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July 2009

Back in May …

… St Paul’s held an open day to celebrate its 500th anniversary. For our part, we put together a small show in our main ICT room. My thanks to the four pupils who helped me set this up and who looked after our visitors so well for the whole of what was a fun but long afternoon.

Open Day  Open Day  Open Day  Open Day

Making use of the bank of desktop machines in the room, we gathered together a number of videos under this umbrella:

A brief introduction to the modern web: an overview of how computers shrank, became mobile and ever more powerful, an insight into how we teach about all this and a glimpse of the world we’re all soon going to be living in.

It may be that some of what follows in this longish post (a lot of video) is of interest beyond the immediate occasion of the day. I put the videos in playable form here as you may want to scan quickly and then dip in when something catches your eye. On the day, visitors could go round a number of videos/slideshows (mostly paired and in the sequence below) but of course, and as we expected, people dipped in and out: it was that or giving over a lot of the afternoon to this one room. (For me, in these very general talks or events, there’s quite a bit of churn, but it seems always to be the case that there’s plenty of new hooks for anyone whose life isn’t spent immersed in this stuff.)

Incidentally, one of the successes of the afternoon was the discovery of what you can do with the simplest of devices. Spotted in the field the previous week at Manchester’s Urbis, Staples’ slanted clear acrylic sign holders are a brilliant way of signing an exhibition with the minimum of fuss and a lot of clarity:

 The internet of things 

The only nod towards a more formal, display-board style of presentation was this:
 Moore's Law

(Sources: see the first slideshow below, Gizmodo for the smiling boy with the make-believe mobile and Intel’s Moore’s Law 40th Anniversary Press Kit for the two charts on the right.)

Finally, alternating on the overhead projector throughout the afternoon were these videos:



Slideshow 1 (credits as per the links and also: original Apple iPhone ads — see 6/ below; stills from Did You Know; the Flickr slide — from here).

A short history of how computers have grown in power, how their size has got smaller and smaller … and how they’ve gone mobile. Also (and very swiftly), an overview of developments in technology and the web, the advent of both cloud-computing and ubiquitous computing … and the emergence of astonishingly rich social sites and practices.

Steve Jobs (1991?) talks about what computers mean to him: ‘Computers are like a bicycle for our minds’.


2/  Apple, 1984

In January 1984, a youthful Steve Jobs demonstrated the first Apple Mac. This film still has the power to impress, such was the reception this innovative machine received. And then there’s also Jobs’ own reaction …

This advert, directed by Ridley Scott, was shown on US TV in 1984 and introduced the Mac personal computer. As they said in a later campaign,
Think Different.


3/  California dreaming

‘Knowledge Navigator’: another Apple film, from 1987, imagining a personal computer that would be like a PA, memex machine, scholastic aid, visual display — oh, and phone. (Sound familiar?)

‘Time Capsule’: an Apple film made in 1987 and imagining the future of 1997. “No question about it, the 1990s have really been the Apple decade.”


4/ Google and Cloud-Computing

It’s hard to believe that Google is just ten years old. In January this year, the company released this film looking back at what they’d done in that time. All 4th Formers get a thorough grounding in using Google’s tools and in managing their personal identity and privacy.

Cloud-computing: more and more of the data we create and use and store is not on our devices but “in the cloud” — in data centres such as this one. Google makes energy efficiency a priority.


5/  Google Earth

Everyone knows Google Earth and Google Street View. We explore in our 4th Form course the implications of these technologies for the visualisation of information. We also discuss the emergence of location-based social software and its implications for privacy.

Here’s a beautiful example of the educational value of Google Earth: Ancient Rome (a layer in Google Earth) as it looked in 320AD.


6/  iPhone

A game-changing device. The original advertising campaign from June 2007 summarises brilliantly what had been achieved.

The iPhone brought touchscreens into the lives of many. Will it be a key player in bringing ubiquitous computing into our lives, too?
4th Formers are taught that “computers” are much more, and much more present in our lives, than the single desktop this film is playing on.


7/  Living in a digital world

Slideshow 2:

An idea of how our students use web-based tools and a panoramic view of our course for 4th Formers.

(I used much of this material in my talk at C4’s recent What Comes Next? The Channel 4 Education Summer Conference.)

Editing Wikipedia: a time-lapse film of the edits made to the page about the London 7 July, 2005, bombings. The article was created, that morning, at 9.15am. In its first four hours, it was edited over a thousand times. All 4th Formers are taught how to understand, evaluate, use and edit Wikipedia.


8/  The near future

CGI: no water was harmed in this film. Or even used. Programmers from St Paul’s can look forward to working on enhancing such techniques even further, in film and videogames.

Big Dog, a robot built by Boston Dynamics, walks on rough terrain and ice whilst carrying heavy loads (340lbs). Control Technology works in areas that prepare students for fields like this.



9/  Games

A contentious area for some, the development of a substantial body of critical literature and the wise words of respected reports such as last year’s Byron Review, along with research and better knowledge generally, are leading to a more considered reception of computer games. This slideshow outlines some important research from last year and highlights a talk given here in November 2008.

Old Paulines created Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto, etc). In school today, we are creating an intelligent ethos for the discussion and understanding of games.

In designing videogames, something called The Uncanny Valley needs to be avoided. An entertainingly presented talk.


10/  The internet of things

Many of us have grown up thinking the internet is mainly the web — a web of pages. But the machines are coming: embedded devices of all kinds … Machines … talking … to us.

Gartner think that, “By year end 2012, physical sensors will create 20 percent of non-video internet traffic. … The extent and diversity of real-time environmental sensing is growing rapidly as our ability to act on and interpret the growing volumes of data to capture valuable information increases.”

Sensors to monitor energy consumption will become very common. Simon Hay, OP, has been working on this concept (see this poster and site) and three current pupils in the school will be using AMEE to record and monitor our energy usage.

This final Apple video shows the iPhone 3.0 and its use with medical devices — for example, in the monitoring of diabetes.


(And for further food for thought, Matt Jones’ iPhone 3.0: everyware-ready?.)


11/  Getting it wrong

So many of the things we imagine about the future are wildly wrong. This trip round the recent past and the fast-developing present has tried to avoid such wild predictions, preferring to look instead at some things that are coming true already (a near-future becoming the present) or that are already here.

Cue Postcards Show the Year 2000 (circa 1900). And then:

Here, in two parts, is the GM Futurama 1939 World’s Fair looking ahead to the imagined 1960s, a techno-utopian vision we still haven’t achieved.

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Being that much better

From the immemorial to the ephemeral. I’ve been moving steadily Mac-wards in the last couple of months. If nothing else, it’s liberating to learn to think with different tools. (The desire to have tools that are ready-to-hand, but the value that lies in appreciating constraints — then we have a fighting chance when the picture might otherwise hold us captive.)

The operating system I should really be using is Linux, for the reasons John Gruber summed up so well in a footnote to his recent blog post about Google Chrome OS/vapourware. What he had to say about Linux is so good it’s worth quoting it all:

“Linux” means different things to different people. At a precise technical level, Linux is not an operating system. It is a kernel that can serve as the core for an operating system. What most people mean by “Linux”, though, is an operating system built around the Linux kernel. For use as a desktop PC operating system, all the various “Linux distributions” are basically the same thing: variations of Gnome or KDE sitting atop the ancient X Window System.

Ubuntu is almost certainly the pinnacle of these distributions, but they’re all conceptually the same thing, and the only significant difference is the choice between Gnome and KDE, and even there you’re just choosing between two different environments that are conceptually modeled after Microsoft Windows. The entire X Windows/Gnome/KDE “desktop Linux” racket has never caught any traction with real people. Almost no one wanted it, wants it, or will want it.

My theory on this is rather simple. Early versions of Gnome and KDE were pretty much just clones of the Microsoft Windows UI. They’ve diverged since then, and I’d say Ubuntu’s default Gnome desktop is in most ways better from a design and usability standpoint than Windows Vista. But it’s still fundamentally a clone of Windows — menu bars within the window, minimize/maximize/close buttons at the top right of the window, the ugly single-character underlines in menu and button names. At a glance it looks like Windows with a different theme. The idea being that if you want Windows users to switch to Gnome or KDE, you’ve got to make it feel familiar. But that’s not how you get people to switch to a new product. People won’t switch to something that’s just a little bit better than what they’re used to. People switch when they see something that is way better, holy shit better, wow, this is like ten times better.²

So I think Gnome and KDE are stuck with a problem similar to the uncanny valley. By establishing a conceptual framework that mimicks Windows, they can never really be that much different than Windows, and if they’re not that much different, they can never be that much better. If you want to make something a lot better, you’ve got to make something a lot different. …

² The group that’s the most enthusiastic about Gnome and KDE desktop Linux systems consists of those who care the most about the political and licensing aspects. With regard to the freedoms that stem from the software being open source, something like Ubuntu isn’t just, say, ten times better than Windows or Mac OS X, it is infinitely better.

In amidst fruit-picking, I’m playing with a better camera and I think I’m moving on a little, inspired by time spent alongside Jonathan, engaged by how he works, and, interesting-to-me, by computer games. To start with, that familiar sense of panic that, years ago, poetry once gave me (“I’ll never get this”) and then, at first slowly then more and more quickly, the coming of understanding and pleasure. Games absolutely encourage a try-and-fail-and-try-again approach. I used to be paralysed by the seeming unpredictability in learning anything much at all about digital photography, but treating it like play (which is certainly how I see Jonathan set about things) makes it all right — and fun.

Hammersmith Bridge

Tools for thought: this post was semi-made on a Mac — I could have made this in a pure-Mac way (following a path no doubt excellent but seemingly laborious), but LiveWriter remains the best tool I know for blogging (a lot of the time it gets out of the way). And VirtualBox is free — and works.

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Dyer’s hand

Red currants, immediately after picking

Garden and kitchen have been claiming their time. We were picking and prepping red currants for a couple of days and now — on to the gooseberries. Sometimes, the garden can feel very bossy (and that’s generally a good thing).

A little while back I had several books on the go, including The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, Alice Oswald’s first collection of poems. In the time I’ve had just recently, I’ve been re-reading it. It’s very beautiful.

The sea had mastered them. They couldn’t make
even the simplest sense of what they had witnessed:
the moon, the birds, the crooked boat. They moved
far out between absurdity and wonder,
rocking like figures in a nursery rhyme,
the waves like great smooth beasts shoving them on.

The sea was miles and miles of palish tin
and a small countermoon was floating there,
very clear, very irregular perfect —
an aspirin in the middle of the world

and may the mystery move them now — the sea
cannot be finished with; each layer is laid
co-terminous with light but more than light
and seamless and invisible in water —
cannot be closed or opened, only entered …


As we work, the rhythm takes us over, until we look up, backs aching, hands, t-shirts and shorts part-dyed with berry juice. You and the work and the world immediately around you (and that’s all you are aware of now) have melded.

Monday, stacking wood for a couple of hours, the same with differences: splinters in my hands, a little blood on the wood, and, after a time, the feel and smell of the wood in my head.

 Stacked logs

And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.

Lucy straightens up, stretches, bends down again. Field-labour; peasant tasks, immemorial.

embodied actors interacting in the world, participating in it and acting through it, in the absorbed and unreflective manner of normal experience.