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Online Textbooks: An opportunity for open standards

 

I recently finished my first school year that I used online textbooks exclusively. In short I hated every moment of it; this experience was by far the most frustrating experience that I have ever had. Either the books wouldn't display properly on my Linux box or my browser of choice (Firefox) or they would operate at a crawling pace. I even had one textbook that wouldn't let me log in to it for most of the school year (calculus textbooks are optional anyways).

 

There is a desperate need for a good platform to publish online textbooks and I believe the open source community can provide just the answer we need. Not only would its freedom from corporate (publishers) influence be beneficial but it would free students from proprietary software later in life. Richard Stallman was correct on this topic:

What schools should refuse to do is teach dependence. Those corporations offer free samples to schools for the same reason tobacco companies distribute free cigarettes to minors: to get children addicted. They will not give discounts to these students once they've grown up and graduated.

Teaching independence from a particular piece of software, kind of software or software company enables students to form and to take their place in a competitive market.

 

That being said, this textbook platform must be of the highest quality to dominate the market. Here are a few guidelines I would like to suggest.

 

Completely opensource and implement open standards

This is obvious but nevertheless extremely important. Opensource frees students for their future but the use of open standards also frees students in the present. When a textbook uses open standards it allows the student to use the environment he or she deems best for his or her academic experience. Some examples of open standards include: HTML, an decent video encoder (perhaps one could finally be made!), and JavaScript.

 

All forms of DRM must also be absent from this platform. DRM further limits the students' choice of computing environment. DRM also gives complete control of the user experience to the textbook publisher rather than the user.

 

Completely free of Flash:

This falls in the same category as open standards but I want to emphasize it. Flash makes using non-Apple and non-Microsoft systems, difficult, to say the least. Flash is also very insecure and slow. I've waiting as long as two minutes to flip a page and often times the page would fail to load forcing me to start all over. I can't say this any more creatively: Flash is not a good idea. Period.

 

Allow copy and paste:

This also goes along with open standards, especially HTML. Why would a company want to stop me from doing this? My school already payed for the book. Am I really going to copy and past it and send it to a class mate? Additionally, if the book is delivered using a high end platform, paying for the book will be worth it. Furthermore copying and pasting are very useful for the student. Few things are more irritating than having to type a selection from my Literature book into a paper or report I am writing. It's rather ridiculous when the student is using an online textbook and still has the limitations of a paper textbook.

 

 

 

Influenced more by an operation system than a paper book:

It's time to ditch the page by page model. This isn't a paper book why do we think that model will still work? I believe an operating system is a more apt model for an online textbook. This would allow the textbook to be more than just text on a page; it would allow it to be interactive. Math lessons could be taught through interactive examples not just written examples which are hard to understand for the more math challenged among us. Video can be integrated into the text. Open third party APIs would allow apps to be made to organize and complete homework (both on the student and the teacher side). This would provide an all inclusive academic experience for a class.

 

Free from a single corporate influence:

A singular corporate influence will try to push DRM instead of a high quality platform because it is cheaper. Moreover, a single corporate influence will seek to lock the platform down for just that corporations' (most likely a publisher) books. This also disrupts the user experience. Not all teachers will want to use books from the same publisher. Different publishers have different strengths. The Math teacher may want to use one publisher while the Computer Science professor may want to use a different publisher. A better model would be for many publishers to publish on this single platform and sell their books inside that platform. This would allow freedom for the teachers and provide a succinct experience for students.

 

This may seem like some kind of unattainable utopia but I believe with the collective power of the opensource community along with power of the education community it can be done. It is time we take this opportunity to provide better educational solutions for both teachers and students and set the example for education in the digital age.

 

Sources:

Stallman, Richard M. "Why Schools Should Exclusively Use Free Software." . N.p., 1 Apr. 2013. Web. 5 Feb. 2014. <https://www.gnu.org/education/edu-schools.html>.

 

My Nerd Life: Too Loud, Too Funny, Too Smart, Too Fat

Carla Schroder is a self-taught Linux and Windows sysadmin and the author of the Linux Cookbook and writer of thousands of Linux tutorials.

If there is only one message you take away from reading this, let it be this: Linux and FOSS do not need more glamorous elite uber-rockstar coders. We need more ordinary, dedicated individuals from all walks of life contributing however they can. Just plain ordinary people with whatever they have to offer.

I am a born nerd, born to take things apart and put them back together, and to combine unlike things in imaginative ways. I am one of those people you never want to go shopping with, because I have to stand in front of any item I might ever under any circumstances consider purchasing, and work through in my head the nine zillion ways in which I might use it ... and then move on to the next item and repeat the trance. Because why not? Is it not all about possibilities?

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My Nerd Story: From Record Store Clerk, to Tech Journalist and Community Manager

Rikki Endsley is a technology journalist and the USENIX Association’s community manager. In the past, she worked as the associate publisher of Linux Pro Magazine, ADMIN, and Ubuntu User, and as the managing editor of Sys Admin magazine. Find her online at rikkiendsley.com and @rikkiends on Twitter.

I've been a writer for as long as I can remember, which is why I was thrilled to receive an electric typewriter as a high school graduation gift in 1988. Asking for a computer was never something I considered. I don't remember ever being exposed to computers while I was growing up. After high school, I didn't even use my new electric typewriter for a while. Instead, I took a year off, continued working my record store job, and saw dozens of great bands.

My nerd story starts at a record store, with a cash register and a Schwann catalog.

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My Nerd Story: What You Say to Young Girls Matters

Leslie Hawthorn is an internationally known community manager, speaker and author, who has spent the past decade creating, cultivating and enabling open source communities. She created the world’s first initiative to involve pre-university students in open source software development, launched Google’s #2 Developer Blog, received an O’Reilly Open Source Award in 2010 and gave a few great talks on many things open source. In August 2013, she joined Elasticsearch as Community Manager, where she looks forward to getting things done, facilitating user happiness and moving to Europe.

Tiny Geekdom

“Mom, the computer is talking to me.”

I was sitting at a VT100 in a cold office building, far from home and missing Saturday morning cartoons. My mother, a UNIX programmer at a large telco, brought me with her to the company’s San Francisco, California office that weekend since my father was out of town. It was an hour’s drive each way and 7 year old me was a bit out of sorts from the long ride and the early hour at which I’d awakened. Mom, though, knew the best way to soothe me was to park me in front of a terminal window and let me have at it with Adventure.

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My Nerd Story: Class, queerness and the transformative nature of technology and open source.

Beth 'pidge' Flanagan is a Senior Software Engineer for Intel and spends most of her time working on Open Embedded Core and the Yocto Project, mainly as the release engineer and maintainer of the yocto-autobuilder. She is also a geek, a queer trans woman, a motorcyclist, and a practitioner of random bits of general purpose geekery. She has been working in IT/software engineering now for the past 23 years.

I was born and raised right outside of Newark, NJ. My family was working class and I grew up in a working class neighborhood full of first and second generation immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Brazil, Italy, Peurto Rico, etc. Basically, a neighborhood that most people wouldn't think of as a fertile bed for nerds. I tell people to basically imagine some of the more gritty scenes from The Sopranos and they'd get an accurate idea of where I grew up.

 

The Sopranos - Satriale's Pork Store

I realized at a very young age that I was a trans woman and that without a well thought out plan, I wouldn't be able survive the conservative confines of that world. This concept of needing to escape was further compounded by the fact that I was on the bottom of the social rung at school. I was bookish, had a serious lisp and a severe femoral torsion which caused to walk pigeon toed (hence the nickname I carry to this day) and a classroom full of boys and some of the girls who marked me as "different" from my first day at school and did not let up in their abuse for the entirety of my elementary school career.

When I was about 9 or so, I had a pretty good idea that all the praying in the world wouldn't make me not trans and that I should probably spend some time figuring out what to do about it. So, I petitioned my father for an adult library card (remember a time when 'looking stuff up' included a trip to an actual library?). I remember asking him if he would sign the papers for my library card and he handed me the largest book on the bookshelf he could fine,'The Crusades' by Zoe Oldenbourg. He told me "Read this and do a book report and I'll sign the permission slip". I read it in about a month or so and that signed permission slip opened up a world I could never have dreamt of.

That library was my salvation. In its stacks I learned, in carefully hidden books, that I could do something about being trans. For the first time I could remember, the serious depression I had been in since age 6 when I figured out that I wouldn't grow up to be a woman, not at least without a little bit of help, abated somewhat. The library became my second home. It was where I spent my  days, hiding from the world. I went into full on reading mode, devouring anything I could get my hands on, but always ending up back in the science row with it's miniscule amount of books on computer science. But, they did have an entire set of "The Art of Computer Programming". I flipped through it somewhere around age 10 and didn't understand one bit of it! Somehow though, I was strangely enamored with the idea that language could be turned into something that made machines do work.

I mentioned before that people generally don't think of working class people as a hotbed of nerdism. If anything, I think that the reality is the  exact opposite. When you grow up without a lot of money you end up learning how to make things last and fix things that need repair. My family was no different. My father was a fairly decent carpenter who tried, bless him, to teach me with absolutely no success. His mechanical skills were impressive, something I ended up being able to learn much later in life. My grandmother however taught me how to crochet. In crocheting I saw math and patterns and it taught me how patterns could create beauty.

When you're the kind of strange effeminite kid in a working class world that I was, you end up spending a lot of time alone and learn to quickly entertain yourself. One summer I spent a full week alone in my backyard with a roll of tin foil, a magnifying glass and a thermometer seeing what the highest temperature I could achieve was. That was also the year I built a boobytrapped for the backdoor to the house. (I was afraid of burglers). I forgot to unset it and it almost knocked my mother out when she opened it and a few of my brothers baseball bats came flying out, full speed, towards her face.

1982 came around and something happened that would change my life forever. It all started with two lines.

10 PRINT "I HATE SCHOOL!!!"
20 GOTO 10

I still remember those first two lines of code I ever wrote. It was a 10 year old kid's 'Hello World'. The Catholic school I attended had invited this computer education company in to do an optional computer class. I  begged my parents to let me take it. I remember the first day I stepped into that class. About a dozen or so Commodore PETs, with the ever so high tech audio cassette storage devices.

 

Pet4016

After the first few classes, you just stopped trying to load your prior work from tape at the start of class as it took forever to load. You got really good at remembering what you did the week before and learned to type quicker than the audio tape could load. I ended up
falling asleep at night listening to those tapes (SkreeeetchWoooooSkreeeeeeetch!); in love with the idea that you could store STUFF on tape other than music!

So, here I was, this kid who was absolutely on the bottom of the social ladder. I was despised by the kids at school and my ability to have control over my life was greatly impacted by overly protective parents, my age and obvious gendered behavour difference, but... for those 45 minutes a week in 1982, I had, for the first time in my life, actual agency. I could sit there and tell a machine to do whatever I wanted it to and the results were up to me. It wouldn't beat me up. It wouldn't make fun of me for the way I walked, or held my books. It wouldn't call me awful things. It would just do what I told it to do. (This generally entailed new and more complex ways of spitting out how much I hated school, to be perfectly honest.)

Those little two lines of code turned into a much larger program that year and my parents ended up trying to nurture the one thing I had shown an actual interest in. I'm still unsure of how my father afforded it, but one day he came home with a Timex Sinclair 1000, literally
the cheapest computer there was. I actually recall using it quite a bit, but, as the concept of needing to store things was a bit beyond my dad, who was a truck driver, he had neglected to buy the audio tape drive. I would have to leave it on for weeks with a note on it, telling people not to shut it off or I'd lose my program.

 

Zx81-timex-manipulated

But, no matter how much computers could act as an escape for me, there was still this huge thing I had to deal with and as I got older and the effects of puberty started to hit, my depression worstened. I stopped writing code in my Junior year of highschool and just focused on trying to make it through the day. By the time I hit university I was an absolute wreck from trying to deal with being trans. So, after the first year, I made the best decision ever. I quit and moved to Washington DC and was able to have space to figure out what my plan was.

I moved back home after about a year because I had gotten fairly sick. By this time, my mother had gone from being a secretary to getting a degree  in accounting to being a VP at a small software company. Behind my mothers back, I finagled a job there. I will always remember the engineering manager who risked her wrath to give her weird, green mohawk having kid a job. So, my lucky break came in 1991, at age 19, writing insurance software in MagicPC for 5 dollars an hour.

Eventually, I left to take a job at the local university. Here is where I encountered the second thing to change my life. Windows 95.

It was 1994 and we were previewing the beta of Windows 95 for a migration from Windows 3.11. I absolutely loathed it. There was no integrated TCP/IP stack. I was use to the Solaris command line by that point and it was still the clunky DOS shell. It was nothing I wanted and while it was an improvement, I wanted something more so I went searching for a better solution and found it in Slackware.

I don't remember the exact version of Slackware I finally got to install, but I know the kernel was around 0.99 (before loadable modules and ELF binaries!). It was like a dream and a nightmare rolled into one. When you got it working it went like clockwork, but it was an absolute TERROR to set up. Package management? Nope, tar.gz and make was your friends. I got really good at debugging makefiles.

But, I was hardly bored. I spent way too much time getting kernels recompiled, fighting with X11 settings on my Diamond video card, wondering why the NE2000 card in my box, when the box was the end node  of a token ring would blue screen all the Windows 95 boxes on the ring. Bored? I was too busy tearing apart this amazing thing that people had put together, in part, just for something cool to do.

It was magic. Here was this thing that didn't work out of the box! I had to actually sit there and figure it all out. That year and a half I spent learning the operating system inside and out gave me a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride and a sense that if I could survive a Slackware install and make it out on the other end, a gender transition should be a piece of cake, right?

I had finally figured out the logistics of my transition and set a date. To put it mildly, the concept was sound, but the exectution went poorly. I lost my job, my family and the entire situation created a rift in my family that will probably never, unfortunately heal. So, here I was, age 24, with a brand new gender presentation, a high school diploma, a job history I couldn't use because it was under a different name. I had moved to Philadelphia and was living on a friends couch because I was kicked out of home. Things were not looking very positive.

But, there were a few things I did have.

I knew how to write code.

I knew Unix and Linux.

I was too damn subborn to take "No".

And I was left with no other choice.

I'm not sure how I got hired, I'm sure in part it was a bit of desperation on their part, but within the month, I ended up getting hired as a sysadmin, administering 250 AT&T BSD boxes that ran a computer based testing suite. I ended up working on porting the program over to Linux which got me hired into writing the next generation of that software.

From there it was on to trying my hand at UI design with stops in animation, power grid, control systems. And then, eventually, to my current home in the embedded world.

I look over the past 30 years since I first sat down at that old Commodore PET and am thankful. I had a mother who, despite our differences, firmly instilled in me the idea that women, even women like me, could do anything. I had a work ethic that instilled in me that as long as I could do the job, nothing else mattered. I had the stubborness to not believe the people who were telling me "NO!". I had the curiosity and the drive to figure it out for myself because I knew that no one was going to tell me how to do it.

My nerdcred doesn't come to me from a piece of paper, but by sheer force of will.  I know a lot of my collegues came to where they're at by the "traditional" route, university, internships, etc. I'm glad for them but I do not envy them a bit. While my route was the hard, tough slog, I would never trade it for the world.

I firmly believe that my past gives me a perspective in geekdom that is relatively unique. It has made me a better engineer than I think I would have been had I gone that traditional route. It has defined who I am and has made me a better person because of it. I can look at people from non-traditional nerd backgrounds and see their inner engineer. I've learned that sometimes, you find the most brilliant of people in the least likely of places. I approach new experiences, be they personal or technological without one iota of fear.

And lastly I always know that the first program I write whenever I learn a new language is going to be my own, special, personal version of the first two line program I ever wrote.

 

Going against the grain

For me, I have been an advocate of Linux from the first day I set eyes on Redhat 4.2 at the age of 14. I had my new PC for less than 6 months when I decided to wipe Windows95 from the disk, and install RedHat with its awesome NeXTSTEP window manager.

That was the first day I started to argue the point about the difference between Windows and Linux. Sure, Windows had loads of software, but Linux had so much potential, but still living with my parents meant that they wanted to use Windows if they needed to use a computer, they could not possibly use Linux.

It continues like this from thereonin. At school, I was the odd one, the teachers concerned that I may do something which in their eyes would be the equivalent of digital armageddon.

For me, Linux really took off when I discovered Usenet, where I started to discover more and more applications, scripts and more distributions of Linux, where I quickly moved onto Debian.

When I went to college, I found myself doing a course in IT in which the IT lecturers, and the IT support staff had not ever used anything other than Windows. They were stuck in their ways, only teaching and supporting Windows and Microsoft technologies.

Despite arguing my advocacy for Linux for several months, and requesting that I used an alternative to Windows, I was alway shunned to the point where I was warned that if I didn't conform, I would be kicked off the course.

Being restricted like this wasn't good for me, I soon dropped out, wanting to find a way to stretch my wings, and teach myself what I wanted to learn. I felt that Linux was certainly the way to go.

It was certainly the right thing to do. In every job I have had, I have brought in Linux. Each time, it has been the same. I promote, people seem me as being a bit odd, suggesting time after time that we should use Linux for X. Eventually wearing them down to the point that I get to do it, and every time, I have managed to deliver and beyond, whether its because it was more forgiving with some questionable hardware, or whether it was that it 'just worked'.

For me, my biggest win was working at an eduational establishment where the majority of the infrastructure was apple-based, with their 'crashproof technology', and their 'it just works' motto, I loved the fact that over six years I took critical services away from OSX Server to linux, seeing server uptimes over a year on Linux hardware, compared to the weekly reboots required by their fruity counterparts.

I found however, attitudes change when I became a developer. Once I start working with people who embrace technology, and don't sit on the rigid rails of Microsoft brand software, it was easy to convince people to use Linux servers, and also the benefits of using it day-to-day as a desktop, a staging system, and the basis of every new project I develop. Now, I am Senior Developer for a multi-million pound company, one of the fastest growing tech companies in the UK, and one of the top growing 200 tech companies in the EMEA. I put a lot of faith in the tools I use, and they have never let me down.

Even after 16 years, I still get strange looks, my wife still refuses to use Linux, and I can easily empty a room just by showing my passion. Despite all this, I continue on, promoting Linux, promoting Opensource technology, and always being there if anyone wanted help making the same change too.

 

My Nerd Story: Learn By Doing

My nerd story started in the winter of 2007, when I was 13 years old. And it all started from a simple challenge from a friend to look at some HTML tutorials, which I did. And I was captivated from the first second. I started doing very simple things like writing text and changing the background colour of a page, you know, beginner's HTML stuff, but I found it a lot of fun. For some reason, this stuff was second nature for me from day one.
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My Nerd Story: Ham Radio, Atari, and UNIX

My geek story started early, probably because my dad and grandfather were into amateur radio (ham radio) in a pretty hard core way from the time I was little. I remember my dad studying for one of the morse code exams when I was maybe 4 or 5 years old, and me being the little sponge that I was, picked it up pretty easily. Nothing like a mouthy toddler shouting the answers to motivate someone to learn.

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New Year's Resolutions for SysAdmins

Ah, a new year, with old systems. If you recently took time off to relax with friends and family and ring in 2014, perhaps you're feeling rejuvenated and ready to break bad old habits and develop good new ones. We asked our friends and followers on Twitter, Facebook, and G+ what system administration resolutions they're making for 2014, and here's what they said. 

Read more: New Year's Resolutions for SysAdmins

 

 

 

 

The Electric Grid Vehicle

Made a sketch of what I consider to be an interesting future transport development. The idea is that you wirelessly draw power from the road to charge electric vehicles on the move. With induction strips embedded in the road you wouldn't have to stop to recharge as previous as with fossil fuels. Available energy from the road also means the battery could be made cheaper and a lot less heavy.

The image displays a Grid Car on its way past an old gas station. The car is a hybrid for the longer distances between electrified roads.

With this I would like to show that an electric vehicle future might not be so bad after all. Of cause an electric car future would mean more IT so more opportunities for Linux.

GridCar

 

Password guessing with Medusa 2.0

Medusa is my password forcer of choice! Mainly because of its speed. If you're hoping to try it on a Windows box, sorry you're out of luck. As far as I know, there is no Windows port. In which case you're next best alternative is Hydra. See last week's post found here. Medusa was created by the fine folks at foofus.net, in fact the much awaited Medusa 2.0 update was released in February of 2010. For a complete change log please visit http://www.foofus.net/jmk/medusa/changelog Medusa is a command line tool, as far as I know there is no GUI front end. But don't let that scare you, it's super simple to operate. The foo magic of compiling from source is the hardest part. Although if you're running Ubuntu, Medusa is in their repository. Starting with Ubuntu 10.10 Medusa packages were updated to latest 2.0 release. If you're a Fedora fan boy, good news; Medusa RPM is available. With Fedora 16 Medusa was updated to release 2.0. Anything prior will use Medusa 1.5. Other distros may have to compile from source. Compiling Medusa from source: 1. Download Medusa 2.0 source from foofus.net 2. Decompress tarball tar -xvf medusa-2.0.tar.gz 3. Perform usual compile foo magic ./configure make make install One word of caution. During the ./configure process a module check is performed. If dependencies have not been met, Medusa will not support those modules. You'll have to ensure all dependencies are satisfied before running make and make install. Have a look here if you run into trouble http://foofus.net/~jmk/medusa/medusa.html Installing Medusa from Ubuntu Repository: 1. apt-get update 2. apt-get install medusa Basic password guessing with Medusa: If you'd like to see all Medusa options, execute medusa with no switches. If you'd like to see all supported modules execute medusa -d In its most basic form Medusa requires the following information: 1. Target host 2. User name or text file with user names 3. Password or text file with passwords 4. Module name For example; If I want to try a single password guess of abc123 against the Administrator account on a Windows box with an IP address of 192.168.100.1 medusa -h 192.168.100.1 -u Administrator -p abc123 -M smbnt In a Windows environment the Administrator account is special in that it is the only account which cannot be locked out. Although watch out, some environments remove this feature. Before you brute force accounts ensure you know the lockout policy. But let's pretend in this example the Administrator account does not lock out. This means I can attempt as many password guesses as I'd like. In this case I'd download a pre-compiled password list. Then, let Medusa loose and wait. medusa -h 192.168.100.1 -u Administrator -P passwordlist.txt -M smbnt Depending on the latency between you and the target host, limiting concurrent attempts may be a good idea. This can be accomplished with -t or if you'd like Medusa to stop after first succesful username, password combination use -f Medusa is simple, fast and effective. I especially love the number of modules it supports, including web forms. How many times have you wanted to password guess a web site login? With Medusa it is possible, simply provide the proper URL. Medusa even supports SSL and if your target is using security through obscurity by using a non standard port, Medusa supports that too. Specify non standard ports with -n Administrators should be auditing passwords regularly. Weak passwords are your number one concern. If you allow users to generate a weak password they will. You're best bet is to implement a good password policy and enforce it. For more information please visit our blog at: www.digitalboundary.net/wp
 
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