[v]Tiger, [v]Tiger Burning Bright

A few months ago I posted about CRMs for education.  At that time, my division at NJIT was in a quandary about our future management of customer relationship management software mainly because our educational product, Edgenuiti, had fallen on non-supported times and its anointed replacement, RubyCampus, was full of  dependency exploits in its back-end code.  I admit that my final recommendation was vTiger because it was the easiest to learn and its functionality, while important, was a feature that landed in second place.  I am in the position to support software for our division, and I chose vTiger at that time because I knew that if I selected a more feature rich, but difficult to learn, software package, I'd be the one managing our marketing campaigns because everyone else would claim that the software was just too hard to use.  The fact is that none of the other CRMs were too difficult to use, but in an environment where academic credentials trump actual skill sets, it wasn't likely that anyone would develop the skills needed to use the software.

The most pleasant surprise for me (in a month where most surprises aren't pleasant, but regressive) was that vTiger is actually an easy-to-use CRM that is built with a tremendous amount of transparent flexibility. Built primarily for commercial use, vTiger has scads of features that are fully customizable for the education market.  I can import all of my old data from Edgenuiti and create or edit fields that are designed to support businesses, and tailor them exactly to the needs of student-search marketing.  I can change "products" to "programs of study;" I can create fields that store academic completion levels; I can create marketing campaigns that highlight courses and degrees rather than products and services.  Bulk e-mailing via templates is also supported and those templates are, of course, fully customizable and I can blast prospective student e-mails announcing events like Open Houses or Special Lectures, or even, news announcements from NJIT.

The primary way we collect student data is from advertising and web-form based solicitations that prospective students can fill out and submit.  Our forms are everywhere and in all kinds of formats (java, asp, .NET, php, html) and its has always been a headache to get these diverse forms to post in a uniform way to our database: field content often didn't match expected data, form-based security played havoc with our database's willingness to accept internet data, old forms out in the wild of the internet and forgotten about or archived and linked from sites from which we didn't control woild return errors to the posters and their data would never arrive.  With vTiger's built in SOAPfunction and web-forms add-ons, the errant posts can now find a home, and with its graphical displays of incoming data with each bar clickable to drill down to the stored data, it is a snap to discover where data is coming from, which data is current or obsolete and a simple way to set up a campaign to address any dynamic issue.

Another feature of vTiger is its "Customer Portal" which is a webpage available to stored contacts to directly request more information about a topic, review dynamicaly built FAQs, or report a problem with forms, classes or the interface itself.  These customer portals deliver messages directly to targeted staff whose job it is to handle exactly the kinds of requests that have been made. vTiger doesn't even require a login to the web interface.  There are plug-ins for Outlook, Thunderbird and even an iPhone app that can track and manipulate information stored in vTiger's database

The requirements to host vTiger are an Apache webserver with the php5 language installed, and a MySQL database.  Though the most common operating systems that host vTiger are Unix and Linux; the code is written in such a way that hosting it on a Windows server is certainly possible, too.  Coming soon in the v5.1 release is the ability to use more databases than MySQL (PostgresQL is in beta) and the ability to have timed e-mail campaigns, once scheduled, launched on any future data and the ability to send targeted auto-response messages to people who have filled out a form and "opted-in" to the information flow.

Sometimes in software with flexibility comes increased complexity, but this vTiger product was designed from the beginning to stay flexible and simple.  It gives me something to smile about, this week, anyway.

A Kindle for the iPhone

Earlier this week, on Tuesday, my Kindle 2 showed up at my house.  I breezed through the simple set-up instructions and before you could say "Stately plump Buck Mulligan," I had my first book, James Joyce's Ulysses, (an 80 cent download) installed on my new reader.  The purchase and download of this 700 + page book took less than 60 seconds.  Wow.

Boggled by the idea of having 1400 books at my fingertips, I searched the Amazon/Kindle bookstore for more more more.  I did a search for some Sylvia Plath -- rats, no poetry just some biographical and analytical stuff.  Her poetry is magical; her life was tragic.  I wanted her words, not her history.  I switched back to Joyce and searched for Finnegans wake, another misfire: more critical essays, no actual book.  Ok, on to some philosophy and to a book I didn't actually have in print:  Spinoza's Ethics.  Bingo!  $2.60 (and 30 seconds) later, I had my Spinoza.

I started reading right away in my dimly lit den and it was apparent I had to turn on another light to clearly see the Kindle's screen.  I was a little disappointed with the brightness of the display (it has no back lighting), but the following morning on the train that takes me to NJIT, I found the display to be clear, legible and easy on my eyes. The electronic ink that the Kindle uses to draw each page is actually an ink-like substance and because there is no backlighting of the display and the electronic ink only requires power while it is drawing a new page, the battery life is reported to be about 2 weeks per charge.  The time between charges depends on, I suppose, how many pages one turns.

So what does this have to do with the iPhone?  Lifehacker.com reported a brand new iPhone application before I even got through all of Spinoza's definitions.  The iPhone app, a free download, displays the user's Kindle books, keeps bookmarks and pages, and even will pick up on the page the reader closed the Kindle.  My Kindle was in my office on the other side of campus and, when I opened the Kindle app on my iPhone, it automatically synced itself with the last page I was reading in both Ulyssess and Ethics.  Ok, so reading weighty books on a 2 inch screen isn't exactly my idea of cuddling up with a good book, the existence of an even more portable library than the Kindle offers, is quite a feat in itself.  And the built-in backlighting of the iPhone's display makes the text more readable in low-light environments.  The Kindle app does not make use of iPhone's multi-touch --the ability to "pinch" and expand certain areas of the screen, but the font and the display was easy enough to read that I didn't miss that feature at all. There is the ability to select the font size that is displayed.

The iPhone app doesn't support all of the Kindle's features.  There is no ability to highlight text and use the Kindle's built in dictionary, there is no Text to Speech function, no ability to annotate notes, and no access to buy new books from the Amazon/Kindle Store.  The app is mostly a utility to provide a window to the Kindle's basic functions and those basic functions are impressive.

Jeff Bezos says that there are currently 240,000 titles available for the iPhone; the stated goal is every book ever printed.  I'm fairly certain that for the short term I'll continue to search and read the classics on my Kindle 2, but when I need a more mobile quick fix of James Joyce or Spinoza, I'll pull out my iPhone.

Scholastic Gambit Declined?

On February 18, 2009, the Manasquan High School Chess Team attended the Shore Conference Chess Tournament at Monmouth Regional High School in Monmouth County, New Jersey.  A learning experience in wider area tournament play, the Squan team lost all five of their main board games but, as this final tournament was post-season, they expected to retain their first-place standing in the conference.

After the tournament was completed, the Blue Warrior chess team was surprised to find out they had slipped to third place in the final standings. Sometime around mid-season, the chess team adviser left his position coaching the black and white squares of the Blue Warrior chess team for greener pastures.

Though he occasionally came back to supervise conference play, practices were canceled because of the lack of supervisory staff and postponed conference competitions were never rescheduled for play. Despite the absence of high school support staff,team members --about 15 students-- found rooms in the high school where they were undetected by faculty.  When chased around the high school by after-school staff, parts of the team would gather in cramped quarters like their guidance office, roll out their game mats and play until the remaining staff chased them home.

In the 2007-2008 District Narrative portion of the NJ Department of Education's school report card summary, The high school principal writes:

"In addition to their academic involvement, over 80% of the students participate in some form of extra-curricular activity. Of particular note is the participation of our band at the 1998, 1999, and 2000 World Series and Ticker Tape Parades, the bi-annual drama presentations, and the Fine Arts Show. The Key Club, Peer Helpers, French, Spanish, and National Honor Societies continue to get involved in community service project activities throughout the various sending districts."

It is an impressive list of accomplishments from a decade ago, back when the current principal was someone else and school budgets had greater flexibility This past year, the Blue Warrior football team won a state championship.  They didn't have their head coach leave and never be replaced. They didn't forfeit any games because of postponements.  They didn't have dedicated gamers scrambling around the school grounds looking for places to practice.  They do have the full support of the board of education, the high school's administrative staff and the school district's budget.

Football may always get the collective attention of the  high school's sending district. The chess team may always struggle to get any recognition at all. But if I were to guess at which had the more intrinsic academic value I might choose a thoughtful Giucco Piano opening over a pep rally and a touchdown.

Tactile Web 2.0

When Louis Braille, back in 1821, first developed a system of forming letters from rectangles of embossed dots, he probably was not thinking too much about how to display letters on tactile devices hooked up to a computer.  In the last 100 years, Braille has gone through content revisions mostly relating to syntax and typography, but the basic design of the embossed alphabet has remained the same. To accommodate users for whom audio computer screen readers were not an appropriate solution, braille displays --tactile consoles that act as computer monitors and read monitor output line by line-- were developed.

Braille displays, while marvels of adaptive technology, have their drawbacks. If one goes tactile display shopping, the first obvious problem is their price. While the modern visual monitor can run into the thousands of dollars for large and exotic displays, the average monitor can be purchased for $100 or less (I recenty bought a 19" LCD monitor on eBay for less than $80). Braille displays can easily cost over $3000.  The size of a 40/80 character display can more resemble the keyboard of a musical instrument than a computer keyboard and, while there are some smaller more portable displays available, the typical workstation display is a stationary device

Braille embossers (printers) are available if one wants to save and print data to have a permanent record or to have a copy of a document to read when one isn't sitting at a workstation.  Braille embossers, like the tactile displays, are also big, heavy and expensive, but they do allow tactile information to be portable.

It is one thing to have portable information but quite another to manage that information. With so much information available all the time on the web, it is difficult for anyone to determine what information they want to read and how to get that information in a sensible form. When you remove the ability to see information as it is, by default, provided, the difficulties encountered jump by an order of magnitude that a sighted person can hardly understand. Technology, sometimes the devil that inflicts all this noise on us, is also sometimes the angel that helps make sense of what we need.

RoboBraille is a service provided by the Synscenter Refsnaes, the national center for blind and partially sighted children and youth in Denmark. It provides a unique e-mail-based service that translates documents from text, html, xml and .doc formats to mp3 encoded speech or contractual Braile, by e-mail.  You can create a document in a supported format, submit it to one of RoboBraille's many specially purposed e-mail addresses as an attachment and, depending on the document size and RoboBraille's workload, the translated document is returned via e-mail.  The tests I made around midnight eastern time, returned a one page document in about 2 minutes.  There are many supported translation formats (and just as many e-mail addresses) that accept e-mail.  A drawback (for me) is that the site is entirely in Danish (they do support English documents to English braille tranlation).  After struggling to use my college German to figure out the site, I used a Google translation to decipher the pages.  One file I submitted to be translated from text to an audio mp3 format generated an error response from RoboBraille.  The e-mail RoboBraille returned to me was entirely in Danish and the best I could do was figure out that, for some reason, it just didn't work.

Translating documents using a free e-mail service is a step in the right direction and I greatly admire what the RoboBraille project has accomplished, but I've been looking for a more comprehensive solution to tactile information distribution.  I found an important piece of the puzzle in SĂ©bastien SablĂ©'s utility, Libbraille.  Libbraille's source code is freely available and after some fits and starts, I was able to configure and compile it on a Unix server.

Libbraille is not a standalone program, but a library of functions that allow other programs to make use of its translation utilities.  When compiled into a program as an option, Libbraille allows that program to produce its output in braille (it supports French, German, British and American English constructs).  Libbraille will directly produce output on a braille display device as well as encode its output in a variety of formats, including plain text.

I've grabbed the rss stream of Serendipity35 from the past 2 weeks, piped it through Libbraille's text output and used Duxbury's braille translation software to create an embossable version of the feed.  I've taken thiis post and converted it to produce a braille single article download.  While I have quite a  way to go to produce fundamentally accessible Web 2.0 content, solutions are close enough to touch.