CampFiber Redux

Arrrghh! Just realized I’d failed to mention the latest CampFiber put together by Geoff Daily for this Thursday evening. The focus will be on development and ideas for Lafayette’s fiber network. The first event was very interesting and I expect this one to be no less. Also planned for the same day and place: a 7 AM (!) to 5 PM “Jelly”—hang out and work with interesting people at the media room in the Travis Center (better AC than the outside tables at CCs.)

Oh yeah; there’ll be more talk afterward as well at some choice watering hole. 🙂

As before it’ll be hosted by Abacaus and presented at the Travis Technology Center.

CampFiber Redux (Sign up)
Travis Technology Center, 110 Travis St (map)
Thursday 7/16, 5-7 PM

ToDo: Facial Fun

Here’s something that’s just plain fun…and may occasionally prove useful: “Ultimate Flash Face” and online “sketching” program that lets anyone draw a pretty darn good face.

I can personally testify that 8 year old boys love it…and that everyone who I’ve introduced to it has gotten sucked in.

The easiest thing to do is to try and draw each other’s faces. It’s a pretty shocking how accurate you can be if you’re just patient. The next trick is to try on new hair or glasses. Arguing about whether or not your nose is that large or lips that thin can take up a fruitful half hour.

Advanced “students” will want to try their hand at caricature. Exaggerate Elton John’s glasses. (Don’t think it can be done? It can. The dimensioning tool is pretty nifty.) Play. A sick child or a grumpy friend can be nicely distracted.

The teacher in me feels compelled to point out that you can learn a lot about how crime sketches are composed (that process is clearly the basis) and about how faces are shaped. Have you ever really looked at other people’s eyes? They’re really different. Like all good instruction, you’ll come away looking a the subject, in this case faces, differently.

What’s wonderful, of course, is that this little tool is freely available on the web. Someone–actually a generous German by the name of Franks Fahrschule—has offered this up to the world. People all over the world get a bit of pleasure, a moment of fun, and the chance to learn something.

It’s an amazing world we live in, really.

ToDo: Google Sky

Saturday ToDo…

Here’s the latest in the occasional, usually Saturday, “ToDo” series: Google Sky. It’s been awhile, I know.

We all know Google Maps are among the greatest things on Earth—if you want to find anything (except Dick Cheney’s house) or fly through the Grand Canyon the internet cognescenti click over to Google Maps. But until recently I was only vaguely aware of Google Sky.

If you liked having the whole earth available at the click of a mouse button you’ll love Google Sky. It’s utterly nifty, completely addictive, and well worth poking around some. Traveling the universe with a 12 year old has got to be one of the most gratifying things around. If you don’t have one of your own go out and adopt a niece or nephew.

Here’s a place to start: Kepler’s Supernova Remnant, aka SN 1604…The Kepler’s link takes you in at a starry sky with a brilliantly colored dot in the center. Fly your spaceship toward it in a couple in a couple hyperspace jumps (or just mundanely click into the location as you would in maps…) and a gorgeous cloud of gas emerges. If your 12 year old (or inner child) wants to know more Wikipedia will provide a simple explanation (and is the source of the image pictured). But you can also get a dramatic rendition…and the electric explanation for the irridescent colors.

Should the vastness of space prove a tad disorienting you could always take the kids to Mars (and if you thought flying through the Grand Canyon was grand, try a canyon as deep as Mount Everest and so long that it would stretch from Los Angeles to New York [available in HD–I want my fiber])…or excite them with the human drama of Apollo 14; people walking on the moon.

The net is a pretty neat place to play. It’s too nice outside today to justify playing this way today in Lafayette—these cool days won’t last. But after night falls and the mosquitoes come out I’ll see what else I can find.

F2C: Highly Recommended

The 3rd Freedom To Connect Conference (F2C) is being held in Washington on March 1st and April lst.

I recommend it highly. Go get on board now. Prices go up March the 7th (this Friday!) I went to the inaugural meeting and am going again this year. A fascinating crew shows up and, like most good conferences the best takes place in the halls and over lunch-time hoagies — but unlike most the sessions are worth every penny. Smart people saying what they actually believe. Nothing is more invigorating—including that silly trip to Cancun you thought might be energizing.

F2C is the brainchild of David Isenberg, a funny, fiesty fellow of just the gadfly sort we approve of here at LPF. The idea is to get a bunch of smart committed people interested in sustaining our “Freedom To Connect” over modern networks together and let them go to it. (Isenberg has a more reasonable-sounding description, I think he’s being politic.) This year the theme is “The NetHeads Come to Washington” and the contrast is implicitly between the beltway “bellheads” and the insurgents from the restless hinterlands. Isenberg is the “Original NetHead®;” he is the fellow who coined the approving phrase “the stupid network” to describe the architecture of the internet, which places processing “intelligence” at the edges of the network (i.e. at Google and at your ‘puter) and to contrast it with the old Bell telephone network (where all the intelligence is in the switches and your phone is as dumb as a rock). You might be under the impression that Net Neutrality is a new issue. You’d be wrong–at least about the underlying philosophical differences involved. Those are as old as the internet itself. Check out the 1996 Wired screed that is the first reference I know of to “Netheads vs. Bellheads.” The contrast between the two sides—right down to the core issues of money, control, and Quality Of Service vs. raw bandwidth have been on the table for years for those in the know. Isenberg gathers up those sorts of prescient folks. If you’d like to be a decade ahead of the curve you oughta consider the conference.

Take a look at the agenda. You’ll find folks from all over the world (Amsterdam’s FTTH guru Dirk van der Woude anyone?), industry stalwarts (like Ron Sege, head of Tropos that is supplying LUS’ wireless network), all around brilliant types (Clay Shirky, Susan Crawford and almost anyone you care to pick off the list), legal eagles and advocates, (Jim Baller, Matt Stoller) and even the occasional local activist type (modesty forbids)…

It should be interesting.

Get a clue: if you can, go.

And if you can’t click into the web stream; that’s what I did last year and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Other YouTube

ToDo & Sunday Thought Departments
Small Print Warning: some curriculum theory from a previous life—cleverly obscured—lies ahead. Please ignore. 🙂

Ok, we all know about YouTube–it is that silly-fascinating site where dogs ride skateboards and people spend a lot of time crying for a fascinated public.

Pure entertainment–in the bad sense of fascinatingly mindless distracting pablum.

But there is the other YouTube.

That YouTube that has created a brand new bottom-up educational format: the short video instruction. It’s fun, it’s popular, it works and it’s what entertainment can be in its best sense: a fascinatingly engaging way to learn. Most educational video shorts—let’s call them “instructables” so we have a less akward handle—are somewhere between two and six minutes long. They focus on some small bit of “doing” like making a nifty techno-toy, or showing a dance move, or throwing a pot on the wheel. The producers are most often advanced users and the consumers anyone who wants to learn “how.”

You might have watched some of these but didn’t have a category to put them in. Here is a nice little example for someone for whom the description doesn’t strike a cord:

That “instructable” is an example of “throwing off the hump.” Potters do that when they want to make a series of similar small items. It’s not an easy thing to describe–books, blackboards, and lecture-halls are not good mediums to convey that variety of learning. It’s the sort of thing that is more usefully “shown.” There is a whole class of things that we’d like to teach which are better shown than described; things that are better experienced than conventionally taught. Video isn’t perfect but these extremely short pieces of “conveyed experience” are very, very useful to the learner. The learner can see multiple examples (e.g.: another throwing off the hump). They are repeatable and they are deep. —Repeatable: if you didn’t see how he finished off the rim, watch it again. They are deep in the sense that by watching it a learner who has had his or her hands in clay can “feel” how thin those walls must be and get a sense for how much “wobble” is tolerated and how many times to “pull” up walls and what to do toward the final curve with each pull. All these things are (inadequately) discussed (at interminable length) in conventional classroom settings as preparation. But advisory rules about wall thickness and pulls are rather direct abstractions from experience whose utility lies in allowing the student to move more quickly and effectively to new experience. They are much better taught after as student has learned to throw a few forms as a way to move toward independent explorations.

(If you can’t get into potting, try the Zydeco demo, or the instructions for making cool LED “throwies” and re-read the above paragraph with your example in mind. You could find similar instructables for welding, making lures, cooking creole, or applying makeup. There is a whole DIY section for you to browse. Let your passions rule)

We don’t teach by example in schools because we don’t have the time. There are too many students in our classes for many of the most effective kinds of instruction to be possible. Instructables approach the one-on-one experience of tutorials. You watch at your own pace, you notice what is meaningful to you, and you can get repeated examples until you “get” the right approach. A real tutorial with the added dimensions of individualized feedback and things like force feedback (holding the students hands against the clay to give the “feel” of the appropriate pressure) would be even more valuable. Even so, instructables are new and valuable form.

This is one of the reasons you should want big bandwidth. To really see some of the details on the potting example you’d want HD-quality videos. I can imagine getting more personalized instruction from afar–if we had the bandwidth. A skilled potter (or master welder) in Lafayette could set up a nice shop and market personalized instruction over the net—if both ends had really big bandwith.

Just for the record: the usefulness of this technique is not, in my judgment, limited to vocational topics or hobbies. Showing and having the student find ways of solving a problem is central to good mathematics instruction. Learning to read is something that has to be shown; letter sounds can pretty much only be “labled” correctly after a student has learned sound out letters by example… Much conventional instruction could be replaced or aided by providing multiple, repeatable, deep examples.

So…something ToDo on this Sunday when you really ought to be at Festivals Acadiens if you are an Acadiana denizen. And something to think about.

PS: Yes, yes…we just got a wheel. What of it? 🙂

Update: 7:28: ooops. I just looked at Boing Boing for the first time in weeks and down the list I spoted a nifty link to how to make clear ice cubes. So naturally I followed it (well, naturally for me). The link goes to a site called “instructables!” I thought I had made up that term–but now it seems more likely that I’ve seen a reference to this site. Which is pretty neat place to visit. (The ice cube link? Right here.)

Make yourself a Widget

Saturday ToDo

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Well, this is fun. You should try and make something too. I’ve been tinkering with web gadgets and widgets as a way to implement one of the digitial divide committee’s recommendation that a local content homepage be made available. Mike, knowing my interest, sent me a link to an online gadget factory that I hadn’t heard of and suggested a timer that would countdown to the day the first fiber customer is expected to be served.

So I went to SpringWidgets and tinkered around on their system.

Et Voila! Just like that, SpringWidgets mocked me up a very nice one. I’ve set up the target date for the first customer being served as January 1 2009. See how many days, hours, minutes and seconds remain until the fated hour. 🙂

Feel free to copy this to your system, blog…whatever. Mess with it.

This coundown timer didn’t take five minutes. I bet you could do much better…if you do send me a copy!

(Google Gadgets, Yahoo widgets or PageFlakes can be made to do similar and more elaborate things—with more work. WidgetBox works with similar web form-based simplicity.)

ToDo: Yahoo Pipes

Today’s “ToDo:” Yahoo Pipes. Nifty, cool, efficient.

If we’re all gonna love having big pipes here in Lafayette and find ourselves living on the web as a consequence (like I think we will when we’re not dancing or eating crawfish or boudin) then we’re gonna have to learn to deal with the dreaded “information overload.”

The problem is an embarrassment of riches: the net makes so much information effortlessly available that it is all too easy to while away the hours when you could be doing something useful like playing with your grandchildren or searching out the best boudin place doing something merely mundane like keeping up with the news on LUS’ fiber system.

Not Good.

Don’t let it happen to you.

Play a bit with Yahoo pipes and you’ll discover that for a small upfront investment in time spent building a pipe you can eliminate a host of tedious clicks from you regular routine. Yahoo pipes lets you concatenate RSS feeds into one giant feed and search that feed for items of interest, filtering out all the gradu that you wouldn’t bother to read anyway.

The simplest pipes (see an example below) just search a set of feeds for all mentions of your favorite thing. You could, for instance, search all Lafayette media mention of your favorite topic. I put together a pipe which will search most of South Louisiana’s major media. You can travel to a “pipe” which searches on “Blanco” and today returns mostly the comments on her recent set of vetos. (Be paitient—Yahoo is searching 1278 items and winnowing it down to the 20 or so articles you’ll see. And it will do it a LOT faster than you would—so quit your whining.) Another pipe, searching “Vitter” lets you feast on the latest local coverage of the scandal.

It’s all very easy really and Yahoo has done its best to make it as easy as possible. In an earlier ToDo article I recommended an animation programming environment called “Scratch” in part for its super easy introduction to visual programming for kids. Yahoo pipes works off the same idea. You are presented with a palette of tools (like sources, user input, operators, and various bits to manipulate your data). You pick up a tool and drop it onto a working canvas, paste source links into the “source” tool, drop a search “operator” onto the canvas, type in your search term, then simply “pull” links to indicate that you want to search your source based on the search terms you typed. Link that to an output device and save. You’re done. All very intuitive and fun to play with since you can mess with your connections, sources, and operators to see what they do and how they change what you get.

That sort of quick check is not all you can do—but that should be enough to get you started. Here’s a version of the “South Louisiana News Search” that is a redevelopment of one I’ve put together for my own use that contains more bells and whistles and a rudimentary user interface. (It’s a model for some tools I’ve been thinking about for the Lafayette Commons I’d like to see our community have. (more)) The “South Louisiana News Search” pipe is embedded on a web page and lets you enter your own search term. The return comes back tagged with the website from which it was pulled and is (poorly) time-sorted from most recent to oldest. Now imagine what you could do with geotagging and calendar feeds in addition to the RSS type feeds I’ve played with here. Then contemplate using Google Gears to pull in database material, give it all a real user interface, and allow you to go offline with the data and the means to do something with it.

This sort of fun and simple tool is only the beginning.

Lagniappe: Your favorite info source hasn’t gotten on the RSS bandwagon yet? Try It will let you convert that page to an (undated) feed that Pipes can use.

Lagniappe2: Don’t like my feed? Wish it had Alexandria? Can’t fathom why I left off the sports feeds? Wish it included your home town newspaper? Just go to Yahoo, register (free), login, and “clone” that feed. (I’ve made it publicly available.) Tweak, alter, add, subtract, and improve to your heart’s content.

ToDo: LibraryThing

Today’s ToDo: Go to LibraryThing and poke around. If you want to know what the web will be good for in its next cycle this is a place to visit and reflect upon.

If you’re a book geek you’ll have found a new home. If you’re social networking type, a natural extrovert, take a look–you can hang out with the sorts of folks who read Socrates….or Rowling (or, hey, join both groups). If you’re a web entrepreneur this is an absolutely grand place to take a close look at how to leverage user input into a real, paying business. It’s web 2.o in all its senses. For a site whose major hook is the utterly banal one that it will help you build a catalog of your books this is a wide range of appeals. But we all have our interests and LibraryThing manages to be attractive to a wide range of those interests. But don’t take my word for it, go and poke around. (The quickstart page would be a good place to go early.)

Book Geeks
I am a book geek. Even online I go for the printed word. I’ve got books on my walls. I’ve got (many) more books in boxes. I’ve got book boxes I haven’t unpacked in more than a decade. If I don’t have at least one book “going” I get uneasy. I have a pile that are as yet unread. I have a mental list in several topics of books I’d like to order when I clear out my current pile. I like books….It’s not all my fault. My mother was a librarian. I blame it on her. (She is also the reason I still have trouble writing in books.)

It is also my mother’s fault that I like catalogs of books and actually have a preference in cataloging systems. (Dewey Decimal just makes more sense–to me.) So naturally I like the LibraryThing. It makes it easy to keep track of my books. All it takes is the ISBN number. (If you don’t know what that is you are not a book geek; you are, at most, merely a lover of books.) The International Standard Book Number is a book’s unique identifier. Every edition has its own number. Give LibraryThing that number and it will go out onto the net and patiently build up a complete standard reference–and more. For instance, for most books, you can get an image of the cover of your edition. This is a verry nice thing for me since for a big chunk of my live while I was a grad student and professor I had a personal book and article database that included the ISBN of books. Built in HyperCard, it fit me perfectly…but it no longer runs on my latest machine. I keep it on an older ‘puter that I use as a server and kids machine but….the end is in sight. Presto! Export the ISBN numbers and upload them to LibraryThing and the basic reference data is preserved. I can then export them to various flavors of basic database files and I’ll have a nice, clean, vetted set of personalized references.

And yes, this is a good thing.

As lagniappe, it will use Amazon-style algorithms to suggest new books I might like based on my current library. It goes in and looks for similar patterns in other users’ libraries and recommends “missing” ones to me. Even with the random 35 ISBN’s I uploaded to test the system it was frightening just how accurate these recommendations were. I owned a majority of the top 10 and was familiar with all but one. (And I really ought to look into that one. It sounds very interesting. (Oh, of course, the recommendations link to reviews and all that…)) It will even toss your recommendations or library up on your net-enabled mobile phone for you to puruse at Barnes and Noble. Nice. Actually useful.

(You say you find typing in ISBN numbers tiresome? and can’t imagine typing in those arcane numbers for boxes and boxes of books?…you can scan in your ISBNs using a 15 dollar barcode scanner you plug into your computer. Zip, Zap, upload. Really. There’s a page on it.)

Social Networkers
It’s got all the social networking goodies. Groups for every genre, subgenre, author, and whatever category you’d like to start up a discussion around. You can publish your library, or not. You can tag your books and share those tags. Review books…argue with reviews. A real community of interest would be the basis for any communication you might have. You can find other users whose libraries have the most overlap with yours. (So, you are into Education, Social Cognition, Connectionism, and hard Science Fiction? There’s probably somebody out there whose interests overlap with your oddest obsessions. Write ’em.

Web Entrepreneurs
One of the most intriguing things about LibraryThing is the pretty clear monetary value the data you gather would have. It’s web 2.0 to the nth. ALL you ask your users for in exchange for the site and all its goodies is a list of their ISBN numbers. Given a large enough database you can predict users’ future book purchases. That is the most commercially valuable bit of information in the book (or any) trade. I am utterly confident, given how accurate they seemed to be for me, especially given th tiny set of titles and the oddities of my tastes, that other users will find their recommendations on target. Since you can click through to Amazon and buy the book every purchase originating from an accurate prediction of their users’ interests will feed this site a little money. There’s real gold in those finders fees. But it goes beyond that — Random House, one of the biggest publishers around, has made a deal with the site to offer free books for review to users whose library indicates the kind of interest in the topic of the new book they want reviewed. That kind of early feedback from potential buyers (not professional reviewers) could tell you how to best market that book to multiple audiences–and which audiences not to bother with. If the publishers of LibraryThing are not charging a healthy fee to put the publishers and their certified potential audiences together the ought to be. It’s a win-win all around.

Oh, they’re marketing their engine, the user review framework, data, and software to real, physical, libraries as well. They hope users will find it a more interesting and useful card catalog. Sure. But I bet there real money lies in having a handle on their users’ future purchases.

All in all a neat place. Useful, easy to use, powerful, and interesting. It hs something for everyone–including its originators.

Saturday ToDo: Stealth Programming for Kids (& You)

Ok, so it is late on Saturday for a Saturday Something ToDo posting. So sue me. 🙂 If you’ve got some kids in the youngster to adolescent range to entertain over the long Memorial Day weekend you might really want to give this one a try.

And it is a great one: A new addictive Educational Toy called Scratch. It lets kids (and adults who are young at heart) build nifty animations. You can draw your own characters with some included tools or import a photo to use as an avatar. Then put as many as you like on the same “stage” and animate them. If you like what you get you can always upload it and share.

Oh, did I mention? It’s a free download.

While all that is cool, the real secret is that it is all driven by a pretty complete programming language. (Don’t bother to tell the kids, they won’t be impressed) It’s a dead easy way for kids, or anyone, to really get a feel for programming and standard programming structures. And that, actually, is the point. (Again, no need to play this point up with the kids.) The program is the brainchild of Mitch Resnick and his “Lifelong Kindergarten” lab at the MIT Media Lab. It is an inheritor of other nifty software devices like logo, lego-logo, mindstorms robotics (also recommended) and squeak. They all focused on giving kids easy access to fundamental programming tools in a environment that made learning a natural product of activity rather than an exercise is abstraction and memorization.

I could try and explain how it works but it’d be much more effective for you to go to the BBC article and play the video found there. (You can read the excellent story too, but that is less immediately informative than the demonstration.)

Then travel to the Scratch website and poke around. If you’d really like to get a picture of the motivation behind Scratch then play the Real Media file that tries to explain the purpose of the program.

Download the program (OSX or Windows, Linux upcoming). I mentioned that it’s free, right?

Play. Give it to kids to play with. Sit back and watch them tinker a new little world into existence.

Obligatory bandwidth/philosophy plug: Being able to generate, trade, and interactively collaborate on making things–not just consuming them–is one of the best reasons to want real bandwidth. It’s our kids who will live in the promised land. We will only catch a glimpse of the world they will be able to create.

[Thanks to both the friend and the son-in-law who pointed me to this one over the last week.]


I make a desultory effort on Saturdays to provide a link to something you can do–not merely read about. The Advocate this morning provides the perfect opportunity to highlight Wikipedia, the citizen-edited, online, encyclopedia. An article in this morning’s newspaper offers an overview of the project from the standpoint of South Louisiana authors of Wikipedia articles. They’ve done a great job cleaning up misconceptions about our region and making accurate information about their special areas of knowledge available to all.

The message for today is: So can you. We all have knowledge to share and Wikipedia provides a disciplined, peer-reviewed way to do so. After all, if you enjoy the knowledge available on the web it would seem fair to contribute to the wealth.

But first some background…. From the introductory paragraphs:

Louisianians contributing to Wikipedia, at, are helping to clear up misconceptions about often-stereotyped Louisiana culture.

“I thought the articles were lacking in accurate information, so I decided to revise them using source material I was familiar with,” said Shane K. Bernard, a Wikipedia contributor who has edited many of the articles about southern Louisiana.

The article goes on to interview Bernard and other regional writers.

The Wikipedia’s ambition is reminescent of the original French Encyclopedists. Their
EncyclopĂ©die is often viewed as the purest expression of Enlightenment ideals: they wanted to make available all of the world’s knowledge in a rational, accessible form—and in doing so invented a new literary form, the encyclopedia, and a new, collaborative review method of writing and editing works too large for any single person. They were clear about wanting to change the way that people think–and arguably their new device for ordering and validating vast amounts of information did much to make their model of the scientific attitude widespread among a newly literate public.

Wikipedia can be understood as the logical extension of the attitude and intents of the original EncyclopĂ©die in an era where the most accessible forms of knowledge and the most powerful collaborative tools are mediated, not by the printing press, but by the internet. What is interesting—and controversial—about the project is that it lets literally anyone contribute. Your work is screened for quality—by other contributors, but you are not screened for certifications. A local Swamp Pop enthusiast can change an entry last edited by a person holding a doctorate in musicology who wrote his dissertation on the roots of the genre. Of course, the professional will keep a close eye on the entry, editing it to make sure it remains accurate. Online discussions among the “wikipeidia community” iron out disagreements and the very public nature of the edits tends to push regular users to only make edits that they can easily defend. The traditions and values of the online community

The result has been (at least in my judgment) an astonishingly good, if not perfect encyclopedia with a breadth that could not be achieved in any other way. It stands as vindication of the idea that a large community can do very good and complex work relying only on self-organization and self-governance. There is no centralized “quality control” and yet it all works quite well.

But back to today’s idea: You can participant. If you do a lousy job you’ll get edited out. If you do a good one it’ll be kept—and you’ll know you’ve made a contribution.

If you’re interested in doing something like this review how the swamp pop entry got put together. It’s a nice little example. Click over to the current Swamp Pop page. Near the top of the page click on the tab that says “History.” This page allows you to compare any two versions of the article by clicking on the radio buttons to the left of each entry. Go to the bottom of the page and click on the date of the first “edit” {14 August 2004}. You’ll see a short “stub” entry. The current sophisticated version grew from that seed by small additions and corrections.

Take a look a the community portal. You’ll see that there are plenty of available tasks. You can become a community member by simply creating an account and doing something.

Have fun and contribute to the web!