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October 24, 2008

Thoughts on FOTE

Pete's recent post about DC-2008 reminds me that I never wrote up my thoughts on FOTE 2008, the Future of Technology in Education event organised recently by Tim Bush and colleagues at ULCC.

It's probably too late now to do any kind of lengthy write-up of the day.  Suffice to say that there were some good talks and some bad talks.  See my live-blog on eFoundations LiveWire if you want to know more but my closing remark pretty much sums it up:

AP: summing up... i think there have been some very good talks today and some very bad talks.  on balance, i think it has been a good and useful day.  as i mentioned, i think that suppliers (with the exception of the Huddle guy) have a tendency to talk down to the audience - we know the world is changing - what we want is help in thinking about how to respond

One of the best talks (actually, probably one of the best talks I'll see this year) was by Miles Metcalfe of Ravensbourne College.  I include the slides below but you won't get the full effect without the very humorous presentation that went with it.

His closing slide, which he suggested was originally going to be entitled "Like I trust the fuckers", poked fun at the proposal that institutions can trust external service providers such as Google (who were also presenting at FOTE) to provide services critical to their business. Having said that, the earlier parts of the talk also acknowledged that individuals within institutions can now make many of those kinds of outsourcing decisions for themselves - irrespective of institutional policy.

The whole thrust of the presentation was to ask, "where does that leave institutional computing service provision?". We used to think that at least the institutional network was sacred (and to a large extent it still is) but with the advent of widely available 3G, of which the iPhone is the classic example, even that is being nibbled away at.

On the same slide, Metcalfe also argues that moving towards OpenID makes more sense than Shibboleth (in the current environment), a view that I tend to share, albeit acknowledging some of the usability issues that still have to be resolved.

All in all it was a very entertaining and thought-provoking presentation, and well worth turning up at the event to see.

(Note that slides from most of the other presentations during the day are also available.)

An evolutionary view of cloud computing

Quote from the tail end of a special report about 'cloud computing' in the Economist:

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a technology visionary at IBM, compares cloud computing to the Cambrian explosion some 500m years ago when the rate of evolution speeded up, in part because the cell had been perfected and standardised, allowing evolution to build more complex organisms. Similarly, argues Mr Wladawsky-Berger, the IT industry spent much of its first few decades developing the basic components of computing. Now that these are essentially standardised, bigger and more diverse systems can emerge. “For computing to reach a higher level”, he says, “its cells had to be commoditised.”

Thanks to @PaulMiller on Twitter for the pointer.

October 23, 2008

Thoughts on DC-2008

A somewhat belated report on my time at the DC-2008 conference of the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative in Berlin a couple of weeks ago.

I travelled ahead of the conference itself in order to attend the meeting of the Usage Board held over the weekend. I've attended a few UB meetings previously as a "guest", but this was the first one I'd attended as a member. I think it was a reasonably productive meeting: thanks to Tom Baker's ever-efficient chairing, we managed to get through the agenda and make a few decisions, even if at least one of them involved passing on the issue to someone else to deal with!

As I already mentioned, I gave a tutorial presentation on the Monday, focusing mainly on the DCMI Abstract Model, with a short section on syntaxes for representing DC metadata. I was horribly nervous about it, probably more so than for any other presentation I've done, in the last few years anyway, partly because of the amount of material I was trying to cover, and partly because some of the topics have, from past experience, proved to be quite difficult to explain - but I think it went OK in the end. It was the second of four tutorials, the others given by Jane Greenberg, Mikael Nilsson and Marcia Zeng. The conference has traditionally included a set of tutorials, and I think this was the second occasion on which they were all presented in sequence on the same day, rather than one per day at the start of the day. This arrangement, with its juxtaposition of content from several different presenters, and a higher probability that the same audience will sit through them all, did bring home to me the importance of ensuring that the presentations form a coherent "whole", that we have a shared foundation, and particularly that we use terminology consistently. I think we just about managed it this time, but the eagle-eyed observer may have spotted a few points where the messages were a bit mixed or where we used different terms for the same concept.

The conference proper featured the usual (for DCMI) combination of keynotes, papers and workshop sessions. The conference theme was "Metadata for Semantic and Social Applications"and there were several papers on topics related to the Semantic Web and "Linked Data", as well as some on "tagging", though, perhaps slightly disappointingly, few that I can recall on other dimensions of metadata use in "social software". In comparison with last year's conference where the "Singapore Framework" model for DC Application Profiles came to provide something of a recurring motif, it was less clear to me that there was a "dominant" theme at DC-2008. The paper on interoperability levels was referred to a few times, but if there was a running theme, I think it was probably a renewed emphasis on the Web. The paper presentation I probably enjoyed most was a paper by Stuart Sutton & Diny Golder, where Stuart described their experience of modelling educational achievement standards and exposing data based on that model on the Web. IIRC, Stuart concluded by saying something along the lines of "Probably the most important thing we did was to clarify the things we were interested in and assign them all dereferenceable URIs" - where, in this case, the "things of interest" included not just "documents" but "statements" within those documents. Such themes were echoed in the keynote by Paul Miller, with his emphasis on Berners-Lee's "Linked Data" principles and the emergence of the "Linked Open Data" community.

And I think that emphasis is important for DCMI. The recent focus within DCMI on conceptual frameworks for DC metadata - the DCAM, the Description Set Profile model and the Singapore Framework - has, I think, been necessary, and indeed those frameworks are designed to be grounded in the Web. But it's good to be reminded that our applications are operating within the context of the Web, and, to quote from a slide by another presenter, Ed Summers, who was in turn referencing Paul Graham, we need to ensure our implementations are "aligned with the grain of the Web" - and I'd probably add, for the DCMI case, with the "grain" of other related developments going on around us, such as the work on Linked Data.

And going back to the topic of the tutorials for a moment, I think it would probably be helpful if we can find some way of establishing some of these fundamental principles in that context too.

I admit I was slightly disappointed that, in at least some of the workshop sessions, we didn't really seem to get to the point of advancing the work of the group very much. But perhaps that is inevitable: I think there has always been a tension in these sessions between a desire on the one hand to provide enough background that they are open to newcomers and serve almost as a specialised tutorial, and on the other to focus in on specific issues and try to find resolutions to specific problems or at least plan out how to do so.

Away from the formal sessions, it was good to meet some people with whom I'd previously had exchanges only in weblog comments, by email or on Twitter, as well as to catch up with old friends.

And as I kinda expected, I enjoyed Berlin a lot: for a European capital city, it felt a very relaxed and welcoming place, as well as a lively and interesting one, and I hope I'll be able to visit again.

October 21, 2008

ORE 1.0 published

I'm pleased to note that, at the end of last week, Carl Lagoze and Herbert Van de Sompel announced the publication of version 1.0 of the OAI ORE specifications. I was travelling for most of the week, and had very little time to keep up with email, so the last minute dotting of i's and crossing of t's fell to the other editors and I'm grateful for their efforts in pulling things together.

(Of course, we're already noticing various minor things which need correcting!)

I think the main changes from the previous (0.9) release are:

As it happened, I was talking about ORE in a presentation last week (more on that in a follow-up post) and I expressed the opinion then that, leaving aside for a moment the core ORE model of Aggregations and Aggregated Resources, I think one of the significant contributions of ORE may turn out to be its emphasis on what I think of as a "resource-centric" approach and (at least some of) the conventions of the Semantic Web and "Linked Data" communities. In particular, I think this is a potentially important change for the "Open Archives"/"eprint repository" community, where to a large extent - not entirely, but to a large extent - repository developments on the Web have been conditioned by the more "service-oriented" framework of the OAI-PMH protocol and an emphasis on XML and XML Schema. It's also probably fair to say that I don't think the ORE project really started from this perspective, but rather things evolved and shifted - perhaps not always in a straight line! - in this direction as the work proceeded.

The ORE model itself is quite general in nature, and, as Herbert acknowledges in a presentation here (a nice set of slides which provides a good overview in itself, I think), it's not easy to predict how ORE might be applied: a number of experimental/test applications are noted in that presentation, but many others are possible. For my own part, I'm particularly interested in seeing how/whether ORE can be used in association with other models, like FRBR.

October 20, 2008

Part of the machine

In some ways it seems silly to highlight individual TEDTalks - every one that I've ever watched has been well worth the time taken to watch it - but David Perry's Will videogames become better than life? is more directly relevant to this blog than many so I'll give it a quick plug.

Interesting for its historical perspective on the rise of the videogame format, its vision of the future, and its glimpse into the mindset of game-players, this video is a great watch.  The emphasis is not really on "will videogame graphics and audio continue to become more and more life like?" (answer, "yes, of course") but on "will videogames ever touch us emotionally in the way books and movies do?". Can a videogame make us cry?  Fundamentally, how do virtual experiences change us as people?

In the context of 3-D virtual worlds - and everything in this talk, and the two videos shown as part of it, can be applied to virtual worlds as much as to games - emotion, purpose, meaning, understanding, feeling... these are the important factors that determine how immersive the virtual experience is.  Ultimately, these factors determine how much the machine becomes part of us and we become part of the machine.

As Perry says towards the end:

"... the magic to come - where is that going to come from?  Is it going to come from the best [film] directors in the world as we probably thought it would?  I don't think so.  I think it's going to come from the children who are growing up now that aren't stuck with all the stuff that we remember from the past.  They're going to do it their way..."

Macs vs. PCs - quick wireless performance experiment

I'm taking the unusual step of republishing this blog entry because I am concerned that it is both misleading and unfair (particularly on the Asus EeePC).  Having repeated my experiment at the weekend, I find I get significantly different results than I did before and am unable to replicate the complete lack of connectivity from the EeePC in the loft conversion.  As AJ Cann noted in his comment on the original entry, this may be because a relatively small change in position can have a relatively large impact on wifi signal strength - I don't know.  I remain reasonably convinced that there is some kind of generic difference in the ability of Macs vs. PCs to connect to weak and/or busy wireless networks but I don't think this blog entry is in any way helpful in quantifying it.  The remainder of this entry is the original blog post, which I leave in place as testament to my own incompetence.  Apologies for any confusion caused. 

I was so disappointed at the lack of wireless connectivity from my new Asus EeePC 1000h at the FOWA Expo last week that I decided to do a quick experiment.

Take one EeePC (running Windows XP) and one MacBook.  Use the Speakeasy Speedtest to measure upstream and downstream bandwidth over my wireless home network (at exactly the same time and with the machines side by side) at three points in the house - downstairs (next to the ADSL wireless router), on the first floor and up in the loft conversion.

Note that I took each measurement four times, then took an average.  Here are the results:


Not totally scientific I grant you - but strongly indicative of the differences between the machines.  Basically, upload speed is pretty much the same on both (probably limited by the upload bandwidth on the ADSL connection), except in the loft where the EeePC got no signal at all, but download speed is roughly halved on the EeePC compared to the MacBook.  In passing, I note that even on the MacBook I get less than 50% of the 8Mb broadband connection I pay for - not very surprising since I rarely get more than 4Mb and the wireless connection and use of WEP presumably eats into some of the available bandwidth.  Also that (somewhat oddly?) the MacBook didn't appear to lose any bandwidth as it was moved further from the wireless router.

Broadly speaking, this bears out my experiences at FOWA - looks like the EeePC (and PCs in general?) doesn't cope well with weak wireless signals.  Is there anything I can do about this?  I've tried tweeking some of the settings on the wireless card driver but it doesn't seem to make much difference.  I suppose I could buy a supercharged USB wireless connector... or go for a USB 3G connector (which would give me always-on connectivity and form a usable backup in those cases where wireless is too weak for the EeePC - or too expensive).

(Note that the MacBook is my daughter's machine... grrrr... why are kids the only ones with significant disposable incomes in my house?).

Building in the cloud

Via @timoreilly on Twitter, I note that George Reese has written a short piece about developing cloud applications, Considerations in Building Web Applications for the Amazon Cloud, his four areas of consideration being licensing, persistence, horizontal scalability and disaster recovery. 

The licensing one caught my eye because it wasn't what I was expecting based on the concerns about cloud computing that I've heard raised at educational events in the recent past.

Reese's point about licensing is that if you've built an application running on hardware you own, using licensed software for which the cost is based on numbers of CPUs, and you try to move it into the cloud then you may be in for a shock because the answer to the question, "how many CPUs is my application now running on?" is non-trivial to answer.  On that basis, open source solutions may get a "shot in the arm" from any kind of mass movement into the cloud (as noted by Tim Bray at FOWA in London recently).

On the other hand, in education, the licensing issues I hear raised most frequently around cloud computing have to do with the terms and conditions under which you are storing material in the cloud and whether there are IPR, privacy/data protection and data recovery considerations that need to be taken into account.

Both concerns are valid of course.  I guess these different perspectives come from a developer-centric vs. a policy maker-centric view of the world.

October 16, 2008

Buzzwords as a service

In his joint session (with Jeff Barr) on cloud computing at FOWA last week, Tony Lucas from xCalibre introduced three acronyms:

  • SaaS - Software as a Service
  • PaaS - Platform as a Service
  • IaaS - Infrastructure as a Service

From top to bottom they are (approximately)... applications hosted in the cloud (e.g. Google Apps), cloud-based platforms on which you can build your own stuff, and cloud-based low-level (typically virtualised) compute infrastructure (e.g. Amazon EC2).

I appreciate that these aren't particularly new terms or anything... but I confess that two of the three were new to me (and on that basis may be new to others). 

Sitting under(?) these three I guess you have managed hosting (the phrase Hardware as a Service (HaaS) has been superceeded by IaaS, at least according to Wikipedia).  And then there's Data as a Service (DaaS), where data is hosted as a service provided to customers across the Internet.

All of which leads to Everything as a Service (EaaS, XaaS or aaS), the concept of being able to call up re-usable, fine-grained software components across a network.

I have to confess that I find the distinctions between these terms somewhat blurry... but that is pretty inevitable I guess.  Picking on something at random, the Talis Platform for example... I have no real sense for whether it is best described as SaaS, DaaS, PaaS or IaaS?  Perhaps it doesn't matter.

I particularly like the fact that the Wikipedia entry for PaaS currently says, "This article or section appears to contain a large number of buzzwords".  Quite!

October 15, 2008

Virtual World Watch - 'official' launch

Vwwmoo The Virtual World Watch project was officially launched today - I'm not quite sure what that means but anyway...  the project will continue the series of snapshots that we have funded over the last year or so but will broaden in scope to include usage of virtual environments other than Second Life.

The work will continue to be undertaken by John Kirriemuir (SL: Silversprite Helsinki).

October 14, 2008

Thoughts on FOWA

I spent Thursday and Friday last week at the Future of Web Apps Expo (FOWA) in London, a pretty good event overall in retrospect and certainly one that left me with a lot to think about.  I'm not going to write up any of the individual talks in any kind of detail - videos of all the talks are now available, as is my (lo-fat) live-blogging from the event - but I do want to touch on several thoughts that occurred to me while I was there.

Firstly, the somewhat mundane issue of wireless access at conferences...  I say mundane because one might expect that providing wireless access to conference delegates should have become pretty much routine by now - a bit like making sure that tea and coffee are available?  But that didn't seem to be the case at this event.  My (completely unscientific and non-exhaustive) experience was that everyone with a Mac in the venue had no trouble with the wifi network but that everyone with a PC seemed to have little or no connectivity.  (Actually, that's not quite true, I did find one person with a PC laptop who had no problem using the wifi).  Whatever... my poor little brand new EeePC didn't get on the network for any significant period of time at any point in the two days :-(

P1070969So, OK, we all know that Macs are better than PCs in every way but I was amazed at the stark difference that seemed to be in evidence during this particular event.

The lack of wifi connectivity was of particular annoyance to yours truly, since I was hoping to live-blog the whole event.  In the end, I used the mobile interface to Coveritlive via my iPhone over a 3G connection to cover some of the sessions - not an easy thing to do given the soft-keyboard but actually an interesting experiment in what is possible with mobile technology these days.  By day 2 of the conference my typing on the soft-keyboard was getting pretty good - though not always very accurate.

The conference had quite a young and entrepreneurial feel to it - I'm not saying that everyone there was under 30 but there were a lot of aspects to the style of the conference that were in stark contrast to the rather more... err... traditional feel of many 'academic' conferences.  I don't want to argue that age and attitude are necessarily linked (for obvious reasons) but the entrepreneurial thing is particularly interesting I think because it is something that has a non-obvious fit with how things happen in education.  Being an entrepreneur is about taking risks - risks with money more than anything I guess.  I don't quite know how this translates into the academic space but my gut feeling is that it would be worth thinking about.  Note that I'm not thinking about money here - I'm thinking about attitude.  What I suppose I mean is our ability to break out of a conservative approach to things - our ability to overcome the inertia associated with how things have been done in the past.

I realise that there are plenty of startups in the education space - Huddle springs to mind as a good current example of a company that seems to have the potential to cross the education/enterprise divide - my concern is more about what happens inside educational institutions.  A 24 year-old can run the world's biggest social network yet we don't see similar things happening in education... do we?  Calling all 24 year old directors of university computing services...

Is that something we should worry about?  Is it something we should applaud?  Does it matter?  Is it an inevitable consequence of the kinds of institutions we find in education?

Funding by JISC, Eduserv and the like should be about encouraging an entrepreneurial approach to the use of ICT in education but I'm not sure it fully succeeds in doing that.  Project funding is by its nature a largely low risk activity - except at the transition points between funding.  There are exceptions of course - there are people that I would say are definitely educational entrepreneurs (in the attitude sense) but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule overall and even where they exist I think it is very difficult for them to have a significant impact on wider practice.

The entrepreneurial theme came out strongly in several sessions. Tim Bray's keynote for example, my favorite talk of the conference, where he focused on what startups need to do to react to the current economic climate.  And in a somewhat contrived debate about 'work-life balance' where Jason Calacanis argued that "it's ok to be average but not in my company" - ever heard that in the education sector?  I'm not saying that his was the right attitude, and to a large extent he was playing devil's advocate anyway, but these are the kinds of issues that we tend to be pretty shy about even discussing in education.

Unfortunately, the whole entrepreneurial thing brings with it a less positive facet, in that there tends to be a "it's not what you know, but who you know" kind of attitude.  This comes out both face-to-face (people looking over your shoulder for a more interesting person to talk to - yes, I know I'm a boring git, thank you!) and in people's use of social networks.  The people I'd unfollow first on Twitter are those who spend the most time tweeting who they are meeting up with next. Yawn.

Much of FOWA was split into two parallel tracks - a developer track and a business track.  I spent most time in the former.  Overall I was slightly disappointed with this track and found the talks that I went to in the business track slightly better.  It's not that there weren't a lot of good talks in the developer track - just that they didn't seem like good developer talks.  My take was that many of them would have been more appropriate for managers who wanted to get up to speed on the latest technology-related issues and thinking.  It didn't seem to me that real developers (of which I'm not one) would have got much from many of those talks - they were too superficial or something.

Now, clearly, running a developer track aimed at 700-odd delegates is not an easy task - I certainly wouldn't be able to do any better - but more than anything you've got to try and inspire people to go away and learn about and deploy new technology, not try and teach it directly during the conference.  For whatever reason, it didn't feel like there was much really new technological stuff to get inspired about.  This is not the conference organiser's fault - just timing I guess.  The business track on the other hand had plenty to focus on, given the current economic climate.

As you'd expect, there was also a lot about the cloud over the two days.  Most of it positive... but interestingly (to me, since it was the first time I'd heard something like this) there was an impassioned plea from the floor (during the joint important bits of cloud computing slot by Jeff Barr and Tony Lucas) for consumers of cloud computing to band together in order to put pressure on suppliers for better terms and conditions, prices, and the like.

Overall then... FOWA was a different kind of event to those I normally attend and to be honest it was a very last-minute decision to go at all but I did so because there were some interesting looking speakers that I wanted to see.  It wasn't a total success (hey, what is!?) but on balance I'm really glad I went and I got a lot out of it.

P1070970Two final mini-thoughts...

Firstly, virtual economies came up a couple of times.  Once in the Techcrunch Pitch at the end of the first day, where one of the panel (sorry, I forget who) suggested that virtual economies would increasingly replace subscriptions as the way services are supported.  I think he was referring to services outside the virtual world space where these kinds of economies are regularly found - Second Life being the best known example of a virtual world economy - though I must confess that I don't really understand how it might work in other contexts.  Then again in Tim Bray's talk where he noted the sales of iPhone applications at very low unit costs (e.g. 59p a time) - a model that will become increasingly sustainable and profitable because of the growing size of the mobile market.  (I appreciate that these two aren't quite the same - but think they are close enough to be of passing interest).

Secondly, I had my first chance to play on a Microsoft Surface - a kind of table-sized iPhone multi-user touch interface.  These things are beautiful to watch and interact with, and the ability to almost literally touch digital content is amazing, with obvious possibilities in the education and cultural sectors, as well as elsewhere.  Costs are prohibitive at the moment of course - but that will no doubt change.  I can't wait!

P1070972 And finally... to that Mark Zuckerberg interview at the end of day 2.  I really enjoyed it actually.  Despite being well rehearsed and choreographed I thought he came across very well.  He certainly made all the right kinds of noises about making Facebook more open though whether it is believable or not remains to be seen!

It's easy to knock successful people - particularly ones so young.  But at the end of the day I suspect that many of us simply wish we could achieve half as much!?

October 03, 2008

eFoundations LiveWire

Livewire_2eFoundations LiveWire will get its first proper outing later today (wireless network permitting) with a live-blog from the Future of Technology in Education (FOTE) event at Imperial College in London.

LiveWire is a slightly different kind of blog, more like a container for a collection of live-blogs really, and you may have to bear with us while we work out how best to squeeze the live-blog format into the new container in the most effective way. There will probably be issues with date-stamps, URLs and so on.

We are hosting it on Typepad - a choice made largely for consistency with how we host this blog rather than because it is necessarily the best way of organising things - and we'll initially use CoveritLive as the live-blogging engine. We've also pre-populated it with a number of older live-blogs from the last 6 months or so.

Feel free to drop by every so often. Keep an eye on the LiveWire RSS feed if you are interested - we'll try and announce new live-blogs about a week in advance of any meeting we are covering.

October 02, 2008

Muxtape is dead, long live Muxtape

This is a somewhat left-field post for this blog but the rise and fall of Muxtape caught my attention (primarily as a user of the service) and the story of what went on behind the scenes makes for an interesting read.

Firstly, let me say that I categorically do not condone music (or any other kind of digital) piracy - just ask my kids! But Muxtape was never about piracy IMHO. It was about sharing the joy of music with friends. A digital equivalent of what I and millions of others have done since god knows when - the borrowing of the cassette tape. There is a fair use issue here - by which I mean a real-world sense of fair use, not some piece of legal jargon.

The reaction of the RIAA is predictable in its shortsightedness and narrow-mindedness. I say, "shame on them".

Muxtape is set to rise from the ashes in a new form, supporting new and upcoming bands, but I strongly doubt it'll have that same buzz about it as the original :-(. There will be another Muxtape at some point... it'll take a different form of course. And still others will come later. It's the inevitability about all this that makes the RIAA position so ridiculous, especially when they don't even appear to be operating in sync with their sponsors (at least according to this story).

Are there themes here that are relevant to the more usual topics for this blog - repositories, digital libraries, e-learning, e-research identity management, virtual worlds and so on? Innovation nearly always comes from individuals but sometimes the entrenched might of the establishment is too hard to overcome? Treating threats as opportunities isn't obvious to everyone, particularly those too close to the action? Yes, I think there are valuable lessons here.



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