First Post.

So, my first blog post. I’m not sure entirely how this to meant to go, so I’ll set out a few ground-rules here. This blog is meant to cover some of my interests, that is computing, technology and the advances that eLearning is making today (more on that later). If I find something interesting, or something worth discussing; it will be posted here. If there’s something that I’ve done (either coding or implemented), I’ll post it here for the benefit of others — some of the things I’ve implemented over the last year certainly have been ‘fun’, to say the least. Rule Two – posts will be sporadic and probably not regular – I’m not that type of person who documents everything; I barely remember what I had for breakfast yesterday!
Musings are also derived and inspired by discussions in the office, lectures and a variety of places. Grammar?! — Where we’re going, we don’t need grammar. OK, maybe that’s a bit too far, but you get the gist – I’m not going to plan out these posts, more they’ll be what’s currently sitting on the top of my head, ready to be popped from the stack (if you were a computer scientist, you’d be falling off your chair laughing now).
I’m also not one for commercialisation of blogs, so I might refer to products generically, including the companies they are produced by. I don’t think there’s an explicit need to say that I bought a Dell machine from Currys etc – I might say I bought a Dell machine, but I’ll explain the reasons. I don’t have a particular loyalty to companies that I would name them.

So… here goes nothing.

For the first blog post, I thought I’d post some of the things I’ve done over the last year, and lay out what will I’ll be discussing over future posts. In the last year of my degree at University, I set out to create an interactive, collaborative eLearning platform, which takes the features students need out of an eLearning platform which commercial platforms, such as Instructure’s Canvas, Blackboard’s Learn and Desire2Learn’s systems. Whilst these platforms are great at what they do, there is always the opportunity to do more. In my project, I looked at allowing students to set themselves targets in order to motivate themselves, track progress, and test the knowledge of each other through short, multiple-choice quizzes. Moreover, it allowed explanations and URLs to be provided for further reading. An Early-Warning system was also developed, allowing students to get the help they needed if they were struggling with concepts taught; something most commercial platforms don’t possess. Some Universities like Purdue have build their own add-on for Blackboard, but this should be universal across platforms. There also was a point that institutions and schools who were unable to afford these big systems, or didn’t need all the functions they provided could get one free-of-charge (using only Open Source components, such as PostgreSQL, Tomcat to name a few).

When the finished product was completed, it was well-received among colleagues, and made me think of the quote by Henry Royce:

Strive for perfection in everything you do. Take the best that exists and make it better. When it does not exist, design it.

This quote symbolises everything my project was about.

Twitter Bootstrap is something I’m becoming interested in. There was a joke flying around about Bootstrap and ‘responsive’ websites. Since the 1990s, most websites were responsive – all you needed were ‘%’ widths, heights and even TABLES! The web has moved on however; I use my phone and iPad regularly (I say phone because I use a combination of Android and iOS every day) — it’s my main means of communication. I don’t use the telephony function frequently, since I can FaceTime or email, which is a lot more reliable and quicker to respond to. That said, I do like the intimacy of talking – it’s particularly useful in negotiation, or establishing how approachable someone is. I bought a machine from a supplier my University uses, and when things started to go wrong, I stopped using email as my sole means of communication and instead picked up the phone. You could identify the sincerity of the conversation, and you can achieve more in a five minute conversation than a stream of emails back and forth. True to the word of that company, they replaced it and provided a new one, which was upgraded to apologise for the inconvenience. So, maybe telephones aren’t old hat yet.
Maybe in the next coming release of my website (Dilbert), I might switch to the Twitter Bootstrap (probably version 2, as version 3 is too ‘flat’ for me, and the Glyph commands for v3 are awful, compared to v2, where they can easily be replaced with Web-Font friendly FontAwesome… Just maybe.

I’m not using a CMS or blogging platform for these blogs. They come courtesy of VIM and a virtual server. I have a template file which I use for pretty much everything on this site, to give it a nice, consistent appearance. It’s also a lot more managable for me. I did consider a while back using WordPress, or using a freely-available CMS for this, but maybe I’m old-fashioned. Coding by hand feels more natural to me, and previous experience of WordPress from clients ago almost made me throw my laptop through the window. Maybe WordPress has gotten better, but the back-end would need so much hardening to achieve anything… At least with my CMS (the RJThomas CMS), the only person who can make changes is myself, and there is no potential external risks by using WordPress, mySQL etc.

One of the things about me is that I can’t stop and relax – I love doing little projects, such as building my own Instructure Canvas instances, using their Github repositories (note of caution — if you use a VPS, please give it 2GB of RAM and at least 2 (possibly 3) GB of swap space. There are some really good tutorials on creating and maintaining swap over at the DigitalOcean community tutorials and forums. Last year, I build a ‘Gold Image’ for Windows 7 to save me time when I was refreshing the computers in the house to Dell Precisions I purchased from eBay and upgraded the internals of. I was pretty proud of myself when the machine I purchased recently (the one mentioned above) was built using my Gold Image (made 11 months ago) and worked first time, with just the Windows drivers included. One of the issues I have with Windows 7 is a certain printer company’s use of Windows Update for drivers. Up to 2013, I was perfectly fine buying printers, connecting them to the network, and the machines could happily find the drivers (and not install any of the bloatware that normally comes with it), but when I bought a new AIO in April 2013, that’s where things started to become interesting… I had to find the disk and install the drivers – something I hadn’t done since the days of Windows 2000. Even my Windows Home Server box (which is essentially SBS 2003) had no issues with drivers for our newest printer at the time. For normal people, they would have to install everything (not just a 2MB driver, but a 200MB plethora of stuff, which is ‘required’ for printer use). Barry Collins, a former editor at PC Pro has an interesting blog post about bloatware and that it should be illegal. I wouldn’t personally push the boat out that far, but just enough to discourage manufacturers to insist on the full drivers, rather than what is required. It’s this bloatware that reduces perfectly good machines to slow, Windows ME-like machines.

As you can tell, I get a bit ‘ranty’. That’s healthy though in my opinion, as long as it’s balanced and has evidence behind it. There however is the point where rants do stray off topic. I did read a post a while back (maybe it was actually an XKCD comic) on the point where the rant/discussion should stop immediately.

So. my first blog post. What do you think? Hopefully, I can continue with discussions of current events. I want to discuss the Heartbleed issue, but I think that deserves its own security-themed blog post, don’t you think? If you liked this post, or have any comments on it, let me know – @richyjt on Twitter, or click ‘Contact Me’ on the navigation bar or below and drop an email to me.

April 2014

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