Hike at Blomidon Park: Late Summer, 2015

I had the wonderful privilege to go camping and hiking with my kids’ scouting group, the Pathfinders of Tantallon SDA church. The day started with a quick trip to Pugwash with one of the leaders to bring back some chairs to their school, and then we headed back out to Blomidon to meet up with the group. Click the photo below to start the slideshow.

The road trip started early to fetch some chairs
The road trip started early to fetch some chairs – click to start
The smudgy truck windows make an interesting filter Still an hour or more away from our first stop More funky filtering, this time with trees participating Wentworth valley – taken over the cluttered dash We disturbed a great blue heron’s breakfast at Wallace The beach at Pugwash SDA Camp where we loaded the chairs Trucking along past Truro After dropping off chairs, finally approaching Blomidon Getting very close to Blomidon Some bikers out to enjoy the views Interesting white berries Interesting red berries My first up close look at the point with my hiking buddy, Dave, on the first day An experimental panorama. Not sure I have the knack for keeping the horizon straight. We must bring the group out here tomorrow! Fast ringneck snake! Hard to get a clear shot Pre-dawn over the campground The first blush of coming dawn The Moon and Venus just before dawn Evergreens surrounding our camp site, pre-dawn Seems I’m still the only one up Half of the tents on the spacious group site Half of the tents on the spacious group site My daughter, the artist My two youngest and their best friend Some relaxing down time after breakfast Not sure who said what, but apparently they were hilarious. 🙂 The smoke was a bit much for my eldest Geoff entertaining the troops Dave making breakfast Dave making breakfast Breakfast just wrapping up Relaxing while we finish breakfast Looks like that needs some tweaking A bit too smoky The whole group The whole group Just goofing around Who’s winning? Enjoying the last embers of the breakfast fire before heading to Jodrey Trail I admire this young lady’s great eye for photography She has some sweet gear A lot of old hardwoods out here Dave did this hike with me yesterday – Excellent hiking buddy! Words can’t describe how much more stunning these views are in person All the cameras came out Got to get that perfect shot! A tree clinging to the eroding ground above the sheer cliff A lookoff on Jodrey Trail A lookoff on Jodrey Trail Lining up her shot /a> A lookoff on Jodrey Trail A lookoff on Jodrey Trail A lookoff on Jodrey Trail A fern with sharply serrated sturdy leaves I’m not familiar with Breaking camp at group site 404 One final chance to enjoy the view from the park entrance before heading home
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Involve kids in free software development through play

Giving up on a position within a free software project when you know you’re no longer managing to do an effective job is a wonderfully liberating experience. Now that I have started to talk with Miriam Ruiz about handing over the Debian Jr. project, I can stop worrying about the leadership task and just have fun with it.

I can always count on Miriam for recommendations for games in Debian my kids may enjoy, as she has a passion for finding good games to package for Debian, and in particular, games for children. Over the past few weeks we’ve had some fun with her picks. At the same time, I always have Debian Jr. in mind. How can we ensure kids can have the most fun with this? How do we equip their guides to help them?

What we’ve done with each new piece of software is to find a quiet time when one or more of the children can start playing with it on their own while we watch, offering such guidance as they need, but for the most part just letting them loose with it. Each wrinkle of the brow, each impetuous thump of the mouse, every illuminated grin and exclamation of delight is noted. We try to see what frustrates or pleases our kids and discuss it both with them and the Debian maintainers and upstream developers. This is an excercise we’ve managed to pull off without being overly intrusive and the results have been well worth the effort.

Using a few of Miriam’s picks we tried this week, we were able to draw their play into the free software development process. Here’s a brief summary of those sessions:

Platinum Arts Sandbox puts into children’s hands the ability to role play in a 3D world and edit that world using simplified controls. The expressions on the faces of our kids as they played were priceless: both the ups and the downs. I wanted to capture this on video and share it. After having established a rapport with upstream, we took a 20 minute clip of one of our play sessions and gave a copy to them to use to help further their work. Here is the edited result. They were very pleased to have that kind of feedback and found the video valuable for determining where the software still needed improvement and to notice which aspects particularly pleased the children.

I happen to know that Hex-a-hop is one of Miriam’s personal favourites. We have a household full of puzzle-lovers so this puzzle game was an instant hit. While on irc on #debian-jr with Miriam we relayed in real-time some of the reactions as they played this and a handful of her other picks. This gave her some confirmation of areas she knew needed work as well as inspiration for upcoming releases of these packages.

During this play session, which also included StegaVorto, kartofel, Anagramarama, Funny Boat and Vodovod, my youngest girl, age 7, plunked down on the couch next to me as her 10-year-old sister played. Then she started to notice I was typing what people in the livingroom were saying and doing on irc. She took a mild affront to me copying her own words and actions, so I decided it would be better to let her participate so she would feel included. At this point, I started playing secretary for her, typing what she dictated to me while she read the responses from the display. Later, I just handed her the keyboard so she could type and read the responses on her own. She was still at it long past bedtime and it was with some reluctance that she finally gave up the keyboard. We all had a lot of fun and look forward to doing this again.

We are particularly careful with privacy, taking care to share pictures, videos, and other personal details only so far as we believe it does not put our children at risk. Also, we need to ensure we observe in a way that is welcome and doesn’t interfere with their enjoyment. But with a little bit of prudence and a practiced eye and ear for what increases or diminishes enjoyment of the software, we can involve our children directly in the free software development process. I commend to anyone who has the privilege to share free software with children to use this method to communicate with maintainers and developers, increasing your own enjoyment of the software in the process and that of children and their guides everywhere.

Update: A quote from this article has made it to Slashdot. Although many of the comments seem to miss my point entirely, it’s nice to get a wider audience.

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The children of Debian

Who are the next generation of Debianists? Are they all still coming to us out of different OS backgrounds, or do we now have the significant beginnings of a home grown generation, born and raised in Debian-using families and now making their voices heard?

I hope that Debian Jr. will encourage this kind of generational growth of the project. When recently I rewrote the guiding principles of Debian Jr., my vision was a Debian that children would identify as their own. I expect they will be eager to add their own ideas as they grow up with it. It was pointed out to me today that there is some evidence that this is already happening (thanks for the link, Matthew Wilcox).

As for my own kids, ages 16, 15, 12, 9 and 5, only the oldest have ever used some system at home other than Debian1. They all comfortably use our Debian systems daily, discussing regularly with me what they need. This leads to filing bugs and patches on their behalf2, and inspires further development of the Debian Jr. project.

So, in at least this sense, the children of Debian are already contributing members of Debian, if not voting members. The ideas of families are improving Debian for everyone. As the project grows, I expect the ways in which families will change Debian will be more significant, not only technically but also in Debian’s character.

1 Before we started using Debian in 1995, the family system was a VT-420 terminal connected to the Solaris system running our community freenet. At that time our kids would sit in my lap and play at typing into pico for their amusement.

2 For instance, I was pleased to discover the other day that my egoboo patch was accepted. That was a direct result of my kids asking me to make it work for them.

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Launcher for xjig adds open dialog and file conversion

I have long recognized that to be usable by young kids, xjig really needs a better user interface. So I wrote a launcher, xjig-menu to address the problem. It adds a file open dialog (via zentiy) and support for more file formats (via imagemagick).

Update

I have put this script in subversion and added a man page. Check it out:

  $ svn co svn://svn.debian.org/pkg-games/people/synrg/xjig

or browse the repository.

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live-helper progress

Now that live-helper1 has superceded live-package I have a config for the junior livecd work-in-progress in the debian-live repository:

sudo apt-get install live-helper
svn co svn://svn.debian.org/debian-live/configs/junior
sudo make-live --root junior &>make-live.log

This will build a usb image for the gnome-junior package list. If you want a regular iso image or want to try the kde-junior or xfce-junior lists, just make the appropriate changes in config.

I have tested the usb image on a 1G usb key. At this point I’m not layering on customizations, but am focusing on basic usability issues: X autoconfiguration, sound, menus, etc. Once I’m happy with these I’ll move on to the kinds of customizations we’d like to make for children.

1 live-helper is still in NEW at the moment. I’ve been checking it out from svn and building the package myself, though you can also get Daniel’s packages from his site. My config should work with a2-1 or later.

update

For the time being it is best to stick with live-helper from svn, as my configs are being developed to work with trunk, which is still in flux (e.g. config variables are renamed without notice, etc.)

svn co svn://svn.debian.org/debian-live/dists/trunk/live-helper
cd live-helper ; debuild -us -uc
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make-live -p gnome-junior

Ever since I started working towards a Debian Jr. livecd back in November, I’ve played off and on with qemu, approx and debian-live.

Yesterday, I took another kick at the can. Being frustrated with make-live’s inability to combine two package lists, Daniel Baumann came to my rescue, promptly commiting and then releasing live-package 0.99.23-1
with three new package lists for Debian Jr.

  • gnome-junior
  • kde-junior
  • xfce-junior

So now we have something to play with. Try it out. Install live-package 0.99.23-1 or later, configure /etc/make-live.conf to set LIVE_MIRROR to your favourite mirror (I use the apt caching proxy approx to avoid re-downloading the same packages from one run to the next) and pick an image and type to build, e.g.

$ sudo make-live -t usb -p gnome-junior

This makes a ./debian-live/binary.img that can be put on a 1G usb key flashdrive.

We have more work to do to polish this. Particularly, since the GNOME and KDE flavours are larger than a 700M CD, some fat could be trimmed. If you’ve tried it, I’d love to hear your ideas on debian-jr@lists.debian.org.

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Towards a Debian Jr. Live CD

Debian Jr. development revived

Recently there has been some lively discussion on the Debian Jr. list about how to arrange an account for a child of 1 to 3 years of age. Suggestions included using set-top box software like Freevo, tailoring DEs with panels and large buttons, using simpler WMs like fvwm, or using an “activity centre” app like Gcompris.

Now, I respect those parents who hold that a child this young should interact more with the “real world”. While I wouldn’t go so far as to outright prohibit my young ones from computer use, I can see the wisdom in keeping it to a minimum. But, for better or worse, our family is one of several who have some experience helping our youngest members use our Debian systems. We would like to share what we’ve learned through the Debian Jr. project.

Getting started with live.debian.net

To that end, last week I was inspired to follow the Debian Live ISO Howto to produce my first rough draft of a Debian Jr. live CD built from scratch on Etch.

For the final product, we’ll want to use a local partial Debian archive mirror, as it not only optimizes fetching packages for several build iterations, but also can be kept stable, which is important as we near release. But for this draft, I ran into trouble building the complete package list to populate the partial mirror, as cdebootstrap, which make-live uses, has no handy --print-debs switch like debootstrap does. So for now, I rely on approx to cache packages for optimization only.

A straightforward process to create a working live CD

The rest of the process was straightforward: using live-package, I created a package list1 containing Gnome and the Debian Jr. metapackages, I configured /etc/make-live.conf to point at my proxy, and then I ran the make-live script on the package list. The end result was ./debian-live/binary.iso, which successfully booted under qemu.

At this stage, there is not much to show. To be truly useful, the live CD needs to be set up so that children and their guides can immediately find and use the material intended for them. We will need not only one live CD user, but four, varying in age range and role. (More about this in a future article.) However, it is an encouraging start, and shows that we may be able to produce something usable by the time Etch releases.

1 For this exercise, I simply combined /usr/share/make-live/lists/gnome with the junior-* metapackages in Etch, and added mozilla-firefox-gnome-support to satisfy Gnome’s web browser dependency and cut down on redundancy, resulting in the following list.

junior-art
junior-doc
junior-games-card
junior-games-gl
junior-games-net
junior-games-sim
junior-games-text
junior-gnome
junior-internet
junior-kde
junior-math
junior-programming
junior-puzzle
junior-sound
junior-system
junior-toys
junior-typing
junior-writing
mozilla-firefox-gnome-support
eject sudo
console-common locales
gdm gdm-themes gnome-desktop-environment gnome-cups-manager gnome-screensaver
gnome-themes-extras
rhythmbox synaptic
x-window-system-core
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Geek father

Being Father’s Day today gives me pause to consider Debian Jr., a project for kids. The goal was to make Debian the OS kids prefer to use. I wanted my own kids to grow up enjoying using a system that puts the fewest barriers in the way to learning about how computers work, and to making computers work for them.

It’s nearly six years later now: enough time for my second youngest to grow from a toddler to an eight-year-old girl, for my youngest girl to be born and put to the test the lower limit of our “for kids from 0 to 99” slogan, for our boy in the middle to grow from a preschooler to a preteen, and for the two oldest girls to turn into teenagers. Perhaps by the time we have grandkids, Debian Jr. will finally be “done”.

In that time, our kids have gone from using a VT-420 attached to my Pentium 100, exploring commands using the “magic” tab-key at the bash prompt, playing with words and letters in pico, to playing 3D games and creating artwork in the Gimp on the family Sempron 3300+. And through it all, they’ve remained happy and proud to use Linux, which none of their friends have. They have become, I believe, more firmly grounded and comfortable with computing than they might have been using a system “dumbed down” for kids.

To all the Debian using fathers out there today, Happy Father’s Day! May you and your kids’ lives be enriched as you share in the finest OS in the world.

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