Saturday, 28 February 2009

Internet radio ...

I've a new toy - an Asus AIR internet radio.

An Internet radio ? Exactly so, picks up audio streams from a list of around 10,000 stations out there on the internet and plays them like an old fashioned radio does, the point being thst if you want to listen to cool jazz from Boise State University (and they do have some cool stuff) you can, sat in my lounge room in Canberra, without having to have a pc or anything like that, just a box with a little wi-fi connection.

Setup was easy, plug it in, select wi-fi, enter the key, let it fiddle about with itself for a few seconds and suddenly we had a station list and a couple of clicks, Jazz FM from the UK.

The station list is an annoyance - the classification of stations is a little eccentric at times, but livable with. A lot of channel surfing is required to find out which stations you really like, especially as being on the dark side of the world, it's usually their night time or early morning shows you end up listening to.

And there's a bit of guessing going on, like there was tha cool classical jazz station I heard in Palo Alto, or a Dutch AM station I used to listen to sometimes when we lived in York, half remembered station names from a long time ago.

The other annoyance is that one only has a sprinkling of BBC stations, but no Radio 4, Radio 3, or Radio Scotland. Though you do get Radio 5 live and BBC radio 7 and 1xtra...

The loss of Radio 3 is a pain, but there's other classical music stations out there. Radio 4 and Radio Scotland are not such a loss due to the time difference, 11h in summer, 9h in (our) winter, it's more being able to catch up with news when something that might affect our friends happen.

[ has a listing of various feeds on the internet and it is possible to find and hand program the feed settings into the Asus but it's a pain - for example radio 3 is at]

The other pain is that streaming media seems to periodically overwhelm our Telstra broadband connection with numerous resets and rebuffers, but that's not the fault of the Asus AIR, more Telstra's problems providing a reliable adsl service with a non ridiculous over subscription/contention rate.

So I've a new toy. Like my ipod it provides me with access to a range of decent radio, thogh this time it's music radio rather than talk. It's like getting Sky TV on the UK - suddenly what was an adequate tv diet balloons out before setting down over a month or so to the subset of channels you really like.

I'll post more about this after we've had it for a month or so ...

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

webmail and the outsourcing dilemma ...

We all know that email has come to mean webmail as far as students (and possibly some others) are concerned. The convenience of being able to access email from any computing device anywhere with a nice interface far outweighs occasional slowness and browser incompatibilities. (Luddites might say the same is true of pine in an ssh session, but the Igeneration doesn't do I,C,^T,^X,y).

So webmail is a dominant meme, which leaves universities struggling to provide a decent webmail service. And universities are an interesting option as they usually have several tens of thousands of accounts, and a relatively high number of concurrent mail sessions.

Their other constraint is that everyone has a hotmail, a Gmail or a Yahoo account these days, and it's against these services that their offerings will be measured. Their web application has got to scale and look good, and preferably provide calendar/diary services, just like the free guys.

This constraint kills venerable web based mail only solutions such as squirrelmail, which is essentially an imap client written in php - no calendar integration and a design not optimal for handling large numbers of concurrent sessions.

So what to do? Well the choice comes down to outsourcing, of whom the most recent example is Adelaide , or maintain the in house service. Outsourcing is perhaps easier for student email than for staff, as there is less risk of corporate data being compromised, and less need to restore and find missing messages - basically less need for legal discovery and the like. Restricting in house provisioning to staff reduces the scale of the problem and makes a whole range of rich messaging solutions sustainable.

As an aside, it could be argued that universities could simply ask students to have an email account as Boston College has done. This has also been the de facto mode of operation for a number of public universities in France, Spain and Italy where the large numbers of students has defeated the provision of robust email services and students have, to a greater or lesser extent, defected to the 'free' webmail services.

Of course, no university really wants to be first to stop providing email services for students - too much risk of ridicule. So we're left with the outsourcing/in house dilemma.

Outsourcing is basically just a variant on telling students to go and use Google, Hotmail, or whatever, with perhaps a bit more account provisioning neatness and integration with some in house course scheduling services.

But in house provision. It's expensive in terms of server and staff resources, and there's not that many solutions out there. Well, there's two common solutions. Zimbra, as used by Stanford among others, and there's the Sun Java Communications server. Both provide an outlook style web client and imap services. Both scale relatively well. Both are relatively cheap to education. Both need an expensive infrastructure in terms of servers and storage to support it. And both are subject to students defecting to use the free web mail systems . And we need to think about security and the leakage of corporate data.

Separating staff and student email might help reduce the leakage of data by keeping all the corporate stuff in one place. Certainly having the stuff in one place makes it easier to implement security measures, deal with legal discovery, and generally makes the legal framework easier.

And if you do that there's a temptation to enusre that the institution's business processes run well be expending more effort on the corporate system at the expense of the student system. Which leads to students voting with their feet, abandoning it, and progressively making the case for outsourcing stronger and stronger. And possibly, departments or facultues doing their own thing as staff want to be able to communicate easily with their tutor groups, and incidentally causing a raft of management problems (jont course students for one) and differnetial provision

So where does this leave us?

  • Outsourcing staff/corporate email is messy, if only for a whole lot of reasons in the legal space
  • The scaling problems usually apply to student email - there's more of them than staff
  • Separating staff and student email makes it easier to outsource student email
  • Outsourcing student email can be rationalised as a dollars and cents decision
  • Not outsourcing can result in mass defection to the free providers if the service isn't perceived to be as good as the free guys
  • Poor provision can result in a mass of alternate smaller scale systems which can buy a raft of other problems

All in all, there seems to be no one good answer, other than to say outsourcing staff email may be more problematic than one might hope ...

Sunday, 22 February 2009


Every year I grow some tomatoes, as well as some other vegetables. Think of it as a form of catharsis.
This year has not been one of my best, the tomato plants went in late, the snails ate all the zucchini and asian vegetables, the pumpkins are all stalk and no gourd, the runner beans have refused to set, but as of this morning I have got some pretty good tasting organic tomatoes, enough to make a pretty good tomato, basil (for some reason the snails left those alone) olive and feta salad...
Sometimes small triumphs are the most satisfying!

Monday, 16 February 2009

poetry is cathartic ...

Interesting thing from the Telegraph that writing poetry is cathartic. And I think we could probably say the same about quite a few blogs. And from personal experience, putting pen to paper and trying to structure ideas does help you understand things, as the act of trying to articulate helps.

Probably also why so many late night uni converstaions result in acts of wacky brilliance (or looniness ,,,)

twitter and getting the message out (again)

I've been musing about Twitter again. The short 140 character message format is good but in itself nothing special.

Twitter seems to the vibe of the week at the moment, with Stephen Fry tweeting he's stuck in a list to the recent twestival. However there's enough outside of the inane and self-obsessed to suggest twitter is a useful technology.

The real enabling power of Twitter is the ecology around it - multiple easy ways and tools to get your messages into twitter from your phone, or via email from a Vt100 window, and tto distribute messages by a feed to your facebook page, to a sidebar on your blog page - just look to the right ;-) - etc etc.

And it's the social aspect that's key. Just as facebook's proposition is to let you know what your friends and acquaintances are doing twitter lets you tell them easily what you're doing, and as they are people likely to have a passing interest in what you're doing the message will get out.

So as in Mumbai, as in the Victorian bushfires, twitter got the message out, not because of the technology but because of the ecology around it.

And this has implications. In the wake of the Virginia tech shootings there was a massive push by a number of universities to implement an emergency contact system that basically sent a lot of sms (text) message to people's phones.

Doing this isn't perfect. It takes time to send several thousand sms messages, and in the case of somewhere like a university where you have a large number of recipients in a single cell, over load the cell, and cause a distribution backlog. Not good for a time critical message.

A message pushed out over social networks, pushed out to status messages on websites is probably just as effective. This doesn't necessarily mean that you don't try and send sms's, but that information should be pushed out as many separate ways as possible, including as an rss feed which can then be refactored and redistributed.

Certainly this would be effective for system status messages and other less critical information, knowing "it's down" or even "it's still down" is possibly good enough. What I can't quite sort out in my mind is how good twitter and the like are at pushing out time critical information - after all "we're all ok" or even "the end of the street is on fire" are very different messages from "evacuate now" where in the latter case timeliness is critical.

It's like the difference between "campus is closed due to storm damage" and "lock yourself in, nutter with gun on campus".

The trouble is that it is the ones where timeliness is most important there's more risks of overloading the distribution network ...

Thursday, 12 February 2009

The twitter feed ...

You may remember twittermail's use of tinyurl caused me a little bit of grief initially, purely due to my failure to read the documentation.

Well, they've changed it so it no longer uses tinyurl by default, which means that I need to remember to encode any long links by hand, either using tinyurl or the ANU's quicklink service, which is a similar service to tinyurl to which we restrict off campus access, although the generated short url's are usable anywhere.

Of course I don't know this, I only believe this. Let me know via the 'contact the geek' button if this isn't working for you ...

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Playing with old machines ,,,

One of the threads to this blog has been playing about with old machines and getting linux running on them.

This has been an unstructured project of mine (aka buggering about in the garage) to get a feel of what we can actually do to re-use old hardware and make it usable.

Obviously we're never going to get the latest and greatest, but I can assert that for $20 plus a bit of effort you can turn an old ppc imac into something usable.

It's not perfect, but it's uable and better than nothing. Give one to a school in a remote aboriginal community and it would let them email, surf the web and so on. It would enable things. And doing this is cheap enough that it doen't matter if it breaks or gets stolen.

This of course doesn't mean we should go and dump all our old hardware on grateful aboriginal communities. The hardware that's given has got to work, got to be usable, ie have some value to them. And always we have to consider the cost of network infrastructure, and support.

What it does mean is that we can supplement any existing infrastructure cheaply. These machines would mean that people with no or limited access have a bit more access, and the build process is simple enough that communities could both rebuild and configure new machines themselves given some training - the confidence thing.

The same thing goes for people in cities who do not have access to a computer. The software base that comes with these machines is good enough to let them do job applications, apply for social security, health benefits and yet the hardware is cheap enough to be given away (assuming of course they can always get network access at a cost they can afford).

Not difficult, do able and again the building and configuration could be done as part of a community development project, and one that probably gives more satisfaction than making concrete pavers.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Bushfires, social media, and news journalism

As during last year's Bombay tragedy, the social media have again played a key role in getting the news out, letting people tell their loved ones that they were safe, and in spreading the information, all without seriously overloading the already strained phone networks.

Likewise the use of rss and twitter has allowed the authorities to spread information without overloading their own servers by allowing other sites to pick up and redistribute information without one particular site being overloaded.

And this tells us something very interesting about the process of getting the news out. While journalists at the ABC, the Age and the Australian, among others, did a sterling job of collating and communicating the event, it was the user uploaded photos, the flickr photostream, the tweets, that told the story. Journalism had become reportage, not reporting.

For ourselves, we huddled safe in Canberra avoiding the searing 40C heat outside and hoping that friends and family in Victoria were safe, and that fires didn't develop closer to home. Even then new technology touched us.

We used the internet to listen to the ABC Melbourne 774 stream for detailed news of what was happening, to check news websites, and to listen to the Radio Scotland morning news to find out what friends and family in Scotland would hear so that we would know how accurate the news was and what to say to explain and spread reassurance that we were safe.

Monday, 2 February 2009

For better performance add memory...

way back in November I built up a second old imac as a linux machine. To be honest with only 128Mb RAM performance was only good enough for proof of principle, but not for anything real.

So I went hunting and bought another 128MB PC100 RAM second hand off ebay for $8.50 from someone in Queensland. Stuck it in and Whoo, what a performance difference.

So that's another usable linux machine for home an pleasure for under $20 - pretty good for an addition to the economy computing stable. Strange that the most expensive thing out of the lot of them was the sun lcd monitor ...