Open Whisper Systems

The Signal protocol is designed for secure, private, encrypted messaging and real-time calling. The protocol, designed by Open Whisper Systems, is used in an increasingly large range of tools (including by Facebook and Google), but their own app is the most interesting application of it. 

The (open, GPL) Signal app is a secure, private messaging and voice chat app for iOS and Android, offering guaranteed and strong end-to-end encryption without having to sign up for a service with dubious privacy standards or further agendas (e.g. Facebook, Apple, Google, Whatsapp, Viber etc). No ads, no account details kept by the company, no means for them (or anyone) to store or intercept messages or calls, the organization is funded by donations and grants. The app uses your phonebook to discover other contacts using Signal – I don’t have many yet, but hopefully a few of my contacts will see this and install it. Call quality seems excellent – as good as Skype used to be before Microsoft maimed it – though I haven’t used it enough yet to assess its reliability. One disadvantage is that, if you have more than one phone and phone number, there seems to be no obvious way to link them together. That’s a particular nuisance on a dual-SIM phone.

It needs a real, verified phone number to get started but, once you have done that, you can link it to other devices too, including PCs (via Chrome or a Chrome-based browser like the excellent Vivaldi), using a simple QR code (no accounts!) so this is a potentially great replacement for things like Whatsapp, Skype, Allo, Viber, etc. No video calling yet, though you can send video messages (and most other things).

 

Address of the bookmark: https://whispersystems.org/#page-top

Get that “new Mac” smell all the time with a $24 scented candle

Some time ago, while comparing the virtues of paper and electronic books, I predicted that the current generation would one day wax lyrical about the smell of a new iPhone much as those from my generation get gooey over the scent of old books.

That day has arrived.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.alphr.com/apple/1004449/get-that-new-mac-smell-all-the-time-with-a-24-scented-candle

Leonard Cohen Dead at 82 – Rolling Stone

Another sad piece of news in a year of much sad news.

To be fair, it does not come as a great surprise. He had been preparing for this for a long time, approaching death with the same style, creativity, and elegance as he approached his life. Cohen said in a recent interview that he was ready to die and, following much the same theme, in his final letter to Marianne Ihlen as she lay dying earlier this year –  ‘We are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon’. It pleases me greatly that, on his 80th birthday, he followed through on his long-held intention to take up smoking once more.

 

Address of the bookmark: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/leonard-cohen-dead-at-82-w449792

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Commons In A Box

Landing-like software from CUNY, based on Buddypress, intended to provide a learning commons with relatively little effort or configuration. It’s a nice bit of packaging, slick, with good collaboration tools and a simple, activity-stream-oriented social network. Commons in a Box is definitely worth looking at if you need a site to support a bottom-up social community or network, and you don’t have a wealth of resources to put into building your own. 

I came across this software because it is being used in the University of Brighton’s newly reborn community site at https://community.brighton.ac.uk which, until it was killed off last year, used to run on Elgg.  I remain a fan of Elgg for building such things, which has a lot more options than BuddyPress available by default, richer access control, and a much more elegant technological design that makes customization more robust and flexible, but this seems to be a great simple solution that just works without demanding much effort, and that, thanks to its WordPress foundations, could be customized to do pretty much anything you’d want a bit of social software to do. 

Address of the bookmark: http://commonsinabox.org/

Understanding the response to financial and non-financial incentives in education: Field experimental evidence using high-stakes assessments

What they did

This is a report by, Simon Burgess, Robert Metcalfe, and Sally Sadoff on a large scale study conducted in the UK on the effects of financial and non-financial incentives on GCSE scores (GCSEs are UK qualifications usually taken around age 16 and usually involving exams), involving over 10,000 students in 63 schools being given cash or ‘non-financial incentives’. ‘Non-financial incentives’ did not stretch as far as a pat on the back or encouragement given by caring teachers – this was about giving tickets for appealing events. The rewards were given not for getting good results but for particular behaviours the researchers felt should be useful proxies for effective study: specifically, attendance, conduct, homework, and classwork. None of the incentives were huge rewards to those already possessing plenty of creature comforts but, for poorer students, they might have seemed substantial. Effectiveness of the intervention was measured in terminal grades. The researchers were very thorough and were very careful to observe limitations and concerns. It is as close to an experimental design as you can get in a messy real-world educational intervention, with numbers that are sufficient and diverse enough to make justifiable empirical claims about the generalizability of the results.

What they found

Rewards had little effect on average marks overall, and it made little difference whether rewards were financial or not. However, in high risk groups (poor, immigrants, etc) there was a substantial improvement in GCSE results for those given rewards, compared with the control groups. 

My thoughts

The only thing that does surprise me a little is that so little effect was seen overall, but I hypothesize that the reward/punishment conditions are so extreme already among GCSE students that it made little difference to add any more to the mix.  The only ones that might be affected would be those for whom the extrinsic motivation is not already strong enough. There is also a possibility that the demotivating effects for some were balanced out by the compliance effects for others: averages are incredibly dangerous things, and this study is big on averages.

What makes me sad is that there appears to be no sense of surprise or moral outrage about this basic premise in this report.

dogs being whipped, from Jack London's 'Call of the Wild' It appears reasonable at first glance: who would not want kids to be more successful in their exams? When my own kids had to do this sort of thing I would have been very keen on something that would improve their chances of success, and would be especially keen on something that appears to help to reduce systemic inequalities. But this is not about helping students to learn or improving education: this is completely and utterly about enforcing compliance and improving exam results. The fact that there might be a perceived benefit to the victims is a red herring: it’s like saying that hitting dogs harder is good for the dogs because it makes them behave better than hitting them gently. The point is that we should not be hitting them at all. It’s not just morally wrong, it doesn’t even work very well, and only continues to work at all if you keep hitting them. It teaches students that the end matters more than the process, that learning is inherently undesirable and should only done when there is a promise of a reward or threat of punishment, and that they are not in charge of it. 

The inevitable result of increasing rewards (or punishments – they are functionally equivalent) is to further quench any love of learning that might be left at this point in their school careers, to reinforce harmful beliefs about how to learn, and to further put students off the subjects they might have loved under other circumstances for life.  In years to come people will look back on barbaric practices like this much as we now look back at the slave trade or pre-emancipation rights for women.

Studies like this make me feel a bit sick. 

 

Address of the bookmark: http://www.efm.bris.ac.uk/economics/working_papers/pdffiles/dp16678.pdf

Sole and Despotic Dominion

Cory Doctorow is on excellent form discussing the evils of DRM and the meaning of ownership. The title is lifted from William Blackstone, referring to what it means to own something –  “that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.” Doctorow’s central argument here is that, at least in the US (where DMCA 1201 denies people the right to break DRM locks), the presence of copyrighted DRM’d code in almost every object manufactured, from books to rectal thermometers, means that they cannot ever be owned by anyone other than their manufacturer, protected by law and unaccountable to anyone. 

“DMCA 1201 gave publishers and movie studios and game companies the power to make up their own private laws and outsource their enforcement to the public courts and police.”

Among the results of this are that security researchers cannot reveal flaws that may be dangerous or even deadly (think cars, insulin pumps, etc, not to mention the Internet of Hackable Things) while criminals can exploit them freely. It means that companies like Volkswagen can conceal cheating on emissions tests, that makers of thermostats can prevent you from controlling heat in your own home, that books you bought can be taken away from you on a whim or an error, that printer manufacturers can introduce code to break your printer if you don’t use their cartridges the way they want you to use them, that security agencies can demand that manufacturers let them use your webcam to spy on you, that abandoned games on a long extinct platform cannot be ported to modern hardware, that your watch will stop working if its manufacturer goes bust, and so on. It means that, mostly without our consent or knowledge, we no longer own what we own. As Doctorow puts it:

“There’s a word for this: feudalism. In feudalism, property is the exclusive realm of a privileged few, and the rest of us are tenants on that property. In the 21st century, DMCA-enabled version of feudalism, the gentry aren’t hereditary toffs, they’re transhuman, immortal artificial life-forms that use humans as their gut-flora: limited liability corporations.”

Address of the bookmark: http://www.locusmag.com/Perspectives/2016/11/cory-doctorow-sole-and-despotic-dominion/

Talky

Very interesting – a real-time, largely browser-based video, audio, chat, screen-sharing, etc system requiring no sign-up, no fees, no persistent data. Just pick a URL for a web meeting (webinar), and share it with 15 or more other people. It’s not exactly Adobe Connect, but it has all the main features needed for quick, easy web conferencing with no need for proprietary plugins.

There are no ads, it runs on most browsers that support WebRTC (best on Chrome, Firefox, or one of their many derivatives) and there are mobile apps for it. It’s not just a connection service for WebRTC – there are TURN and STUN servers involved too, so this costs a fair bit for the company to develop and run. It took me a while to figure out how they ever intend to make any money but I think it seems to involve a model much like that of BigBlueButton, with paid-for services like recording, app integration, broadcast etc available through TalkyCore. 

Like all WebRTC implementations, much depends on the browser and router, so this might not work for everyone all the time, but I think it looks very promising, especially now that Firefox has removed Hello from its browser.

Address of the bookmark: https://talky.io/

Udacity Partners with IBM, Amazon for Artificial Intelligence 'Degree'

http://fortune.com/2016/10/25/udacity-ibm-amazon-ai/

Udacity is now valued at over $1b. This seems a long way from the dream of open (libre and free) learning of the early MOOC pioneers (pre-Thrun):

“Earlier this year, Udacity’s revenue from Nanodegrees was growing nearly 30% month over month and the initiative is profitable, according to Thrun. According to one source, Udacity was on track to make $24 million this year. Udacity also just became a unicorn—a startup valued at or above $1 billion—in its most recent $105 million funding round in 2015.”

This should also be a wake-up call to universities that believe their value is measurable by the employability of their graduates. Udacity has commitments from huge companies like IBM, BMW, Tata and others to accept its nanodegree graduates. Nanodegrees are becoming a serious currency in the job market, at lower cost and higher productivity than anything universities can match, with all the notable benefits of online delivery and timeframes that make lifelong learning of up-to-date competencies a reality, not an aspiration. If we don’t adapt to this then universities are, if not dead in the water, definitely at risk of becoming of less relevance.

I recently posted a response to Dave Cormier’s question about the goals of education in which I suggested that our educational institutions play an important sustaining and generative role in cultures  – not just in large-scale societal level culture, but in the myriad overlapping and contained cultures within societies. Though I have reservations about the risks of government involvement in education, I am a little fearful but also a little intrigued about what happens when private organizations start to make a substantial contribution to that role. There have always been a few such cases, and that has always been a useful thing. Having a few alternatives nipping around your heels and introducing fresh ideas helps to keep an ecosystem from stagnating. But this is big scale stuff, and it’s part of a trend that worries me. We are already seeing extremely large contributions to traditional education from private donors like the Gates and Zuckerberg foundations that reinforce dreadful misguided beliefs about what education is, or what it is for. With big funding, these become self-fulfilling beliefs. As long as we can sustain diversity then I think it is not a bad thing, but the massive influence of a few (even well-meaning) individuals with the spending power of nations is  very, very dangerous.

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