The HeliOS Project is now.....

The HeliOS Project is now.....
Same mission, same folks...just a different name

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Meacher the Mouse Teacher - Meet the DevTeam

After 3 weeks, we have the semblance of a Development Team for an application that will help autistic kids learn to use a mouse.

My thanks to Ken Jennings for coming up with a name for the software.  As many of you know, I have real problems with goofy or esoteric names given to some applications, especially in the Linuxsphere.

However, I did get a taste of just how difficult and frustrating it can be.  After this, I doubt I will be as harsh on those naming their own apps.    Just when you think you have the perfect name for your project, a Google search proves it unusable because someone else has it. 

Or close enough to warrant a cease and desist order.  That can mess up your whole day.

We had some great suggestions but there were several things to consider in naming the app.  Not only does the child/parent/teacher/caregiver need a simple yet descriptive name, it needs to have keywords that are descriptive and searchable in the different software databases.  I had originally asked for a simple one word name, but taking the above parameters into consideration, I was convinced otherwise.

As an example, I will use  the Python app, Pydance.   It is obviously some sort of app that deals with dancing, or one would think.  A simple search in your repository should provide Pydance as one of the possibilities.  On the other hand, apps like Pysycache give you no clue as to what it is or what it does.  Pysycache is a mouse learning app but if one was to scan the list within the would you know?

I'm sure that this will be boiled down to just "Meacher" over time, and that's fine.  As long as it can be easily found and understood for what it is.

There are actually going to be two programs, Meacher and Meacher lite.  The lighter of the two will probably be programmed in Python and used for older machines with less resources.  Meacher full will probably be programmed in C, C++ or Java.  We are still waiting for our Academic Team to give us a starting point for the software map, and that is work that cannot be rushed.

DPR stands for Dancing Ponies and Rainbows.  This is how I describe the glitzy, shiny and slick full version we will try to create.  Linux has a reputation of providing software that is "just good enough" and often this leads others to think that it is inferior.  Of course nothing could be further from the truth but there are enough examples out there to substantiate the claim if someone wanted to make the case.

The lite version or NHD (No Horrible Distractions) again will probably be coded in Python and as noted by several people in the original blog, sometimes the glitz gets in the way of the AC and can do more harm than good.  Hence, the two versions.  As quoted from the aforementioned posting:

"I am "on the spectrum" myself. I remember my childhood as a time full of awful noise. Imagine trying to study at a desk in the middle of a dance floor, and you get the idea."

Having promised this.....Let me introduce you to the current members of the Meacher Development Team.

David Ashley - Project Manager

David is no stranger to HeliOS.  He currently teaches one or two nights a week at the HeliOS 101 classes at our facility.  David is also putting together the curriculum for our 102 classes to be offered beginning next year.

David has almost 30 years of IT experience on a wide range of platforms. He has worked as a software developer, consultant and IT instructor during that time. David currently works for IBM in Austin as a software tools developer for AIX and Linux. He is also the project lead for the Open Object Rexx Project ( which is an open source implementation of the Rexx language and contributes to other open source projects as well.

And no...I have neither the time or talent to manage a project like this although I will participate as the Program Originator and do what I can to help.  David knew that without me having to say it and graciously volunteered to lead the effort....

Thus assuring it will probably get done and everyone will still be speaking to each other when we are finished.  With me?  It would have been a crapshoot at best.

Iffat Jabeen - Academic Team Lead/Software Mapping

Iffat is our Academic Team Lead for Meacher.  While our project will teach the Autistic Child (AC) how to use a mouse, it will incorporate life skills training to do so.  This way, the child learns while he learns.  I had the sincere pleasure of working with Iffat when Don Davis (see below) headed a Documentary Team on free software and Internet access for the less fortunate.  Iffat is THE consummate professional and she will head the software mapping part of our effort.  Iffat will supply the DNA, so to speak for this application.

Iffat Jabeen is a Doctoral student in the area of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching. Her experience in the field of education spans over a decade and she holds a Masters degree in Special Education and another in Educational Technology. In the course of her career she had the opportunity to work with children in the general education system as well as in special education, specifically children with autism and those with intellectual disabilities. Iffat is a true believer that incorporating technology in instruction can enhance the learning of students with special needs.

Don Davis - Talent Coordinator

I've known Don since the early days in his graduate studies.  Don is a long-time friend of HeliOS and a personal friend of mine.  Don will be helping us find graphic artists, will aid Iffat in locating voice talent, and help fill in the gaps when our developers need to step away from the project for a time.  Don will also solicit other professionals in various fields as needed.  Don knows a lot of impressive folks in the academic world and his participation is golden.

Don Davis, M.Ed.
Don Davis is a PhD student and former teacher. Previously, he facilitated the acquisition of academic English language use in recent immigrants at a Texas high school (i.e. he taught English). He also worked with students in setting up a community mesh network and was able to introduce students to Alice - the visual programming language, GNU/Linux, and Python as well.
He’s currently involved with research examining computational thinking. He’s an avid supporter of GNU/Linux and sees free (as in freedom …and cookies…) software as a tool to promote social justice through equitable access to our modern information society. He’s the guy that interjects “not all students have access to computers and the internet.”

Sean Robinson a.k.a. "Nz17" - Software Developer
 Sean was the first coder to volunteer for our project.  Sean's code of choice is Python.  While he has a TON of irons in the fire and cannot contribute to Meacher as often as he would like, he has volunteered to help us get the project off the ground and act as an advisor if needed.  He looks forward to contributing to Meacher. 
Sean is 29 years old, and has gone by "Nz17" on the Internet since 1997, he is a self-taught programmer, wrote his first program in fifth grade, and previously contributed to other FLOSS projects (voice work for the announcer on PyDance, bug fixes for countless others), and he created and produce the longest-running anime podcast in the world (started in 1999).  Sean will also supply male voice talent to Meacher.

 Karim Lalani - Software Developer

Karim was quick to answer our call for help in developing Meacher.  Karim brings multiple coding talents to this effort and will be key in writing the full version of Meacher.  As I mentioned earlier, there will be two different versions of Meacher.  Karim will lead our effort on the DPR version.  His numerous coding skills include C, C++ and Java.  This is one of the reasons why Karim is so valuable to the team.  He will be able to look at the software map and make a decision as to what language would best suit the application. 

Karim lives in Smyrna Tennessee and is currently employed by Wipro, a global information technology service.  As you can see, his skills are impressive:

"I am a software programmer and a long time Linux user. Linux and programming are both also my hobbies and my passion. Lately
I've been contemplating on combining these two passions of mine. I have also been thinking about getting active in the community. While I am not a kernel hacker or any sort or have tens of years of experience writing software, I can find my way around other people's code, and whenever necessary, I am not afraid of creating new code.  I can work with most C style languages like C# (for .Net/Mono) and C++ (on Qt framework) and Java."

Peter Hewitt - Software Developer

Peter has done some impressive coding work and as a new Linux user, he came to us interested not so much in being a major player in Meacher, but porting and rewriting some of his existing software with the AC in mind.

Peter is the author of Mulawa Dreaming Easy activitiesCurrently Mulawa is a Windows-only app but after hearing about our efforts, Peter thought his own efforts would be better spent getting Mulawa written and available in Linux.  I appreciate his thoughts and dedication to this effort.  As Peter told me:

"My background is a mixture of secondary teaching and IT. I retired in 2006 and now spend a lot of my time in volunteer work.

Three years at an Aged Care facility using my computer for diversional therapy - while there I developed "Mulawa Dreaming Easy" - a suite of Windows activities for folk with no previous computer experience and for folk with limited physical mobility.

I work with children in care - again using the computer but in this case more for intellectual development than diversion.

Over the past year I've developed over thirty activities for the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) Project - these are all written in Python using Pygame - nice match with Sean there. Total downloads are currently in excess of 200,000. Their main attraction is that most of them use no words so they are truly global in reach."

We also have several other people who have volunteered to do coding and testing.  As this project evolves, we will introduce them to you along with the work we've done so far.

I want to personally thank the Free Software Community for their participation and interest in Meacher.  From what I can see, this project could have an impact not only on this generation but the next one to come.

And really, isn't that what our work is about?

All-Righty Then





JRaz said...

This is really such great news. I love to see projects like this one come together. I wish I was a coder to help out too. Ken I can see a future for this work and it is bright. Bless you all.

Gavin said...

It kind of sounds like a superhero name. You could also go with a royal title bent: Meacher, Teacher of Mice. Hehe.

It looks like this project is off to a good start. Is there a timeline or estimation of alpha testing in any way right now? What are the goals? Will this project be getting its own website? Most importantly, WILL THERE ACTUALLY BE UNICORNS??

Amenditman said...

Great crew, Ken.

Wish you the best. And..

My offer to child test this still stands.

KenJennings said...

Meacher won?!

Channeling my best Sally Field Academy Award winner -- "I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!"

I'll work on my high-pitched, girly squeal later. My 7 yr old will be happy to give me pointers. That's GirlySqueal * high_pitched ; for us C coders.

gus3 said...

Wow, what a team. My only dollop of advice, is to see if you can get some local radio talent involved for the voice work. Then again, if that brings you some PR on the airwaves, you may find yourself exercising your "No, thanks" muscles a lot more...

KenJennings said...

Is a project home page being set up? Or will you be using something like sourceforge?

I notice, .net, .org all appear to be taken.

Unknown said...

Hi Ken,

Yeah, I noticed the unavailability of Meacher for a website but we have some options, and yes, Meacher will have its own site as well as a place on SourceForge. there is not much there now but as we get this rolling, you can see what we are doing at

he project has capabilities for bug tracking, blog, wiki and other typical project requirements so it may have to do until we get a site build, if we need one. Consensus hasn't been reached on that yet.

Unknown said...

Hey Gus,

We are going to put out a PSA on the local Public Radio station (KUT in Austin) and see if not only we can get some good voice talent, but also use their studio to get it done. Texas State University where Don and Iffat attend has a good sound studio if we can't get another.

There will be two to three "voices" for Meacher. One will be Meacher himself as (s)he is the little rodent guide throughout the application. Our professionals have told us that autistic children tend to respond better to female voices than male however there are parts that require a male voice and Sean Robinson will be doing the male voice.

We'll post MP3's as we get them finalized with credits and such.

Michael Hall said...

Before you go possibly re-inventing the wheel, you should look at a couple of existing apps:

1) Gamine. Yes, it's simple and pointless, but it does make the cause/effect relationship of moving the mouse and clicking the buttons abundantly clear. I almost included it in Qimo, but didn't because it really doesn't take kids (even autistic ones) long to "get" how the mouse works, so it would have been wasted after about a week.

2) gCompris. It has several mouse-learning games that work very well, and they lead into the keyboard-learning games quite naturally. If you still want to make your own, I'd like to see you make it a gCompris activity and offer it to them.

Michael Hall said...

As for the project page, you might consider using git/hg/bzr instead of svn, most open source developers prefer a distributed version control system these days. Github and Bitbucket offer very nice free services for git and hg respectively, and is available if you choose bzr.

Unknown said...

Michael, the mouse learning games in Childsplay and if I remember correctly, Gcompris do not properly teach left vs right mouse clicks. In many of the fields I tried, either mouse button would accomplish the task and that isn't teaching via the learn/reward method. The left mouse button accomplishes one thing while the right accomplishes another. Having both mouse buttons accomplish the same task isn't the way it should be taught. If for just entertainment, then I suppose so but for learning, the differences have to be taught.

Our academic team specializes in autistic children on all levels of the spectrum and teaching the mouse is just a stepping stone to learning the greater life skills that autistic children should learn. These lessons will be the crux of Meacher. Learning the mouse just gets them to that point.