Peekaboo, I see you!

For a bit of voyeuristic fun, you might like to take a peek at one, or all, of these sites… Twittervision, Flickrvision and Wikipediavision. There is a strange fascination watching them do their thing.

All of these sites tap into the Google Maps API. I mentioned in a previous post about Twitter how an API (Application Programming Interface) can be used to give programmers backdoor access to a particular web app, enabling them to connect into them with another service or application that may or may not have ever been deigned to do so. Think of apps which have open APIs as Lego blocks that can be easily joined together, where the output of one app can be seamlessly plugged into the input of another, so that they talk to each and share data very nicely.

Google Maps in particular have had plenty of interesting uses made of their very open API, and these three examples show you that in action. By using the data coming out of Twitter (the Tweets being made by people), or Flickr (the photos being uploaded by people) or Wikipedia (the edits being made by people) and then feeding that data into the Google mapping API, those events can be made to appear on the map, in near real time. Neat huh? And quite compelling to sit and watch. And just in case you were wondering if it really is “near real time”, I’ve had Twittervision running on one machine while I Twittered on another, and yes, it does appear within a few seconds. Mind you, each event shown on the map is taken as a random selection from all the events that happened in the last few seconds, shown as the number (I assume) indicated at the top of the map…

One of the scarier uses of the Google mapping service is the Florida Sexual Predator service. I’m having trouble getting it to load right now so maybe they’ve pulled it, or maybe it’s just under load, but it’s a pretty controversial use of the API. Apparently someone has managed to plug the Google Mapping API into a database of known sexual predators from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The result is a map of the Florida area which clearly marks the exact location where all these sex predators live. Clicking on each marker reveals a full bio of these scary looking dudes. It’s quite chilling, and is a great conversation starter with kids when you begin to talk about how data can be used and where the lines might be between ethical and unethical uses of data. I’d certainly hope the database is kept up to date though, because I’m not sure how I’d feel if I moved into an apartment where the previous inhabitant was one of these guys and the database was not yet updated…  no wonder the neighbours are looking at me strangely!

It’s an interesting world we live in…

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Meet the $100 Laptop

During the second plenary session at the AIS conference today, I was looking forward to hearing Pia Waugh speak. Pia is co-owner of Waugh Partners, vice-president of Linux Australia, and a huge advocate for both Linux and the Open Source Software movement generally. I met Pia last month at the CSTA meeting where we were both speaking, and I had a great chat to her over dinner about all sorts of things that any normal person would probably consider geeky in the extreme. Pia is a super smart lady and very passionate about the whole Open Source movement, so I really enjoyed talking with her that night.

When I saw her in the auditorium today before her session I went to say hi, and was pretty surprised to see her holding a little green and white plastic device in her hands… after the initial g’days were exchanged, I said “Is that what I think it is?” She gave me a big grin, and said “yep!”

Pia had managed to get herself one of the “$100 laptops” that MIT has been working on. For those that don’t know, the “$100 laptop”, or more correctly known as the One Laptop Per Child project, is an initiative started a few years ago by Nicholas Negroponte from the MIT’s Media Lab, with an aim to get computers into the hands of Third World children. By employing clever, simple design and open technologies Negroponte’s dream is starting to come true, with the first shipments of OLPC laptops being delivered this year. They are not quite down to $100 each yet, but are getting closer… Pia said they are being produced for about $170 at the moment.

I was fascinated to be able to have a look at this little device. It’s got a very “Fischer Price” feel to it, with shiny green and white plastic, funny little wireless antennas that stick up, and a cute little keyboard and screen. But underlying the toyish look is some sophisticated – and open – technology. It runs Redhat Linux as the operating system, and comes with an innovative user interface called Sugar. Sugar does not try to model itself on the more traditional WIMP-style UI such as that found in Windows-style interfaces, but instead was designed to answer the question “What would a user interface look like for a child who has never seen a computer before?” It’s cute, very different, and very intuitive. I had a little play, but had to hand it back all too soon so Pia could deliver her presentation.

During lunch however, I spotted Pia again and she let me take the OLPC for an extended play. I wandered over to Bryn Jones’ table and the two of us had a chance to check it out a bit further. I was pretty impressed to be able to get so much hands-on with it, as these things are still very hard to come by unless you are a child in one of the targeted countries. Pretty much the entire production run is going to the kids, and the only reason Pia had one was because she helped do some development work for it. I felt pretty lucky to be able to see and use one, as I don’t imagine too many other people have had the chance.

With built in wifi, mesh networking, longlife battery, tablet or laptop mode, built-in speakers and microphone, USB ports, SD slot, flash-based storage drive, wireless web access, music composition software, notetaking software, and a bunch of other built in apps, it really is a very interesting piece of hardware! Thanks for sharing Pia!

PS. Look forward to hearing Pia as a special guest on the Virtual Staffroom very soon.

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My Podcasting Workflow

For a while now, ever since I’ve been producing The Virtual Staffroom podcast, I’ve been meaning to blog about the workflow I’ve developed for producing it. After a lot of trial and error, and making plenty of mistakes, I’d started getting a system happening on the best way to put the podcast together.

Then along comes the new GarageBand as part of iLife ’08 and all that changed. Normally I don’t like it when my systems get disrupted, but in this case I am thrilled about the changes as it reduces the steps needed to make a podcast considerably. Added to that are some configuration changes I made to the way I capture the audio, and I reckon I can now do better quality recordings at much smaller filesizes with far less effort, so it’s win-win all round.

For anyone that might be interested, here are the tools and the workflow I plan on using from now on to create podcasts. I’ve got another podcast interview lined up for tomorrow night so I’m excited about these new workflows.

Firstly, I record my interviews using Skype. I use a decent USB headset microphone, a Logitech 250… I had a 350 but it broke, and the 250 was cheaper with the same audio specs. With Skype I can call to another computer anywhere in the world, but I can also call to a telephone line as well, so either works fine. Skype also let me do multiparty calls, so it can be several people online in the chat at once.

To record the call I use Audio Hijack Pro. I used to use Call Recorder which is one-button easy, but it can be a bit flaky and drop out at times. It’s mostly reliable, but for podcast interview mostly reliable is not acceptable of course… I once did an hour long interview with Luc Zwartjes from Belgium only find that Call recorder crapped out and dropped the whole recording. Not happy, and I felt very embarrased to have to let Luc know about it, although he was gracious enough to record it again with me. From then on I have always used both Call Recorder and Audio Hijack together, but have since decided that Audio Hijack is good enough just on it’s own.

What I like about Audio Hijack is the way you can capture the audio of the call to AIFF format. I never realised this for a long time and was capturing to MP3 and using Quicktime Pro to convert it to AIFF, but I’ve since discovered that I can go directly to AIFF which simplifies things a lot. The other advantage is that I can choose the bitrate and mono/stereo setting, which can bring the file size down a lot. I currently record using AIIF format, 16 bit, Auto Sample rate, Mono and it seems to work really well. Recording in mono halves the filesize of stereo.

Once I record, I drag the AIFF file to The Levelator. This simple and easy to use tool runs a very complex analysis of the file and applies compression and normalisation filters to the audio. This fixes any overly quiet or loud bits and makes it sound much better. If I wasn’t fussy, I could leave this step out, but I think it’s worth doing for the better audio quality.

Once I get the adjusted AIFF file out of Levelator I drag it into a new podcast episode in GarageBand. I really like Garageband as an editor and find it simple to use and easy to shuffle audio tracks around, make edit points, add multitracks, etc. I also add the tops and tails to the interview directly in GarageBand, and well as any music, sound effects, etc.

The big news in GarageBand ’08 is that you can now export directly out in MP3 format. This is great… prior to this I had to export out as an M4A file and then use Quicktime Pro again to convert it to an MP3… it was an extra step and made it hard to work in mono. The new export dialog in GarageBand has all the features that a podcaster could want… I set mine to MP3, 64kbps, Medium High VBR and Mono. The sound quality in the tests I’ve done is really good, and the filesizes are way down on the older episodes.

Finally, I use Podcast Maker to add my metadata, shownotes, XML data and album artwork, and in one click upload it to the Virtual Staffroom server. Podcast Maker generates all the required XML and RSS feeds very nicely. It’s a wonderful tool.

So there you have it… it might sound complicated but it’s not really, and this new workflow is way more simplified than the previous method I used to use. Apple has really listened to podcasters and added just the right features into the new GarageBand. Combined with the extra tools like Skype, Audio Hijack, Levelator and Podcast Maker, making podcasts has never been easier!

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A Series of Tubes

I’ve been having a bit of a play with YouTube lately… not just as a consumer of content, but in true spirit of Web 2.0, as a contributor of content. It’s a pretty cool site and it’s easy to while away the minutes, er, hours, browsing through their stuff.

I was really interested to find that Apple’s totally rewritten new version of iMovie has built in support for adding videos to YouTube. It is nicely integrated too… as you finish working on your movie (using the new interface, which could be the topic of a whole other blog post), you just select YouTube from the Share menu and iMovie does all the digital origami required to package up your masterpiece into the appropriate formats and compression ratios to send it up to the ‘Tube. It’s very neat. It prompts you to add the relevant metadata and tags, and does a fairly efficient job of rendering and converting the file, then uploading it.

As a test, I edited together this little production last night using some Mac vs PC ads I just happened to have laying about on my hard drive. The process is easy, they imported into iMovie very simply, the new workflow is interesting and newbie video editors will probably love it, and the whole thing was put together in a very short timeframe.

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I thought it was fascinating to realise how many of these Mac vs PC ads have been made, and to see just how diverse they are.

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A Bit of iPhone Love

The web is a really bizarre place sometimes. But this story proves that real life can always be more bizarre…

In case you have been living under a rock lately, Apple is about to release a fairly major product called the iPhone. It’s a mobile phone of course, but it also does email, voicemail, web browsing as well as being a pretty darn amazing video iPod as well. Although many other phones from companies like Nokia and Sony Ericsson offer similar features, the iPhone seems to have a much greater emphasis on design and usability, as only Apple seems to be able to do.

Obviously the tech world thinks the iPhone will be a big deal because since the announcement of the device back at MacWorld last year, Apple’s share price has gone through the roof, rising from about $70 per share to the $125 price it is sitting on at the moment. Whatever Apple is doing with the iPhone, it seems to be attracting the right kind of attention. There is a ridiculous amount of commentary on the iPhone, both in the regular press and also in the blogosphere, with many blog posts, news articles, and even podcasts devoted solely to it.

And it is a pretty impressive looking device to be sure. If you are the type who is into techno-toys, the iPhone is the type of device that will most likely be giving you a woody about now. The iPhone is officially released at 6:00pm EST on Friday 29th june. It’s sleek and sexy and I certainly wouldn’t mind one myself.

But it seems there is this guy called Greg Packer who would also really like one. I mean, he would REALLY like one. In fact, he would like one so much that he has decided to camp out in front of Apple’s flagship New York City store five days in advance. That’s a pretty dedicated approach to getting an iPhone. He is currently first in line, and attracting quite a bit of attention for doing so, but not all of it is good attention.

Packer is parked out in front of the beautiful glass cube that sits atop Apple’s Fifth Avenue store in NYC. Because he is intent on staying in line for the next 100+ hours, he is asking passers-by for donations of food and money to tide him over. He is apparently using the toilet facilities inside the Apple Store, which is open 24/7. (I can’t help wondering, if the store is open 24/7, why doesn’t he just stay inside the store?) While he waits outside the store, collecting donations, he is also taking phone calls from interested journalists and blogging about his situation, and of course he is also asking for donations via PayPal on his blog as well.

At first, this might seem fairly harmless, albeit a little nutso. But after reading through the 160+ comments left on his latest blog post, there is a whole other perspective to this story. Take a look at some examples of the comments left for Mr Packer and you’ll see what I mean…

I really don’t know where to start with you, you ignorant moron. I’ve no problem at all with you sleeping in a queue to get an iPhone (I’d like one myself). But asking people for food donations on the street, and ASKING FOR MONEY ON PAYPAL!!!!!!! So you’ve got a house and $500 to spare, and yet you’re sleeping on the street and asking for food and money. Moron. Moron. er, Moron!

There are hundreds of thousands living on the streets of the world, and many more millions living in poverty. None of them do this by choice. Yet you think that we should help you to survive your week at the front of a queue which basically screams ‘me, me, me! I’m a greedy consumer moron, and I want your attention’. You got it. Hope it shames you.

…and this one…

People are watching family members dying from starvation and you’re trying to raise money to eat shitty chips and sit on your ass for a piece of plastic? I think a re-evaluation of priorities is in order.

…or this one…

Dude – asking for donations while you sit in line to pay $600 for a telephone (albeit a very cool telephone) is offensive. If people are stupid enough to pay you… to sit in line… for four days … to buy aphone… for yourself… wait I take it back – you’re a genius and it’s never wrong to separate a fool from his money. Godspeed, brave iphone-waiting-in-line-genius-guy!

…and just for a bit of balance, there’s this one…

Well this blog says more about the people who are posting than Greg.

For the haters and abusive posters – The guy wants to spend HIS time queuing. Leaping in with abuse says much more about you than it does about him. Not everyone in the world thinks like you. Thank God.

For the moral majority – if you really cared about the homeless, the starving or the 50% of the world who don’t have access to a phone you would be out there doing something about it and not posting on here. You are just as selfish as Greg but at least he’s being honest.

For the jealous posters – YOU are the ones who need to think about getting a life. Owning things cannot make you cool, or buy you genuine friends. If you need gadgets to fulfill your life or give you some sense of identity then you REALLY are missing the point.

Greg, have a nice time in the line, if this is how you wanna spend your days good on ya, interesting people make the world more interesting.

And then the story takes an interesting twist. It appears that Greg Packer is pretty good at waiting in lines and getting media attention. One of the commenters on his blog points to an article in Wikipedia about him, which reads, in part…

Greg Packer (born December 18, 1963), an American highway maintenance worker from Huntington, New York, has been quoted in more than 100 articles and television broadcasts as a member of the public (that is, a person on the street rather than a newsmaker or expert).

Packer’s status as a frequent interviewee came about due to his hobby of attending public appearances of celebrities and other media events and being first in line on such occasions. He has consequently had the opportunity to meet people ranging from Mariah Carey to Garth Brooks to Dennis Rodman to Ringo Starr, and at least three presidents of the United States: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

According to a 2002 article about Packer, “He was first in the line to see ground zero when the viewing platform opened at the World Trade Center site December 30, 2001. He was the first in line in 1997 to sign the condolence book at the British consulate when Princess Diana died. He slept outside in the snow in Washington in January 2001 to be the first in line to greet President George W. Bush after his inauguration.”

Now, while the Wikipeida article could always be fabricated I suppose, the article history seems to extend back at least a year or so, so it doesn’t appear to be made up in the last few days. At least on the outside, it does seem that Greg Packer is a professional Line Sitter and Public Media Person.

So yeah… I’m not sure what I find most bizarre in this whole thing. The fact that a huge media ecosystem has sprung up surrounding a new cell phone release. Or that someone is willing to spend 5 days of their life sitting in a line waiting to get one. Or that this person does this sort of thing all the time to get attention. Or the fact that so many people go to so much effort commenting on his blog with such indignation at what he is doing.

Or even that I just spent an hour reading and writing about the whole thing. What on earth did we do to amuse ourselves before the Internet came along?

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More Tagging, Less Bookmarking

I had a little spare time tonight so I decided to do a job that I’ve been meaning to do for a while… cleaning up my bookmarks collection. (What’s up with that? I can live in a house that’s messy, my desk at work looks like a bomb has hit it, but my hard drive is really well organised… go figure!)

I mentioned recently that I’ve been using Flock as my main browser these days… mainly because it has a bunch of wonderful built-in features that seem really sensible, but I can’t help wondering why the bookmark organisation is set up like it is. One of the many nice things about Firefox, or even IE for that matter, is that you can arrange your collection of bookmarks/favourites into folders and subfolders. This is largely a very good thing, although I did notice I tended to get just a little over-organised at times and I had a large number of folders that had only one item in them, which is perhaps getting just a tad granular.

But I did have a lot of top-level folders with subfolders in them and it was, by and large, quite well organised.  So for example, in the folder labeled “Education”, there were subfolders for, say, “Literacy”, “Contructivism”. “Gifted Education”, and so on. The problem was that I often tended to forget what I put in these folders, and that sometimes I would find an interesting site and go to bookmark it for later use without realising I already had a sub folder catergory set up that was suitable. Over time, this led to quite a bit of duplication and disarray.

Flock however, does not support this subfoldering approach. Although Flock can imports bookmarks directly from Firefox, when you go to the bookmark organiser you only get a top-level folder for each category you imported, (including the stuff that was originally in subfolders).  In other words, every folder, no matter what level it was when it was imported, now becomes a top-level folder. This meant I ended up with LOTS of top level folders, in fact way too many to be sensibly managed. I’ve been spending some time tonight going through them and realising that many bookmarks have been linkrotted, some are just plain irrelevant, and most can be found quicker on Google than I can find them in my bookmark collection.

I’m finding that Google has changed the need to bookmark everything. If I want to find a site that I am after, it’s usually a simpler proposition just to Google it.

I’m also learning that tagging a bookmark is generally better than filing it, but I must admit I’m still really just starting to get my head around the tagging concept. I mean, I get it, but I’m still figuring out excatly how to organise things to get the best leverage out of the tagging system.

The really big plus for using Flock as my browser is that it has a very seamless integration with del.icio.us, so I can  bookmark both locally AND to the web. Firefox can do the same sort of thing by using an Add-On, but I do like the way it’s organised right inside of Flock.. that, and the built in Flickr uploader and web clippings make it a really useful tool.

Edublogs now has a neat plugin tool that lets me embed my del.icio.us feed directly to this blog page. I’ve currently added it as the last webpart on the right column, so scroll down a bit and you can see a list of the last few sites I’ve bookmarked. I’m not sure why sharing my favourite websites with the world is a good thing, but I guess I’ll do it anyway.

Anyway, I’m off to figure out how tagging works!

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Blogged with Flock

Not even scratching the Surface

Ok, I must admit I’m impressed by Microsoft’s new table-like project called Surface, which Bill G has been showing off lately. It’s a multitouch capable computer that works in a table form factor. There are some obvious uses of it, like restaurants, casinos, etc where transactions take place largely on a table. I don’t know how commercially successful it will be but I think it’s a pretty cool technology!

Watch the video and check it out for yourself…  I particularly like the way it interacts with devices like digital cameras and PDAs.  I presume those devices would have to have some form of wireless interconnectivity such as Bluetooth or Wifi?  Very cool though!

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