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June 2006

Time & tide

Despite good intentions, I'm way behind here with things I've been wanting to write about. The last few weeks have been busy: teaching (of course), two conferences, family matters … and a job application. I'm delighted that the latter went well: come January I'll be based in London as Director of ICT at St Paul's (Wikipedia entry; for overseas friends, St Paul's is academically very successful, but do read all of this page — there's rather more to life than league tables).

Many things lured me to apply for this post: in particular, 'There will be plenty of opportunity for the successful candidate to be creative, experimental and innovative'. To this end, the teaching timetable (ICT and Eng Lit) will be around 40–50% of a full load, leaving me with much more time in which to work with departments (faculties) and colleagues on the ways in which the read-write web can be used in education … on the ways in which it will change education (and schools).

It would be an understatement to say that I am really looking forward to this new role. I have benefited greatly from my time at Radley, but this opportunity will allow me to build on and develop so much that I have been working on over the last four years with my colleagues here — in particular, Ian.

Macs & Open Source

John Gruber's post at Daring Fireball struck me, on two counts. Quoting from John Gruber:

  1. Tim Bray’s “Time to Switch?” is a nice tangent to my “And Oranges” piece from Thursday; he’s considering the same Mac OS X-to-Ubuntu route as Mark Pilgrim, and he lists both reasons why he wants to switch, as well as some of the issues that would make it unpleasant.   
  2. (His three cited “hard issues” that’d make it difficult to switch more or less boil down to seamless hardware-OS integration; the “it just works” factor that has always been one of the biggest differentiating factors of the Mac: sleep/wake-up for laptops that just works; WiFi that just works; and external display and video projector support that just works.)

  3. Bray also suggests — and this is something he’s pitched a few times before — that Apple ought to release the source code to several of the applications that come bundled with the OS … releasing the source to these apps would be a risk. Not a risk with a catastrophic downside, but a risk nonetheless. And the potential upside — the best case scenario from Apple’s perspective — wouldn’t result in any additional sales. So why take a chance? Why mess with a strategy that has proven to be lucrative?  You can argue that this sucks, that it ought to be us, the users, whose interests matter most. And that you shouldn’t have to pay $130 to upgrade your entire OS if the only new features you’re interested in are in just one of the bundled applications. But that’s not how it works. Apple is a for-profit corporation, and Mac OS X is one of their most profitable and most successful products.

    … developing good software takes time and talent, and time and talent cost money. Some portion of the revenue from sales of Mac OS X goes back into funding development of future versions of Mac OS X.  This is the dichotomy between closed and open source software development. I’m right there with Bray regarding the frustration of using an app that’s very cool and really good but that there’s just a couple of small things that I’d rather see done differently or better, but which I can’t fix or change other than by petitioning the developer to implement my suggestions. … But while open source software is, by definition, eminently tweakable, it also, in general, is less likely to get to the point of being very cool and really good in the first place. (E.g. where’s the open source calendar app that’s as simple and uncluttered as iCal?)  Of course there are exceptions, like, say, Adium, the open source Mac OS X chat client that a lot of people flat-out prefer to iChat. It has a most excellent tab implementation and supports a bunch of IM platforms that iChat doesn’t, like Yahoo and MSN. Or Camino, the excellent Mac-native offshoot of the Mozilla project, and which compares pretty well against Safari.  But no one is trying to make a buck by selling licenses or upgrades to Adium or Camino. Open source software tends to improve in small, steady, frequent increments. Established commercial software tends to improve less frequently but in large gulps so as to entice users to pay for upgrades.

Why to go Mac-wards (he's nailed three things that I've noticed).  And why open source isn't a mantra that yields a universal panacea.

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Compound Security Systems of Wales makes the Mosquito teenager-repellent (which sounds like one of Private Eye's joke products):

The Mosquito ultrasonic teenage deterrent is the solution to the eternal problem of unwanted gatherings of youths and teenagers in shopping malls and around shops. The presence of these teenagers discourages genuine shoppers and customers’ from coming into your shop, affecting your turnover and profits. Anti social behaviour has become the biggest threat to private property over the last decade and there has been no effective deterrent until now. …

With an effective range of between fifteen and twenty meters Compound Security Devices field trials have shown that teenagers are acutely aware of the Mosquito and usually move away from the area within just a couple of minutes. The system is completely harmless even with long term use. …

It seems that there is a very real medical phenomenon known as presbycusis or age related hearing loss which, according to The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, "begins after the age of 20 but is usually significant only in persons over 65". It first affects the highest frequencies (18 to 20 kHz) notably in those who have turned 20 years of age". It is possible to generate a high frequency sound that is audible only to teenagers.

Now, the tables have been turned:

Some students are downloading a ring tone off the internet that is too high-pitched to be heard by most adults. With it, high schoolers can receive text message alerts on their cell phones without the teacher knowing. … The ring tone is a spin-off of technology that was originally meant to repel teenagers -- not help them.

There are some lessons here for the learning …

Instructions for downloading the ringtone are currently on Compound's main page, so it appears they're profiting from selling both a "teen deterrent" (a product which raises a lot of issues) and a teen-only-audible ringtone that will play well in class. Ka-ching!

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Changing our minds

Café Scientifique tonight in Oxford. I can't get to this ... and it looks pretty interesting — Dr Martin Westwell (Deputy Director of the Institute for the Future of the Mind, Oxford University) on 'Bending minds - how technology can change who you are':

Martin will talk about the mind, the brain and how pills to make you smarter, pills to make you forget, electrodes inserted into the brain, and devices to let you control computers just by thinking are all technologies that are with us now or are just around the corner. How do these technologies and the new experiences they bring transform and bend the human mind? How are we going to harness the new technologies to maximise the potential of individuals without sacrificing that individuality? What roles do scientists play in deciding how they are to be implemented?

And the Institute for the Future of the Mind?

In the 21st Century, technology will exert unprecedented influence indirectly and directly upon the brain and the critical issue is not whether, but how, such new experiences will transform the human mind. The Institute for the Future of the Mind, is one of 10 research institutes in the new James Martin 21st Century School made possible by a $100M benefaction to Oxford University, with the aim of finding solutions to the biggest problems facing humanity and identifying the key opportunities of the 21st century.

I'm interested in the brief profile there of Dr Westwell: 'Martin’s particular interest is in the way that young people form their minds and the influences of technology on this process in the future'.

Meanwhile, Peter Brunner, an American scientist, can be seen here, demonstrating a BCI — a brain-computer interface.

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It's in the wind

I have a lot to post and will get things rolling today. Meantime, this from Dave Winer caught my eye:

Chris Pirillo says it's "100 percent true" that Scoble is leaving Microsoft and joining Podtech ( … Scoble really is a big generous guy, but not when he's in such a large stifling organization. When he finally decided to leave, it's as if a huge weight came off him, and all of a sudden, the old Scoble is back. … It's too bad Microsoft couldn't bend more. I know that sounds arrogant, but I'm not modest about the changes brought about by blogging, RSS, podcasting, unconferences, etc. I've said it before, it's not possible for Microsoft to embrace and extend this time, yet that's how they're playing it. It's more likely to happen the other way, RSS will embrace and extend Microsoft, but I guess Microsoft is going to put that day off even further into its future. It's already way late to acknowledge that the ideas that are shaping technology aren't coming from Redmond, they aren't even coming from companies.

A person like Scoble can have enormous influence just by adopting some very simple ideas. It's the ideas that have power.

Robert's take on all this is ... ahem, somewhat different and should be read!

Best wishes to Robert and Maryam — hope to see you at Reboot next year, if not before.

The bit of Dave Winer's post which stays with me most?

… the ideas that are shaping technology aren't coming from Redmond, they aren't even coming from companies. 

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