on slowing down

John sent a link to our loose group of cycling buddies, and I’ve read the article 3 times now. Each time, it feels like it hits closer to home.

I’ve been riding my bike as the primary way of getting around, and have been communiting by bike almost exclusively since 2006. I’ve always ridden, but never really considered myself a cyclist until then. I was never athletic, never good at sports. But I was happy on a bike. Over the years, I actually got pretty good on a bike. I could make it go fast. I could climb hills. I could ride far. It was awesome.

And then it started feeling less awesome. Most recently, with my bad knee. Late last year, I somehow managed to get a stress fracture at the top of my tibia. I didn’t even know it had happened, and only wound up at the doctor because I thought I was dealing with progressive arthritis or something. Nope.

We couldn’t find any specific incident that might have caused it, but the doctors thought it may have been related to repetitive stress and strain while riding ~5,000km/year. Which meant it was self-inflicted. I’d been pushing myself for the last few years to try to keep up that pace. And, while limping around like a 70-year-old, I realized that I hadn’t been doing myself any favours. One knee is already pretty much shot, the other is likely not far behind it. And pushing to hit 5,000km/year wasn’t helping things. I’m largely recovered now – the knee is still sore, and feels weaker than it should, but it works. Physio has helped, but it’s obvious I need to pay attention to it before it gets worse.

I’ve been tracking personal metrics since 2006 – with detailed GPS logs since 2010, thanks to my use of Cyclemeter. Recently, I’ve added Strava to the mix. I really notice that I push myself more when I know a ride will be posted to Strava – either I need to let go of that, or I need to stop posting rides1.

I’m not really sure why I was pushing myself to keep hitting 5,000km/year. I think it was the feeling of accomplishment, of achieving a goal that not many people do. Some kind of macho “I’m not getting old! look what I can do!” thing. Whatever. I’m letting that go. I’m still going to ride as much as I can, but I’m not going to push it. I’m going to slow down, again. And have fun.

I’m registered in the Banff Gran Fondo this weekend. 155km, from Banff to Lake Louise and back2. I had been stressing out, because I lost 6 months of riding – of TRAINING! – and there was no way I’d be able to keep up a competitive pace. But that’s OK. I’m going to go for a nice ride. Stop at the rest stops. Enjoy the mountains. And I’ll finish when I finish.

  1. but ride data from Strava is now being used to inform policy and decisions about cycling infrastructure and civic planning, so I think I need to keep posting it for now… []
  2. depending on how well the local bear population cooperates []

Humans Need Not Apply

C.G.P. Grey posted this fantastic video on the inevitability of automation, and what it might mean for society at large.

We think of technological change as the fancy new expensive stuff, but the real change comes from last decade’s stuff getting cheaper and faster. That’s what’s happening to robots now. And because their mechanical minds are capable of decision making they are out-competing humans for jobs in a way no pure mechanical muscle ever could.


You may think even the world’s smartest automation engineer could never make a bot to do your job — and you may be right — but the cutting edge of programming isn’t super-smart programmers writing bots it’s super-smart programmers writing bots that teach themselves how to do things the programmer could never teach them to do.

via a post by Jason Kottke

For an extra-sobering good time, tie this in with Audrey Watters’ writing on robots in education.

Downes on lectures

The point of a lecture isn’t to teach. It’s to reify, rehearse, assemble and celebrate.

via Stephen’s Web.

Stephen ended his post linking to Tony’s blog post with what appears to be a throwaway line. It’s not. This is where the tension is centred when it comes to teaching. Lectures aren’t teaching, but have been used as a proxy for teaching because how else are you going to make sure 300 students get the appropriate number of contact hours? Butts-in-seats isn’t a requirement anymore. We can do more interesting things. And we can then use lectures for what they are good at. To reify, rehearse, assemble and celebrate.

on ingress as gamifying network location reporting

Jason tuned me into Ingress at CNIE 2014. There’s a good overview of the game on Wired.

It’s one of those things that sound unbelievably geeky – it’s like geocaching (a geeky repurposing of multibillion dollar GPS satellites to play hide and seek) combined with capture the flag, combined with realtime strategy games, bundled up as a mobile game app (kind of geeky as well), with a backstory of a particle collider inadvertently leading to the discovery of a new form of matter and energy (particle physics? a little geeky). It’s the kind of thing where peoples’ faces glaze over on the first description of portals and XM points, and resonators and links and fields.


One thing that’s been stuck in the back of my head as I worked my way up to Level 5 Nerd of the Resistance in the game, is the lack of an apparent business model. It’s a global-scale game, with thousands? millions? of users checking in from all around the world. There don’t appear to be ads in the game – I’ve never seen any – and there appears to be an unwritten rule that portals should be publicly accessible. That unwritten rule largely negates a business model that would have businesses pay for placement in the game in order to draw customers into their stores etc…

Niantic started the game in 2013, and launched it under the “release it free so we build a user base, then sell the company” business plan. It worked, as Google bought the company and ramped the game up. It’s now available for both Android and iOS platforms, free of charge, with no advertising or premium subscriptions or in-game purchases.

So, what is Google getting out of it? I think their largest draw is likely in crowdsourced geolocation of networks. They have every Ingress user actively (collectively) wandering the globe, reporting every wireless SSID and cell tower they come across, along with GPS coordinates. The game gently pushes players to stay at the location of a portal, confirming the geolocation and refining precision over time. It’s kind of a genius plan – it is constantly updating Google’s network geolocation database, which can then be used to more accurately track and target all users of the internet for advertising etc…. They’ve turned a bunch of nerd’s nerds into a crowdsourced network geolocation reporting system. And, at Google’s scale, it costs them a pittance to have this system running.

paging the mothership

Ingress’ privacy policy link points to Google’s common privacy policy and TOS web page, which states:

We may collect device-specific information (such as your hardware model, operating system version, unique device identifiers, and mobile network information including phone number). Google may associate your device identifiers or phone number with your Google Account.


When you use a location-enabled Google service, we may collect and process information about your actual location, like GPS signals sent by a mobile device. We may also use various technologies to determine location, such as sensor data from your device that may, for example, provide information on nearby Wi-Fi access points and cell towers.

Common TOS for all Google services, but especially relevant in a geolocation-based game that is actively pushing users to wander their neighbourhoods to gather this data and send it back to Google.

If they’d released the app as a “report network locations to improve google’s ad targeting” tool, it would have gotten huge pushback, and not many people would have downloaded it. But, by hiding that function and wrapping an insanely addictive game over top of it, it’s gone viral.

brb. I need to go recharge the portal at the playground down the street…

Brightspace nee Desire2Learn

I’ve been trying to get my head around the reasoning for the corporate rebranding to Brightspace12, and I’m coming up short. I like the name, but it feels like everything they’ve described here at Fusion could have been done under the previous banner of Desire2Learn. I’m more concerned about signs that the company is shifting to a more corporate Big Technology Company stance.

When we adopted D2L, they felt like a teaching-and-learning company. What made them interesting to us is that they did feel like a company that really got teaching and learning. They were in the trenches. They used the language. They weren’t a BigTechCo. But, they were on a trajectory aspiring toward BigTechCo.

Fusion 2013 was held at almost the exact same time that we had our D2L environment initially deployed to start configuration for our migration process. We were able to send a few people to the conference last year, and we all came away saying that it definitely felt more like a teaching-and-learning conference than a vendor conference. Which was awesome.

We’ve been working hard with our account manager and technical account team, and have made huge strides in the last year. We’ve developed a really great working relationship with the company, and I think we’re all benefiting from it. The company is full of really great people who care and work hard to make sure everyone succeeds. That’s fantastic. Lots of great people working together.

But it feels like things are shifting. The company now talks about “enablement” – which is good, but that’s corporate-speak, not teaching-and-learning speak. That’s data.

Fusion 2014 definitely feels more like a vendor conference. I don’t know if we’re just more sensitive to it this year, but every attendee I’ve talked to about it has noticed the same thing. This year is different. That’s data.

As part of the rebranding, Desire2Learn/Brightspace just rebooted their community site – which was previously run within an instance of the D2L Learning Environment (which was a great example of “eating your own dog food”), and now it’s a shiny new Igloo-powered intranet site. They also removed access to the product suggestion platform, which was full of carefully crafted suggestions for improving the products, provided by their most hardcore users.

The rebranded community site looks great, but the years worth of user-provided discussions and suggestions didn’t make the journey to the new home. So, the community now feels like a corporate marketing and communication platform, rather than an actual community because it’s empty. I’m hopeful that there is a plan to bring the content from the actual community forward. The content wasn’t there at launch, and it was about the branding of the site rather than the community. That’s data.

And there are other signs. The relaunched community site is listed under “Community” on the new Brightspace website, broken into “Communities of Practice”:

Screen Shot 2014 07 16 at 8 51 49 AM

The problem is, those aren’t “communities of practice” – they are corporate-speak categories for management of customer engagement. Communities of Practice are something else entirely. I don’t even know what an “Enablement” community is. That’s data.

It feels like the company is trying to do everything, simultaneously. They’re building an LMS / Learning Environment / Integrated Learning Platform, a big data Analytics platform, media streaming platform, mobile applications, and growing in all directions at once. It feels like the corporate vision is “DO EVERYTHING” rather than something more focused. I’m hoping that’s just a communication issue, rather than anything deeper. Which is also data.

They’re working hard to be seen as a Real Company. They’re using Real Company language. They’re walking and talking like a Real Company. Data.

The thing is – they’ve been working on the rebranding for awhile now, and launched it at the conference. The attendees here are likely the primary target of the rebranding, and everyone I talk to (attendees and staff) are confused by it. It feels like a marketing push, and a BigTechCo RealCo milestone. It feels like the company is moving through an uncanny valley – it doesn’t feel like the previous teaching-and-learning company, and it’s not quite hitting full stride as a BigTechRealCo yet.

I really hope that Brightspace steps back from the brink and returns to thinking like a teaching-and-learning company.

  1. this isn’t about the name – personally, I like the new name, and wish they’d used it all along. But the company had built an identity around the previous name for 15 years, and it looks like they decided to throw that all away []
  2. and there’s the unfortunate acronym. 30 seconds after the announcement, our team had already planned to reserve bs.ucalgary.ca []

PSA: Mediawiki doesn’t like . characters in MySQL database names

Or, how I spent about 15 hours debugging our MediaWiki installation at wiki.ucalgary.ca, trying to figure out why file uploads were mysteriously failing.

We’ve got a fair number of active users on the wiki, and a course in our Werklund School of Education’s grad program is using it now for a collaborative project. Which would be awesome, except they were reporting errors when uploading files. I logged in, tried to upload a file, and BOOM, got this:

Could not create directory "mwstore://local-backend/local-public/c/cf"

um. what? smells like a permissions issue. SSH into the server, check the directories, and yup, they’re all owned and writable by apache (this is on RHEL6). Weird. Maybe the drive’s full? df -h. Nope. Uh oh. Maybe PHP or Apache have gone south – better check with another site on the server. Login to ucalgaryblogs.ca and upload a file. Works perfectly. So it’s nothing inherent in the server.

Lots of searching, reading about LocalSettings.php configuration options. Nothing seems to work. I enable Mediawiki logging, check the apache access and error logs, and find nothing. It should be working just fine. The uploaded file shows up in the /tmp directory, then disappears (as expected) but is never written into the images directory. Weird.

So, I try a fresh install of mediawiki elsewhere on the server (in a separate directory, with a new database called ‘mediawikitest’). Works like a charm. Dammit. So it’s really nothing wrong with the server. Or with mediawiki. Maybe there’s some freaky security restriction on the new server1, so I set up a new VirtualHost to spin up the new MediaWiki install in exactly the same way as wiki.ucalgary.ca (using a full hostname running in its own directory, rather than as a subdirectory of the “main” webserver’s public_html directory). And it works like a charm.

Hrm. Searching for the error message turns up mentions of file permission errors, and file repository configs. I mess around with that, but everything looks fine. Except that uploads fail for some reason.

Maybe there’s something funky about the files in the wiki.ucalgary.ca Mediawiki install – it goes back to May 2005, so there’s over 9 years of kruft building up. There’s a chance. So I copy the whole wiki.ucalgary.ca mediawiki directory and use it to host the test instance (still pointing at the mediawikitest database). Works fine. So it’s nothing in the filesystem. It’s not in the Apache or PHP config. Must be in the database.

So, I switch the test instance to use the production mediawiki database (named ‘wiki.ucalgary.ca’). And uploads fail. Dammit. I assume something is out of sync with the latest database schema, so I eyeball the ‘images’ table in both databases. AHAH! Some of the field definitions are out of date – the production database is using int(5) for a few things, while the new test database uses int(11) – maybe the file upload code is trying to insert a value that’s longer than the table is configure to hold. So I manually adjust the field definitions in our production images table. That’ll solve it. Confidence! But no. Uploads still fail. But the problem’s got to be in the database, so I modify my search tactic, and find a blog post from 2013:

Problem solved. Turns out the new database backend thing in mediawiki doesn’t like database names with dots in them, and doesn’t tell you. Thank you Florian Holzhauer for finding it!

Dafuqbrah? Really? That can’t possibly be it… The wiki’s been working fine all along – it’s up and running and people are actively using it. If the database wasn’t working, surely we’d have noticed earlier…

renames database from wiki.ucalgary.ca to wiki_ucalgary

uploads file

Son of a wiki. It works.

So. At least 15 hours of troubleshooting, debugging, trial and error, modifying configurations, installing test instances, and being completely unable to figure it out. And it was a freaking . in the database name that was doing it. With no mention of that in any error message or log file. Awesome. An error message that says “could not create directory” actually means “hey - a portion of my code can't access databases with . characters in the database name - you may want to fix that.

  1. we moved recently from an old decrepit server onto a shiny new VM server hosted in our IT datacentre, which is awesome but I’m rusty on my RHEL stuff, so there’s a chance I’m missing something important in configuring the server… []

brian lamb and jim groom on reclaiming innovation

Having spent the last 2+ years of my life working on the LMS selection, implementation and replacement here at UCalgary, I can relate to this awesome new article on a pretty profound level. My life in educational technology has been almost entirely redefined in relation to the LMS. That’s a horrifying realization.

This part weighs particularly heavily…

The demands of sustaining infrastructure have continued to dominate institutional priorities, and the recent promise of Web 2.0 has been unevenly integrated into campus strategies: instances of broad, culture-shifting experimentation along these lines in higher education can be counted on one hand. IT organizations have started outsourcing enterprise systems in the hope of leveraging hosted solutions and the cloud more broadly to free up time, energy, and resources. The practice of outsourcing itself seems to have become the pinnacle of innovation for information technology in higher education. Meanwhile, IT organizations are often defined by what’s necessary rather than what’s possible, and the cumulative weight of an increasingly complex communications infrastructure weighs ever heavier.

and a faint glimmer of hope:

Starting now. A technology that allows for limitless reproduction of knowledge resources, instantaneous global sharing and cooperation, and all the powerful benefits of digital manipulation, recombination, and computation must be a “bag of gold” for scholarship and for learning. It is well within the power of educators to play a decisive role in the battle for the future of the web. Doing so will require the courage to buck prevailing trends. It will require an at-times inconvenient commitment to the fundamental principles of openness, ownership, and participation. It will require hard work, creativity, and a spirit of fun.

It will require reclaiming innovation. Our choice.

disregard hype.