May 2008 Archives

May 30, 2008

Virtual Machines in the Classroom: Teaching one OS inside of another

Education is an interesting beast.  There are so many different needs and environments that it often can become expensive to provide a comprehensive, controlled platform for students to work.  As such, often topics are ignored or just not offered.  Case in point:  We have two closed computer labs here at the Annex that we use for teaching.  Both are Windows labs, because the primary platform our software classes run on is Windows.  To become a Mac lab required an investment in Apple hardware and software, which represented a huge cost on our part.  And now we are running Linux classes, thanks to our good friends at Guru Labs.  But we ran into a problem running the class in a semester-long format:  How do you keep the environment static for one platform while teaching in another platform?The eventual obvious answer was using a Virtual machine.  With a virtual machine we have the ability to keep a separate image for each class (or series of classes) run, and continue to teach Windows software without having to re-image the lab every day.  The second most obvious answer would be to use VM Ware.  Why?  Because it's free and easy to use.  Now, we could opt to use Xen (and will eventually), but the base install for these systems needs to be Windows.  Why?  Because it's the lowest common denominator when it comes to user experience.  This way people don't panic when they see something other than a Windows XP login screen.  Another reason to use VM Ware is the availability of VM Ware on the Mac (via VM Ware Fusion).  It's easy to use, and allows us to use multiple OS distributions on the Mac machines without difficulty.  That means that the Linux class can now be mobile.  ^_^So that is a current solution.  But what of the future?  There is a lot of potential for the Virtual machine setup in education.  Distance education becomes possible with a completely controlled environment, as long as one has a significant internet connection.  That, and some well organized VPN settings can make a remote Technical education setup quite possible.  So, what makes virtual machines useful in an educational setting?  One distribution of an application, free of any potential conflicts, that can be distributed across a network through a mounted file system.  And all you have to do is double-click to execute.  Have any of you used Virtual Machines in the classroom?  Which of you find it useful?  Which of you don't?  

May 29, 2008

Quality Visits vs. Quantity

This post is my 200th post, so I thought I would focus on traffic for my blog.  Since I moved my blog to my own server using WordPress, I've noticed that I don't have nearly as much traffic as I did with Blogger.  At first I thought that it may be a simple case of people not following my link to the new site, or people just not interested in my posts.  Both is quite likely.  So, I thought I would check out my Google Analytics for both sites and compare the data, just to see what I may be doing wrong in regards to my WordPress site vs. the original Blogger site.  The numbers are really interesting:  
 WordPress ResultsBlogger Results
Page Views3062,313
Pages Per Visit1.471.13
Bounce Rate72.60%91.02%
Average Time On Site00:03:0800:00:28
New Visits52.40%94.39%
 As you can see, the numbers are quite different, equaling out in weight.  While the Blogger site still gets more hits over the period of a year, the WordPress site keeps visitors longer, provides a higher likelihood of additional page views, and has a lower bounce rate.  For me, while I may have lost a lot of visitors, I have gained readership.  How?  By keeping more people on the site and reading my posts.  For me, that is far more valuable and flattering than thousands of people visiting over a month, but no one reading anything I post.  It's actually pretty exciting!  Now I wonder how the readership will evolve over time.  Will I gain more readers while keeping the bounce rate the same?  Perhaps I will increase the average time on the site with more interesting content.  I'm glad I moved from Blogger, if for nothing else than having a control specimen to compare my new site against.  Now I can more objectively determine how well my blog is doing, and in what areas.  

May 27, 2008

3G iPhone Hype: Where is the News that Really Counts?

Yes, it's started.  So many bloggers, "news" sites, and rumor mills are talking about the expected 3G iPhone, and how it will change the world.  Lots of sources "close to the 3G iPhone project" have been touting the appearance of the new Wunderkind of the Smart Phone genre, and the many bells and whistles that they will be sporting.  But one aspect of the new iPhone has been oddly silent:  the up and coming applications that everyone is expecting.  Now, as I'm sure comes as no surprise to those who follow my blog (thanks you two! ^_^), I'm very pro-Mac.  I like the Mac platform, I like the fact that it's now 100% UNIX compatible as of 10.5, and I like the fact that it's simple to use.  Part of that has to do with the design of the hardware, but most of it has to do with the applications that are available for the Mac.  That's what really makes a Mac a Mac.  You can change a windowing system on either Vista or even Linux to look like a Mac, but it still doesn't have the same applications running.  Well, we know that Apple already has released various beta versions of the iPhone OS SDK in order to encourage developers to write programs.  This is great, but we haven't heard much from developers as to the applications they are writing.  Many have speculated, but none confirmed the release of a Microsoft Office suite (surely watered down if not just a viewer) for the iPhone, and some other apps like a version of Flash from Adobe.  But nothing concrete.  Well, if I were calling the shots, or at least if I were looking for Apps that would appeal to me, here would be my list: 
  1. Presentation Software:  I want to be able to show a Keynote from my iPhone.  This could be either something built into iTunes sharing (like photo albums), or an actual Keynote viewer and basic editor.  Either way, I would like to see an app that will let me present Keynotes.  Then I would just need to have a way to hook up the iPhone to a projector.  
  2. Text Editing:  This could be as simple as a plugin for Google Docs (which didn't work well on the first gen iPhone), or a separate application that is more than just a note taker, but could be less then a full fledged version of Pages or Word.  But typing on the software keyboard?  let's talk about: 
  3. Bluetooth Keyboard Support:  Yes!  Let us tether a bluetooth keyboard to the blasted thing!  It would be convenient on so many levels.  And it's one major requirement I have for the rumored iPod Slate. 
  4. Spreadsheet Viewing:  This could be just as simple as adding the Preview option from Leopard into the iPhone OS.  I'm not thinking about using a spreadsheet program on the iPhone, that's something to do on a real computer.  But it would be nice to be able to read a spreadsheet that is sent to you, or review it before a presentation. 
  5. Terminal:  Yes, I want a terminal on my Mac.  Why?  Because I use it constantly while checking connections, servers, ports, and running various apps.  It would be invaluable for any IT professional to be able to SSH into a remote machine while traveling, check on a server status, restart services, etc. all while away from a real computer.  
  6. Full Version of iCal:  I want something more robust than the current iCal software on the iPhone.  All new events created on the thing shouldn't create a new calendar.  It should also be able to subscribe to new calendars, and color-code them.  That would be nice. 
Those are the applications that I would most likely need.  It would be ideal for presentations while teaching, quick video demos, and technical support.  Of course, these would be high on the list, but what of other wants?  Here is my wishlist: 
  1. Second Life Client:  It's been compiled for smart phones, why not for the iPhone?  It would be ideal for any instructor or student taking an online course in Second Life.  And with many institutions utilizing Second Life as an online learning platform, it would be nice to have it truly portable.  
  2. Twitter App:  Even if it's just using a Dashboard Widget or something, a nice little Twitter widget that didn't use SMS would be nice.  ^_^
  3. VNC/rdesktop/X11 Client:  A VNC/rdesktop/X11 client would be nice, partly for Technical Support, and partly for screen sharing for other machines.  Now, I'm not talking about sharing the iPhone screen (which would require a running VNC/X11 Server), but rather just a client.  Security shouldn't be an issue at that point, and technical support/distance learning will be that much easier. 
  4. Parental Controls:  You know there are parents out there that will give in to their kids and buy them an iPhone.  It might be a good idea to have some sort of parental controls for browsing, sharing, etc. 
  5. DOS Emulator:  Purely for entertainment value, I would like to play a number of old DOS games when ever I get in the mood.  ^_^  I'd like to see something like DOSBox ported to the iPhone.
  6. Games:  Yes, occasionally I would like to be able to get caught up in a game to relieve stress.  Something simple like a pinball game would be cool, or even something really advanced like World of Warcraft.  I can almost guarantee that if there were a WoW client for the iPhone, it would be the number 1 machine out there.  ^_^
  7. SSHFS:  Let me upload my files securely to a server, and retrieve them in the same way.  SSHFS would be sweet for the iPhone.
  8. VoIP Software:  Yes, let me have my VoIP software on my iPhone, even if I can't use the phone network for it.  Not that it should matter, I would be paying for the phone minutes whether I use them or not.  But at least this way, in case of an emergency, I can always have some type of phone working as long as there is some sort of network connection, and I won't have to rely on possible bottle-necked Cellular networks.  
So, that is my list, be it ever so humble.  Now, do I really expect everything to be incorporated into the new Wunderkind?  Well, if I did, then I'm up for a big disappointment.  But I do hope that at least someone takes on some of the ideas here and runs with them.  There are a lot of great ideas out there, and with Internet distribution you can easily target the right people that would be interested in such applications, like me! 
Is there anything that you would like to see on the iPhone by the way of apps?

May 22, 2008

A New Facet in Sustainability: Energy Recycling

Ever since I can remember, the argument for environmentalists have been to move to Solar and Wind power as the only way to save the planet.  Their position is from a green point of view:  that is, if it isn't natural, it isn't an option.  This is fine, and there are a lot of merits to these methods of generating energy, but right now it just isn't enough.  We need something else to bolster our energy needs until these more green technologies can be made more efficient.  And the best move that can be made right now is energy recycling. What's Energy Recycling?  It's the process of using the excess heat created by a process to boil water, create steam, and move a generator.  One excellent example of wasted energy this way would be many cooling towers in Atomic plants.  But that isn't all!  Many factories, refineries, and smelters are major sources of excess heat, and as such could be producing electricity.  Just place a boiler on top of the plant, capture the heat, boil water, create steam, use that steam to move a generator and you are all set!  Now, you may ask where I got this idea in the first place.  Well, I'm guilty of perpetuating an idea of others.  It seems that Europe and Japan has been doing this practice for years, bolstering their grids with additional energy from their factories, refineries, etc.  Heat is not wasted if it's sufficient enough to boil water.  This was reported this morning on my way to work on NPR, by the way.  So why don't we do the same thing?  It's such a simple idea, why haven't the US thought of this before?  Because there are currently State and Civil laws that protect power companies from having to pay retail prices for the power that gets pumped back into the grid from an non-system source.  That, and most older facilities would be subject to new EPA regulations if they made any modifications to their facility.  Now, the other day, I was listening to Sean Hannity on the radio.  Now, this isn't a regular thing for me, as I don't like to get just one side of the story (I find NPR the least biased news source).  But he had an interesting argument for the Republican Party:  Rebuild yourself.  He pointed out 10 items the Republicans could do in order to rebuild the party.  Number 4 was Energy Independence.  What could be more independent than using recycled energy?So, my challenge to Government, both parties actually, is to challenge the protection laws currently in place for energy companies to allow energy recycling.  We could generate almost twice the energy we have now, if we follow Denmark's model (half their energy comes from recycled energy projects), and lower our energy growth needs.  That's the kicker: the need for foreign oil could be lowered as far as overall energy production, and allow more oil to be diverted to transportation (at least for now).  Now, I don't expect it will magically solve our nation's energy needs overnight.  But wouldn't it be nice to not have to worry about rolling blackouts?  More energy means cheaper electric manufacturing costs, and cheaper overall bills on the consumer.  Also, those factories that produce a lot of heat in order to produce their product can save even more money as they generate that excess heat into energy savings, or potentially a secondary revenue line.  Those are the benefits, at any case.  Now the hard part needs to be hammered out:  negotiating with power companies and potential power generating sources a fair and sustainable model.  Perhaps they can offer to buy the recycled energy at wholesale costs..  Anyway, that's a fight that will be well worth the effort.  

May 21, 2008

Tourism Industry in Second Life

Second Life isn't really a game, because there are no real objectives that you need to accomplish.  For this reason, a lot of people are turned off.  But, let's say you don't have the money to visit exotic locations around the world, but would like to see them for yourself?  Second Life is a very inexpensive way to see the locations through someone else's eyes.  ROMA Sim Roma sim is a simulation of ancient Rome.  It's not really clear which specific slice of time was taken to use it, as the buildings are all from different Emperors, but it's fun to walk around the town.  You are not allowed to fly in this sim, but you can click on any fountain and take a "litter" to several locations.  Check out the Temple, the Museum, or the Circus Maximus.  There is even a Calilgula's Pleasure Palace, though it's geared more to the adult crowd.  The rules in the sim:  Dress in roman togas.  You can get some free from the Dock that you land on when teleporting to the sim. Scotland Sim those that know me, this is perhaps my most favorite sim.  The Scotland sim has some great information about the country, the Royal Mile (shopping district in Edinburgh), a ride on Nessie, events, a haunted dungeon, a castle, and Highland games.  It's a great place to pick up a kilt for your Avatar, or various other goodies.  never tossed a caber before?  Check out the sim in the Highland Games!  There is also a pub that allows one to dance a jig.  Also, take a guided horse-drawn carriage tour of the sim.  Paris 1900 wife has always wanted to go to Paris, just to see the Eiffel Tower.  Well, in this sim you not only get to see the Tower, but you can ride up to the top, put on a parachute and jump off!  The parachute automatically deploys, and you float down to earth.  Also, you can take a bike ride around the sim, and take a zip line from the Arch de Triumph!  It's a great sim, with loads of fun.  Egypt Empire Sim sim is one of several sims, such as the Roman Empire (not Roma) Sim, Greek Islands, British Islands, and the Spartan Empire.  It's well stocked with shop locations, and has a combat arena for those interested in fighting in second life.  Be sure to read the rules carefully.  From your teleport location, you can actually take a boat ride through the other sims.  I would highly recommend it! Africa Sim love the Africa sim, though there isn't a lot to do there.  But there is a lot to see!  It's like taking a wild animal safari, getting up close and personal with the animals.  There are shops, and even a balloon tour you can take.  The animals are not animated, but they are 3D.  It's great, and I think anyone would enjoy it. China Sim China Sim lands you on a barge, with several levels.  Again, not a lot to do there at the sim, but there are tons of free things you can get on the decks.  If for nothing else, you can get some nice avatars, clothing, and various other freebies from this sim.  Germany Sim Though there isn't a lot here on the Germany sim, there are some really nice houses and castles for sale.  Other than that, it's a great place to set up a shop if you are looking to sell objects in Second Life, because there is plenty of space.Official Greece Sim Finally, there is the official Greece sim.  This sim was created to reflect the modern Greek culture, and does a fabulous job.  There are various activities for someone to experience, including a visit to the Parthenon.  It's well built, and everything is in Greek and English.  Check out the movie theatre, or go shopping. Anyway, those are the sims I would recommend visiting, if you are new to Second Life.  If you are looking for educational resources, I would recommend checking out Laura's Blog.  She has a list of educational locations in Second Life that are very useful. 

May 19, 2008

Politics, Presidents, and History: Why Can't They Get Along?

It often surprises me when Politicians are able to make vague historical references, say they won't make the same mistakes, and the people just eat it up like candy.  I'm also surprised with the failure of the Media to provide adequate background information for candidates that run for office.  Is it that they just don't want to look at the past, or perhaps they feel the American people don't have the attention span for a history lesson?What prompted this statement, you might ask?  Last night I was watching the American Experience on PBS in an attempt to get my son to sleep.  He's not feeling well in the heat wave that hit Salt Lake this week, and was restless.  This night, it was a special on George H.W. Bush.  It covered his rise to politics from his father's involvement in the Eisenhower Administration to his eventual election to President.Now, I wasn't a big fan of George Bush Sr. while he was in office.  Granted, I was just a kid in Jr. High at the time, but with some politically minded friends, I was kept in the loop.  He provided little in the way of what I expected, because I loved Reagan.  Why did I love Reagan?  Because he made Americans feel good about being Americans.  George didn't do that.  He wasn't the showman that Reagan was, nor was he the actor.But he was a Statesman, and if I had known what a Statesman did at the time, I would have applauded his efforts.  George H.W. Bush was first and foremost an Ambassador.  From his few years of working at the UN, he managed to build a huge relationship with all nations and use it to his advantage while both Vice President under Reagan, and while working with the Soviet Union during the fall of the Berlin Wall.He was willing to let the Germans be Germans, instead of puppets of the US, and thereby fueling the anti-American block in the Kremlin that would have taken any excuse to tighten their hold on the Eastern Block.  He made Eisenhower-esque moves and decisions that allowed other people and nations to shine, all the while keeping the US economy strong.But even further back, George H.W. Bush built the current idea of Republican Conservatism that pervades in politics today.  He did so in the 60's by welcoming those Democrats into the Republican party that were a little angered by President Kennedy and Johnson.  And this was in Texas, where at the time you couldn't find a Republican.His foray into politics in the 60's represents a clean shift in the ideals of the Republican party, and forced the Democrats to shift to their current position.  It's interesting that now, 50 years later, his son instigated a shift in the Democratic party in the same way Kennedy and Johnson forced the Republicans to shift.  Now the Republicans are shifting again, back to the Eisenhower days.So why am I writing about President George H.W. Bush?  Because it's information I would have liked 15 years ago!  And I keep asking myself, where is the analysis on the current candidates?  Quick snapshots don't help, nor do sound-bytes.  In order to make a truly informed decision on a candidate, you have to know where they come from, where they have gone, and what they have been willing to do to get there.  That is a full measure of a candidate, because now you can predict with relative certainty what they will do in office.Now, the American Experience is gearing up for the Election, preparing for it by providing profiles of the past Presidents.  I'm sure, once the Democratic candidate has been chosen, we will see well documented profiles of that person as well as John McCain.  But until then, I would urge anyone to watch the American Experience series on the Presidents.  Learn about what past presidents have done, both right and wrong.  For now, President George H.W. Bush has risen to one of my favorite presidents, right up there with President Ford, President Eisenhower, and President James K. Polk.

May 14, 2008

Home in Second Life: Caledon Downs

It's taken a while, but I finally have my home in Second Life.  I figured I really didn't need a large home, so I opted for a smaller home that I bought.  It's a Celtic round house, and I love it.  It didn't have many prims, so it made for a better design overall.So instead of having a huge house with no yard, I have a tiny house with a huge garden.  I haven't placed any flowers out yet, but I will soon.  Right now, I'm more concerned with meeting spaces to allow students to come and visit me during office hours.  In the near future I will be adding a video feed to the screen in my home, and will be working on some presentation tools for my students.  Stay tuned for more developments on the Second Life distance education tools. If you have a second life account, feel free to visit!  If not, feel free to sign up!  It's free, and there are a lot of fun things you can do in Second Life.  For instance, if you go to the Paris 1900 sim, you can ride up to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and parachute off.  ^_^  To visit my home in Caledon Downs, follow this URL: to see you there! 

May 12, 2008

Autism and Vaccines

Any parent with an autistic child will look for something that may have triggered autism in the family.  As there has yet to be a gene discovered that causes autism, more focus is being made on the possible causes in the environment.  One modern concern is that vaccines with thimerosal, a mercury-based compound used in some vaccines as a preservative, could be causing autism.  Why?  Because autism is very similar in symptoms to mercury poisoning, and all children get several series of vaccines before they are 2.  The timing is right, the source is identified, everything seems to be pointing in the right direction:  Except there is no scientific proof that thimerosal causes autism.  But that isn't stopping some families, which have gone to court.  Most studies rejecting thimerosal as a cause of autism were conducted before 2004.  Since then, according to the plaintiff's lawyer, 35 articles that were peer-reviewed and published suggest a possible link.  That is what their court argument is running on.  The problem is they have a huge opponent:  The US Center for Disease Control has not found any link, and therefore considers the claim baseless.  Instead they warn parents to the dangers of not having their children vaccinated.  In fact, there was a recent article on a national outbreak of measles among children.  The MMR vaccine should be protecting them, so either the vaccine is not working or parents are not letting their children have the vaccine. What's my take on it?  Children need to be vaccinated.  Vaccines are very important, particularly for those diseases that are very dangerous (small pox, polio, measles, etc.).  The good news is that thimerosal is being used less and less, and was actually removed from most infant vaccines in 1999.  Where is it still being used?  The Flu shot.  So, don't give your children the shot, have them use the nose spray instead.  It was recently approved for child usage, and works just as well.  There are some other shots that you should look out for, and if you have any questions or concerns, ask your doctor.  There are alternatives to thimerosal vaccines for those parents that are concerned, and your doctor can help you make that decision.

Summer Projects: Food Storage and Urban Farming

My parents have been really concerned with food storage lately, and feeling an urgency to get it in place.  As such, they are looking at ways to augment the food storage they already have in as many ways as possible.  The main method?  Self-sufficient urban farming.  I've talked about urban farming before.  It's a process of growing and raising farm food in an urban environment while complying with city ordinances.  Now, most cities allow quite a lot of latitude, depending on the reaction of the neighbors.  So if you are not on good terms with your neighbors, you may want to warm them up to you.  The first and easiest method of urban farming is growing a garden.  many people will plant whole sections of their yards in garden, others in selected areas.  I chose selected areas, because our yard isn't that big to begin with.  I have one small section in the back that has some eggplant, artichokes, corn, beans, pumpkin, peas, radishes, lettuce, cucumber and grapes growing.  It's small, so there isn't a lot growing in this location.  But the plants are well managed, allowing for good usage of the land.This week I will be planting some watermelon in the front yard, in what is currently a garden plot covered with bark.  It will give the appearance of green in the plot while utilizing less water.  Why less water?  Because the bark and weed barrier will keep the weeds down, leaving more water for the melons.But, because the food that is grown isn't going to be able to feed us all, or provide all the nutrients we need, more needs to be done.  Unfortunately, there isn't enough land in an urban environment to have livestock (nor is it zoned as such, generally).  So, what can one do to get their farm-fresh foods?First, you can learn how to make cheese.  I've tried one recipe, and the cheese was pretty good.  Now, this summer my family and I will be making more cheeses by investing in some cultures, rennet, and probably building a cheese press.  Cheese was originally developed as a way to provide the benefits of milk and milk protein without worrying about it going sour in a short amount of time.Next, there is preserved meats.  We plan on making jerky this summer, along with some bottled and preserved meats.  It requires some investment in a bath bottler (instead of just steam), but it's worth it in the end.  Along with that, my family has a killer recipe for sweet pickled beets, dill pickled green beans, and hot pickled carrots.  Perhaps this year I'll get to use my purple carrots I planted (assuming my son hasn't killed them all already).  But once you have all this done, where do you store them?  A basement is great if it's rarely used.  Unfortunately, our basement is being used.  So what to do?  Well, you can build a root cellar.  Root cellars are great, because they can double as cheese caves.  They stay naturally cool in summer, and don't freeze in the winter.  Also, they don't have to be really large.  You can build a small pit that is covered (so no one falls in), and then cover it up with a decent covering.  As long as there is a drainage area for rain, you should be good to go.  So, are we planning on the end of the world?  Is that why we are going nuts with this urban farming plan?  No, not really.  It's because we want to have good food, save some money on gas and buying at the store.  It's all about economics.  The fact that the food supply will still be useful and very viable in the case of a disaster is just icing on the cake.  And the real great thing about these projects this time is my wife's support of it.  Before she thought I was just crazy, but now she understands the benefits of fresh vegetables and fruits that are just a short walk away.

May 8, 2008

Teaching Ad: Need a vi Editor and Shell Scripting Instructor

This summer, we had an instructor cancel on us for three classes we had scheduled.  Unfortunately, we don't have the staff to cover these classes, so we are looking for a contract instructor that would be interested in teaching these classes, non-credit, for students should they register.  If you are interested or curious, please contact Inita Lyon at 801-585-1964 for details.  vi EditorThe first class is the vi Editor class.  It's scheduled for June 18th, from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM.  Shell Scripting Level 1An introduction to shell scripting taught in the evening, scheduled for June 3rd and June 5th from 6:00 PM to 9:30 PM.Shell Scripting Level 2Also an evening class, taught June 17th and 19th from 6:00 PM to 9:30 PM.  If anyone is interested in teaching these classes, please let us know as soon as possible.  Inita will be happy to answer any questions, give you an idea as to how the class should be structured, and which books are being used.  Thanks in advance for anyone who signs up! 

May 7, 2008

Looking for A New Car: A Hybrid

This past week has been a beast.  The weekend before, my car would not start.  It just died, with no apparent reason for the problem.  It's a Volkswagen Jetta 2003 TDI.  I've had little problems with it before, but now that the warranty has gone out, I get the major one.  Of course, I'm of the school of thought that it's easier to fix your car than to take it in.  Boy was I wrong.  The last car I had to fix was my Geo Metro, which is more of a toy, and has mostly all mechanical parts.  I loved it, because I could troubleshoot and replace just about anything on that baby.  I was real cut up when the thing finally gave up the ghost, and I needed a new car.  I chose the Volkswagen because they had a good reputation for reliability, and they were filled with the features I was looking for.  Also, they had a Turbo Diesel Injection engine that gets up to 52 mpg with the Jetta (the New Beetle got 60).  That's why I really wanted it.  Sure, diesel was more expensive than regular gas, but I could burn biodiesel. Well, biodiesel hit a snag when I found out about a Salt Lake County law that prohibited the transportation of used cooking oil without a $million insurance policy.  My guess is a company business was being protected from biodiesel hobbyists, but none the less it put a dampener on my plans.  Still, it was cheaper to drive my car than my wife's Subaru, because I got just great mileage.  Well, now the thing will not start, and I have to take it into the shop.  It's not the starter as I originally thought, but something with the electrical equipment.  Add that with my botched attempt to tow the sucker (apparently there isn't a tow hook on the front of the thing), it's going to be rather expensive to get it fixed.  So now I'm looking for a new car.  With the option of biodiesel pretty much null, I need another vehicle with excellent fuel economy, and will be comfortable for me, my wife, my son, and the new baby on the way.  So, I started checking out Hybrids. Now, don't get me wrong, I would rather have another alternative, i.e. electric car, but currently there isn't an electric car option that will give me the range that I need.  The batteries are just not efficient enough (though they may be in the next 5 years).  Hydrogen isn't really an option, because there isn't an environmentally friendly way of creating it in a timely manner.  That, and fuel cells are just too expensive (can't imagine why, with all that platinum).  The Hybrids I checked out were listed on, which is the government's fuel efficiency listing of vehicles.  I was looking for a cost-effective vehicle that would get roughly the same fuel efficiency that I get with my Jetta TDI.  The PriusThe first car I think of when I think Hybrid is the Prius.  At first I thought it was a joke, not getting the fuel efficiency that most other economy vehicles get.  But then I actually took a ride in one.  It's nice, very geeky, and has a great display.  The ride was smooth, and when running just on battery power, it's very silent.  You can also urk more bang for your buck if you let the wheels charge the battery for you.  For those on a hill (like the one here at the U), it's great!  And finally, the fuel efficiency is about 50 mpg on the Highway.  That I like. The CivicThe runner-up is the Honda Civic Hybrid.  It's a little more expensive, gets almost the same mpg, and has roughly the same options.  Why didn't I choose it?  because it's a little more expensive!  I'm a Scot, after all.  ^_^  Other options were looked at, but nothing else came even remotely close.  I looked at GM cars, Ford, and others, but none offered the same level of fuel efficiency as either the Prius or the Civic.  I never thought I would go back to a Japanese car after driving a German one, but it looks like I may.  After all, my Korean vehicle lasted longer than any other car I've had. There is still one thing missing before my wife and I actually get the car, and that is the ability to car-pool.  Once we get that worked out, we will be all set.  It means one of us relocating our work spaces, which could happen soon, and it will not be me.  ^_^ 

May 5, 2008

The Little Things

Today my wife was feeling really bad, and we needed to work out a way for my son to get to school and get home.  So, I took a sick day to take care of my wife and my son.  So I ran to work first to set up the CCNA Bootcamp that started today, and then I ran back home to take my son to school.  Once there, I checked with my son's teacher and told her the results of his psychologist visit.  Jonathan couldn't wait to start playing, and ran right in with the other children.  I then came home, did some yard work, got some Jello for my wife, and then headed back to get my son.  He was sitting on the teacher's lap, and looking at a book!  Now, you may think this isn't a big deal, but my son has no attention span for books as part of his disorder.As we were leaving, he gave his teacher some eye contact.  Eye contact!  He doesn't give people eye contact, as part of his disorder.  This is a huge advancement for him.  It means that he is working through his disorder in order to communicate.  Overjoyed, I brought him home.  He then asked for juice, which he never has before.  His vocabulary is growing, and each day I get more and more excited.  He's spending more time indicating, and less time trying to make me get what he wants.  Of course, he still wants to do things on his own, and I'm still willing to let him dress himself and get his own dinner.  But all things considered, I'm excited that he is willing to include us in his life.

May 4, 2008

Getting a Handle on Professional Training: Cognitive Load

Education is an interesting beast.  Everyone wants to learn as much as possible in as little time as possible, so that they can apply what they have learned right away.  Unfortunately, the human mind doesn't work that way.  Instead the brain keeps your short term memory locked up and passes on only a small portion to your long term memory.  So no matter how much you can technically cram into a small amount of time, only a small portion will be translated to long term memory. So what is a professional trainer to do?  How do you deal with cognitive load while still giving a high-quality and timely education experience?  it's a problem that educators have worked on for generations. I was thinking about this in preparation for a training trip.  I will be participating in training to expand our Mac OS X 10.5 Certification offerings, and I want to be sure that any feedback will be timely and well placed.  So I started reviewing in my mind the events, lectures, and material from the first couple classes I attended. For those couple of people who have been following my blog, you may recall previous posts that covered these events.  The materials have a much better design, and provide a lot of great material.  But that's just the problem:  they have a lot of material.  Both classes have been tight to teach in the allotted time.  Why?  Mostly because the exercises tend to be longer, and there are more details in the topics.  In fact, both classes would do well to have an additional day added to the course format.  So what can we learn from this in terms of cognitive load?  More is not better.  In fact, more is definitely that:  just more.  Instead, the material should be either watered down (so more time can be spent on reinforcing the concepts), or more time should be added to the course. But what's the magic number?  How do you determine the cognitive load distribution for your students?  The best way would be to 1) make your lecture time and exercise time half the total course time, and 2) Multiply the Lecture time and Exercise time by the number of skills and knowledge per sub-task.  This gives you roughly equal time per sub-task for students to focus on.  And finally, 3) take the time of day into consideration:  morning is great for lecture while after lunch is best for an exercise.  Of course, in reality, one doesn't necessarily have complete control on the amount of time the training can take.  Most employers want a content-heavy training so as to decrease the training costs.  So the best thing a trainer can do is provide additional, supplemental information in an external resource.  Online materials are ideal.  Also, continuing discussions long after the training is over is wonderful, if time and resources allow.  With reinforcing materials provided in a central repository (either online or in take away materials), the learners are able to refer back to what they think they recall, but can't quite remember. 

May 1, 2008

The Steampunk Landscape

Steampunk has had my attention for a while now, and fascinated me with their attention to detail.  Steampunk mods for computers have been springing up all over the place, with varying degrees of modification.  The great thing about Steampunk, in my opinion, is that it focuses on the aesthetic, with form and function both being important.  But also, there is a huge focus on technologies that have been abandoned because of varying reasons.  As such, there are very different ideas as to what makes Steampunk "Steam".  Some say it requires the presence of some sort of Steam component, such as a steam engine.  Others say that anything Victorian is fair game.  Still others focus on the gothic and punk aspects with brass and leather thrown in.  The thing is, they are all correct in their assumptions!  Steampunk is still in it's infancy, and more people are finding that they fit in this designation.  To me, Steampunk is characterized by the following: Victorian TechnologyFirst of all, the Steampunk genre is a reflection of the Victorian era, when science and art blended together.  Beautiful creations of brass, iron, steel, and hand-carved wood accent this beautiful period, and meets the craftsmanship of the earlier eras while providing a scientific advance in technology.  The reason why it's called Steampunk is because the primary locomotive method of the time was Steam.  Some may argue that it still is, as all our internal combustion engines use expanding gasses to operate, as do Steam Engines.  And then, there were the early science fiction writers, like Verne and Wells.  While many of their imagined inventions have come to life, others are still in the realms of fantasy.  These men and women were responsible for many advancements because of their imaginations they provided.  And what's more (and arguably more important), they romanticized science by appealing to our most basic nature in discovery.  That is what makes their work just as compelling today as it did in the 19th century.  Adventure and ExplorationI've been a strong supporter of space exploration ever since I saw Star Trek.  I couldn't understand why, or even why the show was appealing to me.  But then it hit:  It's because of the adventure of finding something new.  Growing up my friends and I would try to come up with new ways to travel, if just for that experience in exploration.  Steampunk continues that same experience.  Rudyard Kipling and Egar Rice Burroughs exemplified these feelings of exploration with their books.  Ever since I saw and subsequently read the "Jungle Book" and "Tarzan", I was hooked.  The idea of living in the wild, with new and exciting things around the next tree appealed to me.  And of course, the lack of a lot of people around.  That in particular appealed to me.  ^_^  Exploration and adventure is just something that I feel reflects the spirit of Steampunk, whether it be the adventure of a new land, or the adventure in a new skill.RomanceMy wife will be the first to tell you that I'm not a very romantic person.  I'm not the type that buys flowers (I prefer to grow them myself and cut them for my wife), nor am I the type that likes to watch a romantic comedy (unless it's "While you were Sleeping", where I can watch the kid wipe out on his bike on the sidewalk ^_^).  But I do feel romance and infatuation:  I love my wife in all aspects, and not because of any one characteristic.  And this is the same with Steampunk.  Quality is more important than any one aspect.  Technology that just works is nice, but it has to have the form to go with it.  Would you prefer just plastic, or does a polished Oak finish turn your eye?  Those things that are real, tangible, grounded, physical... these things are of benefit to the Steampunk community because they can be enjoyed beyond the simple function.  The IntangibleHaving just explained the necessity for the tangible, I'm now making an argument for the intangible.  Those forces that are not explained, not understood, and not documented.  Partly supernatural, partly fantastic, the Steampunk genre focuses on the unknown.  From Vampires and wizards to unexplained power sources, Steampunk makes tangible devices that can interact with the intangible.  The Darker Side of SteampunkDisasters, governmental collapse, colonial defense from the "Horde", it's all part of the darker side of Steampunk.  Part Gothic, part Cyberpunk, part "Mad Max", you find that Steampunk can survive well in this situation.  And how?  By building their own machines, generating their own power, being resourceful in dismantling the old and worn out, then breathing new life into it.  AristocracyAnother interesting aspect of Steampunk is it's tendency for Oligarchies or Aristocracies.  Many Steampunk proponents adopt aristocratic names, "Baron", "Dutchess", "von", "Sir", and so on.   This suggests a need to be set apart, above those that are more "common".  Perhaps it's a feeling of elitism, or perhaps it's the need to feel important and unique.  My inclination is to believe the latter.  EducationThose of the Steampunk genre that are not particularly connected to the aristocracy will generally adopt an education title, "Dean", "Professor", "Doctor", and so on.  What is interesting is that most of the Steampunk participants that I know actually hold those titles: a suggestion that the Steampunk genre appeals best to the most educated.  So those are my theories behind the genre of Steampunk.  It's interesting because it appeals to so many people on so many levels, and still manages to create a community around it.  Don't believe me?  Try getting some land in Caledon in Second Life.  This is a Steampunk/Victorian land that is very, very difficult to join.  Once my land is complete, I'll post a link to a friend of mine, Sea Beaumont.  She is building a repository of all things Steampunk, and will be housed across the street from my home in Caledon Downs.So the question you can now ask yourself is whether or not you would fit into the Steampunk genre.  Do you like anything above?  And in particular, do you like to craft anything by hand?  
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