Tag Archives: technology

Tech Volunteerism

Twice in the last month I’ve been contacted by friends I’ve made in the local tech community with questions about tech volunteering they are doing, or planning to do for local non-profits. I, hopefully, was able to provide them with some pointers and info to help them out.

I find that awesome. Not the me helping them out part, but the fact that they’ve gotten engaged and are giving back some of their vital skills to local organizations in need.

Over the past couple of years, through my work with the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, and the IBM year of service, I’ve realized that tech volunteerism is quite a rare thing. While there are a lot of techies in our area, when most of them volunteer, they do so in a non tech role. They are board members, and program leaders, which is good and important, but the very real technology needs are often overlooked.

Those conversations, plus a few other in the last month, have made me really start thinking about more ways to encourage and nurture more of this in our area. I’d love to have a peer group where I could share these experiences, and learn from others. This is a whole other master plan.

So, if you are a techie of any sort (developer, designer, it guru), consider giving those skills back to your local community. It’s something very few can give, and very many need.

Maybe it has more to do with never being exposed to nature

NY Times: Technology Leads More Park Visitors Into Trouble

The national parks’ history is full of examples of misguided visitors feeding bears, putting children on buffalos for photos and dipping into geysers despite signs warning of scalding temperatures.

But today, as an ever more wired and interconnected public visits the parks in rising numbers — July was a record month for visitors at Yellowstone — rangers say that technology often figures into such mishaps.

People with cellphones call rangers from mountaintops to request refreshments or a guide; in Jackson Hole, Wyo., one lost hiker even asked for hot chocolate.

Though the article doesn’t really stress this point, this has always been a problem.  People that are clueless about nature, possibly because they’ve been sheltered from it in the cities or suburbs, are clueless, whether or not they have a cellphone or gps.

Volunteer Motivations

The whole OLPC goes windows debacle has been going on for months now, creating incredible polarization on many fronts. A huge part of what actually excited many of the XO laptop volunteers was the chance for a Linux breakout market. I really think that senior leadership lost track of the fact that those blogging up the XO effort to its launch were largely in it for the Linux angle. By deciding to go the “natural route” and replace Linux with XP, lots of people have lost interest in the effort, including myself.

Putting more XP machines into the world isn’t something very interesting to me, and it seems to go against the whole notion of the computer being a learning tool at all levels. I guess now the children of developing nations will be learning power point instead of python programming. What a shame.

Beware the Anti-Market

A vendor can often be their own worst competition if they create good technology, but put it out in a way that is too limiting, in platform support or licensing, than their prospective users would like it to be. I’ve often refered to this as the Anti-Market among colleagues. The rules of the Anti-Market are more or less as follows:

If you create a technology that is useful, but 90% of your prospective market can’t use it for various reasons, they’ve got a good chance of getting together and writing a replacement for your product.

Example 1: KDE vs. Gnome

Gnome created out the anti market that KDE created. KDE is built on QT. Back in the early days of KDE, QT was licenced in rather funny ways by Trolltech. The funny license meant that Red Hat (and other Linux distros) didn’t want to ship it. Mandrake was originally just Red Hat + KDE to fill such a need. But with the bulk of the KDE user market blocked because of bad licencing, a void existed to be filled. Gnome did that. A decade later Gnome is the primary desktop environment on nearly ever major distro, and while KDE 4 has gotten some recent press, it is definitely now a minority player.

KDE was brought down because it created an anti market. People wanted that kind of function, but the way it was delivered was not acceptable to its users.

Example 2: Java vs. Mono on the Linux Desktop

How many Linux desktop apps are you running right now, or ever, that are Java based? How many that are Mono based? The only Java apps I run on the desktop in any frequency are Azureus and Freemind. On the Mono side F-Spot and Tomboy have seen a lot more use. Until very recently Java remained under a license that made including it with the Linux platform quite an issue. Mono is under an MIT license, and has been since day one. While Mono has a number of short comings, the fact that it’s so young, and so much more used than Java in the Linux desktop space speaks a bit to the anti-market that Sun created by waiting forever to open source their baby.

Example 3: MySQL vs. everyone else

In 1995 Linux was already being used to run key parts of the internet. None of the traditional ISVs were paying attention to it (DB2 showed up in 1998 on Linux, and too my knowledge, was the first big database vendor there). You know what you need to run the internet, a reasonable database. MySQL popped out of the anti-market created by there being a platform people were using quite a bit, but lacking ISV support. People needed the function, but couldn’t get it even if they wanted to pay for it.

I continue to be amazed at how much of an anti-market MySQL took advantage of.

Closing thoughts

The Linux Desktop space is full of anti-market applications, some of which have even seeped back into the Windows world, like OpenOffice, Gimp, and Pidgin. Adobe just made a very astute move and got Air out for Linux before they forced a new anti-market there. While the Linux Desktop space isn’t the highest volume space for users, the developer to user ratio in the space is very high, which means ignoring it means there is a real chance of creating an anti-market.

I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts or examples here, comments are open, have at it.

Tuning the HD Set

John came over prior to the game bringing his HD-DVD Video Essentials, and given that we had some time prior to the game, we spent some time tuning the set.  Honestly, most things were pretty good, though we had to tune down the color and up the brightness just a bit.  There was one adjustment we made that I can tell immediately made a difference, which was tuning the sharpness down to nothing.  One thing that had always bothered me was how Jack’s beard in lost seemed to shimmer in odd ways, though I was never really sure what caused it.  It turns out that sharpness on digital TVs pretty much just takes the digital artifacting and makes it 10 times worse.  The image looks a little softer now, but there are no annoying random artifacts on thin lines throughout the picture.

Thanks to John for bringing that over.  I still have the kit as I’m going to do audio balancing this week (as we didn’t quite have the time to do it before people showed up).  While my living room is only so tunable, I’m still looking forward to actually trying to balance in the sub woofer in a reasonable way.  I think it will be amusing to see how off my course grained adjustments are.

If only they had power…

Nick and I chatted the other night, catching up on all things life and work.  Nick has kicked off his 4th semester as a professor at West Virginia Tech, adding a new class on open source software development to the curriculum for his students.  Our tentative plan is that I’ll come down late in the spring, hang out for a week, and give a guest lecture on Open Source Development.

I’ve discovered there is an Amtrak line that runs from New York City to Chicago via West Virginia, conveniently stopping in Charleston. I started getting all excited about this idea, until I found the following:

In most Amtrak trains, First Class and Business Class seats and sleepers have standard 110-volt electrical power outlets available to supply power for electronic devices. Very few outlets are available, however, at Coach Class seats.

This train doesn’t have First or Business Class seats. 15 hours of train is much better than 9.5 hours in a car, if I could get work done during it, but lacking that, driving looks like a better option.  If only they had power….

New approaches to CS1

As a professor you get sent new sample textbooks all the time, or so I learned from Dr Nick last night. The “hot” area for these textbooks is the CS1 (or Intro to Computer Science) classes. Computer Science programs have the unique challenge of getting beat up by Industry because they aren’t producing enough new graduates. At the same time Mass Media keeps saying “all your tech job are belong to India”, scaring potentially interested students to the much more secure careers of History and English.

The thing that is exciting about software development is the ability to be creative with a nearly infinitely malleable canvas. The tools for creating software are better than they’ve ever been, and the massive prevalence of Open Source Software makes finding example code really easy. In a weekend you can create a completely reasonable web application with Rails, or a nice client application using Glade. In each case they solve a problem you have, and make you’re life a little easier.

The bad old ways of teaching CS definitely miss this whole point. I’m a firm believer in students needing to understand interesting data structures and what is going on in the memory of the computer, but that doesn’t have to be the CS1 focus. That’s like teaching shop in high school, but instead of letting people build boxes or bridges, having them spend the entire first semester pounding nails into boards until they get it right. As with any industry that has a stigma for boring, you need to show students the creative aspects early in their education.

Back to text books. One of the new textbooks that Nick got was teaching CS1 in Javascript, in a browser. It did all the standard CS1 things about loops and datastructures, but in an environment that students might actually intrinsically care for. Relevancy is key to interest, and what can be more relevant in this day and age than the web browser. I’m sure the purists will loose their lunch over the idea of Javascript as the first language people learn, fortunately lunch is cheap and easy to find.

I for one, am excited about anything that brings more creative and talented people to the field. The current approach of making 18 year olds decide they don’t like software because they didn’t understand inane java syntax in the first 4 weeks that they were in college isn’t working out so well.