Not Signing the Contract

Sir Tim Berners Lee has recently released his latest project, the Contract for the Web which outlines nine principles for governments, companies, and people to follow. On the surface, these nine ideals sound great and are something to get behind. In reality, however, the principles mask contradictions and illogical expectations that do little to resolve the actual issues facing people's access to and/or activities online. To make matters worse, the contract is endorsed by companies such as Google and Facebook; two organisations that have done more to destroy trust and privacy than any entity in the history of humanity. As such, I cannot -- and will not -- sign the contract.

What's bizarre is how the principles generally align with my beliefs1. Here they are as they're written today:

Governments:

1 ⇢ Ensure everyone can connect to the internet.
2 ⇢ Keep all of the internet available, all of the time.
3 ⇢ Respect and protect people's fundamental online privacy and data rights.

Whenever the word "rights" appears in a document, I look for the other side of the statement. In order to have rights, there must be responsibilities. Do the outlined responsibilities align with the right being claimed? If so, then there may be precedent in granting the right. Otherwise, it's just a demand.

Companies:

4 ⇢ Make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone.
5 ⇢ Respect and protect people's privacy and personal data to build online trust.
6 ⇢ Develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst.

Of the nine principles, number six bothers me the most. When you read more, there isn't one technology outlined. This is all about pushing an agenda that has nothing to do with supporting the best or challenging the worst, which are already subjective ideas that cannot be agreed upon by two people in from the same culture, let alone 7-billion people from every way of life.

More on this later.

Citizens:

7 ⇢ Be creators and collaborators on the Web.
8 ⇢ Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity.
9 ⇢ Fight for the Web.

It's interesting to see number eight in this list, given that Twitter has endorsed the contract. The most active threads on that social forum respect neither civil discourse nor human dignity. Heck, if I were still on that network, I'd probably be compared to Satan himself, because I will not subjugate myself to the groupthink that seems to have become so inescapable over the last decade.

Off-hand remarks aside, these nine principles sound good. Really good. Governments certainly have the power to ensure everyone can connect and access the entirety of the web, both good and bad, while ensuring that there are no state-sponsored or mandated data collection processes in place. Access to the Internet is not a human right, but it should be available to those who choose to use it. I can agree with the surface content of these three principles.

Principle 1.3 comes across as wholly unnecessary, though. It feels as though it was shoved in despite the fact that Principle 1.1 and 1.2 already cover the four items in 1.3. If everyone is supposed to have access, as stated in 1.1, would this not also include "women and other systematically excluded groups"? What part of everyone doesn't include more than 50% of any given population? I wholly agree that everyone should have access. I disagree with the wording that excludes more than 50% of a nation from the word "everyone".

Principle 4.1 (a) also strikes me as bizarre. It reads "[Make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone, by crafting policies that address the needs of systematically excluded groups], [by] designing gender responsive and inclusive data plans targeting women and other systematically excluded groups."

So … only cis-gendered caucasian men should pay full price for access to the internet in western nations, cis-gendered Japanese men should pay full price in Japan, cis-gendered Chinese men should pay full price in China, and so on. Everyone else gets a discount … right? Because this is what I'm reading. This isn't me trying to play the victim2. This is me reading the words on the page.

One thing I like about Principle 4.1 is section (c), which reads: "Ensuring user interfaces and customer service are effective, and offered in languages and mediums that are accessible to minorities and people with disabilities, including by respecting universal acceptance principles."

Having a UI that is offered in languages that are accessible to people who identify as minorities will be quite the challenge for anyone in a nation that has more than one tongue3. This is not an impossible task, but it does leave an organisation wondering how to properly address the situation without resorting to the awful use of machine translation software. What I liked, though, was the goal to have interfaces accessible to people with disabilities. Too few websites -- including this one, I'll admit -- do much for people who might have different degrees of visual acuity.

Principle 5 is wholly incompatible with Google and Facebook's business model. The fact they've been permitted to endorse the contract is why the whole thing is meaningless. Sure, one could argue that we should sign anyways, and "fight" (Principle 9) to ensure large corporations who have signed live up to their promises, but that's not how shit works on the internet.

Principle 6

Where to begin.

First, section (a) "Respecting and supporting human rights, as outlined by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights." is not a technology. Neither is (b) "Establishing policies designed to respect and promote the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly those pertaining to education, gender equality, systematically excluded groups, climate, and socio-environmental justice.". Nor is (c) "Assessing and addressing risks created by their technologies, including risks associated with online content (such as misinformation and disinformation), behavior, and personal well-being."

Some of these are certainly laudable goals. Who wouldn't encourage the support of human rights? However, none of these are technologies. To wedge this social justice component into a principle that is defined as (to) "Develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst" is already presenting itself with a non-recoverable contradiction.

Principle 6.2 brings up the word "intersectionalities" in section (a), a word that has yet to make it into many dictionaries, which means it's already a losing proposition to back this contract. How many "intersectionalities" are there in the world? Let's see … what's the population of the human race? Yeah … that many. We are all human. All of us. Principle 6.2 should really read: "By interacting with people honestly"4. Let's step away from the Animal Farm allegories where some groups are more equal than others, because it's a false narrative. If we are to be treated as equals, nobody can have preferential treatment.

Principle 6.3 is the only time any sort of technology is mentioned. Therefore, Principle 6 has nothing to do with what it claims.

For citizens of the internet, Principle 7 is right in line with what I agree with. Open collaboration, communication, and participation. That's an admirable trifecta to aim for. Principle 8 gets preachy pretty quick, mixing admirable activities with virtue signalling. And Principle 9 … is pretty good for four of the five items it mentions.

There is no denying that I despise what the web has become and have sequestered myself to an island of my own making. The general lack of respect shown by corporations, asshole developers, and drive-by warriors is excessive and unacceptable. Tim Berners Lee and his organisation may be trying to bring about a positive change with this "contract", but it's ultimately untenable. People who truly believe in the nine principles as they're stated on the project page will do what they do regardless of whether they publicly back the initiative or not. People who do not will endorse the contract.


  1. Notice this word; beliefs. I believe in what the principles state on the surface. It's when you "read more" that problems arise.

  2. I am not a victim. I've been raped but, even then, I was not a victim.

  3. Every nation has speakers of different languages. Canada has at least 77 spoken languages and six signed languages according to Wikipedia

  4. I have a very serious bone to pick with group identity politicking, as it's an inglorious waste of time and energy. I may have a certain genetic make-up and certain belief system and certain set of ideologies and certain preferences, but there's no way in hell anyone can group me in with every other person who looks, walks, and talks like me. Fuck that. I am my own person. I speak for me. Nobody else does.

The Challenge

Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them. — Rule 51

Over the last couple of weeks the boy has exited the "Terrible Twos" to enter into one of the next phases of his mental development: pushing boundaries. The most common situation that I face with him now is getting to fight and argue over just about everything. It's time to get dressed. That's an argument. It's time to wash some hands because food is ready. That's another argument. It's time to use the bathroom. Yet another battle! Heaven forbid there are multiple steps that need to take place before an activity, because he'll fight and laugh the whole time.

But this is what children do. They try to understand just how much freedom they have, often by being complete nuisances or worse.

A couple of months back I read No-Drama Discipline, a parenting book recommended by a reader2. In it parents are encouraged to follow a series of steps to first understand why their child is being difficult, then redirect that energy into something more productive. The method generally works for situations when we're outside but completely fails at home, where the boy seems to feel he's in charge. Unfortunately this means that on days when we don't go anywhere -- which is usually twice or three times a week, depending on weather and my workload -- he's more than a handful.

My parents had a relatively consistent way of handling this sort of behaviour with my siblings, and I'm assuming they used it with me, too. Today it would be called assault, but sometimes a quick swat across the hand or the bum can send a message: This stings a little bit now. Keep it up, and it's going to sting a lot more.

That said, I've never hit the boy and it's not something I plan on doing in the future, either. If he learns violence from me, then it's a given that he'll use violence on others. There are better ways to solve problems. They don't work in every situation, mind you, but it's better than doing something that could eventually involve trips to the hospital.

In No-Drama Discipline the ultimate objective is to understand and redirect, which is also, conveniently, an acrostic:

Reduce words Embrace emotions Describe, don't preach Involve your child in the discipline Reframe a 'no' into a 'yes with conditions' Emphasize the positive Creatively approach the situation Teach Mindsight tools

Historically, seeing conveniently packaged steps like this would make my eyes roll because there's usually a superfluous step or two added to make the pattern work. For my kid, though, I'm willing to accept this as a set of strategies to correct his insolence. I refuse to let him be a little tyrant at home and I sure as heck won't tolerate him being a jerk to other people if he starts acting up outside. The world already has a problem with assholes. It doesn't need more.

So far the most successful strategy with the boy is to reframe a "no" into a "yes with conditions", as he likes hearing the word "yes". This generally works well when there's food involved. This is always prefaced with a describe, don't preach and followed up with an emphasise the positive. In the end, we get a situation like this:

You are not a monkey, so there's no need to shout. You can have an orange after you finish all of your chicken. See how you've already finished your broccoli? Can you do that with your other food? Okay, then. The orange is on the counter and you can have it when you're done.

To which the boy will generally go back to eating3 while staring intently at the orange, as though he were trying to bring it closer through telekinesis.

This doesn't always work, of course. My son loves to echo everything he hears, but he doesn't consistently repeat his actions. Creativity is key …

… yet creativity is so hard to maintain when someone half your height and one fifth your weight is throwing a tantrum and screaming like a banshee because he wants to roughhouse in the living room rather than get ready for dinner.

The boy is still two years old. His language skills are still incredibly basic and devoid of nuance. So while I try to employ a lot of the parenting suggestions in No-Drama Discipline, a lot of the feedback elements are non-existent. It will be nice when the boy is a little bit older and better able to express why he's doing what he's doing. We can reason with a why.

Sometimes I wonder how parents with multiple children manage to maintain some semblance of sanity while raising the next generation to be conscientious and respectable members of society.


  1. The rule is from 12 Rules for Life, a book that a lot of people — myself included — have found incredibly useful.

  2. Thanks for the link, Robert!

  3. With his hands, more often than not. One battle at a time, though.

Five Things (That Happened This Decade)

With the year coming to a close and a lot of newspapers looking back at the decade, it seems reasonable to do something similar as a great deal has happened since January 2010. A decade ago Reiko and I were living in an apartment on the outskirts of Kakamigahara. Reiko was seriously considering going back to university for a Masters degree. I was an English teacher who had delusions of writing software for the company. Twitter was a fun place to interact, and I was using an Acer AspireOne netbook as my primary computer … as that was all we could realistically afford at the time1.

Life seemed to be so much simpler then.

However, there has been a lot of change over this time as well. Some of it good and some of it less so. Today's list is presented chronologically and dedicated to five events that changed the course of the following years.

April 2010An iPod Touch Replaces Windows Mobile

As silly as it may sound, within a very short amount of time of having an iPod Touch, I learned that my software sucked and needed to be better. Not just a little, but a lot. The biggest area where my software failed after being exposed to an Apple device was the interface. Menus and submenus and contextual menus and left clicks and right clicks and "power" functionality when there was a Shift+Click or Ctrl+Click. Then there was the actual design of the interface, with its heavy influence from Windows XP design patterns ….

It wasn't pretty. One thing that my software did manage to do well was having multiple languages right out of the box. Back in 2010 all of my Windows software shipped with English, Japanese, and Korean at a minimum.

However, after using applications designed for iOS, my eyes were opened to how interfaces could actually guide and improve software use. I've never looked back.

June 2010I'm Employed by a Tech Startup

In early June I was supposed to demo a piece of software I developed for the day job called Lemonade to the then-CEO. The tool would help school management with the tedious task of tracking employees trainings, time-off requests, praise forms, complaint forms, and the like. It was also designed to be self-healing and not require a centralised database at all. Using BitTorrent technology, every instance would have a full copy of the database. When a computer failed, which happened frighteningly often back then, a manager could get a new machine, install the software, type in their credentials, and have their data back within minutes. It was an interesting tool that five of the school managers I worked with thought could solve some legitimate problems.

As one would expect, I prepped quite a bit for this opportunity. The software was tested thoroughly. A one-page summary was typed up to explain the problems it would solve, the benefits and the long-term costs of operation. I took the day off so that there would be no schedule pressure. I arrived at the meeting room 3 hours early to make sure everything was prepped and ready to go.

15 minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin, the managers of the local schools joined me in the room and we went over some of the main items that a C-level executive would want to hear about. I was nervous, but ready.

15 minutes after the meeting was scheduled to start, it was still just the managers and I in the room.

Half an hour later one of the school administrators tracked the CEO down at a different school in the area. She wasn't coming and she didn't even have it in her mind to let the rest of us know that she wasn't coming.

Two days later a headhunter got in touch asking if I'd be interested in "an exciting opportunity in Tokyo". I agreed to have the meeting and was hired soon after.

August 2010Nozomi Joins the Family

Who knew that a puppy could change a person's life so much? I had dogs and cats while growing up, but they weren't at all like Nozomi. From the time she and I first interacted, we got along quite well. I didn't even mind too much when she would bite hard enough to draw blood. Nozomi taught me responsibility in a way that only a dependent could. It wasn't always easy. There was certainly a bit of sacrifice at times. But it has been worth it.

March 2011The Great Tohoku Earthquake

The 3/11 quake forced a great deal of change to come about quickly. Nozomi wouldn't eat because of all the aftershocks. Reiko was stressed beyond belief. Clean water was darn near impossible to find and the grocery stores were completely cleared out as people stockpiled as much as they possibly could. We needed to get out of the Tokyo area fast.

On the 16th we took one of the first Shinkansens back to Nagoya after the lines were confirmed safe and stayed with Reiko's parents for a couple of days. I was given permission to work remotely for the time being with the understanding that I could be called up to Tokyo at any time for meetings. A week later we went back to our apartment and a fortnight later we decided to move back to central Japan. Again I was allowed to work remotely for a time, but my employment with the tech startup ended in August 2011 after the company sold itself out to Mixi.

January 2017The Boy is Born

This is arguably the biggest event in my life and not just for the 2010~2019 decade. The amount of responsibility that comes with a tiny human is incredible. I can see why some people are unwilling to accept the burden. That said, the amount of joy that this child can generate in people is well worth the challenges that come with parenthood. I've not been a perfect father by any stretch of the imagination, but the boy is rather forgiving at the moment. Every morning I aim to be a better person than the day before.

While these five items stand out as important events over the last ten years, they are not the only big ones. There was a period of 17 months where Reiko and I were en route to a divorce until a series of schedule changes resulted in a large confrontation and several days worth of conversations to get to the bottom of our issues. We never did discuss everything, but we resolved a majority of the big issues.

The period of time when App.Net was a viable social platform was also important, as I met a lot of intelligent and interesting people there. One could probably make the case that the conversations that happened on that network helped shape the way I see the world today.

There was also a three year span where I was involved with at least one podcast, though the last bit was primarily in a support role.

Or maybe the day in 2016 when I finally, after years and years and years of trying, managed to get taken out of the classroom at the day job in order to develop software for the company; a desire I had carried since late 20072.

The 3652 days that make up January 1, 2010 to December 31, 2019 have certainly been eventful. Time seems to move much faster today than at any other point in my life. It will be interesting to see what 2020 ~ 2029 will be like, though I have a very strong feeling that it will be much more complicated than any decade preceding it.


  1. The computer I wanted back when it became necessary to replace my HP Pavilion zt3000 cost about 320,000円. It was another HP that supported a whopping 8GB RAM and one of those newfangled Core 2 Duo CPUs. The 15" display was 1920x1080 rather than the horrendous 1366x768 that appeared on just about every notebook computer in the country between 2006 and 2018 and the keyboard had the Home/End/PgUp/PgDown keys in "the wrong place", running vertically down the right side. 320,000円 was about 5 weeks of wages before taxes and deductions, though. It just wasn't feasible. So, rather than deal with the challenges that would arise from a Toshiba, NEC, or Fujitsu notebook, I opted for a navy blue, 35,000円 Acer AspireOne. It worked well for blogging, but I tended to use it for developing software in Visual Studio as well … which was probably not at all recommended. Interestingly enough, I was able to use the machine up until I bought my first Mac in 2012. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't impossible.

  2. Did I mention that after leaving the tech startup, I went back to work at the same educational company I worked at after landing in Japan? Yeah … that's another story I should tell at some point.

Warm Weather

Back in February people in this part of Japan enjoyed the start of springtime temperatures two months ahead of schedule. A lot of people were concerned that something was different this year1, and the relatively cool summer temperatures didn't to much to dissuade the worry. Today, just before the last week of November, the thermometer hit 24˚C in the neighbourhood and 22˚C at the official weather station some 12km west of here. The weather was so nice that by 9:30am I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt while washing the car outside.

Today's Temperatures

Tomorrow's weather is expected to look much the same as today, too.

Tomorrow's Forecast

This evening Nozomi and I noticed that the nearby park was buzzing with insect life during our evening walk. The late blast of warm air has encouraged some of the hardier bugs to come out and sing for an audience of mammals, but I wonder if they'll survive the night. Temperatures around here generally drop to about 5˚C after midnight in November, and there aren't many sources of heat to counteract the chill. Will the area birds have a feast of frozen grasshoppers waiting for them in the morning?

If the weather continues to be this erratic going forward, then we're going to see local food prices rise quite a bit as neither fruits nor vegetables will enjoy the variability.


  1. I'm one of the concerned people, too.

Why Do It?

For the third and final blog post (this week) about the textbook system I'm developing at the day job, I thought it would be interesting to answer a question that some colleagues have asked over the last couple of months. Namely, why am I working on a project that has never been officially requested by management and why do I invest so much personal time into improving the system when there is a very real possibility that it will be axed early next year? The simple answer that I generally lead with is "Because I'm an idiot" but, as with anything in life, the deeper answer is much more nuanced and complex.

In yesterday's post, I referenced Rule 33 from Jordan Peterson's Quora post on the most valuable things everyone should know, which is a concept I've understood for decades but have never been able to adequately articulate. However, of the 40 "rules" that were shared, there are a dozen of them that can be directly pointed to for why I do what I do at the day job and elsewhere.

So let's run through them in a little segment that I'll call:

12 Justifications for Self-Assigning a Project

For the sake of expediency, the justifications will be listed in numeric order rather than by importance.

Rule 2: Do not do things that you hate.

This is a good rule. I hate not solving problems that I am presented with. Colleagues from all over the country provided a list of issues they wanted to see fixed, and I provided a solution that cost the company effectively nothing. Why did I build a custom piece of software rather than aim to improve the existing system? That's part of the next justification.

Rule 4: Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.

Complex problems are generally solved with complex solutions. The existing textbook system at the day job is a mission-critical tool used by instructors and students across the globe. It would make no sense to try and bring about drastic changes to that system without first having some idea of what works and what doesn't. The Mimosa textbook system I developed has been dubbed a "playground" right from the very beginning as it can be broken without consequences.

Rule 5: If you have to choose, be the one who does things, instead of the one who is seen to do things.

Doing things is important. I feel job satisfaction when I stand back and examine something that I did, not something that I participated in. This is certainly a problem of ego, but there is nothing bad or evil about wanting to take the lead on solving a problem, particularly when it's a problem that was handed to me by front-line colleagues.

Rule 6: Pay attention.

This is key. By paying attention I was able to learn about the issues that people were facing despite working from a home office. By paying attention it became possible to identify the people who could most help with the endeavour. By paying attention, the project contained a solution for just about every problem that people reported.

Rule 11: Make at least one thing better every single place you go.

We should all try to do this. I want to help colleagues get more out of our technology by using tools that are pretty much transparent. There should never need to be any need for training on the software I build for the day job. If it's not blindingly obvious what a function is for or how to navigate an application, I've not understood the problem correctly.

Rule 16: Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens.

This is exactly what I'm doing with the Mimosa textbook system when time permits. If I solve enough problems, will this system be rolled out globally? Will some of the new UI elements I've developed be adopted elsewhere? Will instructors ever "forget" they're using a digital version of a textbook? If I work hard enough and polish the system well enough, at least one of these situations will likely come to pass.

Rule 24: Nothing well done is insignificant.

This builds on Rule 16 above, and I agree. If a solution is done well -- even if it was never "officially" requested -- there will be some significance. There is seldom just one way to reach a goal.

Rule 29: Don't avoid something frightening if it stands in your way -- and don't do unnecessarily dangerous things.

A lot of people I've spoken to over the years who have had ideas worth exploring gave up either out of a fear of failure or a fear of rejection. Nobody likes to appear incompetent in front of their peers and nobody likes to have their idea or opinion dismissed. That said, we don't know what we're capable of until we go for it, and a lot of times people reject ideas not because they're unsolicited, but out of a lack of understanding. Taking on something that is frightening also builds on Rule 28, which became Rule 1 in 12 Rules for Life; Stand up straight with your shoulders back.

If we meet the challenges that life throws our way by presenting our best selves and moving forward, then we will get a lot farther than we thought possible. This does not mean we will always win, but we will inch ever closer to the goal.

Rule 33: Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.

This one has been discussed already. Textbook publishers have proven capable of creating very interesting knowledge-based digital educational materials, but skills-based resources are still rather primitive. By paying attention, working hard, and doing the job well, there is a good possibility that my solution will be seen as a viable tool for the global teacher and student base.

Rule 38: Write a letter to the government if you see something that needs fixing -- and propose a solution.

This rule specifically says "the government", but it doesn't necessarily mean the nation's leaders. Instead, we can look at this as "write a letter to a person with authority". This can be a politician, a business owner, a manager, or even a family member. The second half is key, though. Propose a solution. Otherwise the concerns raised, regardless how valid, may come across as just unsolicited complaining. This is generally how I do new things at the day job:

  • devise a solution
  • create the solution and test it, recording data as you go
  • confirm the solution solves the problem well
  • present the solution to an authority in the form of a demo, as pictures say 1,000 words
  • get buy-in

This doesn't always work, of course. When it does, though, problems are solved.

Rule 39: Remember that what you do not yet know is more important than what you already know.

What I don't know can fill a universe. Every day there's something new to learn about the day job, the teachers, and student expectations. I generally try to keep my ear low to the ground so that comments, concerns, and feedback are heard loud and clear. This point also lightly touches on Rule 7: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you need to know. Listen to them hard enough so that they will share it with you.

We can learn a lot simply by listening.

Rule 40: Be grateful in spite of your suffering.

We mustn't forget to appreciate what we have as we never know when it might be taken away. I'm grateful for the opportunity to build new tools solve complex problems, which are things I might not be able to do if I were working at a typical Japanese company.

A thirteenth rule we might want to remember is this:

Rule 13: Do not allow yourself to become arrogant or resentful.

Arrogance and resentment blind us far faster than we might realise. If the things we create are accepted and welcomed by colleagues, it's important to maintain perspective. The same is said if a project is rejected and countless hours of effort are tossed away. That said, I still have a lot of work to do to keep these two emotions in check.

These rules encapsulate so many of the justifications I have for why I do the things I do and are a far more complete answer than "Because I'm an idiot".

Opportunity

Rule 33: Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.
-- Jordan Peterson

One of the most common misconceptions that a lot of people have is that one person cannot change the world. While this idea hinges on what kind of change a person is thinking of, the pessimistic view is demonstrably false. Just glancing at a national newspaper will show a dozen examples of a single person changing the world in some way, often with a little help from people who have the same vision but not necessarily the same ability to organise. We all have within us the ability to improve our little corner of the world or make it much, much worse. While there are some who will seek to destroy out of malevolence, there are many who choose to do the opposite.

One of the many things that I try really hard to do is to solve complex problems in new ways, often dismissing existing solutions as being insufficient for the task at hand. A lot of times my efforts fail. Sometimes there is a limited amount of success. And ever so rarely there is some genuine good in what's being assembled out of the chaos of potential that is a code base. It is this tiny sliver of unrealised success that keeps me going when some projects seemed doomed to obscurity.

I was thinking about this today while working on converting some more textbooks from their original PDF format to something better suited for modern classrooms. There are a lot of different textbook delivery systems that have been created by well-funded organisations staffed with very smart people, but none of the options that I've seen over the last few years approach the core problems that exist for schools that focus on skills-based training.

Some of the issues that have bothered me include:

  • poor search capabilities
  • inconsistent presentation of lesson materials for both the student and the teacher
  • poorly formatted teacher's guides that appear to be little more than an afterthought rather than a companion material for the classroom book
  • an inability to customise the font style and size
  • every digital book series has its own unique "gotchas"
  • sluggish response times
  • textbooks come as 300-page PDFs
  • an inconsistent -- or non-existent -- use of additional resources, such as Wikipedia or a trusted online dictionary/thesaurus
  • and then some …

It would be easy to list another dozen issues that affected me when I was teaching, a dozen issues that have arisen in the time since, and another dozen issues that affect the students who attempt to use the digital formats rather than the printed book. However, listing things that could use some attention is not particularly fascinating. What is interesting is how a person responds to the issues. In my case, the problems surrounding skills-based digital textbooks appear to be an abdication of responsibility by publishers1. When responsibility has been ceded, opportunity rushes in to fill the void. Once this happens, someone -- or a whole group of someones -- can approach the problem from different angles.

This doesn't mean that every digital textbook system available today is awful, of course. There are some amazing tools available to students today on a number of subjects, any one of which would have likely helped me better understand a subject while in school. My concerns are with the less glamorous books used primarily by adults who are no longer full-time students.

The project is still in early days, and there is bound to be an unavoidable degree of friction with colleagues to have it objectively considered, but I believe that what the system can do today will go a long way to resolving issues faced by the target audiences of teachers and students. The more I dig into it, the more excited I become for the future.


  1. I say this knowing full well that my employer is also a publisher of 100+ textbooks.

Reformatting Textbooks

Over the last couple of months there has been a concerted effort to adapt a number of "textbooks" from big-name publishers to work with the digital materials demo software that was created a couple of months back. Books from Pearson and National Geographic are excellent resources for students and these can occasionally be obtained in PDF format with the accompanying materials being stored as mp3 for audio and mp4 for video. PDF as a textbook format is fine if someone wishes to print out pages as required, but is generally a poor substitute for a physical book. This is for a number of reasons1 but is easily overcome with a little imagination. Mimosa, my fourth attempt at a digital textbook system, is full of imaginative solutions to problems that essentially boil down to overcoming the design decisions made by publishers. It's been very well received by colleagues across the country and sees a pretty good performance:cost ratio2. However, it's become necessary to take the tool to the next level.

Thanks to 9 years of working inside a classroom, I have a pretty good understanding of what my colleagues need -- software wise -- to deliver quality lessons. Students, on the other hand, have been more difficult to research. At the day job, everyone has company-issued hardware, which makes writing software quite a bit easier. The constraints are known and taken into account right from the very start of a project, which then results in mostly-functional code. With students, people could be trying to use your software on a Symbian-powered Nokia N953 and complaining when things don't appear as they should. More than this, there is no institutional pattern that can be imposed on a student to say "This is how software at this company generally works. Learn the pattern, and you're golden." Tech-savvy individuals would spot this right away and adapt, but most people do not work this way. What this means is that when something is being built for students -- or customers in general -- it needs to be approached from a very different angle than one would use for internal tools; an angle that I've just about hammered out.

In an effort to see what is possible with the almost 100 digital textbooks that have been reformatted for use in Mimosa, some time will be invested to build something that might one day be used by students in a classroom setting. This is building on a lot of lessons learned since the first digital textbook system I designed in 20104. The hardest work is complete, which was working out a data format that made sense, was portable, and could be used by various roles in the learning cycle. Now it's just a matter of implementing a simpler presentation of the textbook material that works on screens as small as a 4" phone all the way up to a 4K display.

Some of the more complicated bits that I look forward to trying out include:

  • shared progression, where the teacher can have a student's textbook open to a specific resource
  • blackout mode, where the teacher can blank out portions of a student's page, such as an audio script during a listening exercise
  • smarter resource linking, so that people are not jumping around a textbook to find things as this is a glorious waste of time
  • shared notepads
  • better control of audio resources
  • and a couple other bits

None of this is unique and none of this is revolutionary. What I hope to do, however, is build a very lean solution that can be demoed to show the potential of such a system. So long as the proper features are polished enough to present, this could lead to a unified textbook system that can be effectively used for students learning inside a classroom or online.

The hard part will be making it intuitive enough for people to understand at a glance. Fortunately these sorts of challenges make projects worth doing.


  1. Bring a 300+ page PDF to class on a tablet, open it up, find page 155 in the textbook -- which is not always the 155th page of the document -- and get ready to take notes or listen to an audio file. Go ahead. We'll wait. Now scroll to the audio script at the back of the book to check understanding. Now go back to the page you were previously on. What was it again? 165? No … wait ….

    Yes, there are semi-decent applications out there that can work with PDFs for this very reason, but a lot of people are either unaware or simply incapable of using the software. Generally, any PDF that is longer than 5 pages is better off printed.

  2. Less than $8 USD per month to serve textbooks to 1,800 teachers across 50+ schools. The system was installed on a dusty old server that was heading to the recycler. Why toss perfectly functional equipment?

  3. This is a slight exaggeration, of course.

  4. Designed in 2010, released in 2012. It was … rough. That said, a number of very important UI interaction lessons were learned from that failed tool.

The Red Queen Effect and Blogging

My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that. -- The Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland

An idea idea so absurd it might just be worthwhile hit me the other day while in the shower. A lot of personalities in English speaking countries are expected to subjugate themselves to one or more ideologies that demand absolute subservience in exchange for membership within a group identity that others might support. People who do not assent or -- at the very least -- acquiesce to the doctrine run the risk of having everything they've ever said or written pored over in an effort to find something that might discredit the speaker in the eyes of the general public. We've seen this time and again with politicians and celebrities of all stripes who were unwilling to play ball with a certain group only to have something they said in an interview or did at a party decades ago come into general knowledge, absent of factual context, with a convenient narrative that ensures the public figure is embarrassed enough to resign from a job or otherwise lose their position as nervous corporations overcompensate for their own ignorance of social takedowns.

After the results of the most recent federal election in Canada, I started thinking about the feasibility of returning to the country just so that I could get into politics and hopefully start making a positive difference. A lot of what I've been reading in the papers has been bizarre beyond anything imaginable. Canadians are a very accepting group of people, but this doesn't mean that we should accept everything the current government has been ramming through the House of Commons. One of the very first problems that I would face if I were to run for office, though, would be this very blog and the words it contains. There are blog posts that express ideas I no longer hold. There are potentially offensive social posts that no longer have context as a result of Twitter accounts being deleted and App.net going offline. There are other posts that openly mock certain Canadian figures. Even if I were to put the site behind a password or completely take it offline, The Wayback Machine could easily show people what was on this site -- or earlier incarnations -- at a previous point in time.

It's this problem that got me thinking.

A person who wishes to run for office today, whether it's me or anyone else, will certainly need to have an Internet presence and communicate with the general public. However, any messages beyond a certain age can easily be misconstrued as offensive or "insensitive" to somebody a couple of years in the future as social norms and expectations continue to evolve. What a political hopeful -- regardless their party or ideology -- needs is a way to ensure that messages remain completely ephemeral and can be updated as time goes on. There are already a lot of tools that will allow a person to regularly delete old Tweets, Facebook posts, and more, but what about blog posts?

Then it hit me: why not make a theme that hides post URLs and always shows a maximum of 1 post on the front page of a site? Visitors who know the URL to past posts would be presented with a nice message saying that "the post has been revised" or similar to ensure that only the post on the landing page was the source of truth for a site.

It would be just like old times, when people would hand-craft their HTML files before uploading them to GeoCities. A single page with everything worth saying right there.

Mechanisms would need to be put in place to ensure that The Wayback Machine never took a snapshot, but this would get around some of the issues involving people looking for something that could be converted into a faux scandal.

This wouldn't solve every future dirt-digging problem, of course. Interviews would continue to be vexatious. This solution could potentially eliminate this simple problem, though.

Note: This whole post was written tongue in cheek. Don't take it too seriously. Even if I were to run for office, this blog and its 13+ years of content would probably bore even the most dedicated dirt-diggers.

Collections

There’s a certain art to collecting that a few people excel at. Anyone can accumulate stuff, but how many can collect relatively common stuff people will actually want later? This is often a problem for collectors who invest years or decades into amassing a veritable museum exhibition worth of material only to find that there either isn’t a buyer interested in paying the asking price or worse, there isn’t a market at all. This isn’t the case for a collector in Virginia who has put their entire 25,000-piece Hot Wheels collection up for sale for the seemingly low price of $5 per car, which works out to a respectable US$125,000. While reading about the sale, I thought back to the things I used to collect and thanked the stars I’m not still making space for the things I really enjoyed having in my home as a young adult; books, CDs, and anime.

CDs and anime were huge passions of mine up until the autumn of 2000 when the basement apartment I lived in was robbed. It was a fought loss, as there were clear signs that the perpetrator had been watching me for some time. In addition to working full time at an appliance repair store, I ran a computer assembly and repair shop out of my apartment. This meant that someone watching me would see boxes on an almost daily basis for things like cases, CPUs, monitors, and the like. The computer shop was completely self-financed and unregistered, meaning there was no insurance policy on any of the stock that would be on hand at any given time. Me being me, I made sure that my machine was top of the line as much as possible, and it was left running [email protected] for the entire day while I was at the day job.

You can probably see what happened next.

One fateful day I received a phone call from the landlord who suggested I come home right away because our places were ransacked. Between my basement apartment and the landlord’s house was a thin door made essentially of cardboard. It took nothing for the perpetrator to break through it and go through both homes while we were out at work. Someone watching the house would know that nobody would be present between 8:30am and 4:30pm. That’s a lot of time to peruse an undefended building. I was unable to leave work early but, come 7:00pm, I locked up the store and headed straight home to find a police cruiser parked outside and my landlord on the lawn talking to a pair of officers. After introducing myself, I was allowed downstairs to determine what had been taken or damaged.

It's probably easier to say what wasn't taken or damaged.

  1. the fridge
  2. the dirty dishes
  3. the TV
  4. the laundry
  5. the book collection1
  6. half of my workstation-grade computer

Everything else was gone. 150+ CDs. 60+ anime DVDs, many of which were imported from Japan at great expense. The good, professional-grade kitchen knife set2. The partially completed computers I was building for clients. The RAM, video card, new Pentium III CPU, and DVD burner from my workstation. And, if that wasn't bad enough, the rat bastard took my favourite coffee mug; a large, black X-Files mug.

The police asked me to compile a list of everything missing and fax it to them the following day. I asked if there was any chance of the things being returned but, of course, this almost never happens. Given the sheer amount of stuff that was taken and how much it would have weighed, the culprit was obviously a neighbour. My bet was that someone in the low-apartments next to the house was spying and hit at the right moment. All in all, I was out several thousand dollars. I didn't have insurance, because what sort of 19 year old buys insurance?

My girlfriend at the time3 didn't much care, as nothing she was interested in was taken. Her father, however, imparted some very wise words:

The more you have, the more you have to worry about.

He was hardly a minimalist, but he was incredibly pragmatic. He also had an affinity for hard alcohol and introduced me to a number of liqueurs that I would binge on half a year later4.

After the robbery, I was very careful about the things that I bought. What was the point of collecting things?, I wondered. Most of the time they just collect dust on a shelf5.

This was when I consciously decided that if I could get a digital version of a thing, that would be the way to go. When something is digital, it's much harder to eradicate every copy. The one exception to this, though, was the book collection. There is something alluring about a physical book. While I did occasionally buy digital books from PalmReader, Chapters was my go-to for a good read … until July 2007, when I had to make a number of tough decisions about what moves to Japan and what stays behind in Canada. Books are lovely tomes of knowledge and/or make-believe, but they're also incredibly heavy. So much so, that UPS quoted me just over $1000 to send the book collection by sea to the new home.

The decision was not an easy one, but the book collection had to stay behind. I sold some of the technical books to friends and friends of friends, then donated the rest to the library down the street. Almost a thousand books. Left behind.

Again, the question went through my head: What is the point of collecting things?

There is certainly an appeal to acquiring and maintaining items that bring a certain modicum of joy. My father has a collection of 1957 Chevrolet BelAir toys, and even managed to receive a real '57 Chevy for his 60th birthday6. For a time he and I also collected hockey and Star Trek cards. Watching the collections grow, sharing the joy with interested people, and doing the research on the nascent Internet to locate "rare" items was incredibly fun. Seeing the collections disappear, though ….

So now here I am, a dozen years after moving to Japan, having zero physical collections to my name. The digital photos, music, movies, books, podcasts, documents, and other items that I consider irreplaceable are backed up to a NAS in my home as well as two cloud services. My home could burn to the ground and Japan could sink into the ocean like Atlantis, but my most important data will be recoverable.

The more stuff we have, the more stuff we have to worry about. Data is not classified the same way as "stuff" in my mind. While data is forever accumulating, the amount of physical space it requires is perpetually shrinking. So, for me, this is the way to go. It may never have the same resale value as a Hot Wheels collection or a Wayne Gretzky rookie card, and it never has to.


  1. 100+ Star Trek books, a ton of other science fiction, and technical books on subjects like C++ and Sybase. There was also a large number of religious studies books, as this was about 18 months after "the incident" that pushed me away from organised religion, but they were seldom looked at when I lived on my own.

  2. I had bought these from a friend who worked as a salesman for one of the door-to-door cutlery companies of the time. I can't remember the name … something like CutCo, I think.

  3. One day I should write about this odd relationship. Not today, though.

  4. Another story for another time, perhaps.

  5. The CDs were all ripped so that I didn't scratch the disc or break those flimsy cases. The anime was also ripped so that I wouldn't scratch the disc or get fingerprints all over the cases. As usual, I paid attention to all the wrong things.

  6. It's been slowly restored over the last three years and might be "complete" at some point this coming spring.

Back to the Grindstone

Last week the daily routine for the day job was disrupted by a five-day workshop held in Sydney, Australia. While I did not have the opportunity to travel to the land down under, it was possible to participate remotely and learn some interesting details about what sorts of objectives the company will shoot for in order to provide customers with effective learning tools. When it comes to student software, I'm completely in the dark about what works and what people need as I've yet to find any company do this well. A lot of companies have released digital versions of textbooks or online learning resources, but the friction that is associated with them rubs me the wrong way.

However, with the workshop over, it's time to get back to the regular day-to-day. This will involve a great deal of pressure to accomplish two months of work in the next four weeks plus anything urgent that pops up between now and the end of the working year. Believe it or not, I'm actually looking forward to getting back to the grindstone. There are a number of time consuming activities that need to be out the door by the end of the week, including a thorough examination of the new LMS and its disaster recovery plan.

Not a week goes by where I don't wish I were doing something different but, when push comes to shove, there are very few places in the world that can offer the challenges and opportunities that I contend with now.