Tuesday, October 16, 2007

LOGO Turns 40!

Wired's Science Blog reports that everyone's favorite Turtle turns 40 this week! Unfortunately, Wired's blog entry mentions nothing of Seymour Papert, the educational theorists/practitioner who, with a team at MIT, developed the LOGO programming language, a dialect of Lisp. What we do get from the blog entry and its comments is how people first encountered Logo, typically back in the 1980s at the keyboard of an Apple ][.

I used MicroWorlds EX Robotics last year in my Educational Technology Graduate Program through Pepperdine's OMET Program, under the guidance of Gary Stager, a huge proponent of LOGO. The Learning Adventure Dr. Stager had us complete was challenging and very, very fun. Take a look at the page I documented my work on for some examples of LOGO code and to see the pretty pictures my classmates' turtles and mine drew!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Cellphone Banking in Kenya

Matthew Clark's article in the October 12, 2007 edition of The Christian Science Monitor discusses how poor Kenyans, without access to banks, are using a system of cellphone banking to send money from the slums of Nairobi to the villages from which they came. Called "M-PESA," the "M" standing for "mobile" and PESA for "cash" in Swahili, the system, not connected to any bank, allows people to select from a short menu on their cellular phones such options as "send money" or "withdraw cash." The person receiving the funds can then go to an M-PESA agent or participating gas station to receive the funds.

Kenyans love this system. It provides them a means of getting money back to the rural villages without the dangers of carrying large amounts of cash. This in turn allows the people in the villages to more effectively and efficiently run their farms and make a living.

Africa has more than 225 million cellphone users, according to the article. This is double the amount from just two years ago. In a part of the world where it does not make sense for large banks to open branches, because the transactions are small and the administrative costs too large, this "banking" system empowers the poor by providing them the means to "save for a house, plan for emergencies, or get a loan," according to Mr. Clark. Matthew Clark noted the number of people in the slums who receive money from people in even poorer rural areas. Mr. Clark explained that many urban dwellers were receiving money from the villages to invest in their small business in the cities. This would be impossible without a system like M-PESA.

David Pogue's Review of the OLPC XO Laptop

In his characteristically funny way, David Pogue reviews the OLPC XO Laptop on the New York Times' site. Pogue does a great job hyping the ruggedness of the hardware, the power of the software, and the possibilities such a device creates.

Pogue shows how nearly indestructable this tough little laptop is, taking a glass of water to the keyboard (the electronics are all behind the display), dumping a handful of dirt on the keyboard (it's sealed), and even dropping the unit onto a stone wall, where it falls to the ground unscathed. This laptop is expected to perform in rugged environments and to be handled by children, so it is important that it is as rugged as Pogue demonstrates it is.

He also notes a great feature: with the press of a combination of keys on the keyboard, the user can instantly see the source code behind whatever application is currently running! This encourages the user to peek under the hood, perhaps to debug a program that doesn't work right, or to examine how a particular application works in order to build a new or different application. This open-architecture is empowering.

The collaborative possibilities offered by the XO laptop must also be noted. The hardware allows for mesh networking among individual units without the need for a centralized access point in the event one is unavailable. But what is really cool is the collaborative nature of the applications themselves: the word processor, for example, allows people to collaborate on a document. This collaborative possibility is unique and powerful. LOGO makes a short appearance in the video as well, which was exciting.

Pogue addresses the "snarkiness" of bloggers who take the laptop to task for being underpowered, slow, or nothing more than a toy. He gets it: this device is for students, not bloggers. He notes that while there are limitations, the hardware and software are powerful. Westerners who wish to get their hands on their own XO may purchase one for themselves and one for a student for two weeks, starting November 12. This is an innovative program that should help widen the distribution of these amazing machines.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Thoughts and Suggestions about NPDS Stability

I know that Matt and others have bemoaned the stability of NPDS on their Newtons and are often frustrated by the reboots triggered by Watcher.

I've been working for the past week trying to get my NPDS server to be a little more stable. As I detailed yesterday, I regenerated a "vanilla" index page and that seemed to help a bit. I ran NPDS all day yesterday on a private LAN and only crashed it twice. Putting it on the open internet caused to to crash with more frequency, but Watcher seemed to get it going again.

So, reflecting on where we are with the NPDS suite, I have a suggestion for those wishing to run NPDS with more stability. I've noticed the Cape Newton is not running the most current versions of the NPDS software and it is one of the most stable. Grant's is running the newest software and his is stable, but he might be the exception ;)

From my experience you cannot beat the following combination of NPDS versions: version 2.106 2.104 of nHTTPd, Notepad Server 2.101 and Setup 2.101. Additionally, you should use Watcher 1.1a1.

Let's take a look at these versions and figure out the strengths and any limitations.

nHTTPd 2.106: This was the version to run for over two years. Paul's release notes indicate, "Fixed the bug that prevented one to post notes with the 'and' sign, URLs and similar stuff" (hey, I logged that one!). This was a very stable release that worked great. It does not include the new SSIs for listing your Notes and does not handle a huge collection of Notes, like on Grant's server. However, I believe Paul Filmer's Newton runs this version of nHTTPd and his site was fairly complex with a large number of "nested" notes.

nHTTPd 2.104: Reading through the NPDS mailing list archives brought back the recollection that this version, and not 2.106, was the most stable. Paul noted, "Changed the NPDS URL. Reworked the finite state machine of the server. Fixed bugs in SSI parsing. The parameter of the SSIs is not the request. Backward compatibility in NPDS 3 is not guaranteed. Fixed other bugs I don't recall about." The drawback is that NPDS cannot serve notes with the "and" sign in them in this version. However, the reports from the NPDS mailing list and personal experience show that this was a very stable release.

Notepad Server 2.101: This version was used for three years. Paul's release notes indicate, "Now serves ink text embedded into notes. Fixed the about box bug (Grant, Wed, 19 Mar 2003 19:26:02 -0700). Fixed a bug about Notes with no name." The inclusion of the ink text serving is important in my book for the sheer geek factor. Again, this version uses the older "NOTES_LIST" SSI but it is quite stable.

Setup 2.101: Again, a two-year version of this package. Paul's notes indicate, "Removed the latency preference controller. This should fix problems when using recent versions of nHTTPd that don't use this latency setting and that don't define them in the preferences. Strengthened the other settings of the Admin and the Security panels to avoid similar bugs in the future."

The most recent versions of the other packages are appropriate to run.

Here are the steps I took to try to determine the most stable setup for NPDS. I wanted to return to the days when my NPDS server would keep serving pages without intervention.

I started by downgrading from 2.107 to 2.106. Unfortunately this version was not stable enough for me. It ran well on a private network but crashed frequently on a public network.

2.104 was much more stable for me. I started by removing the nHTTPd, Notepad Server, Setup, and the Watcher from my Newton and running NPDS Wipe. I reinstalled the versions mentioned above but continued to have some stability issues. Looking at the release notes for nHTTPd, I noticed that version 2.105 fixed bugs related to rotation. I tend to use my Newton in Landscape mode, so I rotated it back to portrait mode.

I also had issues with NPDS being unable to deal with the ethernet card I have been using for years. It would attempt to engage the ethernet driver but would just hang if the "Show NIE slip" was checked in Setup. I reinstalled the driver but NPDS still did not cooperate: when Watcher went to restart the server it would hang on this step. Other packages did not have this issue. I ended up putting a wifi card in the Newton and it worked fine with or without the NIE slip checked. I used StewPot to look at the soup and see what might be happening with the ethernet card that functioned fine until this period of testing but did not come up with any answers. As I said, I've run Wipe so nothing should be preventing it from working. I deleted the Worksite and the Internet Setup associated with the Worksite and re-created them. Subsequently NPDS engages my Ambicom ethernet card without needing the NIE slip to come up.

I let the server run, checking it occasionally. An effective way of loading an NPDS server is to run Grant's package listing SSI script, especially if there are many packages installed on the Newton. My NPDS server was able to generate the formatted list and keep serving without crashing. It ran for just under 11 hours before the Newton became unresponsive. This is much better uptime.

To summarize, these are the steps that I think you should consider if you are having a difficult time keeping your NPDS server running reliably:

1. Note your hit count and uninstall all the NPDS packages currently on your Newton. Run Wipe to get rid of the preferences.

2. Reinstall nHTTPd 2.104, Notepad Server 2.101, Setup 2.101, and Watcher 1.1a1. I noticed that the version of nHTTPd contained in the Mac disk image is 4K larger, so I ended up using this version rather than the package version available from the NPDS site. You may install the most current releases of Date Server, Card Server, Binary Server, and Script Editor.

3. Use the directions for restoring your server's hit count.

4. Configure Watcher to check every 10 seconds. I also have it configured to reboot immediately without displaying the Reboot Dialog.

5. Make sure your Newton is in Portrait mode, not Landscape mode.

With any luck a similar setup should prove to be stable on other people's Newtons.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

MAKE's $100 Laptop Challenge

Originally uploaded by Camera Wences

Inspired by a Seymour Papert video and a post on MAKE's blog in which Phillip Torrone tries to cobble together an eMate into an approximation of the One Laptop Per Child's XO laptop for under $100, I wrote a paper about the OLPC and the eMate 300. Papert argued in the video that the hardware does not matter: it is the exposure to new ideas, technology, and communication possibilities that matters. I take the side that the hardware does matter. Read the paper if you are interested. I excerpt below the part I wrote about making an eMate into a less than $100 OLPC-type laptop, since Phillip Torrone dropped the ball and never completed the project.

This leaves us with Philip Torrone's unfinished $100 laptop project, which he seems to have conceived as he ran out the door and was never picked up again. As I have a clear fascination with the eMate, an interest in the Newton OS, and a newly-purchased eMate of my own, I thought I would devote this final section to briefly documenting the tools available to turn the eMate into something of a $100 laptop with modern capabilities. The Newton OS is a proprietary, closed-source operating system, a hindrance to many of the efforts to keep the platform viable eight years after it was canceled. The Newton Internet Enabler, for instance, is limited in its abilities on the modern internet. However, the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the user community has managed to coax the platform along and keep it relevant.

Word Processing, Spreadsheet, Calculator: handled by built-in NewtonWorks
RSS: Raissa is still actively developed and supported
Web Browser: Originally bundled with NetHopper (no longer developed). Courier is a text-only web browser that integrates tightly with Raissa.
Email: Mail V is another actively developed and supported email client, handling POP and authenticated IMAP.
Collaboration: Jan Jan Janken, an adaptation of Rock Paper Scissors, can be used to settle disagreements.
Connectivity: a wide range of ethernet cards as well as the WaveLAN wireless card are supported.

The eMate 300, as it shipped, had 1Mbyte of DRAM for system use as well as 3Mbytes of Flash memory for storing packages and user data. The low amount of available system memory, or heap, can present a problem when trying to use the eMate for web browsing. For this reason, I would also recommend two utilities.

Heap Magic, which does "garbage collection" on the heap and helps to free up memory.
Freeze Utilities helps conserve heap because all packages, or applications, loaded on the Newton device require some system heap whether they are running or not. Freezing the package makes it use less system heap.

It would appear, then, that the eMate 300 can do many of the same things that the OLPC will be able to do, though not nearly as fast. The open-standards on which the OLPC is based will help the OLPC to remain viable in years to come as the users will be able to get "under the hood" to make the changes necessary to keep the hardware and software relevant for their use.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Why Fight It? Co-opting iPods for Use in the Classroom

Instead of restricting iPods from the classroom, schools in New Jersey are using them in bilingual classrooms, language classes, drama, music, and English classrooms. While iPods are felt by some districts to be a distraction, projects such as this prove the devices to be powerful incentives to learning. Scott Amdahl, a former-OMET student, oversaw a similar rollout in the Texas school district in which he works: students in ESL class were provided with iPods to help them learn English.

I like the examples provided in the NY Times article of how one teacher loaded music onto the iPods so Spanish-speaking students could listen to English-lyric songs as a means of improving their fluency. The students were entertained and had fun learning this way as opposed to using outdated textbooks to which they could not relate. By incorporating a sense of "play" into the lesson, by using the iPods, educators stand to hook their students into the lesson.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

WallyMath on the Newotn

I stumbled upon this post I made to the NewtonTalk list. Nobody has yet produced what could be a cool and simple hack for Notes and Works: math recognition, where you can write math equations and have the Newton interpret them on the fly. There is a proof of concept package that works, along with source code that is generously licensed.

Below is part of my original post on NewtonTalk:

So, we have source code to the WallyMath function and it runs under Newton OS 2.1. The code specifies that we are free to implement it so long as the code has credit as originating from Apple. How can we proceed to build a patch to Notes and perhaps NewtonWorks that will allow the implementation of WallyMath into these packages? With the source code it ought to be a matter of simply allowing Notes and Works to access this "recognition," for lack of knowing the proper terminology, that a patch might offer.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Mambo Server

I have been learning Mambo, a Content Management System that forked from Joomla, another CMS that many people I worked with in OMET have fallen for. I learned to use Mambo because I manage the Mercer Island Education Association website. Using CMS on a project like this makes maintaining such a site a breeze: there is a built-in text editor, you can upload files, be they graphics, audio, or video, and all the content snaps into perfectly formatted pages with no need to edit any html or create any design. I also feel it important to have experience using a CMS to manage a web site, as these are valuable skills.

My only gripe is that I cannot seem to make the management side of things work on a Mac. I've tried Safari and Firefox and they both hang when I am saving changes. I finally resorted to running Internet Explorer in a Parallels virtual machine running XP. It makes me feel a little dirty, running XP inside the Mac, but it gets the job done.


During OMET Margaret Riel hipped me to Scratch, a Smalltalk-based multimedia programming environment. I installed it on a Mac at work and one of the students ran with it, creating a really cool virtual drum set. One of the powerful technologies in Scratch is that you can easily share your projects. The software allows you to upload the project to the Scratch site, where people can play with the projects in their browser, without needing to install Scratch.

This year when I rolled out the new iMacs with a new build of the operating system, I included Scratch. The library iMacs all had Scratch in the Dock, and I figured I would watch and see what the students made of it. I pointed out to a few students that there were sample projects included that they could run.

The younger students started using Scratch because it includes a pretty nice graphics editor that you can use to customize your Scratch characters, the "stage" upon which the characters are placed, and other objects. Soon, however, a few of them figured out that there were some fun games: PacMan in particular was popular.

I was a little disappointed that every time I sat down by a student using Scratch and explained that they could create their own games that the younger students expressed no interest. However, independently a fourth grade student realized that he could create his own games using Scratch, and he started working on a game using some of the stock characters provided with Scratch. Every time he asked me how to make the program do something, like move right if the right arrow key is pressed on the keyboard, I would suggest to him that he look at the samples to see if he could figure it out. Soon he had his squirrel moving around the board.

I originally thought I would teach a class at recess to students interested in learning Scratch. However, I realized the power of play and their own experimentation with the software and decided to allow them to dictate how they would use the software and gain an understanding of it. Now there are three students working on similar programs. I imagine that the student who originated the program and who has shared his code will finish first, grow tired of all the "clones" of his game, and devise a new one. It is great to watch these students build skills on their own initiative.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Tech Club Promotion

Last week I held three promotional meetings for Tech Club during lunch recess. We met in the library since it is a public place where many students already congregate. I found last year during my Action Research that moving Tech Club from an out of the way room to the library got more students to participate. I also asked three girls and a boy who participated last year to help me run the meetings by describing what each of the projects was about, by helping to answer questions, and by taking photos of the meetings.

In conjunction I made a template that said "I like Tech Club because..." and gave it to students from last year's Tech Club. I asked them to hand write a couple sentence that answered that question, then I took their photograph. I used the color laser printer to print their photo at the top of the page, then I mounted each of them to construction paper and laminated them before posting them in the 3-5 grade hallway. Many students stopped to read the testimonials from their peers. I figured that the students could do a much better job selling the club than I could.

The first day a student and I described the digital photography project, building web pages with our images, updating the new student comic book, and perhaps creating new comic books. I used the five library iMacs to load the web page on the school's intranet with the photos last year's Tech Club students took, captioned, and assembled into web pages. Turnout was good: there were about twenty-five students who came to the meeting and picked up permission forms that allow me to post their work on the internet.


The second day we talked about podcasting. I brought the JuiceBoxes out with episodes of last year's podcasts for the students to listen to. Additionally, I used the iMacs again to display the RSS feed of the podcasts so students could also use the computers to listen. Attendence was not as strong, but I did have students come two days in a row.

The third day we watched the movies that students made last year. This was a popular promotional meeting because everyone loves Lego stop-motion films.

I felt good after the promotional meetings because I had many students who attended, as well as those who missed the meetings, come up to me afterwards to inquire about joining and asking when we were going to start the projects. Tech Club is going to rock this year, with more girls participating, Autistic students continuing to participate, and more exciting projects!

Lenovo's $199 "Tianfu" (Heavenly Prosperity) Computer

Lenovo, who now manufacture's the ThinkPad line of PC laptops, is targeting rural Chinese farmers with the introduction of its $199 Heavenly Prosperity PC, running a software package called "Road to Riches." There are roughly 250 million Chinese farmers who could benefit from such a device that allows the user to access the internet to obtain information about agricultural practices, animal husbandry, market prices, and other pertinent information, according to the Christian Science Monitor article. Reporter Peter Ford accompanies the piece with an audio clip of him discussing the "ambitious goal" of equipping these farmers.

The specifications of the machine are similar to the OLPC laptop: it uses flash memory instead of a hard drive and contains no moving parts that might wear out or break. Mara Hvistendahl at Worldchanging.com has more specifications as well as a critical review of the policies and politics behind the machine. Plugged into a TV, the device is descibed as the size of box of chocolates and uses a tablet, helpful for rural Chinese who might not be accustomed to using a Chinese-language keyboard.

The machine's success seems dependent upon the "modernization" or urbanization of rural China, however. Electricity is spotty in some areas, and the state-owned telephone monopoly must also commit to providing service to rural users, who without a ADSL line would be unable to use the Internet with the computer.

Chinese users at the agriculture show Peter Ford attended with both positive and unsure of the device. One mushroom farmer ordered one, expecting to use it to increase his markets and to make more money. Like the OLPC project, enabling people in rural areas to collaborate and become world citizens through the use of technology is a powerful idea put into practice.