Category Archives: Childhood

Why ‘Free and Open’ matters

Adobe is dropping Linux support for their Adobe AIR development platform. To be honest, I don’t really care. Why? Because I’ve been careful enough to not tie my efforts to a proprietary platform.

I’ve had several groups offer to write applications/activities for OLPC Australia using proprietary tools like AIR. I’ve discouraged them every time. Had we gone with the ‘convenient’ route and acquiesced, we would have been in quite a spot of bother right now. My precious resources would have to be spent on porting or rewriting all of that work, or just leaving it to bit-rot.

A beauty of Sugar and Linux is that they are not dependent on a single entity. We can develop with the confidence of knowing that our code will continue to work, or at least can be made to continue to work in the face of underlying platform changes. This embodies our Core Principle #5, Free and Open.

Free and Open means that children can be content creators. The television age relegated children (and everyone, for that matter) to just being consumers of content. I have very fond childhood memories of attempts to counter that, but those efforts pale in comparison to the possibilities afforded to us today by modern digital technologies. We now have the opportunity to properly enable children to be in charge of their learning. Education becomes active, not passive. There’s a reason why we refer to Sugar applications as activities.

Growing up in the 80s, my recollections are of a dynamic computing market. Machines like the ZX Spectrum and the early Commodore models inspired a generation of kids into learning about how computers work. By extension, that sparked interest in the sciences: mathematics, physics, engineering, etc.. Those machines were affordable and quite open to the tinkerer. My first computer (which from vague recollection was a Dick Smith VZ200) had only a BASIC interpreter and 4k of memory. We didn’t purchase the optional tape drive, so I had to type my programs in manually from the supplied book. Along the way, I taught myself how to make my own customisations to the code. I didn’t need to learn that skill, but I choose to take the opportunity presented to me.

Likewise, I remember (and still have in my possession, sadly without the machine) the detailed technical binders supplied with my IBM PC. I think I recognised early on that I was more interested in software, because I didn’t spend as much time on the supplied hardware schematics and documentation. However, the option was there, and I could have made the choice to get more into hardware.

Those experiences were very defining parts of my life, helping to shape me into the Free Software, open standards loving person I am. Being able to get involved in technical development, at whatever level of my choosing, is something I was able to experience from a very early age. I was able to be active, not just consume. As I have written about before, even the king of proprietary software and vendor lock-in himself, Bill Gates, has acknowledged a similar experience as a tipping point in his life.

With this in mind, I worry about the superficial solutions being promoted in the education space. A recent article on the BBC’s Click laments that children are becoming “digitally illiterate”. Most of the solutions proposed in the article (and attached video) are highly proprietary, being based on platforms such as Microsoft’s Windows and Xbox. The lone standout appears to be the wonderful-looking Raspberry Pi device, which is based on Linux and Free Software.

It is disappointing that the same organisation that had the foresight to give us the BBC Computer Literacy Project (with the BBC Micro as its centrepiece) now appears to have disregarded a key benefit of that programme. By providing the most advanced BASIC interpreter of the time, the BBC Micro was well suited to education. Sophisticated applications could be written in an interpreted language that could be inspected and modified by anyone.

Code is like any other form of work, whether it be a document, artwork, music or something else. From a personal perspective, I want to be able to access (read and modify) my work at any time. From an ethical perspective, we owe it to our children to ensure that they continue to have this right. From a societal perspective, we need to ensure that our culture can persevere through the ages. I have previously demonstrated how digital preservation can dramatically reduce the longevity of information, comparing a still-legible thousand-year-old book against its ‘modern’ laserdisc counterpart that became virtually undecipherable after only sixteen years. I have also explained how this problem presents a real and present danger to the freedoms (at least in democratic countries) that we take for granted.

Back in the world of code, at least, things are looking up. The Internet is heading towards HTML5/JavaScript, and even Microsoft and Adobe are following suit. This raises some interesting considerations for Sugar. Maybe we need to be thinking of writing educational activities in HTML5, like those at tinygames? Going even further, perhaps we should be thinking about integrating HTML5 more closely into the Sugar framework?

I’ll finish with a snippet from a speech given by US President Obama in March (thanks to Greg DeKoenigsberg for bringing it to the attention of the community):

We’re working to make sure every school has a 21st-century curriculum like you do. And in the same way that we invested in the science and research that led to the breakthroughs like the Internet, I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, and educational software that’s as compelling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teaching you something other than just blowing something up.

Optimus Prime lives!

"Freedom is the right of all sentient beings." — Optimus Prime

This one throwaway line in the new Transformers film is in fact homage to the original Transformers series. As observant readers of this blog may have noticed, I am quite a fan of the Transformers multiverse, particularly of the 1986 animated film (amongst other things, it has an awesome soundtrack and some great vocal work). Optimus Prime was a childhood hero of mine, so this motto has always struck a chord with me.

It also makes me wonder, if the Autobots are such strong advocates of freedom, are they themselves programmed with Free Software? Conversely, are the Decepticons proprietary?


LotD:  The 10 Real Reasons Why Geeks Make Better Lovers

Back to school

I’ve always had a passion for computing and information technology. I remember as a kid messing around with a Radio Shack computer (with 4KB RAM!!!) which my dad had bought. After this (around 1985), we purchased an IBM PC XT (with full specs as shown here, but minus the HDD). That machine proved to be an enduring source of education and entertainment. It felt so cool back then to be able to use MS-DOS 2.1 and GW-BASIC!

Over the following years I played around with new versions of DOS (by MS, IBM and even Caldera), Windows and even OS/2 (which was awesome but since it couldn’t detect my CD-ROM I was forced to use Win95). I was a natural, and I quickly became the ‘computer guy’ in my circle of friends and family. I developed a passion for technology, and I would read and experiment as much as I could on the subject.

I only considered converting that into a career in high school, but once that had happened my motivation became strong. I commenced a computer science degree at The University of Sydney, but after a year I decided that I was ill-suited to coding. By the end of the second year (during which I had deliberately avoided CS subjects), I felt that my path lay in the humanities, with information systems and government (which I was doing as a minor) looking awfully tempting. For my third year I had transferred to The University of New South Wales, doing a plain-old Science degree. This, I felt, suited my broad mind (I’m the kind of person who likes to know a little about everything) very well. After some false starts and changes, I graduated with a Bachelor of Science, majoring in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology and minoring in Government, Politics and International Relations.

What a change that was from computer science! It was truly fascinating stuff (I loved it), but unfortunately it meant that I had trouble finding decent employment. In Australia, the humanities have the highest unemployment rate of all the graduate disciplines. I didn’t want to be stuck in a dead-end office role, where most of my skills would go to waste.

For a while I had been toying with the idea of finding employment in the IT industry. Recently I concluded that it would be impossible to do this. I may have the skills (I spend most of my free time at one of my computers), but I have no formal recognition (certifications, etc.) or experience. After a couple of weeks of heavy pondering and several meetings, I decided to bite the bullet and enrol in a training college to get the qualifications I need.

Today I completed my enrolment at the Computer Power Institute of Technology, and within ten months (full time: 11am to 4pm Monday to Friday) I should have a Diploma of Information technology (Network Engineering). That’s right, I’m training to be a network engineer! That’s something I’ve dreamt about for years!

My orientation is in Monday, and I officially begin training on Tuesday. I’m so excited! I’ll going to try to be diligent in reporting my progress in this journal. If you’re reading this (that means YOU!), stay tuned.


2011-02-02 update: Updated link. Thanks to Jack Moore.

Yesterday I watched the new Kino version of Metropolis. No, I’m not talking about the anime (which I must see sometime since I’m a huge anime fan), but the 1927 Fritz Lang cinematic masterpiece. The movie is silent and in black and white, and for the time it was very cutting-edge in terms of technology, plot, budget and overall size. Unfortunately, the original 1927 version no longer exists, but this Kino version is the most complete to date, including the excellent Gottfried Huppertz orchestral score (re-recorded to make it sound better). The score was clearly written for the movie; orchestral sounds substitute very well for the lack of speech and sound effects.

The last time I had seen Metropolis was when I was a child. Although I didn’t understand much, I was freaked out by the plot and the silent nature of the movie. I recall having a few nightmares about robots and I could not even look at the video cover (which featured a picture of the Machine-Man robot) after that.

The plot itself was very interesting. It’s amazing what can be done without any speech (there was some ‘speech’, but it was just text on the screen). Having been released during the height of the capitalist/communist struggle for political supremacy in Europe, this movie was universally panned by both sides for supposedly supporting one side or the other.

The main theme of the movie is a single phrase: “The mediator between head and hands is the heart.” You’ll need to see the movie in its entirety to understand what that means. It is a very powerful theme, as is the imagery employed: mechanical machinery; a small army of uniformed, undifferentiated workers; clocks and watches; and many others.

All-in-all, I loved this movie. It’s a shame that the original no longer exists, but Kino expertly crafted the most ‘complete’ version they could. Missing scenes were summarised on the screen in text.