Tuesday, March 31, 2009

censoring those who oppose censorship

Wikileaks offices in Germany were raided by police on March 24. This wikileaks editorial is a must read:
Western internet censorship: The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

Australia and Germany are the only liberal democracies proposing a mandatory internet censorship regime ...

Although originally marketed, in all countries, as a way of combating child pornography, the blacklists obtained by Wikileaks show that the systems have already been corrupted into censoring other content, including political content.

For instance, the secret blacklist for Thailand censors thousands of sites per year deemed to be critical of the Thai Monarchy, from academic books and YouTube to the Economist magazine and Wikileaks itself.

Similarly, the blacklist for Australia contains an anti-abortion site, fringe religions, a dentist clinic, gay sites, gambling sites, islamist sites, euthanasia activist sites, an astrologer's blog, misclassified material, and, like Thailand, Wikileaks itself. Even the Australian government's "Minister for censorship", Senator Stephen Conroy, has admitted that fully half of the sites on the secret list are unrelated to child pornography.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

ARM architecture is coming to netbooks

Because of their low price and power saving features (which extends the battery life) ARM is the dominant chip (32 bit) architecture in mobile phones, mp3 players, PDAs, handheld gaming units, calculators, computer peripherals (hard drives, routers) and ebook readers such as Kindle (ARM_architecture) The ARM chip has now evolved into being incorporated into netbooks.

Watch this video to obtain an initial look and feel of the ARM netbooks that will soon be on the market:

Some of the features:
  • ultra thin, light and low cost $199 - $250
  • No fan or heat sink required – this enables new design features
  • 8 hours battery life
  • movies on high resolution screen
Summary: Microsoft threatened by ARM / Linux
Currently Windows runs on 90% of the netbooks and Linux on 10%. The possible threats to MS netbook market dominance include the Google Android OS and low power ARM processors

The software / hardware currently behind the above mentioned 90% of netbooks is Windows XP Home Basic and the x86-based Atom processors-Intel's smallest and lowest-power microprocessors

So far Microsoft is staying with their x86 architecture due to their historical inertia, which now works against them

ARM-based netbooks running Linux (or Google Android) will be on the market soon for prices as low as [US]$199

OLPC may use ARM chips in the XO-2. But there is a problematic irony here, for Negroponte. If Windows does not develop an OS that runs effectively with ARM then the XO-2 would not be able to offer dual boot linux / windows (source)
Apple may be another winner arising from ARM architecture
Look on these netbooks as a larger iPod touch with a hinged keyboard. At twice the length and width they would still fit into a large pocket. With a 7" screen the resolution would be 960 x 640 - four times the screen space of the iPod touch....

While the biggest netbook companies, Acer and Asus, can build ARM netbooks, they would have to be based on Linux or Android, as the only version of Windows that works on ARM is Windows Mobile. Indeed, Asus has already started work on an Android system

Predicted Losers: Microsoft, Intel (at least in the short term), AMD

Predicted Winners: Apple, RIM, Nokia, Asus, Acer, Linux or Android
Thanks to Joel for alerting me to the new evolution of ARM

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

censorship has arrived

When Senator Nick Xenophon (Independent, who made his name a few years ago with a no-pokies campaign in South Australia) announced last month not to support Conroy's mandatory filter then I thought that was the end of the matter. With the Liberals and Greens against Conroy's proposal, then with Xenophon also in opposition, it did not have the numbers to become law.

Hence, it's especially disturbing to discover that we already have censorship of non hard core porn sites in Australia.

ACMA (Australian Communications and Media Authority) has just threatened an ISP with an $11,000 a day fine if they did not remove a link to an anti-abortion web site.

Furthermore, pages to Wikileaks, which describe the Danish internet censorship list and the Wikileaks press release about this have been blacklisted by ACMA. As Wikileaks comments:
The first rule of censorship is that you cannot talk about censorship.
- Australia secretly censors Wikileaks press release and Danish Internet censorship list, 16 Mar 2009
Wikileaks has demonstrated through the publication of the censorship lists in Denmark, Thailand and Finland that:
  1. these lists leak
  2. invariably these lists are expanded from pornography to other material, including political material. For example, the Thai list contains sites banned for criticising the Royal Family.
In more news:
Reporters Without Borders, in a report on enemies of internet freedom last week, added Australia to its 'watch list' of countries that might be imposing anti-democratic internet restrictions that could open the way for abuses of power and control of information. The main issue cited was the Australian government's proposed internet censorship scheme
- Australia's internet censor bares its gums
As I wrote earlier:
I see this as part of a more general pattern where the "caring parties" advocate policies which end up destroying our freedom and initiative - net nannies, risk aversion, artificial inclusion, welfare dependency, cultural relativism (the freedom of other cultures to suppress women, practice honour killings, genital mutilation etc.), the State as big brother who will keep an eye on you under the guise of protecting you. The caring collectivist parties like the Australian Labour Party are far more likely to support these sorts of policies than the parties that are more ideologically aligned with the notion of individual liberty.
- Do you really want to be free?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

pi day

It was pi day yesterday. March 14 is the day because if you write the date 3/14 then you have the first 3 digits of pi.

Some light hearted information about pi from wikipedia:
The value of π has been computed to more than a trillion (10^12) digits (source).

The Guinness-recognized record for remembered digits of π is 67,890 digits, held by Lu Chao, a 24-year-old graduate student from China. It took him 24 hours and 4 minutes to recite to the 67,890th decimal place of π without an error.

There are many ways to memorize π, including the use of "piems", which are poems that represent π in a way such that the length of each word (in letters) represents a digit. Here is an example of a piem, originally devised by Sir James Jeans: How I need (or: want) a drink, alcoholic in nature (or: of course), after the heavy lectures (or: chapters) involving quantum mechanics.

Monday, March 09, 2009

capitalism 101

A thumbnail sketch of my understanding of the capitalist system.

Capitalism is a dynamic system, a profit driven system, a wealthy system and a flexible system

Up to a point. But beyond that point all of those attributes turn into their opposites. It becomes a moribund system where profits fail, wealth disappears and flexibility becomes pointless. My guess is that the current Keynesian measures (stimulus packages) to solve the current crisis will not work.

Capitalism is a dynamic system

It continually creates new types of jobs and destroys old types of jobs. The productive forces are continually developed.

Barry Jones wrote Sleepers, Wake! in 1982, tracking the massive changes in employment from agriculture to industry to Services to Post service (Education / Leisure) from 1780 to 1980

More recently, Clayton Christensen has written and spoken about disruptive technologies such as computer startups that sometimes begin in garages and then become highly successful: Apple, Microsoft, Google are well known examples.

These changes push the workforce in the general direction of more skills and more education, as mind numbing, labour intensive work is augmented by technology which becomes increasingly smart.

Capitalism is a profit driven system

If a commodity can’t be sold at a profit in the market place then eventually it won’t be made.

New technology, (which can be expensive), is introduced by capitalists into workplaces to increase productivity. This new technology creates new jobs and destroys old jobs but in growth conditions can lead to an overall increase in employment.

New technology can lead to increased output and, with economies of scale, cheaper products. The cost of plant (fixed costs or one off costs of tooling up) has gone up but production costs per unit have gone down (technology enhanced productivity). With sufficient volume of sales this can and has created cheaper products. However, only big capitalists (monopolies) can maintain this brutal regime. Due to competition between capitalists the overall tendency is for the rate of profit to fall. Hence the smaller under capitalized companies tend to fail and be eaten up by monopolies, who have larger reserves of capital.

When capitalism is going well then increased productivity leads to cheaper goods which leads to more demand which leads to more employment. If this is happening in a whole country then GNP or GDP per worker increases and standard of living goes up.

This has been the general trend in the long boom since the end of WW2, although it has been interspersed with downturns or recessions (1973-4 oil cartel, 1981-2 (contractionary monetary policy to control inflation), 1992 and 2000-02 tech bubble)

Capitalism is a wealthy system

Due to the rapid development of the means of production over the past centuries capitalism can sustain a high standard of living for nearly all members of industrialised society. Even people on welfare can have swimming pools (plastic), foxtel for entertainment, recreational drugs and the like. There is a more or less endless range of distractions which induce many people to not pay detailed attention to political and economic developments.

Capitalism is a flexible system

For most of the time (recessions excluded) capitalism is flexible enough to make adjustments (without excessive government regulation) to keep most people satisfied and to keep unemployment within "acceptable" limits for most of the time. Since the overall trend for 60 years has been growth and recessions have been of relatively short durations (1-2 years) in most industrialized countries (exception: Japan) then the overall impression is gained that capitalism works or at least works better than socialism (the main historical alternative), which is regarded as discredited.

These flexible adjustment mechanisms at the level of the workplace include natural attrition (not replacing workers who leave), part time / full time work choices, retraining, overtime, casual employment and flexible timing in the introduction of new technologies.

At the government level they include migration policy, school leaving age policy, retirement age policy (elaborate Superannuation schemes; at what age are people eligible for the pension), fiscal policy and monetary policy ...

For most of the time capitalism seems to work. Many economists speak highly of the ability of the market to automatically regulate the complexities of this dynamic system. Recessions are inconvenient but perhaps worth tolerating, in the absence of anything demonstrated to be superior, if the overall trend is growth. It's remarkable that some people have lived their whole lives (eg. since 1945) in the belief that our system is economically stable (within acceptable limits) only to discover now that perhaps it is not. It may take a while before that belief evaporates. My evaluation is that our current rulers don't have a clue.

Now we have a major downturn and there is no end in sight. Growth has slowed dramatically in most countries and now unemployment is beginning to soar. The reassurances from those who brought us to this point, that it will all be over in a year or so sound hollow. We need to look deeper at the causes of the current crisis.

(based on Unemployment and Revolution, Part 2)

just another $750 billion

On page 2 of a New York Times article about Obama reaching out to elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan:
Turning to domestic affairs, Mr. Obama indicated that the end was not in sight when it came to the economic crisis and suggested that he expected it could take another $750 billion to address the problem of weak and failing financial institutions beyond the $700 billion already approved.
I think they should have put that on page one of another article perhaps with the title: "Don't Panic"

From page 1 of the same article:
“I don’t think that people should be fearful about our future,” he said. “I don’t think that people should suddenly mistrust all of our financial institutions.” ... He struck a reassuring tone about the economy, saying he had no trouble sleeping at night.
I don't believe him

Sunday, March 08, 2009

unemployment 101

  • Australian unemployment 4.8% (January 2009) - source
  • American unemployment 8.1% (25 year high, February 2009) - source
Capitalism is based on buying and selling commodities in the marketplace. Labour power is just another commodity to be bought and sold by capitalists. Labour power is essential for the production of other commodities.

A commodity is simply something that can be bought or sold.

If commodities can’t be sold (such as houses or cars at the moment) then capitalists will stop making them and stop or slow down buying the materials used to make them. If labour power cannot be used then capitalists will lay off (sack) workers or not employ new workers. Labour power is subject to supply and demand since it is just another commodity.

There is never full employment or guaranteed work under capitalism because labour power is just another commodity. Just as there is no guarantee that someone will buy a car from General Motors today there is also no guarantee that some capitalist will employ a particular worker. That is how a market economy works. If there was zero unemployment then workers could bargain for higher wages up to the point where the profits of the capitalist would become minimized. So, it is important for capitalism to always have some unemployment or a reserve army of labour to keep wages in check.

In Australia, we have had chronically high unemployment for many years now (since 1974). As a teacher in disadvantaged schools I have seen the effects of generational unemployment (parents don’t have jobs and kids don’t aspire to have a job) and concentrated unemployment (in some housing trust areas no one in the street works). People can survive on welfare these days but some of them don’t value education or aspire to employment. Generational welfare dependency can be very ugly

The capitalist system can still function “normally” while unemployment remains within limits (say, below 5%).

At the moment we have a recession (defined as two quarters of zero or negative growth) where buying and selling at the marketplace grinds to a halt. The means of production are still there, in those industries which are sacking workers. In the abstract it is still possible to make products and distribute them to people who want them but since they can’t be bought or sold, since we live in a market economy, then that will not happen.

Historically, other social systems have not had unemployment, they have not had the concept of unemployment. There may be all sorts of other problems with these social systems but unemployment is not one of them. Hunter-gatherer Aboriginal society in Australia, before whites arrived, did not have any unemployment. Slave society and feudal society did not have unemployment. There was no unemployment in the socialist Soviet Union during the 1930s Great Depression. In many science fiction future scenarios there is no concept of unemployment.

update 8th March: There is no unemployment in the Free Software industry whose products power the internet (LAMP).

Unemployment is part and parcel of the market economy, an essential feature. But obviously, these are not normal times, unemployment is rapidly increasing. This requires further explanation. Why has the normal arrangement of relatively low unemployment broken down?

(based on Unemployment and Revolution, Part 1)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

kay and van dam discuss engelbart's ideas

Program for the Future (video, about 80 minutes) where Alan Kay and Andy van Dam discuss Doug Engelbart's ideas in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the mother of all demos

(I picked this up from mark miller's site: Tales of inventing the future)

This video is very good, hard hitting analysis about how great visions can be spoiled, that we could have done better. Everyone knows that Engelbart invented the mouse but his broader vision has been largely forgotten. Engelbart is present and is treated with great respect and affection by both speakers.

Some of the ideas mentioned here, briefly. Try to make time to view the whole thing for some high level, stimulating discussion. I'd like to transcribe some sections but am too pushed for time at the moment.

The need to remain focused on the high level goals: augmentation of human intellect (Engelbart) and human-computer symbiosis (Licklider)

It's difficult to capture and summarise group wisdom, more needs to be done. Google searches are crude.

Putting training wheels on bikes diminishes the efficiency of a bike. Computer systems are like that today, keeping users at a baby level (at 32 minutes)

We are wedged today in the way computers are designed both conceptually and technically. We might as well burn the whole thing and start again.

Pop culture is to be incurious about the past and the future

A big problem with the web is that the browser removed WYSIWIG functionality. Hardly anyone complained.

CEGSA 2009

I've submitted a workshop and a presentation for the CEGSA (Computers in Education Group of South Australia) Conference, 7th & 8th July 2009:

Scratch Workshop (Hands on workshop 90 minutes)
Scratch is good software for this learning cycle: imagine -> create -> play -> share -> reflect. You will learn or extend your Scratch know-how with the opportunity for discussion about how to use it effectively with students. The workshop also includes use of the Scratch Sensor Board

Netbooks and Schools (Presentation 45 minutes)
The rise of the netbook provides schools with the opportunity to unchain computers from labs and put them into the hands of students and their families 24/7. Come along to discuss the prospects and problems of this vision

Thursday, March 05, 2009

youtube university

Richard Buckland has published videos (55 of them!) of his introductory course to Computer Science at the University of NSW on youtube

I have just watched his first lecture and it is great - lots of humour, ability to connect to and reassure students and obviously very expert in his subject. The video at the end about the consequences of plagiarism is brilliant (essential albeit grim topic to cover in the first lecture). Here is a Computer Science Department with the ability to make their subject entertaining as well as rigorous.

I googled for Richard's CV and found this inside:
Carrick Teaching Award $25,000 2007 and a citation in 2006:
For inspirational teaching in computer science that rekindles students' childhood love of learning and communicates the joy of creative and rigorous thinking
The scope of the course is described:
This course consists of three strands: programming, systems, and general computer-science literacy.

The programming strand is further divided into two parts. For the first half of the course we cover small scale programming, in the second half we look at how to effectively use teams to produce more substantial software.

In the systems strand we will look at how computers work. Concentrating on microprocessors, memory, and machine code.

In the literacy strand we will look at topics drawn from: computing history, algorithms, WWW programming, ethics and law, cryptography and security, and other topics of general interest.

The strands will be covered in an intermingled fashion.
There is more. From a recent Age article: Uni computer lecturer makes YouTube his classroom:
This year, Buckland is inviting high school students with a strong interest in computing and mathematics to study an advanced first-year university level computing course for free.


With the lectures now published online, the students will be able to do most of their work from home. They will only come to the university one evening a week for a two and a half hour lab and tutorial, where they can ask questions and socialise.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

long multiplication

x 645
(Liping Ma example)

x 31
(M. J. McDermott example, see video below)

In her book, Liping Ma demonstrates that some teachers use a procedural method (long multiplication is like a recipe that you follow to obtain the correct answer) and some teachers use conceptual methods (explain how the procedure works by explaining how place value is obtained) in teaching long multiplication.

Liping Ma interviews the teachers involved. What emerges clearly is that nearly all the teachers who use procedural (recipe) methods don't actually understand the role of place value in long multiplication!

First up, should you place a zero after the 78, making it 780 in this example?
26 or, 26
x 31 x 31
26 26
78 780
806 806

Either way is acceptable provided the teacher can explain what is happening. If you don't place a zero after the 78, then the teacher needs to understand and explain that we are dealing with 78 tens or 78 lots of ten. If you do place a zero after the 78 then the teacher needs to understand and explain that in the second step we are multiplying 26 x 30, rather than 26 x 3

Explanations can vary but the teacher needs to understand what they are doing

Here is what procedural explanation teachers do and think (from Liping Ma's interviews):

They talk about place value as just a label of different columns, they don't explain the significance of that label. When they talk about the "tens column" and the "hundreds column" they use these terms as labels, not as values that require explanation.

They treat the gap after the 78 as just a placeholder which can be filled by other symbols apart from zero, such as an asterick or even something more memorable like a picture of an apple or animal

Some of them think that to add a zero after the 78 is actually incorrect

If students make a mistake, such as putting the 8 in the 78 in the units column, then they correct the error by restating the rule ("the 8 belongs in the tens column") or by using a placeholder in the units column. They do not explain why the 8 belongs in the tens column.

Here is what conceptual explanation teachers do:

They explain what place value actually means, ie. the 3 in 31 means 30

Sometimes they separate the problem into subproblems:
26 x 31
= 26 x 30 + 26 x 1

More knowledgable conceptual teachers explain this in terms of the distributive rule, which they may have taught to students earlier:
26 x 31
= 26 x(30 +1)
= 26 x 30 + 26 x 1

Some of them will deliberately put an error on the board and then engage the class in discussion about where is the error and how to correct it

Notice how M. J. McDermott fudges the place value explanation in the following video in the course of pronouncing the "correct" way of teaching long multiplication. She doesn't explain why the 8 in 78 goes in the tens column. Then after a moments hesitation she places a zero after the 8, with the words, "Sometimes we put a zero here", but does not explain why.

Liping Ma demonstrates through her interviews that the important issue is whether or not the teacher understands and can explain the maths. She also finds that many American teachers do not and that the Chinese teachers in her sample have superior understanding.

Liping Ma, Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics (1999)

village telco: david rowe

I've added David Rowe's blog: Beer, Coffee and a little DSP, to my blog roll.

David does awesome work along the lines of bringing free telephony to the developing world. His website is VILLAGE TELCO provides more detail: an initiative to assemble/develop the cheapest, easiest to setup, easiest to manage, scalable, Open Source, standards-based, wireless local do-it-yourself telephone company toolkit in the world)

The whole concept of universal communication is one that I'm trying to learn more about