Category Archives: Thoughts

Thoughts, reflections, personal musings and more.

That Explains It All!

I have a friend in Hong Kong. We used to work together at the YMCA, where we both played roller hockey. Like me he grew up in Hong Kong, but where I went to international school, he attended a local school. There he studied mainly in Cantonese, but also learned English as a Second Language. I knew he had failed his English in Form 5, prior to leaving school.

When I met him, his English was very good, and by the time we stopped seeing each other regularly (around 3 years later), it was probably the best English I have ever heard from a native Cantonese speaker (as an aside, Mandarin speakers mostly seem to find English much easier than Cantonese speakers). He once even taught me some English slang that I was unfamiliar with, which really surprised me.

What I, and our mutual friends, could never understand was how, during this time, he managed to fail his Form 5 English resit examination. Who could possibly assert, with any authority, that this man could not speak English?

Learning about Cummins (1996) recently, it all clicked. My friend’s BICS English was superb, and we took this to mean proficiency. However, the examiners most likely looked at his CALP English, and determined it not to be sufficiently advanced. In short, he could not communicate what he knew in a way that was acceptable to the examiners.

This insight unravelled one of my life’s biggest mysteries (my life is obviously not that exciting). However, I still find it extremely unfair that this hero of ESL did not get to bask in the glory I still believe he deserved. If only my Cantonese was anywhere near as good as his English!


Having talked about this very same thing (in a more general context) in our psychology tutorial only 2 weeks ago, I thought it was serendipitous that I encounter this article discussing 4 stages in mastery:

  1. Unconscious incompetence
  2. Concious incompetence
  3. Concious competence
  4. Unconscious competence

Having experienced this progression myself a number of times, I find this concept to be extremely useful in setting expectations when first approaching a new domain.

Vygotsky and the ESF

The English Schools Foundation (ESF) is a Hong Kong-based international school system, featuring 17 schools and 3 kindergartens. I worked at the ESF for 3 years: 1 in a primary school, 1 in a secondary, and 1 at the Foundation Management Office.

Over my time at the ESF I picked up quite a lot of educationalist vocabulary from the teachers. Words like collaborative, co-construct and scaffold were absorbed into my brain and became part of the way I speak. It is only now, one week into Psychology for Teaching, that I have realised that these are all the words of Lev Vygotsky. I am left wondering at the connection here: have these words, in this context, come from the IBO, the English system, the Australian system, or somewhere beyond the ESF’s immediately obvious influences. Or is it simply that Vygotsky is just everywhere?

Helping The Needy Get Nerdy

Free Geek, “Helping The Needy Get Nerdy”, is a great organisation based in Portland, Oregon. The belief behind the organisation is very simple: many people discard IT equipment that they don’t want, that other people need.

The model applied at Free Geek is much the same as that of Crossroads International, which is a Hong Kong-based NGO that deals with all sorts of superseded goods by collecting, repairing and distributing them to other NGOs in need.

The genius behind this model is that it simultaneously meets real needs whilst dealing with some of the excess produced by our horribly wasteful and materialistic society.

In an interesting twist, Free Geek gives people the chance to earn their own free computer after 24 hours of service, which is a great way to reward volunteers.

They also use Open Source solutions on all machines, such as GNU/Linux, thus acting as a great “bottom-up” way of spreading free software love.

Check out their video on YouTube:

Home & Internet Security

The last decade has seen the Internet morph from a little-known academic and military communications network into a world-wide phenomenon. For many people around the world the Internet has become an indispensable tool, deeply integrated into everyday habits of life and work. The advent of home broadband Internet access has furthered this trend greatly.

However, having a worldwide communications network running into your home or office also has it’s disadvantages, the biggest of which is security. Very few Internet users realise how exposed the Internet”s open communications protocols leave them to people with malicious intent.

The aim of this article is to introduce you to 4 of the biggest threats on the Internet today, and to give you an idea of how to protect yourself.

Risks & Solutions

1. Exposed Ports
Network-enable computers maintain many open ports, which listen for and allow network connections with other computers. Open ports can be detected by malicious Internet users (and software) and used to attempt entry into a computer system.

Solution: Use a Firewall (such as Windows Internet Firewall or Norton Personal Firewall) to hide unused ports, reducing the risk that your computer will be discovered and attacked by online “port scanners”.

2. Viruses
Viruses come in many shapes and sizes, but can be generally defined as “software capable of reproducing itself and usually capable of causing harm to files or other programs on the same computer”.

Traditionally, viruses were unable to spread without human assistance (such as on a floppy disk), but the Internet has lead to a new generation of viruses, known as worms, which are self-propagating, and so can spread extremely swiftly.

Solution: Invest in Anti-Virus software (such as Norton Anti-Virus or Trend Micro PC-cillin) which can protect you from viruses as they emerge into the Internet. Ensure you keep your Virus Definitions files up-to-date.

3. Spyware/Greyware/Malware
Much of the “free” software available on the Internet has a hidden cost: it secretly tracks your computing actions and reports them back to a central computer. This ranges from the invasive (tracking websites you visit for marketing purposes) to the illegal (stealing credit card numbers from your keyboard as you type them in and then using those numbers to make purchases).

Other annoying features include pop-up ads, disabling of anti-virus software and reduced computer performance due to misappropriation of system resources.

Solution: Install an Anti-Spyware product (such as Spybot Search & Destroy or Lavasoft Adaware) and update it and run it regularly. Be careful of which Anti-Spyware products you install, as there are many examples of Spyware being disguised as Anti-Spyware. Spybot S&D and Adaware are tried and tested solutions.

4. Improper Internet Usage
In many cases Internet users expedite their own online demise through ignorance. If you are aware of the threats that are out there, then you can behave in ways that protect rather than expose you.

Solution: Exercise caution when using the Internet. Do not install software unless you know it is trustworthy. Be cautious when opening email attachments. Remember that email is about as secure as a postcard. Watch our for “cyber predators” when using chat and instant messaging software. Be wary of online scams.


In conclusion, it is safe to say that the Internet is like most good tools: it is great when used sensibly and with caution. Used in any other way it can prove to be dangerous and ultimately painful.

It is also worth noting that whilst securing your system is essential, it is impossible to achieve 100% protection. In order to cover yourself against the chance that things do go wrong, it is also important to make regular backups of your system and your data.

Useful Links

Norton Personal Firewall
Norton Anti-Virus
Trend Micro PC-cillin
Spybot Search & Destroy
Lavasoft Adaware

IT And The Environment

More and more, humanity is becoming aware of the potential for scientific progress, via industrial processes, to disturb the world’s natural balance.

Today, as never before, we are noticing the undesirable effects of an economic system which requires (obviously unsustainable) growth to function. These include, but are certainly not limited to climate change, destruction of natural environments and habitats, and ground, sea and air pollution.

Information Technology is no exception to the general rule: manufacturing, using and disposing of computers is unfortunately not good for the environment.

What Can You Do?

Iota is commited to helping it’s customers reduce their Information Technology-related impact on the environment. Acting by example, we run our own systems according to the following rules:

  • Use Less Power – Do not leave your PC on overnight, or for extended period of time when it is not being actively used. This not only saves energy, but will help prevent overheating and general wear and tear of components.
  • Push The Limits Of Obsolescence – It is simply not necessary to upgrade a PC every 2 years, despite what hardware and software vendors may want us to believe. Generally, 5-6 years is a more realistic life-span, unless your usage patterns change dramatically. We can help you extend the life of your PC: just ask.
  • Dispose Of E-Waste Properly – When a PC (or for that matter any item of electronics) is retired, it is common practice to dispose of it along with regular household or office trash. However, given the chance of reuse and recycling, and the harmful nature of the chemicals contained in some components, disposal should be a more carefully considered process. We recommend the two follwoing options (see right-hand column for Hong Kong-specific information):
  • Donate your computer to a charity, where it will be reused or recycled.
  • Use a government-supported PC disposal center.

With a little bit of thought, we can all do a little to help address environmental problems: in the long term, these issues will hopefully be tackled by structural changes within our economic, political and financial institutions.

Give It Away Now

Hong Kong-based non-government organisation Crossroads International, accepts well looked after computers and peripherals for re-conditioning and distribution to other charities around the world. If you don’t want your computer, someone else might.

Proper Disposal

The Hong Kong Government’s Environmental Protection Department now offers a PC Recovery Service, which will take computer equipment in any condition. Those parts which can be reused are: those that can’t are disposed of safely.

Free, Open Source Software

Free, open source software, where the human readable definition of the software (aka source code) is made freely available for inspection, modification and redistribution, is as old as software itself. When software was first conceived and developed, it was simply there to make hardware more useful. System developers believed that the money was in the hardware, so software was thrown in for free. The source code behind the software was also liberally shared. As software became more sophisticated and powerful, this perception changed to the point we are rapidly approaching where software is more expensive that the hardware it runs on. During this change, software became so important that the code behind it was no longer shared.

Somewhere during this transition a man named Richard Stallman realised the philosophical problems with keeping the source secret. These mainly centred around reduction of freedom and choice as well as the stifling of innovation. In the mid 1980’s Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to supporting and building free software. So whilst the idea of free software was not new, the process of defining and re-introducing it (performed by the FSF’s General Public Licence or GPL), as well as building many great free tools was arduos work. Stallman’s heroic programming efforts eventually crippled his fingers: the result of too many keystrokes in too short a time.

Stallman focused his advocacy work almost exclusively on the moral imperative behind free software. This approach, despite leading to the development of most of the software that runs the Internet, unfortunately met with little general uptake of free software. To address this, at a meeting in 1998, a group of open-source hackers decided to drop the free software tag, and start using Open Source instead. The idea was to push the economic and technical benefits of free software in order to drive wider adoption.

Whilst having the unfortunate side-effect of side-lining the movement’s founder, Stallman, this move proved wildly successfull, and has seen Open Source software start to be adopted by company’s and individuals around the world. Many now use the term Free, Open Source Sofware (FOSS) to reflect both sides of the issue, and give credit where credit is due.

The Practicalities

Development of FOSS is generally coordinated by a non-profit organisation, which coordinates the work of volunteer coders working alone or in teams. Many corporations now make contributions of time, hardware and financial support to FOSS projects.

Anyone is free to take an item of Open Source software and use, distribute or amend it. You can even use parts of it in a completely different piece of software. The only condition is that the modifier/distributor makes it available under the same license as the original contributor. This ensures that the system stays open, for the benefit of all (this is the genius behind Richard Stallman’s General Public Licence (GPL), which is one of the main legal tools protecting free software).

The resulting software is free, and most often beautfully crafted, stable and highly useable.

What better alternative to the expensive, inflexible, and often bug-ridden proprietary software that most people use and complain about today?

Does It Work?

Here at Iota we make extensive use of Open Source software, both at the desktop level, and the server level

At the server level, there is simply no comparing a good Open Source solution, such as the LAMP application stack (Linux/Appache/mySQL/PHP), with proprietary systems. They are free, relaible, secure and developers love to use them.

In terms of desktops, the same holds true as with servers, but the learning curve is still too steep for many users. Linux (the premium Open Source desktop OS) is awesome, but it is still a few years away from being useable for novices. But that day will come!

Ask The French

The French have a great saying regarding Linux, that translates roughly to:

“Linux? You can get a less powerful system, but it will cost you more.”

Want To Try?

The links below point to some of our favorite Open Source solutions.