Thursday, May 25, 2006

Virtual Worlds

Recently, during a discussion on how technology is changing education, I was reminded of the virtual worlds people are setting up. In general, younger generations are growing up accustomed to the benefits of technology, and expect their entertainment to be equally exciting and innovative. Video games just don't cut it anymore. They have to be more interactive, more immersive and more communal. The internet provides a ripe infrastructure for these kinds of developments, taking games from single PC's to networks of users.

As testament to this trend, look no further than the recent release of Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom (see this review at O'Reilly). It takes the virtual world game to the next level, and it's graphics are far superior too.

In fact, even ocean educators are already going this route. Woods Hole, among others, has partnered with the Whyville site to provide educational content amongst the games and interaction provided by the site.

To my mind, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of these sites. Supposedly, there's lots of evidence that students really get engaged in the community atmosphere of such sites. However, I really question how much they actually learn.

It's clear that students like to use (read: play on) them, spending much of their time designing their avatars and chatting with other users. And despite the best attempts of educators to spread educational content throughout the sites, often within the games that reward students with "money" to use to improve their avatars, I would wager they spend more time on the frills and less on the skills.

Of course, when Disney builds a free virtual environment, it's not about educational value, but marketing and branding.

But when educators start thinking about using new technologies to teach and excite the next generation, I feel we still have a long way to go before we find the right recipe.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Château de Pierrefonds

Last night, I went on an "information adventure." One that wasn't really possible just a few short years ago.

I happened to be playing with Google Earth, which is a data visualizers dream come true. Though, as great as it is, I'm anxiously waiting several features like time navigation and 3D image fills, so that it can actually be used in oceanographic research. But I digress....

At one point I found myself looking at some fancy 3D rendering of an iron crystal looking structure in Belgium.

From there I found myself browsing south to Colemar and Strasbourg, two towns I visited with my family about a dozen years ago. You can even see the Strasbourg cathedral in GE quite clearly. I recall climbing up to the top of it's main spiral and waving to my grandmother below as she sat in a cafe. The cathedral also contains a very cool, very complex and quite famous Astronomical clock, an amazing feat of technological accomplishment in the pre-digital days of 1842.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of France is still mostly in low resolution in Google Earth. Not the best for castle hopping the cheap way. Or in my case, reminiscing about former castle visits.

It was at this point I recalled that I never really figured out a random castle I once visited on a French exchange trip during my high school days. I was actually taken to the castle by by exchange family on one of our days off, so no one else on the trip went or knew of the castle (including my mother). All I remember is that we visited it on a day-trip from Paris, and that the town had something to do with Jeanne d'Arc, or more specifically, the end of her days.

So I looked her up on Wikipedia.

She was burned at the stake in Rouen.

According to Google Earth that's northwest of Paris, not the direction I remember.

But she was captured in Compiègne. That's to the northeast, about an hour out.

Now we're getting somewhere. The picture of Hôtel de ville de Compiègne on Wikipedia is distinctly familiar, particularly the statue of Jeanne d'Arc in front. I actually recall walking around the building, though I can't remember why my exchange family thought it was particularly interesting. Perhaps we visited a museum there? Either way, it's not the castle I remember.

So I started checking out the links. There's one for "Le musée du château" but that's for the Château de Compiègne, and it looks nothing like the one I'm looking for.

Then I tried the city council's web site. Mustering up as much of my french reading comprehension as I could recall, I looked through the site. Doucovrir - the page for visitors. Histoire - the page of interesting places to visit.

Whammo! Château de Pierrefonds. That's it!

As I read the story (in french) of the castle, a flood of memories all click back into place. For reassurance, now that I know what I'm looking for, I Google some additional references, and see more pictures I recall. The the large entry gate, the medieval knight on horseback in the courtyard, the grand staircase, and the fancy ornate woodwork in the main hall.

Even the story makes sense. It was build by Louis d'Orléans in the 14th century. Then destroyed by Louis XIII. Finally, Napoleon III ordered it to be rebuilt, so the castle has the distinct concoction of a combination of 14th and 19th century architecture. It also has a lot of animal sculptures for some reason.

Throughout this whole process, I learned some interesting tidbits about Compiègne, it's role in the end of WW1 and the start of WWII (which both involve the same railroad car). I even spent a little time learning about the french governing structure, since Compiègne is the sous-préfecture of the Oise département of France (say that fast). Why, there's even a town in Canada named Pierrefonds. Apparently someone there built a bad copy of the original castle (before he had even seen it) and the name of the town stuck.

The things you can find out today. And it's all thanks to the confluence of technology and information that make it possible.

Or at the very least, it certainly helps piece together old memories, assuming you don't get more confused by learning too many new things in the process.

Then again, technology won't help me recall perhaps the best part of the day. Pulling off the A1, sitting down on a log at the edge of a forrest and having the typical french picnic: ham and butter on a baguette.

Castles and French picnics.

I'm easily won over.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Unix Admin Tools

I'm not really big into system administration.

But yesterday, one server I help manage had a hung perl process that was sucking up all of the system's resources. I only discovered it after I made some apache configuration changes. Unfortunately, apache wouldn't restart and a dozen web sites went down thanks to the offending process.

An hour or two later, I was working on another system along with 2 coworkers. Every program we started seemed to take forever to complete. In this case, the culprit turned out to be two long-running Matlab processes a student was running overnight. Normally we might not have noticed, but since the 3 of us were pulling a night shift during an experiment, the slow-down on a crucial data processing server was rather annoying.

As a result of all this, I learned some nifty new unix commands, thanks to my sys admin friends.

Provides a listing of system processes sorted by CPU utilization. On many systems the listing refreshes automatically every few seconds until you hit Ctl-C. This is a great tool for finding the processes (and users) who are hogging the system.

This command outputs some general system information, including 1) the current time, 2) the length of time since the system was last rebooted, 3) the number of users currently logged on 4) and CPU load statistics for the last 1, 5, and 10 minutes. Here's a quick sample:

2:39am up 352 day(s), 12:07, 10 users, load average: 2.68, 2.94, 3.30

It's the load averages which can be most telling in debugging hung processes or sluggish performance. A value of 1 means that for every clock tick, there's a process waiting in the wings for the CPU to handle. If it's greater than 1, then you've got a lot going on, and any process you run will take longer to finish. If it's less than 1, then your CPU is sitting idle and lonely, so you should give it more to do.

If you have a job which will take a long time to run and you're sharing the system with other users (or perhaps it also processes critical real-time data), you can use this command to give your job a lower priority. Remember, we're all friends here.

Finally, if you forget to play nice when you start your process, you can use the renice command later, by simply passing the process id.

Hopefully, if you're on a system with many users, you'll find these commands useful to figure out what's going on.

And for those of you with mace, you can use all of these commands too!

Welcome to the Deep

Well, I've been debating starting a blog for at least the past 2 years. (hasn't everyone?) But now I've finally decided to start contributing my notes to the world. So here I am.

On this blog you will find tidbits related to my many interests in oceanography, education and outreach, data analysis & visualization, web site development, communicating science, and hopefully much more.

Stay tuned!