Current Demographics for My Programming For Everybody Session 2 on Coursera

This blog post is to share some of the demographic data with my students in Programming for everybody on Coursera.

Demographics PR4E#002 (PDF)

Please contact me if you want ot use this in a blog post or some other publication to make sure I get you the most up to date materials.

Dear Google – You Need A Tip Jar So I can Show the Love

Google – Yesterday you saved me $2000 and there is no way to say ‘thank you’. If there were a place to “tip” Google I would certainly give you a nice tip.

Here is my story.

Two days ago, my wife came into the house and wondered why it was so hot even though we had turned the air conditioner on hours earlier. It did seem to be a bit warm so I went out to look at the compressor.

The fan was not spinning but it was hot and making a low hum – not good. Then I used a stick to push the fan to see if it was bad or sticking bearing – the fan spun freely but did not start. Our house was built in 2001 and many of the homes in the neighborhood have been replacing their 15-year old air conditioners. And it was in a series of very hot days so I knew it would take forever to get it fixed – groan. I turned off the power and figured I would use Google Search to do some research on how much this would cost me.

First I just tried to find out how much a new condenser would cost installed – so I googled “AC Condenser price” and “installation cost AC condenser” . There was no clear answer so I figured I would just go get the model number of my existing Carrier condenser and Google it to find the replacement cost of the exact same condenser.

So I started typing ‘carrier 38ckc036340’ and as I was typing – the following screen came up:

I was intrigued by the mention of ‘capacitor’ as I knew that it was pretty common for lots of electronic things to fail because of capacitor failure. So I looked at a few pages and then switched my search to ‘carrier 38ckc036340 fan stopped’ and quickly found this page:

Carrier A/C condenser not working (fan doesn’t come on)

The picture looked pretty easy to interpret so I turned off the power to my AC unit and opened it up. Not only was my capacitor top obviously bulging, I had a stripped wire that I was surprised had not shorted these past 15 years.

A couple of machine screws later I had the capacitor off. A quick motorcycle ride to the appliance parts store and $35.00 later I had a new capacitor. I popped it back in and the AC started working immediately:

So here is the upshot. Google’s type ahead saved me as much as $2K – not only did it save me money but I was able to complete the repair in about the same amount of time it would have take a repair company to call me back.

I know who helped me here and want to share the love. But there is no “tip jar” to drop $5 or $20 into to thank “Google”.

I think that you should make this part of AdWords. Put it in the AdWords rectangle as shown below. I know that I need to show the love to (a) the site with the money-saving knowledge and (b) Google for getting me there – so a profit split from the tip jar would put the right incentives in place for all.

Now in the future as search ads become less and less valuable (especially on the non-video internet) – you might find that a tip jar model is a great source of revenue.

Let me know if this works out for you. You could share a bit of the love for me coming up with such a cool idea by clicking on my little Leave Tip button.

Sakai Value Proposition in Light of the Unizin Announcement

Note: In this blog post I am not speaking for anyone other than myself as a faculty member in the School of Information at the University of Michigan, individual contributor to the Sakai community, and incoming chair of the Sakai Project Management Committee (PMC). I am not in any way involved with the Unizin effort at the University of Michigan. Full disclosure: I do consulting work as the Sakai Chief Strategist for Longsight, Inc. – A leading provider of hosting and development services around Sakai.

Related: Only on Canvas (Unizin) from Inside Higher Education.

There seems to be some confusion as to how the creation of the Unizin effort (www.unizin.org) might affect the Sakai community. Those who have not looked at Sakai in some time might assume that as the University of Michigan and Indiana University start to invest resources to support the Canvas LMS that Sakai will be left with no resources. Thankfully this is not the case as over the past ten years Sakai has become a rich and diverse international open source community. The following graph shows the participation levels of the various institutions on the Sakai developer list over the past ten years.

Looking at the graph, you can see how the Sakai project started with about seven schools that contributed the bulk of the initial code and provided essential leadership that helped the community to grow. Building the initial Sakai code base was very labor and capital intensive. But now that Sakai is on par with the other LMS systems in the marketplace the need for large-scale investment from Universities is greatly reduced. In a recent survey, Sakai represents a 9% market share in US higher education based on FTE.

Sakai no longer depends on the founding schools to move the project forward. Schools like Michigan, Stanford, Berkeley, Cambridge, Oxford, Cape Town, Columbia, and Indiana got us started in the early years – but over the past decade the Sakai community has become very rich, diverse, and sustainable. The Sakai community now has contributors from over 100 organizations around the world. Schools like Rutgers, NYU, Stanford, Columbia, Cape Town, Oxford, and others continue to provide community leadership and strong representation from higher education. These direct contributions from higher education institutions are increasingly supplemented by significant investments from successful Sakai Commercial Affiliates. The global nature of the community coupled with the open cooperation between higher education resources and commercial resources working on the same code base leads to a very robust ecosystem that will sustain Sakai for many years.

The Sakai product is a stable, performant and compelling learning and collaboration platform with an exciting and innovative development roadmap. The Sakai 10 release (2Q14) focuses on making Sakai cloud-ready and greatly reduces the hardware requirements to run Sakai. The Sakai 11 release scheduled for 2Q15 adds mobile capabilities and a completely redesigned responsive user interface as well as further improvements to Sakai’s scalability and cloud readiness.

Growing world-wide adoption has also been translated into significant levels of growing worldwide contribution. We’re an open global community supporting globally relevant software. Sakai features more languages than any commercial LMS because open source allows those with an interest to invest in a translation to meet their own needs.

Recall that Sakai was created in part to reintroduce competition into an LMS market space dominated by a single commercial provider. We along with a number of other LMS providers succeeded in reversing the trend towards single provider dominance. We welcome the innovations and competitive spirit that Instructure has brought to the market. The goal of Sakai is to make the entire learning ecosystem better rather than a simple focus on Sakai’s market share. Competition between Sakai and Canvas both in the marketplace and on various campuses will only make both products better to the benefit of teachers and learners regardless of the product they use.

I think that we are going to see larger higher education institutions supporting multiple LMS platforms as a steady-state situation for their campuses going forward. A school already might be actively teaching Sakai, EdX and Coursera – these systems provide capabilities that are “additive”. With the increasing trend toward outsourcing the hosting and maintenance of these systems (including schools that use Sakai) it is less important to only have a single LMS for the entire campus. Campus IT increasingly is maintaining a portfolio of services from multiple vendors to meet the needs of faculty, staff, and students at the university.

Supporting more than one LMS gives faculty a choice in a way that a single one-size fits all LMS has never been able to provide. It also means that faculty can experience unhurried migrations from one product to another since there is no rush to “shut down” an open-source LMS that does not have an annual license. And as the multi-LMS campus becomes the norm, standards and interoperability like those from IMS Global come to the fore. And Sakai is ideally positioned to work with Canvas and others to rapidly innovate around data portability and software interoperability.

TSUGI – An Standards-Based Learning Tool Framework

Over the next few weeks I will be writing some blog posts about my new approach to teaching and learning technology. You can see a few of my recent talks about my ideas on SlideShare.

The overall goal of the TSUGI framework is to make it as simple as possible to write IMS Learning Tools Interoperability™ (LTI)™ tools supporting LTI 1.x (and soon 2.x) and put them into production. The framework hides all the detail of the IMS standards behind an API. The use of this framework does not automatically imply any type of IMS certification. Tools and products that use this framework must still go through the formal certification process through IMS (www.imsglobal.org).

My overall goal is to create a learning ecosystem that spans all the LMS systems including Sakai, Moodle, Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Canvas, Coursera, EdX, NovoEd, and perhaps even Google Classroom. It is time to move away from the one-off LTI implementations and move towards a shared hosting container for learning tools. With the emergence of IMS standards for Analytics, Grade book, Roster, App Store, and a myriad of other services, we cannot afford to do independent implementations for each of these standards. TSUGI hopes to provide one sharable implementation of all of these standards as they are developed, completed, and approved.

In the long run I expect to develop Java, Ruby, and other variants of TSUGI but I am initially focusing on the PHP version because it allows me to be most agile as we explore architecture choices and engages the widest range of software developers.

In the long run, I hope to make this a formal open source project, but for now it is just my own “Dr. Chuck Labs” effort.
Even in its current form it is very reliable and very scalable but I am not eager to have too many adoptions because I expect the code will see several refactor phases as various communities start to look critically at the code.

If you want to watch this evolve see www.tsugi.org

Learning Tools Interoperability™ (LTI™) is a trademark of IMS Global Learning Consortium, Inc. in the United States and/or other countries. (www.imsglobal.org)

Dear Google, Like You, I Just Don’t Care…

As many know, when Google App Engine came out I became immediately enamored with it. I saw it as a way to democratize access to server-hosted code. It meant everyone in the world could have server space at no charge and I hoped it would unleash creativity. I wrote the first book on App Engine (released through O’Reilly and Associates). I switched the course I was teaching from Ruby on Rails to use App Engine and it was taught that way for over 3 years. I started doing more and more server side development in Python. I started moving some of my production stuff from PHP to App Engine to show the faith.

But my enthusiasm and rush to embrace all things App Engine was not to last. I could write a book on went wrong with App Engine but here are a few of the high points. (1) They never would help you with performance problems unless your name is “Sal Khan” – they just were the Honey Badger. (2) Once they used us early adopters to Beta test their code by building free applications – the “free” resource levels went down to force more folks to the pay version. (3) They just decided to break working code as they went to Python 2.7 – no need to support legacy (say like Microsoft does) – again the cries of “foul” fell on the deaf Honey Badger ears.

That is not to say that App Engine had zero value. It motivated companies like Amazon to create truly useful services like EC2 that actually met user’s needs and let users do what they wanted and let users log in to diagnose why their code was running slowly. So App Engine was not quite a Google Wave that never took off. More like a Google Reader that told Yahoo that there was demand for such a service.

Google has done a lot of forcing innovation upon us – like the AJAX revolution through Google Maps and GMail. And I love Chrome (I am using it to write this post).

So I have been recently getting mail that my App Engine and Apps stuff that I built during my post-Google I/O (2008, 2009) high are not active so they will be deleted. I have many opportunities to simply “click this button” to extend the life of these things. But this time, it is my turn to be the Honey Badger. Because you see I simply do not care. I just cannot depend Google for anything other than AdSense, Search, Maps and Mail. You are good at supporting your applications and terrible at supporting my applications. Your developer stuff is so freakishly proprietary and you have no commitment to continuity. I like Amazon a lot – they “get” me – Amazon is my partner – they want me to succeed and get a cut of my success. Google makes me feel like a side of beef – an asset to be managed.

Here is the mail I just got. I am putting it into this blog post so I can gleefully delete it and ignore it – like the Honey Badger would.

Hello,

There hasn’t been any activity on your Google Apps account for the domain cloudcollab.com since we sent your termination notice 30 days ago.

Your cloudcollab.com Google Apps account has been closed.

You can still check or save your data. Just sign in to admin.google.com as drchuck@cloudcollab.com in the next 30 days and export your data. If you forgot your username or password, click the “Need help?” link, and we’ll help you access your account.

Your account will be automatically terminated on May 8th 2014. Once your account is terminated, you can no longer access any Google Apps services with this domain name. All of your account data, such as your Gmail messages and contacts, will be permanently deleted to protect your privacy. No one will be able to access your old data by creating a new Google Apps account with this domain name.

Visit the Google Apps Help Center to learn more about closing inactive accounts.

We hope you’ve enjoyed using Google Apps. If you would like to continue using these services, we invite you to create a new Google Apps for Business account.

Sincerely,
The Google Apps Team

Altering a UNIQUE Constraint in a MySQL Table

It took me a while to figure out how to drop and recreate a UNIQUE constraint on one of my tables. So I figured I would record the slick little sequence of commands here to help my memory and save me time next time:

SHOW CREATE TABLE t_lti_link;
 
CREATE TABLE `t_lti_link` (
`link_id` int(11) NOT NULL AUTO_INCREMENT,
`link_sha256` char(64) NOT NULL,
`link_key` varchar(4096) NOT NULL,
`context_id` int(11) NOT NULL,
`title` varchar(2048) DEFAULT NULL,
`json` text,
`created_at` datetime NOT NULL,
`updated_at` datetime NOT NULL,
PRIMARY KEY (`link_id`),
UNIQUE KEY `link_sha256` (`link_sha256`),
KEY `t_lti_link_ibfk_1` (`context_id`),
CONSTRAINT `t_lti_link_ibfk_1` FOREIGN KEY (`context_id`) REFERENCES `t_lti_context` (`context_id`) ON DELETE CASCADE ON UPDATE CASCADE
) ENGINE=InnoDB AUTO_INCREMENT=74 DEFAULT CHARSET=utf8
 
ALTER TABLE t_lti_link DROP INDEX link_sha256;
 
SHOW INDEX FROM t_lti_link;
 
ALTER TABLE t_lti_link ADD UNIQUE(link_sha256, context_id)
 
SHOW INDEX FROM t_lti_link;
 
SHOW CREATE TABLE t_lti_link;
 
CREATE TABLE `t_lti_link` (
`link_id` int(11) NOT NULL AUTO_INCREMENT,
`link_sha256` char(64) NOT NULL,
`link_key` varchar(4096) NOT NULL,
`context_id` int(11) NOT NULL,
`title` varchar(2048) DEFAULT NULL,
`json` text,
`created_at` datetime NOT NULL,
`updated_at` datetime NOT NULL,
PRIMARY KEY (`link_id`),
UNIQUE KEY `link_sha256` (`link_sha256`,`context_id`),
KEY `t_lti_link_ibfk_1` (`context_id`),
CONSTRAINT `t_lti_link_ibfk_1` FOREIGN KEY (`context_id`) REFERENCES `t_lti_context` (`context_id`) ON DELETE CASCADE ON UPDATE CASCADE
) ENGINE=InnoDB AUTO_INCREMENT=74 DEFAULT CHARSET=utf8

Sweet. I am loving that MySQL magic.

Learning Management System – March Madness 2014

I just produced a bracket for March Madness 2014 that breaks it down by which enterprise Learning Management System each campus is running.

LMS March Madness for 2014.

The Final-4 bis set:

Blackboard: 2
Sakai: 1
Desire2Learn: 1

The story line for the Final Four is almost perfect. In the first round it is Blackboard versus Sakai and Blackboard versus Desire2Learn. It could be an all-Blackboard final or Blackboard could have no teams in the final. This is unlike in 2013 where Blackboard was three of the four Final Four teams (Sakai was the fourth) and eventually won it all. If your team is no longer in the playoffs – simple switch to rooting for a team based on their enterprise LMS.

The Sweet-16 box score was:

Blackboard: 8
Sakai: 4
Desire2Learn: 3
Moodle: 1

Check out my blog post from last year!

We shall see who wins the overall LMS March Madness Challenge!

Joining Longsight

March 17, 2014 was my first day as a Longsight employee. I of course am not leaving my full-time faculty position at the University of Michigan School of Information and I will continue to teach my on-campus and Coursera courses. I am joining Longsight as a part-time employee with the title of “Sakai Strategist”. I will also continue doing consulting work for the IMS Global Learning consortium as I have done since 2008.

Being part of Longsight has a number of wonderful benefits for me. First I have financial support to participate in the Sakai community. While the result of free and open source efforts is freedom for the users and adopters of the resulting products, it still costs money to build high-quality open source software like Sakai. My new support will help underwrite a portion of my time working on Sakai as well as cover travel and support costs for my community activities. The second benefit to being part of Longsight is working closely with my new Longsight colleagues. Longsight has emerged as one of the strongest Sakai Commercial Affiliates (SCAs) and Longsight staff are a critical part of the leadership of the Sakai. Even though my efforts will be as a part-time employee, by being part of Longsight, I will be part of a coordinated effort to both improve Sakai and expand its reach.

I think that the LMS marketplace is at an important inflection point. Much like in 2004 when Sakai and Moodle became the disruptive force in the market that ultimately made the commercial providers better, stronger, and more responsive to customer needs, I think that the market is primed to take its next leap forward.

It is time for all the products in the marketplace to move toward a disaggregated architecture for learning platforms and learning tools. The single monolithic LMS will simply not meet the needs of teachers and learners any more. But all of the major products in the marketplace including Sakai, Moodle, Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Canvas and others have been dedicated to building the world’s greatest monolithic LMS. And frankly, what we have all really been doing for the last 15 years is trying to “out do” Blackboard Learn to one degree or another. Learn was the first and most successful product in this market and in many ways established and continues to be the definition of “learning technology”.

I think that Sakai is the only major LMS activity in the marketplace willing to take a risky step backwards to enable a transformative leap forwards. Sakai is the only effort that is supported by a diverse group of commercial and academic participants. This diversity has its challenges – we cannot raise $60 million from venture capitalists on a whim because we won’t surrender our intellectual property to them. But at the same time, we can collectively take risks.

We are a band of committed friends, colleagues and volunteers spread around the world. We work for a diverse set of organizations. Yet we have found a way to develop a product that has garnered between six and ten percent of worldwide market share. Sakai has been able to compete with well-funded enterprises and hold its own with almost no “centrally controlled” resources (we employ a single dedicated full-time employee). It is a testament to how much more efficient the open source model is than any other model of software development and group coordination. It also points out how much more effective each of us can be when we are doing something that we love.

So what is next? You actually don’t have to look much further than the 18-month roadmap for Sakai-11 that was developed by the community in January this year:

https://confluence.sakaiproject.org/display/REL/Sakai+11+straw+man

This is the first time we have engaged in a collective planning process with an 18-month horizon. We were scoping the release of Sakai-11 six months before we finish Sakai-10. The Sakai-11 goals are bold and will require a lot of work. My support from Longsight will ensure that I can invest the time I need to contribute to that exciting vision of Sakai-11 and beyond.

In addition to the Sakai-11 roadmap, I will be spending time working on other Apereo open source efforts like building a portfolio system completely outside of *any* LMS and integrating it through standard connections. I also plan to be involved in the Apereo effort to build an open source tool for Learning Analytics that will work with *any* LMS and integrate using standards like LTI, xAPI, and IMS Caliper. And there has not been any mention of an open source Apereo learning object repository or App Store projects – but I think that is only a matter of time.

I am running out of space so I will just mention offhand the flight of LMS users to mobile, the emergence of the EPUB3 standard and its impact on learning, the increasing growth of enhanced e-books as the “Entry Point to Learning”. LMS vendors are not likely to have the agility needed to truly explore these complex and emerging trends fully. But since Sakai has so many people and schools already “playing” with these ideas at the edge – it is completely natural for us to be front and center in these transformative trends.

I see amazing synergy between building new standards in IMS, building reference implementations for those standards into Sakai and then building Apereo learning tools outside of Sakai integrated using those standards.

I think that the combination of Apereo/Sakai/IMS will be energizing to the entire marketplace in very good ways. People, companies, and universities need to realize that an investment in Apereo is an investment in the future architecture of the teaching and learning marketplace. I would love to see Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, and Desire2Learn join the Apereo community and contribute to various Apereo efforts. One way or another we are all in this together.

I am looking forward to seeing you all in New Orleans at IMS Learning Impact – May 5-8 and in Miami at the Open Apereo 2014 – June 1-4.

Leaving Blackboard

March 7, 2014 was my last day as a Blackboard employee. I will miss working closely with the talented people at Blackboard. The choice and timing of this decision was entirely mine. I just felt that my personal adventure was leading in a different direction and I wanted more time and range to work independently and explore those possibilities. That said I expect that I’ll continue to work with my Bb collaborators in many of the same ways I have been, just with a different perspective.

I am very proud of my two years as a Blackboard employee. Blackboard is a great supporter of open source, Sakai and open standards, and it’s investments helped move Sakai 2.9 towards its ultimate release. Sakai 2.9 was very important because it was the first release that included Rutger’s LessonBuilder that gave Sakai a structured content capability that most see as an essential feature for learning management systems.

Video about LessonBuilder from University of Michigan

I really enjoyed working with the Blackboard xpLor team in Indianapolis integrating xpLor into Sakai’s LessonBuilder using the Learning Object Repository Integration (LORI) API. I was so proud when the LORI code was deployed in production at Indiana for Fall 2013 and later made available to the entire Sakai community when it was included in Sakai 2.9.3. I was also able to invest time to build new portal navigation (along with many others) for Sakai 2.9 that nicely updated Sakai’s look and feel.

Arguably the most significant effort supported by Blackboard was my work on IMS LTI 2.0. Starting in early 2013, it was clear that we needed a reference implementation in a real LMS to compliment the rich tool implementation built by John Tibbets of VitalSource. When a standard is “almost done”, what is needed to push it over the edge into reality are solid reference implementations and a certification suite. So I threw myself into the task and by the end of last summer I had the Sakai LTI 2.0 code pretty much complete. All that was left was to argue through the myriad of tiny details that are exposed when real implementations are built.

Because of my support from Blackboard, Sakai 10 is the first officially IMS LTI 2.0 certified LMS.

Over the past two years, Blackboard has covered my to travel to IMS and Sakai meetings around the world. I greatly enjoyed picking up the tab for my friends Ruth’s Chris steak dinners and Karaoke nights. I am a firm believer that steak and karaoke are fundamental to community cohesion. Letting us have fun together was part of Blackboard’s investment in the success of the Sakai community.

While it is pretty cool to have a job with a company that pretty much pays you to do whatever you want to do, what was really cool was how much my colleagues at Blackboard embraced me and made me feel part of the team. I loved going to BbWorld meetings and just listening to so many smart people who thought so deeply about the teaching and learning marketplace.

That closeness is what I will miss the most as I shift my role from that of an “internal collaborator” to an “external collaborator”. I hope to continue (as I always have) to collaborate through IMS with Blackboard – and the rest of the marketplace – to truly revolutionize teaching and learning with technology. I think that the LMS vendors, working with IMS can craft a whole new world of easy-to-use and seamlessly integrated disaggregated learning functionality. I think that the LMS marketplace will see great change in the next five years. I don’t see the profound innovations coming from a bunch of small startups – but instead the major efforts like Blackboard, Canvas, Desire2Learn, Sakai and Moodle will lead from the front.

When you next meet me at a Sakai, IMS, Educause, SXSWEdu or some other meeting – I will be doing exactly the same thing as I was doing the last time you met me. Playing and exploring new ways to improve teaching and learning with technology and trying to bring people together to work collectively.

Comments welcome.

When Skylab Fell to Earth – Richard Wiggins (1956-2014)

This is a short essay written by Richard Wiggins, who passed away very recently. Rich was my close friend, colleague, and collaborator for nearly 40 years. A memorial celebration for Rich will be held Saturday March 1, 2014 from 12-2PM at the Palmer Bush & Jensen Funeral Home in Holt, MI.

This story from 13 years ago captures perfectly who he was, how he thought, and most importantly what a wonderful writer he was.

Many years ago, Rich was described as 'tall, thin, and full of syntax'.“When Skylab Fell to Earth”
by Richard Wiggins

East Lansing, Michigan — March 23, 2001

So Mir has finally fallen to Earth. We’ve been told for years to expect Mir’s death, but, like Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the space station refused to die on schedule. When I learned of the imminent fiery demise of Mir, I thought back to 1979, when the pioneering U.S. space station, Skylab, met a similar fate.

When news broke that Skylab was doomed, I was a student at Michigan State University. I was out of my dorm room for a few minutes while a friend watched Walter Cronkite deliver the evening news. As my friend and I left for dinner, he commented, “Did you know that Skylab is falling down?”

At the time, my father, Herbert Wiggins, Sr., was an engineer with NASA. Working with other engineers and with astronauts such as Alan Bean, he had helped design parts of Skylab. Dad had given me a large NASA publicity photograph of Skylab, which I had proudly taped to my dorm room wall (nails were discouraged). Unfortunately, the slick walls didn’t hold the photo up very well, so I frequently had to re-attach it.

So I told my friend calmly “Oh, that happens all the time. Why didn’t you put it back up?” Needless to say, he looked at me most quizzically. It took us a few minutes to sort out the confusion. I realized that the space station my dad had cared so much about was dying an early death.

My friend’s reaction paled in comparison to my mother’s. Somehow she persuaded herself that some strange cosmic twist of fate would cause Skylab to blaze a trail straight to a human victim – me. I don’t know what bad karma she thought the family was carrying around. I’m not even sure if she thought in terms of karma; we were Presbyterians. But she was convinced the space station her husband helped design would kill her youngest son.

Dad tried to explain to my mother – he called her “Et,” short for “Ethel” – that the odds of Skylab hitting anyone in general, and her son in particular, were pretty small. But no amount of argument from Dad or me could shake this belief. Finally, Dad found a NASA scientist with a statistical background, who conjured up a sufficiently vivid explanation of the relative size of the planet’s surface versus the size of her son, the target. Nonetheless, when Skylab finally did fall to Earth on July 11, 1979, I’m sure she was praying for me. Thankfully, the pieces that hit land in western Australia brought no harm to anyone.

Dad was as proud of his work on Skylab as anything he ever did, including having landed in Normandy on the early hours of D-Day. He always believed that Skylab could have been saved. He supported a special launch mission to do just that. However, NASA was putting all its eggs into the basket of the new Space Shuttle program. Dad believed a conspiracy to support the Shuttle was killing a perfectly viable space station program; he lamented the unnecessary loss of U.S. space station capability.

Russia launched Mir in 1986. Meanwhile, the U.S. went without a space station throughout the 1980s and 1990s. At just over six years, Skylab’s lifespan was short compared to Mir’s life of 15 years. Mir has had moments of glory (records for human time in space) and moments of fear and embarrassment (fire, collision, and the possibility of general system failure).

Two decades after Skylab’s fall, an aging fleet of Shuttles services the effort to build the International Space Station. Privately, NASA engineers grumble that the Russian contribution has actually slowed down the program. Soon the United States will have a Shuttle program on its last legs, with no replacement in sight — and a space station it can’t claim as its own. Perhaps that’s all an inevitable result of the end of the Cold War, but at least some of the engineers that designed Skylab think there could’ve been an alternative path.

Both my parents were alive back in 1986 when Mir was launched. Mother died in 1987, and I recall her bitter disappointment in the Challenger disaster. Dad passed away last year. He saw the dawn of 2000, but not the new International Space Station. I don’t think it would’ve impressed him much.

Today, 24 hour news channels and dozens of Web sites tracked Mir’s descent. Still, scientists once again had to reassure a worried public. Space analyst John Pike said, “The risk is not zero, but it’s pretty close to zero.” I wonder if the mother of a former Soviet space engineer was worried about her son getting hit in the process. If so, she can put her fears to rest; the Russian space agency managed the spectacular descent precisely – and with no injury to anyone.

About the Author: Richard Wiggins is a senior information technologist at Michigan State University who writes frequently about the Internet.

Here are links to some of our collaborative work

Community Information Toolkit – In 1999-2000 developed a tool kit to get libraries and communities on the Internet. Rich did the overview video and I did the camera work and post-production (on a 100Mhz 486).

An Archive of our Television Shows – Rich and I were on television from 1994-2000 and were the first nationally distributed television program about the Internet. We produced three television shows: Internet: TCI, Nuthin But Net[1], North Coast Digital and were a monthly technology experts on WKAR-AM Newstalk-870 program for many years.

Spectator Drag Racing at Mason, MI – In this less serious video Rich is the camera person and I am the “talent”.

We made a great team. His strengths were a great match for my weaknesses. It was why our collaborations continued over such a long period of time. He will be missed.

[1] Rich was never happy with the television show title of “Nuthin But Net” – because to him it was a misspelled word. :)