Monday, December 31, 2007

agriculture developed in desperate times

Hunter-gatherers: Noble or savage? (The Economist)

For most of our history homo-sapiens has been hunter-gatherers. The hunter-gatherer period lasted for 73 thousand years. Agriculture was invented 12 thousand years ago.

What caused the transition? Desperation due to rising population and a cooling, drying climate.

The first farmers were less healthy than hunter-gatherers (H-G):
Aside from their shorter stature, they had more skeletal wear and tear from the hard work, their teeth rotted more, they were short of protein and vitamins and they caught diseases from domesticated animals: measles from cattle, flu from ducks, plague from rats and worms from using their own excrement as fertiliser.
But agriculture could support a population density 100 times that of the H-G density of 1 person per square mile. Violence was more pervasive in H-G societies as people fought over limited resources. This contradicts one politically correct view that H-G were noble savages who lived in peaceful harmony with their environment.

In the H-G period there was a transition from early reliance on large animals for meat progressively towards smaller, faster breeding game. The rhinoceros was driven close to extinction in Europe 17 thousand years ago. This transition was necessitated by population increase and made possible by the development of better weapons, such as the atlati, the spear throwing stick, developed 18 thousand years ago.

Agriculture was independently invented 6 times in human history (Asia, New Guinea, three times in the Americas and in Africa)

We have been creating (and solving) ecological crises for ourselves and our habitats for tens of thousands of years - the extinction of some large game, the invention of better weapons and eventually the invention of agriculture. History shows that progress occurs in desperate times and is jerky and discontinuous, not smooth or incremental.

The solution now (as then) is to actively continue development, not to slow development.

Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage by Steven LeBlanc and Katherine Register

Friday, December 14, 2007

time for a holiday

I'm driving from Adelaide to Canberra on the weekend. Then plan to go onto Brisbane for Xmas. Catching up with friends and family.

I'm not taking a computer with me so probably won't be much blogging for the next couple of weeks, at least.

I like Henry Lawson's old song about Australia, Freedom on the Wallaby:
Australia's a big country an' Freedom's humping bluey
An' Freedom's on the Wallaby Oh dont you hear her cooey
She's just begun to boomerang she'll knock the tyrants silly
She's going to light another fire and boil another billy

Thursday, December 13, 2007

good health

This year I've had some quirky health scares (major bleeding episode with complications), lost one kidney and have had my prostate gland trimmed

The way things turned out I have neither prostate cancer, nor kidney cancer, so, for me, things are great

My final TURP (Trans-Urethral Resection of the Prostate) has been very successful. I would have been better off getting it done earlier. Don't delay guys.

Anyone with prostate or kidney issues who wants more information then drop me a line. billkerr (at) gmail (dot) com. I do now have some experiences and also did do some research. For more information on this blog start with a search on the health label.

From Graeme Goodings (bowel cancer patient and Channel 7 presenter). He said to a doctor who was performing a rectal examination with his finger.
GG: "This must be one of the least pleasant parts of your job"
Doctor: "It might be shit to you but its bread and butter to me!"

I've been on leave and will be going back to school at the end of January

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

this tipping point: free, lean, fast, connected

There are many tipping points in the history of computing and the history of the world. History and progress proceeds through the tipping points. Arguments about futures are arguments about tipping points.

It starts with an individual and then sometimes proceeds to a mass movement. Often its not about a single innovation but a synergy or packaging together of a variety of innovations. It's also about connecting technical innovations with real human development, not artificial, market driven human "needs".

Examples from the history of computing:
  • Doug Engelbart and human-computer symbiosis
  • Alan Kay and the dynabook
  • Seymour Papert and constructionism
  • Richard Stallman and free software
  • Linus Torvalds and Linux
  • Tim Berners Lee and the world wide web
  • Mark Shuttleworth and Ubuntu
  • Nicholas Negroponte and the OLPC
Sorry for the ones I missed

Linux is about to take over the low end of PCs

This article argues that we are at a new tipping point which consists of a synergy of these four trends which have been growing for some time now: free, lean, fast, connected
Sometimes, several unrelated changes come to a head at the same time, with a result no one could have predicted. The PC market is at such a tipping point right now and the result will be millions of Linux-powered PCs in users' hands ...

Four trends: user-friendly Linux desktops, useful under-$500 laptops and desktops, near-universal broadband, and business-ready Internet office applications. Put them together and you have a revolution ...

Here's the business case. You tell me if it's not compelling. You can buy 100 $500 PCs running a free version of Linux, hook them to a high-speed Internet connection for a $1,000 a year and use GAPE at $50 per user account per year. Finally, we'll throw in a grand for a Linux server. That's $57,000 for your equipment, your connectivity, your operating system and your applications.

Now, let's say you want to run Vista Business. First, you'll need 100 PCs that can run it. The cheapest deal I can find today for machines I'd consider adequate for Vista Business, which is to say they must have at least 2GB of RAM, is for the Dell OptiPlex 320 at $707 a PC. Of course -- unlike with Linux, which always includes an office suite, OpenOffice -- for those times when the Internet is down, you'll need to buy an office suite. If you went with Microsoft Standard 2007, with a little shopping you can get it for the upgrade price of about $200 per copy. So, on the PC side alone, we're looking at $90,700.

In response to: I need more laptops by Graham Wegner

Asus is marketing their EEE directly to British schools:
The RM Asus miniBook is the perfect choice for pupils; a genuine "anywhere, anytime access" device at a startlingly low price. Smaller than an A5 pad and weighing less than 1kg, it combines the portability and quick-start of a PDA with the capabilities of a notebook. Starting from only £169, the RM Asus miniBook is an exciting new category of device, set to fundamentally change ICT provision for pupils.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

unintended consequences

One of the unintended consequences of the OLPC project has been Asustek's Eee PC, "a small, inexpensive laptop for grown-ups", which is currently selling like hot cakes.

Citigroup in Hong Kong, predicts that the company will sell at least 3 million Eee PCs next year but could easily tally 6 million

My friend Paul has done a comparison of the two machines, which I reproduce below, with a few additions:

  • Intel Mobile CPU 900mhz (power consumption not specified)
  • 7" LCD display 800×480 pixels
  • One-click intuitive interface
  • WiFi 802.11 b/g (no mesh networking)
  • 512MB memory upgradeable to 2G
  • 4GB flash drive
  • Built-in webcam
  • Linux based operating system
  • SD memory card slot
  • price $300 - $340

  • WiFi 802.11s (mesh networking 2 km range, article / video)
  • Mesh network works when PC is turned off
  • 433 mhz geode processor consumes 0.8w !!!!
  • Viewable Screen 6 x 4.5 inches, 1200 x 900 pixels
  • Monochrome display: High-resolution, reflective sunlight-readable monochrome mode; Color display: Standard-resolution, Quincunx-sampled, transmissive color mode
  • 256MB RAM
  • 1 GB of NAND Flash memory on motherboard
  • Gamepad: Two sets of four-direction cursor-control keys;
  • Touchpad: Dual capacitance/resistive touch pad; supports written-input mode;
  • Camera: integrated color video camera; 640 x 480 resolution at 30 FPS;
  • Three external USB 2.0 ports
  • price $180 US but not available for "normal" sales in the developed world ( see give one, get one)
Relative sizes of the OLPC and Eee PC and their viewable screens are displayed here

Overview: Eee PC is slightly more powerful but the major differences are in the software, mesh networking, high resolution sunlight readibility and power consumption of the OLPC, all of which are oriented towards 3rd world conditions and educational use

Reflection: This is an interesting exercise in the workings of capitalism. A philanthropist, Negroponte, has a great idea about helping the poor children of the third world. This does involve potentially millions of sales but the OLPC is a non profit. The big monopolies (Intel, Asustek) see a market opportunity, take part of Negroponte's idea ( the cheap high performance laptop) and quickly produce rival machines. Intel's Classmate competes directly with the OLPC. Asustek's Eee PC sells direct to the developed world (initially not a market for the OLPC but subsequently it has become one). This does create a lot of pressure and problems for the OLPC project. It is a relatively small non profit, only hires a few people and is not in a position to compete with the high powered marketing clout of these new, unexpected competitors who are not the slightest bit interested in the educational development of third world children. OLPC has the high moral ground , which counts for something, but in the marketplace the dollar dominates.

So the main beneficiaries of Negroponte's idealist vision may turn out to be the consumers of the developed world who just want to buy a cheap high performing laptop and who haven't thought much about how it all became possible. Let's hope the OLPC educational vision doesn't get trampled in this rush to the marketplace.

Some quotes from The Jonney Machine (Forbes magazine):
"... the prospect of millions of new PC users buying the Eee PC without Windows seemed to worry Microsoft. Just before the launch, it agreed to give Eee PC buyers the option of getting Windows for under $40, more than a third off the standard price"
"Asustek will tap into a new market--consumers unable to buy computers because they're too expensive or just too intimidating. Indeed, the Eee name comes from easy to learn, easy to play and easy to work. That new market has been nicknamed the second billion. An estimated 1 billion people now have access to computers and the Internet, but even in developed countries, computers are just out of reach for millions. In the developing world that number is in the hundreds of millions"

Friday, December 07, 2007

Dick and Rick Hoyt

I found this video in first semester and gave it to my year 12 Information Processing class to embed in their web pages and write a review. I told them it was a tear jerker and for once they agreed.

It's now number one on reddit and there is a story accompanying it that makes it even more amazing -->> 212 triathlons, 24 marathons, OMG

Read the story. Watch the video. It's about the incredible, truly amazing power of human love.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Birmingham's education revolution

Birmingham, Alabama, USA City Council is poised to purchase 15,000 XOs for $200 each, one for every child in grades one through eight. Total purchase = $7 million. Source

Very significant to me that a whole region (Birmingham city schools) in an industrialised nation has taken this step.

Monday, December 03, 2007

a conversation with Mark Pesce about Rudd's "education revolution"

Brace for a steep re-learning curve by Mark Pesce (The Age, December 2)
"If we simply drop laptops into the schools and hope it all works out, we're in for a big disappointment"
I thought this contained a good analysis of the difficulties faced by teachers and the problem of the mandated curriculum with respect to the Rudd / Gillard "education revolution"

However I question this assertion at the end:
This initiative seems to raise more questions than answers, and that, I believe, is Mr Rudd's intent. He wants to connect the classroom to the world beyond and laptops are his trojan horse. Once they're in the door, there's no choice but for a curriculum rethink and for teachers to re-train. That can only result in a real education revolution
This seemed to be more of a belief statement and not supported by any evidence

Mark Pesce's blog address was at the end of the article so I left a comment there and this has turned into a dialogue between us. See the comments after his long Hyperpolitics article. It's a good discussion.

I'm going to have to read his long article now to understand his position more deeply.

the grammar of school reforms the reforms before the reforms can reform schools

It is interesting to compare these two articles:
The Laptop Revolution Has No Clothes by Larry Cuban

The Laptop Revolution not only has clothes but also will change the fashion of learning by David Cavallo

Best to read all of both articles. The reforms quote apparently comes from Seymour Papert and is quoted in David Cavallo's article

one laptop per child skeptic, Larry Cuban:
The University of Southern California psychologist Richard E. Clark put it succinctly: Media like television, film, and computers "deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition." Alan Kay, who invented the prototype for a laptop in 1968, made a similar point when he said that schools confuse the music with the instrument. "You can put a piano in every classroom, but that won't give you a developed music culture, because the music culture is embodied in people." The music is in the teacher, not the piano.
- The Laptop Revolution Has No Clothes
Reply by OLPC advocate, David Cavallo:
Alan Kay is exactly right when he describes that the development of the culture is key, that the culture is embodied in the people. However, Alan Kay is a key participant in OLPC. Why? Because 1:1 access to laptops creates the environment with the greatest potential for a culture for learning to be developed. The music is not only in the teacher, as Cuban claims. Teachers, music that people have already created, devices to enable listening to music, discussion and criticism about music, musical instruments, radios, concerts, stereos, CDs, MP3s, and so on comprise the culture into which a child can enter. The child learns by participating in the culture, by playing music, by learning. This is what needs to be developed for better learning environments. And ubiquitous access to laptops for learning is a fundamental element towards creating a rich, robust, equitable learning culture.
- The Laptop Revolution not only has clothes but also will change the fashion of learning
How do we resolve this tension between "the music is in the teacher, not the piano", on the one hand, and, "personal laptops create great learning environments", on the other?

I think the answer is that we don't resolve it but we live with it and do our best according to our circumstances. There is some truth to both sides of this argument. Personal laptops are good. Great teachers are good. Having both is even better.

Is that too simple? Possibly, I'd be interested in a deepening of this dialogue. I don't think either side won this exchange.

Rudd's non vision will quietly ignore the potential of computers as creativity and imagination machines

The Australian (30th December):
JULIA Gillard's super portfolio of education and industrial relations is a strong signal about Rudd Labor's core economic imperative: productivity.

At first blush the size and diversity of the portfolio seems unwieldy and disparate.

Education revolution may have been the sexy election title, but for Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan, it is really about creating a productivity revolution.

This is the thread that binds schools, higher education, childcare and the workplace. It is the thread that Labor hopes will boost capacity in the economy and take long-term pressure off inflation
- Gillard's role will be like a mini-PM
The Rudd / Gillard non revolution will be quite limited mainly because it will be mainly about productivity and vocationalism. This is a non vision which quietly ignores the potential of computers as creativity and imagination machines.

Vision: OLPC has a vision part of which is to empower children, as quicker learners. Of course that creates an issue with respect to the power relationships between kids and teachers and also puts demands on teacher to be learners of educational technology (as well as teachers). This is more in line with a real revolution, ie. represents some sort of overthrow or potential overthrow of teacher authority

Commercialisation: You don’t have a "personal computer" while it contains proprietary software that you can't modify and which also spies on whether you are running a legal copy of Windows. Also proprietary computer software is packaged these days to not contain any programming languages at all, by default (cf OLPC which has three - etoys, logo and python). Then we have warnings to users not to enter "Program Files" and the file extensions are hidden by default. There is active discouragement to looking under the hood

Some thoughts about what a real education revolution, with regard to computer usage, would look like:
  • laptops to take home, not computers stuck in labs
  • wide distribution on OLPC in Australian primary schools - it is now possible (givemany)
  • if you have to choose then laptops to the younger kids, not the older kids
  • free software
  • programming languages included in the software distribution
  • teacher inservice would focus on how maths and science concepts could be enhanced by computer usage
It is already obvious that the Rudd government has a managerial ethos ("government is primarily about the rational use of the levers of power rather than the force of moral conviction"- source). Talk of "revolution" is ludicrous spin doctoring. They won't do anything to upset software monopolies (the MS agreement is crippling to innovation) or which puts too many demands on teachers or educational bureaucrats.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Bender strikes back: reassurance about the OLPC

Some recent comments from Walter Bender (source: BBC news) are reassuring with regard to some of the worries generated by the negative WSJ article The first block quote is reassuring because he frankly identifies the main problem. The other two indicate that the project is making sensible adaptations to challenges and that real progress is being made:

... he said the main problem for OLPC was dealing with conservative politicians.

"Change equals risk especially for politicians. And we are certainly advocating change because the [education] system is failing these children," he said.

"It has not been that processor versus that processor or that operating system versus that operating system - it's been small thinking versus big thinking. That's really the issue," he said.

Originally, the laptops were to be sold to governments in lots of one million for $100 apiece.

Over time, however, the project has dropped the minimum number of machines that can be ordered, leading some to speculate that governments were not buying into the scheme.

The project also recently launched an initiative to allow citizens of North America to buy two machines at a time; one for themselves and one for a child in a developing country.

But Mr Bender said the shift was because of a better understanding of how to distribute smaller numbers cheaply and effectively, rather than a lack of orders.

"Part of it was our understanding of how the supply chain was going to work and having enough flexibility in the supply chain to make it work with a small number," he said.

"The big numbers were really about how you get this thing started not how you make it work in the long term.

"That was always going to be about supporting any good idea that comes along. And we've been able to get it started without the big top down numbers so we are off and running."

recently, OLPC revealed it had just taken its first order for 100,000 of the machines, placed by the government of Uruguay.

"Uruguay is first then it will be Peru, Mexico, Ethiopia then we are going to be doing stuff in Haiti, Rwanda and Mongolia," said Mr Bender.

In addition, he said, OLPC had done a deal with Birmingham, Alabama, in the US, to provide the laptop for schools in the city.

"The numbers of countries where we have trials set up is also increasing," he said.

Tests were also going on in the Solomon Islands, Nepal and India, a country that had previously shunned the scheme