Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Education, games, the social, semantic web & open source

This article is on the longish side, as I have had many ideas which have been bouncing around in my head for years now that had to be side-lined so that I could finish writing my PhD dissertation. Now, some 90,000 words / 356 pages later, the book I wrote on my PhD research is finished and the “book” on open-source design has been re-opened. Please do write back with your thoughts, suggestions, criticism and counter-arguments as it really does help me to have on-going discussions about these ideas.

For years now on my personal web page, I’ve had a teaser challenging you to invent with me new ways to transform good ideas and important research generated in academia and non-profit research groups into products that are easily accessible and affordable to the world markets that need them.

I’ve asked you to help me come up with new ways to do collaborative, “open source” design that can be personal, compelling and meaningful, and provide utility to underserved segments of our world.

But what exactly am I proposing? What do we mean when we talk about “open source” design?

The basic premise of what I’m proposing is that ideas are becoming commodities and what will be important in the future will be how we synthesise ideas together into actions, hopefully to do good in the world. Open exchange of ideas and designs can help promote this, and games may provide that extra motivating factor. But more on that later.

Commodification as a catalyst for change

To set the stage, perhaps I can refer you to some ideas in an article written by Tim O’Reilly in 2004 that has influenced my thinking quite a bit.

Entitled “Open Source Paradigm Shift”, it is about how the commodification of predecessor “things” in the computer world has enabled rapid development of the “next big thing” in not gradual, but punctuated-equilibrium style shifts.

According to O’Reilly, we have seen this in the past with the standardisation and commodification of computer hardware when IBM introduced the personal computer in 1981.

Before the IBM PC, almost every computer had different proprietary architectures that used different processors and chipsets. Software developers had trouble establishing a foothold in the marketplace because it was a nightmare to develop for so many different hardware platforms — the market simply was too fragmented.

The standardisation and commodification of computer hardware empowered software developers to focus on what software could do best, and not on the tedious details of how to port applications to multiple hardware platforms.

Software developers like Microsoft, Sun and Oracle flourished and became the dominant movers and shakers in the industry. Hardware standardisation allowed the focus to shift to software.

And while IBM started the hardware standardisation revolution, it failed to recognise that hardware had become a commodity. It took Michael Dell to capitalise on this paradigm shift to become the dominant PC hardware manufacturer, and eventually push IBM out of the PC hardware business altogether.

Similarly, according to O’Reilly, the development of web standards like HTML, CSS and Javascript, yes through W3C, but also in large part to the huge Internet Explorer user base established by Microsoft through the tying of IE to Microsoft Windows, has led to a similar standardisation and commodification of software.

The web and the internet, and not computer OSs, have become the dominant platform, and the specific software you use does not matter so much. Software commodification has allowed the focus to shift to services, content and communities.

Yes, there are rendering differences between different browsers. But for all intents and purposes, a web page or AJAX application rendered in Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari or Internet Explorer served up by Apache/MySQL or Microsoft IIS/Microsoft SQL server is all the same to the end user.

What people do with software — create communities that sell, trade, report, criticise and educate — the content that people create — is what is important.

O’Reilly pointed out that while most people, when asked, claim not to have used Linux before, in fact everyone uses Linux daily when they log into and use a Google service. Users are software agnostic as long as they can access the online services and communities they want.

Similar to the case of IBM and Dell, Google and Facebook have become the dominant forces on the web because they recognised the importance of Web 2.0, and Microsoft is playing a huge game of catch-up because of their past focus on pre-shift software paradigms.

The commodification of ideas

So what does this all mean and how does it relate to “open source” design?

Well, the premise of what I am suggesting is that eventually ideas and content generated by communities will become commodities themselves, and what then is important will be how we can synthesise these ideas to have an impact on the virtual world and back in the real world.

In an environment where Moore’s Law holds true, this does not seem to me to be so far off into the distant future. In fact, we already are beginning to see signs of this happening now.

For example, what is Web 3.0 and the semantic web but an effort to liberate ideas from the “proprietary” silos of specific websites?

By adding machine-readable semantic meta-tags and providing context for user and publisher generated content, we are allowing search engines and meta-analyses to derive and synthesise meaning from large collections of content across websites.

Also, open specifications for migration of data between services and software help to knock down the barriers to the free flowing of information.

The recent privacy failures of Facebook and some of the responses to liberate social data through open standards and open software are signs that data wants to be free.

Even Microsoft’s integration of Facebook and LinkedIn into Outlook and Live Messenger is a sign that they too recognise the importance of knocking down barriers to information exchange. In their case, this exchange was established through business relationships rather than open standards.

Trending topics in Twitter and upcoming news in Google Buzz are only the tip of the iceberg for what you can synthesise from commodity user-generated content.

This premise, by no means, is unique as it probably was hinted at in O’Reilly’s article as well as by other internet thought leaders on the web.

But, to use Nicholas Negroponte’s terms, their focus seems to be primarily on the internet and on “bits” while I maintain that we need to focus on “atoms” as well.

This coming revolution is relevant to and might help us solve messy, real-world, analogue problems in addition to solving virtual, digital problems.

The power of communities for real world impact

Technology in the service of people can be a great force multiplier indeed. Communities can be mobilised through the internet to do great things.

Clay Shirky recently gave a talk at TED 2010 about “How cognitive surplus will change the world”. He described how if all the spare brainpower of all the people in the world were utilised fully, we could change the world many times over.

Crowd-sourcing for real world effect can actually work. Shirky highlighed Ushahidi as an example of successful crowd-sourcing and using Web 2.0 to make a difference in the world.

Ushahidi is a crowd-sourced geographic information system that was used to validate, map and report violence in Kenya in 2008. Since the code has been released as open-source, the system has been used to track the post-earthquake crisis response in Haiti and visualise the spread of the Swine Flu epidemic.

Kiva is another example of successful crowd-sourcing to help change the world. This non-profit matches microloans provided by private lenders with entrepreneurs (usually of low-income) looking to improve their lives.

Kopernik is a non-profit that tries to match tech seekers, tech providers and financial supporters to deliver innovative technologies to poor communities. Their success stories include the distribution of self-adjustable lenses in glasses to a poor community in Indonesia.

Kickstarter is a for-profit company that helps people crowd-source funding for a variety of projects ranging from the artistic to the charitable to the commercial. People can list the project they are trying to fund and set a fundraising goal. If they are able to collect enough pledges, the project is funded minus a 5% fee for the service. Recent, successfully funded projects include Diaspora* and

Quirky is a for-profit company that crowd-sources product development for both the ideation/development side and the selection/production side. Users pledge to purchase the product concepts contributed by other users, gaining reputation and achievements for picking successful products. Highly rated concepts are placed into limited-run production by Quirky and sold to users in the Quirky store, and profits are shared with the inventors.

Collaborative education

Education, too, has benefited greatly from crowd-sourcing and community-based collaboration.

While education traditionally has been thought of as a top-down activity, a “client-server” interaction with a master/teacher/mentor providing instruction and training to an apprentice/student/trainee, collaborative educational media might be considered to be a form of “peer-to-peer” education in which peers in a community contribute to educating each other.

A number of successful collaborative “educational” systems have been developed, and you might know them as Wikipedia, Stack Overflow and Moodle.

Even and the open-source movement taken as a whole might be considered to be a form of community-based work education in which people learn by contributing to the development of specific pieces of free software.

The promise of open source design


“Design in a social context.”

“Technology in the service of people.”

“Community service in the digital era.”

“Atoms AND Bits.”

Can we apply the trends and ideas and services that have been so well articulated in the world of BITS to the world of ATOMS?

Originally, my focus was on figuring out ways to create an alternative pathway for developing medical devices in an “open-source” manner, in a manner similar to Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation and how open source software is developed.

Not to compete with corporations — they provide a much needed function for society — but to augment their capabilities with a parallel development track for underfunded areas where help is sorely needed.

But development of medical devices is hard nut to crack, specifically due to the expensive regulatory pathways required for government approval, and the defensive patent minefield corporations feel they have to create to protect themselves and their large capital investments.

Neither are likely to change soon without dramatic shifts in government policy.

Altruistic development of needed medical devices and drugs might happen through:

(1) more public funding (large public investment in science and development historically has reaped great dividends, although it requires political will to justify spending in a time of economic strife),

(2) X-prize type competitions to incentivise smaller medical development companies (although the regulatory pathway still is a significant hurdle) and

(3) private altruism (thank you Bill & Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett and many others).

While open source medical device design might be an admirable aspiration, open design to solve more general local and community problems might be an easier target to reach.

Designers and private firms have taken the first steps to promote collaborative ideation not just in medical devices but in collaborative problem-solving through such projects as OpenIDEO and Project H-Design. These both are fantastic initiatives and I invite you to check them out and contribute to their efforts.

But we need to go further. The challenges we face in our world require not just collaborative ideation, but collaborative funding, development, manufacturing and deployment. We need complete solutions.

Can we share not just ideas, but actual mechanical designs, perhaps in the form of STEP files in a repository like Sourceforge?

Can we exchange best design practices with each other in a wiki like Wikipedia or a Q&A forum like Stack Overflow?

Can we fund projects for the greater good like Kiva or Kopernik or Kickstarter?

Can we work together with these established organisations to create something better for the common good?

Games as a powerful motivator

As that famous Cupertino CEO is fond of saying… “Just one more thing…”

I recently saw and was greatly inspired by a talk by Jane McGonigal at TED 2010 on how “Gaming can make a better world”. Basically, what she proposes is to use games as an overlay on real life to provide minute-by-minute motivation to get people to do good.

Another inspiring talk by Dan Pink illustrated by RSA Animate reveals insights on “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us”. His basic thesis is that autonomy, mastery and purpose are the three driving factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction.

Both of these ideas jive with my own experiences working in the medical device and mechanical design world over the past 10 years, as well as with what I’ve seen that motivates fellow engineers and software developers in industry.

We want to do things that mean something to the world. We want to do good.

We just don’t know how we can contribute in a meaningful way.

And yet, the collective skills and cognitive power — of social and political scientists to identify problems, engineers and designers and developers to come up with solutions, companies and factories to produce products, and NGOs and governments to deploy solutions — is hugely enormous.

Given the right motivational framework — perhaps through games, achievements or something else — if we could tap into even a small percentage of that “cognitive surplus”, we, the community, could change the world.


So, what a wonderful journey we have taken thus far. We live in a rapidly changing world that provides us with more opportunities than ever, but also presents us with the most challenges we’ve ever faced as a species.

And yet, we have the skills to make a difference. Just look at what has been achieved in the open-source software communities, and the relationships — standing on the shoulders of giants — that have been established.

For example, the open-source Drupal CMS could not exist without the Apache webserver, the MySQL relational database, the PHP scripting language and the GIT revision control system — all developed in separate but active open-source communities.

Likewise, could we, for example, link ideas generated by OpenIDEO with product development by volunteer engineers and funding from Kiva or Kickstarter, and then connect with interested manufacturers and NGOs through Kopernik?

Can we leverage and link the work people are already doing in a unified and open movement to promote the free exchange of designs and knowledge?

Can we have a Web 3.0 revolution in Atoms as well as in Bits?

Can we do open source design?

Let’s do it!

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Facebook privacy problem.

I was going to throw in my two cents on what I thought of the whole Facebook privacy problem. But there has been so much discussion already about the issues online by people much more knowledable, credible and eloquent than me.

So I’ve decided to link to them instead.

But first, take a look for yourself to see what is publicly available from Facebook:

This is fun, scary, sad… and real.

Arguably, some of these people expose their statuses to the public because they are seeking attention.

But judging by the personal nature of some of the posts, can you honestly believe that every one of them explicitly chose to have everything there be so public?

What’s going on? Perhaps a rapidly changing privacy policy and a disconnect between privacy expectations and reality has something to do with it.

Matt McKeon created an informative infographic on how the default privacy settings on Facebook have changed over the years, exposing more and more personal information to the public.

And the New York Times printed a graphic on the complexity of the privacy settings necessary to lock down your account.

But I think the most nuanced and considered analysis of the privacy issues associated with social networks like Facebook and Google Buzz was argued by social ethnographer Danah Boyd at SXSW 2010 this year in Austin.

Wired and The Guardian also have weighed in on the issue, as well security expert Joey Tyson.

So what can you do?

Security heavyweight Bruce Schneier warned that users of Facebook should stop thinking of themselves as FB’s customers, but rather as their product to be sold to advertisers.

As such, maybe people’s perceptions and expectations might change as well as their online behaviours. Maybe.

So what can you do about it?

Deleting your account is one option and some are considering social networking harakiri.

Some of the Technorati have already done so, including podcaster Leo Laporte, enterpreneur Jason Calacanis and blogger Peter Rojas.

“How do I delete my Facebook account” currently is one of Google’s top trending searches and “commit Facebook suicide” groups ironically are popping up within Facebook.

Switching networks is another option.

A new open-source social networking project called Diaspora* has secured over $173,000 in donations on Kickstarter from people looking for an alternative.

That people are willing to donate real money to a rag-tag team of four university students based simply on a lofty promise and vapourware speaks much to their dissatisfaction with current options.

Of course, MySpace, Orkut and Friendster all are still around, and loads of newer sites are popping up around the web. However, none have the giant user base that FB currently enjoys and that may not be changing for a while.

Internet blogger Nancy Baym blogged about why “despite herself, [she] is not leaving Facebook, yet”, and many people feel the same way.

For many, myself included, this means that the only real option is locking down the security settings in FB, scaling back participation and hoping the privacy policy doesn’t change yet again. Which is a shame because FB does offer something real — being able to connect to people you might not normally maintain contact with without having to really work at it.

But ultimately, as Danah Boyd writes, the issue with Facebook is not about "the future of privacy and publicity. It’s a battle over choice and informed consent.”

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Keyboard shortcuts to move windows between two monitors in Windows 7.

You might already know about [Windows key]+[left arrow] and [Windows key]+[right arrow] in Windows 7 to make a window fit exactly half the screen on the left and right sides respectively.

You might also know about [Windows key]+[up arrow] to maximize a window and [Windows key]+[down arrow] to restore and then minimize a window on successive key presses.

But did you know that if you have your desktop spanned across two monitors, you can easily move windows between them using [Windows key]+[shift]+[left arrow] and [Windows key]+[shift]+[right arrow]?

No more dragging windows across your desktop to move them from one monitor to the next. All it takes is a simple hotkey to get you to windows management nirvana.

A full list of keyboard shortcuts in Windows 7 can be found here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Pan-European keyboard layout for Win7.

As a follow-up to this tip, DOXdesk has an alternate keyboard that allows you to type accented characters and so much more using [Alt Gr] keyboard combinations.

Although it is quite a bit more complicated than the United Kingdom extended keyboard that comes with Windows, it allows you to type quite a few more characters with some relatively logical keystrokes.

My favourite is [Alt Gr]+[`], [letter] to type Greek letters. So [Alt Gr]+[`], [s] allows you to type the letter “σ”. For all of you writing technical papers with equations, this is, in a word, brilliant!

The download includes an html file that describes what keystrokes are necessary to type the character you want.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Easily type accented characters in Win7.

For some reason, a high proportion of recent journal article I’ve added to my Mendeley reference library have been by authors who spell their names with umlauts and other accents.

In order to type these characters on my British English keyboard, I either would have to look up the Unicode keystrokes or bring up the clumsy Windows Character Map - I tend to do the latter.

But did you know that there is a feature in Windows from XP on up that allows you to easily type accented characters?

Simply head over to the “Keyboards and Languages” tab in the “Region and Language” settings in the Control Panel, and click on the “Change Keyboard button” to add a new keyboard.

What you want to add is the “United Kingdom extended” keyboard, which I’ve made my default keyboard layout.

If you have multiple keyboards and languages installed, make sure you switch to the program you want to type in and select the correct settings in the Language Bar before trying to type.

Now, to type the “ü” like in the name “Müller,” all you have to press is [Alt Gr]+[2] followed by [u]. The “ above the [2] key is a handy visual cue for the umlaut.

Finally, something useful to do with that [Alt Gr] key!

This works for other accents as well:

à [`] then [a]
â [Alt Gr]+[6] then [a]
á [Alt Gr]+[‘] then [a]
ã [Alt Gr]+[#] then [a]
ä [Alt Gr]+[2] then [a]
Also, [Alt Gr]+[c] produces ç and [Alt Gr]+[4] produces €, handy when moving through the Eurozone.

This trick unfortunately does turn all the accent modifier combinations into “dead keys,” which means that nothing appears on the screen when you type the modifier keystrokes until you follow up with the letter to be accented.

So if you accidentally press a modifier combination and nothing happens, you just have to follow up with a second keypress.

It does takes a little bit of getting used to, especially the [`] modifier as it doesn’t require a simultaneous [Alt Gr] keystroke to trigger it. However the time saved not having to hunt and peck on the Character Map makes it all well worthwhile.

So go ahead, impress your European friends with emails containing properly accented characters. And who knows, it may even lead to Parisian love.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Vertical garden.


Continuing in the theme of giving old objects new life, I made this vertical vegetable garden out of some Ikea metal brackets that were leftover after we recomissioned the wooden planks for some on-the-wall shelves.

The planters were reclaimed from our local London Freegle group (Freecycle for everywhere else) and then suspended from the metal structure with galvanized steel wire.

It’s a perfect setup for our modest London garden where horizontal space and sunlight can be had only at a premium. So why not go vertical?

Imagine what this will look like in a few months time with tomato vines and courgettes hanging off from the structure? Garden deco and noms? Fantastic! And it was practically free.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A simple spice rack made from spare parts.

P1000792I put together this simple spice rack made from old parts I had lying around the flat – two pieces of wire mesh, rubber bands and some toothpicks.

Because of the weave of the rubber bands and toothpicks in the mesh, no fasteners were required other than a few twist ties at the four corners to tack the two mesh squares together.

I think it came out all right. What I love about this little project is how the repetition of a simple pattern creates something much more than just the sum of its parts.

I love the slightly offset rubber bands and the crisscross pattern when viewed from the top.

Happy Easter!


Monday, March 22, 2010

Synaptics multitouch driver for PC touchpads.

This tip has been making the rounds on tech blogs like Engadget. But in case you missed it:

Basically, the HP support site has posted a driver update from touchpad manufacturer Synaptics that enables two-finger scrolling, three-finger flicks and other gestures on laptops with Synaptics touchpads that didn’t previously support multitouch.

The WHQL-certified driver works on many older laptops with Synaptics touchpads including those that aren’t HP branded.

This solution beats previous attempts at unlocking multitouch that involved hacked drivers, messing with the registry and disabling signed-driver checks in Win7 x64.

It works brilliantly on my two year old Dell m1330. No more multitouch envy of those white Apple MacBooks.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Long live PDF XChange!

That’s it. I’ve finally had it with Acrobat 8.

I’ve installed the latest patches and still it lets me down. From missing PDF preview icons in Windows Explorer, to the broken Outlook preview plug-in, to the non-functioning PDF plug-in for Chrome, to it being slow, slow, slow, Acrobat 8 time and time again disappoints me.

Buying CS3 / Acrobat 8 when I probably couldn’t afford it was bad enough. I’m not going to shell out more money for Acrobat 9. And installing Acrobat Reader 9 on a system with Acrobat Pro 8 just didn’t work. I know, I’ve tried.

The final straw though was when a PDF document I downloaded wouldn’t open without crashing Acrobat. A PDF program that can’t open PDFs? What’s that about?

So I’ve switched. To PDF XChange Reader. This little gem from Canadian developer Tracker Software is a real winner, and it’s free.

It’s quick, lean and powerful, opening all my PDF documents without a hitch. The free version, which I’m using, even lets you annotate documents, which I use for taking notes and highlighting text right in the journal article PDFs.

I did try the popular alternative, FoxIt Reader, but it won’t let you annotate documents without adding an annoying watermark, unless you upgrade to the paid version.

I’ll still keep Acrobat 8 Pro on my computer for creating PDFs and OCR, but for day-to-day PDF viewing, PDF XChange can’t be beat.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Opera 10.50 is fast!

I just tried the new Opera 10.50 release on Win7 x64 and, boy, is it fast! Although I don’t have any real benchmark numbers, everything is really, really snappy.

The Monster test on Chrome Experiments actually runs pretty smoothly on the new Opera. Previously, only Chrome could run it well on a PC – both Firefox 3.6 and Internet Explorer 8 failed miserably.

There are a few nice new UI tweaks as well, including support for Aero Glass everything, jump lists and a nice little recycle bin in the upper right hand corner for recently closed tabs. Also, the tab bar can be resized to give a mini preview of each page.

I don’t anticipate using Opera Link for setting synchronization or Opera Unite for social media sharing, but Opera Turbo seems interesting, especially when in a crowded cafe on a slow Wi-Fi link or browsing while borrowing someone’s 3G dongle.

Overall, this seems like a really strong release and may give me pause when thinking about what browser to run as default. Great job Opera!

EDIT: Opera Unite is quite a bit more interesting than I had initially thought!

It basically runs a web server within Opera from which you can host different services like file sharing, media streaming or even web hosting.

Obviously you aren’t going to run any heavy duty web services on this, and all pages are served under a sub-domain of

Still, everything just works and this feels like it has the potential like peer-to-peer technology to be a game changer. Especially if you can get you and your friends to mirror each other’s content.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The “real” reason why Apple blocks Flash on the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad

Food for thought…

Could the real reason for Apple’s disdain for running Flash on the iPhone, iPod Touch & iPad be that it potentially allows developers to circumvent the iTunes Apps Store and bypass Apple’s almost bulletproof control over what can run on their devices?

Right-click on a Wacom Bamboo Pen in Win7

My Wacom Graphire tablet finally bit the dust after ten or so years of faithful service. (Rest in peace!) So I went out and bought a new Bamboo Pen to replace it. A tablet is essential for effective OneNote use as well as sketching and Photoshop work.

Visually it looks better with its flat and shiny blacks compared to the gray and blue of the Graphire. The cheapest Bamboo Pen model unfortunately lost the eraser feature on the back end of the pen. I hardly ever used that feature anyway, but still it feels like a reduction in value as the price for both were about the same (even after 10 years).

However the aspect ratio of the Bamboo matches that of my widescreen display, so I no longer have the unmapped area at the bottom of the tablet.

For my workflow, I require both the middle-click and right-click mouse buttons mapped to the two pen buttons. However, try as I could, I couldn’t get the right-click mapping to stick.

The solution lies in that there are two sets of settings in the Control Panel for Pen and Touch – the Wacom driver settings in “Control Panel > Pen Tablet Properties,” and the Win7 settings in “Control Panel > Pen and Touch.”

Be sure to check the “Use the pen button as a right-click equivalent” option in the “Pen and Touch” panel in addition to correctly mapping the buttons in “Pen Tablet Properties.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Zen and writing in the new year.

Two programs I’ve found on the Internet that are invaluable to me for writing are WriteMonkey and Focus Booster.

WriteMonkey is a simple, free .NET 3.5 program that presents you with a black screen, green text, a flashing cursor and nothing else.

This decided minimalism helps you to focus on your writing without any of the visual and attention grabbing distractions that inhabit the modern computer desktop.

It works on any Windows computer with the .NET Framework installed. It might work also on Mac and Linux if you use Mono (I haven’t tried this).

Focus Booster is a free Adobe AIR app that is the electronic alternative to one of those red, apple shaped cooking timers.

It counts down alternating blocks of working and playing time as recommended by the Pomodoro Technique. This helps you to recognize the passage of time as you work and minimize fatigue by constantly having brief play/rest time interspersed with focused work.

It should work on any computer provided that you have Adobe AIR installed first.

Happy New Year to everybody and cheers to productive and fun months to come.