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So, just how complex is Google PageRank?

I found this page about how Google sees itself as developing the "perfect search engine" interesting...

PageRank performs an objective measurement of the importance of web pages by solving an equation of more than 500 million variables and 2 billion terms.

Just in passing, I used Google's search engine interface on my mobile phone this past weekend, it's staggeringly fast and surprisingly usable despite not all sites being mobile browser friendly... including this one. Uh oh.


Search Engine Optimisation should be about helping people find relevant content

Sometimes I really struggle with the concept of people tricking search engines into listing their sites by including popular keywords on their pages, yet the keywords they have used have little relevance to the content on their sites. They simply serve to draw more people to click on their sites in say, a Google search. It kinda defeats what search tools like Google are trying to achieve.

Gerry writes,

"Sometimes, those involved in search engine optimization lose sight of certain absolutely critical issues. The objective should not be to optimize for any particular search engine. It is to optimize for people who search. This is a subtle but essential distinction. It's easy to get obsessed with the technical aspects of Google and Yahoo!"

Here is the article in full: Search engine optimization: beyond search keywords


Clothing care labels are pants

It occurred to me this evening how unfriendly clothing care labels are. I failed dismally at even the basic symbols, nevermind the advanced ones!

Even though I looked closely, tried to eliminate the known ones from the unknowns, I still couldn't fathom the cross with the triangle. The cross wasn't a stumbling block... it's a universally accepted symbol for 'don't'

... but a triangle - come again! Most things I don't bother checking... but special, expensive items that I'll depend upon on mountain walks meant that I took a bit more care over.

Here are the full set of clothing care labels with explanations - for those that care for their pants more than I do.

Matt tries to understand Google Juice

Matthew Eaves is using his new site to research Google Juice


Google's recent additions to services, tools, and interfaces could form the next community platform

This website, Simply Google (from Confusability) shows just how extensive Google has become with its range of services and tools. Google's software is very well implemented and deployed.

What I'd like to see now is how all these tools fit together, in some sort of diagram. The connections between Google Maps, Google Mail, Google Talk, Google Calendar are clearly signs of how a Google Community platform could exist in the near future. However, it needs some sort of adhesive to join these tools together before this can happen.

Some of the elements are already there:

Identity: Google Mail accounts...
Notification: RSS (XML) connections, in search results... calendar event items... blogs... news
Navigation: Google Search tools which are extensive, including a range of media, text, audio, video, images
Individual space:
Some notion of discourse: Google Talk (synchronous) | Google Mail (asynchronous)

This diagram, produced in November 2003 whilst working at Ultralab, shows our thinking about the components of online community software.

larger version

I wonder if Google has a community-ware product in mind or just a strong adhesive?


Google Calendar

No surprise really, Google is rapidly rolling out its portfolio of social software tools, so quickly in fact that this feels like a weekly event nowadays.

The latest offering is Google Calendar - a very capable online diary tool, which uses Ajax for excellent interface features.

Significant features include:

  • drag and drop interface (Ajax technology), very intuitive and easy to use.
  • adding, editing, moving events is snappy, just as you need it to be. In fact, I found it noticeably quicker than Apple's iCal diary application. This alone makes Google Calendar attractive.
  • Synchronises with Apple iCal standard... (though only in one direction... from GCal to iCal)
  • imports your existing calendar files from iCal or CSV format files.
  • Share your calendar with groups of people, and set security options about who can see what events. Uses RSS (XML) and iCal format files.

I am very impressed and seriously considering using Google Calendar over my existing setup, using Apple's iCal client software and Mac OS X server software with WebDav running for web accessible diary and sharing.

Read what others thought...

...and how to subscribe to a Google Calendar from Mac OS X iCal.

Here is my public Google calendar in RSS format showing events this week.


Paparazzi! for screen grabbing websites

I often think a list of bookmarked websites are such an uninspiring way of presenting your favourite sites, and quite often I can't associate the website's title with what I am looking for anyway. What I need is a way of browsing my favourite websites with a thumbnail view of the bookmarked page. Paparazzi captures the website page as a graphic which I could then AppleScript to build a single page of bookmarked sites, with images.

I used this application recently to create an offline website for use on laptop computer in the absence of an Internet connection, when applications like SiteSucker and WebSucker wouldn't work for certain sites.


in Training: Snowdon

Yesterday, the Stepping Stones team climbed Snowdon, (see photographs), the tallest mountain in England and Wales. Sadly the weather wasn't good enough to reach the summit, and we stopped with about 1km to go. Our guide, Ian, was very experienced and he made an excellent call. Along the route, he gave us plenty of advice for walking, equipment and preparation.

If you haven't yet sponsored the team for the Three Peaks Challenge event, please do so here. There is a Black Tie and Walking Boots Ball arranged for the 22nd April - if you wish to attend, please mail me using the email address above. This is to raise money for CARE International. Many thanks to those who have already sponsored me / the team... Gerald, Dave and Gina.

Another conversation this evening led me to consider how dangerous or safe mountaineering is in relation to ironing... hmmm, you can make your own judgements here! Check out Extreme ironing...


So why doesn't the government white paper mention creativity?

Stephen Heppell, a regular writer in The Guardian writes on creativity and observes, how, in the latest white paper, "Higher Standards, Better Schools for All" it never once mentions 'creativity'

"Standard" is mentioned 144 times,
"fail" appears 53 times.

Rather surprisingly, the words "creativity" and "creative" are not mentioned at all, probably uniquely for an education policy paper in the 21st century. Someone has taken their eye off the ball, haven't they?

Read more in Stephen's article.


Outdoor screen for displaying children's digital portfolios to the local community

Ever since the early stages of designing a brand new school, Stepping Stones, there has always been a desire to allow the local community to see some of the wonderful work that takes place inside the school.

The solution lies in bolting a large flat panel screen to the outside wall, with a cable running to a computer situated inside the school and which provides a rolling display of the children's digital portfolio. One of the major concerns other than protecting the screen against the environment, heat, cold and moisture, is security. How could we ensure that the screen we mount on the outside wall of the school building, be secure - especially to the opportunist?

Perhaps a CCTV camera would provide enough of a deterrent for the would-be-thief to reconsider their proposed actions?

As you might imagine, most screens are designed for indoor use, but I have found one LCD screen which might just be suitable for our needs.

"The 32"

Google acquires Sketchup, and plugin for Google Earth

Google announces that they have acquired SketchUp, the powerful 3D modelling / design software. Google maintains their promise to provide SketchUp for educational establishments.

"We believe that supporting education is important. Google is committed to providing students, educators and institutions with low-cost or no-cost software licenses and resources. We think that SketchUp has a place in every classroom, dorm room and student laptop in the world. After all -- we live in 3D. Why shouldn't we start thinking and teaching that way?"

It seems this new acquisition provides the way forward for a stronger relationship between Google Earth and SketchUp, beyond the existing plugin allowing users to create 3D models of buildings and place these on the Google Map... how cool is that!?

Must get some of our Stepping Stones pupils working on this, many of who have already some experience of using SketchUp.

Three Peaks Challenge event, Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike, Snowdon

The staff here at Stepping Stones have formed a Three Peaks Challenge team to raise money for CARE International. The Challenge involves climbing the three tallest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales. We have only 24 hours to complete the challenge, and includes a fixed 10 hours travelling time between Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon - it's a tough event to achieve in the timeframe allowed.

Our team have been in serious training since early February, climbing the local landscape, known as the 'Jumps' in Churt, Surrey and Butser Hill in Hampshire, consisting of a long drag to the summit and is the tallest hill in the area. I'm spending most evenings in the gym to build up my physical and cardiovascular fitness. At the end of the month we have arranged to walk Snowdon as our first attempt at climbing a mountain as a group.

I have decided not to use a traditional paper based method for collecting sponsorship, and instead using the Just Giving website to handle the transactions. Money is sent directly to the charity, Gift Aid is automatically added to the contribution which makes lots of sense from an administrative perspective - whilst collecting the maximum funds possible.

Some information about why we are raising money for CARE International...

"CARE International is a global humanitarian organisation working with over 45 million disadvantaged people in 70 of the world's poorest countries .... its programmes promote positive and lasting change and reduce long-term dependency. CARE also provides emergency food and shelter to survivors of natural disasters, wars and conflicts."

Sponsor me to complete the Three Peaks Challenge event as a member of the Stepping Stones team.

Any contribution, however small, would be much appreciated. Thank you.


Safari, Macromedia Flash Player plugin and Rosetta

Uncovered another nasty gremlin using Intel MacBookPro machine - installing the Macromedia Flash Player Plugin for Safari was impossible. Each time I ran the installer, it appeared to install plugins into the correct places... indeed, Flock and Firefox could access the plugins ok, but Safari repeatedly failed to acknowledge they were present. See Macromedia's test page.

Reading a forum on the Macromedia alerted me to the need to 'check' a checkbox in the Application 'Get Info' --> General panel. It recommends ticking 'Open using Rosetta'

Works fine now of course.


PowerPC software compatibility with Intel Mac

My transition to the new Intel Mac Book Pro has been reasonably seamless - nearly all the current applications work fine under Rosetta (Apple's software emulator enabling PowerPC applications to still run) which does an awesome job.

However, I've stumbled across problems running Apple's Remote Desktop software - it isn't compatible. Users will note that it continually says 'The Remote Desktop Administrator software is out-of-date". Checking the Software Update tool doesn't provide any updates despite the suggestion to do so.

This rather useful page outlines what software is compatible, and what isn't. See also Mac Fix It information.

Some applications are a bit sluggish when launching, but in fact at a comparable speed as my old G4 PowerBook 1.25GHz. The operating system is noticeably faster - and with Intel optimised apps, this will become a little screamer. I love having the iSight camera built into the hardware, and with Apple's PhotoBooth software - this becomes a lot of fun to use.


Turning MySQL data into utf-8 from latin1

Recently, I found myself moving a MySQL database from one MySQL database server to another, causing all sorts of problems, mostly with random characters being replaced with foreign characters. I determined the problem to be related to how the data was encoded, UTF-8 or latin1... and worse, sometimes a mix of the two, arghh.

I thought I had it bad, but think I've escaped lightly,

Derek Sivers writes...

"Did a raw data dump (mysqldump) of the data to a regular text "dump.sql" file.
(85 tables, millions of rows, an 8 gig dump)"

60 hours later, here is Derek's solution.

Derek continues...

You'll be glad you did some day."

Technology really shouldn't be this hard.


Research into online gaming: How do strategy games help learning, particularly in historical studies?

Sasha Millwood led a very interesting action research project today to research the impact of strategy games on learning.

Sasha's research question is:

How do strategy games help learning, particularly in historical studies?

Six researchers met online, using Apple's iChat technology. We spent 2 hours determining the correct network settings for establishing a multiplayer game (Rise of Nations) across 4 different locations. Internet gaming is not new, and has been around for several years, yet the protocols used to establish reliable connections without a Gaming server, is complex and troublesome. So many factors are involved, from people's individual computers, to their broadband connections and how their routers are configured, each being potential points of failure. We worked our way through a maze of technologies and acronyms:

  • NAT - Network Address Translation - allows individual computers to share one public facing IP address
  • DMZ - De-Militarised Zone - a network range that bypasses any firewall and port blocking
  • uPnP - Universal Plug and Play - facilitates device-to-device interoperability
  • Port Forwarding - allocating individual ports to bridge between the public and private IP address range

and is totally dependent on the capability of each router. Eventually we found our way, only to discover dire game play speed where each computer halted as it waited for the host computer to send data.

Ben's strategy was to ensure all machines were set-up within a DMZ, another thought was 'Wouldn't it be nice if all routers were uPnP capable' ... ha!

We have consistently failed to create a multiplayer game with more than two players, without the continual stalling of game play. Has anyone found a solution to playing a multiplayer game of Rise of Nations?

Eventually, we admitted defeat, and we resided to playing two-way multiplayer games, or joining games hosted on the same local network. This didn't force a change in the research question and so several games were played and we have yet to report our findings back as we await the survey form from Sasha.

Well done Sasha for getting us this far.

Just in passing, one 14 year old researcher from Stepping Stones, commented...

"I'm having the time of my life here"

...a lovely moment.

  above: extract from online chat in Rise of Nations game

No comment: take heed of error logs and messages

Having moved my blog to another location following my departure from Ultralab, I was blissfully unaware that I hadn't copied across some dependancies that made 'captcha' comments (y'know, the little graphic containing letters to verify a genuine post) work on the comments form. Arghhh, and so I began thinking how rubbish software is for not alerting us to the fact that something isn't working...

Well, it's not surprising to learn that actually the software was doing a very good job of alerting me to the problem, the error log was full of people trying to comment, but unsuccessfully :-(

A note to us all, check your error log file periodically and find out what your web visitors are trying to do, but failing at. Big apologies to those who have tried to comment, but couldn't, also, thanks to Juli for emailing and pointing out the issue.

Hope there aren't too many bugs...    


New horizons

So a week into the new role at Stepping Stones and the National Hemiplegia Organisation and I feel as though I have achieved quite a bit already.

The week began with a visit from Alison Gee who came to talk to our staff about undergoing a work place degree programme. Home from home :-)

I spent Tuesday setting up some online tools for team collaboration. The online diary is now password protected having learnt a little about .htaccess files. I now understand the purpose of the username / password dialog box in iCal when publishing diaries. I used this nifty .htpasswd file password generator tool.

On Wednesday, I gained some further insights into marketing strategies at the COINS offices, in Slough. A meeting in London with CARE International explored developing a site in India on the basis of our World Classroom concept - joining communities of learners from around the globe, together. A location in India, has already put some of the technology in place and would make an ideal starting point.

Pupils at Stepping Stones have been learning about the possibilities of podcasting, they have also been studying Shakespeare's Macbeth, here is some of their exploratory work into podcasting.

In the week coming, I shall focus my attention towards the Stepping Stones website. One essential feature is to enable pupils and staff to contribute to the development of the site.


Stephen Heppell talks about Learning in the New Millennium project

Stephen Heppell talks to a journalist about Learning in the New Millennium project, a partnership between Nortel and Ultralab.

To play this movie you will need Apple QuickTime software.

Approximately 70Mb, progressive download:

...and it's a goodnight from him. Leaving Ultralab

Many of you will know that after some 10 years working for Ultralab, I have decided to seek new pastures on which to graze and explore. I've had a wonderful time, working with inspirational people and a very supportive team on projects which are innovative and which I've been passionate about. However, as with all good things, it is time to move on and find new opportunities, challenges and adventures!

I have spent quite a bit of time travelling this past week, and it allowed me to consider the range of projects I became involved in, whilst working at Ultralab. The Ultralab Timeline puts some of this into context.

Shortly after joining Ultralab in 1996 whilst studying for my BEd Education Hons degree, I instantly became involved in several projects.


One of which was Learning in the New Millennium (LiNM) with Carole and Greta. Working with Nortel (the big telecommunications company), we were tasked to find out what, if at all, online communities brings to communities of learners in schools and industry. Watch Stephen Heppell talk about the LiNM project. This was a fascinating project, we learnt heaps about children as lecturers as we did about engineers as learners.

I was also working on the CarnaudMetalbox schools project, with Julia Duckworth and 13 schools based around the UK. Here we were supporting schools to establish little web-based projects, largely HTML websites and using the community of other schools to comment and critique each others' work.


The Online Learning Network (OLN) was established and I supported Leonie Ramondt (having just arrived from Australia) in setting up the Online Community, using FirstClass.

The lab bought a class set of Apple Macintosh Performa computers for the Learning Lab, read the to-do list (oldest document I can find that I wrote to do with my work at Ultralab in 1997.

MilliMail concept was born, an email address for every pupil.


Tom Smith worked on Spinalot, whilst I looked at implementing this community tool on several projects, one of which was CarnaudMetalbox.

Working with pupils and staff from Walthamstow School for Girls, together we helped them produce a multimedia CD-ROM.


I began working on early conceptions of eTui, a toy to research children's understanding of meta-level learning.

Worked on implementing an online community (LiveForum) for the departments in Anglia Polytechnic University, as it was then.

1999 - 2003.

I took up a role as a Year 3/4 teacher and ICT co-ordinator at Westlands Community Primary School. I instigated many new innovations in ICT...

  • a portfolio tool for children to share their work with others, called iShare.
  • used virtual reality panoramas for visitors to the website to view the school. The school is quite a bit different nowadays however.
  • developed a tool for producing school reports that allowed you to use statement banks approaches to writing, and edit them to suit.
  • enabled teachers and governors to have access to school network servers from home for planning and assessment purposes.
  • was a panel member for Essex LEA Broadband Consortium charged with rolling out Broadband into the county. The remit was also to provide a framework for how this technology can be used to enhance the learning opportunities for children.


I returned to Ultralab to lead the development of Ultraversity software to support researchers in their online work based degree programme, where the studying and communication between researchers and facilitators is mostly online.

I spent the next two and half years on many other projects,

There's a whole heap of work that I haven't mentioned, of course, but you get the idea.

The past decade has been intensely rewarding at every level, I wish the Ultralab team well in the future and look forward to finding opportunities where our paths cross and where our work is of mutual benefit. Meanwhile, I am tasked with leading the National Hemiplegia Organisation as Director of Learning Technology and making learning more delightful at Stepping Stones school... to coin part of Ultralab's mission statement! More on this in the weeks to come.

Citizen journalists

I received a telephone call from a journalist from the Today programme on Radio 4 wanting to understand more about citizen journalists and blogging. He stumbled across this blog site and made contact.

I compiled a quick brainstorm and this is what I sent him (if you have more thoughts, please add them here):

Why have people adopted blogs:

  • empowers people to have freedom of speech, a voice, a space on the Internet
  • easy and quick way of disseminating / publishing on the Internet
  • invite like-minded individuals to comment, allow discussions to take place, online
  • promotes autonomy, creativity and reflection

Labour MP uses a blog to talk to his constituency.

This is an example of citizen journalist Frankie Roberto, reporting on the Whale which entered the River Thames a fortnight ago. The articles he had written were submitted to Wikinews who he helped cover the news.

Other instances, London bomb attacks, Tsunami relief effort are big examples of citizen bloggers. I'm struggling to find citizen journalists in Essex who blog news. Open to suggestions, please add comments below.

Ultraversity researchers blogs (undergraduate researchers engaged in action research using blogs to disseminate their research findings)

eDemocracy project - download the e-Democracy proposal which we tried to make happen in Great Yarmouth)

Amy set up a blog site following her time with UItralab as a work experience student, now set up a blog for her four year old brother, Archie (possibly the youngest blogger?)

Wikipedia might help here... particularly the links at the bottom of the page. See: Citizen journalists on Wikipedia.


The Power of USB, Sony Ericsson K750i

The release and upgrade to the new Sony Ericsson K750i a few months ago, brought with it much excitement; 2.0 Megapixel camera, custom SMS/MMS message alerts (yes, I know, why wasn't that possible before?) and removable memory cards.

However, a very very bad feature is the new fast port connection. Why has Sony Ericsson made such an appalling decision? I guess their new method of connection is more reliable, all-in-one, perhaps ultimately more convenient.

Now the not-so-good reasons for fast port:

  • When using the supplied handsfree kit in the car, you can't charge the phone, that's daft.
  • Several years of accumulating Sony Ericsson chargers & handsfree kits means you can't make use of a single one, that's annoying. (It's quite nice keeping one of each in bags, houses, places of work)
  • I'll now invest in a whole load of kit which Sony Ericsson are likely to change again at some point in the future - that's whimsical and deeply frustrating.

The only comfort is to consider buying USB based chargers which will have longer longevity, both available for the car and 3-pin UK plugs. Thanks Richard.
This has changed my life too, docking my phone in the cradle whenever I'm at home.


Usability again... this time, with tagging content

Tom Smith accurately points out the usability gaff in being able to tag content 'on the fly' when creating the page using most blog or content management tools. This blog is powered by Drupal, Tom is right...

And here's the rub. Tools like WordPress require you to create a category BEFORE you have created the item you want to add that category too. This is so backward. It'??s a simple usability error. Most web-based software does this and it is such an obvious gaff.

With it being such a source of frustration, I tend not to bother and forget.

It can't be that hard to make a little pop-up window that submits tags to the database as you write the content... else, why doesn't someone just modify the form to create a space to add new tags as you submit the page... easy?


Naace podcasting at BETT 2006

Although BETT runs for a final day, today, I have had a wonderful two days at the show supporting Naace members, and the odd non-naace member!) with podcasting. For many this was their first experience of what it means to podcast. They left the stand with a greater understanding of both how you might use podcasting in the world of education and learning. One Naace member described how she can now demonstrate podcasting to a team of teachers at a school on Tuesday - yikes!

I worked alongside Stephen Powell, Jane Down and Maureen Gurr in the Naace Lounge.

We used Apple's iLife '06 software to podcast, GarageBand and iWeb. Listen to all the podcasts or
Subscribe to the feed

Mission Accomplished! - Monty captured and released

For those of you who are keen on following Monty's progress, here are his final moments of freedom being caught on MouseCam.

(click for video)

When I arrived home, I promptly drove to a woodland area nearby and released him into the wild. Here he should enjoy a better diet away from chocolate, cheese and peanut butter. All the best, Monty!



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