academic

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Thinking about how human-machine interaction is categorized

Submitted by gwolf on Mon, 08/23/2010 - 20:54

During DebConf, I managed to squeeze out of the middle of everything for long enough to write a column, a short article for a participation I have every three months, for Mexican Software Gurú magazine. All in all, I liked the resulting text — The current number's main topic is alternative user interfaces.

I find it sometimes hard to define what Software Gurú's audience is — Probably, project leaders in software development; not the actual developers, but people who actually understand about coding... but care more about The Big Picture, Processes, Architecture Engineering and Buzzword Compliance. It is an interesting magazine, all in all, but with a focus and viewpoint I often feel myself not precisely comfortable with.

So, if this trimester's topic was alternative user interfaces, I decided to write on the history and future of the man-machine interface (Spanish only) (version in the magazine's site). My viewpoint comes from the fact that I do not believe we are in a state of so great, innovative changes that everybody is trumpeting, and I'd rather get others to really think on whether user interfaces have gone different in the last decades. Yes, there are many changes, but in form rather than essence.

Anyway, I shared this text with some friends. Some days later, when I was back in Mexico, Pooka/Alejandro Miranda lent me a very interesting book: Hacer clic: Hacia Una Sociosemiotica De Las Interacciones Digitales (Do click: Towards a Socio-semiotics of Digital Interaction (Cibercultura)), by Carlos Scolari. I am not yet even halfway through it, but I am enjoying it — This book speaks, so far, about the meanings of interfaces, and of the history of interfaces themselves, even forgetting that nowadays we (mostly) refer to interfaces as what we have between the man and the machine.

Hacer click (book cover)

Sadly, I cannot find this book in English, as it is very well worth a read. But if the topic sounds interesting and you can understand the language, don't hesitate and pick up the book. It gives an interesting insight on the topic, for a group of people (us techies) used to looking at things in a much more human-cognitive-process-oriented way.

[update] I found this nice overview of the "Hacer clic" book, written as a presentation for the book. It explains precisely the part I am currently reading - The four metafora for interaction: Conversational, instrumental, superficial and spatial.

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We have released!

Submitted by gwolf on Mon, 08/02/2010 - 14:25

If you have seen me anywhere near my computer at DebConf, you probably have seen the face of a hurried, worried developer. Still, if you monitor my Debian-related activity, you will notice it is still quite low, even given my (much needed and very much enjoyed) vacations pre-DebConf. Yes, orga-team work is very time consuming, even if my role is far from central this year. And yes, DebCamp+DebConf are known for sucking time into social interaction, which is great but not so (formally) productive. And yes, I even took 1.5 days off to visit my family and a friend who live in the area...

Still, I managed to release! \☺/

Release what?

I have been working with Pooka for the last ~2 years on the Seminary on Collaborative Knowledge Construction. We assembled a group of ~10 speakers/authors, each of whom prepared a chapter for a book meant for publication. Pooka and me coordinated the work, which took a long time because it was also an interaction experiment (and because we both did it only in our free time).

After the coordination work started fading, I took up the task of coming up with a way to translate it all into LaTeX (and fix a host of conversion bugs, and play with the available packages, and... Hey, I'm after all just a LaTeX newbie, and had to learn to tame the beast!), I stumbled upon that precious fact that makes so many projects release.

I stumbled upon a deadline.

We want to publish the book under the seal of IIEc-UNAM. Besides my workplace, it is a very well regarded university, and having its seal in our work is definitively a big plus. And the Publications Committee of my Institute is meeting this week - So I had to send our final manuscript by today.

Having a deadline overlapping with DebConf sucks. But somehow, I managed to do the needed work to my complete satisfaction. The work is now in the Committee's hands, and I expect to have more news soon(ish).

Oh, and where can you get our work? Well, if you register in our site, you will be able to read the whole contents. And once the book is approved and published, the whole work will be published online under a free (CC-BY-SA) license.

BTW, that probably means I will have more time to fix my Debian bugs and pending stuff! \☻/

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Plead for help: Transcriptors for videoconferences (Spanish)

Submitted by gwolf on Tue, 03/23/2010 - 17:53

Help! Help! Help wanted! Please help!

Dear world,

As many among you know, I have spent a good portion of the last year (together, of course, with a great and interesting group of people) working on Seminario de Construcción Colaborativa del Conocimiento (Collaborative Construction of Knowledge Seminar, or SECO3), derived from the Encuentro en Línea de Educación y Software Libre (On-line Encounter of Education and Free Software, EDUSOL). We have been working on producing a book that illustrates several different aspects of knowledge-building communities – Among them, of course, the Free Software movement.

Now, we need some help: Although we do have the chapters from most of the authors, some did not manage to produce them. And we are very interested in having them as part of the book as well, even if only as an appendix (as, of course, the kind of work of a transcription is completely different than the ellaboration for a well-rounded and written chapter).

As the little academic I am, I have to request for your help: I have no students assigned to me. But I would love to have interested people on board.

We need to transcribe two of the videoconferences that were given as part of the seminar. Please, if you are interested, contact me so we can arrange (and have no work duplication!)

Thanks a lot,

Authoral rights in the editorial world seminar

Submitted by gwolf on Sun, 03/07/2010 - 17:58

I must confess I don't remember who I got this invitation from. Anyway, if you are in the right geographic area, you might be interested. I will try to participate:

This is a year-long seminar that will be held the second Thursday every month at Fonoteca Nacional (a place I have wanted to visit for a long time!), in Barrio de Santa Catarina, Coyoacán. Among the organizers they have Creative Commons Mexico.

Free entrance (but limited space - so they ask interested people to confirm their presence by mail to bvallarta@conaculta.gob.mx).

[update] I went with Pooka to the first session. We arrived almost 1hr late (due to me mistaking the schedule :-/ ) but it was interesting. Of course, quite biased towards the Google viewpoints, but interesting. We got the program for the next sessions — So, mostly for myself to keep handy, here it goes:

Date Title Speakers
2010-03-11 Google and copyright Manuel Tamez, Hugo Contreras, María Fernanda Mendoza
2010-04-08 Generalities about rights on intelectual property Jesús Parets, Guillermo Solórzano, Jorge Mier y Concha
2010-05-13 Copyright's nature and competent authorites Carmen Arteaga, Luis Schmidt, César Callejas
2010-06-10 Moral and patrimonial rights Guillermo Pous, Eduardo de la Parra, Ramón Obón
2010-07-08 Reproduction rights for audible material Álvaro Hegewisch, Óscar Javier Solorio, Marco Antonio Morales, José Ramón Cárdeno
2010-08-12 Licenses and patrimonial right transmission. Works for hire, works done under laboral relationship, or carried out in official service Dolores Franco, Jesús Mejía, Raúl Pastor
2010-09-09 Limits to explotation rights and literary plagiarism Carmen Arteaga, Juan Ramón Obón, Jorge Mier y Concha, César Callejas
2010-10-14 Copyright in a digital setting Jesús Parets, Gastón Esquivel
2010-11-11 Law-regulated intelectual property rights Rosalba Elizalde, Salvador Ortega, Gastón Esquivel, Manrique Moheno
2010-12-09 International protection and collective gestive societies Horacio Rangel, Luis Schmidt, Jesús Mejía
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Computer education parallelisms

Submitted by gwolf on Thu, 02/18/2010 - 20:09

I opened Slashdot's «Looking back from the 1980s at computers in education» article because I am quite convinced of the point some of the commenters argued before me, (and it's good to know others think as you do ;-) ) — When I got close to computers, learning computing for children basically meant learning programming in a fun way.

For years, my hobbies included Logo and BASIC. At age 7 (by 1983), typing TeX and using Emacs at the computer of the institute where my father worked, I started walking the path I took for my professional life. When I taught computing to high school students as my first paid job (which didn't last long, only a semester, as for an untrained 20 year old it is very hard to control a group of kids nearly his age), I tried to teach some basic BASIC programming (which was the best I knew then)... But no, both students and the school wanted me to focus on teaching MS Office applications. It seemed stupid for me 14 years ago, and it still seems stupid for me today.

Anyway, on Slashdot, I came across this beautiful way to explain what computer education should mean:

"computing is no longer taught in schools (parents look quizzical), they are simply 'trained' (parents look like they vaguely get it). if this was sex instead of computing that was taught in schools, would you prefer that your kids have sex _education_ or sex _training_? (parents finally get it)".

By the way, if you are interested in reading a bit of paleofuturism, to feel the joy and excitement with which computer-aided education was seen 30 years ago, be sure to get the Classroom Computer News issue for September-October 1980, linked from the Slashdot article (and copied over here for your convenience, of course!)

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Packaging PKP OJS (Open Journals System)

Submitted by gwolf on Wed, 01/27/2010 - 15:23

New guidelines for periodic publications' websites at my University favor the different journals we have to use a standardized system — And it makes quite a bit of sense. It is quite hard to explain to the people I work with that the content is not only meant to be consumed by humans, but also by other systems; the reasons behind rich content tagging and deep hierarchies for what they would just see as a list of words (think list of authors for an article, list of keywords, and so on). After all, aggregator databases such as Latindex and SciELO have achieved getting this understanding through.

And I must be quite grateful, as the University's guidelines point to what appears to be a very well-thought and thorough system, the Open Journal Systems by the Public Knowledge Project, co-funded by several well-regarded universities. OJS is a GPL-2-covered PHP bundle.

Anyway… I am very glad at least one of my Institute's journal accepted the challenge and decided to go OJS. I know I will quite probably be administering this system long-term. And, being as snobbish as I am, I know I loathe anything installed in my machines that is not either developed by myself or comes in a Debian package. So, as it was not packaged, I made the package ☺

Note that I am still not filing an ITP (which means, I have not yet decided whether I will upload this to Debian) because I want first to make sure I do have the needed long-term commitment — Besides, I am by far not a PHP person, and being responsible for a package… Carries a nontrivial weight. Still, you might be interested in getting it. If you are interested, you can either download the .deb package or add it to your apt repositories (and stay updated with any new releases), by adding this to your /etc/apt/sources.list:

deb http://www.iiec.unam.mx/apt/ lenny misc
deb-src http://www.iiec.unam.mx/apt/ lenny misc

Note: My packaging has still a small bug: The installer fails to create the PostgreSQL database. The MySQL database works fine. I will look into it soon

So far, I am quite impressed with this program's functionality and the depth/quality of its (online) documentation. Besides, its usage statistics speak for themselves:

So, it is quite possible I will be uploading this into Debian in a couple of weeks (hopefully in time to be considered for Squeeze). The reasons I am making it available in my personal repository now is:

  • I want to make it available for other Debian- and Ubuntu- users in my University, as I am sure several people will be installing it soon. And after apt-getting it, it is just ready to be used right away.
  • As I said, I am no PHP guy. So if you want to criticize my packaging (and even my minor patch, fixing a silly detail that comes from upstream's bundling of several PHP and Javascript libraries, and those libraries' authors not sticking to a published API in a well-distributed version), please go ahead!
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EDUSOL almost over - Some highlights

Submitted by gwolf on Thu, 11/19/2009 - 22:16

Whew!

Is it karma or what? What makes me get involved in two horribly complex, two-week-long conferences, year after year? Of course, both (DebConf and EDUSOL) are great fun to be part of, and both have greatly influenced both my skills and interests.

Anyway, this is the fifth year we hold EDUSOL. Tomorrow we will bring the two weeks of activities to an end, hold the last two videoconferences, and —finally— declare it a done deal. I must anticipate the facts and call it a success, as it clearly will be recognized as such.

One of the most visible —although we insist, not the core— activities of the Encounter are the videoconferences. They are certainly among the most complex. And the videoconferences' value is greatly enhanced because, even if they are naturally a synchronous activity (it takes place at a given point in time), they live on after they are held: I do my best effort to publish them as soon as possible (less than one day off), and they are posted to their node, from where comments can continue. This was the reason, i.e., why we decided to move at the last minute tomorrow's conference: Due to a misunderstanding, Beatriz Busaniche (a good friend of ours and a very reknown Argentinian Free Software promotor, from Via Libre) thought her talk would be held today, and we had programmed her for tomorrow. No worries - We held it today, and it is already online for whoever wants to take part :-)

So, I don't want to hold this any longer (I will link to the two conferences that I'm still missing from this same entry). Here is the list of (and links to) videoconferences we have held.

Tuesday 2009-11-17
Wednesday 2009-11-18
Thursday 2009-11-19
Friday 2009-11-20

As two last notes:

Regarding the IRC interaction photos I recently talked about, we did a very kewl thing: Take over 2000 consecutive photos and put them together on a stack. Flip them one at a time. What do you get? But of course — A very fun to view and interesting interaction video! We have to hand-update it and it is a bit old right now, but nevertheless, it is very interesting as it is.

Finally... I must publicly say I can be quite an asshole. And yes, I know I talked this over privately with the affected people and they hold no grudge against me... But still - yesterday we had an IRC talk about NING Latin American Moodlers, by Lucía Osuna (Venezuela) and Maryel Mendiola (Mexico). One of the points they raised was they were working towards (and promoting) a Moodle certification. And... Yes, I recognize I cannot hear the mention of the certification word without jumping and saying certifications are overrated. Well, but being tired, and not being really thoughtful... I should have known where to stop, where it was enough of a point made. I ended up making Maryel and Lucía feel attacked during their own presentation, and that should have never happened. A public and heartfelt apology to them :-(

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Among the reasons that brought me to Debian...

Submitted by gwolf on Mon, 10/19/2009 - 23:42

Every now and then, people ask me why Debian? Why, among so many projects to choose from, I first liked, then got into, and finally I got committed into Debian, and not anything else?

Of course, one of the main points —back in 2000-2001 when I started using it, and still to this very day— is a strong identification with the ideological side. Yes, I am a strong Free Software believer, and Debian is what best suites my ideology.

Still, I did not only get into Debian because of this — And I was reminded about this by an article in this month's Usenix ;login: magazine: An anecdotal piece by Thomas A. Limoncelli titled Hey! I have to install and maintain this crap too, ya know! (article requires ;login: subscription, but I'll be glad to share it with whoever requests it to me — I have of course no permission to openly put it here in whole online. Yes, I am expressly sending a copy of this text to the author, I will update this if/when I hear from him) [update] The author has kindly allowed me to redistribute his article's PDF — Download it here.

Before anything else… I'll go on a short digression: I am writing a bit regarding the Free Software participants' culture, and this is a trait I love about it: The lack of formality. Even though ;login: (and Usenix as a whole) is not exactly Free Software, it runs quite close to it), it is a well regarded magazine (and association) with an academic format and good (not deep or highly theoretical, but good) contents. Still, it is quite usual to see titles as informal and inviting as this one. And it happens not only here — I have been fearing having to explain at work, over and over, why I have requesting permissions to go to Yet Another Perl Conference, Festival de Software Libre or DebCamp, tagging them as academic settings. Or why I am wasting our library's resources on buying cookbooks, recipes and similar material on the most strange-sounding subjects.

Anyway, back on track… This article I found refers to the lack of value given to the system administrator's time when selling or purchasing (or more in general, as it happens also in Free Software, when offering or adopting) a product. Quoting Thomas:

A person purchasing a product is focused on the features and benefits and the salesperson is focused on closing the deal. If the topic of installation does come up, a user thinks, “Who cares! My sysadmin will install it for me!” as if such services are free. Ironically, it is the same non-technical executive who dismisses installation and upkeep as if they are “free” who might complain that IT costs are too high and go on a quest to kill IT spending. But I digress.

I can understand why a product might be difficult to install. It is hard enough to write software, and with the shortage of software developers it seems perfectly reasonable that the installation script becomes an afterthought, possibly given to a low-ranking developer. The person purchasing the product usually requires certain features, and ease of installation is not a consideration during the procurement process. However, my ability to install a product affects my willingness to purchase more of the product.

Thomas goes on to explain his experience with Silicon Graphics, how Irix was so great regarding install automation and how they blew it when switching to Windows NT; talks very briefly about IBM AIX's smit, a very nifty sysadmin aid which is basically a point-and-click interface to system administration with the very nice extra that allows you to view the commands smit executes to perform a given action (and then you can copy into a script and send over to your hundreds of AIX machines)… Incidentally, by the time I started digging out of what became the RedHat mess of the late 1990s and passed briefly through OpenBSD on my way to Debian enlightenment, I was temporarily the sysadmin for an AIX machine — And I too loved this Smit approach, having it as the ultimate pedagogical tool you could ever find.

Anyway, I won't comment and paraphrase the full article. I'll just point out to the fact that… this was what ultimately sold me into Debian. The fact that I could just install anything and (by far) most of the times it will be configured and ready to use. Debian made my life so much easier! As a sysadmin, I didn't have to download, browse documentation, scratch head, redo from start until I got a package working — Just apt-get into it, and I'd be set. Of course, one of the bits I learnt back then was that Debian was for lazy people — Everything works in a certain way. Policy is enforced throughout.

So as a sysadmin, I should better get well acquinted with the Debian policy and know it by heart. In order to be able to enjoy my laziness, I should read it and study it. And so I did, and fell in love. And that is where my journey into becoming a Debian Developer started.

Why am I talking so nostalgic here? Because I got this magazine on the mail just last weekend… And coincidentally, I also got bug report #551258 — I packaged and uploaded the Haml Ruby library (Gem, as the Rubyists would call it). Haml is a great, succint markup language which makes HTML generation less of a mess. It is even fun and amazing to write Haml, and the result is always nicely formatted, valid HTML! And well, one of Haml's components is haml-elisp, the Emacs Lisp major mode to do proper syntax highlighting in Haml files.

Of course, I am an Emacs guy (and have been for over 25 years), so I had to package it. But I don't do Emacs Lisp! So I just stuffed the file in its (supposed) place, copying some stuff over from other Emacs packages. During DebConf, I got the very valuable help of Axel Beckert to fix a simple bug which prevented my package from properly being installed, and thought I was basically done with it. I was happy just to add this to my ~/.emacs and get over with it:

  1. (require 'haml-mode)
  2. (add-to-list 'auto-mode-alist '("\\.haml$" . haml-mode))
  3. (require 'sass-mode)
  4. (add-to-list 'auto-mode-alist '("\\.sass$" . sass-mode))

However… As Mike Castleman points out: This requires manual intervention. So it is not the Debian Way!

Reading Mike's bug report, and reading Thomas' article, made me realize I was dilluting something I held so dearly as to commit myself to the best Free Software-based distribution out there. And the solution, of course, was very simple: Debian allows us to be very lazy, not only as sysadmins, but as Debian packagers. Just drop this (simplified version) as $pkgroot/debian/haml-elisp.emacsen.startup and you are set!

  1. (let ((package-dir (concat "/usr/share/"
  2. (symbol-name flavor)
  3. "/site-lisp/haml-elisp")))
  4. ;; If package-dir does not exist, the haml-mode package must have
  5. ;; removed but not purged, and we should skip the setup.
  6. (when (file-directory-p package-dir)
  7. ;; Use debian-pkg-add-load-path-item per §9 of debian emacs subpolicy
  8. (debian-pkg-add-load-path-item package-dir )
  9. (autoload 'haml-mode "haml-mode"
  10. "Major mode for editing haml-mode files." t)
  11. (add-to-list 'auto-mode-alist '("\\.haml\\'" . haml-mode))
  12. ;; The same package provides HAML and SASS modes in the same
  13. ;; directory - So repeat only the last two instructions for sass
  14. (autoload 'sass-mode "sass-mode"
  15. "Major mode for editing sass-mode files." t)
  16. (add-to-list 'auto-mode-alist '("\\.sass\\'" . sass-mode))
  17. ))

This will make the package just work as soon as it is installed, with no manual intervention required from the user. And it does not, contrary to what I feared, bloat up Emacs — Adding it to the auto-mode-alist leaves it as known to Emacs, but is not loaded or compiled unless it is required.

Deepest thanks to both of you! (and of course, thanks also to Manoj, for pointing out at the right spells in emacs-land)

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Getting closer to the fifth EDUSOL Encounter

Submitted by gwolf on Thu, 10/15/2009 - 23:54

This is the fifth year we hold an EDUSOL, and we are closing in on it. EDUSOL is an online encounter whose topics are Education and Free Software — Actually, this year we are widening our scope, and we will include Free Culture as well as a base area.

Now, besides those three general areas, each year we have had a base topic around which we invite the speakers to talk about (although it is a lax requirement). This year, the base topic is social networks — No, not in the Twitter/Facebook/blah sense, but as a wider phenomenon, studying interaction between people, the forming of communities. And for our particular areas, the forming of knowledge-based communities.

Anyway – I agreed with the organizers to provide the English translation of the participation invitation. I will skip the call for papers, as we are basically at the proposal deadline (October 17), but if you have anything you want to propose, please tell us so!

Leaving that aside... Please excuse the quality of my translation, it is late and I'm tired. We will work on it :)

Videoconference reception

EDUSOL spans several participation categories. The closest category to a traditional, face to face conference. Each year, we invite a group of speakers to talk about a topic related to our main discoursive line.

Among the speakers that have confirmed so far, we have:

  • Sofía Liberman Shklonikoff, Mexico. Social networks.
  • Dolors Reig. Barcelona, Spain. Open social education.
  • Marko Txopitea. Bilbao, Spain. Politics 2.0
  • Carolina Flores. Costa Rica. Building methodologies for infoinclusion
  • Luis Rodrigo Gallardo Cruz. United States. OpenSocial.
  • Margarita Manterola. Argentina. Debian-Women

We invite you to be active participants in the videoconference cycle. You can invite your social or user group to be part of the Encounter. There are three ways to do it:

  1. Using the videoconference facilities in your University network
  2. Connecting from a personal computer with broadband access, by using Ekiga or any other H.323 client
  3. Following the .ogg stream and participating back via IRC

In any case (specially in the first two, which require more coordination), please contact us. For further information, visit http://edusol.info/es/e2009/convocatorias/videoconfrencias

November 6: Free Education and Free Culture day

We invite social and user groups to host talks regarding Free Education and Free Culture. This is not a call to promote Free Software, as there are many other spaces devoted to it.

We should start with the idea that freedom resides in us, not in the software. Some of the topics our community recommends are:

  • Common goods
  • Free culture: Success stories
  • Be legal: Sharing digital media
  • Free culture at school
  • Collaboration and collectivity
  • Freeing your computer

Further details at http://edusol.info/es/e2009/convocatorias/dialternativo

We need some help in this area to generate contents with slides, making it easier for proposed scripts for the talks. If you want to collaborate, please write to our academic support list, http://lists.edusol.info/listinfo.cgi/soporte-academico-edusol.info

Want to collaborate? Further questions or comments?

We are holding on-line meetings for this group of topics on Thursday 22:00 GMT-5, in the #edusol channel in OFTC (irc.debian.org); you can enter the IRC channel using the Web client at http://irc.bine.org.mx or http://edusol.info/irc

About EDUSOL

EDUSOL started as a proposal seeking to provide a space so that people interested in education could discuss and analize the good and bad points about Free Culture and Free Software, with no geographic restrictions. Year after year, freedom-loving educators of all Latin America and Spain gather for our annual party.

EDUSOL's core language is Spanish, although participation in English is allowed and encouraged (although understanding Spanish will be a strong aid).

We invite you to participate and contribute in this collective effort using and commenting on our blogs, or adding your personal blog to our planet: http://edusol.info/es/node/add/blog
http://edusol.info/es/node/add/feedapi-node

You can follow us by identi.ca or RSS: http://identi.ca/group/edusol
http://edusol.info/rss.xml

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E-voting and paper-based-voting - UNAM teaches us how to achieve the worst of all worlds

Submitted by gwolf on Mon, 03/30/2009 - 22:06

As my Institute's sysadmin, I was appointed as the responsible for my Institute's certificate handling for today's voting session for the Universitary Council (Consejo Universitario).

UNAM, Mexico's largest University, is moving towards an e-voting platform. I talked about this with our (sole) candidate for the Council, and she told me this has been used a couple of times already - And, as expected, it has led to having to repeat voting sessions, due in part to e-voting's inherent lackings: It is impossible to act on any kind of impugnation. The only thing we have is an electronic vote trail, no way to recount or to make sure that all votes got in. Besides, we had a perfectly antinatural and inadequate identification system, which means voter's identity have no way to be trusted.

Besides, we still have all the traditional Universitary bureaucratic paper flow, which completely obscures any positive points this e-voting system might have had.

Before going any further, if you are interested: There is a so-called security audit certificate for this system. In Spanish, yes. Take a look at it if you understand the language and want to crack some laughs.

I will not make a detailed review of (what I could gather about) the setup. But to make things short: I had to go to the central administrative offices to get a CD-ROM with the monitoring station's SSL certificate. This certificate is tied to an IP address, so only one computer was able to be set up as a monitoring station. So far, so good.

But, what is the monitoring station's real role? You will probably laugh. The voting session (at my Institute - Each dependency can specify its own opening and closing times) was from 10:00 and until 18:00. We were instructed to place this computer at a public location, from where:

  • Shortly before 10:00, we had to check the booth's status was set to closed and that zero votes were received.
  • During the votation period, the computer would continuously display the number of received votes, refreshing the page twice a minute1
  • During the day, anybody could go to the computer and check the number of total votes received. Its main function is, I think, to show that no votes are substracted precisely when a person is staring at it.
  • Shortly before 18:00, we had to check the booth's status was still set to open, and wait until 18:00 to witness the booth is now closed.
  • Get the needed data from the system and hand it over to the proper bodies. I'll get back to this point later on.

So, what is strange here? That there is a tremendous apparatus providing supposed security to... Information that is completely worthless. Just protecting a number that is, for all purposes, public. Oh, and the opening and closing of the booth - Of course, the system could have flaws during the process, or inject spurious votes along the way, or flip-flop the votes cast whichever way. But, did I mention votes? So far I have not mentioned how people are supposed to vote.

Together with our last paycheck, we got a piece of paper with all of the needed information: A randomly generated, 10-character-long-with-mixed-case-and-symbols password, and the link to a web page2. This paper was folded, yes, but it was in no way secured - So, whoever wanted to have all of our passwords could just go through the bunch of papers and get them.

Now, contrasting to the strong perception of physical security surrounding the oh-so-important monitoring stations, how can a person vote? Oh, sure, just fire up your favorite browser and go to https://www.jornadaelectoral.unam.mx/, produce your student number if you are a student or your full RFC3, select via checkboxes4, click on "submit", and voilà, you have voted. From any location, from any machine.

Yes, the University's population is largely itinerant, many people will be voting from abroad and all. It is good to give them a voice. But... At what price? Lets see... The security audit mentions the system is free from any malicious routine that can automatically alter the results and it has the minimum needed validations against spurious data injections from the most common Web browsers. However, if I am interested in modifying the results... I could put a trojan in a Faculty's laboratories, which modifies the votes sent by their users (students vote as well). Yes, I'd have to know how the system works, but lets accept security through obscurity does not work, and that this is a well-known system (as it has been used for over 3 years and is at version 3.5). PHP-based, for further points. Oh, and (if I recall correctly) a voter does not even get feedback as for which formula did he vote for, so no way of knowing if the computer really sent the information I requested. And given the low security for the password handling, I would not bet on it being worth much. Besides, this system was partly established to allow people voting from abroad - as long as they picked up their March 10 paycheck. That excludes anybody who has spent over three weeks away!

Many other things can be said. Last detail: e-voting's main selling point is that the results are known instantaneously, and (if no paper trail exists) no tedious re-counting is ever done, right?

Meet universitary bureaucracy. Technology changes, but processes don't. The Local Electoral Surveillance Commission has the responsability to enter once again the system after the vote has finished, and ask the server for the preliminary results. This consists of a tarball with the tally sheet (from the voters, who voted and who didn't), the total votes for each formula, and... one more file I don't remember. They also have to generate the signed legal documents where they testify to the received information. And then, ahem, they have to burn those files5 onto a CD-ROM, print them, and physically take them to the central administrative offices. Yes, take something from the server and get it to the server. For us it is not terrible (1.5Km can be readily done), but this same procedure must be done by people in other cities where there are University campii holding elections. How Nice!

Anyway... Worst of both worlds. The inefficacies of a paper-based ellection, together with the unaccountability of an e-voting ellection, sprinkled with fake sense of security here and there.

Bah.

  • 1. Except that it didn't. I guess they didn't stress-test the server, so every couple of minutes it returned a connection error. Of course, the page would no longer self-update. And after noticing that, I (and nobody else but me) had to go and give the password and certificate for the system to continue to operate.
  • 2. which is http://www.dgae-siae.unam.mx/ - The Schooling Administration General Direction (DGAE), an universitary body which has no relation with electoral issues. DGAE made available a poster detailing how to vote... But, again, lets ignore that fact for now
  • 3. A nationwide ID number, largely derived from name and birth date data - Both numbers are often widely known, they cannot be considered private in any way.
  • 4. Oh, for goodness sake... The "ballot" has 1..n options, and each has a checkbox, not a radio button. That means, you can select multiple options, which is of course invalid. Why? Because the electoral rules indicate that selecting more than one option in a ballot makes the ballot invalid, and thus, a way for making it invalid must be provided. Isn't logic beautiful?!
  • 5. Want some more insight on what needs to be done? Take a look at the instructions. Don't forget paying attention to the lexicon used - We are still asked to count the votes, an impossible feat given the vote is 100% system-based - Quote: Los miembros de la CLVE realizarán, con base en el reporte del sistema, el cómputo de los votos depositados en la urna a favor de cada una de las fórmulas, declarando nulos los votos que procedan.
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EDUSOL 2009 Seminar - How to participate?

Submitted by gwolf on Tue, 02/24/2009 - 20:26

My attention was just drawn (thanks, Txopi!), slightly less than two days before the kick-off date, that although we have advertised quite thoroughly how to participate in this Thursday's EDUSOL Seminar session (didn't you read about it already?) via the formal videoconferencing channels (wow, we have 14 videoconferencing rooms signed up, w00t!), we have not yet announced how to participate by following the Ogg stream and the IRC channel. So, please:

Ogg stream
Connect to http://seminario.edusol.info:18000/edusol.ogg.m3u. What to connect with? If you are a Linux user, just about any media player will do. If you are not, download the great VLC - VLC for Windows, VLC for MacOS X.
IRC chat

Of course, you might be interested not only on listening to our talk but in participating as well, right? Take your favorite IRC client and enter the #edusol channel in irc.oftc.net. (I won't go into further details on this post on what is or how to enter IRC - But I will explain a bit more in the EDUSOL website, in Spanish, if you need it).

...We are very hurried and excited about this all. Hope to see you there, and during our work sessions for the many following months!

Inviting: First VC for the EDUSOL 2009 Seminar - Thursday, Feb 26

Submitted by gwolf on Tue, 02/17/2009 - 17:38

It's time to drive some buzz this way ;-) Although this post will only be a pointer towards the Spanish post I made on Planeta EDUSOL, for reasons soon to become obvious. In any case, the information I'm posting here is not exactly the same. Can you read Spanish? Please go on to the invitation for the first videoconference for the EDUSOL Seminar.

This year, we the organizers of the On-line Encounter of Education and Free Software (EDUSOL) are aiming higher - we are not "just" having a two-week encounter at the end of the year - We are having an all-year-long Seminar, focusing on the collaborative construction of knowledge. People from quite distinct backgrounds will be part of this project, and we aim to drive it towards the publication of a book.

We (mainly, Alejandro Miranda and me) have been quite busy bootstrapping this seminar, getting the proposed authors, thinking over the intended communication channels and ways, and setting up the needed infrastructure) and are ready to start the public-facing activities.

We will be having monthly videoconferencing sessions, the last Thursday each month, 16:00-18:00 Mexico Central time (currently GMT-6; GMT-5 after the beginning of April). The VC sessions will be also relayed through Ogg streams, and we will have an IRC channel available to offer full interactivity for those who do not have access to a H.323 VC setup.

This first session will be moderated by Victor Manuel Martínez; the speakers will be Alejandro Miranda and myself - The topics we will present are:

  • Short project presentation, delineating the list of invited authors and tematic lines we will pursue
  • Description of the collaboration scheme we expect to hold, including how everybody (not just invited authors) can participate
  • Presentation of one of the topics we will work into in the Seminar: Free Software and the Democratic Construction of the Society

If you have access to videoconferencing facilities, please get in touch with Carlos Cruz, the Videoconferences Coordinator at the Economic Research Institute, as soon as possible for all the needed coordination.

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