Tuesday, September 28, 2010

ICT in the classroom

Today has been a voyage of discovery into software and technology available for the 21st century classroom. I had the opportunity to try out a touch screen that could be "written on" and displayed on a screen for the students to see. This definitely better than trying to move the mouse on a laptop screen.

I went to an afternoon lecture on Autograph, a software package for plotting graphs. This is integrated with an electronic whiteboard for a teacher to stand in front of a class and demonstrate the different graphs. I'm still getting used to

The last lecture of the day Peter de Lisle from Hilton College spoke about how Joomla can create a website for schools. From experience Joomla is very restricted to the template being used but I suppose it suffices for high schools. As he spoke he suggested all these extras that cost money, something that goes against his initial message that it is free. The template designer he used is R1000 and then there is the gallery manager etc etc.

Monday, September 27, 2010

ICT in Education

The second day of Innovate 2010 started with a few interesting applications of smartboards and Nintendo Wiis. It is interesting that they are using Python to communicate between the two. I've recently discovered that smartboards are becoming rather popular at schools around Cape Town (we even had one installed in EGS at UCT) but I'm not sure how effective they can be. I'm very keen to see what type of content teachers are developing to use on these teaching toys.

Robert and I presented Project Umonya today to a number of IT teachers from around South Africa. Speaking to them afterwards we discovered that many teachers are frustrated with the SACO format and how it doesn't fit into teaching IT, that the North West would really like a course of their own and that there may in fact be computer labs big enough to host courses at certain IEB schools (namely in Johannesburg)

While speaking to educators and NGOs who facilitate educational programs I've discovered a few resources that people may wish to browse, namely Living Maths, Free High School Textbooks (FHSST) and Fullmarks (website pending). Its amazing what resources are available. Project Umonya is hoping to feed their upcoming resource packs into the FHSST system for a greater distribution.

Tomorrow is the final day of the conference and I am keen to network a bit more and discover a few more useful contacts to help us on our way.

Innovate 2010

Yesterday was the first day of the three day conference in Innovate 2010 Schools ICT Conference held in Cape Town at the Cape Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology. I first started working at this conference in 2001 (when I was still in high school) and today I am presenting for Project Umonya.

The first keynote speaker of the day Masha du Toit discussed Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants. I'd never really considered the difference or that the distinction existed, I'd sort of accepted that I was born when computers became ubiquitous but that others had an affinity to technology that could have existed in any age (someone had to invent the stuff)

The second keynote speaker for the event was Johannes Cronje from CPUT. He spoke about the Seven Ages of Technology in Education. It was a highly entertaining experience as he traversed the world of Shakespeare for examples.

During the afternoon I sat through what could have easily been a marketing pitch for Apple. I own an Apple MacBook and still felt both bemusement and despair of the missed opportunity to showcase a proper message. The Parklands Apple One2One project is an experiment in introducing laptops into the classroom. Teachers promoted iLife as the solution to all the learners problems. They forgot to mention that everything they trumpeted on iLife is available as Open Source software (and hence less expensive than buying a MacBook).

The Parklands teachers and IT specialists missed a key opportunity, one I hope others will correct over the next two days, that of user generated content. The team spoke about the learners enthusiasm at generating new content but this doesn't have to be done on a MacBook. I despair that the message was completely lost as the teachers attributed all success to the technology itself.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Rivendell reaches Cape Town

Saturday night UCT Ballroom Dancing Society held their annual formal at Kelvin Grove. The theme this year was Rivendell and we had a few elves drop in for the evening. My table for the evening could be classified as one of the two "golden oldies" table as we've all been around for a long time.

In true form I only finished my outfit the afternoon of the formal (and it fitted!). Months ago I made a necklace from a pattern called a Curl. Its composed of waves of beads that are woven into a necklace. I matched the beads to directly mimic my outfit (yes I plan ahead of time).

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Phd Retreat

UCT Centre for Higher Education Department (CHED) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) are cosponsoring a PhD Retreat for second year PhD students from all faculties at UCT. We've spent two days talking about the lonely PhD journey, our PhD experience, writing advice and our career opportunities.

Some well-known UCT lecturers shared their PhD journeys and its rather nice to know that not all journeys go smoothly. One lecturer described a PhD as a "series of predicaments" and anothers advice was to "fake it til you make it".

Something for people to think about: What is your PhD metaphor? Mine is a Cape Town city centre road network, with its one way streets, circles, roadworks and no signposts. Regulated chaos :)

For those of you writing a thesis, try write your abstract according to the following:

Once upon a time researchers believed that... (literature review)

But then I thought that maybe ... (aims)

so what I did was ...

and I've discovered that ...

which [has] changed the way that we ...

I thought this set a completely inappropriate tone for thesis writing or paper writing but its meant to be the structure for an abstract, others disagreed and thought it was wonderful. The engineers seemed to agree with me.

Dr Albert van Jaarsveld (CEO of NRF) gave a very interesting talk on creating a "knowledge economy" and the plan of the NRF to create more PhD students every year. I also discovered that the NRF has a science and technology initiative in high school which Umonya may be able to partner with.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Conquering Maties

This weekend Project Umonya and the University of Stellenbosch co-hosted a Python course at the University of Stellenbosch (Maties). With 90 learners RSVP'd for the course we were in for a long long weekend full of lectures, tutoring and exercises.

The UCT team arrived with the sparrows to Stellenbosch to help with registration and the setup of computers to handle streaming between labs. We were experimenting for the first time with this in preparation for next years increase in students. After a few technical glitches we have found a suitable solution that can be reproduced with 'relative' ease.

Henk, Robert, Graham and I took turns lecturing the fundamentals of Python, from what is a program all the way through variables, loops, lists and even functions. Graham even demoed Visual Python to the advanced students.

Andre kindly came in to talk about Pygame, which I'm now keen to try out (when I have spare time).

If you are keen to get involved, email me and I'll send you the some info.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Chocolate Love

While I was rattling around Europe there were a few things I missed, Limnos being one of them. Its probably the people that I usually go with but the cakes and treats definitely have something to do with it. Yesterday I got to go and have a Vanilla and Chocolate Mouse cake heart.


I arrived in the office the other day to this contraption sitting on the conference table. Apparently our IT guy built a tornado simulation. Very cool.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Because this is Africa

I've arrived home to glorious sunshine (and a frosty wind) on Friday night and have had a wonderful weekend touching base with family and a few friends. Its wonderful to be home, though it is weird being back in the office.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Salzburg II

I took the overnight train from Zurich to Salzburg and arrived at 4am which is not fun. It was freezing cold and obviously pitch dark which made finding my hostel a little interesting. After arriving at the hostel they told me I could not check in until 10am (even though I made a special request for early checkin and ending up sleeping in the "chill lounge" until it was time to check in.
I've already been to Salzburg albeit for 2 hours in June in the freezing cold and rain. This time I at least had some sunshine (even if it isn't warm) and got to see the sights for a little longer this time around. I still love the gardens of Schloss Mirabell and they look spectacular in the sunshine. Something I seemed to have missed last time was the unicorns at the gates and the weird creatures on the flowerpots.

Walking in Old Town I explored the various platzs with an actual tourbook and discovered a few cool things. The statue of Mary in the courtyard of the Cathedral actually lines up perfectly with the church to look like the angels are crowning her.

The platz behind the cathedral was a giant chess set and board painted on the ground for people to play. The fountain there (which was used for horse bathing like modern day carwashing) has a sign saying something like "The prince built me" but the designer captialised the roman numerals that when added together are the year the fountain was built.

Walking through St Peters Cemetery that the Sound of Music's graveyard was modelled on I came across some really interesting tombstones. Another quirky fact: In Austria gravesites are rented in 10 year cycles, every ten years a rent bill is sent out and if the family doesn't pay the remains are destroyed.

My final destination was Hohensalzburg Fortress (festung) atop Festungsberg. There is a tour within the fortress with an audio-guide that was fairly decent. The main reason for taking the tour was in fact the viewing platform at the top of the tower with a 360 degree view of Salzburg. From here I could see Schloss Leopoldskron (Salzburg Global Seminar) that we attended in June.

The penultimate destination on my journey is Linz and I am going purely for the Arts Electronica Centre with its 3D virtual reality CAVE. Hopefully it lives up the hype on the website (and yes I know this is a VERY geeky reason to stop in a town).

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cheese and Chocolate

Yum... Our whole day was filled with eating. Traveling to French Swiss territory to the region of La Gruyere we visited a producer of Gruyere cheese and Cailler chocolate factory (the Lindt place is closed on weekends).

You can go through the exhibit on how Gruyere cheese is made and with a rather entertaining audio-guide with a cow as a presenter we discovered that milk from the cows in the Gruyere area can contain up to 86 different flavour coming from the combination of grasses and flowers etc that they eat in the fields. The same region is where the milk is produced for the Cailler cheese. The Gruyere cheese is matured for up to 12 months in 35kg rounds at 14C. A 35kg cheese needs 400 litres of milk (1 cow produces 25 litres per day = 100kg of grass and 85 litres of water). I learnt a lot on the tour. The cellar holds between 4000 and 7000 cheeses at any one time. Given our rough calculations (and I mean really really rough) we worked out that its about 5 million euros worth of cheese in the cellar at any one time.

Callier is in Broc-frabique, a village 1km away from Broc (other side of the hill from the cheese place). All raw materials are brought in by rail (the tracks go right into their offloading warehouses) and all products leaving the factory is also by rail (there are actual train loading stations at the packaging end with rails feeding straight into the national railway system). Callier is the combination of 4 chocolate pioneers in Switzerland that eventually amalgamated into 1 in 1929 under Nestle.

Taking the tour you are lead through a highly dramatic commentary on the history of chocolate making in Switzerland and then to the Centre of Excellence where you can see a mini production station (and taste the chocolate as it comes out). We stocked up on chocolate only to get to the final destination, an entire room filled with all the different brands produced and you can eat as much of it as you possibly can...I felt a little ill after pigging out on lots of dark chocolate.

We overestimated the time all of this would take and managed it fit in Fribourg in on the way back to Zurich. Fribourg is set along a few cliffs (we're still unsure how they were made or what they actually are) and is well worth following the walking tour of (in the clockwise direction...unlike us who took the anti-clockwise direction and hence had to walk UP all the hills).

Monday, September 6, 2010


Marco organised a full program for my weekend in Switzerland. In his words, "Zurich is not that interesting", so we proceeded to explore a few picturesque towns and villages across Switzerland. Transport in Switzerland seems very expensive (and Zurich even more so). We caught the train to Lucerne to view the lake, visit the transport museum and generally wonder around.
Traveling through the countryside is beautiful as grass covered hills whizz by dotted with cows. There are an abundance of rivers and lakes to see. Arriving in Lucerne we noticed that Pilatus, our intended destination was in fact hidden by clouds and would make viewing problematic.
Never fear, us geeks just spent longer in the transport museum seeing every exhibit, trying out all the options and critically analysing the various components of the trains, cars and space rovers. One of the coolest features was the car feature. Now I am not a car enthusiast but they have a robotic ladder-lift that brings that car you've requested down from the collection on the wall for you to view. This "Car Theatre" had vehicles from 1880 to the present including world record-holders.
Moving on to the "Old Town" of Lucerne we wondered around the pretty Swiss buildings and walked along the wooden bridges (described to us on our Google Map that other interns put together "old" and "very old") which are beautiful though required us to muse over the structural soundness and weird engineering contraption thing in the river it spanned (turns out it was for hydropower somehow).

Traveling back to Zurich I got to wonder around the city and see what they meant by "not interesting". I've decided that Zurich was a very average personality and they have perfected the art of "living normally" so that nothing goes wrong or causes inefficiencies and therefore loss of time.

Google visit

I didn't know much about Zurich other than its in Switzerland, there is Lindt chocolate and that Google has their European headquarters there. I arrived mid-afternoon to visit Marco at Google and discuss a project with another Google intern that may be useful to Umonya in the future.

The Google office is huge and is highly quirky. Each floor has a different theme, cool kitchens that are fully stocked and their restaurant has a slide... New interns are made to go down the slide on their first TGIF (I visited on a Friday) but thankfully I got to go down without everyone watching.
I did manage to stay for TGIF Pub Quiz (which allowed Androids...cheating!!!) and then hang out with the interns in the evening, first to play Rock Band and then to dinner. Chatting to the various interns Marco and I expanded on Umonya and the logistical problems of following up post courses. As nearly every intern is an ex programming competition participant (between IOI and ICPC) they understand how much the mentorship and sustained training helps. Exciting things are happening :)

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Verona is an hour away from Venice (by train) but that hour makes all the difference. Nestled in the bend of a river its a beautiful setting with the Alps as a backdrop. The churches are of Italian Gothic Architecture, very different from the abundance of the Baroque style. I much prefer the beautiful arches, frescoed walls and quiet celebration of religion.With one day to see everything I followed the recommended walking tour that took in all the sights. I was thwarted by the Italian long lunch (12.30-3) to see some of sights in the 'correct' order but it meant I got to explore all the side streets and soak up the sun on the rivers edge.
My first stop was the Verona Arena that hosts the opera in Summer (I missed it by 2 days). Built in the first century AD its all pink marble and huge (466-by-400 foot if you believe the guidebook) with 72 aisles. From the outside it doesn't seem that large but it is in fact sunken like the Colosseum.Moving on down the "shopping" street you can still see various Roman era pillars and Medieval reliefs. Moving on past Piazza Erbe with its hustle and bustle and gazebo in the centre with manacles still attached I visited probably the most well-known Verona sight, Juliet's house with its infamous balcony. The walls into the house are covered in graffiti from years of messages from young hopefuls. In the courtyard people line up to get a photo rubbing Juliet's breast, apparently to bring you luck.The Scaligeri family ran Verona and you can see this in their buildings (they made everyone else chop off their towers so theirs was the highest) and especially in their tombs which are beyond extravagant. There is a really funny story that I will have to look up later about some fortune of Khan being thought of as "cane" for dog and that is why there are dogs on their tombs.

Sant' Anastasia is one of the Gothic churches I mentioned earlier. It has two very interesting figures holding up the holy water bowls, a hunchback and a "easter figure". I really liked this church and the ceilings. I've also learnt why there are paintings in Venice instead of frescoes. Frescoes are painted into wet plaster which would melt(?) or fade with the high humidity in Venice. I now understand the abundance of canvas covered buildings.
There are many viewing points along the river that encloses Verona's Old Town but the best view I got was from Castello San Pietra on the hill across the river. I walked up the numerous stairs into lush gardens with spectacular views. I wish I had taken a picnic up there.

S. Maria Matricolare was the last major sight on my list and is yet another church, also Italian Gothic with frescoes. What made this rather interesting was all the different outfits displayed at each altar depicting the various ceremonial robes of the church. Definitely one of the most comprehensive collections seen outside of a museum. I'm currently writing this post from the train to Zurich (via Milan) to meet up with Marco and hangout with the Google interns. It should be a geeky adventure, I've heard rumours of an indoor slide... The countryside is swishing by with vineyards, beautiful farm houses and the Alps to complete this tranquil scene, there is even a massive lake (which I should probably know the name of but don't)