Monthly Archives: December 2006

Words be nimble, words be quick, words be open, words be shtick

Nursery rhymes such as Jack Be Nimble are among the most memorable of writings, and I think that for your writing to be memorable it needs to be nimble, by which I mean:

Words be nimble,
words be quick,
words be open,
words be shtick

words be quick

Others will just need their eyes to read nimble writing. Most often it will come in the form of a web page they will view using a browser. Nimble words will be not be found in static documents that require you run a software program such as Adobe’s Acrobat or Microsoft’s Office just to put the words in front of your eyes. Nor will nimble words be found in elaborately formatted documents or, god forbid, presentation formats such as PowerPoint.

Why should you lock up in your nimble writing in a proprietary format before offering it to others? What do you gain by doing so? It’s the writing that counts, not how is presented to the reader’s eyes. Shakespeare or Lincoln didn’t have to format their writing, so why should you?

Don’t won’t waste time in formatting. Get the words out as early as you can, as the rewards will go to those who write quickly and so engage in the marketplace of ideas sooner.

words be open

Open-ness will take many forms. Here are a few I can think of now.

Nimble words will have a URL. To know of them is to know where to find them and so be able to read them with a minimum of effort. If my writing is in a PDF document, then it is not nimble; to share it with you I have to e-mail you a copy of the document or put it up on a server and send you the URL before you can read it. If I put my words in a blog, or as a comment to another author’s blog, or in a public wiki, then the words have a unique URL from the moment of writing. I can send the URL to you knowing you can find the words, and also knowing you can share that URL with others.

Nimble words will come with a known license so that those who wish to reproduce, or otherwise make use of the words, will know how to do so. Writing with a liberal license such as that used in this blog, license, will be more likely to be found elsewhere used than that under a more restrictive license as GFDL.

Nimble words with such a liberal license will be very accessible. To use them you will just need to cut-and-paste, and give credit where credit is due. You won’t have to write a program, or master a complex format, to share nimble words with others.

Nimble words will more often be found in a public discussion than in a private exchange. It is the public-ation of them, in its literal sense “to make public,” that will give them their force.

Nimble writing comes from open writers. Nimble words will not be found in isolation, but will be much more likely to recognized as nimble once you have gone to the effort of defining your public identity. Nothing you write within a corporate firewall adds to your public identity, so unless you plan to spend the rest of your career behind the firewall that is your current lot then you should start defining your public identity as soon as you can.

Nimble writing will also be found in a shared form. You won’t be measured by just your own original essays, or the mini-essays that constitute a blog, but by the totality of your efforts. Such efforts include comments you make to the blogs of others, or comments in other public fora, or the carefully-commented tags you post on

Nimble words will be out in the open. You will be able to find them with a search engine. Words locked behind a firewall can not be found by a public search, and hence their author can’t be found by a public search. To labor inside the firewall is to guarantee obscurity to the world at large.

The more nimble your writing, the more often it will be cited, and the more ways people will come across it via search engines.

words be shtick

shtick is another way of saying reputation or identity, one that happens to rhyme with “quick” and so completes my doggerel verse.

Your collective public writings, however presented, whether as blog posts, wiki contributions, or openly available articles, will define your public identity. It is your writings, in the form of your “voice” or “persona” that will define how others interpret your words.

In a way I can’t define precisely but do sense intuitively, I believe that the concept of “social networking” is not just a passing fad but a way of expressing the more complex forms of interaction that the internet has made possible, and that what I here call “nimble words” is but another way of saying “social writing.”

We will begin to understand “social writing” only when we are able to read the first works by the authors who first master this new form of writing.

links for 2006-12-31

links for 2006-12-29

Janet Shields, humorist; Sheldon McGuire, teacher

A few posts ago I wrote of a recently-discovered letter from my father written over sixty years ago. While preparing for a visit by our children, my wife went through some of our papers and came across some of my old report cards from elementary school that go back over fifty years.

They include my mother’s comments, some of which I hadn’t read before or only now can fully appreciate.

It’s a long-standing joke in the Shields clan that no one has ever accused me of having good handwriting. Indeed, I suspect that the availability of line printers — machines that could present my work in legible form — may be the main reason I went into computing.

The report cards in those days had three categories: S for Satisfactory, I for needs Improvement, and U for Unsatisfactory. I almost always got S’s, except for the occasional U and I in handwriting, as was the case in sixth grade, when I got a “U” for “writing legibly” in the first report period. This resulted in the following exchange between my teacher, Sheldon McGuire, and my mother, Janet Shields:

Janet Shields:

David’s report card has many S’s
But his writing a sad mess is.
Let’s hope he has planned
With less scribbly left hand
Next quarter to really surprise us.

Sheldon McGuire:

David has continued doing good school work. His enthusiasm is a joy. His writing is much improved. (We appreciated and enjoyed your verse.)

Janet Shields:

A very fine report. Makes me very glad for David.

Sheldon McGuire:

David has continued doing good work. He is surely a capable person. David has been a good class president.

Janet Shields:

Maybe he should write with his right hand. But on the other hand this is a very fine report. Very glad for David.

Janet Shields. May her memory — and her sense of humor — be a blessing.

Mr McGuire. You were a blessing, too. I think that you, more than any of my other elementary school teachers, emphasized writing.

The New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show

It’s been a special time in the Shields household these past few days. All our children and grandchildren have been visiting us, and it’s the first time in several years we have all been together. Today we all attended an event I had never heard of until yesterday, when a relative recommended we go. It was so wonderful I want to tell you a bit about it.

It is the New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show. It combines a number of special treasures into a special experience.

First, it takes place in the New York Botanical Garden. This is one of New York’s — and the world’s — treasures. I can’t do it justice here, but will just remark that it is a good place to mark the start of Spring at the “hill of daffodils,” that the height of that season is best marked amidst a wondrous grove of cherry trees on the eastern edge of the park, and that to get to that grove you get to walk through one of the last known “old growth” forests in the New York area, meaning none of the trees therein have been cut down since the land was first settled almost three hundred years ago.

Second, it takes place in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, the jewel in the garden’s crown, a Victorian-structure with thousands of glass panels that let in light year-around so that tropical plants can be grown even in the winter months, as can desert plants such as cacti and agave.

Though the above two treasure are always there, the remaining two define the experience.

Third, that in the conservatory during the Holiday Train Show, beginning in the desert part, you will find model trains going to and fro, sometimes above your head on specially-mounted tracks, and more often on the ground amidst the plants within the conservatory. The trains are larger than “O” gauge; they are known as “museum gauge.” Perhaps they were built just for this event.

Fourth, amidst the trains and plants there are a number of unique structures, each made by hand and all of natural materials such as bark, fragments of woods, nuts, cones, pods, shells, seeds, and so forth. Each is based on some building or structure in the New York area, some of which were demolished decades ago. My favorites included Boscobel, the Brooklyn Bridge, the High Bridge that was a key part of the the NYC water system, and the Little Red Lighthouse (itself the subject of a children’s book).

The overall effect is special indeed, one of those only-in-New-York experiences that made the city so special when I lived in it and still make me happy that I live not too far away.

The event is especially suitable for children six and under, though it does bring out the child in all of us.

Fifth, though this is not on the official Botanical Garden map, after the Train Show we repaired to the nearby neighborhood known as “Arthur Avenue.” Those who bring knowledge of this area to this blog are already salivating at the mention of Arthur Avenue, as I trust those who read on soon will.

Arthur Avenue is an area with many well-known Italian bakeries, stores, markets, and restaurants. For example, in much of Westchester one does not ask for “Italian bread” but “Arthur Avenue bread.” Our personal favorite eateries had been Dominic’s and Rigoletto. We planned to eat at Dominic’s, but it was quite busy so we wound up at another we had recently heard about, called Roberto’s. It was also excellent. (Zagat gives it 27 for food, at $47/person, but it’s much more reasonable for lunch). Dominic’s remains our favorite, but now we have three favorite eateries.

The food at all these places is very good, most notably so due to its simplicity. One of the best meals my wife and I shared in recent memory was during a lunch at Dominic’s — a salad and the three vegetables they had that day: asparagus, broccoli rabe, and green beans.

Swanson Shields, soldier and educator, March 1945 letter

My uncle Lynwood turned 93 a few weeks ago. He and his wife Elaine recently came across a letter written by my father, Swanson Shields, to Lynwood in March 1945. I had known my father was an officer, and thought he was a press information office, but thanks to this letter I learned for the first time he was an educator, and in the medical field to boot. Those who know of my special interest in these areas will appreciate how much I enjoyed reading the letter.


The tenor of the letter suggests that those involved believed the war would go on for some time, It was written in March 1945, just after US troops had crossed the Rhine river, as is noted near the end of the letter, yet I doubt my father had any idea the war in Europe would end within six weeks, and only a very small number of people in the United States had any reason to think the war might end in less than a year. Some of them were working about seventy miles from my future hometown, Albuquerque, NM, in a small town called Los Alamos.

I copied out the words from the letter and also made an image so you can what it looks like. It was written on a long piece of paper, so I folded it over, so the end of the letter appears upside-down at the bottom of the image. You can see my father’s signature, “Swannee,” at the end, and part of the sentence mentioning the Rhine just before it.

Sunday, 12 March 1945

Dear King

This is my first letter to you from Camp Crowder, Mo. Along with many other medical soldiers from Camp Barkeley, I arrived here last Thursday. I have now been here a few days and am glad to report that everything is going very good so far. This camp is a vast improvement over Camp Barkeley. It is more modern and more convenient. I imagine it is a bit like Harlingen, after recalling your nice comments about that place.

If you will pardon my tooting my own horn, may I report that I have been assigned to a bigger Orientation job at Crowder. Here’s the set-up: We brought two Regiments with us, in addition to a small Center headquarters for the two Regiments. I am located in the Center Training Department, with the title of Center Information and Education Officer. I supervise the work of the Regimenal I and E officers and things like that. I was pleased to get the promotion for two reasons: (1) It is a bigger job, which means I can reach more men and (2) it shows that my work has been saisfactory to the powers that be.

I was very gratified to find on my arrival that two colonels in charge of the medical training center here were both highly in favor of Orientation. They called me into their office for a conference, asking me for recommendations for a Program. They accepted my Program, which is a very ambitious one. I was very pleased when they placed at my disposal for an officer and war information center a two-story barrack — the type that you lived in at Harlingen. I have the entire barrack, which had been converted into separate classrooms. I will be ideal for setting up a “War Room,” in which to hold classes and discussions.

Along with my assitant, I have been working on this Sunday to get the ball rolling in the “War Room.”

You may be interested to know that I have another assistant – a girl civilian worker. Yes, the T/O calls for a civilian and a girl was hired. She’s the wife of an enlisted Orientation non-com, which is very good and very liberal. Likewise, she’s progressive in her ideas – along political and economic lines, of course.


So it looks like I have a good set-up. I am anxious to get started. I am directly responsible for providing Orientation to several thousand men. Of course, I will work through my “subordinate” officers on the Regimental, Battalion and Company level but you depend on me to keep them on the ball. Fortunately, the two Regimental I and E officers are very sincere and competent and liberal.

How long I will be here I do not know, although the fact that this medical training center just opened here would indicate I should be here more than a few weeks or months. You see, we are now about the only medical training outfit left. And as long as the war runs on, they will need more medical soldiers. Anyway, I have been very lucky and I know this will be good at least for seveal months.

The only drawback so far is that I do not have Janet and the baby with me. Because Lynwood David is only three months young, we did not think it advisable to move here until I had located an adequate apartment. I went into Joplin, city of 40000 which is 20 miles from Camp, Friday looking for apartments. I found one that would have done the trick had we not had the baby. But we did not want to take any chances with his getting a cold or something. So Janet will remain with the son in Texas for this month at least and will not join me until I have found a decent apartment. In a way, it’s just as well she and the baby are not here for the first few week, because they might take me away from here some nights when I could be doing something worthwhile with Orientation. Now, isn’t that very unselfish.

This city of Joplin is as wild as they come. It’s said to be a dandy for the single boys. I can believe that, after my one visit there, when I bumped into a barfly who wanted to “shack-up.” Some other time, I might have been interested. But I love that wife of fine. The temptation was great, however.

The was news is very good these days, with the increased tempo of the Pacific war, plus the crossing of the Rhine.

Well, I must say I do feel more like a soldier since I have been living on the post. So far it has not been bad. There’s quite a bit to do on the Post here, what with the theatres, beer joints and special service — and Orientation programs.

Bye for now dear brother.


Swanee (signature)

Sixth Sakai Conference – Trip Report

I’ve been quite active in the area I term “open-education”, meaning the application of open-source technology to improve education, for just over two months now. I have done this mostly on my own time as part of my volunteer activities and, as time permits, to work with some fellow employees who work in the education arena. (Most of my volunteer time for the last three months has been spent writing this blog.)

As part of these activities I was asked to participate in the Licensing and Policy Summit in Indianapolis in mid-October.

By way of brief background, suffice it to say I found the Summit to be not just a simple discussion of open-source licensing issues, but a detailed, nuanced and quite sophisticated dicussion about Contributor License Agreements (CLA’s), patents, and the impact of patents and the particular nature of universities that needs to be addressed in drafting CLA’s, namely that faculty typically enjoy rights related to their patents that are quite distinct from the rights of employees whose work results in patents owned by their employer.

My “trip report” on that meeting can be found in the earlier post Licensing and Policy Summit for Software Sharing in Higher Education: Trip Report.

While at the Indianapolis Summit I learned that two of the most important activities in this space were Kuali, a financial management system that addresses the unique financial needs of institutions of higher education, and Sakai, a system for e-learning. Both are written in Java and each is currently about a million lines of code. Both use liberal BSD-style, Apache-like licenses. I was also told at the Summit that Eben Moglen, whom I knew to be the key legal advisor to Richard Stallman, would be a keynote speaker at the upcoming Sakai conference. Several folks said he was a great speaker, and they also suggested I should try to attend the conference.

And that’s pretty much all I knew about Sakai going into the conference. I had no particular agenda. I was just there to find my own answer to the question, “What is a Sakai?”

The conference began on Tuesday, with a day of tutorials and introductory presentations. The more formal part started Wednesday and ended Friday noon. The highlight Wednesday was the keynote by Eben Mogen and his other presentations.

I made no attempt to be comprehensive in attending the conference sessions. I just picked the ones that interested me most, which included for the most parts the ones related to open-source licensing and open-source governance.

I knew Moglen would be speaking at the conference as as keynote speaker, and I did know there was some controversy in the academic community about a patent that was recently granted to a company called Blackboard that is one of the major commercial suppliers of e-learning software. When I arrived at the conference I learned that Moglen was not only a keynote speaker, but that there would be a “debate” between Moglen and an attorney from Blackboard.

I attended that debate, as well as a session led by Moglen later that day about patents and open-source. I took notes of both sessions and, knowing there was quite some interest in this topic, I wrote several blog posts about that day that evening. These initial posts were:

These posts drew quite a wide readership; my “views per day” went up markedly just after they were posted.

I have just completed several posts about the conference sessions that I attended in full and for which I took some notes:

I hope to conclude my “trip report” in this post, though I will be writing of Sakai and some of the lessons I learned while at the conference in future posts. So here are my first impressions.

The conference was held at the Marriott Marquis Hotel. All the smaller sessions took place in a quiet area at the lower level containing about ten rooms. There were multiple tracks. The could be, and often were, as many as nine different sessions gonig on at the same time. The interior space of the hotel is the work of Atlanta architect John Portman, one of the pioneers in creating carefully sculpted, soaring interior spaces.

The first day, Tuesday, consisted mostly of tutorials and workshhop, including the “Programmer’s Cafe.” I attended Anthony Whyte’s “Introducing Sakai,” and wrote a post about that. I also sat in on part of an OSP presentation. OSP stands for Open-Source Portfolia initiative, and is now part of Sakai. It supports content management, such as the organization and presentation of the work of a student in a schoole of Fine Arts or Architecture.

I sat in briefly on a couple of tutorials. They were well-organized and had good handouts, some of which came from the University of Indiana.

Wednesday morning began with Moglen’s keynote. I arrived a bit late and so heard only the last twenty minutes or so. It was very passionate though it did contain some over-the-top statements such as “It doesn’t matter if a commercial software company goes out of business.” I learned later that this talk, as well as most of the presentations at the conference, was recorded and that the podcasts would be available online. I think I’ve seen a blog post by someone who wasn’t there but listened to Moglen’s talk this way.

(By the way,I don’t travel that much. When I do, I find that IBM/Lenovo laptops are becoming a rare breed. I attended one of my daughter’s classes in Constitutional Law a few months back, and at most one laptop in twenty had the red button in the middle. I didn’t see many in Atlanta, either.)

Though I focused on the sessions related to open-source licensing, patents, and governance, these were but a small fraction of the total. I guess the majority of the presentations were about deploying, using, and customizing the software. If was a technical conference, but the technology was education, not writing enterprise-level Java
applications, or the associated programming technology.

I attended Chuck Severance’s Sakai Foundation Overview after Moglen’s keynote. Looking back, I could have left the conference just after it ended, because I had learned in under an hour that the Sakai folks had learned all one needs to know about how to set up an open-source community and associated governing body, that they had funds on hand, and that they were also overseeing a software-development process that was very rigourous, approaching the industrial level. There were roadmaps, design processes, a QA process, means for interacting with the community. Indeed, the Foundation spends most of its budget funding the Sakai conferences, recognizing that this is vital in helping to grow the ecosystem.

I recently spent a short while at Apache’s web site, comparing their financials with some of the numbers in Chuck’s presentation. I estimate Sakai’s resources and budget to be several times that of Apache. It’s notable that much of the funding for Sakai came from the Mellon Fund, a very sophisticated philanthropic group that is exploring ways to use open-source to aid education. (Mellon also helped fund the Indianapolis Summit; I’ll be writing more about them soon.)

After Chuck’s talk I spent a few minutes at a talk about the “University of Michigan Build Process.” I wanted to see if they used Jikes (they don’t) and if they used Ant (they do). By the way, Apache Ant is one of those remarkable programs that when you first try them you you to yourself, “What was the idiot programmer who put this together thinking?” And then once you finally figure out what’s going on, you say to yourself, “Why was I such an idiot? I should have thought of this?”

I’ve already written up the rest of Wednesday: the lunchtime Blackboard “debate,” the CLA discussion, and the talk on Patent Defense Mechanisms.

I wrote up two of the presentations I attended on Thursday

There was a reception Thursday evening that must have had close to a hundred demonstrations of Sakai. I looked at only a few, and spent most of the rest of the time socializing, but it’s fair to say that the few were representative and that the demos covered a wide variety of topics. I did the socializing because this was the occasion I had to meet some of the IBMers working in the education space.

It is hard when reporting on a conference, particularly when one is new to a field, to separate the novelty from the actuality. Suffice it for now to summarize my first impressions as follows:

  • Sakai is for real.
  • It is being used and extended by many institutions, a significant number of which are outside the US; for example,in China.
  • There is an active e-learning community in the UK that is working with Sakai
  • The governance process, under the auspices of the Sakai Foundation, is quite advanced.
  • The development process is quite advanced, nearing industrial-strength level
  • Going forward, commercial partipants in this space will ignore Sakai at their peril. Cooperation, not competition, will prove more fruitful.
  • Not only are many of the folks in this space as smart as university professors, some of them ARE university professors. This is a fun place to be.
  • The education arena is an attractive place to attempt innovation using open-source, and there are unique resources available.

These impressions have led to some ideas about education and open-source that I hope to pursue in future posts.

Let me close with a couple of personal observations, the first of which I shared with several of the people I ran into, especially hotel employees who were from the Atlanta area.

I have a relationship with Atlanta that goes back over thirty years. Currently it’s the home of my oldest daughter and my two grandchildren. But back in the early 1970’s I worked as a consultant to the NYU School of Education in developing an introductory program for mathematics at the kindergarten level as part of “Follow Through,” a program for children who had been in Head Start. We did our initial testing in Atlanta, so I got to know some of the teachers and students then in the Atlanta schools.

Also, since my sponsoring professor was a strong believer in supporting black-owned businesses, I stayed at a motel/restaurant called Paschal’s. To fully understand Paschal’s, and its special place in the hearts of Atlantans, is a subject worthy of a separate post. Suffice it here to say I was one of the few white folks on the premises, and that their southern fried chicken became my exemplar.

One night during a stay in the fall of 1972, I wandered by a room where a bunch of people were celebrating. They were all clearly very happy. I asked what was going on, and was told that a local politician, a man of great promise, had just won the Democractic primary, and so was almost certain to win the general election.

I asked his name, and learned he was Andrew Young. He did win the election, becoming Georgia’s first African American congressman since Reconstruction, and he went on to serve our country in many other ways, so much so that a major street in Atlanta bears his name: the conference hotel was near Andrew Young International Blvd in Atlanta.

So progress is possible, though it may take decades.

I didn’t make that many trips to Atlanta. My program wasn’t that great and so the experiment ended.

I also worked with a new kind of education called “programmed learning” back in the early 1960’s. I also taugh a senior-level course at NYU for four years in the 1980’s. From thes experiences I learned that teaching is hard, and also that innovation in education is hard, very hard. For example, I recall once reading but one illustration of the difficulties:

Question: If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we improve our school systems?

Answer: The moon doesn’t have 7000 local school boards.

This makes Sakai’s accomplishements to date — and I’m not speaking just of Sakai but of the efforts of all the people whose open-source activities have helped bring e-learning to its current state — even more noteworthy, in that they were done in a very challenging arena.

No area requires innovation more than education, and few areas make it as hard to achieve.

Keep up the good work, Sakai. We’re counting on you.

The power of powerpoint

My uncle just sent me a letter my father him wrote over sixty years ago. I had no idea the letter existed until I got it. Reading through it has got me to thinking about how we can preserve documents for the long term.

I’m only vaguely familiar with all the work on Open Documents and Open Formats so I decided to poke into this a bit. There are wikipedia articles: OpenDocument and Open Format.

The article on Open Format has a link to the Massachusetts Information Technology Division.

I followed that and saw mention of something call Open Initiatives.

I followed that and saw mention of Open Source Legal Toolkit.

I opened that page and saw there is a document Legal and Other Issues in Open Source Licensing.

Given my interest in open-source licensing issues I decided to take a look at that document. I tried to open it only to learn is a PowerPoint document.

The State of Massachusetts has produced a document about Open-Source that requires I buy a copy of PowerPoint to read it. Adding insult to injury, I see there is also a Quick References for Open Source Licenses in the form of an Excel spreadsheet.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Can someone in the Massachusetts government please explain why I have to pay money to buy software just so I can read what is presumably a public document?

I can’t, but I will be writing more on this topic in future posts.

Don’t worry. I will use HTML to write them and they will be freely available here at You won’t have to buy any software to read them.

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