So I’ll be away to the motherland, at my ancestral homeground in China from the end of this week for a fortnight, and quite on short notice too. I’ll be sporadic on bugmail and online too.
Something important in my extended family is happening and I cannot skip it for anything else. Requires a 4 hour plane trip, an hour’s bus ride from the airport to the bus terminal then another 6+ hour bus ride. To all the people I have agreed on anything — if I have the chance, it’ll be next time, just not this winter break.
I wrote a Thunderbird extension (and my first one too!) that allows the display of all available about: windows in Thunderbird. Shredder Alpha 3 and above is required though. It is called ViewAbout and can be downloaded from Mozilla Add-ons.
Description of ViewAbout:
Enables access to various about: dialogs from the View menu.
Every available about: dialog can be viewed – about:buildconfig, about:config, about:crashes, about:credits, about:license, about:mozilla, about:neterror (seemingly useless) and about:plugins.
These windows can be closed using Ctrl-(or cmd-)w.
Try it and let me know how it is. I have also made ViewAbout’s AMO Dashboard public, so everyone can see just how many users need about:crashes or about:config and the like.
(Mark Finkle was a great help throughout the development period, so thanks, Mark!)
I had the honour of interviewing Mark Surman when he dropped by Singapore in September prior to the start of his work at the Mozilla Foundation. We talk a bit about his upcoming role in the foundation, the role of Mozilla in education, and managerial structure in general. Unfortunately due to the lack of time I am unable to do anything more than transcript the first video.
Edit: Thanks to KaiRo’s suggestion, I tried to embed the videos using the new video tag, so here’s the first video below. It should play automatically after it has finished downloading.
Edit 2: Halfway through the video when played by Firefox 3.1 beta 1, it should crash at nsOggDecoder::HandleVideoData. I don’t know if this is fixed in the recent nightlies though. You have been warned!
Edit 3: More document tidyings, I got my <video> information from this devmo page, any queries please redirect to that page…
Edit 4: Took out the autoplay attribute, to play the video, one should right-click to show controls and play if the controls don’t show up.
Transcript of the first video:
GK: Hi, Mark.
MS: Hi, Gary.
GK: So, you’re taking up a new position, as an Executive Director for Mozilla Foundation.
MS: That’s right. (nods head)
GK: And, here’s a couple of questions for you. Let me start off with…
GK: What are your plans for your role as an Executive Director, especially with regards to the community, the goals, and education?
MS: So, as people who know the history of Mozilla know, it started out as a foundation because everybody who was involved in the beginning really had this big public mission of keeping the internet open, keeping the web open, and the main way they want to do that was first with a browser.
That was so successful, but they needed really to spin off a company just to manage that part of the mission. But the mission remains that broad desire to keep the internet open. So now, the things are really established with Mozilla Corporation, with Mozilla Messaging, there is a kind of a desire on the part of the board to think of what else can we do to keep the internet open.
So, my role as Executive Director coming in, is to work with the Mozilla community, to work with other people who are interested in getting involved with the Mozilla community, to figure out what’s the new terrain in terms of keeping the internet open. A part of that is about bringing more people in, who care about the values of Mozilla, so education, you know specifically working, say with students and professors, who’re gonna learn about open source and use the Mozilla community as a way to do that and also contribute, that’s one way to bring people into the community.
So the foundation will probably explore some things in that area, but also, you know just engaging the 200 million people who use Firefox and people who use Thunderbird and other Mozilla products and saying, "You know, maybe there’s something more here than just a great product."
And it is, a great set of products. Maybe there’s some values that resonate. You know, things like, Spread Firefox or Download Day, people resonate with Mozilla’s brands and want to get involved, so another role for the foundation is to figure out beyond using those products, are there other ways for those people to get involved and express their interest in the open internet.
Maybe that’s getting involved in issues like data, maybe that’s just kind of evangelizing to their friends and relatives on why the open internet and keeping the web open are important. Those are the kind of things we’ll look at in the foundation. But the really key thing is to make sure that what we do is driven by the Mozilla community, just like everything else is. So there is this new opportunity to create new opportunities for participation.
GK: So, how do you plan to reach out to educational institutions that are interested in teaching open source, but they have no idea how to start?
MS: Hmm, I’m not sure that the first place to go, is to go to educational institutions that have no idea how to start.
I think the first place we want to go is, places where there are professors, places where there are students who are already active over there in open source, already interested, possibly already contributing to programs or to communities like the Mozilla community, or other communities that are doing open source. And help them find a way to structure what they’re doing, bring it into the classroom, get credit for what they’re doing, involve more people in what they’re doing.
So really, I think what we’re looking for early on, and this is all still to be formed, and we may need to get more people’s opinion on this, is champions working in universities, working in colleges, working in educational institutions, who already are excited about the values of Mozilla and the values of open source, and who want to go further with that. So, that’s the first place to start.
GK: How do you feel about Seneca’s program so far?
MS: I think the Seneca program is a real beacon for people who want to do exactly that, who want to take their interest in open source and turn it into formal courseware, a formal offerings.
The Seneca people basically teach computer studies, and what they’ve done is they’ve started a course about three years ago, where the students who are learning Mozilla programming aren’t doing that just in sandbox or just in a laboratory; they’re going out in the Mozilla community, with the help of their professor and contribute directly, learning this real-world environment, which makes, you know, good sense in terms of contributing to Mozilla, but also good sense in terms of them being ready for the job market, right?
They learn to work in a global community, they learn to work with the real skills involved in, you know in open source but also in the real world of producing any piece of software. And you don’t often learn that in kind of a traditional computer studies programmes, so the community is part of who’s teaching those students.
And they have expanded, at Seneca, from just doing Mozilla; now they’ve got the same model for doing OpenOffice and for doing Linux builds and a whole bunch of stuff. So that’s a very successful model, the question is, can other people build on that kind of approach, and hopefully they can.
A few months ago, post-internship, I wanted to start a course for third-year college students in my second year of college, along the likes of Seneca, so the professors here at NUS kindly paved the way for me to teach Mozilla as a course (CS3108). (They however indicated that it will _not_ be a normal course, it is just a "student-run activity", because I am not a professor.) This wasn’t large enough to obtain more publicity, a recent local paper article on open source education by-passed local major universities.
(Note: This post is Singapore-centric, a partial response to Mark Surman’s, and is timed to coincide with the open source track at Seneca, due to school commitments, different round-the-world locations that sit exactly on oppositesides of the world and lack ofresources, I am unable to attend. Apologies in advance, much as I would like to share my experience in-person.)
The first semester of teaching the course has proved to be an invaluable learning experience, and I will share some thoughts below:
Teaching open source effectively takes time to come to fruition
The college must be sure that teaching open source is the right way forward. Industry trends take time to go back into the classroom, and the act of convincing the college’s board of educational directors that open source is essential for the student’s future, takes time to come to fruition.
There must be an advocate within the college strongly pushing for this act of teaching open source, be it a Dean, a professor or a student. These people are vital to sustaining the vibrancy and enthusiasm of the course, because to educators, "everything starts from the classroom". That is, of course, an old notion, because in the case of open source, there is a community to start off in, but this thinking is still inherent in certain educational circles. So colleges want to ensure that whatever "new stuff" they are teaching are relevant in the outside world, and that huge level of inertia of accepting "new stuff" also takes time and much effort to overcome.
Everything starts from one
Every thing starts off from one. Be it one advocate, one teacher, or one student, as long as someone is interested in open source, this is a chance not to be missed. Maintaining his or her interest in open source is the main challenge — though it also depends on the individual personality of the person. Once this opportunity is gone, he or she will end up just like the other graduates out there.
Every bit of effort counts. Every single bit of effort, possibly even with recognition, will give tremendous boosts of confidence to the advocate that they are on the right track, that they are not doing something in vain, and that they are not the only ones who think open source thinking is useful for the future of the computer workplace. It’s painful and tough if the contributor / advocate feels that he or she is seemingly the only one around the country / region that is interested in this sort of stuff. It takes willpower to overcome that — once that willpower is gone, it’s difficult to re-obtain.
Without the support of someone in the college, it is not easy to negotiate the red tape that exists throughout the educational institution’s hierarchial structure. Countless emails and bounces from place to place, from people to people, it is very important that the college itself is probably recognizing the importance of open source. Merely recognizing alone is not enough; there are still possibilities that the college educators do not know how to teach open source in a way that is suitably generic, i.e. not just focused on Mozilla or Linux alone, but rather also encompassing the open source spirit, the act of sharing code, the different open source licenses out there.
High-level educators note the fact that code cannot be shared, that plagiarism is involved (which is extremely frowned upon and can be liable to severe penalties) very often to students. As such, students already have the thinking embedded inside their very minds that their code is their king, this also takes a lot of effort to overcome, especially when during the open source course, the advocate begins to talk about sharing code, which is contrary to what the student has been taught in all his life. Changing this mindset is virtually impossible in the high-level educators’ world, this affects the students too. Another issue that I won’t go into very much detail due to different implementations for different academic institutions and the fact that I am just a not-so-performing-well-undergraduate, is the question of how to grade the student, besides “Pass/Fail”.
This is not the only thing in teaching open source that goes against what is taught in other places. An example is compiled code tests. Students are taught that their C++ (or whatever language) code should have comprehensive compiled code tests. It makes sense for the student’s project, when you have merely thousands of lines of code and hundreds of source files. However, this goes against what is listed for Mozilla, simply because this doesn’t make sense. With something in the likes of millions of lines of code in the Mozilla codebase, this represents something on the many orders of magnitude greater than what the student will accomplish during the course of his college education. It is wasted effort if the student is taught to write compiled code tests only to find that it is not really relevant in a project as large as Mozilla.
Learning open source is a learning curve for students. Fresh graduates already have thinking enshrined into them about the closed source opportunities. Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, (especially the selling of) YouTube are just the many examples that are actively promoted. What is lacking here are open source ones. Note that these students already know about the existence of open source, and most are probably already using it, they just do not see a future of themselves surviving on an open source job. Open source is not seen as ensuring a bread-and-butter future, it is seen as something done in a hobby and will get relegated in priorities if there is a lack of time or money. Materialism plays a part in going against open source.
People ask about certification. Microsoft certification, now there is the Apple University, something on their CVs that certifies them for their job. Having contributed to lines of code to open source is hardly perceived as certification by students, though the open source developers themselves may attest otherwise.
Students ask about open source APIs. If there is something Mozilla lacks that may prove useful to educational folks in the future, it’s an API. They want fresh, readily available, well-documented APIs to code whatever they want. The closest anything that Mozilla has is probably MozMill API and Ubiquity documentation, on a level that is suitable for easy level entry into Mozilla coding.
Having more people and resources available around in a region, would always help to push the cause forward. Starting something regarding open source education is good, but maintaining the momentum and ensuring the sustainability is the tough bit.
The education sector is a tad slower to recognize and respond, and adapt to industrial trends. Open source is just one of them.
(What a long >1200 word post, thanks go out to the reader for lasting till this end, time to go back to lectures on basic datapaths / pipelining. This post will also become part of my final report on CS3108.)
So we are about to embrace more MBPs with more Nvidia components, amongst all the rumormills that are now flying about.
And I got hit by this Nvidia fiasco, and the dear MBP is now in servicing for “3-4” working days. (It occasionally fails to have any display after wake from sleep, and yes, I considered the Safe Sleep possibility.)
A few weeks ago at the Mozilla Summit, Mark Surman, the incoming Executive Director for Mozilla Foundation, invited me to take part in a lightning talk about Mozilla as part of the local Open Everything event in Singapore. He was so convincing that I couldn’t turn him down.
On 15 Sept 2008, I had the privilege of "speed geek"-ing Mozilla, which went along the lines of having a rotating audience. Each time you (the speaker) could talk for a couple of minutes on a chosen topic and conduct a Q&A with an audience of around 5-6 people, and after that the audience group moves on to the next speaker, etc. Having a total of six speakers at the speed geek session, the attendees were divided into 6 groups, and all-in-all, I spoke about Mozilla 6 times for just under an hour.
Interesting questions were "What advantage does Firefox offer over Safari?" and "Does Firefox aim to have the highest market share?"
Since the groups had different opinions, whatever was discussed varied slightly, but they fit along these lines:
History of Mozilla, Netscape, the suite days.
Thunderbird is widely known, though not as well as Firefox.
There is now competition in the browser space; Google Chrome and Safari are among the ones listed the most often.
The folks occasionally answer among themselves, as there are some Firefox users present.
Generally, the overall feel is that people here _are_ aware of and are using open source, especially Firefox and Ubuntu, but they are mostly just users and are curious to know more.
Richard Fuchs, IDRC, interview by Willie Cheng, Lien Centre and Paolina Martin, SMU