So close, and yet so far

March 2nd, 2008 by webmaster

I recently heard about Wubi - the windows installer for Ubuntu. This utility is listed as a beta release, but it seems fully functional. The very special thing about Wubi is that it allows one to install Ubuntu Linux onto an existing Windows partition. The end result is a dual-boot configuration, without the need for separate partitions. And, since Wubi is installed through windows, it can be uninstalled just as easily. This sounded like something I needed to try.

I have an old, but trusty Dell C800 laptop that I use for deep-space and planetary image aquisition and processing. Since there are many applications for these tasks under Linux, I though this machine would be the perfect platform for such an installation. I have long been an admirer of Linux - power, beauty, stability, and tons of free software. And I really REALLY want to be a convert. My Knoppix boot CD has saved my keester on a number of occasions, but I have never had full-time (or even dual-boot) Linux box. Wubi was the nudge I was waiting for.

Wubi downloaded and installed flawlessly. The Wubi installer is compact, but the full Ubuntu download is a full CD’s worth, so takes a while to download. But download it did. And then it installed itself, and then let me reboot into Ubuntu, where it went through the process of autoconfiguration, and finally launching a fully functional Ubuntu desktop.

But here’s the rub.

Ubuntu did not recognize my wireless card. This, in and of itself, should not have been a problem. Lord knows I have configured enough hardware and OS’s to sink a ship, how hard could it be? I have worked with CP/M, VAX, DOS, OS/2, and several flavours of Windows, and for each of them making configurations was a straightforward case of following the instructions.

Not so with Ubuntu, I’m afraid.

The help files, online forums (accessed from a different machine), and Ubuntu documentation Wiki were completely unhelpful, for a simple reason. All of these expected me to be completely familiar with Linux. The instructions were not written for someone unfamiliar with the particulars of Linux. Yes, Linux is a geek OS, but Ubuntu is targetted at a broader audience. Something straightforward and basic such as “here’s how you check hardwarde configuration, and here’s how you install drivers” would be nice. But following troubleshooting steps from a variety of sources usually lost me on the second step. Either they would suggest an action without any information on how to perform that action, or they would give very specific instructions for utilities that did not seem to exist on my install.

As far as I could tell, the correct driver was in fact installed, but beyond that I was lost. After a frustrating day of getting nowhere, I came to the conclusion that either I am not quite ready for Linux, or it is not quite ready for me. I still have great hopes that Dell’s move to sell new systems preloaded with Ubuntu will bolster this OS with manufacturers and users alike. Even though it has a strong base of command-line power-users, if this OS is going to break into the mainstream it has to be simple enough that my mother could use it. And then maybe Linux and I will get along. I really hope that time comes soon, because I really dislike Vista. 

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Shhhh! Don’t tell them they’re learning…

January 27th, 2008 by webmaster

My son is writing a novel. The amusing part is that he doesn’t know it.

At some point a couple of years ago, when my son was 11 or 12, he was introduced to lego fan forums by one of his friends (who, by the way, he plays with every night, even though they live in different countries. The power of Skype.). In the forums, he discovered a medium known as “RPGs”. Now, if you are my generation you may recognize the term Role Playing Game from such classics as Dungeons and Dragons. These involve rules, and dice, and little lead figures, and maps, and funny hats, and more dice. Forum RPGs, in contrast, involve none of these. As a game, it’s closest “classic” comparison would be what we called “Dark and Stormy Night” or simply “The Story Game”. It is a campfire game where one person begins a story, and the next person continues.

In the Forum RPG version, the rules of the “game” -  setting, character attributes, time period and so on - are established by the creator. When a person joins the game, they create a character and join in the fun. Each player then submits a blurb in response to the previous blurbs, and a storyline develops. The creator of the “game”, as well as any designated moderators, make sure that submissions fall within the guidelines, and ask for corrections if necessary. The players, in addition to storyline posts (referred to as In Character, or IC), post questions, comments, background information under the heading of Out Of Character (OOC).

My son - then 12 - created one of these games, based on a theme inspired by the very popular Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and this has been a staple of his online time ever since. He spends more time “RPGing” than he does on Homestar Runner. And that’s saying something. As a dutiful parent, I check periodically to see that my children’s activities online are appropriate. This is known as “spying”. A recent bit of espionage turned up something interesting - this RPG has been running for over a year, with almost six hundred individual posts, each of which is on the order of 100 words of storyline (many with half that again in OOC comments). Of course, my son, like many a young teen, if asked to produce a piece of creative writing for school, would whine “I don’t know what to wriiiiiiiite.” And yet he, along with like minded collaborators from around the world, has created a grand serial adventure novel that sits currently at 60 000 words, with no end in sight.

It occurs to me, as it probably has to you by now, that if we could harness this energy and enthusiasm for education, it could be a very powerful tool indeed. Imagine children wanting to write. Wanting to rush home and “play my RPG”, and at the same time building their creative skills and writing ability. I know many frontline educators who would think to themselves, and even mutter aloud, that no administrator at their school would allow Role Playing Games as a means of education. No siree, we don’t DO games at this institution, it’s all about hard work. So, for these people, I propose a new name, one that hints at all that is good in 21st century learning, one that sounds like a new wave in pedagogical philosphy that a stick-in-the-mud administrator would love to soak up. So for these people, I give you Asynchronous Collaborative Online Storytelling (ACOS).

At it’s simplest, ACOS provides practice in writing skills, something that is much needed at all grade levels. More subtly, it involves the process of production or creation, which I feel is fundamental to the learning process. The process of producing information, rather than simply consuming it, builds knowledge, understanding, and critical thinking skills. It could have any number of roles in a classroom, from “just for fun” to part of the backbone of a literature or language unit or course. And how about this for an idea - the students begin an ACOS storyline - or maybe two or three different ones - and contribute for several months. At some point, the students can be directed to bring their story to a close through discussion during class time. Each storyline could be compiled and edited, and finally the stories could be submitted for publication. At the end of the year each student would receive a print copy of the book they helped to create, complete with their name on the author list, and student artwork on the cover. How’s that for a souvenir of Grade 7 English class?

I think this is an idea with definite potential. I would love to hear from anyone who has done anything like ACOS, would like to try this, or has any suggestions for how to do something like ACOS most effectively.

Posted in Big Ideas, Education | No Comments »

Windows Vista - not ready for prime time!

August 14th, 2007 by webmaster

I will be the first to admint that Vista is pretty. But beyond that, I have nothing nice to say. I didn’t want to get Vista, but I had no choice. you see, my previous machine died, and still being under warrantee, it was replaced. With a new one. With Vista.

Now, the specs on the new machine put my old one to shame, and yet Vista was like molasses - slow to load, slow to switch users - and despite 1 gig of RAM (which on an XP box would be great), it seemed like most of the memory was used up just running the OS. Despite the MS hype that Vista is the most robust and stable Windows version yet, my machine would freeze fairly frequently, and I would get bluescreened at least twice a week. Then one day, while my eight year old daughter was playing one of her games, the machine froze, and would not respond to anything. No big deal, thought I, I will just reboot.


On startup it went to the Startup Repair utility, which then tells me it can’t repair the problem. So a machine that is 2 months old is killed by a kid’s game. Now, with XP, I would use the Recovery Console to see if I could fix it - but guess what? No recovery console! According to the Acer tech support, my only recourse was a recover re-install. Wipe the drive clean along with two month’s work. I don’t think so.

Fortunately, I was able to download a Knoppix CD image on another machine and burn a Knoppix boot disk (if you don’t know about Knoppix, check it out at which could read my NTFS drives and rescue my important files. With that done I was free to reinstall the OS - but frankly I don’t want to go through this again. So I am installing XP instead.

Maybe I will try Vista again some day - but I will wait for SP2, when hopefully it will be ready for prime time. But for now, let’s just say “friends don’t let friends use Vista”.

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Why the Nebulog?

May 1st, 2007 by webmaster

I have a website - in fact I have two - but there is something missing. The sites are not diaries, not sopboxes, not forums (fora?) for shouting out “Hey, guess what I just did!” to the world. The Blog, however, serves just that purpose.

But there is more to it. By throwing my ideas out to the public wolves, I can establish a habit of transparency. By keeping my private little ideas to my private little self, I do not get the benefit of criticism. And, really, if ideas are not worthy of sharing publicly, then are they really worthy at all? As an educator, I am constantly telling students and their parents (and indeed their teachers!) that participation in class, venturing answers, is the best way to find out if a concept is really understood. And yet, exposing your own ignorance is not an easy thing to do. The way I look at it is that if I am going to ask my students to do it, the very least I can do is practice what I preach (teach?).

In my intitial plans, I envision three kinds of posts. The first, like this one, are general, overarching posts about the Blog as a whole. These are chatagorized as Big Ideas. Not that the ideas will necessarily be big, but it sounded better than simply “uncatagorized”. Secondly, I would like to post observing logs from my astronomy sessions, and other astronomy related thoughts - which I will slot into the Astronomy category. Thirdly, my ideas on education, pedagogy and EdTech I will file under Education. There will most likely be obvious (but currently unforeseen) categories that I will add, but for now, that is how it will be organized.

The title Nebulog sort of fell into place because of the disparate, nebulous nature of my interests on which I intend to post, but also because of my astronomical (NOM not LOG) interests.

So, with these somewhat rushed words, I hereby launch the Nebulog for the world at large to read, or ignore, as it chooses.

Clear Skies!


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