Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Web + Mathematics = ???

Me: Don't mention MathML.

You: What about MathML?

Me: I said, don't mention it! Don't. Just don't!

You: O...kay. Let's talk about what you got for Xmas.

Me: You know what the problem with MathML is?

You: I'm not allowed to mention ... that.

Me: Oh, don't you start! I'm fed up with software that doesn't deliver. MathML is a pain in the $#@! If it was supported properly, Maths and Science teachers everywhere would be putting stuff online faster than a Pommy cricketer can give up his wicket, but support for MathML sucks, plain and simple.

You: Why? (Oops, shouldn't have asked -- too late now.)

Me: Don't get me wrong, the concept is great. Have a markup language that browsers can use to display equations. It's a great idea. And Firefox does a pretty good job of rendering MathML. Obviously, so does Amaya. But for students and teachers to use it effectively, you need more than a couple of browsers that will display MML, you need tools that students can access at home as well as at school which allow you to easily create and edit mathematical expressions.

The problem is that those tools, while they exist, are not readily found "out there". Sure, I can say to my students, go home, download Amaya, here's the web address, you'll be able to look at MathML and make you own, but the response will be "Why do I have to work in a different browser, what's wrong with Internet Explorer?", at which point the battle is already lost for the most part. I could probably persuade them to give Firefox a go, many already use it, but for creating their own MathML stuff, what then? The W3C pages have a list of browser plugins and editors, but most of it is either dated or commercial, and students (and their parents) will not want to pay for software just so I can swap equations with them. MathCast is the best editor I've seen so far and it's the right price, but it's Windows only, and I have colleagues (and even some students) working on Macs (and I prefer to work in either Mac OS X or Ubuntu).

It shouldn't be this hard. The World Wide Web Consortium has established a standard, and while it could stand some improvement, it's workable. But most people use IE as their browser, and IE needs a plugin just to show MathML. Yes, the MathPlayer plugin from Design Science is free, but the reason for that is to get people to buy MathType. And creating MathML using MathType is ridiculously complicated, and assumes you are using MS Word. And ideally I want my students to not only be able to see equations in stuff I put online, but also to be able to post stuff up themselves in whatever wiki or blogging system we're using.

I repeat -- it shouldn't be this hard.

What we need is (a) for either Microsoft to make MathML support standard in Internet Explorer or for the rest of the planet to switch to Firefox (and I wouldn't hold my breath for either of these things happening); and (b) someone to develop a MathML editor that is
  • cross-platform (or has equivalents on each of Windows/Mac/Linux)
  • simple to use yet capable of handling the most complex equations
  • free

Or the other possibility is to have an application that uses either MathML or LaTeX markup to create image files of equations (like LaTeXiT does on Mac) but which also includes the markup in the image file (as XMP data?) so that another user, looking at the image in their browser, can open the image in their editor and it reads the markup and recreates the equation.

You: Why don't you build that yourself?

Me: If I knew how, I would!

(stops for breath)

Sorry for the rant.

You: Don't mention it!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Plumbing and Purple Cows

As I've gotten a little older and a little wiser (I hope), I've learned, as most do over time, not to jump to conclusions too readily. And yet it's something that everyone does at times. I suppose this reflects what Edward de Bono and others have noticed about the human tendency to recognise patterns and trends, even when they're not really there.

So it was with some amusement that I read one blogger's reaction to another person's blog.
Ed Kohler's entry on Technology Evangelist:
I was at Yahoo! HQ earlier this week and noticed that the sprinkler heads are purple.
It turns out that a LOT of stuff is purple at Yahoo, including a cow at the reception desk. While purple is apparently a Yahoo color and a color they take some pride in...
Over at Chuqui 3.0:
It's because purple in plumbing indicates that the water in that system is recycled. They're irrigating their landscape with water recovered from the wrong end (or maybe the right end!) of the sewage treatment plant...

Ed was trying to make a valid point about colours and corporate branding, and thought he'd spotted a relevant example, except the pattern he'd recognised wasn't really there. I chuckled over this, right up to the point when I realised that we all make this type of mistake, and more often then we may even realise. The human brain is wired to search out patterns. And sometimes it finds pseudo-patterns. The result is conspiracy theories, most political debate, religion vs. science, Windows vs. Mac, the inability of English cricketers to handle Australian wickets, and so on. It actually requires some effort to not draw conclusions too readily.

Interestingly, I think we most often make this sort of error in evaluating the behaviour of others. We see someone act in a certain way, associate that with someone else we've seen behave the same way, and conclude that the underlying reasons are the same, or that other aspects of that person will be the same. This can lead to some very unhappy outcomes.

Of course, none of this explains why Yahoo have a purple cow at the reception desk.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Small Apps Loosely Joined

[Over 3 weeks since my last entry - time flies when you're having fun; OTOH, when you're under the pump, it seems to take forever and still not be enough, oy!]
The title is a steal from Alan Levine's CogDogBlog. That article was a nice find, leading to some really useful ideas about Web 2.0 and the myriad of tools that can be put to work in the classroom.
But this article is not about Web 2.0 tools, but about applications.
The other day I found my trusty Victorinox swiss army knife which had been MIA for some time. Once upon a time, I used that knife for all manner of things. It's nowhere near as loaded (overloaded) with tools as the one in the picture, but it was a serious part of my toolkit for several years.
Now, though, my toolkit has expanded considerably, and I have specific tools for specific jobs, so my little swiss knife isn't used, and wasn't missed when it went AWOL.
Similarly, MS Word used to be the application I used more than any other, once upon a time. But these days, MS Word is rarely opened. When I receive Word docs, I usually open them with WriteInOne (or NeoOffice if need be). If I'm creating documents to send to others, I use Lyx, and send the PDFs that it creates.
That's if it really needs that level of formatting. If just text will do (for something that will go by email, or that I'm drafting for this blog, for example), I'll use TextForge.
If I need to do some serious find-and-replace work, in all likelihood the data is raw text to start with, so TextWrangler or SubEthaEdit are my tools of choice. I use OmniOutliner for outlines (who woulda thought?) and OmniGraffle for charts.
The one area where I need Word is documents with equations in them. MathType plays so nicely in Word that it's hard to break away from that; given that I share such documents with my Maths teacher colleagues, for that specific situation, I need Word.
This isn't an anti-Microsoft rant. It's a reflection on how my work practices have changed as I have found better tools for specific situations. Jim Mullaney quipped that Word has more built-in functions than there are words in the English language! But ask the question: why?
Software that takes the swiss army knife approach ends up feeling bloated and clunky. Finding the function you want within the morass of options when you pull down a menu becomes an orienteering exercise.
I find that I'm constantly looking for better ways to do things. And small, polished apps that purport to do only a particular job, but do it really well are getting the thumbs up.
I wasn't enamoured with Preview when I first saw it - I felt it was a poor man's Acrobat Reader. But I've grown to appreciate its simple interface and capacity to handle a variety of file formats. The annotation tools need improvement, but for most of my PDF viewing, it's a good fit. (But I'm keeping my eye on Foxit.)
Lyx is a word processor I'm learning to love. I type. I add things (images, tables, sidenotes, footnotes, comments), and tell Lyx what it is, but never bother with where it will go. Lyx does that part, and I rarely feel the need to go back to adjust the position of anything.
SubEthaEdit is an excellent text editor for working on web stuff, which for me is almost entirely HTML, CSS and PHP. I still like Dreamweaver, but I'm no longer using it nearly as much.
The point is that this overall blend of small apps works better (for me, at least) than the alternative (feature-laden software like Word.) It's like the tools in my toolkit - the tool designed for a particular job is always going to produce a more satifying result. (You can imagine how pleased I was when my wife bought me a router - no, not the computer kind, the wood-working kind.)
Small apps, no specific connection between any of them, except that all put together, they allow me to do everything I want with little fuss and get satisfying results. Swiss army knife software will continue to exist, and no doubt suits some, but my suspicion is that as users gain experience and expertise, they end up drifting away from such bloatware and turn to small apps loosely joined.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Creating a Flickr of Interest

One of the reasons I like RSS is that it leads me to blogs and sites that I probably wouldn't have otherwise comes across.

Recently I stumbled across CogDogBlog, and a little piece called Small Presentations Loosely Joined. This in turn led me to look more closely at some of the things you can do with Flickr. And I'm excited! The Notes tool in Flickr is simply brilliant - dead easy to use but powerful. (Exactly what software ought to be.) Geotagging's also impressive, though I haven't thought of as many ways I could use it in a classroom as I have for notes on images, but it's early days. Combine this with blogging for a class, or better still, a wiki, and you have the potential to structure images and notes in a non-linear way that could create and sustain student interest.

Why non-linear? Because non-linear arrangements allow students to explore the material in whatever order appeals to them - if a particular item or subheading grabs their attention, they'll go to that first. As they grow their understanding of what they are exploring, the significance of the other sections (and thus the relevance) becomes (hopefully) more apparent. Do I think non-linear presentation is a good thing? You bet I do.

The Web, not surprisingly, is well set up for non-linear stuff, since it's fundamentally non-linear itself.

Collaboration is also essentially non-linear in its nature - how could it be otherwise? So imagine the following: a wiki page about a topic you're teaching that includes images that are links to Flickr images that have notes attached that contain links that in turn lead to other materials, etc. Not only that, but the students can also add to the wiki, add their own images from their own Flickr accounts with their own notes with links to more materials... I suppose you could call this "organic teaching".

(Make sure you click on the image of the breadfruit.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Drongo #1

(For non-Australian readers, a 'drongo' is an idiot.)

I admire people who develop good software. The guys at CodingMonkeys who developed SubEthaEdit, take a bow. Likewise the people who made Vienna, in my opinion the #1 RSS app for Mac. The Lilypond developers, the creators of FreeMind, these people deserve standing ovations for what they have contributed to a wired world.

But this post isn't about them. It's about the people who made Powerpoint.

A colleague of mine has lost hours in the following way:
  1. she was building Powerpoint files to give to her students;
  2. these files outlined course material for the students to review;
  3. the files also included hyperlinks to websites to provide additional reading material and resources for the students to investigate;
  4. after she saved a file and quit Powerpoint, when the file was next opened, some of the hyperlinks were missing;
  5. resetting the hyperlinks and re-saving did not change this - the hyperlinks disappeared again once she quit Powerpoint.
I and another colleague, Nayth, spent some time trying to suss this behaviour. Finally, Nayth found the answer. It turns out that...
PowerPoint stores the hyperlink information in the Document Summary storage area of the presentation. This storage area has a limit of 64 KB. The Document Summary storage contains all the document properties, custom properties, references, and other similar data. [source]
64K? Are you kidding me? And this 'storage area' holds not only the hyperlinks, but all the document properties as well?

The worst part is that you get absolutely no indication of when you've exceeded that 64K limit - it just drops the excess data (like my colleague's hyperlinks) and carries on as though nothing's happened. No warning of any kind appears.

Do the developers at Microsoft consider this acceptable? Because I don't! And I can't think of anyone else who would either. The next time someone describes Microsoft's products as the 'industry standard', ask them, "you mean baseline, right?"

So my first Drongo goes to the developers of Powerpoint who not only thought that 64K was an adequate size buffer for storing a document's metadata, but also decided that no one needs to know when they've filled it.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


The following appeared in the Melbourne newspaper The Age:

THE Australian Democrats are refusing to publish an online survey about God and government after a campaign by Christian groups "skewed" the results.

Democrats leader Lyn Allison said 40 times the usual number responded to the survey, and overwhelmingly took the position advocated by some Christian leaders. Normally the party would be happy with 1000 responses, but the church and state survey got 40,000.

Senator Allison said it was ironic that a survey on the influence of churches should attract such an intense effort by churches to apply influence.

Christian groups have urged the Democrats to release the results, saying it was dishonest that a party that was founded on a claim "to keep the bastards honest" should keep the results secret because they were not what the Democrats wanted.

[The Age - National]

When this appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald's blog column "Stay In Touch", there was vigorous (even rancorous) debate about whether the Democrats should publish the results, and the significance thereof.

But what intrigued me more was the fact that the Democrats typically expect only about 1000 people to respond to their online surveys.

Online polls are actually fairly common, but as a few comments on the SMH blog pointed out, they hardly qualify as good scientific or statistical method, and no one should make too much out of the results. One comment noted that the Democrats website itself states "online surveys are useful because they are fast, easy and inexpensive but they do not typically gather in-depth, rigorous scientifically valid information" [here] and then asked the obvious - "then why do it in the first place"?

This then got me thinking - obviously the Democrats have done these surveys before, and have a fair idea of the typical response pattern. Also fairly obvious is that they have published the results on previous occasions, when the number of responses has been around the 1000 mark. Given that 1000 responses is about one-hundredth of 1% of the voting population of this country, do they believe that the results of such polls are in any way indicative of the overall views of the voting public? (As distinct from "rigorous scientifically valid information", I might add.)

It seems a fairly safe deduction that online polls will usually measure predominantly, perhaps almost exclusively, the opinions of those who frequent your website. Who else is going to go to your website? SBS Sport frequently polls its viewers on the SBS website, but if you don't watch SBS Sport or frequent the SBS website, you won't even know the poll is there, let alone participate in it. Ergo, the results reflect the opinions of the watchers of SBS Sport, not the opinions of sports enthusiasts in general.

In the same way, the Democrats' online surveys, which are not advertised broadly in the media, will usually measure only the opinions of those people who are aware of the poll, i.e. those who frequent the website or who keep track of Democrats-related news and events. In other words, those who are interested in the Democrats and their policies, which will primarily be supporters of the party.

It's therefore quite interesting to see that they will not release the results of the latest online survey because these results have been "skewed" - the results of the Democrats' online surveys are almost certainly skewed in any case, normally in the direction of those who agree with the Democrats.

In a nutshell, online polls measure the responses of interest groups of one kind or another. In the case of this latest poll, the subject of the poll intersected another, larger, interest group - Christians. It's a shame that the Democrats won't release the results.

And now I find myself being a touch cynical. I find it hard to credit that the Democrats would not be aware that the usual results of their surveys are dominated by Democrats supporters, so why publish results which you know do not in all probability reflect the opinions of the wider public? Sadly, there is an obvious answer.

The upshot of the Democrats withholding the survey results is they have made themselves look either incompetent, churlish or duplicitous, depending on who you talk to. If political parties are going to be taken seriously on the web, they need to avoid silly games like this, and think very carefully before conducting online surveys.

A final observation in light of all this, useful for both online surveys and elections:
Don't vote, it only encourages them. (Author Unknown)

Sunday, October 01, 2006


Miguel Guhlin linked to this on his blog:

There has been a major shift in how (some) Scientific Publishers see the purpose and practice of scholarly communication. Listening to the words used, “database” has replaced “journal” and “users” has replaced “readers”. I suspect the latter word conflates “purchasing officers” with “readers” into an unhappy anonymous entity. Moreover there is a tension between the publisher and the users - significant content is illegally downloaded and an important role of the publisher is acting as “policeman” making sure that content is not stolen. ...[snip]... Now, I have never advocated breaking or abolishing copyright, but it is clear that this is creating a tension in the publisher/reader community. I’ve been involved in setting or being on the board of scientific journals and I see their major purpose as enhancing scholarly communication. I’m worried that we are losing sight of this, where journals in non-profit organisations are seen as a way of subsiding other activities of the society. If the publishers see “users” as a group who have a major motive to steal content, I suspect things will get worse. At some stage we seem to have flipped from a community where publishers interpreted the wishes of the community and served them - for a reasonable fee - to a world where publishers make the rules and police their non-compliance. Did anyone in the reader community:
* actually ask for journals to be transformed to databases?
* actually ask for content to be limited in time to the duration of a subscription (we used to have physical journals we could take home and even hand down to our descendants or give to needy institutions)
It worries me that this has happened almost silently. I remember in ca. 1970 (when I was too inexperienced to notice) that authors were asked to transfer copyright to publishers. These requests came from trusted societies - national societies and international unions (At that stage there were essentially no commercial publishers - Pergamon was a few years later). I didn’t think twice about it - but it was one of the biggest mistakes of my scientific life. Are we sleepwalking into something just as serious? Objectively I have some sympathy with publishers whose content is illegally downloaded - I do believe in copyright. But pragmatically is the way forward to be increasingly draconian with readers (sorry, users)?

Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - petermr’s blog » Blog Archive » Do you read journals, or “use a database”?

Reading this reminded me of something else I'd come across recently...

British Academy Says Copyright Hindering Scholarship
A report from the British Academy, to be launched on 18 September, expresses fears that the copyright system may in important respects be impeding, rather than stimulating, the production of new ideas and new scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. ...[snip]... Existing UK law provides exemption from copyright for fair dealing with material for purposes of private study and non-commercial research, and for criticism and review. "There is, however, little clarity about the precise scope of these exemptions, and an absence of case law" said John Kay, who is Chair of the Working Group which oversaw the Review. "Publishers are risk-averse, and themselves defensive of existing copyrights. "The situation is aggravated by the increasingly aggressive defence of copyright by commercial rights holders, and the growing role - most of all in music - of media businesses with no interest in or understanding of the needs of scholarship. It is also aggravated by the unsatisfactory EU Database Directive, which is at once vague and wide-ranging, and by the development of digital rights management systems, which may enable publishers to use technology to circumvent the exceptions to copyright which are contained in current legislation. ...[snip]... This report parallels a report from the Royal Society, 'Keeping science open: the effects of intellectual property on the conduct of science (2003),' which expresses related worries about the ways in which intellectual property, its interpretation and its use, impact on the progress of science.

Managing Information News (found via Stephen Downes' blog)

Together, these blog entries paint a disturbing picture of publishers as an hindrance to research. I'm sure there's plenty more examples out there.

The comment at the end of the Cambridge blog is one I can empathise with. I do believe in copyright, but in proportion -- at what point will it become impossible to even quote a single sentence from a published work without first acquiring the express permission of the publisher (presumably for a fee)?

Stephen Downes has argued that locking down the use of other people's words is in itself a type of theft; his article in the April 2003 edition of the Journal of the United States Distance Learning Association (the link is on Stephen's blog, under the title Copyright, Ethics and Theft) eloquently outlines his thoughts on the subject.

Regardless of whether or not you believe in the concept of copyright, it should be becoming apparent to everyone that the Internet and associated technologies have created a situation that current laws about copyright and ownership do not properly address, and in fact cannot address while they remain tied to ideas about ownership that fail to recognise how the Internet has changed the landscape of expression and distribution of information.

The only people who could possibly be happy about the situation are lawyers.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Gettin' Wikijiggered

Wikijiggered? Trust me, it's a politer word than what I'm thinking at the moment!

I've been wrestling with DokuWiki, a wiki that the TechGnome (aka Nayth) mentioned to me. It's neat - a wiki that relies only on PHP and the standard HTML/Javascript/CSS blend, no backend database (unless you want one) and no java classes (I'll come back to those in a minute). One upshot of this is that the pages are saved as text files -- yes, I said text files, vanilla flavoured, human readable, completely portable text files.

So why am ready to rip a few limbs off something? ACLs.

Access Control Lists. Or should that be Administrators Cursing Loudly? Without ACL features turned on, DokuWiki performs as expected, all is well. Turn the ACL features on, and register a new user, get a password emailed back, and login... except the username/password combo doesn't work. Aargh! How can be so close and yet so far?!

I want to set up this wiki in a school, but I don't want anyone in the world being able to hack up students' work, I'd like a certain level of security around this - if student X vandalised student Y's work, I'll be able to track X down and kick his sorry ar... erm... reprimand him. But I can't do that with someone on the other side of the planet. Hence security. Hence ACLs. And hence "Aargh".

The security issue also came up the other day with blogs. KP wanted a blog that only she and her students would access. I was looking at setting up a blogging system anyway, but had assumed that the TechGnome would know how to lock up subdirectories of our webserver - what do I tell my students until they're tired of hearing it? Never assume.

Nayth, to his credit, had not been simply resting on his laurels - the issue was that Apple had changed things significantly when they introduced OS X, Nayth had simply not had the time to dig through the manuals/forums/online support, and no one had pushed him to find out the answer.

At this point, God said "Come, let us go down and confuse them" (actually, that was the people of the Shinar plain [Genesis 11], but it works here too), and reminded Nayth of something he had seen. Mac OS X Server has a built-in weblog setup.

A quick look at this revealed that it could be locked down to specific users who would be authenticated by LDAP against the users on our file server. Hooray! Problem solved. (Never assume.)

Further inspection of this wondrous blogging system revealed what I should have suspected. It's not something Apple cooked up from scratch - in fact, it's a pruned version of Blojsom, a java-based implementation of Blosxom. Pruned? Yes - Apple have removed several aspects of the standard Blojsom implementation, added their own OS X branded skins, tied it to LDAP, and so on. The point is obviously to make it work neatly with OS X Server, which it does, but at the sacrifice of features and the user interface.

Some of this can be worked around (e.g. themes), but others present a problem. For example, WYSIWYG editing is a standard feature of most blogging systems, but Apple have removed that bit. You can probably install TinyMCE, but if you do, forget about using Safari. There's no easy way to upload images - you can put them into a folder in the web server, but then you have to add the image tags manually. (Unless I can get one of the Blojsom plugins to do this for me. And here I'm starting to get out of my depth - Blojsom is java-based, and its plugins are java classes. If it's just a case of editing some text files to enable the appropriate classes, fine, but if something goes belly-up, well... oh look, a decoy!)

And if that wasn't enough? A user can only have one blog, based on his/her username. Of course, it's possible to create a blog for a 'group', and we could create as many 'groups' as we like, but this means creating 'groups' that aren't actually groups, and cluttering up user lists, and I hate kludges like that at the best of times.

In short, Apple's Mac OS X Server weblog system is wikijiggered blogshlock. (For that matter, so is Safari. Safari could be the best browser on the planet, except that when it comes to some things, like using rich text editors in blogging systems, it's hopeless. Hmm, I can feel another rant coming on.)

Software that takes you nine-tenths of the way, and then leaves you flat on your laurels, just short of your goal - don't you hate being wikijiggered?

Oh, the shame. The ACLs weren't the problem. The problem? My bad.

It turned out that in adjusting one of the files to set up the 'superuser', Dreamweaver was saving the file with 'Mac-style' CR line endings instead of 'Linux-style' LF line endings, and this was screwing up Dokuwiki's attempts to read the user names and password hashes.

I suppose I could blame the documentation which directed me to make the changes to that file but never mentioned the necessity of ensuring that it is saved with LFs rather than CRs, but then again, that documentation is in a wiki, so I suppose the responsible thing is to go back and add this myself.

So I guess I wikijiggered my own blog post. Ain't irony a beautiful thing?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Onions Make Me Cry

From Miguel Guhlin's blog for Sep 24:

TorPark, an anonymizing browser (available for Windows) that doesn't have to be installed on your computer, is now out, shares Ben Horst at SolidOffice.org. ...[snip]... As far as I know, while it's possible to block, many school districts don't have a clue. . .the best they can do is block the download site that students might use. Now, all students have to do is load TorPark onto a USB drive (some schools are providing USB Flash drives to students as alternatives to floppies, so all they have to do is load it on there...convenient, huh?). ...[snip]... It's also available in different languages!

Plug it into any internet terminal whether at home, school, work, or in public. Torpark will launch a Tor circuit connection, which creates an encrypted tunnel from your computer indirectly to a Tor exit computer, allowing you to surf the internet anonymously. How much does Torpark cost? IT'S FREE.

What are the implications for something this easy to use? Well, don't worry, info-tech people will be getting all excited about blocking this! Quick, Quick...get started blocking and filtering!! What is fascinating is how K-12 schools can continue to try and block sites like this when there are communities of developers figuring out ways to bypass the blocks and filtering...it's a free speech, protect your privacy kind of use that many Americans see as fundamental.

To achieve strong anonymity, intermediate services may be employed to thwart attempts at identification, even by governments. These attempt to use cryptography, passage through multiple legal jurisdictions, and various methods to thwart traffic analysis to achieve this. A more recent approach in internet anonymity involves the use of an onion router such as Tor. Onion routers send information over encrypted protocols to several intermediate computers around the world in order to make identification more difficult. This has been countered with advances in text analysis, in which the identity of a writer is determined by comparing the writing style of a piece to styles of pieces in which the author is known.

This last point--text analysis--almost reminds me of TurnItIn, and the ongoing controversy of using it.

At McLean High School, in Virginia, students collected more than 1,100 signatures on a petition opposing mandatory use of the service, according The Washington Post. The anti-Turnitin faction argues that the database violates students’ intellectual-property rights. And the high school’s use of Turnitin creates the sense that students are guilty until proved innocent, says Ben Donovan, a senior at McLean. "It’s like if you searched every car in the parking lot or drug-tested every student," he says. Source: The Chronicle Campus Blog [Source]

Around the Corner - MGuhlin.net - Courage can't see around corners, but goes around them anyway. - Mignon McLaughlin

I hadn't heard of onion routers until I read this blog entry and then did a little research, starting with the TorPark site itself. It's not hard to see why some school administrators would be getting nervy - this sort of technology can easily make a mockery of a school's filtering efforts.

And the more I think about that, the more convinced I am that trying to use technology to thwart people from using technology is about as sensible as washing grease stains with olive oil. (I was going to say, 'painting over wallpaper', but then I remembered my father... /sigh/.)

That's not to say that we don't use technology at all in managing technology in our school. Obviously Internet content filtering in a K-12 school is good practice, if only to protect little ones from the "nasty stuff". At the same time, relying almost exclusively on technology to handle what students do with technology is just crazy -- if we imagine that filtering systems will stop older/smarter students who are determined to bypass it, we're deluding ourselves.

The TurnItIn issue surrounds the use of software to detect plagiarism -- one gripe with it is that every student is "assumed guilty until proved innocent". As one commenter to the Chronicle Campus Blog pointed out, the software "will only catch the laziest students that simply buy a paper or copy a website off of the Internet, but it does nothing to stop a student from using a thesaurus to change enough words to fool the software" [comment 9 on the aforementioned Blog]. As almost every word processor now comes with a thesaurus, casting through a paper and 'adjusting' enough words to beat the software takes relatively little effort. (How many of these teachers have actually considered changing their assessment methods to address the problem?)

In the same vein, but on a different scale (but not that different), the music publishing companies who are currently pushing legislators in several countries to treat everyone as music pirates (and remember, you're guilty until proven innocent) are following the same flawed logic -- digital rights management is all about using technology to stop you from using technology. But can it really? I read somewhere recently that the new DRM technology in the latest incarnation of iTunes was broken in three days. If you can think of a way to lock it, someone else out there can conceive a way to unlock it.

I honestly think it's naive to believe that you can defeat technology with technology. But there's plenty of people out there who are going to try. And there will be lots of tears before they're through. Mostly their own, I suspect.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Authority? What's That?

Tim Bray's latest blog entry raises a question I expect as a teacher and IT Coordinator I will hear more and more: how can we be sure that the info on a website is reliable and authoritative?

First, let me quote from Tim's blog:

Let’s ask an interesting real-world question that real-world people might ask: for each of the ten provinces of Canada, what is its population? Let’s suppose you’re not a Canadian insider who knows that the Source Of All Numbers is Statistics Canada. So, you could go to Wikipedia, which would be easy and quick. From East to West you’d look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newfoundland, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Edward_Island, and, well, I’ll stop there, because the pattern is obvious. On each of those pages you’ll find the population, along with a lot of other basic facts, presented crisply and legibly, no further steps required. ¶But you know, that’s just the Wikipedia; some joker might have gone in and changed the number by couple hundred thousand up or down, just for fun. Wouldn’t you be better off going to a source with some real authority?

ongoing · Wikipedia: Resistance is Absent

Tim goes on to explain how he then searched on the government websites of the various provinces, and was confronted by lousy web design, URIs that only a machine or an ├╝ber-geek could conceive (for example, www.gov.on.ca/ont/portal/!ut/p/.cmd/cs/.ce/7_0_A/.s/7_0_252/_s.7_0_A/7_0_252/_l/en?docid=EC001035 -- wha...?) and he concludes that "Wikipedia is going to win". Given his original premise -- if you want to have authority on the Web, you have to show up on the Web... And those who ought to enjoy more authority than Wikipedia aren’t [emphasis mine] -- it seems safe to conclude that Tim isn't entirely happy with this situation.

So let me make a few observations.

Tim is probably right in thinking that far too many people would read the Wikipedia articles and be satisfied with that, not bothering to check further. Students often tend to do this. Mine would if I let them... but I don't.

I've taken to telling my students that websites are not "nuggets of information" waiting for them to come and pick them up, but signs on a trail leading to the "real answer". The trail metaphor is a handy one, since it suggests that they have to continue on, following the links, occasionally doubling back from dead-ends to re-find the trail, and so on.

Some of my students would have certainly found the stats Tim wanted much faster than Tim -- they would have scanned through the Wikipedia article's links and found at the bottom this link: StatCan 2001 Census which is sort of where Tim ended up, but via a longer route.

Then there's the issue of people changing entries in Wikipedia. There's no question, people do weird and stupid things, and changing entries in Wikipedia is one of them. But an even stranger thing also happens -- people fix the mistakes! They get very defensive about it. And it's why Wikipedia works.

But there's one phrase in Tim's blog that really stands out for me: Wouldn’t you be better off going to a source with some real authority? [Emphasis mine]

Define real authority. (Actually, I might pose this as a question to a senior Computing class.) Government websites? (Is that laughter in the background?) Newspaper columns? University sites? Books? (Remember Margaret Mead vs Derek Freeman? I won't even mention Derrida.)

I know that for many, the suggestion that "real authority" is largely ephemeral will ring of heresy. But I'm part of a generation that has grown up realising that the "authorities" all too often spoke (and still speak) a lot of BS.

I would like to think that students who are now growing up with the Web, like my own daughters, will turn out to be fairly savvy when it comes to evaluating info from the Web, from the media, from wherever. They'll know that there's a need to check and cross-check and evaluate and never take any of it for granted. And they may not need to know how to spell authoritative.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Web to point.. oh?

Last Thursday and Friday, I was at an IT Integrators Conference in North Sydney. I got to see an interesting cross-section of things being done in Australian schools, as well as hearing from some compelling speakers, particularly Jim Mullaney and Stephen Downes. The common theme was "Web 2.0" (though there was some discussion that maybe that term has now been copyrighted? Oh, please - next someone will try to take out a trademark on "ugg boot"... oh... right).
So now the places where IT and education are coming together are blogs and wikis and newsfeeds and learning management systems. That's fine for me, I'm familiar with all these things, but in a short time I will become responsible for staff who are almost totally unfamiliar with these things and who are still trying to get their heads around how to integrate web browsers and email and word processors and Powerpoint into their classroom practice. "Web 2.0? I'm still at Web 0.2, thanks!"
The challenge is how to bring these staff up to speed on what they can do in the classroom with IT, but on the positive side, Web 2.0 presents far more opportunity for students to be involved in the technology. I always worried (still do) about how Powerpoint is used in classrooms - I've seen too many people (from Principals down) using several thousand dollars worth of equipment to do what could be done with an old-fashioned overhead projector. (The term is "powerpointlessness" - thank you, Jamie MacKenzie - check out From Now On.) Web 2.0 tools - blogging, wikis - allow students to put their own thoughts and ideas online and participate in a dialog that can be larger than the classroom and longer than the lesson.
That's not to say that Powerpoint presentations, email and Excel spreadsheets don't have their place - obviously they still do. But Web 2.0 tools have the potential to redefine pedagogy in a way that "office" software and older web-base software didn't.
I think the key idea is dialog, with students being participants in the processes of uncovering and connecting disparate components of knowledge. If that's a little hard to follow, I suppose it's because I'm not exactly a constructionist, nor a connectivist in how I view knowledge.
How well I get this across to my colleagues remains to be seen.

Blogging with Flock

So I'm using Flock to manage blogs and newsfeeds, but in checking to see how it handled the feed from my own blog, it's not been too happy.

The problem would appear to lie in the way Flock is formatting the HTML it sends to Blogger. Or perhaps in what Blogger is doing with it.

As an experiment, I'm sending this post to Blogger via Flock, but I'm keeping a copy of Flock's html so I can compare it to what ends up in Blogger.

Should be interesting.

Update 1: So far, there's no problem, so I'll try editing in Blogger and see if it takes. (This is where things went awry before.) I'll add styling in this post, maybe that's where the problem lies.

The other issue is that the new post shows up in Vienna, but not in Flock itself. Very strange.

Update 2: adding styling hasn't caused problems.

I'll try blockquotes and links. Here's Ongoing.

What else can I try?

Update 3: the HTML gremlins have gone away, but Desultoration still won't show as a new post in Flock. $#@!

Update 4: it's the next morning, and suddenly the new posts in Desultoration have appeared in Flock. ?!?!? Okay, it's only beta software, and I should know better than to expect it to work perfectly. Still, if it continues to happen, I'll be giving the News part of Flock a wide berth.

Blogged with Flock

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Sorry, Pluto - The Umpire Is Always Right

At first, solar system astronomy and international cricket would appear to have little in common, apart from both being in the news this week. But there is a link between the issues of Pluto's status as a planet and the ball-tampering saga from the England-Pakistan test match. In both cases, there is an umpire in the middle of the situation whose job it is to make decisions about what's acceptable and what's not. And some people are not happy with the umpire.

In the case of Pluto, the umpire is the International Astronomical Union. Faced with various views about what constitutes a planet, the IAU has produced a definition that leaves Pluto out in the cold - a planet is more or less spherical, orbits the sun and clears other objects from its orbit. That last bit was the kicker - Pluto apparently doesn't clear other objects from its orbit; specifically, it's orbit passes inside Neptune's, and therefore it's behaving outside the new "rules".

(Update: it's been pointed out that Neptune obviously doesn't clear its orbit either, so why is it still a planet? Conversely, the two are in a resonance pattern that means they will never come near one another, and their orbits do not actually intersect. So the IAU's rules either don't apply or they should apply to both Neptune and Pluto. It's easy to see why many astronomers are disputing the new definitions.)

Some astronomers have expressed their disappointment with the verdict. They'll made it clear that they will continue to debate it. Others have been philosophical about the matter. NASA's position is nicely diplomatic: "NASA will, of course, use the new guidelines established by the International Astronomical Union," said Dr. Paul Hertz, Chief Scientist for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. "We will continue pursuing exploration of the most scientifically interesting objects in the solar system, regardless of how they are categorized."

Pluto, at least, has handled the news gracefully and continues to orbit unperturbed.

In the test match, on the other hand, there are two umpires out in the middle, and for over 100 years, those two men out in the middle have been the ones with the final say in regards to anything and everything that happens on the field during the game.

In the England-Pakistan test match, the umpires saw something they thought looked like ball-tampering. They inspected the ball. They spoke to the Pakistan captian Inzamam-ul-Haq, and concluded that the ball HAD been tampered with, and penalised the Pakistani team. Inzamam then refused to lead his team back onto the field after the tea break. After half an hour and two requests by the umpires for the Pakistanis to resume the field, the bails were removed and Pakistan were deemed to have forfeited the game.

Since then, we have heard an extraodinary amount of discussion on the part of several people about whether the umpires acted properly. Australian umpire Darrell Hair has been singled out by several figures in Pakistani cricket, notably PCB chairman Shaharyar Khan, former England captain Mike Atherton, and former Pakistani players Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Sarfraz Nawaz. There has been a general implication from these figures that Hair has a bias against Asian players. These same people insist that there is no evidence of the ball being tampered with, and that Hair was wrong to end the match. The fact that Hair has in the days after this controversy erupted offered to stand down if the ICC was willing to compensate him for lost earnings has only complicated the picture.

let's consider the possibilities:

1. That Hair is biased against Asian players, and fabricated the accusation of ball-tampering. (But if this is the case, how did he convince fellow umpire Billy Doctrove to agree to it?) His offer to stand down is because he knows he was in the wrong.

2. That Hair is biased against Asian players, and wrongly concluded that Inzamam was tampering with the ball. His offer to stand down is because he knows he was in the wrong.

3. That Hair is not biased, but mistakenly thought that Inzamam was tampering with the ball. His offer to stand down was the result of the stress and pressure brought about by the implications of bias made by various commentators.

4. That Hair is not biased, and Inzamam was tampering with the ball. Hair's offer to stand down was the result of the stress and pressure.

5. That Hair is biased, but Inzamam was tampering with the ball. Hair's offer to stand down - probably still the result of the stress and pressure, but maybe a bit of the other as well.

Regardless of any of this, there's one thing that is (or ought to be) abundantly clear - Inzamam was absolutely wrong to not bring his team back onto the field. The umpires allowed them more time than they needed to get back out and resume play, and in failing to resume the field, the Pakistanis steered the game to only one possible result. In any sport, a refusal to continue play by one side can only be interpreted as a forfeit. Regardless of whether Inzamam and the rest of the Pakistan team thought they were being hard done by, they should have finished the game. Former legendary umpire Dickie Bird summed it up correctly: "Everybody should have used a little bit of common sense, tried to finish the Test match then thrashed it out behind closed doors."

Inzamam now faces a charge of bringing the game into disrepute, but therein lies another testing moment, but in this case for the ICC - Inzamam's decision not to return to the field was clearly wrong, but will the ICC deal with this in a way that does not undermine its own authority? If the ICC fails to discipline Inzamam, its credibility will have dealt a serious blow.

The ICC will also need to address some of the spurious rhetoric coming from the Pakistanis. Pakistan tour manager Zaheer Abbas said the news of Hair's offer was a "huge victory" for his side. A huge victory? Hardly. Zaheer went on to say, "This also proves our protest on the fourth day of the final Test was legitimate..." Does Zaheer really believe that not returning to the field and forfeiting the match is a legitimate way to protest a decision by an umpire? If so, he should get completely out of cricket and all other organised sport today.

Maybe Hair is biased. Maybe the Pakistanis have a problem with non-Asian umpires who don't put up with crap from the players.

The simple fact remains - during play, the umpire is always right. You might not agree with the decisions, you might think the umpire is an idiot, or has it in for you - it doesn't matter. You finish the game, then you can lodge your protest, have the debate, whatever.

During play, the umpire is always right - even on Pluto.