Wednesday, September 23, 2009

CrowdSourcing and Outsourcing - Beat the Recession

Much of is graphics and videos and design in general. Now design paid for local is great, you get quick easy access to professionals and anything goes wrong he's just down the road...but it's also very expensive.
We at have made use of a few different outsourcing techniques to get the best quality design at the best prices.
First we used to get our logo done. CrowdSpring is a system where by you post a job of work (in this case design a logo) with a spec of the requirements and then specifiy a price. Then over the next 7-14 days you get submissions which are near complete logos. You comment on each one as they come in, the idea being that each new idea might spark a bit of competition in the "crowd" and you end up with in effect 100's of designers working on your logo.
CrowdSpring is great and the "crowd" designer works really well. But it is limited in what you can get done in CrowdSpring and the lowest price of around $300 is much higher then some other sites for a big design job it's a winner.
We have used for much of our other design jobs mainly because they are small in value. Elance is more a traditional outsourcing site. You submit a job and a price range and then professionals from all over the world bid to do the job. You can see portfolios and references for each bidder and you really get the best price because of the auction like process. Sometimes though a winning bidder doesn't work out and you may have to re-submit to get a better professional but generally they are very good.
We have used Elance to get brochures, flyers, postcards, banners, videos even website coding done and most of the time it has been a success. The key to using Elance is to break the jobs up into small chunks as for the money you're paying you really can't expect someone to take a task and run with it you need to spell out exactly what it is you want done.
We've also used sites to get stock photography, stock video and stock audio to get the job done. There are now outsourcing and crowdsouring services for everytrhing and anything e.g. - Get the "Crowd" to come up with a name for something. Amazon's Mechanical Turk - An on-demand human workforce, where you can define a task and get real people to perform it.
My advice to anyone is that with a little effort and thought there is a web provider out there who will do any task you want done at a fraction of the price of a local provider and better quality too.

Monday, September 21, 2009

SEO Is a Bit of a Game

I'm new to the game that is SEO and my opinion is that it kind of makes a mockery of the standard search results. There is an industry built up trying to convince primarily google that the sites they manage are the de-facto source of the information the planet is looking for.
This is obviously nonsense.
There are millions of websites out there with no effort made to make them more "crawler" friendly and they contain great content. Many small time operators just do not know that this is how it works. They believe if they create a good website the googlebot will pick them up and rank them accordingly. Any search engine that can actually do this is an absolute winner but there are none and I doubt there ever will be because whatever algorithms the search engines use the SEO industry will warp to get their sites on top.
Now eventually a small operator may begin to break into the results after time and alot of very good content and a loyal audience but then a new young savy startup will come along spend the SEO dollars and jump to the top again with a fraction of the content and a negligable audience but because of manipulation of tags and links will be made to look like the new source of all knowledge to the googlebot.
In my opinion the search engines using link counts as an important factor is flawed. Links in blogs and forums and various directories can all be manipulated to make a site look pervasive.There should be a definate manually defined ranking system for links to grade them which I'm sure they try to do but if the SEO experts can still through slight of hand get a site well ranked then it's just not working well enough.
Who am I to preach I'm jumping on the same bandwagon, sure this blog was originally concieved as a source of potential links too.....but sure hey what can you do.

Building a Scalable Website

SecondTeacher is a website which will have very definate peaks in loads that are easy to predict. This is a great advantage in building the website but it also poses some challenges.
First we want to run the site efficently and on a budget that doesn't comprimise quality and user experience. We know the site will be busiest between 3pm and 9pm when the majority of students do their homework. In planning for peak load of say 20,000 concurrent users we can evaluate how much each machine can comfortably manage, imagine it's 1,000. We will then need 20 machines load balanced to operate the site. Correct ....?
Well no, we can do alot better than that and we also have a few concerns in relation to bandwidth usage. 20,000 people watching a 500kps video concurrently will need a hell of a lot of bandwidth if our 1,000 users per machine are all watching video then we would be pushing 500mps. Most hosters will only give you a 100mps burst capable pipe at a reasonable price so suddenly at best our machine can only handle 200 users meaning we now need 100 machines to cope....this is getting expensive.
Well our solution was up in the clouds.
First off we pushed all images and video to Amazon cloudfront which allows us to put all these objects on the edge locations close to the customer and also they are served from there meaning they do now clog up our bandwidth. This means we are now only in effect serving html and the silverlight controls now bandwidth is no longer a limiting factor. Now we're back to 1,000 per machine if anyone is keeping count.
Next we implemented our servers in the Amazon EC2 cloud meaning we could using there elastic computing model expand and contract our resources as we wanted to and only pay for the resources we use. This means that at 4pm on a school day we can run 20 machines but at 2am we only need run 1 machine to keep the service available for the desperate or slow students doing they're homework at this time. Our peak hours are only 30 hours per week the rest of the time 1 machine is enough. This reduces our resource costs to an average of just over 3 machines compared to the 20 we'd need to run if we went the traditional route.
But this is not all about cost, there are big advantages too in using the the Amazon cloud 1) Amazon engineers working 24/7 to keep the cloud up 2) Multiple Redundant storage and backup built in 3) No more concerns about hardware issues, if a machine goes down just start a new one. 4) Fully scalable e.g. if all our Christmases come at once and 100,000 try to access SecondTeacher in the morning instead of a technical disaster I can just fire up another 100 instances and the user experience is the same as ever.
I'm banking on the cloud to become the way of the future and I'm not alone.
Check out Amazon webservices for yourself Amazon Web Sevices

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Adding the Standards

We're in the process here of adding all the state standards to the video content we have. This new feature will enable a user to just click on the State Standard button on any video and the applicable State Standards will popup. Great!

But it really got us thinking about the State Standards and what value they bring to the table. These standards are quite old now not having changed in years and they also give me the impression that it's all a little to presciptive in the messages and techniques that math is taught in schools.

The state standards are all well in good on there own but to have them as visual as being in every students textbook at the start of each chapter and written on the board in class implies to me that students are meant to be aided by this, I find this very hard to believe. Personally I think this is bureaucracy too far and there is no place in the classroom for state standards. Let the teacher teach and let the students try to get into math without all this red tape making it look much more complicated than it really is.

I’ll give you an example, Do you really think this Standard helps a student? It is the 6th Grade Number Sense 1.2 Standard for California

“1.2 Interpret and use ratios in different contexts (e.g., batting averages, miles per hour) to show the relative sizes of two quantities, using appropriate notations”

Now if that doesn’t make a topic sound more complicated than it really is I don’t know what does!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Welcome to SecondTeacher

Hello Everyone

Welcome to our new blog. We want to use this as a record of our efforts to make Math Homework easy too and to announce any new features or changes on SecondTeacher.

We have launched a new online service called which we hope will give students a chance to get math. We have tried our best to make the service as simple and easy to use as we can. We're teachers who love to teach and we want to try to help as many students of math as possible.

Any comments and thoughts would be greatly appreciated and we look forward to try to help.


Robert Doyle