Ancient Roman Beach Vacation

Pano of Chia Beaches

The beaches of Chia

I am currently in London with some downtime as I prepare for a Domains workshop in Coventry tomorrow. I’m just coming off the longest vacation I have taken in probably twenty years (if not longer). Twelve awesome days in Sardegna, a gorgeous island off the Western coast of Italy. I’m not used to taking vacations, no less long ones, but things aligned and I was really able to check-out for almost the entire time (thanks to my amazing colleagues at Reclaim). Some folks can’t sit on the beach for two weeks, but I’m not one of them. I grew up on Long Island, and summers in Atlantic Beach or some of my fondest childhood memories. I could stay on the beach for months worshipping the sun and reading books. What’s more, the beaches on Sardegna are absolutely gorgeous. Antonella and I have had a running joke for most of our relationship wherein I claimed Long Island (particularly Montauk) has the most beautiful beaches in the world. And she begged to differ given her own experiences on Sardegna. I don’t think I’m wrong per se, but after spending more time on this gem in the Mediterranean my confidence is a bit shaken.

The Beach Reading

It was truly an ancient Roman beach vacation for me given I was reading the 1972 historical novel Augustus by John Williams. It’s an epistolary novel that focuses on the life and times of Augustus and I really can’t recommend it strongly enough. I picked it up after being blown away by another of Williams’s novels, Stoner, and I think I liked it even better. I will post separately on the novel given there is much I want to say, but I’ll leave one quote here for now: “there is no wall that can be built to protect the human heart from its own weakness.”

Pano of Nora's Archaeological Site

And that was everywhere apparent to me in Pula, which was site of a Cathaginian outpost and then a Roman village (which dates from the 1st or 2nd century A.D.). The remnants from another world were everywhere, and the tour of Nora’s Archaeological site was definitely a highlight of the trip.

Columns in the Rubble

Columns in the Rubble

Remains of the Spa

Remains of the Spa

I even found an ancient Roman boy hanging around asking to play Fortnite:

Ancient Roman Kid

Below is a good look at how Nora sits out on a spectacular point surrounded almost entirely by water save a small sliver of land. 

Nora's Roman Archaeological Site

It was really good downtime was some amazing scenery, and as Italy often does, it made me think about the various arcs of history we are a result of. Right after Augustus I picked up Robert Fagles translation of The Odyssey (“the eastingest Epic”), an edition recommended to me over twenty years ago by Matt Gold, and I am finally getting around to it. I think the bava may be going through a Neo-classical period, which is definitely inline with the advent of Reclaim Video. 

Nora's Torre

To the Tower

To the Tower of Nora

Speaking of the sediments of history, 1400 years after the Roman village was built, the Spanish were in control of Sardegna (a couple of hundred years before the Italians took control) and constructed a network of towers around the island to spot pirates in the 16th and 17th centuries. The network of towers used fires on their roofs to alert each other the approach of pirates—which approved an effective defense.

Scenes from Chia

Scenes from Chia’s Pirate Look-out Tower

Well, I guess no more lounging around the pool, it is time for me to build the Domain myths squarely on the classical tradition of hospitality and conquest 🙂

The Pool

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Catching Up With Reclaim Hosting

I have been trying to capture as much of my latest stint back at Reclaim Hosting’s HQ as possible given it was so awesome. Everything from the Reclaim Video Grand Opening and Summer Movie Nights to a special visit from Michael Branson Smith to Centipede to the day-to-day video store awesomeness. That said, I have written little to nothing about the Reclaim Hosting core crew, although the goodness is everywhere apparent in my previous posts. But I imagine spelling that out a bit is never a bad thing. 

I wrote less than a year ago about our intention to build capacity at Reclaim, and I think this year we have definitely done that and more. We are a tight, streamlined crew of four, and while we could probably afford to grow over the coming year, we are holding off for the time being. We are all but done with our infrastructure migration to Digital Ocean—which has taken a fair amount of energy over the last year or so—and once we are finished that will be a major undertaking behind us. More than anything, Lauren and Meredith have been crucial to our steady growth and success, and we all agree it’s time for them to take on more responsibility and grow according to our needs. We did our yearly review while I was back, and it was a very good experience. We don’t pull any punches; we try and be honest about what is and isn’t working. I think that helps everyone know where they are at and what we need to be doing. It also helps that everyone starts from a basic level of intense badassery.

Tim and I run a pretty casual office environment overall, but there are extremely high expectations of support and responsiveness that has really set us apart, and it’s clear that everyone at Reclaim takes pride in that fact—not to mention how much the Reclaim Faithful appreciate it. That is not going away, but we did realize we might be able to organize that process a bit better, so we’ll be experimenting with that over the next few months.

Lauren has also been instrumental in thinking through how we can better attend to our Domain of One’s Own schools’ needs. She and I will be dividing up the account management and I’m really looking forward to this because I have no doubt the schools that run their hosting infrastructure through Reclaim will be the better for it. Lauren already talked about our clean-up and streamlining of this process, and there will be much more to come.

We also had the opportunity to dream about next steps for Reclaim Hosting’s Domain of One’s Own offering. Our vision is to free up Tim as much as possible this coming year to pursue a quite compelling vision he has mapped out for what the next generation of Domain of One’s Own might look like, and given the various requests we have been getting from schools, he may be on to something truly groundbreaking. It’s too early to over promise, but Domains 2.0 might be a big deal on the ed-tech internet 🙂

Also, the co-working space Reclaim Hosting works from and operates, CoWork, has been taking off as of late (another post I am piggy-backing on from Lauren). It was pretty packed during my time back, and folks are renting the various available spaces on the regular. It is rewarding to see CoWork begin to live up to its potential, and I think we may even consider overhauling the last untouched area as a kind of all-purpose incubator space that might second as a TV studio for a project I have burning a hole in my cerebellum.

In short, things have been super solid at Reclaim Hosting. It’s like running DTLT without all the meetings and institutional bullshit—I love it. Reclaim Hosting is now a team that I would put up against the best of ed-tech groups. We still have some growing to do, but our core is super tight, and we are #4life! I could not be happier with the chance Tim and I took on venturing out 3 years ago, and so much of that has to do with the slow, steady building of a group based on the basics: above-and-beyond support of and for faculty and students who need help exploring the web. 

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Reclaim Video on a Thursday Afternoon

While Reclaim Video officially opened two weeks ago,  it did not really dawn on me until almost a week later.  After the grand opening we locked in with MBS  then road tripped to get Centipede. But as it turns out people have been quite interested in this weird strip mall storefront called Reclaim Video. I had a gentleman who works for Eurovision TV check-in to see what it’s all about, other folks that told me we need some signage on Route 3, and still more who actually wanted to become members. In fact,  Thursday afternoon we had a veritable rush, here is a look at all the folks who came to join in the fun.

Reclaim Video on a Thursday Afternoon

We had four memberships, including Tim and Callie who were officially our first renters! Their choice was inspired, what could be a better for rental than The Shining?

Reclaim Video's very first renters!

We actually rented 6 videos on Thursday, and all hands were on the Reclaim Video deck. Here is an action shot of Tim taking some time away from infrastructure to check out some videos 🙂

Tim checking out some tapes

Two films I pushed on our visitors were Mario Bava giallo, slasher classic Hatchet for a Honeymoon (1970)—first The Shining and then Bava, this is truly my video store 🙂 

Hatchet for a Honeymoon

And then I sold the Zuni Fetish doll episode of Trilogy of Terror—and I’m sure there will be no renters’ regret for these clients!

Trilogy of Terror

And who were these lucky renters, you ask?  Well, that would be Amy and Chad from Story Collaborative next door, and they have been supporters of the idea from day 1. They rock!

Straight flush of awesome

The VHS we were playing during the afternoon was Valley Girl, which was loaned to us by Meredith’s mom before we made a point of purchasing and adding it to our collection that afternoon, along with some other gems folks recommended!

Valley Girl

And that was Thursday, and it ruled.

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Centipede Reclaimed

Not only did I achieve on of my life goals by helping to run a Video Rental Store while back in Fredericksburg last week, but I also checked off another bucket list item: owning a classic 80s video game cabinet. That’s right CoWork is now the home to a gorgeous 1980 Centipede cabinet that works perfectly and is all original. 

Beautiful, indeed! The high scores were not registering, but Tim has already figured out the issue (a bad electrically alterable read only memory (EAROM) chip) and swapped it out which fixed it! I wanted the game cause I love this crap, but what we didn’t realize was how welcome an addition it was to our co-working space. The volume can be turned down, and folks will randomly get up and just play a game, and it is so fun. It is an object of shared attention at times, and it only makes me want another 🙂 Tim has been tossing out the idea of giving whoever has the high school at the beginning of the month free membership for that month. I love that idea, although productivity may go way down, and we might need to charge quarters to afford it 🙂

Another thing worth noting is the gorgeous artwork on the cabinet, it is really a standalone art piece apart from the awesome rollerball gameplay.

And then Grant Potter, as he is wont to do, drops this AMA Reddit thread in Twitter featuring the Centipede programmer, Dona Bailey, who donated her Centipede machine “to the VA hospital where the author Ken Kesey worked when he was a student in the writing workshop at Stanford.” The life of a Reclaimer is always intense!

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A MBS Special Presentation at Reclaim Video

This blog is pretty much all Reclaim all the time these days, and I am so very alright with that fact. Between Reclaim Hosting and Reclaim Video, what more could a blogger want? I already wrote about the first Summer Movie Night hosted by Reclaim Video, but I have not yet talked about Reclaim Video’s inaugural artist-in-residence guest, so let me do that now. In keeping with the spirit of the UMW Console, which was the inspiration for Reclaim Video, we invited Michael Branson Smith (hereafter MBS) down for the grand opening. MBS’s work manages an effortless sense of fun and popular whimsy that is undergirded by a deep technical acumen and a laser sharp eye for glitches in the veil of our contemporary mediascape. This is readily apparent in his remarkable number of glitch GIFs or his animated Hitchcock movie posters, but more on those in a bit.

A couple of months ago we asked MBS to help us create the Reclaim Video website, and he really killed it—which is no surprise. The coolest thing about his process is that he has been working diligently at learning Javascript for the last two years in order to a fill a hole in the curriculum of his academic program at York College (how awesome is he?). It is inspiring to see someone take on a new challenge like programming and use the experience as a way to learn with his students and through the art of teaching. What’s more, his efforts allowed him to further expand his artistic vision—which we hope the site above represents just the start of our future collaborations. Speaking of which, the controls for the TV, as well as the various videos on the shelf are all controlled via Javascript, and during our full-day Reclaim Video project marathon on Saturday, MBS took some time to explain how he developed the site and what he has learned about javascript along the way. It was really educational to listen to Tim (who is also teaching himself Javascript right now) and MBS discuss how the distinctions between CSS, HTML, and Javascript are beginning to blur. I need to dig into this more, because it really was eye-opening to hear them talk about this guy DOM all the time 🙂

My summer goal is to see if I can get a better understanding of how javascript is being used on the Reclaim Video site, and maybe even work to integrate a feed of blog posts into the design somehow. We’ll see, hopefully it is small and easy enough for me to get a sense of how the pieces work without too much shock.

Scared Stanley Kubrick GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

We also spent part of the day revisiting the Raspberry Pi Video Looper program which we used for the UMW Console as part of the TV broadcast setup. It was fun to revisit this project (one I’ve been dyingt o resurrect in one form or another for Reclaim Video), and thankfully MBS blogged his work so thoroughly 3 years ago that Tim was able to to get the Video Pi Looper working as we were talking.

Even cooler, while we were out shopping for RCA component cables and an input switcher to connect the 80s stereo and video equipment in the video rental store (more on that project below), we saw an off-the-rack 40″ flatscreen TV for next to nothing. Tim and I both had the same idea, and the first takeaway project of the day was born, who says digital signage has to suck? The Reclaim Video animated GIF movie poster screen is bucking the trend of boring as Dentist office product-laden monitors:

 

Vertigo animated movie poster matches the chairs @ReclaimVideo

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It’s pretty amazing, and currently it features MBS’s Hitchcock aniamted GIF movie poster series, and they rule, as you can see below:

It was wild how quickly we got this done, and that was just one project. There were two others! One was getting the stereo and video equipment in Reclaim Video streamlined.  We wanted the betamax, VCR, and lasersisc players all to run through the Aux input on the 80s Fisher stereo receiver so they would be in stereo! I was born for this after almost 3 years working at Audio Visual Services (AVS) at UCLA in the early 90s! I may understand nothing about Javascript, but the bava can wrangle an RCA cable setup like a champion. 

I had it all mapped out cleanly and my schematic actually worked, save for a bad cable that MBS tipped me off on, using a 4 component RCA switcher running through the AUX input on the audio side and then converting the video signal from Coaxial to RCA so that we could run into our TV that only has Coax and RF—we are OG!

So, that was my contribution, and I was awesome. As a reward we enjoyed the Risky Business laserdisc in stereo, and Tangerine Dream never sounded better. “What happened to my egg, Joel?”

The final project, which is still under construction, is a project MBS mentioned many moons ago to me in passing that I have not been able to shake. This might be affectionately named the Fuck Shit Movie Database. The idea is working off the simple thesis that language in popular 80s movies was out of control, and what we would think of as R movies today (for language, but also adult themes, nudity, etc.) were often PG (or PG-13) in the 80s. So, we are collecting the data for the top 20 grossing Hollywood films from 1970 through 2000 and searching the subtitle (SRT) files for all instances of fuck and shit (we may expand our search for other terms, but we will start with those venerable staples of profanity) to see how often these terms were used over the course of 30 years and if we can gain any insight. We will also be able to track by rating and year, so it is the start of what could be a larger database and data visualization project, or so we hope. I just loved hanging out with MBS and hearing him say, “Did you know Stir Crazy had 34 shits and 5 fucks?” 

The numbers in the mid to late 80s get crazy, trust us—but no spoilers 🙂 It was an absolute blast having MBS down to Reclaim Video for our grand opening, and really cemented for Tim an I how much this space needs to be about having fun, bringing in creative maniacs, and returning to some of the insanity that got us here.

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Reclaim’s In on the Kill Taker

In on the Kill Taker Thing

As chance would have it I stumbled across Joe Gross’s book in the 333sound series on Fugazi’s 1993 album In on the Kill Taker. I even got a note from one of the Dischord Records folks, namely Aaron, thanking me for the purchase, which is always nice. Thank you, Aaron!

Dischord Notes

The book is both a look at Fugazi’s remarkable career as the defining independent punk band of the 1990s, especially against the backdrop of these being the years that punk broke. There were many things I enjoyed about the book, Joe Gross is obviously a fan and the book is book a love letter and a chronicling of just how impressive Fugazi’s 15 year run was. I also loved that much of his recent source material is taken from Tumblr blogs, it was kind of like reading a book-length blog post, and I mean that with all due respect. It seems the most appropriate way to capture the DIY spirit that Fugazi, and their broader distribution network of Dischord Records have represented for over 30+ years—talk about a punk rock institution with an ethos. One of the best quotes from the book comes from Steve Albini, who produced the first, abandoned pass at In on the Kill Taker,  from a GQ interview in which he reflects on the impact of  Sonic Youth’s signing with Geffen Records in 1990:

Sonic Youth chose to abandon it [the independent music scene] in order to become a modestly successful mainstream band– as opposed to being a quite successful independent band that could have used their resources and influence to extend that end of the culture. They chose to join the mainstream culture and become a foot soldier for that culture’s encroachment into my neck of the woods by acting as scouts. I thought it was crass and I thought it reflected poorly on them. I still consider them friends and their music has its own integrity, but that kind of behavior– I can’t say that I think it’s not embarrassing for them. I think they should be embarrassed about it.

As Joe Gross points out, Sonic Youth would broker the deal between Geffen and Nirvana, and the rest is kind of 90s music history, the currency around the punk/post-punk scene is at its peak for much of the decade and Fugazi’s In on the Kill Taker comes in 1993, what might arguably be a high water mark year for the grunge craze with the release of In Utero and PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, both produced, interestingly enough, by Albini. Fugazi’s previous album, Steady Diet of Nothing, received lukewarm reviews being criticized for not capturing the legendary energy of their live performances—in many ways the album for many seemed like an afterthought (though I personally love it). So, in shot, the pressure was on with Kill Taker, and Fugazi did not disappoint—it is a masterpiece of the punk ethos—the band is branching out into new territory, the avant garde elements of their music (which defines their later albums) shines through, and they are even homaging titans of independent art like John Cassavettes and Gena Rowlands—in arguably the best song on an album filled with gems. But read Joe Gross’s take, he van actually talk about music intelligently, unlike me. But for many it is a turning point, a moment where Fugazi doubles down on who they are and what their music is all about, and you gotta love that. In 1993 they play two shows in NYC at Roseland Ballroom that Gross refers to (I think I saw them on the same tour at the Palladium in LA) and they were particularly amazing for an already stellar live act),  but as the story goes after one of these shows Atlantic Records music mogul Ahmet Ertegün met with the band backstage in an attempt to sign them offering as much as $10 million. Joe Gross talks about the episode, but does not mention a dollar figure. The figure comes from album’s Wikipedia page. It’s a big number, and I am not sure if it’s real, but you have to believe they offered them something significant, and Fugazi said no. And with that, the turning point in their career, the showdown with Satan in the desert, a high point for those of us who want to believe that not everyone will sellout when enough cash is put on the table.

They kept control of their music, they controlled the vertical and horizontal of their distribution and press, and they kept a sense of the integrity of “that end of culture” Albini refers to in the above quote. So, Fugazi has the distinct honor of being the first band to have its second Reclaim Hosting server named after them (they already had another we named after them which housed several virtual machines for Domain of One’s Own schools) because 2018 is our double down year on independence in educational technology! Cha-cha-cha-cha-cha-cha-cha-champions!

“If you ask me now what punk is, I would say it’s the free space. It’s a spot where new ideas can be presented without the requirement of profit, which is what largely steers most sorts of creative offerings in our culture.” — Ian MacKaye

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Reclaim Phone Home

I was on the ground for Reclaim Video‘s grand opening in Fredericksburg on June 8th, and I’m still reeling from all the goodness. I’ll be posting on numerous elements of Reclaim Video over the next few days, and it probably makes most sense to start with the video rental store’s grand opening, which was paired with the launch of the Summer Movie Nights series. Damn we know how to market things with absolutely no business model attached, but in fact that might end up being the point of this post.

 

Awesome turn out for our first movie night!! ? ?

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In many ways Reclaim Video started as a healthy mix of nostalgic fantasy and joke. Fantasy because I always wanted to run a video rental store, and joke because nothing could ostensibly be less relevant in this day and age of Netflix and Amazon Video. But as it turns out it’s neither a joke nor a fantasy, but rather a timely inflection point. I’m increasingly convinced Reclaim Video represents a useful cultural analogue for the web on several levels that are worth looking at in more detail (and I plan to), but let it suffice to say for now the predominance of small, mom-and-pop video rental stores before the advent of the corporate monoliths like Blockbuster is one readily apparent comparison; the perceived existential threat home video posed to “brick and mortar” movie theaters; the ability to more easily record, edit, and reproduce media (with the accompanying copyright FUD); the importance of intelligently curated collections (nothing worse than Blockbuster employees being clueless about film and Netflix’s algorithm pimping their own warez); and that’s just a few off the cuff. But the real analogue between the VCR rental store and the web is how it represented an entertaining and relatively unstructured education. In the early 80s a whole generation was suddenly provided libraries of films from the past 50-60 years—in a few short years an entire medium became far more accessible than ever before. It opened up a brave new world of film history to a generation of interested kids. It was an intensive, ongoing education in visual culture and aesthetic taste that a kid was highly unlikely to get in the U.S. K-12 system throughout the 80s. I can probably name the number of movies I watched in K-12 on two hands from 1976-1989 (and it always seemed like we were getting away with something when we did). Yet, the understanding of how film works and what it means to both interpret possible meanings and breaking down filmic syntax are both intellectual and practical skills that have never had more currency given video has become the predominant means of communicating on the web. So, in many ways, Reclaim Video does not seem so much a joke or fantasy when looked at in a certain light, but much more a useful road to wander down to see what happens 🙂

😏

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But, the other part of this equation is that Reclaim Video has also been a way for Reclaim Hosting to deflect any kind of overt, crass marketing of our hosting services. We want to intentionally avoid any of that, while at the same time capturing and communicating the trailing edge technology spirit of Domain of One’s Own. So, even our anti-marketing approach with Reclaim Video is arguably marketing, but its not so much trying to sell you a product as much as foregrounding the role technology plays in shaping the deep cultural valences of mediated education. It’s the culture that provides that shared object of desire that makes so many of the connections and relations possible—and finding analogues in the analog media environment is one way at it.

So, that’s a whole lot of words spent on what promised to be a very straightforward post about Reclaim Video’s grand opening and our first screening in the Summer Movie Nights series, so let me get to those now.

We opened the doors of Reclaim Video less than 6 months after we locked into the idea of actually running a video store (the idea was born over a year ago, but the decision to do it was cemented in December of last year). We have been pretty good about making things happen once we lock-in, and Reclaim Video is no exception in that regard. No detail was left out, right down to the laminated membership cards:

Membership card for @reclaimvideo

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And we planned the grand opening alongside a Summer Movie Nights film series to bring folks in and start to create a bit of energy around the idea, and that seems to have worked a treat.

We had a healthy number of folks visit Reclaim Video from 6-7 PM that evening before taking in the feature presentation: E.T. And when all was said and done 32 people came to see the film, which is crazy to me. It was free and open to the public, we served Reese’s Pieces and fresh popcorn (also for free). In July we’ll be showing The Princess Bride, and we already have 4x as much interest as for E.T.—which could mean we are on to something. E.T. holds up quite well 35+ years later, and so much of its genius is in the cultural detail of everything from the toy tie fighter to the Space Invaders t-shirt to the submerged sense of dread and compassion of a family negotiating divorce. It hit the spot, and the idea of having our own makeshift, DIY theater for the community was awesome. In fact, folks in our strip mall noted that Reclaim Video as an actual storefront that does actual things for the community, like a film series, is breathing life into what was essentially a forgotten commercial space. I think the coolest  outcome of all of this would be that we are part of a broader investment back into the local culture that might galvanize some shared sense of the power and meaning of the media that continues to shape us—I guess that’s the new fantasy 🙂

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Reclaim Interview at OER18

I will be catching up on a large number of posts over the next week before I head out for vacation, so the bava firehose is going to be set to full blast!

Kurt Angle Firehose GIF by WWE - Find & Share on GIPHY

One of the things I’ve wanted to share was the following video Jöran Muuß-Merholz recently published of his interview with Reclaim Hosting’s Meredith Fierro and Tim Owens about digital literacy before things take a bizarre turn back to the future of ed-tech.

It’s a solid 10 minute video highlighting a few of the reasons why framing one’s personal online presence around web hosting represents an important shift for higher ed from the various third party, data sucking services that everywhere monetize digital identity. And while I am admittedly biased about both the topic and the folks interviewed, I dig Jöran’s style. He’s an edtech consultant from Germany who really pushes to capture as much of the conversations happening around OER throughout Europe in a variety of media: his blog, podcasts, videos, Twitter, etc.  His intense work ethic and fun-loving spirit are integral to what makes him such a good interviewer, he has a way of getting you to open up and chat more freely. What’s more, he truly produces the media he creates, which takes a ton of time and energy to do right. The above video is a good example of this, he reached out to me during the process to secure a Reclaim Video TV image in order to use the screen to highlight the various topics discussed—which is a really nice touch.

Jöran is one of the many good folks that are thinking through the broad implications of open education for Germany as that country works towards a national policy for OER.* So, special thanks to him for taking the time to sit down with Reclaim at OER18, and helping to make us a small part of that very important conversation.


*Another person doing some important thinking is Christian Friedrich, whose recent post “Is open the new organic?” is well-worth your time.

 

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Headless at VCU’s ALT Lab

VCU ALT Lab R&D4EDU

Tim and I had the good fortune to be able to head down to Richmond on Wednesday to catch up with the Research & Development group of VCU’s ALT Lab. We basically sat in awe for over two hours while Tom Woodward and Matt  Roberts (unfortunately the third pillar of this amazing triumvirate, Jeff Everhart, was unavailable) took us through the seemingly endless parade of awesome projects this team has been cranking out for the last year or so. The trip was wild because it struck me that this is what folks must have felt when they visited UMW’s DTLT in 2011 or 2012 when we were in full blown ds106/domains discovery mode—there’s an energy that drives a shared sense of mission and purpose that is so very hard to find (no less sustain) when in comes to any working group—-and this one has it in spades right now. I left there inspired and re-energized. 

R&D4Woodward

I was happy to see my good friend and long-time colleague/collaborator Tom Woodward rise from the ashes of ALT Lab’s re-organization a few years back. Much digital ink has been spilt about thought leaders and their ilk, but nothing can replace a group that finds their rhythm and puts in the work. There is no substitute for that simple formula, and when it happens it’s special and needs to celebrated. So, this is my paean to VCU’s R&4EDU group—and I think I have embarrassed them enough, and I can almost make out Tom muttering “Ayyyy kinda half-way sorta know what I’m doing…” all the way up here in Fredericksburg 🙂

So, let me get specific. I was nothing short of blown away but what they have been able to do with WordPress from afar, and a scan of Tom’s blog posts documents that work quite well. But going there reinforced for me that what VCU has on their hands (whether they know it or not is another thing) is one hell of a web dev group for edtech. Let me give you an example of what I am talking about, which may also help disambiguate my post title. The site they built for VCU’s Digital Sociology program beautifully demonstrates what headless web development means. Let me try and explain, although I think Tim’s recent post on the trip down does a better job illustrating how this group is really walking the walk of intelligent, future forward web development. 

So, what is headless web development? Basically it decouples the forward facing website presentation from where folks author and store data (i.e. the content management system (CMS) and database). So, in the case of the Digital Sociology program site, that content is authored through their WordPress site on Rampages, but that is not where the content is shown. On a different server there are HTML/CSS files that are regularly using the WordPress API to poll the Digital Sociology site on Rampages. What does this mean?  Well, the site is a straight-up HTML that use javascript to call the database using the WordPress API. What’s nice is that should the WordPress site go down for any reason, a cached version of the HTML site would be unaffected. What’s more, you could store a synced JSON file with all the database content on a server that would stand-in almost like a failover switch.

I really appreciated this overview because it has helped me wrap my head around what headless web development means through a tool I know and love (i.e. WordPress) which is part of what made it comprehensible for me. What’s more, it goes a long way towards explaining things like WordPress’s Calypso. The idea of using the WordPress API to republish data in various locations seamlessly suggests some of the possibilities for aggregating and syndicating data many of us have been relying on RSS to accomplish for many a year. And while there has been a lot of talk about these possibilities with APIs, this is one of the first examples I’ve seen where the idea really clicked. So, all this to say kudos to the Research & Development for EDU group at VCU’s ALT Lab, the force is strong with you all. And there is much more to say about there work, but let me stop here lest this post never see the light of day.

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Swimming in a Digital Ocean of Love

Yesterday Digital Ocean published a customer story featuring Reclaim Hosting. It was nice. A month ago Tim and I talked with Lisa Tagliaferri (a CUNY Grad Center alum-I love CUNY!) who is keenly interested in framing the power and possibility of Digital Ocean for the education community—a vision I can definitely get behind. She though Reclaim Hosting’s move to Digital Ocean might provide a solid case study, and we were happy to oblige because we have nothing but love for Digital Ocean. Not only have they made the process of spinning up and managing infrastructure simple, they allow us to geolocate servers, they have amazing guides and tutorials, and they even dropped their prices this year. Hard not to love all that.

So we had a discussion with Lisa to articulate why we’ve been so happy with Digital Ocean, and while the reasons are myriad (as mentioned above), probably the single most important element for us has been the introduction of block storage a couple of years ago. Mounting additional storage to droplets has meant we could move all of our shared hosting and Domain of One’s Own instances to DO, and over the last year that is exactly what we have done. We have just a few more servers to migrate over the coming months, and by the end of 2018 we will have completed what has been an almost two year-long migration schedule.

That feels good, but it’s by no means the only advantage. Beyond scaling CPU and storage instantaneously—which you come to expect of cloud solutions—the ability to geo-locate servers around the world has become increasingly important for us with increased interest in Domains from schools in Canada and Europe. But the thing that remains special to me about Digital Ocean is their work epitomizes the challenge of making something that has heretofore been extremely complex (not only with dedicated servers, but through other cloud providers like AWS) quite simple and intuitive. Digital Ocean provides a peek at a future where managing your own personal cyber-infrastructure will not be that much more difficult that setting up your own WordPress site.  I do like the schematics they provide (even if Reclaim Hosting’s is dead simple), and they do a great job in the article of breaking down how and why we use Digital Ocean. I personally could not be more happy with our choice to move there, and cannot recommend them highly enough to other ed-tech folks who are in a position of managing their infrastructure externally, I can’t imagine a more painless alternative.

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