Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Staffordshire hoard

I've been resisting blogging about the hoard and its origins until I happened across A CommonPlace Book's post on the subject. And I cracked - can't resist putting my two cents in.

Like the man said - who has that many gold sword pommels?

Almost all the material is of AngloSaxon origin, but much has been made of the presence of the rolled up crosses and the gold helmet strip with a quote from the book of numbers being evidence of their being christianity in west Mercia rather earlier than previously thought - Mercia being considered to be a rather pagan sort of place in the seventh century.

I think the date of the find is the real key to its possible origin. If it dates from the late 600's/early 700's as some writers have supposed it dates from a time when Mercia was expanding westwards into the territory of the Welsh successor states, and it could be argued that the christian artefacts were booty from some frontier raid, and the raiders were themselves attacked - by whom is an open question, and the hoard buried for safe keeping, to be returned for later. Certainly 67 seems low for a large raiding party, but 200 - say sixty odd thegns and a couple of retainers each seems right for a large raiding party.

Push the dates back to the late 700's/early 800's when the frontier had stabilised around Offa's dyke the argument becomes difficult to sustain, especially as Mercia was though to be considerably less pagan by then. It doen't mean however that group A didn't engage in some attack on group B and were later attacked by group C - rather that the scenario built around a raid into the welsh lands is less likely.

However the presence of some christian material in the hoard does not imply anything about the beliefs of the hoard takers, only that there were some people about who professed christianity and had people around who could write in bad latin. If the possible earlier date for the hoard stands up, I don't think the people who made these artefacts were necessarily the same as those who owned the sword pommels.

But this is all just speculation - what the hoard reveals is how little we know of the development of Saxon settlement in Mercia.

Friday, 25 September 2009

flickr, object caching, and the staffordshire hoard

Well by now we're all agog about the Staffordshire hoard, and damn' fascinating it is.

But there's one interesting feature - photographs of the objects are hosted on Flickr, not on some institutional repository somewhere. Clearly this will have been done to avoid having an individual server overwhelmed, but it does start having implications for the rest of us.

These pictures are available out there as a resource. Newer learning management systems such as Moodle 2 can harvest from data sources such as flickr, and the material can then be incorporated in course material and the like.

However this starts having implications for bandwidth and storage. Local caching gives predictable performance and ensures continued availability of the digital object at the expense of disk space. Repeated fetching of the object has an impact on bandwidth, a concern here on the dark side of the world.

Both of these options have pros and cons but both have cost implications. How significant these will be is still opaque (to me at least).

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Goldfish moment ...

Even have one of these? You know, when you're doing something else entirely different and something just pops into your head and you go Oh - just like a goldfish?

Well I've just had one.

Twenty or more years after I last taught mailmerge using Wordstar's macro language I've just realised why the comment command was .ig - of course it was for ignore. Doh!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Privacy, eportfolios and social networks

While I was at Ausakai I went to a presentation about PebblePad. Pebblepad is sof course not part of Sakai and the presentation was basically about why an external application had been chosen in preference to using Sakai's own eportfolio application.

One of the more interesting findings was that students liked having a separate application - the learning management system was, well the learning management system, and felt to be owned by the institution, while the eportfolio application was felt to be private and sort of like an academic facebook or myspace page in which the student could generate personas and reveal what they wished to whom, something that accords with the Helsinki university finding that people tend to manage their privacy on social networking sites naturally.

This suggests that there may be a requirement for a service that allows people to make a personal statement or more accurately personal statements about themselves. After all to some people I'm a man who likes cats, to others I'm a roman and early medieval history geek, and yet others a respected IT professional, and to be able to separate their lists of friends/contacts accordingly ...

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Bathurst and Ausakai

Bathurst, the venue for Ausakai09 deserves a mention.

Originally, given its association with beef rearing, Mount Panorama and motor racing I'd tended to assume that it was, heaving with men with shaven heads and straggly beards, utes, and to misquote that Victoria Bitter ad, brought to you by the men who've had their hand up a cow's bum.

And while it's true it was a little bit country, it was a perfectly pleasant little town with some decent restauarants and pubs, and some nice looking streets of Federation and art deco houses. Definitely not the last place on earth you'd stop - probably the presence of Charles Sturt helps keep things a bit more snazzy.

The conference itself was held a typical university conference venue with the same fairly soulless conference accomadation. If it wasn't for the screeching cockatoos it could have been Birmingham, Warwick, Nijmegen, Stanford or any of a half dozen other places I've been to conferences at.

In fact the only downside was wireless access. This was severly overloaded and went through a portal that seemed to be a bit snotty about talking to the ookygoo. Definitely a downside, and the first time I've felt the need for a 3G phone and a data contract to allow me to check my email ...


Ausakai09 was the annual conference of sakai users in Australia and was held this year at Charles Sturt University (CSU) in Bathurst. CSU are seriously committed to Sakai and run a heavily customised instance based around sakai 2.4 as a student LMS solution.

Given CSU's geographically distributed multi campus nature a robust VLE solution is clearly key for them.

Why did I go?

Currently we run an outsourced version of moodle as our VLE but use Sakai 2.4 as our collaboration platform, basically a poor man's sharepoint. We are currently updating this to 2.6. However I have a number of questions:

  • Do we have too many products in the mix?
  • Could Sakai replace Moodle, or vice versa?
  • Collaboration requires social networking like features - does either Moodle2 or Sakai3 support these?
  • To what extent will these products interwork with Googledocs, flickr and the rest?
  • Could either product be used in place of a student (or indeed staff) portal eg Melbourne graduate studies portal?
  • How likely is either product to deliver?

With Moodle the answer is quite clear. Moodle2 will become available sometime in the December 2009 / February 2010 timeframe, will have a new respository style content focused architecture and will have support for plugins to import and export to flickr google docs and the rest and is aimed at the shared experience. With plugins for gmail and live@edu, calendaring and the rest moodle could provide the equivalent functionality as a student portal. (See my Moodleposium post for more details)

However while moodle could undoubtedly be run as a collaboration suite, especially given its new architecture, it promotes object reuse and repurposing.

Sakai is somewhat different. Sakai 2.4 and earlier versions tended to be more buggy than moodle and rather more freewheeling in their approach leading do a degree of confusion as to how to get tool x to do y. As of 2.6 the foundation has been putting in place management measures to ensure better QA on the code and as of 3.0, not only will there be a new respository style architecture promoting object resuse, and integration with flickr, gdocs etc but there will be a strict style guide to ensure that all application conform to a common look and feel - basically if 2.4 was linux, 3.0 will be the mac - everything works more or less the same way.

Architecturally, sakai3 makes more use of other open source projects, eg shindig, apache jackrabbit to become more modular more component based, making the environment easier to maintain and easier to build. Objects in the repository store will have metadata controlling their resuse, basically access control is on a per object basis, rather than on a per site basis as in 2.4 and 2.6.

Sakai 3 includes the concept of scholarly social networking in recognition that much academic work involves collaboration, including integration with google docs, and has an architecture that allows the building of connector apps. One nice aspect is its idea of a universal inbox, one where there are sakai instant messages, and imap and pop connectors to pull email out of other mail systems.

Coupled with shibboleth and credential caching for single sign on and ical calendar subscription this would appear to give the ability to provide a portal out of the box. Sakai3 also is cloud storage aware and will scale to support very large sites with many many objects in the repository.

So basically sakai 3 looks on paper to be ideal application.

However, timing is everything. Unlike Moodle2 Sakai3 will not ship until sometime in 2011, with 2.6 going EOL in 2011. The last version currently planned off the Sakai 2 code base will be 2.7 and that will go EOL in 2012.

Sakai 2.6.0 whipped without a Wysiwyg editor for the wiki tool, zip and unzip functionality and an enhanced version of the FCKeditor.

All are envisaged for a 2.6.1 service pack.

The question is therefore if Moodle2 ships without problems, and given that there is a strong market out there for VLE solutions will sakai start looking old and tired with its 2.6/7 architecture. Sakai could start to look very poor in comparison as a collaboration architecture, although features such as the new profile tool, which is much more facebook in its approach - a facebook for learning - enhances collaboration within an institution.

Sakai 2.4 certainly works for us as a collaboration plaform and the same is true of 2.6 for Melbourne's graduate studies portal. The question really is will Moodle 2, be good enough to replace these use cases, given the desire to reduce the number of products. Only time, and testing, will tell. Certainly the demo version of sakai 3 at 3akai looks promising.

Health warning: The views in this post are my own and not those of my institution.

Ruso and the disappearing dancing girls

one of my oddities is a love of reading historical mystery novels, particularly ones set in the Roman period. (I once used to be a regular contributor to the Detective and the Toga, which possibly says something about me ...)

Well I've just finished Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing girls by Ruth Downie and it was good, very good. Got the same rush that I got when I first happened across the Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis in the late lamented Murder One bookstore in London twelve or so years ago.

Try it - if you like early Falco novels you'll like this one ...

PS if you live in Australia or New Zealand order from the excellent Bookdepository - much cheaper than Amazon and excellent service

Do you want an espresso with your google?

Out of the back of digital archiving and access to rare and out of print media I've been banging on about services like faber finds and how this will eventually cause a revolution in the book trade. There's now an interesting post on Wired about how you can now order paper copies of digitised out of print books via a range of booksellers in the US.

I'm now waiting (a) for the LuLu's and CreateSpaces of the world to start offering this as a mail order service, and (b) for your local Borders or A&R to start offering a service where you can bring in an sd card with a book dowloaded from Project Gutenberg or whoever to your e-reader originally and which you can then turn into a printed book for a few bucks

It's going to be an interesting couple of years ...

Friday, 11 September 2009


something else for the cool tools thread.

I happened across this while playing with ning to make a dummy social network, such as you would do for conference participants. What Huddle does is allow you to create mini workspaces for project groups that are private to that group, but visible to the owner. Thus you could create a set of workspaces for individual project groups, which are invisible to other members network who are not part of the project team but visible to the network owner, eg a translation workshop working on different bits of the same text.

Their education flier can be downloaded from http://www.huddle.net/business-solutions/huddle-for-education, and there's a canned presentation at http://www.slideshare.net/ULCCEvents/fote-alastair-presentation.

The real value is being able to graft a more closed environment to an open environment, so that you get this mix of workspaces in a social environment. Certainly the idea of closed and open is extremely powerful and, unlike BuddyPress doesn't make your social network too social.

Certainly worth further investigation.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

google and bing oddity

it's not really an oddity. There's a rational explanation.

A long time ago I responded to a Guardian Notes and Queries query about togas and horse riding.

Now when I do a search for my name all sorts of things I have no memory of saying or writing appear, but never this one - I'm guessing because no one has ever linked to the page so it floats as a little content orphan ...

So in theory, now there's a link to it it should appear in due course - we'll see.


Last Monday I went to the Moodleposium, the moodle event held jointly between the University of Canberra, ANU and CIT and Netspot to whom these three institutions had outsourced hosting their moodle based LMS solutions.

The event was full to bursting with over 270 people attending. Made me quite nostalgic for the mid nineties when I used to organise similar events on the uptake of windows in UK universities [Internet archive link]. Plenty of people were taking pictures and live blogging, and doubtless tweeting - searching for moodleposium on google and flickr will bring up alternative takes (for example this one from UC) on the event. (I'm old school - notes on an A5 pad plus a bit of reflection and summary)

Now being a geek, I mainly concentrated on the technical sessions including Martin Dougiamas's presentations on Moodle 2 but my key takeaways from the non technical sessions I attended are:

  • Social networking is implicit in most LMS use
    • a proportion of users expect social interaction
    • can also deliver this via a shared blog, wiki, or some other experience like shared google docs spreadsheet
    • social interaction cannot be imposed - users all use the system in a different way
      • distance ed students have a greater need of social networking to build a community
  • Need to expect use of repurposed material from YouTube, flickr etc
  • Need to move from a text centric to a mixed media environment
  • Need to be clear what is pedagogy and what is there to enhance the student experience

Learning and teaching is changing, and while LMS's were originally viewed as a framework to deliver reading lists, lecture notes and podcasts of the lectures in a uniform format for students who couldn't make every class, the LMS solution has changed the university experience.

Likewise the use of wiki's, shared editing in Google Docs, blogs has changed the nature of teaching, with non-linear electronic and by implication mixed media replacing classic linear paper media. For example, a wiki as an online daybook can show how a student researching a special topic has come to grips with the material etc etc.

The other interesting thing is that no one seemed terribly concerned about privacy - technology conquered all.

And then there's Moodle 2:

Essentially some architectural changes - more modular and also more repository like (database and pointers to file objects, with implicit single instancing), user and group level access controls and a hierarchical structure - again as it's database driven this is not reflected in any underlying disk structure.

At which point your learning management system starts looking like a content management system.

The other thing that Moodle 2 does is it embraces mashup technology and has repository connectors allowing the import and reuse of content from flickr, Google docs, YouTube etc etc. There is also a portfolio API to allow export to GoogleDocs, flickr, alfresco and the like allowing the creation of day books, private collections and private views - say a course portfolio for tutors, another for prospective employers, etc - not just a CMS but a meta cms.

There will also be reasonably tight integration to both Google Apps (including a Gmail block) and at Microsoft's request and similar layer for live@edu and exchange.

This does beg the question however at which point the LMS becomes the student portal - after all all the basic functionality is there.

Moodle 2 also introduces the concept of hubserver - essentially a server to which courses are exported for reuse, to create a global course collection.

To upgrade to Moodle 2 you will require PHP 5.2.8 or greater, MySQL 5.025/PostGres 8.3 although MSSQL and Oracle are also supported. Early adopters might find Linux performance to be better than in the Microsoft environment as Microsoft development tends to lag slightly.

As the underlying filesystem has changed to a database and pointer style repository model any third party filesystem tools will break, as will any database based tools.

Currently testing is scheduled to be finished by December 2009 for deliver in February 2010, although no commitment has been made to meeting these dates.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Outsourcing student email

updated 10/09/2009

Outsourcing of student email is very much a theme for this year. And I personally can never remember who has outsourced to whom.

Consequently, to keep track of this I've started a little Google Docs spreadsheet to list which university is doing what.

It's now reasonably complete, but there may be a number of errors as my methodology was pretty crude - go to each university's home page - search for webmail, and from the login screen try and guess the system used. Consequently I'm sure that there's some inaccuracies. As 'other' encompasses a range of solutions including webmail clients to other mail solutions eg dovecot I havn't attempted to categorise things further.


Of the universities checked, outsourcing is in the minority, with most preferring to host in house.

A number of universities, eg UTS, have used exchange labs as a staff email system while maintaining an older in house system for students. One might think this was a prelude to an end of semester migration of student email, but then one might be completely wrong.

Of the outsourced, microsoft is in the clear majority with Windows live.

Please advise me of any updates or errors in the spreadsheet.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Evolution of folk tales

I've just tweeted a link on the evolution of folk tales on which I want to say a little more.

Once when watching Xena Warrior Princess (yes, I know) I was suddenly struck by the fact that the centaurs were also smiths. Now Xena had plotlines that were clearly plundered from Roman and Greek myth and history - I always suspected a rogue classicist in the script writing department - so I checked it out. Yes the Centaurs knew how to work iron, and then I suddenly realised that the centaur tale was about the invasion of a people who made iron tools and rode horses - and probably had its origins in the greek dark ages.

Such a story shouldn't surprise us. The Incas, we know, were initially confused by the Conquistadores.

So folk tales usually encompas something that someone thought important enough - either as history to be remembered - such as the earleir sections of the Anglo saxon chronicle - or as a way of imparting a warning or a truth in a way it would be remembered.

What the Telegraph article doesn't reveal is how the worked it out - certainly it would be interesting to do some cluster analysis to see how the variations were distributed through space (and time).

Friday, 4 September 2009

print on demand and amazon

earlier today I tweeted a link from the Times Higher Ed on print on demand in universities, which needs a little more comment.

Digitisation coupled with Print on Demand means that old, or obscure, books can be printed when someone wants them, meaning no inventory, no stockholding, no warehousing, and thus should substantially reduce the cost of scholarly publishing.

But of course low production and distribution costs don't really help if no one knows that the book is available, meaning that the whole PoD thing doesn't really happen.

In the last fifteen or so years the process of book buying has changed due to the rise of online retailers such as Amazon, and so has book searching - the Amazon catalogue now being used as a resource to track down books as their stockholding and marketplace listings have attained that critical mass that means just about everything can be got via Amazon.

And that's what is cool about university libraries getting their print on demand editions listed on Amazon - it makes them accessible.

It won't make them rich, it won't generate scads of custom, as let's face it, the books they're running as print on demand were never that popular, but then university presses were never meant to do popular.

Adam of Usk would have been chuffed!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

context, metadata, and synthesis

I've banged on about context before and what looking at the distribution of objects that are by themselves inconsequential can tell us. This is nicely brought together in this month's Internet Archaeology where by looking at the datasets of finds distribution it was possible to make sensible deductions about the spread of anglo saxon settlement in England.

Now most of these finds were 'informal' finds made by metal detectorists, ie finds made by people who go out looking for things on a weekend. And if they find an anglo saxon penny, say, it's really cool. And if all that happens is that the penny goes into a finds box in someone's house that's the end of it. Interesting, even fascinating, but useless.

The value in the find is recording the find in a database. That way we know that a coin of a certain type was found at a certain location, ie context .If more, similar coins are found in roughly the same area, it suggests that something important was happening in terms of a cash economy - remember a silver penny was worth something like $50 - where large amounts of cash were being handled.

(In fact let's just say that a silver penny was worth looking for if you dropped it - like the man in rural Morocco I tipped 5DH - something like a dollar - for helping me. He said thank you, tossed it in the air and promptly dropped it in a pile of rocks. To me it was a dollar and if I couldn't find it easily not worth looking for - to him is was 5DH and extra bread for his family and so he set about fossicking enthusiastically to find it.)

So context and aggregation of data. Of course the datasets need to be preserved and publicly accessible to allow them to be cross referenced - meaning we can ask questions like 'do we find pennies on trade routes?', 'do we find pennies in locations where we find wine jars?' and so on.

And from a digital preservation point of view, the power of Julian Richards' Internet Arachaeology paper is showing what significant synthetic research can be carried out using publicly accessible but properly archived data sets - basically the power of dataset reuse.

And that is why we need to preserve datasets and make them publicly accessible - elsewise they're just a pile of spinning 1's and 0's ...