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Getting Results

I added a printing facility to the Aggression Questionnaire today. I'd been giving some though to general methods of returning results for computer aided assessment and all have pros and cons.

i) Internet server - here a test is delivered over the internet and the results are returned over the internet. This requires an internet connection for the duration of the exam. It's usually a bad idea to provide an internet connection during an exam as the user might google all the answers.

ii) Local server - here a test is delivered from a server located inside a university or other organisation. The drawback is the maintenance required. It usually requires someone on the ground with specialised knowledge.

iii) Email results - I've seen some software recently which prompts the user to email a set of results on completion. This uses the default method and email address on the computer and is easy for the user to alter before the results are transmitted.

iv) SCORM 1.2 - There's a very well defined way to send results back through the SCORM 1.2 API - but it requires the organization to have an LMS or VLE already running and the granularity of the results is poor (a single score can be returned).

v) SCORM 1.3 - This provides a better granularity in returned results than 1.2, but requires constant interaction with the server during the assessment. That means a high load on the server and a less responsive client.

vi) Results presented on screen - This is pretty low tech, but it is readily understandable. After an exam, an instructor can view the results on screen on the computer that was used. He can also print them out for later use or ask the students to click on the print button. It's simple and easy to understand. I'm thinking it would be useful in primary and secondary schools or anywhere that has computers with printers attached but can't guarantee internet access or a reliable local server.

Would this last method be a useful in your organization? Leave a comment.

Posted by Alexander on March 30, 2005 | Getting Results | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Online Backup

I started using an online backup service this weekend. In the past I've worried about fire and theft and found myself scrambling to put everything on CD before leaving my PC for any length of time. Data Deposit Box have an easy to understand 1¢ per megabyte per month rate. The software runs easily and quitely in the background doing incremental backups over my broadband connection on Windows XP. I managed to reduce my 'project' folder with all my essential stuff to about 300MB - so it's about $3 per month - a pretty reasonable cost for peace of mind.

Posted by Alexander on March 27, 2005 | Online Backup | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Dishonesty is Dell-eterious

Dell has been courting my business pretty heavily for the past few months. Every week a new piece of direct mail from Dell arrives. Every week I'm visiting websites that have Dell adverts and pop-ups. I quite like the Dell brand and I've owned Dell computers in the past and I've even recommended Dell to others who have asked for advice.

But I'm not buying any Dell computers because their delivery costs are both unreasonable and dishonest. Catalog stores can deliver a set of wardrobes for £4.95 - does Dell really expect me to believe that while it is a cost-cutter par excellence, it can't organize delivery of a laptop for less than about £60 (over $100). It's dishonest.

Update: Looks like I'm not the only one bothered by this.

Posted by Alexander on March 23, 2005 | Dishonesty is Dell-eterious | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Education Show, Birmingham


This is a picture from The Education Show, held in the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham. As you can tell from the gigantic ant, the focus was on the primary sector, with a lot of the attendees being teachers. Pictured also is David Low, Central Question's business development manager.

There was a heavy emphasis on Smartboards (very large touch-screen displays), which were being touted as a replacement to the whiteboard (or the blackboard of old). While these work extremely well in an exhibition setting, I not convinced of the usefulness of these in the classroom. The change to the learning experience for the student is small. The purpose of these screens seems to be to keep the teacher at the centre of the learning experience rather than to allow students to interact with learning software directly. It's a kind of high-visibility change, but with little impact. Style not substance. They may have a big future in exhibitions and demonstrations, but I don't see it in classrooms of the future.

Posted by Alexander on March 19, 2005 | The Education Show, Birmingham | Comments (3) | TrackBack

New Video Codec For Flash 8?

I'm seeing some speculation on Macromedia finance boards that Flash 8 will have a new video codec made by ON2. I wonder what the implications are for Sorenson who make a very solid video compression program for Flash.

Posted by Alexander on March 16, 2005 | New Video Codec For Flash 8? | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Best Practice

I followed a link from The Economist to the DTI's 'Best Practice' website today. It bills itself as 'a toolkit of practical business advice'. I'm usually pretty sceptical when government and business have too much to do with each other but this hits the right note. It's clear, it's concise, there's a lot of signal and not so much noise.

Posted by Alexander on March 15, 2005 | Best Practice | Comments (0) | TrackBack

FlashVars made easy - writeFlash


Download writeFlash 1.02 code and sample

Update - writeFlash 1.02 - adds support for name parameter - needed for use with FSCommand - 19th May 2005

Update - writeFlash 1.01 - adds flashvars directly to the querystring to support Flash 5 - 22nd March 2005


You might remember the kerfuffle caused by the Eolas patent in late 2003. Around that time, Peter Elst released a neat javascript method, insertFlash, that got around the problem by dynamically writing the code needed to place Flash objects on screen. Even though the patent issues have receeded into the distance, I've found that using javascript to write Flash objects is a very convenient and trouble-free way of doing things. I extended that javascript to include an easy way to write flashvars - an area that often causes confusion especially when UTF8/Unicode values are used.

I tidied up that code over the weekend and changed the function name to 'writeFlash' to avoid confusion with the original function call which has slightly different arguments.


With Peter's permission, I'm releasing it under a BSD license which means that it can be used in all types of projects.


To use writeFlash, you'll just need to include the javascript file and a call to the write function in your HTML document. It will look something like this,


All the options and default values are documented in the javascript file. Please report any bugs as you find them - I'll try to keep writeFlash updated with any workarounds or idosyncracies needed for different browsers or Flash versions - and so all that information will become codified in a single function.


Geoff Stearns has another javascript solution which may be of interest, especially if you're focussed on web standards and XHTML.

Posted by Alexander on March 14, 2005 | FlashVars made easy - writeFlash | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Let's Get Down To Business

Great article on starting a start-up by Paul Graham here. I enjoy reading his thoughts on most things. With this article, I can see some Peopleware here but mostly a lot of common sense.

In a technology startup, which most startups are, the founders should include technical people. During the Internet Bubble there were a number of startups founded by business people who then went looking for hackers to create their product for them. This doesn't work well. Business people are bad at deciding what to do with technology, because they don't know what the options are, or which kinds of problems are hard and which are easy. And when business people try to hire hackers, they can't tell which ones are good. Even other hackers have a hard time doing that. For business people it's roulette.

I'm expecting to see a lot more interest from the general public in business over the next decade. A good indicator is the number of primetime TV programmes dealing with the subject. Programmes like 'The Apprentice' and 'Dragon's Den' are encouraging real entrepreneurship and replacing the western obsession with the economically marginal activity of property renovation which has dominated for the past decade.

Posted by Alexander on March 10, 2005 | Let's Get Down To Business | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Flash Player License and Distribution Agreement

I signed up today for a license to distribute the Flash Player as I need to distribute it with a product that I'll be releasing later on this year. There is a long agreement to read and agree to but the process is pretty painless and doesn't appear to be subject to human review at Macromedia's end.

Posted by Alexander on March 08, 2005 | Flash Player License and Distribution Agreement | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Macromedia responds in a Flash

I'm not sure when they made the change, as their FAQ pages don't have dates, but as of 5th March 14:28 GMT, Macromedia's Flash Player FAQ reads,

What is Macromedia's policy regarding making offers from within the Flash Player installer?

Macromedia has not and will not include 3rd party software or 3rd party software offers in the Flash Player installer.

We believe that continued developer and publisher support for Flash relies greatly on the seamless, free, invisible install experience of the Flash Player. We’ve always gone to great lengths to get Flash Player distributed with companies like Microsoft, Apple, Netscape, and others. It is free to distribute the Flash player on Intranets. We also offer tools like the Flash Detection Kit so an invisible Flash Player download can be prompted from any website.

No offers are or will be made via these mechanisms.

That emphasis is a little different to the text on that same page (accessed through Google cache, from 1st March 2005) which used to read

Why is the Yahoo! Toolbar being distributed with Flash Player?

Yahoo! and Macromedia are working together with the combined goal of providing great user experiences to our customers. This includes projects such as enabling customers to take advantage of the Yahoo! Toolbar and promoting the development of great, compelling content with the wide range of Macromedia products. Customers who do not wish to take advantage of this offer can easily opt-out of the installation.

So, there is a commitment now about the future distribution of the Flash Player. I think if you were to buy Flash MX 2004 based on this commitment, and Macromedia were to renege on it, they would have a hard time preventing you from distributing a spyware free Flash Player yourself. Actually, that's probably rubbish. They'd just sue you into the ground. Nonetheless, It is good to see this guarantee has been made, but it could be firmer.

Posted by Alexander on March 05, 2005 | Macromedia responds in a Flash | Comments (0) | TrackBack

A Glimpse Of The Future?

The current Yahoo Toolbar debacle gives me serious concerns about the future for the distribution of the Flash Player. I've been happy to see the development of the Flash player remain under the control of Macromedia - if any serious challenger started to gain traction, it would create a compatibility nightmare. Think about the way Microsoft's JVM effectively killed client-side Java.

The Flash File Format specification isn't a specification that has been born perfectly formed and delivered from the loins of the W3C - it has grown through 7 versions and there is a lot of backward compatibility arcana there. Frankly, I think it would be an impossible task for anyone to write a Flash Player that maintained the same level of backward compatibility as Macromedia's player. And I don't think there is any commercial reason to do it except to destroy the platform.

Macromedia controls the distribution of the Flash Player quite tightly. If you're delivering on CDROM, you've got to enter into a license agreement to deliver an installer with your product. But that's a small nuisance as compared to what happens if you distribute Flash on the internet. You can't provide a downloadable installer from your website, you've got to send the user to Macromedia to get the player. Macromedia makes no guarantees about the way it will distribute the player. By bundling Yahoo Toolbar, it has reminded me of it's ability to change the way it distributes the player. It has reminded me that distributing Flash on the internet leaves me reliant on the benevolence of Macromedia.

Macromedia is a publicly traded corporation, it is legally mandated to make the largest amount of profit it can. It is not a charity and benevolence is not a long-term strategy. Whenever it figures that it is in it's long term financial interests to bundle spyware, adware, shareware and whatever else with its Flash player, Shockwave player, Authorware player, it will.

I doubt this is the right moment for Macromedia to embark on this journey - this is most likely related to some short term financial target. I expect the shares will get some short term boost from the partnership and then could sink back by as much as 30%-50%. I'll buy some when they are back at $20.

What does Macromedia need to do to recover? It has to dump Yahoo, apologise, and give guarantees about the future distribution of the Flash player.

Some other bloggers on this -
Open Letter to Macromedia - Resolve this Yahoo fiasco
Macromedia Madness - Flash gets cement shoes?
Flash Player7 w/ Y! WTF?!
The issue of Flash Player bundling: A matter of trust

Posted by Alexander on March 04, 2005 | A Glimpse Of The Future? | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Flash 8 Summary

Current Flash 8 Summary - This is a good article about what's currently in the public domain about Flash 8 and what's likely to be included. Again the theme seems to be that the Flash file-format won't change much and most of the changes are in the player.

Posted by Alexander on March 01, 2005 | Flash 8 Summary | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Leonardo Da Vinci Required For Flash Developer Position. Please State Salary Expectations.

I was reading the "Da Vinci Code" while I was away on holiday. Alongside pretty much every other modern occupation, Da Vinci would have made a great Flash developer. He had the raw creativity so vital in the graphic design side of Flash, together with the analytic skills needed for the software engineering side.

Some of the Flash job ads I see might as well read 'Modern Day Da Vinci Required.' It's tempting to require someone who can do it all and they do exist. But those so gifted are few and far between. Try to remember the last time you met someone who was both very well dressed and also had a passion for the minutae of Star Trek.

It's not just that these skills are rare - but there is an aspect of mutual exclusion at play here. For whatever reason, maybe cultural, educational or genetic, those that excel in software engineering are more likely to be poor at graphic design and the reverse holds true also.

Most Flash developers are not Da Vinci. They are often great designers who have had to step outside their comfort zone to learn Actionscript. For the most part they'll complete projects and the software will work mostly as expected. The higher cost isn't always seen immediately but will be expressed in terms of more testing, more maintenance and lack of code-reuse. In other words, Software Engineering 101.

For projects that are programmatically simple or don't require much new code, this kind of developer is often a sensible, cost effective choice. But as soon as project needs any kind of complexity, you'll need an engineer to manage that complexity. Sometimes this person is called a "Software Architect". I use the term 'engineer' because it implies that the person isn't afraid to write some code as well as talk about it, but the most important thing to require here is a firm grounding in object-oriented development principles.

What's troubling is that good software engineers tend to avoid Flash. They'll see that Flash developers generally get paid less than Enterprise Acronym Buzz Word Programmers and will be concerned that 'Flash' will look poor on their resume. Sometimes, they'll just be plain religious about it. They'll make ill-considered, ill-informed statements about Flash on Slashdot and they'll worry about what their fellow Slashdotters think about their dabbling in 'not a serious programming language'.

Macromedia has been active in changing hearts and minds here. And it is a self re-enforcing cycle - the more software engineers that use Flash, the more seriously it is regarded as a platform for development and the more software engineers start to use it. If your company is about to embark on a Flash project with a lot of complexity, I suggest you flesh out your team with a talented software engineer who may not know any Actionscript yet rather than Flash designer who 'can do' Actionscript.

Posted by Alexander on March 01, 2005 | Leonardo Da Vinci Required For Flash Developer Position. Please State Salary Expectations. | Comments (0) | TrackBack