My Own Cloud

In my continuing drive to decouple my life from Google and Dropbox et al – both to afford me more practical control and more spiritual control of my data – and spurred on by the example of my friend Ton, I’ve been migrating a lot of my digital storage and sync needs into ownCloud, a free and rather capable open source application that I run on my own server (you don’t need your own server: companies like ownCube will allow you to rent an ownCloud server).

When I first experimented with ownCloud, earlier in its development life, it was one of those “sort of works, some of the time” applications, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want to trust things like contacts, calendar and file syncing to. With version 6 and, most recently, version 7, I’ve found it to be rock-solid, and, as a result, I’ve rolled a lot of my life into it.

There are three devices in my digital life: my MacBook air, which I use primarily in the office, my iPad 2 which I use for iOS development in the office, sometimes take home, and often take on the road with me, and my Moto G Android mobile phone, which is always in my pocket.

  • Sharing Files: Just like I’d use Dropbox. I have an ownCloud folder on each device, and everything I add to this folder on one device is available on all the others. There are dedicated clients for OS X, iOS and Android that enable this. I have the Android app set to automatically upload any photo I take on my phone’s camera to ownCloud, meaning that my photos are instantly synced and backed up. In addition to sharing files with myself, I can also shared them with others, either openly or with a password attached.
  • Calendar Sync: I have the Calendar apps on all my devices synced via ownCloud (rather than iCloud, or Google Calendar). I add an event on one device and it appears on all the others. The syncing happens, under the hood, via CalDAV; on iOS and OS X the apps support this natively; for Android I use CalDAV-Sync.
  • Contact Sync: I have the Contacts apps on all the devices synced (again, rather than via iCloud or Gmail). I add a contact on one device and it appears on all the others. The syncing happens via CardDAV; on OS X and iOS this is baked into the apps; for Android I use CardDAV Sync.
  • Reminders/Tasks Sync: I have the Reminders apps on iOS and OS X and the Android Task Sync all syncing tasks/reminders to ownCloud via the Tasks app (not part of the stock ownCloud install). This is new functionality for ownCloud but it’s working just fine for me.
  • Bookmarks Sync: Not a complete solution yet, but I’ve got the ownCloud Bookmarks app (again, not a part of the stock ownCloud install) syncing with the ownCloud Bookmarks app for Android; for iOS and OS X, for the time-being at least, I used the ownCloud web interface to save and recall bookmarks. I’ve replace Pinboard (and, before that, Delicious) with this, and it’s not perfect, but it’s working.
  • Document Collaboration: ownCloud’s web interface allows OpenDocument word processor files to be edited in a browser, just like Google Docs (albeit, right now, without all of Google Docs’ functionality). And it allows these documents to be shared, either with other ownCloud users, or with the public, and others can make changes to the documents if you allow this. I edited a draft set of bylaws with a group of 8 people this way last week and it worked well.

Most of this has been happily chugging along since mid-May without issue. I have my ownCloud running on an Amazon EC2 instance, and I have the EBS volume where the ownCloud data is stored backed up (via this handy script) to a snapshot every night.

ownCloud screen shot showing "photos" view

Birchwood in Minecraft

The Minecraft Club at Oliver’s school, Birchwood Intermediate, set out last year to recreate the school in Minecraft. With a PDF of the floor plan of the school in-hand (courtesy of the 2011 Mould & Moisture Assessment), they created a large-scale printed floor-plan overlaid over graph paper, and then translated this to Minecraft blocks. The construction continues to be a work-in-progress; I was lucky enough to get a tour of it yesterday when Oliver and I helped reinstalled Minecraft on the computers in the lab where the club meets (the PCs had been re-imaged over the summer and Minecraft was wiped out; fortunately the Minecraft server wasn’t, so the virtual school survived).

Here’s a brief walk around, starting in the front entrance, walking into the cafeteria, up onto the stage, through the back of the stage and into the hallway leading to the industrial arts room, and then into several classroom and seminar rooms.

It’s an impressive model, even in this partially-finished form, and I’m eager to see the progress that Minecraft club achieves this year: they’re starting up again later this month.

Here are some more details notes about the process from Frances Squire, the teacher who facilitates the Minecraft Club at Birchwood:

The scaled map of our school was created by photocopying a graph paper graphic onto an overhead transparency, and placing the transparency over a 8.5 X 11” copy of floor plan of the school that was available online and printed. Sound easy? Blue graph paper does not copy very well which we learned has much to do with light and optics and the duplicating process. So we found a black-line master for graph paper online and printed it onto a transparency. We used 16 blocks per inch graph paper (you have to remember that the blocks get larger when you enlarge the image). With the transparency placed over the floor plan, it was placed face down on the copier/scanner glass. The “Image Send” was set and exported as a .jpg. Once retrieved, the .jpg file name was changed to something recognizable, and it was emailed to Kwik Kopy who copied it onto 36 by 48 inch paper.

Laying the foundation required considerable thought and mathematical skill! I had a few ideas but the students were far more experienced builders and soon realized that the school could not be constructed perfectly to scale due to the limitation of the size of the building blocks. For example, width of walls would impact the width corridor space and staircases and toilet stalls and “We need toilets”! The grade 8 floor was placed above ground rather than split-leveled so the foundation could be placed without the complexity of considering the differing ceiling heights in the school.

Observing the collaborative process has been quite incredible: and has not been without conflict that has required negotiation and problem-solving and a little bartering. While I am the teacher in the room, I’m not really the teacher in the room. This is a student-directed project and I am facilitating; I am very much the student and learning a lot about social interaction, collaboration, communication, and conflict resolution strategies that adolescents implement when left to strategize and to ‘work it out’, and they have, impressively at that! They also let me play with them which is very cool.

It’s difficult to read that and not understand that Minecraft can be a powerful educational tool, involving mathematics, engineering, science, design, drafting, negotiation. Oh, and it’s fun, too.

I’m in the process of writing up a short guide for teachers who want to duplicate the Birchwood Minecraft Club, showing how to download and install MinecraftEdu on school computers; stay tuned.

In the Tai Chi Gardens

My favourite place to eat in the summer is in the back garden at Tai Chi Gardens: it signals the start of summer when it becomes warm enough for Kenny and Winnie to put out the tables in the back. But sometimes it’s nice to sit in the front yard, especially now that they’ve renovated a little and installed new tables and chairs. Today was one of those days. With Ethan sprawled in the shade at my feet I enjoyed a Bamboo Rice and Vegetables on a late summer afternoon.

Lunch in front for a change.

Confederation Country Cabinet Installed in the Coles Building

Regular readers may recall that I spent a good chunk of my spring working on a commission to create six panels for Brenda Whiteway’s Confederation Country Cabinet. I was happy to receive this photo from Brenda yesterday showing the piece installed in its permanent home in the Coles Building. It’s an amazing collaboration, and Brenda can be proud of her Herculean task of marshalling the collected creative resources that went into it. Next time you’re appearing before a standing committee – or popping into the Provincial Archives – be sure to take a look!

Confederation Country Cabinet