Category Archives: education

BbWorld Transact

So, for those of you who don’t know, I work in the ID Card Services Systems team at Johns Hopkins University. Most of my (paid) development work involves creating a custom, (mostly) Ruby on Rails web interface to the Blackboard Transact transaction processing system. It’s pretty interesting work, adapting Rails/ActiveRecord to this proprietary database format to do all the things we want it to do. Sometimes it’s frustrating, especially with dealing with importing data from other departments’ maddening stovepipe systems, but, all in all, pretty rewarding. And then it all got exciting.

Last week, our team went to the BbWorld Transact conference at the Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona. Not only was it great fun to head out to the Southwestern desert in March, escaping the Mid-Atlantic doldrums, but it was a truly exciting and invigorating experience.

Sure, we were giving a presentation on the web app I’ve developing for the past seven months or so (read: 9,383,094 years of ASP development or 87 years of PHP development, subjective time), and that was pretty damn exciting. So was the response. People were crowding the table at our session collecting our business cards, hoping we could get permission to put this code up on GitHub (I hope so, too).

But what’s got me the most pumped was my experiences of the conference itself. Starting with a keynote from Bridgeworks, LLC, about “millenials” and the desire for connectedness, the conference delved into a new commitment to openness and transparency from Blackboard, which, as a developer, gets me psyched. There’s nothing like support from the vendor supplying the system you’re developing against.

We had some great meetings with the Transact product development team, as well as Sony‘s FeliCa team, and I haven’t been so excited about the code I’m getting (paid) to write in a long time. Already, we have proof-of-concept code in the works to do Twitter tweets and Foursquare check-ins via card swipes.

The coding is only going ot get sexier from here on out.


Of Kids and Computers

Something I was reading tonight reminded me of my experiences of what has come to be called “educational technology,” or, basically, computers in schools.

I was educated in the glorious Baltimore County Public Schools, and computers were a major part of my academic career from the beginning. I think it was in the third grade, when I started getting called to the office on a weekly basis… not because I was in trouble, but because the office LaserWriter was damaged (well, was succumbing to luser error) and no one actually employed by the school could “fix” it.

My mother was a teacher in the glorious BCPS, so I had more direct involvement with their EdTech department than most students. I knew the admin passwords for most of the software and the “AtEase” interface for Macintosh computers that kept kids out of the OS internals.

One of the most telling moments came in the 8th grade. I was in the library working on an assignment, and was moving my print jobs to the front of the queue, as was my wont. This involved no passwords or privilege escalation, it was available to any competent user. A new librarian came over and scolded me, saying that the Mac Print Manager was “not for you to use.” I glared, and instantly told the head librarian, also one of the school’s EdTech liaisons… she gave the new librarian quite the dressing-down, right in front of me, telling her basically, “let him do what he likes, or he won’t fix our computers and we’ll have to wait three weeks for someone from the Board of Ed.”

This was my first experience with the idea that being a geek was something powerful. Sure, I knew I could create new worlds and new vistas of experience through programming but this… I had an ability that other people both valued, and kinda feared. This was power.

But want I want to get at, is that much like the beancounters who are allowed to make technical decisions in most businesses, most of the people who make technical decisions in education are retarded monkeys. Case in point:

Toward the end of my K-12 academic career, the glorious BCPS made the shift from Macintosh computers to Windows boxen. I will point out that this was roughly around 2000. Why is this significant? Because up until 2000, the Macintosh was useless to anyone who really wanted to understand anything about computers. At least with a PC, you could drop down to a DOS shell and do something relevant. The Mac had no CLI. But then, there was hope. Apple, fighting for its life, brought back Steve Jobs, the Golden Boy, and bought NeXT, with its UNIX OS, and used NeXTStep as the basis of Macintosh OS X. Now, I’d been using Linux since about 1995 or 1996. This was great news. I thought that now, kids everywhere would be learning how to use a POSIX-compliant OS. Then my mother, the teacher, told me she had bought herself a Dell because they were moving everything to Windows XP boxen.

FACEPALM.

Apparently, Apple’s financial troubles, and the pressures of parents who wanted their kids to learn ‘real-world’ computers, had created a new customer base for Microsoft: our local school system. It didn’t matter that this was as retarded as fuck, or that the cracks in Microsoft’s ’emperor’s new clothes’ pseudo-superiority had begun to show… no, some beancounters had made a technical decisions again. And down that road lies madness.

This isn’t really a rant; just a story. Perhaps a morality play. Beancounters should be allowed to make technical decisions when hell freezes the fuck over. And on that note, one of the best sources of catharsis for harried techies:  The Bastard Operator From Hell Archive