Blogging the Hursley HantsLUG meeting for eightbar!

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Today, I published my first post (about the HantsLUG meeting at Hursley last Saturday) on the eightbar blog!

Eightbar (as in the IBM logo which is known as the ‘eight-bar logo‘) is a community of people in and around IBM Hursley who are into cool, techie or creative things, either in work, out of work, or both.

The thing about large corporations is that people forget that most of the most amazing things that happen in those corporations come down to individual people just getting on and doing them. It’s easy to think (from inside and outside) that employees are ‘just a cog’ and everything is decided from on-high and nothing can be done without getting it approved in triplicate.

In fact, while a corporation’s culture can play an important part in encouraging and supporting good ideas, it’s the individuals who try them that make the difference. Whether that’s coming up with a better way to do something in your ‘day-job’, or writing a cool app in your evenings which subsequently gets so many downloads it gets incorporated into a real product (several people I know spring to mind immediately), or you just do something like running Linux as your desktop when hardly anyone else is and then helping others do the same.

That kind of innovation and adventure just doesn’t happen because someone in a suit on high tells you to do it. It comes because you think it’s a good idea and decide to give it a go.

The motivation behind eightbar was the realisation that there are loads of cool things happening around IBM Hursley that no one ever finds out about. So 4 years ago the eightbar blog was started.

Until today, I’d never contributed to it because I was too intimidated – but as one of many people around Hursley who attends conferences and unconferences, maintains (mostly) a blog, twitters, and likes to talk to other people who are into cool and interesting stuff, I figured I should make the effort (and the lovely @andypiper hinted very unsubtley that I should too).

So I did.

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So what is consumability?

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I was going to explain but Carl Kessler sums it up rather nicely here:

Usability is more than a pretty face (or a good user interface)

(Yay! Someone else who gets annoyed when people assume usability == user interface.)

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Presenting…InfoSlicer (educational software for Sugar)

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InfoSlicer two-colour icon

InfoSlicer is a small application that enables you to download articles from Wikipedia, drag-and-drop sections of them to create new articles, and then publish your collection of articles for others to install or view on their own laptops.InfoSlicer on an OLPC laptop

The ideal of InfoSlicer is to support teachers in schools where access to books is limited. They can use InfoSlicer to quickly obtain content from the internet (maybe at a cybercafe rather than at the school or at home) and to create customized versions of the information that are suitable for their pupils and can be viewed with needing access to the internet.

Since completing the initial prototype, however, it’s become apparent that InfoSlicer could actually be more useful to the pupils themselves than just as a means to receive information created by their teacher. The children themselves could use InfoSlicer to download articles and then learn how to re-organise information for a specific audience or purpose and how to attribute someone else’s content without plagiarising it; the outcome of creating the articles is then less educationally important than the process of doing it.

So if you have Sugar, download the first version of InfoSlicer and give it a go (or just find out more) from: http://sugarlabs.org/go/Activities/InfoSlicer

Update 13th April 2009:

On re-reading this article (which was intended to be just a short intro to publicise InfoSlicer), it sounds as if I wrote the software myself! I didn’t. It was the outcome of the brilliant efforts of the InfoSlicer Extreme Blue team during their internship at IBM Hursley last Summer. Here’s a photo of the team at their Expo stand in Germany:

Jessica Vernier, Matt Bailey, Chris Leonard, Jon Mace

Jessica Vernier, Matt Bailey, Chris Leonard, Jon Mace

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Learning British sign language (BSL)

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I’ve been meaning to post about learning British sign language (BSL) for months now. I wanted to post it in BSL as a video blog (vlog) but, having borrowed my friend Ben’s webcam months ago, I’ve still not got round to even seeing if I can get it working, let alone actually sign coherent content in front of it. Another friend, Gareth, has started blogging about his experiences of learning BSL and prompted me to just pull my finger out and write a post. Maybe at some point I’ll record a translation in BSL. Maybe… :)

So, I started learning BSL in September 2006 when IBM put on courses for employees at Hursley. We had two hours of teaching every Wednesday morning for 30 weeks, which culminated in being CACDP BSL Level 1 certified.

Jeff, our tutor, is Deaf and taught us using a combination of signing, speech, writing on whiteboards, slides, and humour. Different tutors using different communication methods – for instance, BSL tutors don’t have to be deaf themselves, and some use speech and some don’t. Jeff doesn’t really lip-read so we got lots of practice at signing when talking to him during tea-breaks.

During the course, Jeff taught us a bit about Deaf culture as well as the language. This built on the deaf awareness workshop that we had attended early on in the course. In the workshop, another man (also deaf but deafened later in life; he speaks, uses a hearing aid, and lip-reads) taught us about what it’s like to be deaf, how (as hearing people) to communicate with deaf people, what the Deaf (signing) culture is, and attitudes of deaf people to their deafness.

I really enjoyed the course. It was difficult at first to deal with learning something without being able to write it down (BSL notation is a skill all to itself!). So learning to rely less on written notes was useful too. Learning BSL has been really useful, in particular in talking to my friend Ben at work who is profoundly deaf (without speech) and whose first language is BSL. It’s also handy in meetings or in the noisy canteen to be able to sign to colleagues. :)

I think it’s really cool that we could learn BSL at work. Aside from the actual language, learning about the Deaf culture and deafness in general has given me a different perspective on things and broadened my understanding of other people. In terms of my day-job, I have a better understanding of the issues around Accessibility.

For instance, here’s one of them….

Did you know that if BSL is your first language (and, therefore, English your second), written transcripts are not necessarily sufficient for a Deaf person to understand an audio recording***? The concepts and grammar of BSL are so different from English that moving between the two can be very difficult. That’s why you get BSL interpreters signing on TV (eg BBC News 24) instead of just providing subtitles.

A lot (a *lot*) of people don’t know that.

Update (16th July 2008):

***This is not to say that written transcripts are a waste of time, nor that Deaf people can’t generally understand written English! Also, if you can provide written transcripts, they provide a means for other people to translate those transcripts to other languages. So projects like this one are really cool: https://launchpad.net/~transcribers. For a start, a written transcription might one day be able to be converted automatically into BSL…(My SiSi blog post)…

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SiSi (Say it, Sign it): signing avatars

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The other recent event that impelled me to start my internal blog was last week’s Extreme Blue European Expo at Hursley. Extreme Blue is a student internship program that IBM runs every summer. It lasts 12 weeks. The projects are proposed by IBMers but are implemented by students. The Expos are held in different locations each year, I think, but this year the European one was held in Hursley, UK.

I’d heard a bit about the Hursley-based SiSi project from a friend who was mentoring the team, so I moseyed on down to Hursley House and spent a good hour-and-a-half visiting the Expo stands and hearing about those and other projects from around IBM sites in Europe.

I’ve been learning British Sign Language (BSL) for about a year and, having learnt just the basics about how to communicate in BSL (that is, it’s not just hand signs or fingerspelling but also facial expressions, lip shapes, and the spatial location of the signs that matter), I couldn’t imagine how an avatar could convincingly sign – especially not translated in real time from speech, which is what the SiSi project aimed to do.

The SiSi team’s demo blew me away. They use a third-party piece of software to convert speech input to text. The text is then sent to the client machine (I think) where an avatar signs the text in BSL or American Sign Language (ASL), depending on the language you selected. I can’t remember any more of the technical details than that but the demo text they tried was translated to BSL at a reasonable speed, I thought (probably as fast as a human interpreter). The demo was on a local system but the students reckoned it did okay over remote systems.

The project was done with the University of East Anglia and the RNID (Royal National Institute for Deaf people) who supplied the database of signs (which I guess is probably a database of video clips and associated labels). I’m not sure who marked up the signs in Sign Language Markup Language (SLML), a form of XML, but I expect that’s the most intensive part of it.

The great thing for IBM and the Extreme Blue scheme is that, like last year’s LAMA project the SiSi project has attracted loads of press coverage, here and around the world.

SiSi aside, there were loads of other cool projects including (you can probably spot a theme in my interests here!) the Accessibility in Virtual Worlds project. For a change, the virtual world concerned was not Second Life but, instead, Active Worlds. Active Worlds enabled the project team to devise a way to mark up objects around the world using XML so that blind people can walk through the virtual worlds using sonar. The user wears headphones (or has speakers set up) and the nearer something is, I think, the louder the sound (or something like that).

I came away from the Expo with a handful of really professional-looking Moo cards and leaflets from the stands I had time to visit. I think the most amazing thing that occurred to me about the Expo was the amount and quality of work that the students were able to produce in just 12 weeks.

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