Wednesday, August 09, 2006

New home

If you actually read this blog, reset your bookmarks, RSS feeds, etc. I'm moving over to a blog network hosted by Cole Camplese. The hope is to group a bunch of people with interests in education and computing into a sorta of MOAB (Mother of All Blogs).

New digs are at Come check out the network!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Facebook Meets Administrative Policy AD08

Well, that didn't take long. Here I was setting up a space to teach in Facebook when reporters caught wind of my plans. I don't usually...ok, I never talk to reporters cause whatever gets printed always comes back to haunt. But these were student reporters. They're different...happy to help them learn their trade.

The story broke this morning. And the email starting flowing soon after.

I was told, "Penn State policy AD 08 prohibits use of online services which may be displaying ads. Let's read this closely:

Unless authorized by the Executive Director of University Relations, the placement of non-University advertisements on electronic means of communications using University facilities (i.e., Web sites), is specifically prohibited. (See also Policies FN14, AD20, and AD27.)

I sorta forgot University of Phoenix blasts Facebook with ads. Mostly cause I figured, "who the hell cares about University of Phoenix when they're already enrolled at Penn State?" Truth told, U. Phoenix seems to be a great online program, but their tailgates got nothing on Penn State's (maybe they sit around in Second Life having wild keg parties?).

The big thing for me was seeing how it felt for me and students to have instant access over cell phones (Facebook Mobile). Mobile RSS...just seemed like a neat thing to experiment with, see how students responded to the integration of school and social life. We'll cut the experiment if it violates university policy. After all, rules are made to be broken, but I also got to pick my battles.

So the Facebook experiment is over before it began. Thought it'd be fun, but "P.S.U." ain't spelled "F.U.N."

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Kids and computer literacy

The BBC featured an article on their site last week, The rise of the cyber children. Basically describes a debate concerning when kids should begin using computers and if they gain any benefits from starting at an early age. Some of the interesting nuggets:

1) 4-7 year olds in a London school participating in weekend computer programs. Article says the kids were recently plugging numbers into Microsoft Excel. No doubt: MS Office is one of the killer apps in education.

2) Kids as young as 18 months are being introduced to computers, developing those motor skills that'll let 'em point and click for the rest of their lives (or maybe not...point/click may not be around in 5-10 years, never know). Some quotes from groups saying that traditional computers (mouse, keyboard, display) may not be appropriate for age 1.5-2.5 years.

3) Questions about whether early training makes a difference later in life. No strong evidence presented either way...clearly something researchers will be investigating.

I found this interesting since I have an 18 month old daughter who's been exposed to computers from day one. She actually doesn't know much about the mouse/keyboard or the Web and all the stuff it offers (for better or worse). She still thinks computer displays are where people come to talk to her. We did a lot of (Apple) iChat video conferencing with family over the years. The other night we connected with her aunt, baby girl did her best version of carrying on a conversation.

It's a traditional computer, but we haven't exposed her to all the mousing, double clicking, etc. Not that I believe kids shouldn't touch computers at an early age. In fact, I'd be happy if my girl could start programming with me...I could use some help cranking out projects.

Even if I hadn't shown her a laptop, she (and other kids) are basically surrounded by computers these days. Hit any toy store these days, and you'll find a rack of toys that talk, dance, and respond to kid actions because of their embedded microcontrollers. Leapfrog's Learning Friend™ Lily is one of my daughter's favorites. Press Lily's foot, and she sings this counting song that slowly gets into parents''ll be singing that sucka all day long. No mouse, no keyboard, but Lily certainly has to be considered a computer. And the good thing about her is that everyone get sucked into her singing, making it an interesting prop for socializing with the kiddies.

Same time this article was released, I was polishing off a chapter for a book where I talk about video conferencing and Lily, how they faciliated social connections between my daugher and her grandmother. I'll have to post the chapter once it gets through final edits with MIT Press. I wasn't arguing that kids should or shouldn't get on machines early in life, but I suppose if pressed I'd argue for.

Rather, kids are gonna see various forms of computation early whether parents like it or not (most people's cars are just big computers on wheels these days, never mind your cell phones with the cameras, your microwave ovens, iPods, etc.). If parents/teachers supervise the activities and support kids in learning with the devices...well, they're no different than books. In fact, it's funny that we'd have debates about computers and their effects since we don't seem to question things like crayons, analog dolls (as opposed to digital ones), Legos (and even they've had computational cousins for a long time), etc.

If I put on my "scholar cap," I'd say there needs to be more sociocultural studies of computing in early childhood. Looking to quantify motor development due to playing with a mouse...well, someone must study that stuff, but better them than me. I'm more interested in understanding how parent-child interactions (or older peer, grandparent, etc. interactions) around computing in various form factors might assist social aspects of learning.

But I seriously hope my baby doesn't start using Powerpoint at age 2. That's another story for another posting...

Saturday, July 29, 2006

MS SenseCam

Back in December 05, I mentioned that I was going to get one of Microsoft Research's SenseCams for an experience capture project. Microsoft delayed the release of the hardware, but we got hold of them in late June. I've been wearing it lately to see what it does.

Basic gist. The camera has sensors onboard that trigger image collection. Motion, temperature, light, and objects coming into view are the core sensors. Makes sense...somebody steps into the view of the IR sensor, take a picture of 'em. Big temperature change might mean leaving my air conditioned van ("Big Pimp'n") and entering the heat of State College, PA. If I happen to run like hell in the heat to get to the next air conditioner...well, record that too. In theory, this should lead to the camera catching interesting life events.

The goal of our project is to see whether the camera could do what we've done in past research automatically. We used to have people take pictures of food and exercise, coordinate these with blood glucose readings. Now we want to see if the imaging can be done on the fly. The problem is that the camera can take an enormous amount of images. For instance, the video below was created from 104 pictures taken in 17 minutes (990 pictures were collected during the full three hours of...well, I'll explain that in bit). And, unfortunately, there's no way to know if food is in these images. That is, last I checked there were no ways to extract such information from images.

Luckily, the camera gives access to its sensor data. And with some connections to other sources (like a calendar...those are good places for inferring things like "lunch"), we might be able to point to rough locations of relevant events. The other thing we're investigating is combining the camera with a continuous glucose monitoring system. Cause we really want to pay attention to big sweeps in glucose levels, be able to understand what behaviors may have led to 'em. More soon on that...we hope to have a CGMS next week.

Meanwhile, the video below is me eating dinner at Shannon's 20 year high school reunion. When participants in past studies captured images manually, we weren't always able to see how much of a meal was consumed (unless we asked them to take pics at beginning and end of eating, as we did in several studies). But the SenseCam shows it all, step by step...including the consumption of a certain "Lite" beverage. Most of these seem to have been collected by triggering the IR sensor...hands moving all over the place as I cut and move food to my mouth. Whether this is useful for nutritionists remains to be seen.

The other funny note is that I wore the SenseCam during the reunion without mentioning what it was or what it was doing. Luckily, Shannon is used to my strange experiments, so she went along with it. By end of night someone asked her if it was a camera, and she told 'em it was. But even she didn't say it was recording most of the evening automatically. Like making my own Candid Camera show...with a slight dork factor.

Friday, July 28, 2006


Stop reading now if you don't know what Facebook is. Or maybe keep reading since you must be out of touch with the post-digital world that young people live in.

I set up my Facebook profile awhile ago, curious to see what all the buzz was about. My sister promptly told me that my space needed some serious work since it only had my name back then. I thought I had better things to do then play around filling out my "wall".

After thinking about how students use Facebook to collaborate, I had to give in. My space looks a bit better, although it pales in comparison to those maintained by students. More so, if this is where students go to collaborate, why not use it as a space for teaching?

Penn State and other universities use course/learning management systems (CMS/LMS) all the time to coordinate instruction in and outside of physical classrooms. Our system at PSU is OK, but I really don't think much of it, and I rarely use it. Mostly because it doesn't include RSS feeds to alert me about new content. I haven't figured out how to do that in Facebook yet, but it did send a text message to my cell phone this morning when someone added a comment on my wall. That could get old real quick, but let's conduct an experiment to see if that's true.

I'll try running my human-computer interaction course through Facebook this fall. My TA, Anurag Dalmia, and I are working out the details now. Only got a month before we begin the semester (summer goes too fast). Stand by, we'll be posting our experiences here...good and bad. Seems worth trying. And certainly in the spirit of the ublearnin agenda...go where the people are and figure out ways to use computation to facilitate learning.

Meanwhile, join me on Facebook and add stuff to my wall...I look pretty lonely at the moment.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Reverse Switching, Episode 7: WTF

Our household is in the process of eliminating our last working non-Apple machine. I bought the lady of the house (ok, lady #1 vs. Samantha who's been on a Powerbook since birth) a MacBook for her birthday. I put Parallels on it last night, installed Windows XP. No problems installing. But I kept getting some error whenver I tried Windows Update.

Google is good. After searching around for a long time, I found a way to fix the issue. I had to bless (or what seemed like the Windows equivalent of a unix bless) a bunch of files plus remove some folder. All worked fine. If you're considering a MacBook to run Windows, I highly recommend it. We're expecting more RAM tomorrow, but the thing runs stupid fast as is with 512MB. But I'd never leave a machine with only 512MB of RAM...

Parallels worked so good, I repartitioned my drive away from Bootcamp, installed the virtual machine stuff myself. Got all the way into the Windows install, entered my activation code. Then Windows said, "Hey, you've exceeded the number of installs for this, you're gonna be fucking around with customer service reps all night unless you want to buy a new key for $149."

Wow. I deleted the old install. Even got a new copy of XP for the MacBook (I'm not a software pirate). Still, Microsoft accused me of stealing. So I started the phone calls.

First, I get some machine that asks me to give a 48 digit authentication code. I had to read six digits at a time, I could see the cursor blinking on each group of six...clearly I was being monitored over the network. I read the full thing (took forever as the damned robot lady kept asking me to confirm each group). At the end, the robot lady said she couldn't activate the OS. So she sent me off to a human in The Philippines.

The human only asked for the first six digits of the 48. I assume she was smart enough to see my machine on her side (this bit is scary). After asking me a bunch of questions to see if I was a thief (and again, I'm not, but I'd have surely lied if I was), she read off another 48 digit code that I had to type in.

So I'm up and running again. Parallels is slick. I'm glad I got 40 MB of drive space back for OS X, cause I hope to never go into Windows again. All hell breaks loose everytime I touch the thing. I paid $300 for a copy of XP for my MacBook Pro...then I get questioned when I do a reinstall? What the fuck is that about?! After all, I thought Windows was all about reinstalling every other day...

I'll stick with my XBox 360 when I need a Microsoft fix. That thing works great...people ought to make computers as easy as game platforms.

Friday, June 16, 2006

$100 laptop

I just got back from Boston tonight. Was visiting MIT's Media Lab (my old "home") yesterday, hung out at the offices of One Laptop per Child this morning. Good to see friends in both places...

But this post if all about OLPC's $100 laptop. Got to play with a prototype today, take a look at her guts. Much slicker than I imagined. Tiny machine, perfect for travel (can't help but think Nicholas had mobility in mind given his intense travel schedule). As a dorky dude, I had to marvel at the motherboard that Mark Foster engineered...just as pretty as the laptop's casing.

All that to say a) it's the real deal, b) I want one. You will too when you get to play with one in person...