An interesting project request came to me today — we need to build an interactive booth. Just one (a “show piece” if you will) for the time being. Now, much as I did a lot of design for these types of systems back when I was studying HCI, I haven’t ever actually built one.

So, friends and colleagues out there in the blogosphere, I need your help! Any ideas on good software, operating system, technical config and so on for interactive booths?

Notes: I’m willing to consider anything, but of course open source is always a winner. The ability to design kickass user interaction is a must, but I’m not particularly beholden to touchscreen vs mouse-driven, for instance. Any ideas, please share in the comments, whether it’s something to go for or something to shy away from!

No, this is not a breakfast item in the White House cafeteria, but something altogether more exciting. Freedom Toasters are kiosks where anyone can burn to CD free & open-source software.

“Like vending machines, preloaded to dispense confectionery, Freedom Toasters are preloaded to dispense free digital products, including software, photography, music and literature.”

I first heard about them from my friend Louis, as there is one installed at Stellenbosch Varsity. I think they are an absolutely FANTASTIC idea. Few people in the first world (particularly countries where connectivity is not only taken for granted, but free wifi abounds!) realise how much of an issue it is just getting time, facilities and bandwidth to download an install file for Firefox, let alone a full Linux distribution.

These machines change the game completely — people don’t need a broadband connection to get at open source resources. All they need is to bring along some blank CD-Rs and burn whatever they want. The initiative is supported by the Shuttleworth Foundation who have provided instructions for anyone to build their own Toaster, effectively open-sourcing the scheme itself! Hopefully we’ll see these continue to pop up all over South Africa, bringing accessible software solutions to more and more people … and personally I can’t wait to actually see one!

Today is Nov 1. In addition to starting my new shiny job, Ben’s post just reminded me that the end of October means the end of Pink for October. Personally I’m quite glad to get back to my usual blueness, but I hope that the pink was worth it and helped raise some awareness!

Aaron’s written quite a personal, but academic, post and there’s one thing he said that really struck a chord with me:

“By Hardy’s suggestion, the responsible thing for me to do would be to cultivate and use my talents in that field, to spend my life being a great programmer.”

Personally I have struggled massively with the dilemma of talent vs desire. If I can throw off the shackles of English-influenced modesty for a moment, there are some things that I am simply SHIT HOT at. Naturally talented, if you will. And, as one’s parents will tell you, you shouldn’t waste talent. You’re meant to grab onto it, nurture it, grow it, focus on it. You’re meant to take that talent and make something great of yourself, by improving and improving until it isn’t just talent, but true ability.

Bollocks to that.

The problem, you see is that having a talent for something does not necessarily mean that you have a corresponding desire to develop that talent. What you are GOOD at doing does not always match what you WANT to do. Or, more precisely, what you are BEST at does not necessarily match what you might want to do with your life.

Case in point: If you want to look back at my school years and see what I was really really good at, I think all those of you who know me as a geek would be VERY surprised. My great talents were in the arts — specifically languages and history. Both my Latin and History teachers had high hopes that I would go on to study their subject, become a professor, write some incredible dissertation thanking them for inspiring me.

They did inspire me. And I was naturally good at those subjects. But the matching desire to turn that talent into something more was missing in me. I didn’t want to become an academic. I didn’t want to spend my life looking back at the past, without every finding anything practical for the future. However powerful and useful my innate ability might have been, I was always doomed to wither and die had I chosen that path. It just wasn’t right for me.

I had other options. I was good at Physics, at Maths, I loved computers. I loved writing, the theatre, cinema. When I moved to England I had narrowed it down to two things: a Computer Science degree vs going to film school. I chose geekery, not least because it offered a better chance of staying out of debt at the end of my degree. Granted, I have talent here too. I’m lucky enough to have the options.

But you know what? Talent starts you on the road, gives you the option of an easy start on that path. Desire keeps you going, keeps you learning, makes you want to get up in the morning and learn more, get better, be useful and deliver and deliver and deliver. If you have only talent, you will fall by the wayside when that is no longer enough. If you have desire, you will overcome anything, however hard it may be.

So yes, choosing desire may not always be the easiest thing to do. It may seem a waste to leave those natural talents behind and strike out in a new direction. But at least you’ll feel alive.

Harry Potter and the Flouncy Deatheater

Originally uploaded by meriwilliams.

Last Thursday was our graduation. This is one of my favourite photos (don’t you think Tony looks like Lucius Malfoy?) but the full set can be found here

Since I’m currently at university, twice a year I get to choose what courses to do. Yesterday, I learnt something about my learning style and how it meshes with various teaching styles that I wish I had known and used 3 years ago when I started the course. The epiphany was quite simple:

I distinctly prefer courses where the lecturer has written notes, rather than slides

There are various reasons for this. Key though, is the idea of structure. When there are notes, they tend to be structured properly — hierarchical headings to indicate sections and subsections. Slides, on the other hand, all look the same. It is very difficult to see what is part of something else, especially when you are seeing the content and being exposed to the ideas for the first time. Occasionally this is overcome by having “context” slides, that show you what is coming up and what is part of what. But even if these have preceded slide x, it is easy to get lost in the hierarchy.

I think the meta-information denoted by sections in notes or a book is what I miss most from slide-driven courses. I think there’s often an argument that the lecturer isn’t terribly clear on what the structure of the material is either, because they haven’t had to fit things into a hierarchy. After all, the cognitive style of powerpoint is quite different to that of a book or set of notes.

Out of interest, I looked back at my marks over the last few years — I have done consistently better in the “well-structured” courses. This is probably very much to do with the way I think, but I can’t believe that it escaped me until now!

There’s an interesting article over at the NYT that’s all about differences in maths performances between girls and boys. The discussion is around whether there are physiological male-female differences that account for better male performance in science & math subjects, or whether these can be explained through nurture or cultural factors.

As you may already know, I grew up in South Africa. There the cultural and “nurture” factors were far more evident — girls were positively discouraged from an early age to engage in science/math-related pursuits, with most teachers and parents making it quite clear that this wasn’t something they would be good at. The issue was particularly bad for the more traditional Afrikaner families, at least at my primary school.

This changed quite significantly, however, when I was lucky enough to attend an all-girls high school. Despite the (often quite repressive) conditioning that most of the girls had received from parents, teachers and relatives, in a single-sex setting they stopped dumbing themselves down to fit in with the low expectations and started prospering in the various mathematical and scientific subjects available. Much of the credit of course is due to our open-minded teachers and of course this didn’t suddenly endow everyone with talent with numbers, but the change was quite significant.

I find it interesting that even in first world countries where these factors are seemingly far more subtle, the effects are still being seen. It will be interesting to see how things develop further by the time my children will be attending school.