Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Free tools to backup your online accounts

Thought I already had an article covering some of this. Couldn't find it though. so putting it here for now.

I just came across a lifehacker article detailing free tools to backup your online accounts. just had to share it cos it's my #1 concern with cloud computing. since I'm committed to the cloud it's now about covering the down side. that being what if I lose my account for any number of reasons. As long as I have a recent backup I'm not completely screwed.

So the question is, how easy is it to get a backup of all this cloud based stuff?

for Google docs I'm impressed. I initially thought I could only backup a folder at a time but I clicked on the my folders view to see the root folders. Selected all using the drop down, right clicked in the pane, chose export and got a zip containing all files I have in gdocs. I clicked the email me option since it was going to take a while.

I've found some small niggles. there seem to be a problem with unordered lists in word documents. They don't copy properly. Instead you get a big blank section that goes over multiple pages. I haven't looked further to see what other issues I found.

I also found that file names with characters that aren't allowed for files in windows like ':' cause errors when unzipping. I didn't check to see if these files were actually included when unzipped. But I can fix this by never naming a file using these characters. Would be simpler to have an option in gdocs to list the valid characters that invalid ones will be switched to but that may come in time.

Overall though I'm just really happy that Google Docs are taking this issue seriously and built right into the tool an export function. I'm just waiting until it's more solid but atleast I have some kind of backup with a promise of something better.

Just read about Googles Data liberation front. A project designed to give access to data back to users. I hope this takes things forward.

I've recently signed up to and set up daily backups for gmail, gdocs, facebook, twitter and a few others. All seems great so far. I've got a bunch of backups. The help articles seem really helpful. they explain that the restore process is different for different applications. Some allow full restore. Others don't have a restore. But either way you'll atleast have your data. finally I've got some peace of mind.

Came across and article on how to: escape from Google. Seemed to go through the backup process and restoring to other services.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Innovation in learning

Working at a university is, for me, a dream. Don't get me wrong. The places I've worked before have been great but I'm a born learner and I love teaching when I get the chance. To be clear about it my degree and a levels centre around education, physical education but education all the same. So I spend my days now working for an institution where my hobbies are becoming my work. Yay.

Well... of course it's not all roses. I'm kind of impatient and I want to learn the way I learn. Not the way everyone else learns. I know there are similarities but I do get frustrated when the learning process feels more difficult than it should be.

My career has revolved around the web. creating applications to be used online. Web 2.0 technologies are becoming pervasive with many mainstream tools now incorporating them. the main advantage for me is that everything is becoming more personalised and fits around me more rather than the other way around.

That is, everything except those industries where market processes and the competition they generate don't play such a strong role. Education is a prime example. Everything I've seen that's developed by main stream educators for the mass market has simply been old technology delivered using new technology. Take text books. all we get now is digital books an about 2 million different formats. So online feels just about the same as offline. Just with a shiny screen and a battery life. Education does realise that it's essentially still dominated by rudimentary text based technology.

So how do we take this forward? What can we do to connect the potential of the technology with the potential of the material? That's what my real life goals are about. Knowledge is about freedom. Up til now gaining a vast wealth of knowledge has been confined to those with access. those without good reading skills, who have disabilities, without the means to get the necessary books. The list goes on of people who find it hard to enhance their knowledge and learn how to apply that knowledge to improve their circumstances.

My dream is also about personal achievement and ability. I've spent my life learning what I can do as a human being and applying it to achieve my goals. I've found it enriching and freeing. I now believe I can genuinely achieve anything I set my mind to simply because I'm human. The technology that comes with being human, the amazing senses, fantastic brain and all the rest are millenia ahead of the technology humans have made themselves.

I believe strongly that a greater knowledge of our minds, bodies and souls will make us better at both getting what we want and being happy when we get it. I feel this kind of knowledge of say knowing how to eat foods you love, maybe even indulge yourself, yet be healthier and fitter than you used to be, can add real balance to your life.

My basic plan is to find a course I love either on our institutional vle or on the open version at openlearn. Go through it and begin studying it. The difference being that I will look for areas that I think I could bring to life using technology. I'll come up with some rules about costs and sustainability and whatever but the point is rather than just saying what I don't like I want to reinterpret the content and show how technology could bring it to life.

I intend to do this in my own time at first and have already begun learning about Google Web Toolkit (GWT) in preparation. Longer term I'm looking at how to continue this in my work time. I've heard about the 20% time that Google employees get and also that 3M apparently has been doing something similar for years. How would be do that in a university given their funding structure? I'm not completely sure but I have ideas around pushing this idea as research and thus there may be funding available to research new ways to bring content to life. Particularly because I believe this is an emerging field and this area is at the forefront and most in need of investigation.

How would it fit with the current VLE?
We use Moodle. And we have a lot of people and courses already on it. So it's a pretty good system as it is. Problem is that getting Moodle to do anything other than what it's designed for isn't the easiest thing in town. My simple answer is to not make any changes to what we have. Rather find ways to make it simple and secure to connect Moodle to other applications and solutions. If that were the case I could just build something separate and then hook into Moodle in the way we all agree. This is the standard approach across the web and ensures that if my solution isn't ready or whatever then we can just hook into another one that is.

It also means we wouldn't be affecting the underlying stability of the current solution (Moodle). By being essentially separate we benefit from loose ties and can develop at our own pace with our own goals. We just get content from the Moodle solution and report back as necessary.

Will one person have enough time?
That's why I'm looking at GWT. Moodle and most development tools or frameworks involve too much heavy lifting. You have to be an expert in and write bunches of code for html, javascript, css and lots of other technologies. You then have to test on all the major browsers, screen sizes, input devices. The list just goes on and on and it's growing by the week.

GWT does so much of this work for you, or that's the theory, leaving you to focus on what it is that you were trying to do in the first place. So firstly I want to see if GWT is up to scratch. My plan is to learn the basics then bring a small part of my favourite course to life. Make it interactive, mobile and fun. Above all make it easier to learn and apply the underlying knowledge.

if GWT isn't up to scratch then I'll look for something else.

I'll just keep updating this document as I intend it to be the basis for my proposal.

Ultimately I just want to scratch my own itch through technology. if I create little solutions that make my life and learning easier. I'm certain I could make this available for others with ease. That's the plan anyway.

I've also just discovered the term 'Technological determinism'. Now I realise there's a term for the opposite to the way I work and think. Humans come first. Technology is just a product of human work that can help or hinder future work or pleasure. That's not a definition it's just my view. Everything I develop is written by a human for another human to use. So the technology should adapt to the human not the other way around.

To add to that I think it will be a long while before we genuinely begin to improve on the technology the average human is born with. We have visual capacities to create 3d, full colour, real time worlds within our minds yet our eyes (cameras) are not up to the standards of those in a cheap phone. Our in built software is so well developed we can differentation individual people and conversations from a massive of noise in a lecture theatre. We don't have human made technology that can do that, for free. We even have the ability to fix and fuel ourselves using simple items that lie around. Current technology always needs human intervention for this. 

What I see is that we need to develop the technology we create to a point where it matches the technology we are born with. Only then will we truly realise just how quickly and effectively we learn and only then will we start achieving our real potential. 

So, in essence,

Rejecting technological determinism should be a mantra in our professional conversations. - danah boyd

Play, taking a break and it's benefits
I couldn't think which place was best to put this thought. Here seemed good. I feel strongly that the brain works like a muscle and thus training methods used on muscles and the body must apply to the mind and vice versa.

I feel that training specifically for one sport makes you good at that sport but can make you weak or umbalanced for life and other challenges. A tennis player often develops more strength and coordination in one side of the body than the other. A sprinter is great at running forward but what about side to side, around corners. that's needed in other sports. What about your core fitness. Do the activities you undertake keep your back, your shoulders and other areas in the right shape to sort the garden out or fix your car?

If they don't, and worse, if they leave you prone to injuries then you've got problems. This is why I play touch rugby and football aswell as tennis. it doesn't give me complete all round fitness but it does give balance. I also just play for fun a lot of the time. Competing when I feel like it, not all the time.

I think the mind is the same. No matter how hard I try to concentrate sooner or later I'll need a break. the longer I've been doing so the more my mind is open to distractions. thing is I often get a lot of work done after these distractions. I also find that when I focus on one problem for a few days or longer I feel other skills get a little less honed. Just like with my body.

I wonder whether this implies that it's better to vary your work and habits to keep all your skills and faculties in shape. Otherwise you'll have an amazing ability to complete the task you've been occupied with but will be out of practice for other things like playing around, relaxing and dealing with other types of problem.

Just a thought

Monday, 19 October 2009

Open Screen Project

I was just passed a fascinating article describing Adobes fascinating approach to delivering flash on the iPhone. In this article I can across the Open Screen Project that is trying to make it easier to deliver quality users interfaces across all the upcoming screen types from mobile phones and other handheld devices to large screen tvs with browsers or operating systems built in.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Migrating to a new pc

So I've got a new machine at work. Trying to streamline the process of migrating to it. Installing programs, copying files. The whole malarkey. so far some things have been really easy. Other things not so. Thought I'd log the process for anyone else in the same boat.

What was easy?
This isn't a complete list but the general idea of easy stuff is that which I didn't actually have to reinstall and add all the values back in. Under that list I have

  • Eclipse: The well known software development tool. I just shut it down, copied the relevant files to the new machine. It started up first time. I even went into my android development environment and published the work so I know it's working
  • Zend studio: We've got this too, just did the same as eclipse. What a dream
  • Chrome: A quick google gave me the answers. copied profile data. Installed chrome. I'm now up and running. I even seem to be on the beta version not standard. I can't believe it's remembered that
  • Miranda: Found the profile in documents and settings\application data\miranda. Copied across. Installed miranda. Voila. 
  • Startmenu: sdince I'm reinstalling everything to the same location, and everything's pretty much in its default location. thought I'd copy my start menu folders. Minaly cos I've organised them into folders like social, media, internet etc. Just backed up the orginal and copied across. 
  • Quicklaunch: I use the shortcut links on the taskbar a lot. I judst copied these from documents and settings\application data\internet explorer\quicklaunch.
  • Tweetdeck: Found a tweetdeck migration tip.Ok it couldn't import the passwords. I don't mind that makes it seem more secure. So re registered. Now fine. Easy
What wasn't so easy?
So far the main candidate is Firefox. I copied the profile data. It didn't notice. I used FEBE to copy the extensions and profile. Still didn't work. Profile restore errored. The backup process took a while. Overall not a good experience. I have still yet to get the extensions in. It's not terrible. IE would be the worst but I haven't even bothered migrating. Just doesn't compare so well to chrome. Ok. Tried again using FEBE t create extension backups. Then cleo to create one installer. Seemed to work fine. I have firebug back again yay.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Can Fitbit track my activity?

The age old question for me is whether one device can do enough to track my activity in the way I want it to? I've seen plenty of devices, like the rest of us.

One of my favourites is fitbug. My wife had one for a few years and swore by it. It accurately tracked her steps, uploaded data to its website and did some analysis. It was really good but it was over £100 if I remember correctly and the website was a separate subscription. Free for the first x months but a constant charge thereafter. Not my style. Also, and most importantly, you didn't own your own data. I couldn't find a way to export the data I'd uploaded so I could take it elsewhere if I couldn't keep up the subscription or simply wanted a change. I was locked in. I won't stand for that.

My favourite device was the Sony gps enabler HGE-100. What a mouthful!. It just worked with my sony music phone as a handsfree and tracked my movement whenever gps was available. It impressed me mainly because it fit into my lifestyle. I didn't have this extra bulky device to carry around. And, amazingly, it was sensitive enough to track my playing tennis. Something that I've found that tests these devices. The problem was that there was no web site to upload the data to and also that I couldnm't get the data out either so I didn't own the data. also it was gps only so didn't work without a gps signal. I want to know about all activity such as inside buildings where gps doesn't reach.

I've looked a little at using my G1 phone to bridge this gap since it's an open platform that I can actually program for. I've tried a bunch of free apps but none did everything I want. Only one uses the onboard accelerometer to track movement without gps. The GPs on the phone is not very sensitive so it couldn't track me playing tennis. I even made a start to an activity tracker project to address the lack of support for pedometer type devices. I'd like to see a reusable set of funcitons that can convert the movement data the phone generates into standard positional and activity information that any application could easily use regardless of whether you have a gps fix or not. Any way I'll keep working on that but progress will be slow since work has to come first.

So there we are. I haven't yet found a device I can use ubiquitously. Until now, I hope. I heard about a fascinating new product called fitbit yesterday.

It promises all I've been searching for. It's sold in the US only at the mo at $99. So not too much. It's tiny. Wireless and unobtrusive. You wear it all the time, even in your sleep if you want to and have a full analysis of your daily activity. I've found a review My week with the Fitbit wireless pedometer and read a little from the blog. Now it's revived my interest in a separate gadget. 

I'm thinking of comparing the market. Seeing if it's best of breed for my requirements. Thought I'd try their activity tracker website. I just signed up. entered my basic details and what I had for breakfast. It's certainly the best I've used so far. Much easier to enter foods and weights cos it gives lots of intelligent suggestions. Not sure how to enter amounts for fluids though. I'll figure it out. It was free though so I'm getting confident because I still get the impression the competition is based on subscriptions. 

Monday, 5 October 2009

What is 'Artificial life'?

Listening to the Biota live podcast I believe I've finally found the term for what I've been researching for years. It's typical that now it seems so obvious. 'Artificial life' or alife is such an obviuos term but I think I was getting it confused with artificial intelligence which is part of but not exactly what drives me.

So as I develop this post I want to investigate

  1. what exactly is artificial life?
  2. what projects are out there?
  3. how the current work can be applied to projects and solutions I want to work on. 
What is artificial life?
Reading the wikipedia definition I've first learnt that alife has a bottom up approach to investigation. I generally like to do both bottom up and top down at the same time. I know that I really want to create some very basic applications to mimic life processes such as the krebs cycle and photosynthesis. Then combine these processes into a larger organism. I'm likely to start building a very basic cell, and then try and get two or more cells working together in symbiosis. That's a long way off, but I want to see how these two main philosophies can enhance my learning.

I've just been talking to a friend. I wonder how much this work overlaps with computational biology. Following that thread also lead me to Computational Biomodelling and the Cellular model.

There are plenty of projects around artificial life. I won't list them all hear. I'll just list those that I hear about and interest me.

  • Breve: I heard this is a tool that can be used for education. You can create your own life forms and see how they interact. 
  • Darwin@home
    • Youtube video

Bio Informatics
The study of bio informatics relates to artificial life because it is concerned with getting information out of living systems. Useful tools I have found include those which help visualise any molecule, Databases of collected information. Some of these databases appear to be web based so the potential to pull this info in to analyse may be there.

I've also found a list of terms related to this area. A bit in depth at the mo but gives specific terms and phrases to search on. 

I also came across Spine(Signal Processing in node environment). It's very niche now but shows that the concept of distributed network architecture revolving around the body is gaining ground. Specknet is a similiar idea

I just Stephen Guerin speaking on the biota live podcast #59 about his work on simulating the krebs cycle, use of energy and related items. these are the aspects of artificial life I'm most interested in so I checked out his company redfish and found his bio. Their projects so far sound fascinating. Definitely seems like one to watch.

A key part of articifial life is how well it describes the actual process of life that it portrays. Protein dynamics is fundamental to this and apparently our knowledge is maturing as we speak

update 20091215
Check out what you can do with genetic algorithms, Javascript and HTML 5 canvas, assuming you're running Google Chrome that is. There are tons more chrome experiments but this impressed me with the use of genetic algorithmns in a web browser.

Basic movement patterns

It's just occurred to me that I may have a way of expressing my view that there are basic movement patterns to each sport and activity. Consequently by learning these basic patterns we'd find all sports and activities easier and achieve higher skill levels sooner.

That's obviously a big ask but I got inspired whilst watching a bruce lee dvd boxset and subsequently playing tennis today and last week. I've been able to combine some of the basic movement patterns from martial arts that work the core of the body into my tennis strokes. By doing this I have much more power and accuracy yet feel far less tired.

Over time I want to explain how this was possible and how using the concepts of jeet kune do in tennis can improve your game. It reflects how I learn and improve so it complements my passion for learning.

The main focus in this is that by finding basic patterns I can then ensure I train myself and those I coach in these areas in the knowledge that we're getting maximum benefit for the work we're putting in. The idea really started taking shape when watching the extras on the bruce lee dvd set. Dan Inosanto explained that each martial art movement can generally be understood by considering the implement or weapon it was designed for. It surprised me to see that the bobbing and weaving we've come to expect in boxing actually came from copying asian fighters trained to use knives rather than fists. This style encourages more movement.

I then thought it might be fun to see what this philosophy could achieve when focused on tennis. Could I use the philosophies of Jeet kune do and martial arts as a whole, as a philosophy of movement and incorporate tennis into this philosophy.

My first experiments on this have worked really well. I've found my power is now coming from my core and my legs instead of my shoulders. Specifically I've moved to planting my back foot and pushing through it. At first consciously but now it's just reflex. The arms and shoulders are left to provide control and spin. Much like a high performance car gets its power from the rear wheels and control from its front.

I've also found that I have much more time to focus on maintaining balance. Good balance is always the key to good technique so it's really starting to help my whole game.

Another aspect I really want to look into is my mental approach. Bruce lee explains how he centres his chi to bring his powers under control. I understand this as focusing his mind to be relax yet alrert. Right now I have a tendency to get excited and rush a shot when I try for power. I know timing and relaxation are fundamental to power and speed so I want to learn what martial arts has to offer in this regard.