The purpose of this site was to try and answer some common questions and start some discussions about technology, but it would be useful to have more questions to answer! To this end, I’ve created the following form. Please feel free to ask your questions anonymously if you wish, or include your name if you are comfortable with that. I will screen these questions before posting them, and I may edit them slightly for grammar or punctuation.

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It is a lot like sharing a recipe[1]. Everybody gets to try it. If they like a recipe, they can use it over and over and pass it along to their relatives and friends. If they want, they can change one or more ingredients. They can pass along their modified version. Nobody will mind if they successfully cook and serve their recipe to paying customers or even publish their version of the recipe. Generally people are happy to tell everybody where they got the original recipe, especially if it was their own grandmother.

What is Open Source - Recipe[**]

Of course, if there’s a secret sauce, then much, or even most of this sharing cannot happen. If the recipe just doesn’t work without the secret, then it is more like the other kind of software that is common today, “proprietary”, closed, commercial software. It is generally only available from one producer.

It does need to be noted that access to the recipe does not guarantee a yummy dinner. Owning a stove, pots, and a cupboard of ingredients doesn’t mean a poor cook will serve a satisfying meal. Of course, this is still true when you have to buy the secret sauce. Your guests may not be satisfied by your dinner.

Power User from Twitter

Extending the recipe idea into computer terms, the hardware (screen, keyboard, mouse, all the electronics in the box) are like your cupboard, kitchen counter, bowls, mixer, pots and stove. Software is the recipe you use to make the movie, write the novel, prepare a term paper or any product. Those products are like the food served on the plates for your family and guests. Let us hope you have used the recipe well and created a result that pleases everybody.

Children like to control what they can. Children like to explore. Children like to learn from their experience.

Computers and software together create work and play space, unlock the tools of learning and encourage creative endeavor.

Providing your children “open source” software won’t matter much at first. Your children don’t really care if you pay only for the cost of the install CD or pay $250 for the software “recipe” that lets them type their short stories, draw their pictures of cartoon mice and ducks, teen idols or ninja turtles. They just want to be able to play, explore, learn and grow. And a wide variety of recipes is good, too. Proprietary recipes can eventually become too expensive to keep up with the desire for variety.

Just as you are glad to see your children play in your own open space, the back yard, you do not want the yard to be the limit of their life space. Gradually, your children expand their horizons. They want wider experience. The limitations of your yard become one of the early boundaries your kids want to cross. You get your children a bicycle. They ride to the library, the park. They play with friends. Their world grows.

When your children get the chance to dig deeper into their computer experience, they may want to learn how to modify the recipes. That is often called “coding” or “programming.” They won’t start by coding their own word processors. They will begin with animating their ninja turtles or their kitten characters. Tools like Scratch[2] will help them take those first steps to modifying and making computer coding recipes. The further they get, the more complex their code recipes will become. The more they can examine the code of others, the more quickly they will learn. If the only code they can examine is locked as “secret sauce” then their progress will be slowed or stopped. Sharing code recipes back and forth builds a supportive community of mentors and students. One of the side benefits for all of us, of course, is that there will be better and better recipes which we can use ourselves to make our own projects (“dinners”). Innovation is encouraged by sharing.

Software freedom helps accomplish all those things.

There are four “essential freedoms”[3] we celebrate for this kind of software.

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

[1] http://opensource.com/life/12/6/open-source-like-sharing-recipe
[2] http://scratch.mit.edu/
[3] http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html

** Thanks to my learning network on Twitter and StatusNet for their suggestions, even the blunt ones.

Open source - Don't be Stupid

Diagram of the Internet

Image credit: Jurvetson

The Internet is the network created by every computer network that is connected to it. In the diagram above, each little line represents a connection between two different computers. When you connect your computer network to the Internet, you become and endpoint in the diagram above; your computer becomes part of the Internet. For many people who use their computer at home, their computer network has only one computer in it.

Computers connected in a chain

Computers connected in a chain

When you request a website with your web browser (like Internet Explorer or Firefox), which could potentially be on any other computer connected to the Internet (but in practice are usually hosted only a much smaller subset of all Internet connected devices), your computer sends out a message to your Internet service provider that you are requesting a particular website, and then your Internet service provider (ISP) forwards your message to the next computer in what can end up being a chain of many different computers. The end computer in the chain, which contains your requested page from the World Wide Web (which is not synonymous with the Internet, more on that later), then sends back a copy of the website which is downloaded to your computer through the chain of intermediary computers. Finally, your web browser takes the code that represents the website, and turns it into the graphical representation you see in your computer monitor.

The World Wide Web is the collection of websites, connected by the billions of links between them, that are all stored on computers within the Internet. So if the Internet is the hardware, the World Wide Web can be thought of as the software. The whole story is more complicated than this, since I’ve not talked about things like DNS, packets, etc… but this is the general structure of the Internet.

When you send information over the Internet, by design, every computer between you and the source can see this information (unless it is encrypted, like what banking websites do). So sending information (like an email, or a text message, or a request for a particular website) is much like sending a postcard — everyone can read what you sent. This trusting system was originally designed by scientists, who at the time had no idea that practically everyone would be using their communication tool.

Non-intersecting Venn diagram of Internet and Privacy

Image credit: Dave Makes

Many Internet service providers keep track of what websites you access. Many advertising companies keep track of what websites you’ve access that contained their ads (in an effort to try and target you with more specific ads). The US government is in the middle of an colossal effort to try to record and tag every bit of Internet traffic in a secretive facility in Utah. None of these efforts bodes well for our privacy, and you should be aware of them when surfing the Web.

Image credit: pshab

A common question from parents is about the safety of online spaces like Facebook. They hear in the news horror stories about how young teens have been tricked or groomed into meeting strangers, and then being abused by those strangers. It is natural to have questions about the safety of social media.

A couple of points are worth noting about this issue. The first is that in child abuse cases, it is far more likely that someone your child knows well commits the abuse than a stranger. The second is that almost every time a child is abducted, murdered, or otherwise harmed by a stranger, the story makes the news which makes us feel that the problem is bigger than it really is. Many of the abuses to children which involve a close friend or family member never even get reported.

Social media is a new form of communication tool. So the types of behaviours that we see kids engage in when they use other communication tools are likely to be prevalent using social media as well. For example, kids bully each other in person, so it is likely that they will bully each other via social media as well. This is in fact the case, with a Pew Institute study indicating that between 9% and 33% of teens (depending on how the question is asked) across the US have been bullied online. However, the same research says that most teens (67%) indicated that they believe more bullying happens offline. If someone is being bullied often in the playground or cafeteria, chances are good that if they spend any time in social media spaces, they are likely to be bullied there as well.

Banning a communication tool has an isolating effect on people. Someone who is “not allowed to use Facebook” is likely to report ostracization from their peers to some degree. For example, they will miss the birthday party that is only advertised on Facebook or be unaware of whatever gossip is being spread about them via Facebook. Banning kids from using a communication tool that most of their peers use is essentially handicapping them.

On the other hand, in many social media spaces, there are no adults. It is my experience that kids learn through peer interactions better than any other way, and one might wonder if a Lord of Flies effect might occur in social media. The solution in Lord of the Flies was the introduction of the naval officer, who represented the normalization effect of cultural socialization. The naval officer was a role model for the children, and in the same way, we need role-models for children in social media spaces.

The most obvious candidates for role-models are the children’s parents. Parents should join social media, become their children’s friends and use social media responsibly. Even a parent who is silent on social media sends an important message to their children – their silence suggests to students a way to use the social media. A small amount of activity speaks to using the communication tool in a moderate way.

Teachers would most often like to keep their private lives private and not connect with their students via Facebook, but given the prevalence of social media, teachers and schools should consider finding uses of social media within their school environments. One of the purposes of education is to normalize the learning of communication and to provide support for children whose parents are not adequately fulfilling their parental responsibilities. So, in this respect, schools should adopt a scaffolding approach to social media, beginning with walled private social media gardens, and gradually releasing their students to full responsibility by the time their students graduate.

It may be that social media is a fad, and that parents who ignore it do no harm to their children. My suspicion is that this it not the case; that in fact we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. Social media is likely to become even more prevalent in ours lives. So we should consciously develop cultural norms around social media, just like we have cultural norms around every other communication tool we use.

When is it rude to use social media? For what kind of conversations is it most appropriate? How do we deal, as a society, with the new idea of digital permanence? How do we teach our kids what to share, and what not to share?

Wireless router

Image credit: nSeika

Maybe.

The World Health Organization has recently classified radio-frequency electromagnetic fields as ‘possibly carcinogenic‘ which includes toxins such as lead, styrene, pickled vegetables and coffee. Yes, coffee.

For reference, electromagnetic fields include things such as sunlight, magnets, x-rays, etc…We are literally bathed in electromagnetic fields, the strongest of which emanate from the sun, from natural sources of radon gas, being x-rayed at the dentist or doctors office, etc… Some of this radiation is ionizing and some of which is not. Ionizing radiation is at a much higher energy level than non-ionizing radiation, and is considered to be more deadly as a result. The radio-frequency electromagnetic fields under consideration here are non-ionizing radiation.

The bulk of the research is on mobile phones, which emit and receive radio-frequency electromagnetic fields at much higher energies than wireless routers, and which are typically used in much closer proximity than are wireless routers to the end user. A mobile phone is held up to your ear, and the wireless transmitter on a laptop is typically at a greater distance from one’s body.

One thing to consider is relative risk. For example, 2.5 million people across the United States (with a population of 330 million people) are injured in motor vehicle accidents each year, with a little more than 30,000 people killed in these accidents. This means that one’s risk of being injured in a motor vehicle accident in the US is about 1/132. The risk of being injured from the radiation from a wireless router or laptop is likely to be significantly less than being injured in a car. We don’t ban cars because of the risk involved with using them because the benefits of a car we consider to vastly outweigh the potential hazard a car introduces.

At this stage, schools should continue to monitor the research being done on wireless routers, but the current consensus from most experts in the field is that the risk associated with radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation is small.

What do you think? Should schools stop using wifi?

A cougar sitting in a tree

Photo taken by DJ Thompson

Some students and teachers were on a safari where they got to see all of the most famous animals from the Kenyan savannah. During the day, students were taking photos of everything and every time they took a photo, they would turn to one of their classmates and share the photo they had just taken. They discussed the taking of photos more than the actual animals in the photos themselves.

At one point, one of the student’s camera had its battery die. Disappointed, the student turned to go sit down in the van to wait for everyone to be done.

His teacher turned to him, and asked him why he was leaving, and the student responded, “My battery died.” The teacher said to him, “Why don’t you just watch the animals?” The student, according to his teacher, looked dumbfounded. This hadn’t occurred to him.

The point of this story is that because of their use of technology, the students had turned an activity about looking at animals in the wild into an activity that was about taking pictures of animals. They had changed their behaviour from observers to consumers. The technology had changed the students’ goal for the safari.

So the question then is, should we take pictures of events? Should we limit how many pictures we should take? Is this not as big a deal as I think it is, and I shouldn’t worry about this?

Photo of a child holding a cell phone

Image credit: horizontal integration

 

A parent today shared with me that a friend is concerned that she has given her child a cell phone too soon. Her 7 year old daughter has apparently been asking for people’s email addresses and contact phone numbers to add to her phone whenever she meets them, and then communicating with them again frequently with her phone.

She has apparently made friends with a high school girl, and they have chatted often via their phone. This parent asked me what I thought of this issue.

I responded that I didn’t think that the relationship between the young girl and the high school girl was that unusual, my own son has relationships with older teenagers all the time. The difference is, we know these teenagers fairly well because they are our neighbours. What is probably making this parent uncomfortable is that she doesn’t know the high school girl, and so I said an easy way to rectify this is to get to know the older girl.

I also said that I think that 7 is too young for children to have their own phones (and other small portable electronic devices). Aside from the research that suggests that talking on the phone from a young age may increase one’s risk of cancer, young children need to move more; to develop their agility and personal health habits. At that young age, they shouldn’t be given devices which will discourage them from movement.

On the other hand, I suggested that a parent owned device that is used under supervision from the parent would be perfectly fine. This way their child gets a chance to do something they enjoy, and to learn, with the guidance of the parent, some self-regulation. One does not learn self-regulation without the opportunity to resist temptation, and to make different choices, so banning the technology completely from the child’s use isn’t helpful, but children also need role-models to help them come to appropriate uses of technology.

So do you agree? Is 7 too young to own a phone? Should young children be allowed to own  personal entertainment devices?