Thursday, 20 October 2011

No more computer labs

Stenden School Workspace
Originally uploaded by Arjen Stilklik.

I've periodically fulminated about how University computer labs are an outdated concept and how they should be replaced with a mixture of workspaces for people to either use their own technology, or places full of high end specialist equipment - and even that is kind of moot given that reasonable recent desktop can do what a three or four year old specialist Unix workstation can do in terms of raw compute.

And now that spring is here, the thing I notice when I walk across campus is laptops, or more accurately students sitting outside in the fresh air using their laptops. Note their laptops, not the institution's. I have no figures for any of this but I would guesstimate that students only use institutionally owned computers for dedicated lab exercises or to access software that's not readily available due to cost.

The rest happens on their own machines or via google docs, or whatever.

What's interesting is that this idea seems to be gaining a little momentum - with the recognition that a lot of computing takes place elsewhere.

However, there's three things that need to be considered before completely closing down labs (to be provocative I used to say we should close them all tomorrow and see what happened).

1) There needs to be a service of last resort to cover those whose laptop breaks, dies, gets stolen. I used to be a fan of recycling old computers for this, put linux and libre office on them and sell them very cheaply, but these days computers are cheap enough for most people to afford a decent machine and an academic Office licence.

2) we need to carefully evaluate specialist software. Some might be better provided as virtual PC's, some might still need to be deployed on dedicated hardware. The advantage of the virtual pc route is that it provides a mechanism for the 'old but worthy' bits of software that don't run well on new hardware to continue to be supported

3) we need to ensure that we adequately provide these services that we expect students to use, and that access and setting them up is simple. Email is easy. It's the rest that is difficult. The services required include a filestore service that can be used from the desktop and allows material to be shared easily. A printing service to allow access to printers while on campus. Collaboration services such as wikis and a blogging platform for group exercises. Easy access to the learning management system. An online essay submission system etc etc. We need a thorough understanding of what services are required to move to providing services (which is what we are doing here) rather than providing resources.

However, assuming that we can meet #1 and #2 and #3, I'd say break out the beanbags. My own real epiphany came in the King James Library in St Andrews - turn up, login via eduroam and do your work just as if you were sitting at your desk on the other side of the world ...

Blackberry Fail = #firstworldproblem ?

There's an article in today's Toronto Globe and Mail with a similar title to this post.

I'm not taking issue with the article as it's clearly supposed to be amusing, but with the idea that a collapse of email services (or any other twenty first century messaging system) is a first world problem.

It's not. Visit any country struggling up the ladder and you'll see that cellphones are everywhere, and smartphones are not far behind - witness the blackberry toting tuk tuk driver we encountered on our trip to Thailand earlier this year.

It's a simple story, but worth telling. We were in a tuk tuk in Ao Nang when the driver grunted sorry and pulled over to the side of the road. It was in the middle of a monsoonal squall and I half expected that the tuk tuk had died in the rain.

Not a bit of it. The driver pulled a plastic bag out of his pocket, unwrapped it to unpack a blackberry, which he looked at, tapped a response, re wrapped it and set off again. Now a blackberry must have been quite an investment for him but is obviously how he kept in touch with his touts and regulars to pick up traffic.

The thing which always impresses me about poorer countries is how good the hi tech infrastructure can be and to what extent services are enabled by them, and indeed how cheap smartphones from China are changing the way things get done in these countries.

A dead email solution is just as much a problem for a tuk tuk man chasing bookings or a millet farmer trying to decide if this is the week to sell his crop as it is for anyone in Pitt Street

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Stuff elsewhere ...

I've got stuff scattered in various places on the internet. To try and bring some coherence to this here's a couple of  noteworthy snippets ....

  • I've done a semi autobiographical review of Trinity Tales on my wordpress blog. The review has been picked up by Ninth Level Ireland, which is mildly cheering. The review is also linked to from my LibraryThing page for Trinity Tales

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

the trouble with indexing ...

One of the problems I find with all note structuring applications is indexing and categorisation. Most of them have moved away from the strict hierarchical categorisation model (if it's this it sits in this bucket, and if it's that that bucket) by using tags but even so you do tend to end up with a pile of thematic buckets.

This is absolutely fine when collecting material with a purpose - I'm going to write a paper on X - but not so fine when collecting ideas - what I describe as post-its on a wall.

Post-its on a wall is a technique I've used a lot. Write down an idea or concept on a post-it. Stick it on a white board Write down another on another post-it. If your'e clever you can use tricks like using different colours if the idea or concept comes from somewhere else. Draw a line between the two post-its describing the relationship between the two. Do it again. Draw a line. And so on.

You end up with what I used to call a connectedness diagram, but is really an informal representation of linked data. It's a technique I find really useful for understanding and organising material. It's also not a new technique, I used it, with sheets of butcher's paper and coloured pencils at the end of the seventies when revising for my finals and finding links and references across and between modules (We can say this about foraging behaviour in prosimians because their visual systems have this characteristics, and the environment in which they live lacks distinct seasons, etc)

I havn't really seen an alternative to the post it technique - mind mapping tools like freemind for some reason seem to lack the flexibility required, and what one wants to do is to arrange and diagram the relations between objects.

One alternative which does seem to do the job well is LORE - the literature object re-use and exchange tool developed as part of the Aus-e-lit project.

I'm going to guess that conceptually it started out as an annotation tool to allow the linking of notes and material together, but crucially what it allows is for you to develop and diagrams sets of links between objects and share them with collaborators (or the whole world should you want to) but also to creatively organise material.

Such a model also delivers what I call 'active curation'. Texts in other languages can often have ambiguities in translation, especially as when the language is something like Middle English.

One could take two versions of the same text, link the two and compare the readings and perhaps reference similar less ambiguous bits of text in other documents, etc, etc, to show why a particular interpretation should be preferred over another.

And of course this is not just for Middle English, the same approach could be taken to analysing witness statements, when investigating criminal cases, especially where we are talking about cases such as fraud or other forms of financial malfeasance which can be extremely difficult to prove but where the case is built of little facts and inconsistencies ...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

and there's pliny ...

in my off again on again investigation into note taking and annotation software I happened across Pliny.

The download link for the Mac version was broken for me but I found a second copy on SourceForge which downloaded and installed just fine.

Like the Zotero client it provides annotation, which is the thing that Evernote does not do, which at the least allows you to flag relevant passages in documents.

However Pliny does not look as if it has had substantial development since 2009, and if I was a serious user I would be hesitant committing to it long term - Zotero overall would look to be a better bet, with a larger user community behind it, especially in academia.

However Zotero would need to truly escape from the Firefox ghetto and perhaps get itself onto iPads and Android tablets to be truly useful, given that seems to be the way the world is going ...

Zotero standalone

Just to say that I've been playing with the Zotero 3.0 standalone beta  in a very desultory way.

Basically it seems to have taken a leaf out of Evernote's book and the standalone client has many of the same capabilities as Evernote.

Certainly this would offer an opportunity to break out of the Firefox space, the question really comes down to whether Zotero's citation and bibtex output capabilities are enough of a usp given that their storage costs seem to work out rather more than Evernote's freemium model.

More when I've delved into this some more ...

The Vitruvian Wheelbarrow

Last night I watched a show on the ABC (I think it came from Channel 4 in the UK originally) , Rome wasn't built in a day, in which a group of tradies try to build a Roman villa using the techniques described by Vitruvius as a guide and only historically or archaeologically attested tools.

This means that most hand tools are allowed, and most of them are pretty similar to those found in Bunnings or Mitre 10 today - if you doubt me go look at the rather fine collection of tools from Silchester in the Reading Museum.

However Vitruvius does not mention wheelbarrows. Neither does any other Roman author, so no wheelbarrows. In fact one of the archaeologists in the show had a tanty over the builders trying to sneak wheelbarrows on site.

This of course begs the question as to why Vitruvius doesn't mention wheelbarrows. The obvious answer is that the Romans didn't use them. Certainly carvings of Roman squaddies building things, eg Trajan's column are fairly wheelbarrow free.

Now the Romans were reasonably clever and innovative, and also in contact with a lot of other cultures so the old 'they didn't think of it' argument is a bit thin. Let's assume that they did think of it and it didn't work for them, and try and work out why that might be the case.

At its simplest, a wheelbarrow is two levers, the shafts in an inverted V pivoted at the apex of the V on the wheel. This means that most of the weight and force acts down through the wheel. Overload a cheap wheelbarrow often enough and the wheel, its axle, or the mount will break. This is why builder's wheelbarrows often seem to have overly robust wheels and axles.

Modern wheelbarrows are built of steel. Nineteenth century ones, as used by navvies building the first railway lines in England were of wood, but often with cast iron wheels. Wooden wheelbarrows were probably heavier for their strength but nothing precludes using wood for the shafts or the frame.

What is interesting is the adoption of cast iron wheels. Obviously the wheel and it's axle was seen as a weak point and hence the adoption of cast iron to reduce the risk of failure. Equally there is nothing to stop you building a wheel barrow with a wooden wheel, perhaps with an iron rim and straps for strength.

The question is whether nineteenth century construction workers adopted the iron wheeled wheelbarrow because of its greater durability or because it was cheaper (or both). Answering this question would probably give us a clue as to why Vitruvius does not mention wheelbarrows - it might simply be that making one durable enough was uneconomic for the Romans. Handcarts and extra slaves to push and shove may simply have been more cost effective .

[update 07 October]

I'm quite possibly wrong on some of the above. Wikipedia, who else, has an excellent article on wheelbarrows, and I now know that the Greeks may well have used wheelbarrows, but they seem to have disappeared from the historical record in Roman times only to reappear in northwestern Europe sometime between 1150 and 1250. I'd personally view this date with some caution, as it coincides with the appearance of illuminated manuscripts and their associated maginalia - which form a source of information about daily life along with some more fanciful suggestions such as alternative uses for trumpets - in the area under consideration, but there appears to be reasonable agreement that wheelbarrows were relatively uncommon until the 1400's.

I could wave my hands and claim that this was possibly in part due to the ongoing shortage of labour after the Black Death, which made using a wheelbarrow with its risk of breakage and accompanying cost of replacement worthwhile, but I am making it up with no evidence at all.

Certainly a very superficial study of pictures in which wheelbarrows feature suggests they were used for lighter as opposed to heavier work, so I still feel my suggestion that it was not until the advent of iron wheel assemblies and mounts that the wheelbarrow became useful in heavy construction, such as canal and railway building in eighteenth and nineteenth century England.

This is however only a supposition, and having been wrong once, I could be wrong a second time ...

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Living with the zPad ...

I've had my zPad, my no name Android Froyo tablet for about a month now and it has changed my life.

Admittedly only in some small ways, but there's definitely change there. For example I now use it most mornings to check my email my diary and the news headlines while making J a cup of tea, feeding the cat etc.

And that's a function of it's instantness and portability, and the fact that both the Guardian and the BBC have free Android apps (the SMH doesn't, but then we get the print edition anyway).

The other thing I ended up using it for is happenstance browsing ( or creative buggering about if you prefer) where you look at the weather, hop over to the Irish Times web page, something about an early medieval burial site catches your interest, you tweet the link, google for the detailed press release etc etc.

Previously this would be done from my laptop in the study, now it's easy to do sat on the sofa stroking the  cat and while talking to J.

And that change in behaviour  is purely the result of form factor - it's easy to hand across to someone else, and it's comfortable to hold in your hand for happenstance browsing, while a laptop of a netbook has to end up balanced on your knee. In other words, while it doesn't let you do anything you didn't do before it does make the experience more congenial.

And that's it's key - congeniality. While in some ways it does less than a netbook or a full size laptop, it does those things that don't demand intensive input - such as blogging - in a good enough manner that it gets you out of the study and into the house. The keyboard, once you get used to it's eccentricities, is god enough for composing short emails and notes. I did start writing a blog post on it, but gave up - sometimes a proper keyboard is just plain better.

Strangely the one thing I thought I'd use it for - as an Evernote based replacement for meetings paperwork - is the one thing I havn't used it for - yet ...