Seeking customers for student projects

I will be teaching CSC 301: Introduction to Software Engineering at University of Toronto this fall. The course is meant to teach software process for small teams, also known as agile. Students work in teams to complete a software project. I would like the projects to be for social enterprises to incorporate service learning into the course. As a result, I am now looking for non-profits or social enterprises who need some software built. Here are some Q&A to help you decide if this is a good opportunity for you.


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Winners of the Singular Source Contest

After careful consideration and discussion, we have chosen the winners of the Singular Source Short Story Contest.

We received a total of eight submissions to the short story contest, which made for a small slate of high quality candidates. There were no bad stories and every one was entertaining in some way. Every entry was read by all three judges independently. We subsequently met to discuss our assessments and to decide on a winner. (Actually, getting all of us together at the same time for a conference call was the most difficult part of the process.)

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Wearing the Vibram Five Fingers

“Are they comfortable?” is the first question that people ask when they see my shoes.

Surprisingly, it’s not an easy question to answer. I’ve been wearing my Vibram Five Fingers for about two months now and they garner a lot of attention. I have had many conversations with friends and strangers about my shoes, so let me share my story.

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Announcement: Singular Source Short Story Contest

I have exciting news to share.

I am running a short story contest, called Singular Source. I am looking for hard science fiction stories about future programming in the presence of large source code archives. The winner will be published as the last chapter of our edited volume Finding Source Code on the Web for Remix and Reuse to be published by Springer Verlag in 2012.

We are funding the contest through an IndieGoGo campaign. Please consider contributing. Even a small amount will help.

It’s common to end academic books with a speculative chapter, and what would be more speculative than a science fiction short story? I invited Vernor Vinge to submit a story, because I think the future might be the programmer archeologists that appeared in his novels, Fire Upon the Deep and Deepness in the Sky. Rather than writing software from scratch, people are taking pieces from existing systems and combining them. In this style of programming, knowing the archives is as important as the ability to put the pieces together.

Unfortunately, Vinge declined. However, he did give his blessing for a short story contest. So, here we are.

While this isn’t my first literary competition, it has been a long time. I was once the Secretary of the Library Committee at Hart House, University of Toronto, which runs an annual short story contest.  Bear with me as I try to avoid making novice mistakes. Feedback is of course welcome. Chris  Szego of Bakka Phoenix Books has already set me straight on a number of aspects of the contest. Librarians, Annette and Kim, from the Merril Collection, have also provided helpful advice.

Seeking participants for an iOS/scrum boot camp

Idea: I want to put a small group of us (6-ish?) in a room for a week and develop an app. There may or may not be an iOS expert among us. We’d be using scrum/lean techniques and the goal is for each person to learn something new. The purpose of the end product is to demonstrate what we have learned.

Motivation: I need to become proficient at iOS programming. So, I am using this as an opportunity for me to conduct an experiment in alternative models for teaching software development/design, by holding a “boot camp” on the topic.

Who: Programmers, graphic designers, UX designers, and domain experts with some software-related learning objectives. You don’t have to be the best programmer or have any experience in iOS; you just have to be motivated and want to learn. For example, you might be a programmer, but always wanted to try your hand at project management. Or you might run a non-profit and want to learn how to give requirements for some software. Or you may be graphic designer who wants to get more involved in programming.

Who Not: This boot camp is not suitable for people who are expecting a lecture and well-crafted assignments. It is also not a for someone looking for free labour to develop the app that they have been planning for a long time.

Where: Toronto, either at a home in the Yonge/Lawrence area or at UofT

When: First week of August. I imagined this to be 4-5 days, 9-5-ish with lunch breaks. But if I get enough interest from people who have day jobs, we might do this over two weekends. I am also looking into the possibility of providing childcare for participants.

How: We will be working in pairs most, if not all, of the time. We’ll be doing short (1-day) sprints. We’ll work hard, but we’ll have a sustainable pace. We will all be working on an app together– I make no promises on the quality of the final product. The app itself with depend on the learning objectives of the participants, and we will decide together during the planning meetings.

Next Steps: Drop me an email (benevolentprof at gmail) to let me know you’re interested. Tell me a bit about yourself, your availability, and what you’d like to learn at the boot camp. We’ll have one or two meetings in advance to identify our collective goals for the boot camp and to do some scrum planning.

Hans Rosling explains why I have a hard time choosing a cause to support

 For those who follow TED talks, Hans Rosling is a magician with statistics. This seemingly bookish Swedish professor of public health possesses a sharp wit and a showman’s understanding of the power of infographics. His talks are captivating.

I found the following talk through Stumble Upon the other day. It helped explain to me why I have been having such a hard time choosing a cause or project to support. For quite some time, I have been looking for a charity or NGO to become involved with, seriously involved with. But it’s been difficult to choose. Local or global? Hands on or advocacy? Women’s rights or feeding hungry children? The choices are endless.

Around 14:30, a Rosling shows a list of dimensions for development. First, he points out that all of them are necessary to achieve a comfortable life, which explains the impossibility (for me) of choosing one cause above all else. Then, he analyzes their effectiveness as means vs. goals.

Human rights are especially dear to my heart as a member of multiple minorities. They are a great goal, but a lousy means for development; just because I have rights, it doesn’t mean I’m any less hungry. Economic growth doesn’t seem as exciting to me, as I associate it with business, finance, corporation, globalization, trade, and other things that make me go squick. It is a fantastic means, but money is a lousy goal in life; I can eat well and still not have self determination.

In one slide, Rosling has explained why I have been having a hard time choosing. At the same time, it suggests a way out: work on human rights in the developed world and work on economic growth in the developing world. For best effect in the developing world, support organizations that advocate for women’s rights. In the USA, these are organizations such as the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and National Organization for Women. For the developing world, support economic growth organizations. Some examples include micro-credit lenders, World Vision, and Plan International (no relation to Planned Parenthood).

Top 5 Superstitions that a Progressive Christian Doesn’t Have to Believe

Since Easter is coming up and is an occasion where the supernatural traditionally plays a role, I thought I should do a top five list of superstitions that I don’t, as a Progressive Christian, have to believe in.

Coming back to church after an absence of 18 years, I wasn’t sure how I would handle the Christian beliefs that I considered rather supernatural. It was a bit like asking an adult to believe in Santa Claus.

I had the fortune of happening upon Irvine United Congregational Church, which subscribes to (very) Progressive Christianity. It’s a non-dogmatic, non-creedal church that is deeply involved in social justice issues. We are against war, support gay marriage, and are in favor of health care reform. In our area, we have a reputation for being “That Church.” Over the last few years I discovered that Progressive Christianity does not require me to give up the rational side of my mind. Here are the top five beliefs that I no longer need from my days attending a conservative Baptist church.

1. The Bible as the inerrant word of God.

The Bible should be read as literature, the same way that we do with Shakespeare. We need to understand the cultural context at the time that it was written to make sense of central, essential message in the text. Human beings wrote the Bible for their own purposes. I find it very hard to believe in a God who manipulates people like puppets and makes spelling mistakes.

2. Virgin birth

The notion that Jesus was born to a woman who had not previously had sexual intercourse is due to a translation error. The Hebrew word used to describe Mary was almah, meaning “young woman.” But in the 3rd Century CE, the Bible was translated into Greek and the word became parthenos, which means “virgin.” It’s good news to me that I don’t have to believe in something biologically improbably and likely supernatural, in order to accept that Jesus of Nazareth walked the Earth at some point.

3. Jesus arising from the dead.

The Easter story where the formerly dead Jesus leaves a tomb is a parable. The underlying message is that love and hope go on, even in the darkest hour. Easter is about resurrection, not reanimation. It’s about restoring something that that was lost, not making a former corpse walk the Earth again. It was such a relief to me that I didn’t have to believe someone came back to life (zombie, anyone?) in order to call myself a Christian.

4. Sin is breaking God’s law.

Sin is not violation of some arcane rule in the Bible or some inference from a passage in the Bible. In PXnty, sin is any action that increases emotional and spiritual  distance between a person and loving Creator.  This model is beautiful to me, because it’s so personal, subjective, and immediate. It also a definition that works through the ages. I like believing in a God who isn’t a rules lawyer, who makes decrees about corner cases, such as whether a white lie is a real lie. A God who doesn’t micromanage our lives makes so much more sense to me, as does the emphasis on how I live my life and my relationship with God.

5. Hell is where sinners are sent after we die.

If sin is an action that increases distance between a person and God, then heaven and hell are not where people go in the afterlife, but consequences of how we live in this life. Someone who commits a lot of sins will have a uncomfortable consequences to deal with, such as damaged relationships, guilt, sadness, etc. All these negative emotions are hell in and of themselves. They don’t require further condemnation from others. By the same token, heaven on Earth is not just an abstract concept, but a specific state. In the absence of sin, we can be perfectly loving, perfectly compassionate, perfectly courageous, and perfectly just.

A God who would create a place where people are sent to be tortured forever after they die is a monster, in my book. Eternity is a long time. It’s an even longer time to be boiling, freezing, whipping, or starving someone who was alive for at most a little over a hundred years. I refuse to believe in a God who uses more advanced interrogation techniques than the CIA.