Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Machine

What the web is and what it will become by Kevin Kelly, in Wired. The first 3 pages go over old ground but he sizzles in pages 4 and 5, at the point he starts talking about 2015. I quote a brilliant extract:

Today, the Machine acts like a very large computer with top-level functions that operate at approximately the clock speed of an early PC. It processes 1 million emails each second, which essentially means network email runs at 1 megahertz. Same with Web searches. Instant messaging runs at 100 kilohertz, SMS at 1 kilohertz. The Machine's total external RAM is about 200 terabytes. In any one second, 10 terabits can be coursing through its backbone, and each year it generates nearly 20 exabytes of data. Its distributed "chip" spans 1 billion active PCs, which is approximately the number of transistors in one PC.

This planet-sized computer is comparable in complexity to a human brain. Both the brain and the Web have hundreds of billions of neurons (or Web pages). Each biological neuron sprouts synaptic links to thousands of other neurons, while each Web page branches into dozens of hyperlinks. That adds up to a trillion "synapses" between the static pages on the Web. The human brain has about 100 times that number - but brains are not doubling in size every few years. The Machine is.

Since each of its "transistors" is itself a personal computer with a billion transistors running lower functions, the Machine is fractal. In total, it harnesses a quintillion transistors, expanding its complexity beyond that of a biological brain. It has already surpassed the 20-petahertz threshold for potential intelligence as calculated by Ray Kurzweil. For this reason some researchers pursuing artificial intelligence have switched their bets to the Net as the computer most likely to think first. Danny Hillis, a computer scientist who once claimed he wanted to make an AI "that would be proud of me," has invented massively parallel supercomputers in part to advance us in that direction. He now believes the first real AI will emerge not in a stand-alone supercomputer like IBM's proposed 23-teraflop Blue Brain, but in the vast digital tangle of the global Machine. In 10 years, the system will contain hundreds of millions of miles of fiber-optic neurons linking the billions of ant-smart chips embedded into manufactured products, buried in environmental sensors, staring out from satellite cameras, guiding cars, and saturating our world with enough complexity to begin to learn. We will live inside this thing.

Today the nascent Machine routes packets around disturbances in its lines; by 2015 it will anticipate disturbances and avoid them. It will have a robust immune system, weeding spam from its trunk lines, eliminating viruses and denial-of-service attacks the moment they are launched, and dissuading malefactors from injuring it again. The patterns of the Machine's internal workings will be so complex they won't be repeatable; you won't always get the same answer to a given question. It will take intuition to maximize what the global network has to offer. The most obvious development birthed by this platform will be the absorption of routine. The Machine will take on anything we do more than twice. It will be the Anticipation Machine.

One great advantage the Machine holds in this regard: It's always on. It is very hard to learn if you keep getting turned off, which is the fate of most computers. AI researchers rejoice when an adaptive learning program runs for days without crashing. The fetal Machine has been running continuously for at least 10 years (30 if you want to be picky). I am aware of no other machine - of any type - that has run that long with zero downtime. While portions may spin down due to power outages or cascading infections, the entire thing is unlikely to go quiet in the coming decade. It will be the most reliable gadget we have.

And the most universal. By 2015, desktop operating systems will be largely irrelevant. The Web will be the only OS worth coding for. It won't matter what device you use, as long as it runs on the Web OS. You will reach the same distributed computer whether you log on via phone, PDA, laptop, or HDTV.

In the 1990s, the big players called that convergence. They peddled the image of multiple kinds of signals entering our lives through one box - a box they hoped to control. By 2015 this image will be turned inside out. In reality, each device is a differently shaped window that peers into the global computer. Nothing converges. The Machine is an unbounded thing that will take a billion windows to glimpse even part of. It is what you'll see on the other side of any screen.

And who will write the software that makes this contraption useful and productive? We will. In fact, we're already doing it, each of us, every day. When we post and then tag pictures on the community photo album Flickr, we are teaching the Machine to give names to images. The thickening links between caption and picture form a neural net that can learn. Think of the 100 billion times per day humans click on a Web page as a way of teaching the Machine what we think is important. Each time we forge a link between words, we teach it an idea. Wikipedia encourages its citizen authors to link each fact in an article to a reference citation. Over time, a Wikipedia article becomes totally underlined in blue as ideas are cross-referenced. That massive cross-referencing is how brains think and remember. It is how neural nets answer questions. It is how our global skin of neurons will adapt autonomously and acquire a higher level of knowledge.

The human brain has no department full of programming cells that configure the mind. Rather, brain cells program themselves simply by being used. Likewise, our questions program the Machine to answer questions. We think we are merely wasting time when we surf mindlessly or blog an item, but each time we click a link we strengthen a node somewhere in the Web OS, thereby programming the Machine by using it.

What will most surprise us is how dependent we will be on what the Machine knows - about us and about what we want to know. We already find it easier to Google something a second or third time rather than remember it ourselves. The more we teach this megacomputer, the more it will assume responsibility for our knowing. It will become our memory. Then it will become our identity. In 2015 many people, when divorced from the Machine, won't feel like themselves - as if they'd had a lobotomy.

hidden sociological drama

There is a narrow, technocratic view of the computer that it is primarily a productive tool (nothing wrong with that) that we adapt to our needs without fundamentally changing ourselves. In this non-vision humans are in control and the computer is a productive tool that serves our will.

Then there is the revolutionary transforming view that as well as being a remarkable productive tool the computer in the course of our interaction with it changes the way we live and view ourselves in a fundamental sense.

There is nothing new about either of these views but I would contend that we hear about the former more than the latter in recent times, that the computer revolution has been assimilated into the system perhaps in an uneasy truce, but one that overall favours the status quo.

Within the education system this takes the form of the computer being used to enhance or enrich the existing curriculum. Conceptually the computer is “just a tool”, sure it can enrich what we do but the curriculum is the real guide that determines what we teach.

Seymour Papert put it in an eloquent way over a decade ago, in 1993:
The shift from a radically subversive instrument in the classroom to a blunted conservative instrument in the computer lab came neither from a lack of knowledge nor from a lack of software. I explain it by an innate intelligence of School, which acted like any living organism in defending itself against a foreign body. It put into motion an immune reaction whose end result would be to digest and assimilate the intruder. Progressive teachers knew very well how to use the computer for their own ends as an instrument of change; School new very well how to nip this subversion in the bud. No one in the school acted out of ignorance about computers, although they might have been naïve in failing to understand the sociological drama in which they were actors.
- The Childrens Machine

In those days Seymour was promoting virtual "objects to think with", such as the turtle, using the programming language LOGO, a dialect of LISP. Since then we’ve seen the amazing development of the world wide web (www) which has spawned a whole new generation of equally interesting objects to think with. The uptake by schools has been cautious and measured. As Murray Gell-Mann put it last century, "education is like being taken to the world’s greatest restaurant and being fed the menu"

(This is part of an unfinished essay I wrote last year. It became scrappy when I went on to concretely discuss the various blocks preventing the computer being used to its full potential in schools.)

the software mountain

I commented to a teacher the other day that I hadn't done much study of learning theory over the past five years because I had been too busy learning software.

It's true and it's a problem.

Here's a categorised list of software I've either just used or decided to learn or improve my skills in over the past five years, with some brief comments:

Desktop applications:
Access - I spent many hours learning Access and Relational Data Base theory since I had to teach it to Year 12s in 2001-02
Word - don't laugh, I've learnt a lot of new things about Word, it's massive
Excel - have just used for my marks book, haven't improved skills here
Powerpoint - I've always resisted using it but have recently started
Publisher - I can now do a good letterhead and newsletter from scratch but still need to learn more
Open Office - I had a serious shot at learning Writer (Word equivalent) and Calc (Excel equivalent) but wasn't satisfied with them. Now that Open Office 2 is about to be released I plan to have another go
Inspiration - concept mapping software
CMAP - free version of concept mapping software
Copernic - for quick searching of my files
Nero - burning CDs
iTunes - played around with it after buying my daughter an iPod

Image manipulation:
GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) - I use this to teach since it's nearly equivalent to PhotoShop and Open Source, so I can give it to students to take home
IrfanView - for simple image manipulation
PhotoShop CS - I've learnt some of this to help my daughter in her Visual Arts Course

Web site construction:
HTML Kit - fully fledged HTML and style editor, not perfect but I like it, it has a free single user license but you have to pay for school license
CSS - Cascading Style Sheets. I've spent a long time on these so as to make my web site look good and I teach them too.
XML - have only dabbled with it but would like to do more
Firefox - best browser of course, couldn't live without tab browsing
Amaya - the W3C editor, I'm interested in anything recommended by W3C plus I had a brief look at MathsML, how to represent mathematical expressions on the web
NVU - possibly the best open source, free editor around
SVG - Scalable Vector Graphics. I became quite interested in these for a while but have stopped for the time being because you need a plugin to display them and most people haven't got it
Blogger - I've looked under the lid a bit, done a bit with the HTML and style, but not much yet
Zope - Web editor, written in Python
Plone - Content Management Framework (CMF) built on top of Zope, I'm still thinking about moving all my web materials to Plone
TAL - Template Attribute Language, it's part of Zope
DTML - Document Template Markup Language, also part of Zope

Web applications:
Google - have looked at Advanced Search features, that's all
Wikipedia - have joined and played in the Sandbox but haven't got into posting entries yet
Flickr - photo sharing and storage on the web - social bookmarks, I use this every day

Audacity - Open source sound editor, I've only learnt the basics
Bryce - this makes 3D backgrounds and sprites, I've only has a quick look at it so far

Game Maker - this has become one of my core teaching programs so I've spent a lot of time with it
Javascript - I've learnt the basics but need to learn more
DOM - Document Object Model. Ditto Javascript.
Dynamic HTML - by putting the Javascript and DOM together
Visual Basic - I has to teach this to Year 12s too, in 2001-02
Python - I think it's a good language and would like to spend more time with it

So, what's my point?

That it's hard to get the time to read books and explore learning theory when there's so much software that needs to be learnt.

That IT teachers should receive some extra sort of recognition / money / time if they are prepared to do all this ongoing learning

That education departments and school managements don't seem to be remotely aware of what is required to keep up with being an IT teacher these days.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Grand Theft Auto

Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (the link is to a review by science fiction writer, Cory Doctorow at boingboing)

He has written an open letter to Senator Hillary Clinton, who has called for a $90-million study on the effects of video games on children:
The great secret of today's video games that has been lost in the moral panic over "Grand Theft Auto" is how difficult the games have become. That difficulty is not merely a question of hand-eye coordination; most of today's games force kids to learn complex rule systems, master challenging new interfaces, follow dozens of shifting variables in real time and prioritize between multiple objectives.

four funerals and a wedding

Talk by Damian Conway at a Monash Alumni breakfast. (28.6 MB, 48 minutes)
Damian Conway is a futurist, Perl expert, amongst other things.

These are rough notes. Thanks to Roland for publicising this talk at his blog and on the Victorian teachers list.

The four Funerals:

1) Wires -

In Febuary 2001 the number of mobile phones in Australia became larger than the number of installed fixed land line phones. In 2005 there are roughly 13 million mobile phones compared with 7 million fixed land line phones. Todays 20 yo's will not be buying land lines when they move out of home and start living independently.

Mauritius is a wifi hot spot, the whole island

RFID, radio frequency identification, will be huge

2) Licensed software (and custom hardware) -

Growth of Linux, open source.

Software will be replaced by web services (others have written about this, Paul Graham, Joel, Tim O'Reilly)

SDR (software defined radio)

Hardware will become more generic.

A generic CPU will simulate and replace current hardware such as FM, shortwave, CB, satellite radio, TV, HDTV, GPS, GSM, CMDA, broadband, WiFi, WiMax, blue tooth, GDO (garage door opener).

Devices will be able to reconfigure on the fly to create their own networks, depending on what is available at your current location.

3) Media as we know it

floppies, VHS, CDs, DVDs are dying or will die.

They will be replaced by HVD, H for holographic, which will start with a capacity of 100 GB (equivalent of 20 DVDs) and climb to 1.3 TB (300 DVDs)

4) Anonmity

Everything you look at is known

There was other information here about how the current shortage of IP addresses would be rectified with IP version 6, which would enable over 4 billion internet addresses. Every light bulb on the planet will have an inernet address.

The Wedding -

Portable Information Media Platform
It will grow out of the existing mobile phone
Check out Nokia phone, N91

It will be cordless, VOIP, pager, fax machine, answering machine, high resolution camera, a movie camera which runs all the time, PDA, real time map, internet access (news, encycopedia, library), mp3 player, video player, games console, light switch, credit card, dating service, a model of who you are which can be broadcast to others

The future summarised -

Connectivity: anywhere, anytime
Free: hardware, software, tools
Sell: services, bandwidth, access, data

Friday, July 29, 2005

Invitation to Immersion

Invitation to Immersion, an article I wrote in 1997 is going to be published in a new book, Curriculum Controversies, published by the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA).

The book will be launched at the ACSA biennial Conference, University of the Sunshine Coast on 21-23 September, 2005.

Some of the ideas in my article about computing culture competing with the formal curriculum originate from Seymour Papert but I also embed them in a dialogue with the neo-luddite, Theodore Roszak, as well as offering a critique of government hierarchical intervention in education.

ASISTM press release

I'm involved in this project:

Computer Game Design, Programming, Multimedia and Mathematics

Computer game programming has just achieved an enhanced profile in Australian schools.

We’re delighted to announce that our submission for funding to the Australian School Innovation in Science, Technology and Mathematics (ASISTM) Project has been successful.

Visit to see a summary of all successful submissions.

The Game making submission was authored by a collective of three schools in South Australia, two in Victoria and one in Tasmania as well as ACMI, the Australian Centre for Moving Image. Both primary and secondary schools are involved.

The Coordinator of the project is Tony Forster a Victorian parent and professional engineer who initially became interested in Game Maker as a way to teach his son computer programming.

Our Project goals include:

  • to use the motivating power of computer games to improve outcomes in traditional education areas, including design, programming, multimedia and mathematics

  • to replicate the highly successful Computer Club project in other schools

  • to establish game programming as a well recognised learning tool in Australian primary and secondary schools

  • to establish active communities, both of teachers and students, who are enthused by game programming

The Project is funded for the next 18 months but aims to becoming self sustaining beyond that.

If you wish to become involved or obtain more information then please contact either Tony Forster or a signatory in your State listed below:

Forster Engineering Services P/L
Tony Forster

Westall Secondary College (Clayton South)
Roland Gesthuizen

Kardinia International College (Geelong)
James Powell

South Australia:
Woodville High School (Woodville)
Bill Kerr

Glenelg Primary School (Glenelg East)
Al Upton

Cedar College (GREENACRES)
Steve Sakovits

New Town High School (New Town)
Meijers, Margaret T"

Australian Centre for Moving Image (ACMI):
Vincent Trundle

Friday, July 22, 2005

Unite against Terror statement

I have signed the Unite against Terror statement and would urge others to do the same. The first paragraph is quoted below:
Terrorist attacks against Londoners on July 7th killed at least 54 people. The suicide bombers who struck in Netanya, Israel, on July 12 ended five lives, including two 16 year old girls. And on July 13, in Iraq, suicide bombers slaughtered 24 children. We stand in solidarity with all these strangers, hand holding hand, from London to Netanya to Baghdad: communities united against terror.
Signatories are invited to submit a 200 word "Why They Signed" statement. I have read them all and IMO they are inspiring. I've submitted my own 200 word statement and it has been published. I've also published a longer version of my own statement here

The following is the most heart rending statement from the site:
Ateeque Sharifi came to London from Kabul in 2002, after the Taliban killed his parents. He worked in a pizza bar and sent most of his earnings to his sister in Afghanistan. He went to college and learnt English from a woman teacher. He would help new students out when they didn't know their way around. He dreamt of marrying and of becoming a computer expert. Sometimes he went to Friday prayers at the local mosque, but the gym was his real passion. On 7 July 2005 he died in a tube train at King's Cross. People are debating 'links' between the bombings and the conflicts in the Middle East. For us the link is very simple. Ateeque's killer acted in solidarity with the killers of his parents. Signing the statement is the least we can do to show sympathy and solidarity with his friends and his remaining family.

We dedicate our signatures to Ateeque.
- Alan and Franziska Norman

Sunday, July 17, 2005

casualty of educonnect

... or should I say edu-disconnect? (not my joke but to protect the amusing I withhold the source)

I've had to move my web site containing game maker, javascript, CSS and other educational materials from our school extranet
  • can no longer connect from home by ftp
  • the line drops in and out but educonnect tells us there is no problem
  • recent complaints from teachers not being able to access game maker materials either from school or home
My new site is at

These problems have arisen since educonnect, the new Department filtering system, have arrived at my school

Yes, I have to move an educational website away from an educational site

the problem of content

Many people see playing computer games as a waste of time because the player is not learning stuff like Newtons laws or how to transform a maths equation

Tony Forster has pointed out previously how Game Maker could be a good vehicle for teaching maths in a new way and provided some programs to support this - whenever I run this past maths teachers they haven't got time for it because their program is already full with "content"

But there are studies around that for example show that students who "know" Newton's laws will still get basic questions wrong such as - how many forces are acting on a ball when it is thrown into the air? There are only two (gravity and air resistance) which are both acting opposite to direction of motion but most students will add a third one, impetus some sort of imaginary force left over from the initial throwing up force. So they don't really understand Newton's laws at all.

btw it would be easy to program this in game maker

James Gee does address this in what he calls active learning in contrast to passive content. Active learning involves:
1. Seeing the world in new ways, different world view
2. Ability to access socially the "club" of other people who also see the world in these new ways, to be able to interact meaningfully, eg. have conversations, with members of the club
3. A toolkit for future learning and problem solving in this and related domains
- What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, p. 23.

I'm still reading Gee but think he is adding something new to the debate

Friday, July 15, 2005

tutorials, demos, challenges

Originally uploaded by Bill Kerr.
In the beginning of teaching game maker I mainly used tutorials, either wrote them myself (clickball, soccer) or from mark overmars site (platform, maze etc.)

I became dissatified with that approach because too many of my students just followed the steps in the tutorial but then weren't able to transfer that knowledge to a new situation

So, first I modified my clickball tutorial
to include a challenges with hints extension section in addition to the original rather didactic step by step introduction. That I hope is incorporating the best of both worlds - instructionism (do what I say) and constructionism (explore, think for yourself, build on top of your current knowledge). I see the need for both approaches.

I've now developed new sheets which could be described as just challenges with hints. Here are some examples from one such sheet:

6) A ball goes through a goal and the score goes up by one…the score does not go up if the ball misses the goal
Hint: Step Event (checks 30 times per second)
Control tab > If an expression is true
expression: y > 10 (where ever the goals are)
then, Control tab > Set the value of a variable

8) You have to hit a character 3 times with a bullet before it dies
Hint: Start with Challenge 4, then add lives in the create event:
score tab > set the number of lives

Is it a better way to teach?

I think you need the full range of tutorials, demonstrations (which are more show and tell) as well as the challenges / hints (explore, think, do, ask questions) but overall I'm trying to push my students towards the latter mode. The possible disadvantage of the challenge mode is that some students won't ask when stuck and in a busy class may end up off task for a while.

One good point about challenges is that there are sometimes multiple ways to solve problems. I've sometimes been surprised with what some students come up with.

In the goal scoring challenge above some students make a goal object and then use a collision event to increase a score - this is a simpler solution than my conditional hint.

In the shoot 3 times before dying challenge one student put 3 characters on top of each other rather than use lives! I hadn't thought of that :-)

Thursday, July 14, 2005

helpful critique

I received an email, from km, in response to my blog about ICT and the curriculum. She is saying that I didn't develop my argument very carefully and jumped around between issues which are related but it needs to be spelt out more clearly than I managed. I agree with the criticism ... I've posted the full email as a comment to the original entry.

As a reminder, the issues I was jumping between were:
  • the plan by some to integrate ICT into the curriculum
  • the nature of software (medium not product)
  • the role of ICT teachers in schools
  • recent rapid economic and ICT developments in China and India


Cyclops Image
Originally uploaded by Bill Kerr.
My daughter, Alannah, has finished her anger emotionality project for a Visual Arts course. I helped her some with photoshop techniques and had to do some learning myself in that direction. She used me to model Cyclops, the one eyed giant. Here I am eating some sailors and receiving a poke in the eye as a consequence.

To see all four of her anger art pieces go to and search with the lannie tag.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

style sheets

I've uploaded a beginner's tutorial on style sheets at

One way to teach style is to give the learner some style in an exemplar and then ask them to modify the exemplar with style and content that suits them. In this case I ask the students to choose their own song or poem and to change my style to fit their work. I'm looking for other ways to teach style effectively.

The following example styles just one word in a heading, placing it in a box with a background picture. The word is not shown below, it appears in the tag in the body of the text.

h1 {
background-image: url(rudyardKipling72px.jpg);
/* this image is 160px wide and 170px high CHANGE*/
background-repeat: no-repeat;
height: 170px; /* content height CHANGE */
width: 160px; /* content width CHANGE */
border: 15px solid silver; /* border: width style colour CHANGE */
/* Choose from this list of border-style values: solid, ridge, dashed, outset, double, groove, dotted, inset */
font-family: arial, lucida, helvetica, verdana, sans-serif;
/* good fonts for headings */
font-size: 120px; /* large heading CHANGE */
color:maroon; /* colour of heading word(s) CHANGE */
float: left; /* position heading on left and body text floats on side of heading */

This particular heading effect is shown at

I got the idea from Christopher Schmitt, Designing CSS Web Pages, which has a useful Appendix of 50 different examples of how to present text, a paragraph, and sometimes a headline through CSS.