Saturday, July 22, 2006

Archiving Pebble blogs at ramble.oucs

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time. 

RAMBLE was a small JISC-funded project that linked mobile blogs with online learning environments. To practise what we preached, we maintained a project blog with many of the entries written offline and then posted from a handheld device.

We hosted our own blog server called Pebble, feature-rich multi-user multi-contributor blog by Simon Brown, written as a Web application in Java and released under an open source license .  Those who have deployed it are invariably impressed (saying typically, "Pebble rocks!") and it keeps getting better; it was well suited for the project because it supported the private blogs that were need for personal student reflections in addition to public blogs.

When colleagues in the department heard about Pebble, they also wanted a blog.  So we let them hop on board and blog away, even the Director, but we could offer no guarantees of service reliability.  This was - as so often is the case - a service run largely on good will and very little else!  A year or so later, with blog spam escalating at an alarming rate, we were obliged to call it a day, at least until some more resources come along.

But what about the blogs themselves?  The Pebble Web app underlying the RAMBLE blogs was taken offline at short notice and all the blogs vanished immediately together with comments etc.   Although a properly resourced service will not be abruptly terminated, this is a general issue to consider if you are providing hosting arrangements at your institution: if you are not going to maintain a blog server forever, what happens to a blog, say, when a student graduates? 

A first reaction might be to develop export facilities for the student to take the content with them.  Aside from the issue of standard formats for such data and what students can actually do with them (copy and paste is not really a practical option for more than a few entries), there is the perhaps greater issue of context.  Even for the relatively few blogs on ramble.oucs there were some subscribers to newsfeeds, trackbacks and hyperlinks from other sites to permalink entries and generally it had been established in a variety of contexts including projects, individual work patterns and daily activities.

Fortunately, Pebble's design is amenable to static archiving under the most popular Web servers: for instance, it has nice URLs, not only .html extensions for the permalinks, but also for calendar dates and so on.

So this was a real boon when it came to creating a usable archive.

Here's a technical summary of the steps taken for anyone interested in the details:

Step 1. Copied the blogs elsewhere temporarily
  1. Installed (deployed) a copy of the same version of Pebble on my Win XP desktop PC, accessed under localhost.
  2. Stopped the Pebble Web app and copied across the Pebble blogs from the original server plus associated data, all of which are contained in the file system, the blog entries being stored as XML files.
  3. Restarted Pebble on my machine
  4. Requested a few final 'farewell' messages from colleagues and posted on their behalf
  5. Tidied up the blog display, removing the comments and tracback decorators and some spam
Step 2. Created the archive
  1. Created a static archive using wget (with options -r -k l 0)
  2. Used ReplaceEm to do a recursive search and replace on references to localhost:port/path_to_blogs/, pointing them to
  3. Created a compressed archive (.tar.gz) of the generated files
Step 3. Deployed the archive
  1.  We had been running Tomcat under Apache, plus ramble.oucs was a virtual host; we removed the tie between Apache and Tomcat on the server (specifically removed reference to blog directories in mod jk2's file)
  2. Created a blogs directory within Apache's htdocs space for the virtual hosting of ramble.oucs
  3. Copied over and unpacked the .tgz file ... et voilà!
  4. Checked the result.  OK.  
The results are not perfect and there are probably many other viable approaches, but this has been a good result as a great deal has been preserved in context and at least people have been informed about where to read the next random jottings... like here :-)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Educause Greetings

NoteThis article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and, where known, the same time. 

Hello.  Allow me to introduce this blog (and indirectly myself).

Let's start with the title, 'Educational Rice Grains.'   I'm not 'faculty' (or an 'academic,' as we say in the UK), but am employed in IT support services in the Learning Techologies Group at Oxford University Computing Services, mainly to run a centrally hosted Learning Management System called WebLearn .  However, I have a fundamental interest in education in terms of drawing out the whole person (as in the closely related term educe), though paradoxically I see the processes to do this require going deeper inwards.  So whilst the content will most likely refer to instructional technologies, particularly the LMS we run, it'll also relate to other areas in education that may be independent of technology.

Why 'rice grains'?  My contributions are small, but I hope can be part of universal food for the mind and I'm half Thai, so rice really is part of my staple diet :-)  I'm hoping also that some Oriental cultural aspects may be reflected in these writings.  Further, ideas presented in a single post may be fragmentary; only until several posts might we have something substantial enough for a complete meal.

This is not my first blog; a combination of factors have led to my setting up here:
  • Stuart Yeates, a colleague at the other end of the building, suggested some while back that I might blog here
  • I've recently registered for Educause 2006
  • My previous work blogs - on Pault@LTG and the RAMBLE Project - have come to an abrupt halt, so I need somewhere else to log, reflect and so on.
Whether my postings are irregular or infrequent, I hope you find them of some interest.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

RAMBLE Project blog - hiatus and archival

This post concerns a work-related blog I have been maintaining, which disappeared off the radar for a couple of weeks or so. This is to explain what has happened.

From Autumn 2004 until Spring 2005 I managed a small externally-funded project in mobile learning called RAMBLE, which concerned blogging on PDAs and other handheld devices and linking them with institutional learning environments. A readable overview was published in an online journal called Ariadne.

As part of the process, I maintained a project blog and the budget included all the hosting needs, but once the project had finished - as so often happens - the blog could only be maintained on good will and very mimimal resources. Even so, the blog server software, Pebble weblog, impressed several colleagues and even the Director hosted his blog there... But alas we were hit by spam, which escalated in magnitude, and it was decided to remove the service and I don't think it will come back online :-(

For a while none of the blogs were available at all, but I've found a way of creating an archive that, all being well, preserves the orginal addresses of the posts, i.e. the permalinks. Pebble stores everything to do with each blog in flat files, so I simply copied the files across to a fresh local installation of Pebble and ran a spidering tool (wget) to grab a static snapshot, and then the sys admin could copy these files to the server. As I type there's a wget-generated archive available at the moment, but it's not yet complete and retains options for posting comments etc.

Another blog, pault@LTG, has suffered the same problems, and I need to find a replacement; I'm thinking of setting up on Educause as I'm registered member, due to attend the 2006 conference in Dallas in October.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Networking Faiths in Oxford

I've lived in Oxford for a little over 6 years, not very long, but several generations of ancestors on my father's side have been in the area - particularly in Horspath and Wendlebury - during the 17th and 18th Centuries. I've been fascinated to know how the University (and thence the city) of world-reknown emerged; reading almost any history, you find that the original seed was sown by Saint Frideswide. She was the one who established it's original foundations through a priory, and since then spirituality and Faith have given real life at the heart of the city of Oxford; the Colleges and Halls that later came to be known as the Collegiate University were established for religious purposes and have given birth to many movements. You can still find places of pilgrimage in and around Oxford to reflect on St. Frideswide - there are churches named after her, her tomb, and shrines where there's a statue, such as the Lady Chapel of St. Michael's at the North Gate.

However, nowadays, some would say that St. Frideswide and her vision are badly neglected, especially at the University. From my personal observation, the institution is fastidious in keeping the role of spirituality and Faith as an individual presonal matter, being at pains not to show a hint of apologetics itself; in my work at the University I communicate with Central Administration about multifaith and interfaith matters not directly through faith per se but through my being an 'ethnic minority'! It's a world away from previous centuries. Yet this curiosity might offer a way forward because 'ethnic minorities' represent great and populous nations, where spirituality and Faith are often taken much more to heart and treated with reverence and respect; today Oxford is home to people from many nations around the world and is thus naturally multi-faith.

Whatever the University's current official stance, there's considerable activity among and between faiths, but it's not easy to know what's going on, even for someone who has the time and wherewithall to tap into the various sources. So how to facilitate something to connect and support each other better? Here I'll just mention a few personal thoughts about this process, and try to write a few points about vision, what this is all this for.

To me Oxford should have a global vision with spirituality and faith right at the heart of it that is - as has been said so often - "locally rooted, globally connected." The sense of spirituality can be variously expressed. From my Buddhist perspective, lokuttara dhamma is a phrase in the ancient Pali language that connotes the essence of spirituality, referring to transcendence of Samsara through Path, Fruition and Nirvana (a phrase I already mentioned in notes on Bohm's discussion of fragmentation and wholeness). Oxford has a very rich spiritual heritage spanning more than a thousand years, making it a well-established religious centre of major importance; more recently the influx of people from so many nations around the world makes it a microcosm of global faiths. My father noticed that even though Oxford has a small population, it has people from so many different nations, which you would only ordinarily encounter in a city like London.

If I am to start setting down a list of points, what should I put for point number 1? I think that should set the tone, so should really speak from the heart of spirituality, with which people of Faith can resonate, something that gives real meaning to life in contrast to acquisitive and mechanistic existence. So I would suggest something along the lines of:

1. Promoting spirituality and faith as a means for deeper meaning in life. Then, I think it is worth talking about shared spiritual values and there's already been a huge amount of work at many levels through the declaration towards a Global ethic: 2. The cultivation of spiritual values and a global ethic

As a simple basis for how we should conduct our lives, there are four directives in the Global Ethic: i. commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life ii. commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order iii. commitment to a culture of tolerance and life of truthfulness iv. commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women

(personally, I think this misses a 5th directive of keeping mindful by avoiding intoxicants such as alcohol, but four is better than zero!)

This has to be validated, so it seems fitting that the book 'Testing the Global Ethic' was edited by Oxford people - Rev. Dr Marcus Braybrooke and Peggy Morgan. It's not just an academic work - note the 'Call to our Guiding Institutions' that seeks to apply these values at many levels in society: And I'd continue by talking about establishing common purpose...

" finding common ground internally and externally to progress on a united front, so as to develop harmony and support each other, thereby working towards a community of friendship, mutual respect, sharing and learning among the cultures and faiths of Oxford and a source of inspiration for all." I tend to emphasise unity because the world is such a fragmented place.

So a little vision, a personal vision, with just a couple of points that I hope might be a useful contribution to any co-ordinated initiative. I hope many others will contribute theirs... How about an Oxford faiths wiki...? :-)