Wednesday 21 November 2007

chimps use tools to find tubers underground

From this morning's Australian:

This time, chimps living in the dry woodland savannas of western Tanzania have been caught digging up roots, tubers and bulbs with sticks and roughly shaped bits of bark.

If chimps can forage underground for food, the same may have been true of ancestral humans, hominids, who had similar brain power and hand shape.


The full text of the article can be found here

Lots of implications for human evolution and the evolution of tool use.

For years I thought that savannah dwelling baboons were a better analogue to our early ancestors as they occupied a similar ecological niche, but now that chimps have been seen spearing bush babies and using sticks to dig for roots maybe being efficient at digging for roots lead them to start exploiting forest margins and then move into open savannah which they could then exploit more efficiently than the ancestral baboons - sticks are probably more efficient than fingers at probing for roots.

This could be neat explanation why a group of forest dwelling apes moved into a savannah based lifestyle, after all there has to be some pressure for the move to take place. It might also explain why our social behaviours can also seem more baboon like than chimp like at times.

Tuesday 20 November 2007

Debian Etch vs SUSE linux - do we care ?

This isn't a deep ranging technical review, more a sort user perception based review. And it's to do with ease of installation and window managers.

A few years ago I would have argued that kde was the way to go, for the very simple reason it carried the same obvious set of metaphors as XP - start button, menus forked off, right clicks and the rest. Basically you could get kde to look and behave like XP, and if you could do that your retraining costs were minimal, linux was linux, and it was only a window manager, not an OS shell, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Gnome wasn't a contender as it was too alien, didn't quite work the same way, no start button, etc.

I still believe I was right, but since then a couple of things have happened:

  1. Gnome has got subtly better - don't ask me how it just has

  2. Vista isn't the same as XP so retraining costs aren't the same problem

  3. The growing acceptance of OS X and the costs to change

and gnome has become more pervasive. It's on Ubuntu, which is possibly the most widely used desktop linux distro today. And given that user experience is goverend by the desktop probably it doesn't matter too much to users what the underlying distribution is.

Systems architects, software support people probably care but users don't.

It could be Etch, it could be Ubuntu, it could be Suse Linux. Users don't care. Installing software under either is easy, they all use a repository model, and you need privileges to do it. Again most people don't care as long as they can get web, email and some office prodcutivity going. Wierdos like me like to install kate or kwrite, and perhaps some programming/scripting capability, but that's a minority sport.

And as all these distros come with sensible default software configs they probably don't ever need to install anything else.

So the difference comes down to the installers. SUSE's is nicer. It's graphical and crucially it handles that ever so tricky disk layout question much more nicely than Debian (or Ubuntu). Separate partitions, nice easy ways of fiddling with them if you want and no being dropped into something nasty.

So SUSE is nicer as a user installation experience. Otherwise it could be Etch, could be Ubuntu. All are easy to use and be productive with, and the user experience is essentially identical.

And I'm learing to love Gnome ...

Monday 19 November 2007

blondes mess with men's minds

following on the theme of why blondeness evolves, there's a report in today's Australian to the effect that men tend to unconsciously dumb down when talking to blondes - the inference being that the stereotyp of the dumb blondes is alive and well ....

Tuesday 13 November 2007

Windows live ...

I've been playing with Windows live, which given my interest in web 2.0 technologies kind of makes sense, but when you compare the environment with Google Apps or Zoho doesn't really.

Why so?

Well we're in the participation age where we care and share. Seriously it's important, and we're investing a fair amount of effort in sakai as a collaboration platform to work arund the fact that Australia is on the dark side of the world, meaning that if we want to interact with people in northern hemisphere universities it's got to be asynchronous as they're asleep when we're awake, and vice versa. As I've said elsewhere it's the tyrrany of time zones.

Collaboration sites have also turned out to be relly useful for committees and projects - lodge the documents and other relevant information eg meetings notes on a closed site and a project can proceed really well, with everyone always having access to papers.

Anyway, while we can see the use of collaboration tools on both a wide and local area basis it does have implications for teaching and learning when students can share material easily and exhcnage documents really easily, not to mention publish things in blogs, and so on.

But they can do this any way, so rather than agonise let's embrace and pretend we're doing this to teach group working - certainly putting students in groups for assignments teaches management skills.

Anyway, enough of this. Google Apps and Zoho both provide a means to share documents as well as some document creating tools and some online storage. Makes sharing and publishing to the web easier, gives you access to your files anywhere you have a browser (as long as it's ie, or a mozilla variant like firefox, camino or icewasel), and makes it easy to email them.

Now, because we have labs full of computers that run software this doesn't seem so great a deal. If you don't however it's really useful - means all you need to access and modify your documents is a browser, which means that even with a web browser on a sun ray (or an old knackered mac G3) you can edit and share even if you don't have any of the standard tools. So like with thin client stuff, we're abstracted from making assumptions about the hardware.

Windows live is different. Sure you get web based email but a lot of the functionality is based on running lightweight desktop apps, which immediately starts making assumptions about host capability and capacity, and one's suddenly lost that martini (anywhere, any platform) capability. Though if you've a recent pc with xp or vista you probably don't care.

If you've a mac, or gasp, are running linux, you probably do.

So why the interest?

Both Google and Microsoft offer bundles to eductaional institutions, essentially allowing them to outsource their student email, and also to provide an alumni email service supported by ads. They also both provide calendaring. Given the cost of providing these services, outsourcing them effectively for free is an interesting option, especially as you can brand them your way.

Of course it's not free - there are network traffic implications and you need to maintain some infrastructure but it does mean the problem of providing student email goes away and they can easily keep ther account as an alumni. (If you make it difficult to get an alumni account students don't bother, they just use gmail, hotmail or yahoo with instant sign on and usability).

Now webmail is webmail, but probably you might have got the impression that I think Google Apps is possibly a better offering than Windows Live. Well I do, but given we'e already got a collaboration service in Sakai, everything outside of email becomes a nice to have rather a must have - so Google is ahead on points, not winning the race.

Microsoft's offering looks nicer (more facebook like - yes I'm playing with facebook as well to get my head round it), probably appeals better to less technical users, but again that's not a showstopper.

But Microsoft does have a potential show stopper - Exchange Labs which allows the integration of windows live email and calendaring with your local exchange installation. Given that a lot of universities have some sort of exchange deployment for staff (usually not students - too expensive in terms of infrastructure and licenses) this means that staff and students can share calndaring informtaion easily, making managing tutorials, assignment dates and meeting rooms and so on out of exchange really easy and potentially it just looks like one big exchange installation. That is interesting as suddenly a whole lot of calendar integration problems go away ...

Alternatives, such as Apple's new calendaring solution in leopard server and Bedework are untried, even though as standards based they should be easier to deal with. Google Calendar of course only does push and not sync out of the box although you can integrate other calendars abd use tools like spanning sync to sync back.

So if you wanted to make a decision on outsourcing student email and using either google apps or windows live as a platform to do so your two questions are:

- do you need a shared calendaring solution, and have thought through what you want it to do for you?
- do you want exchange integration and why?

Friday 9 November 2007

trips, earthquakes and nda's

After Educause there is life, or at least something resembling it. In this case a whole lot of vendor visits, all of which are under nda so I can't really blog about them except to say that I've been to

- Microsoft at Redmond
- Apple at Cupertino
- Google at Mountain View
- VMware in Palo Alto

all of which was kind of cool. VMware's building was opposite the original Xerox PARC which was also pretty cool. Now as Microsoft are in Redmond, which is a suburb of Seattle and the rest of them are back in the valley (ie Silicon Valley) this involved a flight from Seattle to San Jose.

And on the flight I sat beside a guy from Microsoft who was not impressed by Vista and it's performance. as it was a private conversation I won't name names or reveal details but let's just say it was pretty honest and pretty direct. Let's just say some engineers prefer XP over Vista.

Just after we landed in San Jose there was a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. Not that we felt it in the back of a banged up shuttle bus bouncing down the freeway - just another bump in the road. Nothing at all like listening to Grace Slick belting out 'When the earth moves again'. When we got to the hotel everyone was still standing about, half afraid it might be a precursor to the 'big one'

In the event it wasn't even though aftershocks continued the next day.

In the middle of this we went to Stanford to see what they were doing with educational technology, which was kind of provocative, not because it was massively hi tech but because of the very clear vision that they had that learning technology was there to build engagement, and that it was a set of enabling technologies, not an end in itself.

Two other interesting points were that while 92% of students own a laptop at Stanford, not a lot of them carry them round campus on a regular basis - battery life and weight tend to make your sexy macbook seem like a boat anchor by the end of the day.

The other interesting thing was that anyone at Stanford (staff and students) can hand out a giest account to anyone else to allow them to have web access - really as a way of getting round not having any infrastructure like eduroam in place.

And while we were at Stanford we took the opportunity to catch up with the CLOCKSS people - the ANU is about to sign up to become members of the CLOCKSS project and we felt it would be useful to touch base with them and ensure that our undertandings were aligned.

Like all such projects they're amazingly small - six talented people doing wonderful things with long term digital preservation and a digital content escrow service - I'll blog about CLOCKSS and our role in it separately in another post.