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October 07 2013

Four short links: 8 October 2013

  1. Lightworks — open source non-linear video editing software, with quite a history.
  2. Puzzlescript — open source puzzle game engine for HTML5.
  3. pudb — full-screen (text-mode) Python debugger.
  4. Freelanfree, open-source, multi-platform, highly-configurable and peer-to-peer VPN software.

April 22 2013

Four short links: 22 April 2013

  1. Meshlabopen source, portable, and extensible system for the processing and editing of unstructured 3D triangular meshes.
  2. HTML5 Video on iOS (Steve Souders) — While it’s true that Mobile Safari on iOS doesn’t buffer any video data as a result of the PRELOAD attribute, it does make other video requests that aren’t counted as “buffered” video. The number and size of the requests and responses depends on the video. For larger videos the total amount of data for these behind-the-scenes requests can be significant.
  3. Space Monkey (Kickstarter) — distributed encrypted peer-to-peer cloud service using custom hardware. Not open source, which would make me nervous that I was buying a botnet client with storage capability. (via BERG London)
  4. Matasano Crypto ChallengesCounting is not a hard problem. But cryptography is. There are just a few things you can screw up to get the size of a buffer wrong. There are tens, probably hundreds, of obscure little things you can do to take a cryptosystem that should be secure even against an adversary with more CPU cores than there are atoms in the solar system, and make it solveable with a Perl script and 15 seconds. Don’t take our word for it: do the challenges and you’ll see. People “know” this already, but they don’t really know it in their gut, and we think the reason for that is that very few people actually know how to implement the best-known attacks. So, mail us, and we’ll give you a tour of them.

February 22 2013

Four short links: 22 February 2013

  1. Indiepocalypse: Harlem Shake Edition (Andy Baio) — After four weeks topping the Billboard Hot 100, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop” was replaced this week by Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” the song that inspired the Internet meme.
  2. SplinterNetan Android app designed to create an unblockable Twitter like network that uses no cellular or Internet communications. All messages are transmitted over Bluetooth between users, creating a true peer-to-peer messaging system. All messages are anonymous to prevent retaliation by government authorities. (via Ushahidi)
  3. Disposable Satellites (Forbes) — tiny, near-disposable satellites for use in getting battlefield surveillance quickly [...] launched from a jet into orbit, and within a few minutes [...] provide soldiers on the ground with a zoomed-in, birds-eye view of the battlefield. Those image would be transmitted to current communications devices, and the company is working to develop a way to transmit them to smartphones, as well.
  4. Native iOS to HTML5 Porting Tool (Intel) — essentially a source-to-source translator that can handle a number of conversions from Objective-C into JavaScript/HTML5 including the translation of APIs calls. A number of open source projects are used as foundation for the conversion including a modified version of Clang front-end, LayerD framework and jQuery Mobile for widgets rendering in the translated source code. A porting aid, not a complete translator but a lot of the dog work is done. Requires one convert to Microsoft tools, however. (via Kevin Marks)

December 04 2012

The MOOC movement is not an indicator of educational evolution

Somehow, recently, a lot of people have taken an interest in the broadcast of canned educational materials, and this practice — under a term that proponents and detractors have settled on, massive open online course (MOOC) — is getting a publicity surge. I know that the series of online classes offered by Stanford proved to be extraordinarily popular, leading to the foundation of Udacity and a number of other companies. But I wish people would stop getting so excited over this transitional technology. The attention drowns out two truly significant trends in progressive education: do-it-yourself labs and peer-to-peer exchanges.

In the current opinion torrent, Clay Shirky considers MOOCs one of the big disruptive technologies of our age, and Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, writes (in a Boston Globe subscription-only article) that traditional colleges will have to deal with the MOOC challenge. Jon Bruner points out on Radar that non-elite American institutions could use a good scare (although I know a lot of people whose lives were dramatically improved by attending such colleges). The December issue of Communications of the ACM offers Professor Richard A. DeMillo from the Georgia Institute of Technology assessing the possible role of MOOCs in changing education, along with an editorial by editor-in-chief Moshe Y. Vardi culminating with, “If I had my wish, I would wave a wand and make MOOCs disappear.”

There’s a popular metaphor for this early stage of innovation: we look back to the time when film-makers made the first moving pictures with professional performers by setting up cameras before stages in theaters. This era didn’t last long before visionaries such as Georges Méliès, D. W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and Luis Buñuel uncovered what the new medium could do for itself. How soon will colleges get tired of putting lectures online and offer courses that take advantage of new media?

Two more appealing trends are already big. One is DIY courses, as popularized in the book Fab by Neil Gershenfeld at the MIT Media Lab. O’Reilly’s own Make projects are part of this movement. Fab courses represent the polar opposite of MOOCs in many ways. They are delivered in small settings to students whose dedication, inspiration, and talent have to match those of the teacher — the course asks a lot of everybody. But from anecdotal reports, DIY courses have been shown to be very powerful growth mechanisms in environments ranging from the top institutions (like MIT) to slums around the world. Teenagers are even learning to play with biological matter in labs such as BioCurious.

Fundamentally, DIY is a way to capture the theory of learning by doing, which goes back at least to John Dewey at the turn of the 20th century. The availability of 3D makers, cheap materials, fab software, and instructions over the Internet lend the theory a new practice.

“I believe in everything never yet said.”–Rainer Maria Rilke, Das Stunden-Buch

The other major trend cracking the foundations of education is peer-to-peer information exchange. This, like learning by doing, has plenty of history. The symposia of Ancient Greece (illustrated in fictional form by Plato) and the Talmudic discussions that underlay the creation of modern Judaism over 2,000 years ago show that human beings have long been used to learning from each other. Peer information exchange raged on centuries later in cafés and salons, beer halls and sewing circles. Experts were important, and everybody could recognize the arrival of a true expert, but he or she was just first among equals. A lot of students who sign up for MOOCs probably benefit from the online discussion forums as much as from the canned lectures and readings.

Wikipedia is a prominent example of peer-to-peer information exchange, and one that promulgates the contributions of experts, but one that also has trouble with sustainability. (They’re holding one of their fund-raisers now, and it’s a good time to donate.) This leads me to ask what business model colleges can apply in the face of both MOOCs and peer-to-peer knowledge. How do you mobilize a whole community to educate each other, while maintaining the value of expertise?

This challenge — not just a business challenge, but really the challenge of tapping expertise effectively — happens to be one that O’Reilly is dealing with in the field of publishing. We introduced the equivalent of filmed stage shows in the mid-1990s when we created the Safari Bookshelf to provide our books on a subscription-based website. The innovation was in the delivery model, which also delivered a shock to a publishing industry dependent on print sales.

But we knew that Safari Bookshelf barely dipped into the power of the web, which has grown more and more with advances in HTML, JavaScript, and mobile devices. Safari Bookshelf is much more than a collection of web pages with book content now. As a training tool, the web has exploded with other experiments. We offer an interactive school of technology also.

So the field of education will probably see lots of blended models along the way. It’s worth noting that proponents of open content have called for licensing models that reinforce the open promise of the courses. Some courses ask students to write their own textbooks and share them — but one asks where they get the information with which to write their peer-produced textbooks. In an earlier article I examined the difficulties of creating free, open textbooks that are actually usable for teaching. Such dilemmas just show that the investment of large amounts of time by experts are still a critical part of education — but applying the broadcast model to them may be less and less relevant.

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