Tablet Computers and Education

Today on Slashdot there were two particular articles, interesting enough by themselves, but moreso in juxtaposition. The first was Do e-readers spell the demise of traditional learning making the case that with unlimited texts available on e-readers, students will need tutors more than the traditional teacher. The other article on Is e-learning a viable option? made the case for banning tablets in the classroom altogether. So which is it? Are teachers or tablets going to be left out? I've seen rumblings for years about the education system needing a major overhaul, like this article. Will e-readers or tablets be the tipping point? What are the back-end systems that will support the new modalities of learning? The current crop of Blackboard, Moodle, Sakai, and the like just clearly don't have the structure in place to support tablets and dynamic e-learning. They're built as an internet augmentation to the classic classroom structure, not a new paradigm. What do you think?

OddPost

Yesterday, once again, I received no mail from the United Stated Postal Service. I really must write the Postmaster General about the declining quality and quantity of the mail I've been receiving.

Against the ebbing tide, I've noticed an odd pattern of late, though. I ordered a microphone a while back from my favorite audio source, Sweetwater. They shipped it by FedEx. All well and good. I happily tracked it along until it got to Atlanta. There, FedEx dropped it in the mail to me and was done with it. The tracking ended and I received the mic a few days later. Really Odd, I thought. Then this week I re-ordered checks. Yes, I'm Neanderthanl. The checks shipped via DHL (didn't know they were still going!) but again, as soon as the package got to Atlanta, DHL handed it off to the USPS, this time with a tracking number. Has anybody else noticed this new hybrid shipping scheme? What's the logistical wrinkle that makes this cost-effective?

Why Open Source Software is Like Jazz

I like Jazz, especially bebop and cool. Jazz is both a style and repertoire. The style sets the rules of the game: the rhythms, chord progressions, etc. The style sets the framework within which improvisation can take place. But sometimes overlooked, but just as important, is the repertoire. Early jazz artists all knew the same core of songs, like Sweet Georgia Brown that they could all play together and improvise around, a common ground where all the players can participate.

Open Source Software is similar. Open Source is both a license and a process. The license, GPLv2 or MIT or whatever, sets the parameters of what can and can't be done. But often overlooked is the process by which open source software gets written: the collaborative, give-and-take of programmers creating small gems of contributions, filling in corners, adding functionality, pushing and stretching the borders of what the software can do. This collaboration is similar to jazz's improvisation around the repertoire. It's the tools, design patterns, language idioms, conventions and collaboration that enable the construction of a larger piece.

Some outfits get one part of Open Source, but not the other. Some companies like SugarCRM or Magento, release their software under an Open Source license, but don't enable others to contribute. This is like a jazz performer playing an original composition. It may fit the Jazz style, but nobody can join in the playing. Others like Salesforce.com have an open development platform, but the license isn't open, so that the rules of the game aren't set by the players. It's like the manager dictating to the band the style of music they can play, e.g. only Hard Bop. If the band's style can't grow and evolve, they feel increasingly constrained, lose enthusiasm and move on.

Recap: just as Jazz is both a style and repertoire, Open Source is both a license and a process. It takes both to be successful.

The Thirty-Year T-Shirt

t-shirt reading 'where experience and informed courage count for much' Way back in 1981, when I got my first Unix system to administer, there was a section of the manual for us SysAdmins to learn from: Section 8. One page titled 'CRASH' contained distilled, helpful advice on what to do when a system crashes. One paragraph addressed 'Repairing Disks' and had the sentence "This is an area where experience and informed courage count for much." I though that was a nice turn of phrase and remarked to my co-worker, Danny Cox, that I'd love to have that on a t-shirt. The years marched by, the computer was sold as scrap, and even the building it was in was torn down. But I kept the manuals. I looked that page up the other day to see if it was as I remembered. Sure enough, my memory ran true. So I finally broke down, went to cafepress.com and constructed my t-shirt. It arrived this week and here's the photo. Yes, I tried to take a photo of me wearing it in the mirror, but I ended up looking like a MySpace refugee.

Moral of the story? I dunno. Maybe that in the Internet age of instant gratification, that waiting 30 years for a t-shirt I wanted shows delayed gratification? or extreme laziness?

More practical moral: the cafepress process is pretty nice, and when you're done with making something for yourself, you can easily set up an onlike 'shop' and offer it to your friends so they can buy one as well.

The Unbrowsable Library

My last post about libraries got me thinking. Libraries are trying to change to adapt to the times, but are all the changes for the better? Here's one example: the new University of Chicago library will have no books that you can browse. When you want a book, you go to a computer terminal, click on the the listing of the book you want, a robotic arm in an underground chamber brings up a metal box that contains the book you want and about a hundred others to the circulation desk. The librarian pulls out the book you want and has it waiting for you at the circulation desk. It should take about five to ten minutes. All very high-tech and wonderful, but it saddens me. For me, part of the joy of going to the library is to browse what's on the shelves. To be looking for a book and find a better one is pure joyous serendipity. To have to know what you're looking for before you find it would for me kill a lot of the joy of the library. Yes, the new U of C library is better for the staff and the books, but is it really better for the patron?

Thinking Out Loud About Libraries

The other day we went to the newly expanded and re-opened Union County Public Library in Blairsville. I admit it, being a bookworm I've always loved libraries. The new library is much improved from the old one, but this and other libraries are changing. The most-used room seems to be the computer lab, which Lora reports as being full on her last visit there. They now have paperbacks and old books they give away or sell for dollar-store prices. Probably only around 5% of the floorspace is dedicated to adult non-fiction. Other idiosyncrasies can be chalked up to the local demographics rather than the changing times, e.g. Lewis Grizzard volumes outnumber Tolstoy six-to-one, and they still have VCR tapes to loan. In any event, the library is changing, but can it change enough? Is it a dead-end or will it still be of value in the future? Some say the library will be obsolete by 2020, replaced by the web and the Kindle. If that day comes, I shall mourn, and put my library card on the 'things past' shelf next to my slide rule and cassette tapes.

Like old Tube Radios

Well, what goes around, comes around. Remember in the old days of tube radios and TVs? You'd have to plan your viewing or listening pleasure ahead of time. You'd turn on the set, then sit around and let it warm up for a while before you could enjoy the program. Then came transistor radios and instant-on TVs. Push a button for instant gratification. Nowadays the good old days are back again. If I want to listen to the news via the Internet at the top of the hour from an Atlanta radio station, I first fire up a browser, the enter the url in the address bar, wait for the page to load, click on the 'listen now' button, wait for the player window to open and the player to load, connect to the station, then listen to the pre-roll commercial, then finally listen to the program I wanted to hear. How simple is that? Yes, it makes the old tube radios seem like a pleasure by comparison!

Entertaining Vigilantes

The other night we watched the first few episodes of Leverage, which we're enjoying so far. For those unfamiliar with the made-for-TNT series, here's the plot outline: they're vigilantes. So this got me thinking about vigilantes in entertainment, alone or in groups. Clearly Bronson's Death Wish is a lone vigilante. I wouldn't count the Count of Monte Cristo as one, as it was all personal revenge for him. So not too many loners, probably because you can't have too much good dialog. Vigilantes in media often come in pairs: The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Batman and Robin, the Green Hornet and Kato. I'll let you decide if the Knight Rider is solo or not. How about Don Quixote and Sancho Panza? And of course, vigilantes come in packs. The prototype of these would be Robin Hood and his Merry Men. More recently we have the Mission Impossible team, the A-Team and now Leverage. So how do you like your vigilantes? solo, duo, or in a band? My guess is that Vigilantes in entertainment are more popular when people feel oppressed and powerless. But are there cultures where vigilantes are more popular? If so, is there a cultural solo vs. group vigilante preference?

The Most Wonderful Small Electric Appliances

In shopping for a new waffle iron on Amazon the other day, I came across the most wonderful line of small electric appliances made by Smart Planet. They include the electric corn dog maker, the electric mini-donut maker, the electric donut-hole maker, the electric waffle cone maker, and most impressive to me, the electric pigs-in-a-blanket maker. (only 12 left in stock, order soon!! 5-star rated!) Lora said we'd need to add a new room to our house, just to store these beauties. I'm guessing a new electric sub-panel as well. What's really frightening is that Amazon reports that the pigs-in-a-blanket maker, the the corn-dog maker and the mini-donut maker are 'frequently bought together'. Wedding gifts, maybe? or the opposite: what a newly-divorced guy would buy for himself?

Lawn Statuary

vegas elvisIn our morning walks, we sometimes pass a nearby house (doublewide?) with a concrete statue of an angel out front. Not the former 'lawn jockys' of my youth. Between Dahlonega and Gainesville is a company that makes lawn statuary: turkeys, dinosaurs, pigs, all the concrete statuary you need to make your lawn the envy of the neighborhood. I need to stop by and talk to them about my proposed product. My idea is simple and should be a best-seller: Elvis. Particularly the 'Vegas Elvis' with the white jumpsuit. One could embed colored cut-class gemstones in it. I'm telling you, we could make a fortune. I can just see the Elvii among the vinca right now.

AC/DC

Today I was driving past a 1 Megawatt solar power installation and got thinking about power distribution. One of the troubles with solar is that solar panels put out DC, while our homes use AC. The whole AC/DC fight goes back to Edison/Westinghouse/Tesla/Steinmetz, etc and is a longer story than I can go into here. Edison wanted to run homes on DC, everybody else knew the only way to conduct electricity over long distances was AC, so our homes run on AC. All well and good until rooftop solar power shows up, generating DC. The traditional solar setup then stores the energy in batteries, runs an DC-to-AC converter, synchronize it to the grid, and use it.

But let's look at how we use it once it comes out of the receptacle. My computer changes that AC wall power to DC for the machine. So does my cell phone charger, battery charger, TV, amp, PS3. In short, everything in my house except lights and things with motors changes the AC to DC before it can use it. When LED lighting comes about in the next few years, move the lights to the DC column as well. So here's my radical notion: start transitioning house current to DC. Initially this would be a separate 12 volt distribution system in the house. Once standards are set, then electronics manufacturers could start making alternative DC adapters in addition to the AC adapters (power bricks) we now use. There's already lots of manufacturing capacity and engineering knowledge built around 12 volt DC systems, since that's what cars run on.

The advantages of this system are numerous: solar power would be much more efficient and economical since you don't have to convert their output to AC, power supplies (and power bricks) would be smaller, cheaper and more efficient. And best of all, we start to truly get the benefits of the long-touted 'smart-grid' systems because storing DC in batteries without having to convert it back to AC reduces complexity and loss. Did I mention that 12 volts DC is much safer than 120 volts AC? All in all, when we convert to LED lighting a few years hence, I think it's time to take a serious look at wiring homes with DC.

I'm sure hundreds of people have thought of this before, but I don't have a link into their fountain of knowledge. If anybody knows of a reference, drop me a note or post a comment to this blog entry.

Hurricane Season

Yesterday started the Atlantic Hurricane Season. So everybody load up your 10-gauges, get that license and head for the Gulf. Hope everybody bags their limit this year. Be safe and have fun!

What Waffle House Should Offer

I was walking along Peachtree a while back and saw it was standing room only at Gladys Knight's Chicken and Waffles. I did some investigation and found the wikipedia article on chicken and waffles. It occurred to me that this would be a prime dish for Waffle House to serve up. True, it's generally fried chicken, which WH doesn't do, but it can be done with grilled chicken and gravy. How about it, WH team? You're famous for experimentation and shifting the menu around. Give it a shot!