Plone 3 for Education review

One of the first things you have to keep in mind when considering to get this book is the target audience. If you’re a hard-core developer who keeps Proffessional Plone Development under your pillow, this book might be a bit too “soft” for you. It’s targeted to integrators with little experience in Plone who want to learn about how to perform certain tasks, from publishing an usable events calendar to create an on-line form for visitors’ comments.

Both the author, Erik Rose, and the technical reviewers are well known and respected in the community. I’ve chatted more than once with two of the reviewers, Steve McMahon and Denys Mishunov, and I know they’re quite skillful and competent, so you can expect the book to be correct and well-written.

I must admit that, at first, I was a bit annoyed with the step-by-step recipe-style of the book. Being a Physics student, I’m used to read texts where the main points of the theory are explained, but the step-by-step procedure is often left as an exercise to the reader. Having to follow closely a list of steps makes me feel like a script-kiddie: somebody who executes a series of steps without actually understanding what is she/he really doing.

However, Erik has taken care of providing a lot of contextual explanation about the steps, with comments about the different options you have and why would you prefer to choose one or another. Moreover, the just-follow-these-steps approach is not so heavily used after the two first chapters.

Although the title of the book suggests that people in the educational context are its only target public, you can learn a lot from its suggested approaches even if you aren’t into education. Being very, very practical, it covers a freaking impressive list of tasks/features: making academic courses available on-line, a directory of personnel, setting-up a blog and a forum, publishing audio and video, creating forms easily, theming a site and managing a production system.

I wouldn’t have covered the theming and the sysadmin stuff, since it’s quite technical and there are already (or are coming) good book references on these subjects, including the Plone 3 Theming by Veda Williamson, Practical Plone 3, or the upcoming Plone 3.3 Site Administration by the popular Alex Clark. By the way, Alex, please tell Packt that this title is not attractive at all marketingly-speaking — people will think that the book only applies to 3.3!

Unlike other books, which are quite bare-Plone centered, a lot of interesting add-on products are documented, more or less extensively: FacultyStaffDirectory (of which Erik is an active contributor and therefore even provides tips about future development!), p4a.Calendar, Scrawl, QuillsEnabled, PloneBoard, collective.flowplayer, p4a.video, p4a.audio, PloneFormGen, z3c.jbot and CacheFu, among others.

Erik doesn’t simply provide general technical manager advice, but also tells you about good practices for content editors based on his previous experience and known pitfalls. What is even more impressive, he sometimes points you to some tickets in Trac about open issues! While this would be more suitable for on-line documentation, it reflects the active involvement and time Erik has spent on investigating what he’s writing about. Good work, Erik!

The book is full of evangelism, specially in the first chapter, where it comes in loads. While it shows that Erik (and the reviewers?) is really passionate about Plone, I guess that who bought this book is looking for info about how to use the product, not marketing stuff, and perhaps these pages could have seen better use with some images, more extensive explanation of a certain feature, or just removed and the price of the book lowered. But this is only the opinion of someone who’s already convinced of the coolness of Plone. Erik also takes the opportunity to expose his political view about the issues with buildout, installation and packaging.

The writing style is clear and always fun. Sentences like “Who can resist puppies? They are heart-meltingly cute and loads of fun, but it’s easy to forget, when their wet little noses are in your face, that they come with responsibility. Likewise, add-ons are free to install and use, but they also bring hidden costs.” make you smile and remind you that some people in the Plone community have a good sense of humour and are crazy enough to publish this kind of stuff in a technical book. :)

Kudos to Erik — while I was certainly biased about reading a book for non-developers and just for Education, you managed to make me learn new stuff and enjoy doing so!

I’d like to thank Packt Publishing for providing me a free review copy of the e-book for my reading pleasure. The 2nd chapter, Calendaring, is available from their site free of charge, in the case you want to take a peek before considering to get the book.

Free Culture X Conference Workshops notes

The second day of the Conference was named the “Unconference” and consisted on a series of open workshops proposed by the Conference attendees. The list is quite long and impressive, but at each time there were four or more workshops taking place simultaneuslly, so I wasn’t able to attend them all. ;)

Below you can find some notes on the ones I participated in.

Hacking the Hill

This workshop was about who you should contact if you want to influence the political decisions in your state inside the USA. People usually contact their most local representative, but what is important is to influence the representatives who are part of the committees where the topics you’re interested in are discussed.

The most effective method to influence their decisions is to ask them for a physical appointment and talk to them to explain your point. They don’t directly watch their heavy-loaded mail account nor Facebook (:P), but conversations can change minds!

Opensecrets.org is an amazing website where you can find a lot of data, mainly economic, about politics, politicians and lobbies. Under Politicians & Elections → Congress you can find a list of the current representatives, and if you click on their names, the committees assignments.

On the Spanish side, the Hacktivistas group maintains a very interesting wiki page where who is who in the Copyright politics game is described. Also, they’ve recently published an article about the anatomy of the Special 301 Report lobby.

Charter for Innovation, Creativity and Access to Knowledge

This workshop versed about the already (I hope famous) Charter authored during the 2009 Culture Forum in Barcelona. While we often are tempted to point out the bad and worse stuff of the current legislative initiatives, this Charter aims to be a positive reference document for discussing Copyright, A2K and Net Neutrality topics.

It is the work of more than one hundred experts and it’s always being improved. The current version 2.0 has been endorsed by dozens of individuals and organizations, some of the most popular listed at the end of the Charter.

Michael Johnson pointed out the existence of a similar document, the Libre Society Manifesto, by David M. Berry and Giles Moss. While (IMO) the purpose of this last document is different, I’m sure we can take ideas from it to include in the Charter, and of course welcome the manifesto’s authors to join us.

During the presentation we had a very interesting conversation with one of the attendees, a photographer who was publishing her work under CreativeCommons licenses. She told us that she usually faces problems with her clients since they’re not used to this (new?) way of publishing photos, and they often look for sole rights.

We arrived at the conclusion that this open-licensing is opening a new model of payment orientation: whereas the closed-licensing (all rights reserved, can’t copy nor redistribute, etc.) built the value around the content, the open-licensing is building the value around the work itself. Instead of paying for a piece of content, you pay the people who create this content to create it.

While it can sound rather new, this has been the most natural model in the Free Software world for a long time now. Since most Free Software is provided free of charge, as a consultant you can only charge a client for the work you have to do in order to adapt and customize it to his needs. One usually releases the resulting product, when appropiate, as Free Software, so instead of having to reinvent the wheel over-and-over again, other people can just pick up your work and extend it, which is much more efficient.

For example, I work with Plone, a Content Management System widely used in government-related and NGO sites. The amount of time the Plone contributors have spent on it must be really impressive, but it’s provided free of charge, gratis! This is sustainable because we use Plone to build websites, and the better and more powerful Plone itself is, the easier it is to adapt it to the customer needs, and so the more clients that are willing to hire these skillful developers.

This also encourages a new strategy to develop products: instead of developing the product and hoping to be able to sell it to enough clients to compensate the investment, you wait until customers have commited enough funding for the development. This way you have sold the product before developing it and therefore reduces the risk of supreme failure.

Open Educational Resources tools

The open.michigan team presented the dScribe framework to extract atomic content from existing material, edit its metadata, clear copyright issues and create new material. They told us that the software powering the framework is still a bit hard to install, since it was developed to work in the Michigan University, but they can open an account in their servers for you if you ask them.

One of the problems we’re facing is how to create, maintain and publish the contents in a way they’re easy to comment and contribute to and, at the same time, high quality. One of the most advanced tools to generate high-quality documents is LaTeX, but the way it works makes it a bit hard to be converted to HTML and published in the web, where contributing is much easier and accessible than having to dive into the LaTeX source.

In this sense, Alqua is investigating plasTeX, a modular and very extensible LaTeX document processing framework written in Python. The aim is to be able to publish LaTeX documents in HTML and provide a per-paragraph and per-formula comment system like the one you can see in the Mercurial Book.

Another approach is to use a markup syntax and a wiki-style site to compose and comment the document and make use of some scripts to convert the markup to LaTeX when generating a high-quality and ready-to-print version of the content. The testing/beta veresion of Wikipedia already allows you to generate a beautiful PDF-book from a set of articles of your choice, so it’s clear that this approach is reasonable.

FLOSS in scientific education

The goal of this workshop was to ask the attendees about the approaches to free software taken in their educational environments, related to Science.

A lot of universities are using and teaching their students to use privative scientific software, like Matlab, Maple or Mathematica. These universities often have to spends huge amounts of money on multi-PC licenses for the software, or even encourage students to install non-original copies of the software in their PCs. Moreover, the internals of these software pieces are hidden to the students, in clear contradiction with the scientific spirit.

There already exist quite a lot of Free Software replacements for the privative counterparts, like you can check in the Open Source as Alternative website. One of the most interesting emerging frameworks is Sage. As their developers define it, it is a free open-source mathematics software system that combines the power of many existing open-source packages into a common Python-based interface.

The combination of different packages provides the most efficient way to deal with each type of problem and warrants interoperability. For example, Sage can use Maxima to solve a differential equation symbolically and Matplotlib to plot the results, all under the hood.

Another impressive and very convenient feature of Sage its Through-The-Web interface. You can set-up a web server for some students to use Sage in a collaborative environment from their own homes without installing anything on their computers. Try it and break your jaw at the Sage Notebook website.

Free Culture X Conference notes

The Free Culture X Conference and Unconference took place the past 13th and 14th of February at the George Washington University, in Washington, DC. I had the privilege to attend thanks to a travel grant from the generosity of Google, Mozilla and Shareable.

As they define it, its vision is to bring together student activists and free culture luminaries to discuss free software and open standards, open access scholarship, open educational resources, network neutrality, and university patent policy, especially in the context of higher education.

Below there is a summary of the notes I took during the conference. It doesn’t aim to be complete nor precise, but I hope it will provide an idea of what did we discuss about.

During the different keynotes and panels, we used, apart from the classical hand-up, the backchan.nl tool for audience intervention during conferences. Better than a massive Twitter, IMO.

After a short introduction, we started discussing about the politics of open networks. It was pointed out that we need to come up with a clear definition of net neutrality and push the ISPs to implement the policies we want. The politics-related meetings about net neutrality often include a lot of industry representation, but seldom people from other sectors of the population, which are also affected, as university campuses or consumers’ groups.

The three-strikes law to cut the access to the Internet can become extremely harmful in contexts where it’s being used as a platform for services like VoIP or TV, disconnecting the affected user completely, unable to make even emergency calls.

In general, the existence of a competitive market of ISPs, like the one in England, contributes to the natural enforcement of the net neutrality.

Controversely, one of the panelists, Timothy B. Lee, exposed his ideas about how to preserve the net neutrality without law regulations. You can read more about his ideas, and a quite long and in-deep paper, in his blog.

I’ve recently read bad news about net neutrality in Spain. Some of the major ISPs operating in the country, like Telefónica or Vodafone, claim a monetary compensation from companies that use their infrastructures for their business, like search engines, mobile apps distributors, or VoIP companies. I personally oppose the Internet to become another TV.

Next, Pat Aufderheide directed a keynote about the concept of fair use to reuse and remix existing culture. Fair use is perfectly legal in the US and should be encouraged, even enlarging or modifying non-copying policies for homework in schools. There’s a lot of interesting material about fair use in the Center for Social Media website.

Moving on to the topic of Open Access and Access to Knowledge, it was pointed out that Open Access in public universities is low-hanging fruit and we should contact these universities to encourage them to adopt this model. The Open University Campaign, a Students For Free Culture project, contains valuable information about this. Also, the Right to Reseach Coalition is an excellent source of info about how to demand the research work paid with our taxes to come back to us without having to pay additional unfair fees.

Unfortunately, some countries lack from copyright exceptions for libraries and universities, and the changes in the law, usually promoted by the industry, always tend to make it more restrictive.

We need to take the discussion about Access to Knowledge from experts to the “family dinner”, explaining current common behaviour that is or would be illegal under the current laws, to make the public aware of how are they affected and take part in the legal discussions about copyright laws.

Also, it was pointed out that personal meetings, faxes and phone calls are much more effective than emails or Facebook campaigns to make the politicians hear our opinion.

The next panel was about Open Educational Resources (OER). Eric Frank, from Flat World Knowledge (FWK), told us that textbooks are a major portion of the tuition costs in some countries. Flat World Knowledge provides a platform to create, publish and distribute quality, peer-reviewed, customizable and flexible-licensing books that are freely accesible online and affordable as printed copies. The people from FWK have observed that, even when there’s a free printable copy of the book available, some students prefer to buy the book, which makes this publishing model presumably sustainable.

The Michigan University OER Team (Open.Michigan) is working on an impressive list of projects to enable groups and individuals to openly share their work. These are mostly collaboration tools, supporting the idea of that the knowledge is not just “transferred” from teachers to students, but something socially constructed. Some of the most interesting are dScribe, a framework to help faculty staff to gather available educational material, clear possible copyright restrictions over it (so it can be published legally under certain circumstances) and reuse it to create and publish new OERs; or OERca, the free software platform that powers most of the dScribe framework.

Finally, Timothy Vollmer, from ccLearn, told us about how CreativeCommons is helping to the development of OERs, the available tools for adequately tag content for further indexing and discovery.

Por qué quiero ir a estudiar a Barcelona

Son varias las razones que me llevan a solicitar este intercambio.

La primera de todas es que Barcelona es una ciudad que, desde la primera vez que la visité, me ha resultado tremendamente atractiva. Mis visitas han sido siempre bastante cortas y no he tenido demasiado tiempo para dar vueltas por la ciudad, pero lo poco que he visto me ha parecido llenísima de vida y de gente muy variada. Me encantaría poder disfrutar de casi un año allí.

Además, Barcelona está situada en un lugar estratégico en España, muy cerca del resto de Europa, lo que me permitiría visitar países que aún no conozco bien, como Francia.

El catalán, si bien en un principio puede parecer un problema porque no lo hablo aún, no es si no una oportunidad para aprender un idioma más.

Este año estoy disfrutando de un intercambio Erasmus en Suecia y conociendo gente proveniente de todo el mundo: su cultura, su forma de comportarse, su gastronomía, etc. Esto viene muy bien para abrir la mente, para ampliar el enfoque que uno tiene del mundo. Un intercambio SICUE tiene un ámbito más limitado, pero aún así creo que sería interesante conocer en profundidad cómo es la vida en otra ciudad de España.

Por otra parte, estudiar en otra universidad me da la oportunidad de estudiar asignaturas que no se imparten en mi facultad y conocer formas distintas de exponer un mismo tema, de evaluar, etc. Al igual que con las personas, esto ayuda a darse cuenta de que las cosas se pueden hacer de otro modo, con sus ventajas y sus inconvenientes.

Por último, ésta es una oportunidad única que se me presenta para estudiar fuera de mi cuidad gozando de una beca (Séneca, que tengo intención de solicitar a continuación) que me permitiría vivir cómodamente sin tener que quitar tiempo de mis estudios para trabajar ni que seguir dependiendo de la economía de mi familia.

Bramborové placky

A tasty Czech recipe, from Lucka! It’s like potato crepes.

Ingredients

  • Grated potatoes.
  • Eggs.
  • Salt.
  • Marjoram.
  • Cumin.
  • Garlic.
  • A little bit of flour for thickening.

Procedure

Mix everything and fry in some oil in a pan.

I guess you can add vegetables or meat and make a roll, but I’ve not tried so far.