difficulty.
After the winter break, I proposed a new project that I thought could integrate all the different things we'd looked at: we would make a robot of the North Star Director Ken Danford: a KenBot. The kids were wildly enthusiastic and loved imagining all the things they could make the KenBot do. But getting this enthusiasm directed toward accomplishing the necessary steps was difficult. Although we had identified necessary tasks for building the robot: getting a picture of Ken and getting some voice clips of Ken recorded for the robot's voice, weeks went by with no progress. We developed some model programs for various robot functions, but with no progress possible outside of class -- and very little progress in class -- the project stalled.
We originally set the goal of having it ready for the ICT Summit in late March, but the deadline came and went without progress. Finally, in the last month at the very end, we got the photo and the voice clips and set about to build the robot. Over the last three weeks, the robot took shape. Today, I came in, worked with the class for an hour, and then put in another hour-and-a-half to assemble the various pieces of code and wires we'd put together separately with different computers and different arduinos into a finished robot that uses a single arduino. It also includes the WIRELESS PROTO SHIELD, SD CARD SLOT I got from newark/element14.
The robot has eyes that light up, three recorded sound-samples of Ken's voice that it says, and a light resistor that causes the robot to sleep when it's dark. It has a hand that is supposed to wave, but something about the program or the device doesn't quite work and I didn't feel like taking the time to figure out what was wrong. It took me a long time to get the sound clip code debugged. I got one sound clip working quite quickly, but I couldn't figure out what was wrong with the others. I checked them, I rebuilt them, still nothing: only one worked. Then I realized something. The one that worked had a shorter file name. I realized that card must have a file-system where the actual name of the file was a 8.3 name, regardless of what it showed you. I made copies on another device, renamed the files to have shorter names, and then copied them back onto the device and it started to work. Whew!
There were some features we built, but ended up not being able to use. We were going to use the light resistor to have the robot do a "high five", but when the student got Ken to record the phrases, he would only record three and didn't do high-five. We were going to have the legs connected loosely with a motor to make them "dance". We figured out how to get the motor to spin, but I wasn't able to get the students to engage with the challenge of how the transmission between the motor and legs might be physically constructed. I pointed out various models for building a machine to convert rotary motion into linear motion (like locomotives and stuff), but the problem simply wasn't very interesting to them.
There were also some ideas that we never got to. I liked the idea of having the robot monitor ambient noise and respond to loud noise with an admonition to quiet down. But, again, the problem just didn't seem that interesting to the students.
The students liked random and undirected play, but when there was a real challenge, or something that required more planning than random trial-and-error, I couldn't get them really interested in trying to figure it out. And it was hopeless trying to get them to work on anything outside of class. That kind of surprised me. I imagined that the students would have lots of ideas they'd want to pursue independently. Originally, I expected most of the students would want to build their own arduino project.
Daniel was phlegmatic about his experience in the class. He had learned some things, but he didn't feel confident in what he'd learned. He could see that I could google something and find a code example and wiring diagram to start from, but felt that he couldn't read the writing diagram well enough to find it useful. He felt like he still needed my help to do anything.
I learned a vast amount by running the class. I hadn't touched an arduino before I purchased one for the class. About the only thing I knew about wiring was the need to make a complete circuit. And I never got beyond Daniel's sense of comfort with the wiring diagrams -- every time I tried to use one, I had to go through a process of trial and error to get it working. And plenty of things work in spite of my not understanding why they work: I tried to hook up a motor without looking at the directions carefully and found that the load it placed on the arduino at startup caused the arduino to reboot. Reading more carefully, I saw that you needed a "flyback diode" to make it work. After putting the diode in place, it worked fine. But ask me to explain how the flyback diode actually works (even after reading the wikipedia page), and I'm quickly reduced to hand-waving.
I can remember having outsized aspirations as a teenager, of building a hovercraft or submarine, and spending many hours fantasizing and making plans. And I'm sure I learned a lot in the "research" I did for those projects. If any of these students really wanted to make an interactive object, I'm sure they could -- with only a little help. It's making that step between wishing and wanting -- between fantasy and reality -- that I guess you need to grow a bit to accomplish.
Visiting Walden Pond got me to read Walking by Henry David Thoreau. Walking is clearly a great thing -- Philip has been talking about long walks and Michael Moore has started a movement of getting people to walk with him. I've spent a lot of time walking (and standing) over the past few days, attending the various graduation ceremonies. And my feet hurt, which suggests I should be doing more walking. Hence my interest in reading Walking.
Or reread. I seem to remember that I read it once before, long ago. I read it much differently as an older man than I once did. It resonated with me much more in my youth.
Thoreau only lived to age 44. He published Walking in the year before he died, bedridden with tuberculosis. I can easily imagine him, traveling over in his mind's eye the places he could no longer visit in the flesh. And we never got the benefit of hearing what Thoreau might have said had he lived to 50 or 60… Or 90. I also read Civil Disobedience differently, listening to Thoreau sneer at the little people around him. Thoreau would have made a good libertarian, nose in the air, supremely confident that he knows better than the proles and plebes all around him.
Thoreau took great pleasure in the wild, unspoiled places of the Earth -- of course, no-one knew, at the time, that the unspoiled places he was writing about were simply a palimpsest overwritten by the disease and genocide that depopulated North America in the centuries that followed its "discovery" by European settlers.
This isn't to say that I don't love wild places too. And appreciate knowing the different plant communities in an oak or maple forest. And sensing the deep time in the rocks and soils upon which the verdant covering is but tissue thin.
But I can also appreciate the wildness of not mowing my lawn for a week. There's all kinds of stuff in there! Blue violets and white violets. Ox Eye Daisies and Buttercups. Sensitive Fern and Creeping Charlie. And the pernicious Garlic Mustard trying to sneak in.
I visited the home of a couple of colleagues that live off the beaten path in Wendell. I drove for more than half an hour up into the wild places and, eventually, turned off the road onto a narrow sandy lane, across a tiny creek, and up to their house -- a glorious contemporary sited above a large curve of an impoundment bordered by boulders and pine trees and wetlands. It was breath-taking.
I spent my later childhood years in a home not unlike that -- a colonial, rather than a contemporary, and in a wet forest behind a farm field, rather than above a spectacular vista. But the long drive and the long lane back into the woods brought it inevitably to mind. And, as I left after the sunset, the swarms of black flies (although for us it was mosquitoes and deer flies).
I chose to live in a small house near where I work and where my boys went to school. Where I can take the bus and ride my bike. And I am content. Such wildness as I need, I can find in abundance close to home. But I should get out and walk more.
Yesterday, I attended commencement and then a dinner for outstanding undergraduates. Each dean of each college and school called their candidates to stand and be recognized and each group would respond with a roar -- except for the School of Education. Only a few thin voices went up. For a moment, I was surprised and then I thought, "Duh. Who would want to go into education in the current climate?"
This morning, I see that similar things are happening in Britain. But this is the story of every teacher I've known over the past 10 years.
The neoliberals have waged a unparalleled war against the teaching profession for a generation. Rarely has an entire profession been so vilified. They have conducted a witch-hunt for "bad teachers" as being at the root of all of society's ills. They claim they want to improve education, but when you look at what they've done, it's clear that their agenda all along has been to destroy it.
In its place, they would create for-profit schools where students are imprisoned in a behaviorist wet-dream, supervised by robots while they fill out bubble sheets. The idea that education should be empowering -- or even involve contact with empowered, well-educated people -- seems absent from their plans.
In the past on these days in May, I would be attending the MTA Annual Meeting in Boston. But it's been depressing, year after year, to watch the gains for educators get clawed back by relentless attacks from the Right. Last year, it was Stand for Children assaulting teacher evaluations. Before that, it was a ballot initiative to eliminate the state income tax. This year, it's retirement health care: they're gutting the plan, making us work longer, pay more, and get less.
In a generation, people will look back and wonder why we did this. The worst part is knowing that it's not really mean spirited -- it's just business. Partly, it's that public education just doesn't matter for the wealthy -- even if they didn't actively believe that disempowering other people's children was a good thing. Mainly, it's just dollars-and-cents. They want to finish the job of destroying organized labor and they want to extract rents from yet another sector of the economy.
Tonight at the Faculty Senate, the first step in developing a strategic plan was adopted. For months, the campus has been involved in a developing a comprehensive review setting the agenda for a strategic plan that was required by the accrediting agency. A committee of 30 with another 100 faculty, students, and administrators developed the document, Innovation and Impact: Renewing the Promise of the Public Research University, which was subsequently presented in a bunch of public forums and the language expanded and revised.
Several people spoke up at the faculty senate, some to praise the document and others to point at various problems and shortcomings. I had prepared some remarks in advance.
I would like to thank the members of the Joint Task Force on Strategic Oversight, and the many allied committees that have worked long and hard to create the current document. I applaud your efforts. This work is difficult, often thankless, and too often conducted in an atmosphere of cynicism.
I've heard many people say, "Ho-hum. I've seen these plans come and go." I exhort my colleagues to actually read this document and to recognize that this -- this -- is not just more of the same.
The document is not perfect, but it is not just a list of numerical targets. It is not just following the crowd. It is not just aspirational language. It is not just a laundry list of administrative goals. It is something qualitatively different.
This document represents genuine soul searching on the part of many thoughtful people throughout the institution. This document aims to raise the consciousness of all of the members of the University community -- that we find the ground shifting under our feet.
We need to look carefully at where we are and where we want to go. We need to come to know what we are and decide what we intend to be. This is not a task of the administration -- it is the task of all of us.
But this is only the first step. Next, we need to take this agenda and begin building the concrete steps to carry us forward toward our goals. As chancellor Lombardi was fond of saying, "time is the enemy". I urge my colleagues to not merely adopt this report, but to go back and read it carefully, and begin helping to figure out how every one of us can start making these things happen.
We're going to need all of us. This is your invitation.
Very last spoke Tom Lindeman, who reminded us, quite rightly, that the document places too much emphasis on teaching and not enough on learning. In many places in the document, you could probably replace the word "teaching" with "learning" and the document would be fundamentally stronger. He also reminded us that the University does not merely serve the interests of the public. The University must also stand apart and be an independent voice that critiques the public. Academic Freedom, which is not mentioned in the document, must remain a key mission of the academy -- even if, or especially when, the public does not necessarily see that in its interests.
The report was adopted unanimously by the Faculty Senate. Now we move on to step two.
Someone recently linked to this interview with Richard Stallman. I'm not sure I'd ever seen him speak before. I thought the interview made him look pretty good, although the fact that he was being interviewed by such a moronic boob probably cut some both ways. Like when the boob says, "If God wanted people to fly, he'd have given them wings" and Stallman replies, "Well, there's no god, so it's not really a meaningful question."
The central topic was Free Software, of course. Stallman tries to explain what Free Software is and why it's important, but it's totally outside the boob's frame of reference. Stallman tries to explain that it used to be that when you bought something, you controlled it. But that when you buy a piece of software, if the software isn't free, the software limits and controls you. The boob just doesn't get it. It was like watching Stallman try to argue with a prisoner in a prison yard:
Prisoner: "But I can walk around anywhere I want in here, can't I?"
Stallman: "But there's a whole world out beyond those walls!"
Prisoner: "Walls? What walls?"
To be fair, Stallman did not say "ARRRGH!" But I did watching him patiently try to explain to this boob, over and over again, in small words, trying to get him to grasp the point. As I said recently, things are only getting worse in this respect. I've got great respect for Stallman that he keeps pushing against the flow.
An Apple representative came to UMass today to talk about Mac Deployment and Management Strategies for Higher Education. Apple is essentially moving away from the model that computers will be provided or provisioned or managed by a business. You can still do some of those things, but that's not the right way to do it, as far as Apple is concerned.
The guy they sent, of course, isn't talking about what the strategy actually is -- its just about the helpful tools they provide (and don't provide) and what they enable you to do. In the end, it's about capturing the relationship between Apple and the individual -- and cutting out the institution.
Some of it makes sense and I can support. It's partly about individual empowerment. I've always advocated for making computers as useful to users as I know how. I don't want to hide things or block things or remove things to limit what people can do, like some sysadmins do. My model has always been to give the end user as much control as possible, but to make it easy to set everything back for the next user, so they get the best experience possible too. Apple has adopted the model where everyone has their own computer and, although an institution might want to set policies, they should really leave all the interaction to just between Apple and the individual.
They provide some workarounds and make sounds like you can still do it some other way, but it's clear where Apple is going. You can have any kool-aid you want, as long as its Apple™ Flavored.
Apple quit trying to compete directly in the enterprise a while ago. They don't try to sell server-class hardware, or pretend that their server tools are suitable for the enterprise. They were still popular for computer labs, however, because they, at least, tolerated open management approaches. That time is now drawing to a close.
My new Macbook Air also makes another point clear: they no longer see the operating system as a generic commodity. They're building tweaked and customized versions of the OS for each hardware class. There really isn't such a thing as "MacOS X". The underlying architecture is the same, but they have unique drivers and configuration for each model. And they don't really welcome anyone interacting with those at any level, other than buying something through the Apple Store.
They want to convert everyone to be consumers of technology. There may be developers, but only in the sense that they work around the edges of what Apple has staked out for themselves as controlling the relationship with the end user. Caveat Emptor.
Several years ago, after several unsuccessful attempts, my union persuaded the University to implement a computer replacement policy. Most other colleges and universities, had implemented computer replacement policies years previously. Our faculty mostly had to hustle to find the resources to replace computers, either with a grant or professional development funds or just with their own money. The fund, matched by the University administration, provides sufficient money so that each faculty member can get a low-end laptop or desktop computer (or tablet) roughly every three years. On Friday, I picked up the first laptop purchased for me through this program.
I decided to get a Macbook Air. I decided to name her "inga" (which is a kind of bad Esperanto joke). The laptop was helpfully set up by OIT (although I think I would have preferred to just get it as provided by Apple new). It has McAfee installed, which appears to conflict with the trackpad driver, causing the trackpad to freeze up for 10-15 seconds every few minutes. They also seem to assume that people want to use a computer with a general account like "user" instead of having their own account -- that's really inconvenient for logging into online services, where it always defaults to having the incorrect username set. They also helpfully installed Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite but, since the computer only has a 60GB SSD, those (plus the operating system) fill up more than half the drive.
I'm temped to dump the MacOS and just install Ubuntu. I think the MacOS reached its apogee with Snow Leopard and has been declining ever since. Unfortunately, you can't buy new hardware with Snow Leopard. There are no features that Apple has introduced since then that I want to use. Installing Ubuntu looks a bit daunting, however, and I thought before going to the effort, I'd try Mountain Lion to see if it had anything I wanted. It doesn't -- it's worse than Snow Leopard in every respect, as far as I can tell.
Maybe Mountain Lion would be OK if I aspired only to be a consumer of software: to just install commercial software from the Apple Store. But I don't want to install *anything* from the Apple Store. Everytime I see the Apple Store it makes me angry. It makes me livid that Apple will only update the OS and software though the Apple Store.
Luckily, my old laptop is still functional so I can keep using that until I get the new laptop set up and functional. I had suspected that Mountain Lion was a further decline from Lion and it was good to have the chance to finally confirm that was true. Ubuntu here I come.
A couple of weeks ago, I got a WIRELESS PROTO SHIELD, SD CARD SLOT from newark/element14 with the goal of enabling us to play longer sound clips for our secret project. On Monday, I met with the students and we worked on this for a bit.
At first, I tried to keep using the PCM Library we had been experimenting with, but found that it required reading the entire sound clip into memory before playing it, which wouldn't solve our problem. I googled around a bit and found this blog post, which explains how to do it with the TMRpcm library.
In just a few minutes, I had recorded some sound clips and gotten them to play. The only trick was finding the right way to export the clip from Audacity: Set the project rate to 16000, record, export as Other Uncompressed Format, and set "Options" to Header: WAV (Microsoft) and Encoding: Unsigned 8 bit PCM. They are much, much clearer than our previous attempts using PCM and appear to be able to be of arbitrary length. The only downside is that the arduino can't do anything else while it's playing the sound clip, but that shouldn't be fatal to this purpose.
In a recent Globe editorial they advocate for the University to implement two cost-savings measures:
UMass needs to show state lawmakers that it can produce the graduates the state needs while holding down costs. Before giving the state universities the support they seek, both Patrick and the Legislature need to make sure that they have achieved sufficient savings through two major reforms: Limiting state aid to students who extend their undergraduate experience well beyond the normal four-year graduation path; and eliminating redundancies and duplications in the sprawling higher-ed bureaucracy.
The Globe authors fail to consider alternate explanations in this overly simplistic presentation of the reality of public higher education.
The Globe presents an outdated portrait of lackadaisical students who can't be bothered to complete their degree in four years. They suggest that "a part-time job" might be part of the reason why. Do they know how many hours students typically work these days? Many students have two part-time jobs. Many students are working nearly full-time outside of class to make ends meet. As the State has systematically defunded public higher education, students have had to pick up those costs. One of they ways they've responded is to work more. Perhaps one reason many students take longer to finish is that they're too busy to take more than the minimum number of classes.
It's easy to wave one's hand and talk about redundancies and duplications, but there really aren't that many left. In the previous, repeated and bitter rounds of budget cutting, anything that was duplicative, or wasn't needed, was already cut. Through MHEC, practically all of Massachusetts higher education (check out the list of members) already coordinates purchasing and negotiates group rates with suppliers.
Overly simplistic solutions don't solve anything. Massachusetts higher education is complicated in large part because different institutions serve different functions for different populations. We wouldn't imagine we could teach Chemistry classes with Biology faculty. Trying to build a single administrative structure to support all of the diverse institutions in Massachusetts public education is not likely to save anything -- just result in poorer, less-effective administration. In the long run, that's going to cost more.
The biggest drivers in the funding crisis in the public sector are declining wages for the middle class and increasing health-care costs. Improving education addresses both.
The ICT Summit happened. Since I became Interim Director of the IT Program, it's been a the largest thing on the horizon. It was great to finally reach it and now have it safely behind me.
I thought we had a pretty good lineup: Interesting exhibitors, good panels, free lunch, and a poster session. But attendance was spotty -- especially early. It proved harder than I had expected both to recruit speakers and to attract an audience. And to get people to actually show up.
One mistake I made was trying to do too much stuff myself. I ended up giving the opening remarks, coordinating the first panel, and running the IT Challenge. I really should have found other people to do all that stuff -- or maybe just done one.
The IT Challenge turned out great. In the end, I was only able to recruit three teams of students to compete. I wasn't sure how difficult to make the puzzles: In the end, I backed off of the difficulty a bit (giving some additional clues), but I needn't have worried. They struggled a bit with the first puzzle but, after that, one team just sailed through the rest and, by 10:45, had completed the challenge. They came in at lunch time to receive their prizes and the accolades of the attendees.
I was pleased with my opening remarks and the first panel. Looking back at the issues that were raised over the course of the day, I think they were exactly on target.
It was a fascinating day. There were wonderful parallels and contrasts between the face-to-face education panel and the MOOC panel, just as I'd hoped. The prototyping/design panel was captivating. The open science panel was totally orthogonal in one plane and the alumni from ILM orthogonal in another another. Unfortunately, there were very few people who managed to attend all of the panels. A lot of people seemed to show up for one panel and then disappear. What was really interesting was the triangulation that came from hearing all of the blind men feeling the elephant speak. You get a less complete picture, when you only listen to one.
I think an important issue is that IT is becoming invisible as it transforms the world we live in. Everyone uses IT now without thinking of it as "IT". People are familiar with email and the web and smart phones. And familiarity breeds contempt: people are coming to think that they already know as much about IT as they need to know.
But the revolution is only beginning. And higher ed should be look to newspapers and journalism for a sense of the transformation that technology is likely to bring.
Welcome everyone to the 2013 ICT Summit. I'm Steven Brewer, Interim Director of the IT Program filling in for Patricia Galvis Assmus (who is on Sabatical, but who has joined us for the day to introduce our Featured Speakers: UMass Alumni who went on to become computer animators at Industrial Light and Magic. Welcome!).
We have other guests that have come down from Vermont and up from Philadelphia. And from the other Five Colleges -- thank you all very much for joining us today.
I would also like to thank our sponsors. The IT Program and ICT Summit are supported by the UMass Amherst Provost's Office. Left-Click Advanced is sponsoring our morning coffee -- thanks Kelly! HitPoint Studios is sponsoring our reception this afternoon. The Center for Public Policy and Administration and the College of Humanities and Fine Arts helped with travel arrangements. Five Colleges Incorporated helped out. And newark/element14 contributed to the IT Challenge Contest. Thank you all very much for making the Summit possible!
And I must thank Dennis Spencer who has done yeoman's work organizing the conference. If you got an email, or saw a flyer, or have a name-badge, or drink some coffee or, well, you get the idea -- Thank Dennis!
And while I'm thanking people, I would like to thank the brave students of Team Mercury, Team Marco and Team GopherIT who are struggling through the IT Challenge contest. The students are trying to use elite IT skills to solve (what I hope) are challenging puzzles. Everyone who competes gets a fruit pie, but the winners get a Raspberry Pi -- and are invited to join the guests for dinner tonight. A quick check of the leaderboard shows that they haven't solved the first puzzle yet. We'll continue to check back in throughout the day.
Why are we here? The IT program holds the ICT Summit each year to give us an opportunity reflect on how Information and Communication Technologies are transforming academic disciplines, education, and our everyday lives.
When I first began working with IT in Education, I remember being laughed out of the room when I suggested that, IN THE FUTURE, every student would have their own computer. People thought that was just crazy!
How many computers do you own? Maybe you have a desktop computer. And a laptop. And a tablet? And a smart phone? But computers are also in things you don't expect: your car has a computer. Your microwave probably has one. Maybe even your refrigerator. We are now literally surrounded by computers. They are everywhere — and often you don't even realize it.
How many people have an SD card? Have you seen the MicroSD Card? I have a 32GB MicroSD card in my tablet. You can get 256gb ones now -- and they can go up, in theory, to 2 terabytes.
But MicroSD cards don't just contain memory -- they also have an ARM processor: a tiny computer -- a 32-bit ARM7TDMI with 128k of code. It maps out bad blocks, does wear-leveling, and performs other magic for the card.
Computers are everywhere. And the change is still only beginning.
The IT transformation is affecting all of us. It is particularly useful to bring together people from different disciplines because it gives you another point of view to reflect on your own experience. William Gibson says, "The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed." By looking at other disciplines you can gain insight into changes that haven't come to your own discipline yet -- and learn how to avoid pitfalls.
I've had the students at North Star working on a "secret project": we're making an animatronic puppet of, well, someone (that's the secret part). We've identified a range of key functions and have got most of them coded up. We've made the eyes light up with multicolor LEDs, a hand detect "high-fives" with a light resistor, and another hand wave using a servo motor. We've wanted to make the legs dance using a relay-controlled motor, but haven't gotten that far yet. But the piece de resistance would be to make it talk. Unfortunately, sound sample files are huge, and so we've only been able to have a few seconds of audio.
I received an email from Newark/element14's arduino group offering me some free hardware to review. I chose the DATA LOGGING SHIELD BOARD but they were out of stock, so I selected WIRELESS PROTO SHIELD, SD CARD SLOT. The main thing I was looking for was an SD card slot so I can store sound samples and read them in to increase the length of sound samples we can play. But I'm also interested in having the device be able to do data logging. North Star is on break this week and next week, I have Rules Committee, so I'm not sure when I be able to work with the students on the device, but expect more reports in the future.
One key application we're hoping for is for the puppet to detect ambient noise (using a moving average) and when it's too loud, for the puppet to activate with an admonition for people to be quiet. But it would be great to collect data about ambient noise too. Or temperature. You can get a lot of information about what's happening in the environment just by watching temperature: you can pick up when doors open and close, for example.
I'm also ecstatic to mention that Newark/element14 agreed to become a sponsor of the ICT Summit. They're providing SD cards with Debian pre-installed for the Raspberry PIs we're giving to students. I'm really looking forward to seeing what students do with the contest. I'm hoping more teams sign up. It should be a blast.
Today, Andrew Auernheimer was found guilty for adding one to an integer in a URL and seeing what happened. There's more to the story, of course: after he discovered that it returned private information, he automated the process with a script, collected a bunch of the returned data, and provided it to the media.
You can do the same thing with my blog. This post is node 603. The legal case is arguing that if you subtract one from the URL and go to 602 when the developer didn't intend you to, you could be sentenced to years of prison. That's what this court decision implies.
Years ago, I was often horrified by the shocking ignorance of the courts and politicians regarding basic technical facts about computer technology. Frequently, you'd see howlers like when Alaska Senator Ted Stevens famously described the Internet as a series of tubes. You can listen to the recording right there on the wikipedia page.
For a long time, I expected a new generation of more technically sophisticated people to come along and fix the broken legislation and court decisions made in the early history of the internet. Unfortunately, I've come to recognize that the problem is getting worse, not better.
A lot of the revolutionary transformation that happened with the early internet was due to the use of simple, open protocols (like http and html) that could be easily inspected and remixed by anyone. A commercial entity would never have built it that way.
People often talk about how markets are efficient, but they're efficient like the old joke that goes "I don't need to run faster than the bear -- I just need to run faster than you." To which you might add, "And if I break your leg, I won't even have to run." Corporations are willing to invest huge amounts of money and make their products much less attractive and less useful to consumers if they think it will curtail competition and help their bottom line more.
As technology is increasingly commoditized and packaged for non-technical users, the underlying data structures and protocols are concealed. People using an "app" on an iPhone have no idea what's actually behind the scenes. If you're a mere consumer of technology, you don't have access to any of the really empowering features -- it makes it difficult or impossible to adapt the technology to your own uses.
Several years ago, I wrote a little script to transform data from CSV into a file written in "dot" that could be plotted by graphviz. It was cool because you could pipe the output of the script to graphviz and then to ps2pdf to go straight from csv to a PDF file. Or you could get the dot file and edit it by hand to add colors or make some things bold. When I had students use it, I found that they'd essentially never run a program at the command line before.
It doesn't bode well for the future that the next generation is being turned into consumers of technology. We need a commitment to open technologies and protocols that encourage remixing and reuse. We can't leave the market to the control of the corporations -- they won't build it that way unless we give them no other choice.
This semester, I was elected to the Rules Committee of the Faculty Senate and have been serving now for a few weeks. Originally, I had planned to summarize the meetings in my blog, as I've often done for other things. But the meetings are long and complicated -- and it's hard to summarize discussions concisely without running the risk of misquoting people, or putting words in their mouth. But I am starting to gain some insight into what the Faculty Senate can do.
Some early experiences I had with the Senate showed me its limitations. A good example was the effort to get the campus to implement a "Teaching, Learning, Technology Roundtable" (TLTR) as a mechanism for stakeholders to have input into technology decisions. When I arrived on the campus, many people complained that technology decisions seemed to be made in some kind of smoke-filled back room and then simply imposed on the students and faculty. (This is perhaps an exaggeration, but with an element of truth: there was little transparency.) We proposed the TLTR model in the Faculty Senate University Computing and Electronic Communications Committee and passed a resolution. The motion came before the Senate and was approved. The administration gave an administrator a new title, Vice Chancellor for Instructional Technology. He held private luncheons for administrators for a year and a half, and then retired. And that was the end of it. One faculty member, who discovered that the "Committee" discussing instructional technology had no (zero) faculty, kicked up a fuss, and got himself invited. But it was (I thought) a lesson in the lack of power of the Senate to make something happen. (And we're still talking about the same problem -- I hope to raise it with the Chancellor again on Tuesday). But I've learned something about what the Senate can and can't do.
The Senate can't really make things happen. What it *can* do is raise questions. The Faculty Senate can be the conscience for the campus: identifying problems and raising concerns. If you try to push it to get out in front and start picking the solutions, you're going to be frustrated.
We've had some good, fruitful discussions. There's a new "Champion Center" going in next to the Mullins Center. A Faculty Senate committee looked at the siting and made some suggestions about ways that the new development could address existing problems in that area: lack of public bathrooms, an accessible path from the road to the playing fields, etc.
In some areas, the administration has refused to discuss issues. When the idea of reconsidering the change to FBS Football was raised, the Chancellor indicated in no uncertain terms that the topic was not open to discussion. When the topic was raised that the funds saved by switching from 3 to 4 credits had been diverted from supporting the Integrative Experience (IE), the Provost pushed back angrily saying that the monies had been provided to the Deans and that Departments needed to address themselves to their college for support. This is a particular issue in Biology (and other large departments) for which the Integrative Experience is, essentially, an unfunded mandate and has produced solutions that represent substantial compromises to the vision that the IE initially represented.
This evening, I took Alisa for dinner at Hillside with the Chancellor and the Rules Committee. There was a lot of good conversation about many topics. I got a chance to make a pitch for the excellent education in the Biology Department, to talk about town-gown relations, and even to say something about my Esperanto activity (he brought it up, because I had given him a copy of Premitaj Floroj at the first meeting after I joined the Rules Committee).
The Chancellor has been thinking about town-gown and has good ideas. One concern that I've had is that much of the town-gown relationship happens through a small handful of people: the chair of the select board, the two police chiefs, and a handful of key administrators. There are a few larger events, but they tend to be social in nature (a town-gown reception at Hillside, the block-party in Amherst). I would like to see a more substantive event that brings together more people to explain the existing relationship, broaden the base of stakeholders, and explore ideas for improving the interaction.
A couple of years ago, Tom Hoogendyk and I set up systems to run digital signs using drupal sites at UMass using a simple recipe. We created a simple one for the Biology Department first, and then Tom went on to build a more robust one for the College of Natural Science. The signs are great because they mostly repurpose the same content you need to post to keep the website up-to-date.
Other groups on campus have used commercial systems (which are wicked expensive and finicky) or tried to just loop Powerpoint presentations (which are clunky and prone to freezes) and quickly find that building custom content is time-consuming when you have to build it especially for the signs. Our system has been really reliable and simple to manage.
The content is all managed in Drupal, but we still needed some kind of player. In my initial discussions with George, I kept going back and forth whether it made more sense to use a mac mini or a little linux box. George heard "mac mini" and told everyone to just buy a mac mini. So we built the first version using mac minis. Since we were already supporting lots of macs, it was easy to support a handful of mac minis the same way. We've been using radmind for years to support macs.
Radmind has been wonderful: much better than anything else for supporting unix computers. It works like a tripwire, calculating checksums for all the files on the computer every night and replacing anything that gets modified or removed -- or installing anything new that's placed on the server. My (somewhat limited) experience with software that trusts clients to install packages has been poor: its a recipe for having clients diverge over time and, eventually, become unmanageable.
Turning the macs into players was somewhat difficult because so much of the macos is a black box. There were a bunch of odd problems: e.g. how to make the cursor disappear, how to start a browser in full-screen mode. It was a nightmare finding a programmatic way to shut off the displays at night: there is no way to script having the mac power off the display. There is a magic keystroke, but you can't execute the keystroke with Applescript. But I found a binary someone had made that happened to work.
Our existing players are all still working, but the new mac mini that Apple is releasing now won't run that version of the operating system. And the new versions of the MacOS are less amenable to being supported by local staff. They want everything to be installed via the Apple Store. And the operating system complains if you try to remove or simplify stuff (like removing the other dozen languages you don't need). So when we started needing to build new players, I looked again for a simpler solution. Eventually, I decided to try building a player using a Raspberry Pi.
I started with the basic Raspbian Wheezy distribution, compiled radmind (you need to apt-get install libssl-dev first), captured a base transcript, and then configured the stuff I needed for a player: we used Chromium for the browser, I adapted the script (written in PHP) to manage downloading the configuration for the player and starting the browser with the correct URL, and solved a handful of minor problems. You can start Chromium in full-screen with command-line switches. We use unclutter to hide the cursor (although x11vnc doesn't like that). We use tvservice to power off the display at night. The one thing I haven't figured out: I can shut off the display at night, but I can't power the display back on without rebooting. That's not fatal: we generally only power off the displays at night and then update and reboot in the morning.
I built it all and did some testing with one Raspberry Pi. This afternoon, we got a second and I used radmind to install the player image onto the new device. I found one little snag, but it basically just worked. On Monday, we'll swap out the new one and I'll get my prototype back and can play with it some more.
I was worried that it might have trouble driving a 1920x1080 display, but it pretty much worked right out of the box. At first the display was using 16 bit color, which resulted in dithering on gradients. I tried 24 bit color, but there are bugs in the driver. But 32 bits works just fine (as long as you turn off the alpha channel). But I increased the amount of RAM allocated to the GPU to 128mb. You can play with all these parameters in /boot/config.txt. I tried increasing the VRAM to 256mb, but then the OS began to thrash when I tried to run Chromium.
I was worried that the GPU wouldn't be able to run the cross-dissolves in views_slideshow that we use for the signs. They're perhaps not quite as smooth as they were in the Mac, but they're entirely satisfactory.
It looks like it will all just work. I plan to build a new control system that's based on downloading a table and looking up configuration information based on ethernet address. Currently, we use reverse-dns, which we've outgrown. I have some questions about how long these will last: I worry a bit that keeping the browser cache will cause memory fatigue on the sd card. It may be possible to work around that by creating a disk image in RAM and using the for the cache. Still -- I'm not going to bother trying solve the issue until I find that its really necessary.
Next, we need to build one for the Climate Lab. And we want to put several into the ISB, so that each floor can have its own player. And there's the whole new Life Science Laboratory building coming online that will probably use them.
The most time-consuming part is probably removing the paper from the assemble-it-yourself machine-cut Lucite case. We could probably find a prebuilt case, but, as George says, removing the paper and assembling the case is like therapy. We can use more of that.