Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Pericles commission

One of my oddities is my love of historical mystery novels especially those set in classical times. I know they’re fluff, but I enjoy them all the same especially when they are believable.

Stories, such as Lindsey Davies Falco series work because they are believable and set is in a sufficient complex and litigous society to support a complicated plot.

I recently read The Pericles Commission by Gary Corby – a mystery novel set in Athens just after the Persian wars. And this must have presented a problem to the author.

While Athens was becoming rich, there were no gleaming buildings on the Acropolis, instead Athens was a cluster of mud brick houses inside a wall huddling beneath the Acropolis hill. While there had been temples on the Acropolis they had probably been mudbrick and wood affairs that were burned in the Persian invasion. Before then Athens had probably been a fortified hilltop settlement not unlike the Celtic oppida Ceaser encountered in Gaul some four hundred years later.

In short, Athens in 461BC probably looked a lot like some of larger Berber towns in the south of Morocco that the French never quite controlled and remained essentially autonomous and outside the rule of law as understood in Rabat until relatively recently

And in the same way as these Berber towns lacked much in the way of external authority imposing the rule of law, Athens lacked much of the apparatus of a complex state, instead being a collective of individuals huddling together for protection, whose relations with one another were regulated by customary law, clever argument  and precedent.

And while doubtless murders took place in dark corners there is at first sight not much to make a story out of: A kills B, B’s family seeks out and kills A. Phillip Marlowe it is not.

What Corby does is simple, but incredibly clever. He builds a plot around the political fighting and backstabbing ( literally) that must have accompanied the end of oligarchical rule and the establishment of Athenian democracy. As such the story encompasses corruption, murder, double dealing and all these other fine accompaniements of a social revolution.

And in doing this he makes an enjoyable story, all the more enjoyable due to his understanding of the history of Athens, and because one could just about imagine it was true …

Friday, 25 February 2011

Ipads and Macbooks - an anecdote

I was in a sales presentation this morning. Nothing unusual in that, with the usual clutch of eager beavers toting iPads as tokens of their status (I stuck to an old apple leather folder and paper - interestingly not one of the eager beavers used their iPad to take notes).

What was interesting was that a couple of people said that they'd tried iPads, found limitations - like using email on a glass keypad and not having a standard (read Microsoft Office) wordprocessor and presentation tool available, and had changed to a Macbook Air as what they really liked about the iPad was the weight and the screen size, and the Air was near as dammit the same. And the near instant on was a definite plus ...

fun with nevernote

Yesterday, I blogged that Nevernote wasn't working for me on my Ubuntu 10.10 test box.

Here's what I did about it:

  • It's a test box. It's possible that I inadvertantly broke something so I decided first of all to try it with a couple of other distros
  • Debian. Chose this as Ubuntu is kind of like Debian and I've had good experiences with earlier Debian installs. Failed to install as it needed some third party network modules not included in the distro. I could have fixed this but for the want of a usb stick the install was lost ...
  • Mandriva - wiped the machine and installed Mandriva One which more akin to Red Hat and uses KDE rather than gnome as a default window manager. Downloaded the rpm of the latest (0.96) version of Nevernote which promptly failed to install with perl module incompatibility errors
  • Ubuntu 10.10. Downloaded and burned a fresh copy from the Ubuntu site in case there had been something amiss with my original download. Installed this along side Mandriva (I later discovered that my Ubuntu install had in fact trashed the Mandriva install, but such is life - I had planned to see if I could get an earlier version of Nevernote runing on Mandriva)
  • Did not install the suggested updates, keeping my machine as close to the original 10.10 install as possible.
  • Downloaded and installed the latest 0.96 version of Nevernote. This installed sluggishly and when started, hung just the same way as before. Removed this using computer janitor and rebooted.
  • Since I'd had troubles with the 0.95 version decided to install an earlier version and chose the 0.92 version, as it's release date had been 10/10/2010, the same as Ubuntu 10.10. Installed and it worked. Closed it down and restarted it and it still worked. Rebooted the machine and it still worked, and was fairly fast.
  • Downloaded and installed all the Ubuntu suggested updates. Checked NeverNote still worked. It did.
  • Added in my two favourite extra applications, AbiWord and KWrite, and NeverNote still worked. Did not install either Pan, or Pidgin, which I have in the past, and also did not reinstall the Grub Menu editor.
  • I then wiped the machine and rebuilt it, reinstalling NeverNote, AbiWord and Kwrite as a consistency check and indeed everything worked as it should.
So, while your mileage may vary, especially as I've built only built a version that works on specific hardware, if you're having problems getting the latest version of Nevernote to run on Ubuntu 10.10 I'd suggest reverting to 0.92. It is possible that 0.94 also runs well but I have not tested it. I've also not tested 0.92.1, which I probably should.

However Nevernote appears to work as installed and is fine for both synchronising and creating text notes.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Nevernote problems

Following along the Evernote thread, I decided to use Nevernote for real today and the application hung on my Dell 4300 with Qt.Jambi problems, much as it did when I was trying to install it.

I'm currently building a different linux installation to see if that fixes it. Given that it worked, all be it a tad sluggishly, on what was ostensibly an identical Ubuntu 10.10 installation on a VM I suspect it's my Ubuntu install and not a generic problem ...

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Evernote on Mac and Windows 7

I've played to a limited extent with Evernote on both Macintosh and Windows 7.

And certainly on Mac having a native client Evernote beats OneNote hands down, with nice integration to the browser and the ability to save pdfs of 'printed' documents into the notebook.

The user interface is not as slick as OneNote's native windows client, and the need to tag documents consistently needs a little more discipline than perhaps I possess. That said it works well and is a usable product.

I am less convinced about the windows client. Side by side with OneNote it seems clunky and, initially it seemed to lack the browser and printer subsystem integration features of the Mac client, giving it not much more functionality than working via OneNotes's web client.

However, while the Mac install asks you about preferred browsers and offers the Firefox extension, the Windows installation assumes that you of course want to use IE. Well about 30% of windows users, including me, prefer Firefox these days. Adding the Evernote firefox extension allows you to select text on a page and send it direct to Evernote.

There is still, however, no easy way of getting non web documents into Evernote via the printing subsystem as is possible in the Mac environment or with OneNote.

However having a native fat client makes it quicker to use than a web only solution and being multi-platform is a definite plus. Sychronisation between clients, even those on different platforms is unobtrusive and efficient - trul dropbox style sysnchronisation.

Evernote is not sufficiently good to make me want to dump OneNote. Its superior Mac client makes me prefer it for my professional data management work, purely because I tend to do that work on a Mac, and it is incredibly useful to also be able to access and work on that material from home where I normally, but not exclusively use and Windows 7 machine.

Equally I tend to pursue my historical and archaeological interests at home and OneNote's better integration with windows suits me better for that work.

At the moment I'm not using a linux based desktop for anything serious. Consequently, I've not explored Nevernote further. Where that to change having true cross platform integration might indeed prove to be the killer application for me. Until then Nevernote and linux integration remains a potentially useful feature rather than a 'must have'.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Evernote ...

Ever since I upgraded last year to a Windows 7 laptop as my primary home machine I've become quietly appreciative of many parts of the Windows/Office/Live ecology.

Despite the best efforts of OpenOffice/LibreOffice the products remain clunky and the addons to push documents out to Google Docs or Zoho doubly so. Word 2010's Save to Skydrive option is just so much more slick, and with the OfficeLive docs you can then see (and edit) documents with the web based version of word.

However, that's not the killer application - the killer for me is OneNote - the ability to build up a proper electronic notebook of documents and reference material, and make it shareable.

The ability in the windows environment to 'print' to One Note provides a simple, straightforward way of getting documents into your notebook - basically if you can view it, you can print it, you can capture it.

As well as a ragbag of work related stuff I've used OneNote extensively to assemble and organise the background material for my Sighelm project.

But there's one big problem with One Note - there's no native Office 2011 Mac client. You're stuck with the web client, and its limitations. And for me that's a problem. I use Macs a lot.

Now the web client is usable, and having a web client is a plus. It means you can access your notes from anything which can support a recent browser.

Great when I take my Linux based netbook to the library to type notes on journal articles directly in to the web client, less so when working with online sources on a MacBook or iMac with several windows and tabs open.

Having to open a new browser tab, login to Windows Live, select the text in the document that you want to capture, create a new page in One Note, paste it, caption it, is clunky compared to working with the native client.

So I've been on the look out for a multi platform OneNote equivalent.

Thanks to Greplin, I've happened across Evernote - a notebook application with native clients for windows and mac, dropbox style syncing between clients and the remote note store, clients for iPhone/iPad, and android, though no native Linux client. However there is a third party client for Linux NeverNote.

I've tested both the Mac and Windows clients and they seem to work reliably, although I've yet to put them to serious use.

As for the third party client for Linux I've installed NeverNote twice, once on on an Ubuntu 10.10 vm sitting on top of OS X via VirtualBox, and again on a Dell E4300 with Ubuntu 10.10.

Installing the current 0.96 just worked on my ubuntu vm, but while all the functionality was there it seemed a tad sluggish, which could be due to the Mac also doing quite a few things in the background - I'm one of those load process up and leave it running until it needs a reboot guys.

So I tested it on a real linux machine, a Dell E4300 with Ubuntu 10.10, and patched to the same level as the test Linux VM. This wasn't quite so smooth an experience.

The current 0.96 version downloaded smoothly but was sluggish installing, and failed to start, hanging at the splash screen. Re-installing, and downloading anew from a different sourceforge mirror didn't fix the problem, the system complaining about process Qt.jambi hanging when a reboot was forced.

Dropping back to 0.95 fixed the problem, with the application starting smoothly and running responsively.

However, note taking via the web interface on my netbook would be an alternative if we have a repeat of this and the installation didn't play nicely with my now slightly dated Eeepc 701.

Wikipedia has good article on Evernote, including details of third party clients.
Like a lot of software there's free and a rather more functional paid for service. Being a cheapskate I'm playing with the restricted free service and my comments should be taken in the light of this.

The interface isn't quite so slick as OneNote, more akin to an earlier generation of products such as Tranglos Keynote, but perfectly usable. With a browser addin to capture highlighted text capture is as easy as the 'print to notebook' trick in One Note, although obviously it only works in a browser, but then that's 90% of everything. On the mac client Evernote hooks into the printer subsystem allowing you to send a pdf to your notebook - which is pretty good.

I'm impressed enough with Evernote to say that I'll keep on playing with it and exploring its possibilities. In my experience notebook applications either work for you or they don't, its a very experiential thing.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Greplin ...

Currently playing in a desultory way with Greplin - an application that searches your gmail account, twitter stream, facebook account etc to find that key document or reference and that you can't find - basically automating these 'where the f did I see that' searches.

Greplin, the name obviously inspired by every indexer's favourite tool, grep, is a work in progress with new searches under development. My only gripe is that although they search both Google Dosc and Dropbox, they don't currently seem to have plans for searches of Windows Live skydrive or OneNote documents - both items I use extensively, skydrive as a pdf repository, and OneNote as a set of commonplace books, and that kind of reduces its usefulness to me though not its potential.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Egypt's Internet shutdown and cloud based services

Interesting article from the NYT on Egypt's Internet shutdown - doubly interesting for what it says about cloud services.

Essentially they stopped the packet flow in and out of the country - meaning that all these services that existed outside of Egypt, eg Windows Live, Gmail, Google Docs, Facebook, Twitter and so on stopped working.

Services inside of Egypt continued to work, so that universities were able to update their web pages but had no means of communicating with those of their students (most of them) who used one of the big three webmail providers.

Now let's think about what happened in a recent natural disaster - the Queensland floods. Both because a reasonable chunk of the infrastructure kept working and Australia is a nation of self-reliant resilient smartphone addicts, Facebook remained accessible even though domestic power was off and the old POTS lines (and hence ADSL) washed out.

The consequence was that it became a powerful tool in communicating with people and organising relief efforts.

If of course the 3G infrastructure and its external connections had died totally, all the smartphones would have turned into useless lumps of silicon and plastic.

And that is the lesson of the Egyptian experience for disaster management. The internet can go away at an infrastructure level cutting off access. Cloud based services continue to run because they are 'out there'. When planning new infrastructure in disaster prone areas physical resilience to maintain connectivity should be an important consideration, as should having standby equipment including satellite uplinks to get a limited service back running. Even if people can't call each other having the ability to post and receive messages allows people to communicate with loved ones and self organise

Monday, 14 February 2011

twitter, facebook and dictators ...

In the end, twitter didn't force Mubarak to step down, it was the generals.

The situation had become unsustainable and, to quote Cromwell:

“you have been sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of god, go!.”

The point about the twitter revolutions is that twitter, along with facebook, and the other tools allows people to communicate and to spread the message, and that these services use the same infrastructure, the internet, as everything else necessary to enable an online society. And as the experiment of turning off the internet in Egypt showed, a modern society cannot function for long without the internet. ATM's, online banking, trade, orders, and the rest cannot work. One might as well have tried to stop people writing protest banners by taking away all the pens.

In the old Soviet Union, the photocopiers were guarded to prevent their 'misuse', just as in early modern England (and quite a few other places) printers were licensed to stop unhelpful pamphlets being printed and circulated. Twitter facilitated the protest by allowing the angry and the disenfranchised to communicate and organise.

If they had not been angry, or if most people had been content, Mubarak would still be president.

Twitter allows people to give voice to their discontents. To quote Cromwell again:

Do not trust the cheering, for those persons would shout as much if you or I were going to be hanged.

Once something has been done once it can be done again.

Friday, 11 February 2011

whither university information services?

University Information services are almost universally a nineties phenomenon when universities merged their computing services with their libraries.

At the time the rationale was something like this:

  • Computing has moved to the desktop and increasingly we do not require teams of bearded and sandaled acolytes to perform incomprehensible acts of veneration at the console of the one big holy machine
  • Computing is increasingly about access to networked sources of information be they datasets on cd-rom or resources over the network
  • Libraries are also about access to information and that information is moving from the medium of dead trees to ones and zeroes.
This rationale was imperfect. It didn't consider fully the role of computing services in providing access to software for students by way of public access computer labs, the need to provide storage management and network connectivity - something which didn't really look a lot librarianship - information engineering perhaps. And of course books and journals were still printed on paper.

The gaps did show, and like a bad marriage, the real justification was often convenience. One set of administrators, one set of lab/library assistants etc.

So fifteen years on where are we?
  • Journals are overwhelmingly digital. Instead of working out where to put them, librarians manage subscriptions and with their information technology colleagues mediate access. Older articles are increasingly digitised on demand. A GoogleBooks mass digitisation style initiaitive could easily result in the disappearance of pre-digital bound journals
  • Books are going digital. Born digital print on demand is ideal for small volume scholarly publications, and even then print on demand is only really required for reference books. Books which are expected to be read linearly can be handled more than adaquately on an e-reader. One could imagine that librarians end up managing portfolios of e-books sourced from publishers repositories, with some form of DRM to inhibit mass piracy.
  • Google Books, Hathi trust and a number of similar initiatives will solve the long tail problem, and eventually every significant text will be available electronically
  • Students overwhelmingly have their own computers, usually laptops, on which they do their work. What they require is :
  1. pervasive network access
  2. pervasive access to resources
  3. printing services (although that is changing)
  4. access to some specialist applications and data
  • Pervasive network access means exactly that. Free or low cost wi-fi makes everything else possible
  • Pervasive access to resources - this means an authentication and authorization infrastructure that allows them access from anywhere to resources provided by their university - something which could be as simple as a reverse proxy service for journal access
  • Access to an execution environment to allow them to run particular expensive or complex applications for completion of their coursework.
So, what does this mean?

  • Network access is key. But there is no reason that it needs to be provided by the university directly - it could just as easily be outsourced to one of the big telcos
  • Traditional in house services like email and storage can be outsourced - google in the sape of google docs and Microsoft live can provide email and storage, and that most useful of services, a collaboration environment to share documents and jointly edit them.
  • Printing remains a problem but new services such as print-via-email will eventually get rid of this bugbear
  • Environments like HubZero offer a shared execution environment - in HubZero essentially a shared X-windows based environment allowing people to work co-operatively. One could imagine an evolved version of this where instead of a virtual desktop one simply provides a cloud based execution space, and one that is accessed via the student portal or learning management system
  • Storage, structured storage to hold all the digital outputs of the university from Master's and PhD theses through experimental datasets to collections of digitised photographs. Providing storage of course can be outsourced.
So what do we find left?

Access mediation, ie authorization and authentication to resources which are 'out there' and contract management be they for journal access or storage provision.

Yes students still need a place to work, and perhaps these redundant library buildings could be converted into comfortable beanbag filled work environments and coffee shops.

Obviously I'm being provocative. But the world is changing into something else. When I was a child there were two tv channels in black and white and they only broadcast for six or seven hours a day. Now we hardly watch tv in the old way, iview, you tube and dvr's mean we watch what we want when we want, and not necessarily content created by the conventional broadcasters.

I wrote my first program on punched cards when I was 17, and sent my first email a few years later. Phone calls were expensive, international calls prohibitively so. Foreign language newspapers arrived a week late if you were lucky, inter library loans came as photocopies in the mail, and one actually wrote letters on paper and put them in the mail.

I'm (almost) 55 now. I can read overseas newspapers from my desktop, access journals online sitting in my pajamas if I want and call people overseas with skype for pennies. Letters - well I still buy books and I have a maildrop to have packages delivered but I don't write letters any more, and I get all my bills (except for Amex for reasons too tedious to mention) by email.

The world has gone digital, and pervasively so, which means everyone expects to access everyone anywhere. After all if I can watch the ABC Australia news on my phone while sitting in San Francisco airport, why shouldn't some kid be able to do his statistics assignment from his share house?

In conclusion, university information services will shrink and change out of all recognition.

Universities will continue to flourish on the strength of their teaching and research supported by a group of information scientists and technologists who mediate access. We will no longer have big white buildings filled with books and computers.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Asian Art Museum in San Francisco

International travel is all about "hurry up and wait". Things happen an planes leave at strange and utterly inconvenient times that don't fit with any human-normal schedule. This means that sometimes you can have four or even five hour dead period - a period too long to spend at any aiport, although sometimes, when the airport is kilometres from anywhere (Narita, Dulles, Stansted, for example) it's unavoidable.

When I was recently in SF I had a significant dead period between the end of the meeting and my flight's departure. So, rather than hang round the airport, I checked in, then took myself off to the Asian Art Museum, a mere 20 or so minute ride on the BART to Civic Center station.

I must admit I don't have a strong fascination for a lot of Asian Art, except perhaps some of the hill tribe carvings and hangings from Laos, I do find the rugs and textiles from Turkey and Central Asia quite fascinating, and also the reflection of external cultural influences in the art.

Now while the NGA here in Canberra has some quite nice bits of Gandhara art from the Afghanistan/Pakistan area - basically art showing the greco-bactrian influence as a result of Alexander the Great's exploits, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco does better with some very very hellenistic carvings of the life of the Bhudda. Some of the carvings, shorn of context, would pass for work from further west in the hellenistic world proper.

Unfortunately, as they don't let you take reference photographs, I can't show you exactly what I mean.

However there are some quite good example images from the on the museum's website [example1] [example2] which give a flavour of it. If you want to look at the rest of the gandhara images in the collection, go to the museum's website, select 'search the collection' and type in gandhara.

Suffice to say, if you're interested in this stuff and find yourself in SF with a couple of hours spare a trip to the top floor of the Asian Art Museum is worth the twelve bucks entrance fee.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

What's in a name?

While by no means unique, I have a fairly unusual name - searching for Moncur on the web will usually bring up a link or two associated with me.

I don't know a whole lot about my family history save to say that my forebears were peasant farmers in Kincardineshire for at least two hundred years and that before that there were Moncurs who were armourers and that there was an Andrew Montcur who rendered homage to Edward I of England in 1296, which, at a guess, means my lot started out with one of the petty Norman nobles invited in by Malcolm Canmore during the Englishing of Scotland.

If true this would mean that the name is probably Norman French in origin. And I've always been struck by the observation that whenever I go to France, while I say Moncur to hotel receptionists and the like, the bill almost always addressed to a M. D Moncoeur, ie they instinctively Frenchify it.

Fine. People hear what makes sense to them, so even though they've seen my passport, they still write down what they think they've heard. Just the same way as my father's forename is Hendry, not Henry, simply because that's what it sounded like to my grandfather, who told the registrar to spell it that way.

Now, France I can understand. But when I was in California recently I was universally Moncour (pronounced Mon-coor). Which is a puzzle, as to why it should happen consistently to what's a relatively unusual name that I'm guessing most people in California won't have come across before ...

Leon Trotsky ...

Yesterday I mentioned Leon Trotsky in a blog post.

Havn't mentioned or thought about Lev Davidovich for years, yet his photo was one of the background images of my student years. You could even buy notepads through the student co-op store with a cartoon of Lev and his famous quote "Revolutions are always verbose" on the cover.

Of course all that has gone away. In much the same way as professors have got respectable, all that leftist fervor and energy has gone away to be replaced with an anodyne sameness and complacency.

Now there was lot that was bad in the seventies, a lot of pseudo leftist posturing, the continual alphabet soup of the left and quite frankly a lot of crap being talked, not to mention economic chaos and hippy dippy utopianism. And I'll put my hand up and admit I was as prone to some of that as everyone else.

That said there was a challenging intellectual ferment, and I get the sense that there isn't that now, and it's not all being sublimated by other forms of creativity.

So where have all the crazy people gone?

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Egypt, Tunisia, and twitter

To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, during the Russian Revolution, power fell into the streets, ie there came a point where none of the normal organisations commanded any effective power, neither the government or the formal opposition, and the Bolshevik party assumed power purely by being able to end the chaos of competing movements.

We saw power fall into the streets in Tunisa, we are seeing something similar happen in Egypt. Social media are allowing people to self organise into powerful ad hoc protest movements, without clear connections to the 'traditional' opposition.
We have also seen this to a more limited extent during the student protests in London before Christmas, where the protests were not dependent on the NUS for leadership and organisation as they would have been previously. And to be fair we have seen something similar happen unsuccessfully in Iran. And during the Queensland floods twitter and facebook helped people get organise to better cope with the consequences of the flooding.

There is both a powerful message here and an interesting evolving phenomenon here. Governments exist by the consent of their populace. And when when people talk of 'orderly transition' they usually mean power passing from one set discredited old men to another set of old men better able to command a degree of respect.

No longer. In the age of social media, governments need to obtain and keep the respect of their populations, as the people have learned that while governments may be made behind closed doors, but that the people can unmake them ...

What's an iPhone for

I have an iPhone, supplied by work in the days when I was responsible for keeping things working, so they could phone me up and tell me the world had crashed. As operations manager it was always my fault if it wasn't fixed.

And I didn't like it. Didn't like the glass keyboard, didn't like the appalling battery life whenever it saw a friendly wi-fi router, the crappy camera, etc etc. So much so that when I bought myself a new phone I bought a Nokia E63 - good email integration and push email, a keyboard you can (almost) type on, good battery life.

And I still prefer it over my iPhone. But last week, in Berkeley, the land of free wi-fi, I had a revalation. As I was flying back that afternoon, I wanted to check the news and weather at home, and also see what was happening in Egypt.

So I sat in a coffee shop on College Avenue, and watched the ABC Australia 90 second news bulletin via my iPhone.

And that's when I got it. Yes they need special apps rather than the open slather of the web but within the Apple ecology they can do some quite impressive things. And in our always on world, especially where increasingly people post videos of presentations rather than just the slides, powerful. Basically the iPhone is a content display device just like an iPad, except you can make calls with it, but it needs a decent infrastructure behind it to deliver.

Without either a cheap 3G data service or a wi-fi service all it is is a pretty crappy phone. With the backing infrastructure it comes alive as something way more useful ...

California dreaming ...

Last week I was in California at the project bamboo face to face meeting. And while you're not supposed to enjoy work travel. I did. Berkeley was, well I was going to say enchanting, but that's not the right word - something like 'charming plus' - there was definitely something verging on magical in the atmosphere and in the coffee shops, all of which (a) had free wi-fi, and (b) filled with laptop toting students - overwhelmingly macs - all discussing and doing. Made an old man feel nostalgic for his student days - even if then it had been spiral pads and line printer paper.

And that really is the point of this post - I had the good luck to study at a university - St Andrews - that encouraged intellectual curiosity and hence an intellectually stimulating environment.

All of us who have had that experience will realise the value of it - essentially learning to think, and will recognise it when we see it elsewhere. However the current 'user pays' quasi vocational model adopted by many universities seems to militate against this with its emphasis on passing exams and gaining credits.

Not a lot of intellectual stimulation there. Of course I'm sure there are stimulating lecturers within such a system, but let us say increasingly university education is basically about bums on seats.

It is my personal view however that this short changes students. Of course not everyone can go to Oxford, or Berkeley, or St Andrews or wherever, and not everybody wants to. Some people undoubtedly only want a degree as it's a prerequisite for medicine or engineering etc, and provides some guarantee of basic knowledge. Students should have their curiosity encouraged. Learning how to ask questions is possibly the most valuable part of education...