Wednesday, May 28, 2008

An Analog Computer Clock

Every so often I like to highlight some technology that is just plain cool. The clock below is one such.

Michael Scherotter created this watch image using a very high end, very sharp looking watch with permission of the manufacturer. While I typically do not wear a watch I do have an appreciation for them. Digital watches are just plain boring while high end watches like the Ball are as much works of art as they are examples of fine engineering. So taking the looks of the watch and replacing the “works” behind it with a computer code is interesting. It may not be as portable or even as accurate (computer clocks are notoriously inaccurate) but it is a really cool clock for a computer desktop.

Michael has written a blog post about how he created this application that makes interesting reading. The purpose of this project was largely to show what can be done with Silverlight. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more cool Silverlight applications as the newer versions are released.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Who Cares How Fast the Code Is?

Ironically one of the problems teachers can have with teaching about optimizing programs is that computers are a) so fast now and b) getting faster all the time. Students often do not see the need to create more efficient algorithms because they assume that what they have is fast enough and if it isn’t then the next computer they buy will “fix” the problem by being faster. And truth be told with most of the toy programs we are forced to use in a classroom situation (not enough time for really large complicated projects) things do work out that way. But real life is more complicated then that. So we really owe it to students to discuss code optimization (and refactoring which is closely related.)

I’ve had a couple of conversations with students over the years that basically took the form of “yeah it is slow but it works and I’ll never need to run it again.” There is some logic to that of course. I once had a program that I ran maybe once a week. I had thrown it together in a hurry to meet an immediate need. Once I realized I would need it more often I also realized that it was very inefficient. I saw several ways that it could be a lot faster. But I did some math. It took about a minute too long (it could possibly run in seconds) and it would take me at least an hour to re-write it. Was I going to run it 60 times? Probably not so where was the payback for my time? I did get a new computer shortly there after which was fast enough that the run time was cut in half so now the payback time was 120 more runs – so it would really cost me more time to fix then it would save me. That sort of math takes place more than many would think by the way. But sometimes it comes out very differently.

Sometimes the issue is around applications that really need to be fast. Other times it is around hardware that has some limitations that have to be taken into account because changing the hardware is not an option. Cy Khormaee recently talked to Paul Oliver of Legendary Studios to come up with a list of optimizations that should be taken into account when creating games for the Zune device. The Zune was designed as a music player not a game device. Since XNA Game Studio 3.0 (now available in preview) lets programmers create games for the Zune this creates an interesting learning opportunity. Specifically the hardware limitations have to be taken into account if one wants to create a game that performs well enough for people to really enjoy. This is an opportunity to have a real “teachable moment.” The list Paul and Cy have makes for a good read and the start of some interesting discussions.

Also on performance, Dare Obasanjo, who deals with some very large data intensive social networking applications, took a look at some scaling problems with Twitter recently on his blog. He examines how basic design choices can make the difference between an application that really works and one that collapses under the weight of input/output needs. This is a discussion worth reading about as students consider that many of the most important applications revolve around how data is saved and retrieved.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Microsoft Education Team Blogs

The Microsoft Education US Specialist Team just started there own blog. This is the technical team that supports Microsoft’s pre-sales efforts to education. The blog itself should be interesting and there are a couple of introductory posts there already. One of the other useful things they have is one of the most complete lists of education related blogs by Microsoft people I have ever seen. It’s a world wide bunch with a number in the United Kingdom and at least one in Australia. There list is below.


  • It's all about edU
  • Off Campus
  • UC in Education blog
  • Higher Education Tech NE
  • Higher Education Tech Mid-Atlantic
  • Kevinsul's Mgmt Blog
  • Cool stuff and happenings for HiEd
  • HiED West Region News
  • Application Platform and Development Tools
  • A Work-Life Balance
  • Computer Science Teacher
  • Dan on eScience & Technical Computing @ Microsoft
  • Academic Care Blog
  • Microsoft Belfast - School Technology Innovation Centre (STIC)
  • UK Live@edu Blog
  • The UK Higher Education Blog
  • Microsoft UK Schools News Blog
  • The UK Further Education Blog
  • UK Academic Team Blog
  • OneNote and Education
  • Higher !nnovation
  • Thursday, May 22, 2008

    New Developments in XNA Resources

    Well the big announcement at the XNA Blog this week was the new community games option now available at XBOX Live. Well that and the new redesign and other extra added features of the XNA Creators Club site. It’s pretty interesting that premium members will now be able to create games, submit them for community review and then inclusion in XBOX Live Marketplace.  But for me the best part was the added new content and redesign of the educational area.

    The XNA Creators Club educational content catalog includes utilities, sample code, and starter kits for people to use to learn how to use XNA and some of the concepts that are most important for console game development. Me? I particularly like the new role playing game starter kit.

    Oh and speaking of content and links, Cy Khormaee has been having a guest blogger at his blog. Paul Oliver of Legendary Studios has been blogging there about his activity converting an XNA game to run on the Zune device. Interesting reading.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008

    Some New Education Technology Blogs

    A couple of people I know and respect have jumped into the blogosphere in the last week or so. They have both been helpful to me with information and support so I wanted to give them a shout out – a little link love in blogger terms.

    Mike Tholfsen and his team at OneNote have kicked off the OneNote and Education blog. I linked to an interview with Mike (see it here) last January. In that post I introduced Mike in part with “Mike is the OneNote Ninja - there is not much about OneNote he doesn't know. But Mike also has a passion for education and where OneNote and education mix (which they do very well) Mike is nothing short of The Man.” This blog is new and there isn’t much there yet but I predict it will be great for anyone looking at improving the way students do note taking with OneNote. And I would expect Mike to come up with some innovative ideas that not everyone would think about.

    The other new blog I would like to recommend to you is EDUFun by Erik Leaseburg. Erik’s “goal for this blog is to allow parents, students, teachers/professors and administrators to share questions, ideas and resources on effective and fun uses of technology in and outside the classroom to facilitate life-long learning. “ He’s already posted on things like the new Worldwide Telescope, RoboChamps and Popfly Game Creator. It may be a race between us to see who can find and post the fun educational technology links first. Game on!

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008

    Schools As Communication Free Zones

    I have this general policy that when I don’t have anything to say I don’t say anything. OK I admit that I have trouble sticking to that policy sometimes. And at the same time I tend to be rather opinionated which means I often have a lot to say – which may or may not be a good thing. And while I do occasionally editorialize on this blog I have been trying to be more objective and resource sharing in my blogging here. But I find myself more and more frustrated with the state of online censorship within schools. So I’m going to rant a bit.

    Do we really  believe that students in school should be seen and not heard? Do we really believe that the only means of communication students should have with the world (or their friends) is voice communication in strictly supervised situations? Do we really believe that we are doing students favors by not letting them reach the social aspects of the Internet? Do we really believe that online chat and discussion sites are pure evil?

    A couple of events have brought this home lately. First was a couple of talks I gave as schools recently. One at a college had a couple of my demos not work because the web sites were blocked. The students were unsurprised and their response indicated that they thought it reflected poorly on the college than on me. A week later I gave a workshop at a high school and the tech person had done a good job of checking the sites I needed (even without me asking) to whitelist or otherwise unblock them. Of course the unplanned part of my demo that tried to use Facebook died at the firewall.

    Then last week a teacher reported that the RoboChamps web site was being blocked at his school as a “social networking site.” (details here on why I thought it good for schools) Seems weird to me but, well, what do I know? I wonder how many online help forums for technical and other educational discussions are being blocked as social networking sites? Speaking of social networking blockage, this morning teachers on Twitter were talking about ways to get to Twitter from school when Twitter is blocked and Netvibes is now blocked.

    I’m seeing a lot of interaction among teachers on Twitter these days BTW. (I’m at if anyone is interested) Students still seem to be oblivious to Twitter though. I’ve heard a lot of tails of blog sites being blocked at schools as well. Given how isolated many teachers, especially tech teachers, feel in their schools this interaction online seems like a great thing to me. Something to be facilitated and perhaps even taught rather than something to block at all costs.

    Why is social networking seen as automatically evil these days? Evil sexual predators? Come on – we know that students are more at risk at home than online. By about an order of magnitude. Is it the distraction? Sounds like a classroom management problem to me. Well they might put up something bad – what ever bad means. Are they really more likely to be “bad” at school then in the privacy of their bedrooms later that same day? I don’t think so. Aren’t we really missing some good educational opportunities?

    There are teachers doing creative and inspiring projects using blogs, wikis, Skype, and other web 2.0 tools. If kids are going to create videos for YouTube why not have them create and share educational videos? If they are going to write about their feelings why not use online journals (perhaps inside a school firewall) and other online publishing tools to let them create for the media they live in? Why can’t we take advantage of the teachable moments (and tools) of student activity rather than let them mess things up on their own?

    I blame administrators as much as anything. Followed closely behind by parents. People who don’t understand the web, don’t want to understand the web, and are just looking for the easy way out to make it look like they are doing something. Oh they are not all like that. There are many great innovative administrators and enlightened parents. But they are not the ones doing all the yelling and screaming. In the end it comes down to making life easy and appearing to do something.

    One last comment, the students are blowing through the filters as if they were not even there. Anyone who believes otherwise is only fooling themselves. Do you think students are not laughing themselves silly at getting to sites they know their teachers can’t get to? How much does that do for teaching respect for teachers, schools and authority in general?

    Thursday, May 15, 2008

    World Wide Telescope

    The other day Microsoft Research released their WorldWide Telescope application. This application uses imagery from a number of telescopes both on earth and in space to provide a way to look at the sky that is very easy and impressive. The navigation is very smooth and easy. You can also zoom in and out using a scroll wheel. I understand that there is a lot of imagery from the Mars rovers there so if you want to look around Mars in some detail you can.

    The New York Times had an article about this and I like this quote:

    There are many online astronomy sites, but astronomers say the Microsoft entry sets a new standard in three-dimensional representation of vast amounts data plucked from space telescopes, the ease of navigation, the visual experience and features like guided tours narrated by experts.

    “Exploring the virtual universe is incredibly smooth and seamless like a top-of-the-line computer game, but also the science is correct,” said Alexander Szalay, a professor of astronomy and physics at Johns Hopkins. “No sacrifices have been made. It just feels as if you are in it.”

    Getting the science right was important to the researchers who created this. The project leads are amateur astronomers with a serious interest in the topic. The WorldWide Telescope is sort of like having a planetarium on your computer screen. I’ve had a lot of fun using it this week and I expect to use it to help me find things in the night sky to view live as well.

    You can also view tours that others have created or even create your own. Also if you are one of those very serious people with a telescope that can be connected and controlled by a computer there is software to connect your telescope to this software see live what you are looking at recorded on the screen. If you have any interest in the night sky at all this is one application you’ll want to install. If you are teaching astronomy I can’t see how you’d want to live without it.