Monitoring from Outside

Strange– the higher my degree of work at school, the less I have time to post here. As a rapid summary, we’ve been working on student information system (SIS) research. We’re particular interested in possible “third generation” systems that are primarily focused on web interaction and display of information. PowerSchool started that trend, but now I’m investigating PCR Educator and Veracross. Possibly Spiralnet as well.

I’m not particularly excited by the idea of the entire system being hosted off-site, especially given the track record of some “we’ll host it for you” advanced school web sites. If the system really has to be hosted off-campus, then I’m not sure that will be a great thing when it comes to interconnect the SIS with multiple other databases, especially if it holds the core demographic information from parents/students/personnel.

AlertsiteOne thing we did sign up for this week was a new account with Alertsite. I’ve used it in the past for doing outside monitoring of our public web sites. Every 10 minutes it tests our public pages, and if they are down it can email, call or SMS several of us to let us know. It can also monitor the sites from multiple countries around the world.

The new twist is that Alertsite can also test our email server– not only does it send an email every 10 minutes, but then it POPs in and verifies that the email is in its account. Given how mission critical the email server has become, as well as how important our academic content manager system is becoming, we can’t afford too much downtime anymore.

On the home front, we had a most excellent time at the Southampton Boat show last weekend. I posted a gallery of photos from the trip, and my wife is completing her RYA 1 Dinghy sailing course today at Welsh Harp. Next weekend, I get to sail on a 38 foot Sigma out of Gosport.

Cycling at Night

It’s been a busy two days. My relaxed “find my way” to work ride yesterday was perked up by a dark fiber optic line that interrupted our 10 meg Internet connection. The 3.3 km ride from home to work only required 26 turns, according the the London Transport recommended route, so I rode it by ear and found my way.

London at NightThis morning, I got lost only once and rode to work in 20 minutes. This afternoon, I was blessed with four free tickets to Lords for a cricket match this evening, so wife and kids joined me to see most of the match between Derbyshire and Middlesex. We left at close to nine p.m., but I still wanted to ride my folding bike home.

I’d forgotten what it was like to ride a bike in a big city at night. One feels like a ghost, silently gliding down empty monochrome streets. There were some scary parts, like the red double-decker that whooshed past me in Belsize Park, but overall it was an excellent ride, not unlike riding home at night in Washington, DC. Maybe even a bit better, with the narrow streets and amazing architecture.

Cycling at night in a great city. One of my favorite things to do.

Image source:, by Tommyvision.

Complex to be Simple

My desire was simple: ride a bicycle to work. I’ve done it for my last three positions (and college before that), so I wasn’t going to stop now. More importantly, I don’t feel like I know a city until I’ve really cycled it. The solution to this simple desire, however, was very complex.

We shipped four bicycles to London (and my Bike Friday tandem in a suitcase), I built them up a few weekends ago, and we went for a ride as a family. This trip almost killed me. Our flat involves going up and down three narrow, tight flights of stairs, complete with 180 degree hairpin turns. I did this trip almost sixteen times to bring down and carry back up the four bikes in parts. There was no way to negotiate the adult bikes down the stairs with the front wheels on (and, of course, the walls are freshly painted).

After that experience, my enthusiasm for doing multiple trips a day with my bike up and down the stairs wasn’t very strong. That, and there were several bike thefts from the bike parking area at work, so I had all sorts of excuses not to ride.

Then I saw the Brompton bike ads– this amazing British bike that folds into a small suitcase size in 30 seconds and goes on the bus with you, or the train or the tube, or into your office and under your desk. Or up three flights of narrow stairs to our flat.

A few hours of web surfing later, and I was at a bike shop ready to test ride a Brompton (only 660 pounds sterling). Disaster. The one-size-fits-all didn’t fit me– too short in the cockpit, only three gears, and a poor ride for my size. I test rode another type of folding bike, called a Mezzo, and it was a better fit but still a flaky ride for a $1,500 bike.

My Birdy, FoldedSensing my anguish, my wife went to London’s uber-urban cycling shop (Velorution), and test rode a German-made Birdy and super high-end Airnimal (only $3,100), and she reported back that I had to try the Birdy folding bike. Today I did, and bought it, and rode it home from Oxford Circus.

It was the most fun and invigorating ride I’ve had in a long time– I hand copied a 28-turn recommended cycling route from the London Transport web page (our new printer hasn’t arrived yet), which had an estimated ride time of 21 minutes. When I rode it with penciled notes and the London A-Zed map book, I got lost 2 dozen times and was out for almost an hour and a half. And it was a blast.

I got lost but found the zoo, and Camden’s high street (where Goth is still in bloom). I rode behind a wooden Handyman van releasing thousands of soap bubbles, and found my son’s favorite fishing shop (Sharpe’s), and downtown Belsize Park before stumbling across Hampstead Heath and then home. The bike has elastomer front and rear suspension, which did a great job of eating up about a 100 yards of pure cobblestone I came across in Chalk Farm.

On my doorstep, I folded the bike into a small package (in about one minute), and carried it up to the flat with no problem. It’s a go machine. It also fits my wife, and I’m going to insist that she goes out tomorrow morning (Sunday morning is the best time to ride) for a half hour ride (so she’ll be back in an hour and a half).

I wanted to do a simple thing, but the solution is an expensive, highly calibrated and over-engineered German bike. Lots of complexity, but the end result is simple joy. On Monday morning, I’ll ride to work and put the bike in a tech storage room until it’s time to find my way home. (Space is tight at work, but this is my tech.)

Birdy Light in Blue

Footnotes: My bike is a Birdy Light with rack, mud guards, and kickstand. 1,054 British pounds Sterling. My bike is gray, and shown as folded. The picture of an unfolded blue Birdy Light is from the Velorution web page. I opted for the nine-speed dérailleur, since the future might take us places where the internal rear hub model would be hard to have serviced. I plan the buy the hard case for airline travel with the bike. The ride isn’t as “road bike” as my Bike Friday, but it’s way beyond the Brompton and Mezzo. For riding in downtown London, I find the flat bars a comfort, and the elastomer front and rear suspension is amazing, but I plan to add lights and bar-ends for more hand positions. I need a name for the bike, but “Origami” is too hard to say and think all the time…

Ying and Yang

ying and yangNever before have I put some much thought into the balance between customization and closed systems. Tweakability versus completed structure. Open source vs. full commercial product.

One might think that solid funding would allow one to choose from the best of both, but it isn’t that easy. A fully closed system isn’t going to fit a strong percentage of the processing and workflow needs of a school. Lower Schools, for example, are remarkably diverse in their needs to track even the daily plans of each and every student. I’ve never seen a closed, commercial student information system that can handle that complexity.

At the other extreme is the business and development offices, for whom reliability and formal structures are paramount. The last thing they want are budget reports that are constantly tweaked, or accounting systems that are increasingly creative.

There are schools that struggle with a closed system that puts remarkable restraints on how information can be processed. There are schools with constantly customized systems that grow weekly in complexity and are sometimes increasingly unstable or difficult/almost impossible to upgrade.

Somewhere, there is equilibrium. A balance of stability, growth and customization that is sustainable.

6 visitors online now
1 guests, 5 bots, 0 members
Max visitors today: 7 at 12:57 am UTC
This month: 9 at 09-20-2017 05:23 pm UTC
This year: 38 at 05-27-2017 07:36 am UTC
All time: 84 at 05-06-2013 07:12 am UTC