Archive for May, 2008

advice for Forbes Library, Northampton MA

May 27th, 2008

So I was just at the Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts. It’s a lovely old library, full of books and music and comics and they offer Internet access to just about anyone who walks in the door, which is nice. While there I noticed they were currently hitting up the locals for $25,000 worth of technology equipment. $25K is enough for a decent number of books, but it’s actually not lot of money when it comes to computer hardware, so if I were in charge there, I’d want to make sure I got the full value out of every drop. So:

Ditch Windows in favor of Ubuntu Linux. Here’s why:

  1. Ubuntu is cheap. Ubuntu is free and will remain so. That means it would offer feature and security updates for years to come for no extra cash. It also runs like a champ on low-end hardware, which brings me to #2.
  2. Ubuntu runs like a champ on low-end hardware. This means you could not only upgrade the machines you have now without costly licensing fees, but new machines could be super low end and still offer crazy good performance. I just build myself a KPC shuttle box for around $240, and you could add a monitor on to that for about $90 more. And Dell offers Ubuntu laptops for $500. So at $330 per desktop and $550 per laptop, you could get about 38 desktops and 22 laptops. That’s 60 new machines!
  3. All you really need is Firefox anyhow. Each copy of Ubuntu comes with Firefox, probably the fastest and most compatible web browser out there. Your own web brochure says the main reason for this tech upgrade is to get more people on the internet. Perfect fit — plus no machine gets a virus because someone went to the wrong page.
  4. Ubuntu would be dead easy to administrate. I can see why a place would worry about administering a bunch of linux machines, but it wouldn’t actually be that hard. In fact, I would suggest, instead of worrying about it, adopt a no-troubleshooting policy — if there’s any serious issue with a machine, just wipe it out and install Ubuntu from scratch. The install takes about 10 minutes (and my mom could do it!), and then add another 5 minutes after that for installing Flash, installing Microsoft’s fonts, setting the printers and configuring Firefox’s home page. Compare 15 mostly idle minutes to the time required to troubleshoot a flaky Windows install, and there’s no contest.
  5. But what about..? …content filtering? Will our library content filtering run on Ubuntu? Don’t bother. Use Open DNS and block porn and other “adult content” from the network entirely. What about printing? Ubuntu recognizes pretty much any printer with no problem. What about our existing library databases? They’re web-based, so it doesn’t matter what web browser they use.

What do you think? Crazy, or just so crazy it might work?


batch export for quicktime pro

May 23rd, 2008

I recently got paid to write a short batch processing AppleScript that processed video via QuickTime Pro. It was harder than I initially thought it would be — the syntax of AppleScript is in turns wildly lax and highly specific. So it was kind of a pain, but just so nobody else has to fumble through QuickTime’s AppleScript dictionary, I’ll give the code away for free. Just download and unzip the AppleScript.

cool wand

May 20th, 2008

How much of this scathing indictment of the “Millennial Generation” is fair, and how much is just standard Gen X ranting/whining? I myself am quite weary of the lame-ass business features that insist that Facebook applications, Twitter updates and SMS messaging are going to be OMG 100% MANDATORY in order to survive in the post-Millennial business workplace.

What do you think? Is this article a fair shot, or a low blow?


failures of dogmatic constructivism

May 18th, 2008

My truly shitty classroom

There’s a deep and excellent essay here by Ivan Krstić, recently displaced of the OLPC project. Man, we all had such high hopes for this P.O.S., but it looks like Negroponte’s ego and gung-ho adherence to the flimsy tenets and dogma of Constructionist thought have conspired to sink the boat:

As far as I know, there is no real study anywhere that demonstrates constructionism works at scale. There is no documented moderate-scale constructionist learning pilot that has been convincingly successful; when Nicholas points to “decades of work by Seymour Papert, Cooper Peters, Alan Kay, and Jean Piaget”, he’s talking about theory. He likes to mention Dakar, but doesn’t like to mention how that pilot ended — or that no real facts about the validity of the approach came out of it. And there sure as hell doesn’t exist a peer-reviewed study (or any other kind, to my knowledge) showing free software does any better than proprietary software when it comes to aiding learning, or that children prefer the openness, or that they care about software freedom one bit.

This passage took me back to my (mercifully short) time teaching computer science at a local Western Massachusetts high school. I had a classroom full of truly shitty Windows machines, which annoyed me to no end at first, but soon enough I discovered with an install of free software on them (Firefox, WAMPserver, Notepad++) they became perfectly reasonable ways to teach HTML and PHP.

By using the correct software, the underlying OS fell away, and it wasn’t important that these machines were 8+ years old and running Windows — they did what they needed to do to serve the students’ needs. The fact that the software was free and open was lucky (because the school system was essentially broke!) but not at all necessary for the learning process. Having the students editing text via emacs, vi, or nano wouldn’t have meant anything at all — and now, having come around to finally embracing this mode of thought and “lowering his standards” to allow a plebian OS such as Windows XP on his beloved hardware, it’s too late. The industry has figured out how to make better OLPC-style hardware powerful enough to run Windows, linux — whatever the kids might need to use in order to learn.

The true shame is epitomized by this reddit comment:

The most depressing part of it is that Negroponte rejected [Steve] Jobs’ offer of free Mac OS X on basis that it wasn’t fully open source. Now he’s thrilled to get a cut-down version of 7-year-old closed-source, commercial OS at $3 per license + $7 for extra memory to hold the bloat.

Ouch. It’s funny because it’s true.


john mccain kept your wiffle ball

May 15th, 2008

So I’ve got a new site up. Right now the database has 75 entries that attempt to describe 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain, but with your help, I bet we can bring it to 78 or 79.

Comments and suggestions are, as always, warmly welcomed.


the next market I’d like to see Apple dominate (after they’re done crushing the cell phone industry)

May 11th, 2008

I went looking at car stereo “head units” this weekend, and while there are some that have the feature set I’m looking for (CD playback, mp3/aac file playback via CD-R or USB, iPod integration, Bluetooth integration (Alpine in particular seem like they are doing the feature set right, at least)), they are all so fucking ugly that I can’t really get psyched about any of them. Each and every one was encrusted and bedazzled by red and blue glowing elements that wouldn’t look out of place in the movie “Tron,” which is super-duper great if you’re into light-cycle racing, but otherwise, hideous and likely to look way out of place next to your other dashboard controls.

And the interfaces — good lord, the interfaces. Every single one was “press source again and again and again until you get the right music source, then hit the select button, then dial to the correct playlist, then hit select again, and then, and then, and then” — overwhelming and cumbersome*, and you’re supposed to pull this all off while driving. God forbid you’ve got GPS, a cellphone, or XM radio going on as well.

In short, the state of car stereo design in 2008 is almost exactly like the state of smartphone design in 2006, pre-iPhone. Which is to say: in 2006 there were expensive devices that made phone calls, played music, and let you read your email and browse the web, but none of them did all of those things very well. It took Apple to come along and make a game-changing gizmo like the iPhone before people started warming to the idea that these were all viable activities that they one could reasonably expect to be able to do without compromises in a handheld device. Similarly, the car stereo market has devices that do what I want — play CDs, play mp3/aac files, and hook up to the iPod — but the interfaces are atrocious and the aesthetics are worse. Apple could come down like the hammer of Thor on this market and fix this muddled mess in one shot.


* Note to hardware user interface designers: if your design has the user hitting a single button over and over to get to the option they want, you’re doing it wrong.