Project 2047: The Social Experiment

The following is an account of events that actually took place. In the words of Charlie Wilson, “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world…” (well, they changed our highschool).

New technology is often by nature disruptive; I’ve always found it fascinating to observe budding disruptions and consider their possible long-term implications. I would also contest that revolution is most often borne of frustration, as the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt Lybia, Syria (and, well, the rest of history…) indicate.

So my good friend Fraser Parlane and I were treading on fertile ground in our Grade 12 year when the student WiFi was being repeatedly switched off as the content filtering system was continually  breached. Even on the best of days though, internet staples such as youtube, gmail, and Google image search were outright blocked. Considering the UN’s recent resolution (PDF) that internet access is a fundamental human right, these restrictions were bemoaned by many – especially those who used these services for school purposes.

Roughly a year earlier, Rogers had enabled internet tethering on the iPhone – a feature I often employed to ensure I always had uninterrupted and unimpeded access to the internet. I could keep the iPhone in my pocket, entirely out of sight and within school regulations, and activate Bluetooth tethering from my computer. Being quite passionate about mobile wireless broadband – attending the CTIA (Cellular Telephone Industry Association) conference and trade show several times in Las Vegas, the future of the industry was often at the forefront of my thoughts. We are speeding towards an era where all electronic devices will have an internet connection of some form or another, and certainly towards an era where mobile devices such as cellphones, laptops and tablets will be internet enabled anywhere. What then, will schools do to filter content when every laptop in the classroom has its own independent internet connection?

There are only a few options should schools continue to desire to gate-keep the internet. The most imminent solution would likely be to ban personal laptops in the classroom as schools currently ban cellphones. This would hardly be moving education towards the electronics-based future we all know awaits it, and the only option for moving forward in this case would have the school provide every student with a laptop or tablet as a replacement. Giving students laptops has been met with mixed results – with some districts finding success while others see students using their laptops as toboggans – even without considering the extreme cost.

Because mobile broadband operates over frequencies licensed to telecommunications companies by the federal government, under the oversight of Industry Canada, mobile broadband cannot simply be blocked. To do so would be a federal offense, as these frequencies are also responsible for access to essential services such as 911. The only partial solution would be to design buildings to impede certain frequencies – much like a Faraday cage – which is also prohibitively expensive and unlikely.

While at the time every mobile device certainly did not have a mobile broadband connection, most if not all had WiFi. My iPhone happened to have a six gigabyte data plan, courtesy of a Rogers panic attack when over 60,000 people signed the ‘ruinediphone.com’ petition back when the iPhone was originally introduced in Canada. Fraser happened to have a locker he never used and an old spare laptop. I had a few spare Meraki gateways lying around from projects I had done through Wioka. Add a power inverter and a car battery, and ‘project 2047′ was live (2047 was the number of the locker our station was housed).

The exact configuration had the iPhone USB tethered to the laptop, which was connected to the Meraki access point through a Cat5 crossover cable. The USB Ethernet emulator interface from the iPhone was simply bridged with laptop’s standard Ethernet port. The iPhone assigned the laptop an IP address from Rogers, and the laptop assigned an IP address to the Meraki access point, which was configured to act as a ‘captive portal’, explaining the purpose of the network and requesting users to accept a terms of service before gaining access. It was beautiful – we even had an old cheap webcam monitoring the LED voltage readout on the power inverter, uploading stills every 30 seconds or so to an external site through FTP to ensure we would never drain the battery.

The battery would last about a week on a single charge, though unfortunately once the power inverter detected the battery was at 11 volts it would emit a shrieking alarm (presumably to ensure you’re always able to start your vehicle). This caused a precarious situation right before lunch one day, when I checked the voltage readout from the webcam feed in the library. I don’t remember what the charge was that morning, but I do remember expecting to be in the clear for at least another few days – not so, according to the image that was greeting me with a stomach-churning 10.9 V. That could only mean the alarm was sounding right now. Sure enough, just as I entered the upstairs hallway that contained the locker project 1147 was housed, a unmistakeable alternating warble could be plainly heard. Unfortunately, a few seconds later the lunch bell rang and students spilled out of the classroom en masse.

Of course, the first thing students do at lunch is head to their lockers to deposit their books and retrieve their lunch. An elaborate scheme ensued that saw Fraser and myself  frantically trying to open the locker to rip off the power inverter’s leads attached to the car battery, blocked by a few others  ‘in-the-know’ surrounding the locker. A shrieking alarm tends to become louder when the locker that contains it is opened, and this was no exception. Despite our efforts several people gained a glimpse at project 2047 that lunch – though it was the custodian who observed Fraser and I removing the battery for recharging after school that day who ultimately spelled the project’s demise.

Removing the battery for recharging was quite a process (one I liked to imagine was not unlike changing fuel rods on a nuclear reactor). Like most car batteries, it contained a significant amount of lead. Lead, for the uninitiated, is quite heavy. Project 2047 was on the second floor – and this this thing was not going to fit in a backpack. The solution we settled on was to use a suitcase to transport the dead battery in and out of the school to an awaiting vehicle. We would as inconspicuously as possible use the suitcase to block as much of the locker as possible, remove the battery from the locker and proceed to make our getaway. It was during this short process that our school’s new custodian made his way down the hallway, his eyes pausing curiously on this locker full of wires and antennas. Without saying a word he continued on his way.

Should he have been at KCS for a while, he probably would have thought nothing of the strange sight. Fraser and I could often be seen at the school at all times of day and night, often busy with potentially much more dangerous projects and activities (that usually involved scaffolding and ladders). He was new, though, and probably felt compelled let administration know of this odd situation.

Our vice principal the next day casually asked Fraser if he had a car battery in his locker, to which, of course, Fraser replied that he had. I understand a slight pause emerged – the obvious question of ‘why’ hanging in the air – before our VP commented that it could be a potential fire hazard.

And so ended The Social Experiment. What surprised us most was that people were actually using it, and that the Meraki’s 200 mW radio was strong enough to cover the entire west wing of the school – despite being fully enclosed in a metal locker.

We apologize to our locker-neighbors for any fear of microwave-radiation contaminated lunches, though we have it on high authority that death or illness is unlikely. We apologize to KCS for disrupting the paradigm of internet filtering – we certainly understand the potential for abuse and the danger of inappropriate content. You were just using technology not up to the task of filtering modern internet services. For the record, we channeled all traffic through Open DNS’ free service – with content filter settings set appropriately.

I am happy to comment that KCS has now partially implemented Open DNS on its network.

OMNI Night

The following is an account of events that actually took place, and is part II in a series of posts on our Grade 12 adventures. In the words of Charlie Wilson, “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world…” (well, this didn’t really change the world, or even our high school, really, in this case – but it was fun…).

In the fall of 2010, the group I shall dub the KCS Student Leadership Team Diaspora (KCSLTD) – as we were simply a loosely coupled group of people who once were involved with a formal leadership program several grades earlier that was no longer – decided to build on the previous years’ successful school movie nights by creating ‘Outdoor Movie Night’. The evening was a wonderful success, with a good number of people showing up, a profit to contribute to the graduation fund, and no major catastrophes (that is, if you don’t count the weather nearly gracing everyone with frostbite and our slight omission to remind moviegoers to bring lawn chairs…the second movie that night was compassionately shown inside.)

Not unlike how World War II was simply a continuation of the Great War, so did the genesis of OMNI Night spawn out of a desire to improve on Outdoor Movie Night. And since, well, we were graduating and wouldn’t soon likely get another chance, we took the opportunity to go the extra mile.

We envisioned much more than an event centred around a movie, but rather regressed to the underlying purpose of the fall Outdoor Movie Night – bringing together the KCS community – and expanded the vision under that mission. OMNI Night would be everything we could imagine that would bring together the diverse interests of our school; it would consist of food and sports, of indoor and outdoor movies, of a dunk tank and bounce castles; fireworks and light shows, trivia and music. It would be executed to the finest detail – illuminated fencing to guide crowds at night, integrated power distribution systems, volunteer identification cards, neighbouring light pollution control, cable management, first aid – and to the highest level of professionalism. Professional audio, lighting, and pyrotechnics, and integrated guerrilla marketing campaigns were all employed.

It would be directed entirely by the KSLTD, with the support of an amazing school administration that truly understood the value of student leadership and exploration.

As with any large project, there were significant hurdles to navigate around – but it is truly amazing how many hurdles are involved with setting off a few measly explosives. Yes – I’m aware we were trying to do this at a school; yes – I now realize how amazing it is that it happened at all. Original designs called for the pyrotechnics to be launched from the school roof, as one would expect to see of any televised New Year’s celebration. The insurance company quickly rendered that implementation a non-starter, and ultimately further imposed restraints on the location of the pyrotechnics. C’est la vie, we moved on.

Next up: the fire department. Apparently you need permission to set off fireworks inside city limits (I know, I know…), especially when considering the aforementioned insurance company. And so began the liaising with the Kelowna Fire Department. A childhood spent dealing with technical support teams turned out to be excellent training for the seemingly endless transferring that ensured. Finally, we were told that the commissioner whose authorization we required was imminently leaving on vacation. The paperwork had little chance of being processed before he left. But perhaps it would, so wait. Until Monday. “And we’ll get back to you.”

These types of situations are horrible for planning purposes and introduce all sorts of dependency and contingency issues. Lesson: uncertainty always introduces overhead. In this case, authorization did come through in time – the process significantly hastened once the department learned of the ridiculously small amount of pyrotechnics actually acquired.

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When Friday, May 7th finally arrived it was cloudy threatening rain. Chalk up other one for uncertainty. We had contingency plans, of course, but the scope of the event would have to be significantly reduced. Considering the significant amount of electronics deployed outside to support the event, it was a bit risky to even begin. But we took a leap of faith and – right after our morning physics class – rushed across the school to the Multipurpose Room, which had been accumulating a significant amount of supplies and equipment for the better part of a week.

There’s little as exciting as finally implementing a collective vision which became a plan which is becoming reality before your eyes.

Out came the scaffolding, out came “Black Mamba” – the hundred-plus foot long 220 volt cable and power distribution centre, out came 2000 watts of professional audio gear, out came the tent pegs to keep cables secure in the ground, out came sandbags, theatrical lighting, and thousands of feet of assorted power and data cables. A convoy of equipment and materials made its way out the exterior doors to the field awaiting conversion.

OMNI night wiring layout

One of my most favourite metal states is to be faced with a project-threatening problem that simply must be solved (preferably with a time constraint). Such situations are a green field for creativity; a launchpad for resourcefulness. Normal roadblocks fall by the wayside as the urgency of the situation at hand becomes ever more real. The system we cobbled together to hoist lighting and effects too large to fit through the roof access hatch was with all certainty a thing of beauty.

Lesson: many roadblocks exist to prevent people and teams that don’t really know what they’re doing from hurting themselves or others. Therefore, many roadblocks can be avoided by working with the best people in a field.

Our resident polymath, Daniel Mandryk, was the pyrotech responsible for all things explosive and made quick work of setting up a perimeter around the goods – but not before lending a significant hand to lighting world, getting much of that system up and running. Once he started with pyro, however, no one went in. No one got close.

Dan Mandryk, pyrotechnician

The dunk tank turned out to be a surprisingly positive feature of the evening. KCSLTD became aware somewhat after signing on several teachers to participate that dunk tanks had fallen out of fashion due to the potentially nefarious motives of those aiming for the target. This became evident when the dilapidated contraption we borrowed from a local church (who fairly warned us it hadn’t been used in a while) rolled up. It is a testament to the teachers and their confidence in the community to so willingly participate (especially considering the water wasn’t heated in any way…sorry about that). The poor condition of the apparatus required repairs, which consequently delayed filling it with water. Three of us on the KCSLTD happened to be in Calculus that term (our calc teacher also happened to be one of the up to be dunked), and while we anxiously waited on several garden hoses to bring the tank to operational state as the ground became increasingly soggy from the tank’s various leaks, it occurred to one of us that we were observing a real-world related rates problem! For me, few things are more beautiful than applying theory – especially theory with little daily application – towards implementing a vision. We momentarily considered calculating how long we would have to wait for the tank to fill before coming to our senses: no amount of calculating would effect the end result. Knowing we could find the time was certainly satisfying enough.

Lesson: don’t worry too much over what you have no control of, especially when there are other fires that need putting out.

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“A tank of water in the shape of a cone is leaking water at a constant rate of…”

Much more happened at OMNI Night that now escapes me, now over a year later. If there’s anything that lives on in your memory, definitely leave it in the comments. A closing sentiment could not be more beautifully expressed than by the character of one Hannibal Smith: “I love it when a plan comes together.”