Big OS, tiny PC

Of all the burdens of celebrity, the heaviest must be the knowledge that there is more than one tier of celebrity, and you just ain’t on the same one as Mike Holmes, honey. The host of hit reno show Holmes on Homes on HGTV was a fellow celebrity judge — so was most of his crew, for that matter — at

George Brown College’s Technology in the City event in Toronto this week, wherein high school students with a promising technological bent get to strut their stuff. On hand to judge the masonry competition, Holmes was widely recognized and fawned over by an adoring public, all of whom could recount in detail a favourite episode. Apparently, that whole bib-overalls-and-sleeveless-undershirt look does it for the ladies, especially if you’re built like, let’s say, Mike Holmes.

I’m a few tiers down the celebrity scale. In fact, I was a substitute judge for IT Bidness’s own celebrity, Shane Schick, who had a conflicting engagement in Prague about which I’m not even slightly jealous. Thus, I was unmobbed by admirers and free to go about the business of judging the Operating System Challenge, in which high school teams battled to the death for the prize of a year’s free tuition at the college.

OK, so it wasn’t a battle to the death. It was worse.

The two-student teams had four hours to install and configure Windows XP Professional and Red Hat Linux, with multiple boot options and to exacting specifications. Not much of a challenge? Try it on a machine with a 6 GB hard drive with only 128 MB of RAM.

That’s the challenge the teenagers were sweating while I lunched and took in some of the student inventions on display. There was the smart desk, a kidney-shaped plexiglass affair that incorporated computer components into the body and featured a fold-out flat screen display. And there was “”The Giver”” — a contrivance that automates the dispensing of common cocktails. Having worked bar before, I’m prepared to nominate it for a Nobel prize.

Next stop was a quick peek at another competition, the Web Design Challenge, just out of curiosity. With the clock ticking and only 10 minutes left to submit a Web site for a computer hardware store with a specific list of features, the half-dozen teams exhibited considerably more poise than the IT Bidness staff when deadlines loom. Anecdotal confirmation of a trend we’ve reported often before: There was only one female student in the competition.

A teacher on hand to support her charges quietly lamented the fact that students — or, more probably, their parents — don’t give enough credibility to college training as opposed to a university education, especially for technical skills. College training gets to the hands-on skills quickly, making grads eminently employable. And in many disciplines — like the Web design challenge we were watching — there’s an opportunity for students to get related work while they’re still in school.

I slipped out to the operating system competition down the hall. This is the first year the colloege has had the OS challenge, so the organizers haven’t had the luxury of learning from experience. This year’s experience taught organizers that the technical assessment of the projects is a whole lot more complex and time-consuming than they’d figured, according to competition co-chairs Tom Yeung and Amalesh Chakraborty. Like any IT project worth its salt, it was running a little behind schedule.

The marks finally tallied, the students returned to receive their particpation plaques and find out who gets the free ride at George Brown for a year. The scores are confidential. They were also close. However, I can say with complete confidence that the next time my computer decides pack up on me, Michael Kloubkov and James Topping of Scarlett Heights Entrepreneurial Academy will be able to set it straight.

Dave Webb has done some drywalling, but he’s no Mike Holmes.

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