Category Archives: learning

Open Library

A kind of ‘Open Sesame’ to the Aladdin’s Cave of published books. The way humans are going on we’re soon going to have to open another planet next door just to store the books. Open Library is an ideal option for the LibraryThing you have going on. Oh. You don’t have LibraryThing. You do have books? Oh, you don’t have books…

From the Open Library project:

One web page for every book ever published. It’s a lofty, but achievable, goal.

To build it, we need hundreds of millions of book records, a brand new database infrastructure for handling huge amounts of dynamic information, a wiki interface, multi-language support, and people who are willing to contribute their time, effort, and book data.

To date, we have gathered about 30 million records (13.4 million are available through the site now), and more are on the way. We have built the database infrastructure and the wiki interface, and you can search millions of book records, narrow results by facet, and search across the full text of 230,000 scanned books.

Open Library is a project of the non-profit Internet Archive, and is funded in part by a grant from the California State Library. We have a small team of fantastic programmers who have accomplished a lot, but we can’t do it alone! This is an Open project – the software is open, the data is open, the documentation is open, and the site is open.

They also have an ever expanding selection of scanned/full text books (free download or read online), so you can avoid those nasty overdue fines…

bombed back to the dark ages…

Driven by by the dual forces of my Dad being able to turn his hand to any sort of manual skill, and my paranoia about the world being thumped back to the dark ages, I’m very interested in how to survive in primitive contexts. Seems I’m not the only one to have wasted invested hours thinking about what would be the useful skills to have at your finger tips if you were time jumped back to 1,000AD. Jason Kottke, with Survival tips for the Middle Ages, picked up from Marginal Revolution’s Time travel back to 1000 A.D.: Survival tips.

First, a quick snapshot of 1000 AD. China and the Muslim worlds look like they’ve got it going on. England is waiting for William the Conquerer, the Pope is on the throne in Europe, and the rest of the place looks like the set of Jabberwocky. Actually, for the most part, commentary on the Kottke/Marginal Revolution sites bear startling resemblance to Jabberwocky, perhaps the film was a documentary.

I think survival skills are a topic worthy of consideration – I believe it is very possible we might well be headed there given our ongoing addiction to oil. The original question was – ‘How would you survive if suddenly transported back to 1000 AD? Leave your suggestions for survival in the comments.’ I intend to refine the question somewhat to include what skill sets would you be able to bring to today if you were suddenly transported to an economy that money was of extremely limited value?

I have lived in places where money was of very limited value. Most island communities are like this even today – money only has value if there is somewhere to spend it, borrow it, lend it. The old adage that it’s made round to go round is absolutely core to its value. In a barter based economy, skill sets and personal social contracts are the order of the day.

So, what would I bring to the table? Some of this stuff I did years ago, so my skills are a bit rusty, but I could pick them up again fairly quickly. If I could bring a few things with me, a good knife, a ball of nylon cord, and some vegetable and kefir seeds would be the items I’d start with. It’s a bit like building a CV for the dark ages.

  • Rotational cropping with nitrogen fixing plants (clover), coupled with composting and earthworm husbandry.
  • Plant propagation skills which include harvest, storage, preservation, and seed storage.
  • Bee-keeping, honey processing.
  • Hide preparation, preservation, and tanning for leather
  • Clay processing, building, wood firing, and salt glazing pottery
  • Brewing alcohol, including distilling spirits that can be safely consumed
  • Growing sour dough yeasts and making bread

And I’d probably be a dab hand at catching fish, and not too bad at aquaculture, given the right temperatures and species. I can read and write, albeit not in latin, and my maths is sort of ok-ish, so I think my best bet in Europe would be to head for a monastery if I wanted to preserve the ‘good life’. I can draw out labyrinths, so perhaps I’d find a gap somewhere in some monastic order. I think realistically, I’d do better heading towards the warmer climes, and finding a nice fishing village looking for someone who can take raw agricultural, horticultural, and aquacultural materials and create some added value. The trick in barter cultures is to be able to add value – everyone can catch a fish or raid a nest – the creator of a good gin is a valuable person to have around.

But Europe? Europe? Honestly, why would anyone want to go to such verminous and pestilential place, filled with oppressive regimes and bizarre religious activities? And it was no better in 1000 AD. My venue of choice for a flashback to 1000 AD would be the Cook Islands. Frankly, my dark ages CV would be of limited value – reading and writing and to an extent, maths – irrelevant; the plant propagation/fish farming would be of value; I don’t know that there’s viable clay for pottery – if so, great; tanning would be pretty much limited to dog or perhaps shark hide, bread depends on grain/flour, I’m unsure about the presence of honey bees (doubt it somehow); alcohol might be an option. What I could bring to bear is art and craft skills, and once I’d refined my limited Maori into Cook Island Maori language, story telling could be a good thing along with helping out with hunting and fishing. At least it would be clean, warm, healthy, and ok, so it wouldn’t have achieved the levels of ‘civilisation’ of Europe, but really, who cares? The end result is a planet that has a severely compromised immune system and a diminished resale value. I’ll take fresh fish and tropical fruit, washed down with clean water, on a tropical island surrounded by friendly, smiling people any day. That’s what I call civilisation. You can keep the horrors of the cathedral/plague ridden/crusade driven insanity.

How would you survive if suddenly transported back to 1000 AD? Leave your suggestions for survival in the comments.

joy to the world

For a number of reasons, the last few weeks have been chaotic. We’re busy and trying to get things done – and life sometimes attacks all at once. In the middle of all of this my Aunty Joy slipped away. She’d been unwell for a long time and I’m sure in the heart of the grief there was release for everyone as well. The last time I saw Aunty Joy she was as I have ever known her. She always wore her hair in a plait over the top of her head – a bit like a halo I guess. Loud, sharp, loving, believing, welcoming, laughing, fearless – look you straight in the eye stuff. Wonderful.

When we were kids we used to absolutely live for the family assaults on the drains on my Grandparent’s farm. The drains were home to the native freshwater lobster – koura – ‘crawlies’ we called them. Aunty Joy would be front and centre, in the drains and grabbing the crawlies with her bare hands, and flipping them into the kerosene tins we used as buckets. Bare hands. I still have a thing about dealing with crawlies with a net let alone my bare hands. I know, I know, harden up. We’d cook the crawlies, peel the now red shells off, and enjoy the succulent flesh with fresh brown bread and butter. I can remember the absolute pleasure Joy took in the simple (but fabulous) food.

Later in life there would’ve been a good chance engaging with the police if I’d had another of Joy’s measures of gin. Great gins and tonics, ice, fresh lemons. But heavens, the generous measures had to be carefully managed if you were planning to drive at some stage.

Aunty Joy was part of my learning to drive. She took on the responsibility of caring for my Bedstafar after Bedstamor died. We used to drive down to visit them and I did thousands of kilometers of highway driving before I got anywhere near a driving test. As a result, when I got to the test stage it was literally ‘drive around the block, hmmm, I can see you’ve done this before, here’s the licence’.

Aunty Joy worked a friesian cow farm, and as a kid I spent time with her and her family as they exhibited their prize winning cows. I found it all kind of strange as we had never exhibited/contested with our cows (I was a seriously city kid by then too). I can remember feeling that our cows were kind of like family, and you don’t go showing your family like that. Well, I know, some families do; but we didn’t. I learned some things about judging cows, however, I was to blow any credibility in this respect with Aunty Joy later when I dared enquire about getting the wonderful black and white hides for floor mats – a kind of kiwi zebra skin mat. Looking back I don’t know what I was thinking – perhaps it was the gin.

Last week there was a major power cut here in Wellington – even the Beehive had its electricity nipped. I thought at the time as I scampered down the endless flights of stairs to get out of my building, probably Joy getting a last statement. She’d have laughed loudly at the pricking of the balloons of stuck-up politicians and inflated bureaucrats. I can remember the intense arguments over politics at pretty much any family gathering. Oh boy. Head for the hills. Aunty Joy had an opinion and had absolutely no compunction in articulating it clearly and loudly. She was of the generation of Sonja Davies – Bread and Roses, and the Labour Party could not have lost a more staunch and consistent member. I believe Aunty Joy genuinely saw the Party as a champion for the rights of people – workers – the common kiwi. She certainly had the heart and strength for it and if every person was as staunch in these things we’d have a rather different distribution of resources in New Zealand.

Finally, for this commentary, mention of Aunty Joy cannot go by without her faith in action. I’ve mentioned her Labour Party affiliation, however Aunty Joy welcomed people, young people in particular, into her heart and home. I’m willing to bet that at her funeral there’d be more than a few people who’d been supported in their youth by words and deeds from Aunty Joy. Pivotal to Aunty Joy was her strong faith – her engagement with the Lutheran Church community in Palmerston North will be missed – truly the passing of a legend. I was unable to attend her funeral. I can imagine it though – in my mind I can hear (and she would’ve loved) the old Lutheran hymnsWhat a friend we have in Jesus and the like. Her passing has left a much bigger gap in my heart than I would ever have guessed, and yet I’m glad too. Last night when I was listening to a cd and heard a rendition of ‘What a Wonderful World‘ – it’s kind of our family’s theme at these times – I felt sure Aunty Joy was reunited with her Arthur, and all was as it should be.

write on

How to take a trip and never have to leave the farm. Dates me – and possibly you too, if you remember the Jim Stafford song about the Wildwood Weed. No, I haven’t been exploring the apparent joys of having a sack of seeds, or buds (now just stop that, you rascals), instead I have been offline, reading and writing up the first draft of my study proposal. It feels not too bad, however I’m torn between thinking I haven’t done enough (seven pages) while think I’ve done too much (two pages was the request). But what to cut out? And will that damage my chances? Is too much likely to damage my chances?

It’s giving me the freak out, no doubt. I think I might compromise and trim down the seven pages to two pages of elegant simplicity, and then send both documents. Or maybe, attach the rest as an appendix. Or do more research and expand it out to – say – a succinct 20 (or so) pages. I believe Einstein’s doctoral thesis was about a dozen pages, pretty much based on what happens in a cup of very hot tea. S’true.

so, where’s all the money gone then eh?

I don’t understand why New Zealand has this on-going issue with literacy. I have an opinion or two, but I don’t understand it.

My parents learned to read and write using a slate. I still have my grandmother’s school exercise books that she wrote when she was 8-10. There’s a message there – learning has been valued in my family for generations – or the books wouldn’t have been saved. As an aside it speaks volumes for the quality of paper in those days. Mum and Dad taught me to read and write before I went to school – I wrote and made drawings in the white space in newspapers, and on the brown paper groceries were wrapped in in those days. There wasn’t a whole lot of money in our house. I learned more words at school (the teacher used flash cards) and I was able to access more books. Dad cherished books, and would read us comics (yay) and articles from the newspaper (somehow not the same). We were given books as gifts. My parents never attended high school, however my siblings and I can all read and write. Our children (and their children) can also read and write. Could there be a gene for it?

Over the years tens of thousands (if not millions) of dollars have been spent (wasted?) on literacy. And the issue is still here – worse now than ever. I don’t have the figures to substantiate the worsened condition, however, I offer that if, after the investment, the issue exists at all then the issue has worsened. I am concerned that literacy may have become resistant to the financial drugs that have been applied.

Technology doesn’t appear to have offered any sort of wonder drug either. I’m old enough to remember when Sesame Street first aired on New Zealand tv. I recall the clapping of hands from the teaching community that – at last – we were going to see a new generation of bright, clean, literate kids in schools. Not that there’s anything wrong with hand clapping, or freshly scrubbed youngsters with reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic skills. A little later we had the Spanish component of the drug removed, and the Maori upgrade applied. And I think this was a good thing too – reaches further into our national heart and spirit.

I became involved with teaching when I discovered one of my work mates (aged in his early twenties) couldn’t read and write sufficiently well to be able to withdraw $70 from the bank. He’d had to run back and forth between a couple of branches, withdrawing $10 at a time…

I can understand people arriving in New Zealand needing assistance with practical New Zealand English. I have worked with students who’re highly educated in their own country and context – an electrical engineer with a Masters degree from Taiwan, a high court lawyer from India, a business executive from Japan, an architect from Iran, a vet with a double doctorate from Yugoslavia, and others. They didn’t have any literacy issues – they did have English issues.

When I began learning how to help people learn I was told that ‘If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught’.

I’ve often writhed with this when I’ve had students come back with less than stellar performances, leaving me wondering what else I could’ve, should’ve done. I’ve spent many an hour outside of the classroom building better resources, tuning my writing, reading texts to improve my practice – whatever I could come up with to try to get the seed to germinate and grow for the student(s) concerned.

I can remember talking to a daunting ‘guru’ who somewhat pointedly let me know it was my post-colonial attitude that caused me to blame the victims. At the end of our conversation I think we wanted me to feel guilty for every education malaise in New Zealand since the arrival of humans. Not that he had any solutions either, although I suspect he would’ve been very adept at dealing with any surplus funding.

On the one hand I don’t understand why New Zealand has any literacy issues, and on the other hand I don’t understand where the money has gone. Recently I’ve spoken to a number of people expressing my incomprehension that the issue is still with us. Not one had any better answer. Oddly, no one mentioned needing more money, or more technology. Today I finally had an inspiration. Saying “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught’ is tantamount to saying, ‘If the patient succumbs, the doctor hasn’t practiced medicine’.

Everyone has something to learn, everyone has something to teach

Way, way back in the 1970s – yep, I had flared trousers and pet dinosaur – I was interested in what we called ‘learning exchanges’. The concept is simple enough. I know how to put in a fish pond and water garden, you know how to write ruby on rails, we get together and swap/share the information. Money may, or may not, change hands. Generally not – the concept was ‘exchange’. Barter.

The weak link in the chain (especially in the 70s) was how to let people know what was available to learn, and what could they offer to teach. The School of Everything has attempted to address this using a Drupal implementation. It’s sort of a cross between a crappy poster in the supermarket for piano lessons and the labour exchange.

School of Everything is a site where teachers can advertise, and everyone can browse for someone to teach what they’re looking for.

It’s free to use, whether you’re teaching, learning or both. To contact teachers or advertise your own teaching, all you have to do is register.

Limitations: UK only (at the moment), teaching is not for free. Not entirely limiting however, and it’s great to see a web-2 variation/inspiration on an old idea.

stuck in the boondocks?

Ok. So you’re stuck in the boondocks and yet, weirdly, you have a call, if not a burn to learn stuff. Oh, how I know the feeling. And you and I both know that Tim Berners-Lee and Noam Chomsky are not going to do a double act down the pub on Friday night. So what do you do? You’ve burned the local library out (both books), bought a beer for the one bright light in boondockville, and now… and now?

Well, good news. Now you can check out lectures by and interviews with some of the world’s leading lights, not at the local pub, to be sure, but right here at Oh yeah, Chomsky’s going to be there, as will Tim (that’d be Sir Timothy) Berners-Lee.

When you find a spark of the burn to learn, even in the boondocks, the best thing anyone can do is pour on petrol and back up apiece.

further tiddlywiki applications

Writing on from the use of a memory stick for a mobile research centre, there’s a little extra to add. It’s probably worth having a 1gb stick rather than a 2gb, because with a little care and attention you can can keep the volume of the contents down to the level whereby you can back up to cd effortlessly. Memory sticks can die without warning and so a backup plan is useful. Portableapps supports a backup as well – of course, if it’s valuable, you’ve backed it up; if it’s not, it doesn’t matter. Right?

I tried setting up my iPod with the same kind of set up (as mentioned above), it works, but my iPod (the 30gb model) was so sluggish it’s not something I’d actually use except for backup. The solid state nanotypes might be better, but given the price of memory sticks now crowbarring software on to an iPod is hardly worth the effort.

With regard to references, Cynthia Russell has created a tiddlywiki dedicated to APA referencing, and another on qualitative research.

postmodern hand lens

pomo-lensI read somewhere that 80% of all scientific research can be done with the naked eye, and of the remaining, 80% of that can be done with a hand lens. This is not a hand lens, nor is it an image of a hand lens, you sneeky Magritte fan you. It’s a picture of my memory stick. You can buy a 1gb memory stick like this for around $NZ30 – yes, I know, you can get them bigger and cheaper – but for the price of a couple of coffees and bit of a snack you can have a portable research tool that a few years ago was unimaginable.

Here’s how to make your pomo hand lens:

First catch a nice fresh memory stick. A 1gb is sufficient, you can get by with smaller, even down to the 250mb size – but why scrimp?

Next, surf off to, and grab the PortableApps Suite. Or, do as I did, get the PortableApps Lite – I’m try to keep my weight down, so less is more. Follow the install instructions and install PortableApps on your memory stick. If there’s a chance you’ll be using your memory stick on some antique (pre-xp) computer, remember to grab the patch. Without the patch the PortableApps won’t work, but the subapplications – Firefox portable is the application I was interested in – work fine.

Make sure you download and install Firefox portable. Check everything is working, don’t be loading the fox off your hard drive and thinking everything is good.

Next go off to and download the latest copy of a tiddlywiki. Make sure you save it to your memory stick.

Next, go to TiddlySnip and install the plugin/extension for Firefox. Do the configuration thing, linking the TiddlySnip to your on-memory stick tiddlywiki.

*Bing!* Job done. TiddlySnip allows you to surf to a web site, select a portion of text, right mouse button and scrapbook that snippet (with the url and references AND tags you select) to your now ever-expanding and ever increasing in value on-memory stick wiki. You go to the library? Do your thing. You go to work? Do your thing. You go anywhere? Do your thing. My memory stick has become more valuable to me now than a diary or a notebook ever was. If I was studying now I’d never spend time trying to find those lost references – in fact, I think I’d be building my thesis pretty much from the get go. Great tools. And all for half a dozen cups of coffee.

I am Joe’s Goals…

If you haven’t cleaned out the garage for some time, in the back corner, underneath the yogurt maker, the budgie cage, the fondue set, and those lovely dayglo orange lampshades (no, wait, there’s a fortune to be made in retro decor) there’s a pile of slightly musty Reader’s Digest magazines. The third one down (no, the OTHER third one) contains an article entitled “I am Joe’s Heart”, or “I am Joe’s Lung”, or “I am Joe’s Gonad”. I should mention that I believe DeWitt and Lila Wallace are perhaps the first bloggers – they took content from other sources and repurposed it for their own publication, and they incorporated feedback – jokes and comment from readers. I always used to try to nail the ‘Word Power’ section. Usually got near to it. But I digress.

It should come as no surprise that some enterprising person should repurpose ‘I am Joe’s bits’ into Joe’s Goals. I’m liking the simple and effective interface, and the generally useful journal. Compact, speedy, versatile – it just works. And as seeing as I’m more likely to have net access with a spare moment than a pen and a diary, that’s a good thing. I also like the positive reinforcement of the chart. Here’s what other people are using Joe’s Goals for – the most popular goals from the last 7 days:

Get Inspired with Joe’s Goals
Thousands of people use Joe’s Goals every day to track their consistency in accomplishing their every day goals. This page is meant to inspire you to get started tracking and meeting your goals. See what others are doing and get ideas to help you live your life more effectively.

When you click on the links you can see how well the rest of the vitamin takers/nail nibbler/flossers are doing. Kind of compelling in an almost too much information kind of way, but you keep clicking anyway – I mean, who knew?