Monday, July 13, 2009

Summer Silliness

Norma is back but gone incognito, changing her name to Roberta. ;-)

Really all we were doing was testing ooVoo with multiple people in the call. Jill and Norma (and Roberta) came in via a browser. I have the pay version of ooVoo that allows others to not need the client. It looks pretty good from my point of view. Norma and Jill were in the same room, not a recommended practice, so there might have been some feedback from that.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Online mini lectures and JITT

If the alternative is to read the textbook or view an online mini-lecture before coming to class, which if any would students prefer? Do students respond by upping their participation rate if instructors do some just in time teaching by surveying students asking for some open ended feedback as well as giving them some closed ended questions to test their understanding?

We are having some early success with doing both sorts of things together with non-residential students in our Professional MBA and Executive MBA programs. They like that the live class time is customized to the questions and issues they've expressed prior to class and the online mini-lectures ahead of time are more accessible to them than the textbook, plowing through the book is hard work that some don't do.

Just in Time Teaching could be made even easier if instructor who teach the same class, but perhaps at different institutions, shared in the creation of the mini lectures. That would lessen the burden on the individual instructors. I wonder if we'll see that happening in the near future.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

NY Times Built In Dictionary

If you go to an actual article or column on the NY Times Web site, but not a box with the first paragraph of the article on the homepage, and then you select a word by clicking and dragging over it, a question mark will appear. If you click on the question mark, it will ask whether you want a definition of the word. This is remarkably quick and convenient, a very nice feature indeed. The Kindle has something similar but at least on my original Kindle, it is not a fast. I wonder what it would take to produce this sort of functionality more broadly. It would really help language acquisition and encourage people to read online because they could more readily get past their own blockages.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Is intelligence the gateway to monumental mistakes?

Robert McNamara has died. Reading his obituary, lots of painful memories return. In many ways he seemed like Donald Rumsfeld, though McNamara was repentant and saw the error in his ways.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Aspect Ratio

Below is a screen capture movie of Powerpoint slides done to appear in the HD YouTube player. Here is the Powerpoint for that movie so you can see what this is all about and play on your own. Note it should be very easy to change the background color.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Steroids, Bleacher Ticket Prices, and Economic Rationality

"I think it has to be spoken very loud and clear on the stance, and baseball needs to stand as they have. I'm very, very satisfied with the testing program they have in place now. For a guy who's tested positive today under what happens now, like Manny Ramirez, it almost takes an idiot to participate in that. For the society, for the up-and-coming players and youth out there, I don't think those guys should be recognized at all."
Ryne Sandberg

When I was a grad student at Northwestern in the late 1970s, I went to Wrigley Field a couple of times for day games (they didn't have lights then). Taking the el, and sitting in the bleachers, it was an inexpensive form of entertainment. (I think bleacher seats cost $2.50 or $3 then and during the week they were in ample supply.) Baseball had free agency but most people didn't have cable TV (I certainly didn't) and player salaries were much more modest than than are today.

Compared to then, current ticket prices and player salaries are both astronomical. And, of course, the superstars make a ton of money. The argument for a player to take steroids to improve performance (or recovery time from injury) couldn't be plainer. The upside of improved performance is vastly higher compensation--- as long as you don't get caught cheating. Let a player do a cost-benefit analysis on the risk reward trade off and it might still come down on the side of taking the steroids.

I wonder if those who are Democrats in their politics are nonetheless Republicans in their baseball fandom. Given the furor of the Mark Sanford affair, and the recognition that the Republicans have been shooting themselves in the foot with their holier than thou approach might not baseball be in a similar boat?

From where I sit, rising income inequality is a substantial factor in why so many big league ballplayers have gone down this route. If player salaries were more modest overall, fewer would risk tempation. As it is, some players literally could not afford to go without.

And if ticket prices were more modest, going to a ballgame would be something a moderate income family could afford.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Should we have students make these?

I'm teaching an honors class in the fall and some of the students are taking it for Composition II credit, meaning they have to do additional writing projects and those projects are supposed to require instructor critique and student revision.

I have a couple of more traditional ideas for this, but I'm wondering if one of these projects shouldn't be to make a movie like the one below. For viewing this properly captions need to be enabled. That should be the default.

The idea from the (student) creator's point of view is first, to use text in a Spartan way to communicate only the very important points and leave other derivative points unsaid. Next, is to use images as a way to illustrate the points and try to connect with the reader/viewer in a way that is meaningful to them. When I made the demo, I found the image selection process a challenge. Particularly for science or engineering students who probably aren't asked to do this sort of thing otherwise, I wonder if the exercise of selecting an appropriate and compelling image to match the idea is a good one, and whether the students will start to think of their job in writing a little differently as a consequence. The third idea, in the music choice, is to have a recurrent theme through the entire piece. The song is something the audience should readily identify with and therefore it should be used to create a context for the story.

One other point where the exercise may prove of value is in noting the length of the movie, two minutes and ten seconds, and compare that with the time it takes to produce it. It took me about one and a half days, all told, and I spread that out over a few days so I could let things simmer for a while. Students need to learn that an effective short message is a lot of work. Further, some of their ideas might have to be discarded in the process, but that is ok because it improves the overall quality.

If I were to do this, I'd also have the students submit the "raw ingredients" that went into making the movie: the audio file, a document with the sources for the images, a text file for the captions with timings, and perhaps the PowerPoint that stores the images and that is used to make the screen capture.

One reason for wanting to ask for all of this is that turning the writing into a production number can be compelling if any technical blocks that are encountered can be readily addressed. The instructor (or some other helper) probably needs to provide help for the students with the technical blocks in which case pretty quick feedback is needed for that.

Another reason is that students will soon be very conscious of the "appearance" of what they make. For example, do the captions match the slides they are supposed to be about? When the appearance can clearly be improved, do the students feel impelled to do that? I don't know whether it would occur to the students immediately once they've asked this, but for me I'd then ask if the writing can be improved as well. Can it be said better? That the text is short means editing is not laborious.

One other compelling bit about this approach is that the captions can be translated into many other languages, so the potential audience for the video is quite large. (It is a separate matter whether the connections that the images and music are supposed to provide cut across cultures.) To choose a different language for the captions, mouse over the upward pointing arrow at the far right of the playbar. Then with CC on, mouse over the leftward pointing arrow and select Translate. The starting language should be English, if that's the language the captions were initially authored in. The resulting language can then be selected.

I'm quite upbeat about this last bit of functionality, perfect for the global world in which we live.

Students probably need to learn a bit about Copyright and Fair Use as preparation for making these type of movies and they need to understand that citing sources is a protection from charges of plagiarism, but that is unrelated to matters of copyright. I wonder how many instructors teach their students about that.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Long lags and contrary forecasts

After reading Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, I've been taken with the idea of causality with long lags. The question is whether you can see the relationship between cause and effect in prospect. Note that this is hard enough in retrospect and because of the lags many people miss the root cause of things. So, stirred by the recent events in Iran, as so many others have been, I'm going to take it as an affirmation of a prediction made by Stanley Fish last September - George Bush: The Comeback Kid.

I should note that I'm neither a fan of Bush nor of Fish. I voted for Bush neither in 2000 nor in 2004 and I've stopped reading Fish's blog, because most of the columns I found frustrating, too much argument for arguments sake. But this particular prediction resonates with me just now, so I want to give it its due.

The reasons seem to be clear enough. First, if you look at the heroes in Iran, one of them surely is the new social networking technology, notably Facebook and Twitter. When did those come to the fore? Under W., that's when. Second, look at what the war in Iraq did for the mindset in the rest of the region. It showed an alternative to the status quo is possible. The elections in Lebanon are a prime example. The war in Iraq may have done many other bad things, and certainly it was started under false pretenses, but it did plant this notion of an alternative to the status quo. Those are biggies. The rest is just connecting the dots.

If the Moussavi followers do indeed prevail, seemingly against all odds but now apparently a distinct possibility since the protests continue unabated, Bush's redemption will be secure. Amazing.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Quickie talking head/screen movies in YouTube

The demo below was made with Jing Pro. It allows publication directly to YouTube and either because the video is so short or because it is in mpeg-4 format, it seems to appear almost immediately without much processing. The image quality is quite sharp. That is a real plus. And the caption file is linked, so you can see what that looks like. Perhaps in a few places the caption is too long. Nonetheless, I think this is usable and not too bad.

The big tip for making the video is to select a capture region that is proportional to 16x9 and not too much bigger than the region you want to display. Doing this will "fill" the YouTube video box and leave no black border and then what you see shouldn't look too small. (If you know people will go to full screen when they watch the video you can capture a bigger area, but there is no way to know that in advance.) In this case I captured a region that was 720x405. I believe that getting exactly the right aspect ratio contributes to the sharpness of the image.

Because the video itself is so short, I produced a transcript directly without trying to use a transcription program first. You play a few seconds of the video and pause, then type what you heard and back again. I keep the movie in a window smaller than half screen, just displaying the control bar and the time. That allows another window smaller than half screen above the video window for the transcription. So even if you only have one normal sized monitor, this is pretty easy to do.

Once the transcript is done, then you have to go in to insert the timings. I have this awkward habit of pausing in mid sentence but then going ganbusters at the end of one sentence and onto the next. So note that the timings allow fractions of seconds. In what I made I only went down to a half second, but the thing allows much finer gradation if you want to put in that effort. In what I've got, the text is on the screen for about 4 seconds, depending on where I pause and how much text is on the screen.

I'm pretty impressed with what can be done now. If students were making these things, they'd catch onto the technology pretty quick and then could focus their attention on the substance of the message.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Uncompromising about change

Last night I watched the PBS documentary about Neil Young on its American Masters Series. The faces of the old rockers are haunting. I didn't know this look for Steven Stills. The music is wonderful, but also haunting. Young's speaking voice is normal. I'm not sure whether I had heard it before. He explains his singing voice as emerging from a spontaneous experience where he was screaming in words made up at the moment. His band had been instrumental only till then. The singing was a kind of coming out. He had it in him all along. It needed to be unleashed.

Young's song lyrics represent personal reaction to events, sometimes anger and disgust, but not with a political agenda tied to them. The film makes pretty clear that Young was not driven by politics, at least not during the Viet Nam War period. Instead, he was driven by the music.

The recurring theme is in the movies was that Young wanted and needed to be in groups so he could play off the music of others. The synthesis created artistic benefit. But after a fashion, when the album was done and the touring to promote it over, Young wanted to do something else. Rather than recreate what had already been done, inevitably for the "Return Of" to be poorly received because it wouldn't have the novelty to excite, Young would move on to the next venture. It was hard on friendships formed during the making of the music. But it was true to the need for creativity.

Ultimately the friends grew to understand this loyalty to make new music, to fine one's soul in the act of doing something new. And Young didn't abandon the entirely. His departure would be temporary. Ultimately he would return to the group to make new music and to rekindle friendships developed earlier.

Some of these same themes are in the documentary about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. The artist forces a new direction for the music even when the fans clamor for nostalgia. Apparently Dylan also inspired young about singing, with the distinctive singing voice and the knowledge that, "I'm no opera star."

Young and his contemporaries didn't go to college. By the time they were college age they were on the road, making music. Life on the road itself must encourage a sense of transience, but in this case there was also a different sort of infection. Young crossed paths with many of the great rockers. Each left a little mark, something to take away and integrate in to Young's own style.

Personally, I'm not able to appreciate the distinctive changes in what Young went through, especially within the 1970s, where much of his music is familiar. (Some of the later stuff shown in the film I hadn't heard before.) His falsetto singing voiced remains unchanged as does the rhythmic phrasing of the lyrics. It may be that the backup instrumentals are radically different, but I don't hear it that way. I admit to being without nuance in listening to this. I was never a giant Neil Young fan. It is the character that was more of interest to me in watching the film, what the driver was, where the loyalty lies. The answer to that is clear; the passion was for the new, for taking the next direction.

It is worth thinking about this for Learning Technology, all the more so given by the ripple created earlier in the week from the Chronicle's piece about Jim Groom presenting at CUNY about blogs as an alternative to the LMS. The learning technologist may share with the rocker the desire to push for new directions, to avoid nostalgia for what should come next. And to some extent instructors may be like adoring fans, though I wouldn't push that analogy very far.

Times do change. The mantra now is the learner as the creator. The drive for change should come out of the collective will to create. Where that will lead is hazy for me. Most learners are not nearly so singular in their purpose. Mainly, they want to ride the next wave that presents itself. Therein lies the dilemma. We still need the few who make the new music. Maybe, however, they need to come from outside us.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Dimdim and Skype 4.1 Beta

Yesterday in the late afternoon we tested the most recent versions of Dimdim (free version) and Skype (4.1 beta). Each product is making progress. Dimdim is more of a full Web conferencing product, though it seems to me it gives all the control to the meeting owner and very little to the attendees in the session. Further, it had problems with IE (worked fine with Firefox). Audio quality was good but we were all in the office so had a very good network connection.

Skye has screen sharing in its most recent beta version. It is a little confusing because the menu item for screen sharing shows up only when you have a contact selected, but it functions very well when you do youse it. Image is sharp and it can be set to full screen. Right now the downside is that you can only do screen sharing with one other person. So it is still not a tool for small group work. If they do get it to function in a multi-party call, watch out.

Screen sharing in Skype does not allow the user to pass control to others in the call. In that sense regular Web conferencing is more feature rich. But Skype has a huge market base and the product is designed to do what it does very well, which I believe is more important than having additional features.

I can't predict where this market is going and if "free versions" will prevail. But I do like that there seem to be multiple viable players in this area. That's a definite plus.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Next Chapter of My Book Now Available.

A draft of Chapter 8 on Assessment is now available. It makes what is perhaps an extremely conservative argument. Most assessment should be oral. Assessment should happen within the process of learning. Instructors should have conversations with students.

That's the punchline. Some readers might see the chapter as a shaggy dog story, because it takes a while to get to the punchline. I prefer to think that we learn the validity of a point by seeing the same point made in some other field. So I take some time drawing out parallels from elsewhere.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Galen's Paper Presentation

Instead of using ooVoo for the final presentation, Galen and I did a session in Adobe Connect where he uploaded his PowerPoint and we both did voice over. He lead the discussion and I asked questions.

Here are my take aways from the overall experience. First, technology was not the impediment. It may not have worked perfectly all the time but it was good enough for us to conduct our business. Second, this is my initial experience with MBA students and probably there needed to be more structure to what we did than I had originally envisioned. I did not read the pieces that Galen used for his paper so I only reacted to the general ideas. If we had discussed more about pieces I already knew, I may have been able to push him more in his thinking. As it was, I didn't feel there was sufficient depth or subtlety to our conversations, but I was somewhat at a loss on how to get us there. Third, these courses are only 7 weeks. We could have benefited by going a few more weeks. The paper would have been more mature and well thought through. I know Galen strained a little to get the paper done on time but he could have strained more intellectually, but he had to do the background work first to get to that point.

So if I were to do this again some time in the future, I'd start a little earlier. Otherwise our process was good.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Is Copyright Necessary for Peer Review?

I'm placing this particular piece in the Public Domain. In the process of trying to understand the difference between using Creative Commons Licenses and placing a work in the Public Domain, I discovered that the Creative Commons Web site actually has the same sort of forms that generate embed code for their licenses also available for Public Domain work.

Creative Commons License
This work is in the Public Domain.

This is a good place to start with the argument. While Creative Commons licenses are now a commonplace on the Web (I've got one at the bottom of this blog) you don't see the above type of label very often. Does that fact represent an author preference? The license I do use for the site (1) asks that people who link to or quote posts that are here give attribution and (2) doesn't allow commercial publishers to include my stuff in their content. The first is really just common courtesy. I've got no way of enforcing it at all. Short of running TurnItIn or other anti-plagiarism software on my own site (I'm not going to do that I'm just mentioning it as illustration) there is no way for me to detect violations let alone to enforce this stipulation. The second is there as a tilting at windmills approach to the notion that I want "control" of my work, though truthfully my notion of control is fuzzy as is why I want it. Over the years I've had exactly one request from a commercial venture to refer to a particular post. Initially I said no, then I relented. I doubt that generated any revenue for the commercial publisher and maybe it got a few more eyeballs for my post.

I suppose there is a third reason, probably not applicable for me but that might justify why others might want to keep control of their work. It may be at some time in the future, a potential publisher emerges and that publisher wants copyright of the work transferred to it. You can't very well transfer copyright if you no longer hold it. I don't believe it is possible to "take back" placing a work in the public domain, in which case doing so would preclude this external publishing alternative that might emerge in the future. I'm belaboring the point to note that the incentive vanishes if the external publisher willingly accepts works in the public domain.

A couple of years ago, inspired by a piece in Harpers by Jonathan Lethem about the intellectual commons and dismayed by the timidity of an ACRL report from that time, I wrote a long blog post, Ly Berry 2.0, with my vision of the issues, in which I argued that Lethem's conception should be expanded to included current scholarly communication.

The third area of focus is Copyright Law itself. Copyright Law doesn’t serve well the communication of scholarly information. Government publications are in the public domain de jure. Scholarly work, part of the contributions to the Intellectual Commons that Lethem describes, should be in the public domain as well. It is quite clear who would stand to lose by changing the law in this way, especially if the law applied retrospectively. So there are economic and therefore political reasons to sustain the status quo. And given the effort more broadly by MPAA, RIAA and others on copyright to expand the influence of Copyright, one should be under no delusion that it would be easy to make such a change. But by concentrating narrowly on scholarly work and not trying to apply the change in the Law to a more encompassing notion of the intellectual commons – for example, authors of great fiction clearly enhance our culture and intellectual life, but those authors do make their livelihoods based on the sale of their works – one should be able to maintain the high ground in the argument.

More recently, via this post on ACRLog I found this document, a consequence of a Roundtable Discussion from last fall with various luminaries in the scholarly communication business. The document is better than the earlier ACRL report I had critiqued; it correctly identifies the issues plaguing scholarly publication today, but I fear nonetheless that it is too tepid in its recommendations and that a more radical solution is necessary.

Primary Recommendation: Campuses should initiate discussions involving administration and faculty about modifying current practices and/or its intellectual property policies such that the university retains a set of rights sufficient to ensure that broad dissemination of the research and scholarly work produced by its faculty occurs.

There are also a variety of subsidiary recommendations in the document, mostly of the policy type. As I said, this is not sufficient. It is necessary to develop actual low cost alternatives to commercial publishing and to encourage and promote these alternatives so they eventually become the dominant form. It is also necessary to re-direct funds within the university (as I'll explain) to sustain the new approaches. Further, different approaches to long term preservation need to be identified. Below is my attempt to sketch what these approaches might look like.

* * * * *

So now I'm Mr. Rourke. Welcome to Fantasy Island. I will you give you a tour of our new low-cost scholarly publication approach. Our predominant model is via society membership, which is for fee. Scholarly memberships are via individuals, faculty as well as students, by departments, and by entire institutions too. Societies support many journals, the vast majority in electronic format only. Some individual journals have instituted author fees to supplement membership fees, partly to regulate the flow of submissions and partly to cover opearting costs. In addition to online publishing, societies promote face-to-face conferences where they encourage video recording and Webinars, enbabling remote participation in heretofore local workshops, creating archives of these activities, and issuing notifications of recent and upcoming events. Journal publishing is sustained via an editorial board comprised of an editor in chief and various associate editors, as well as a copy editing staff for work that has been accepted for publication. The editorial board members are faculty from member departments who receive some remuneration from the membership fees, enough to buy out some of their teaching time so they can devote their energies to the editing function. The copy editors are professional staff overseen by the editor in chief. In some cases referees are also paid, not as compensation, but to signify the importance of timeliness and quality of the review.

Absent any limitation on pages or the number of articles to appear per year imposed by print costs, the scholarly society as a whole sets policy on the total flow of scholarship to be published per year. Societies have found it advantageous to run several "journals" differentiated as follows - a top-of-the-line general interest journal, a smattering of high level field journals, and a somewhat larger set of tertiary field journals. Societies also embrace the publishing of monographs as eBooks. As with journal articles, the flow of monographs per year is regulated by the society, to reflect the needs of the field. Most disciplines have two or even three societies, reflecting differences in orientation about the subject matter and to avoid dominance by narrow elites within the field.

Each society maintains a Web site with all current publications and scholarly activity as well an archive of past work. Some society Web sites are hosted at particular Academic Institutions. Others stand outside any university environment. In the interest of preservation and redundancy, societies encourage mirror sites. Since all works members of societies produce are within the public domain, an individual, department, or institution can serve as a mirror if they are so willing.

An additional service that societies provide is periodic review of member departments and member institutions. Review happens via site visits by committees of scholars from other institutions selected for the purpose. Review covers both scholarship and instruction. Review serves to certify a well functioning department and to provide recommendations for the department and the institution to follow when the department has issues that require remedy. Review is covered via membership fee. Societies also rank member departments to provide guidance for students, faculty, the institution, and the public.

Universities, as distinct from societies, have responsibility for hosting work in its formative stage as well as finished work that doesn't otherwise get published. Universities also have reponsibility to initiate new periodicals for indisciplinary work that doesn't yet have society sponsorship and in general to support work that doesn't have a home in established fields.

* * * * *

The little sketch above is meant to argue that there needs to be a system of quality assurance. Commercial publishing of scholarly work, for all its faults and expense, provides one such system. If commercial publishing is to vanish, there needs to be some other system to take its place. Commercial publishing is mostly sustained by the acquisition budgets of University Libraries, and secondarily by individual subscription. In my fantasy island alternative, the scholarly societies are sustained by membership fees. Those would be paid by academic departments or the institution itself, not by the Library. It would require internal reallocation on the campuses to work. In turn, Libraries could generate a lot more interest in the entire issue if they started to advocate for this sort of internal reallocation as a long term proposition. Otherwise, it seems a "Library matter" in which case why should the rest of us bother?

The other rather large question, for which I have no answer at this time, is that even if we all can agree on what the fantasy island vision looks like, how do we get from here to there? With the current system a reality and the fantasy island version only a promise of one, it would seem to require a fair amount of coordination within a discipline to make the switch. Individually, especially for junior faculty who are looking for tenure, it makes sense to maintain in the old system. So we need a model of the requisite coordination. There isn't one now.

Perhaps there is grant funding from the Obama administration available for doing these things. If it worked, it would lower the cost of higher education. In the meantime, let's move past policy and develop some alternative models.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Galen headed down the home stretch

This is our penultimate video. The last one we'll do will use Adobe Connect. In this one we talk about what Galen need's to do to finish his paper.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

For Sale Sign on the Fourth Estate

In his column today Frank Rich argues that we need professional journalists who do their work as a career, not a hobby, and therefore they need to get paid. It can't be the government who pays them for obvious reasons. So even as newspapers are failing left and right there surely is a need to find some new commercial entity that hires journalists and publishes the work. The question that nobody has an answer to, Clay Shirky included, is what that commercial entity will look like.

I'm not going to offer up an answer, because I don't have one. But I will make a comment as a would be consumer of whatever comes next. News mostly isn't. It ends up being mostly blather. Investigative journalism requires analysis, to put the pieces together. We might be better off regarding the quality of written (I deleted the word "print" that I put down first) journalism, if there were less frequent publication, say weekly, even monthly. The point Rich makes about requiring a counter force to authority, whether in government or big business, doesn't seem to also require that each news outlet find its worth to be had in "scooping rivals," especially in the bulk of the stories that turn out to provide no counter force whatsoever. The scooping function may have arisen out of commercial necessity but it now has a life of its own and has lead to a soundbite approach, at the cost of skepticism and depth of coverage.

As with all crises, this is an opportunity for some auto correction. One can only hope that in the experimentation and flailing to find something that works, the press can restore their raison d'etre.

Latest book chapter

A draft of Personality and Guessing is now available. I'm not altogether satisfied with it but compared to where I was a week or two ago (totally stuck) I've made miles of progress.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Galen Conclusion

This is a critique of the Galen's draft, which focuses on lessons learned.

Galen 2

This is a critique of the middle part of Galen's first draft, which focuses on Google's model.

Critique of Galen's First Draft

This part of the critique covers the overview and the first page.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thank You Anthony Downs

I read an Economic Theory of Democracy while still an undergrad. It might be a good idea for the Republican Leadership to read it now. It looks like Senator Specter's move caught most people unawares, though in hindsight it seems the obvious thing. Perhaps the moniker "middle of the road" will regain respectability.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Another chat with Galen

This conversation covers Galen's redirecting his efforts to writing the paper that is his main course obligation.

Monday, April 20, 2009

2nd Meeting with Galen

Below is the chat from last Thursday. Last week's posts plus this chat mark a cusp in the work. Now Galen has to begin a synthesis so he can produce his paper. Let's see if the approach rises to occasion and if his postings and our conversation this coming week change as a consequence.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Back to writing my book

After going on a hiatus for a couple of months, mostly because of work related obligations, I've been back to writing my book for the last week or so. There is now a version of Chapter 6,
Guessing and Verification, posted on the book site. If you get a chance to read it, I'd appreciate getting your opinion of it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

First Session with Galen

Galen Rafferty is a student in our Professional MBA Program here. He is also a staff member for the CIC, which is how I got to know him. He is almost ready to graduate but needed one more course. So he and I agreed that I would mentor him through an independent study course that focuses on a work related interest but that is suitable for his program of study. Galen has a blog to record his current thinking and he will be producing a paper for this course. My role is more as a cheer leader and outside ear than as an expert in Galen's project - I'm not, though I've got some relevant experience from work so I can chime in now and then based on that.

We've decided to do live sessions in ooVoo so the sessions can be recorded and I can then use those for my work. I don't think we've yet nailed it as to how to hold these online sessions, but this sort of mentoring I'd expect to become a more regular part of people's professional development. So I want to showcase it here. The content might be of interest in its own right. I'm showing it for the style of interaction. Enjoy!

Monday, April 06, 2009

Reductio ad Absurdum

Yesterday I caught the tail end of The President's Analyst on TCM. I couldn't stop laughing. Totally ridiculous, it was perfect. Spies everywhere, the Phone Company runs the country, the cool James Coburn totally bereft, it feels like everything is upside down. And with the ridiculousness, there is a serious point.

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
Step out of line
The Men come and shoot you down

Steven Stills

The last few weeks, it's been hard to read the newspaper. On the particulars one story differed from another. But on the main theme, dysfunction and decrepitude, they were all the same. I couldn't take it. So I stopped reading. This morning, I had a different reaction. Look at this piece on the North Korean satellite launch followed by this piece on how North Korea is pressing for political advantage from the test nonetheless. Or read this this piece about Larry Summers working for a Hedge Fund after he left Harvard, "earning" about $5.2M over two year for the effort, just one day a week, yet being meticulous about paying Social Security for the maid. Add to that it's already April yet it snowed last night - ridiculous.

Keep laughing. We'll get through this.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Going against conventional wisdom

Yesterday, after checking the ESPN Web site to see the score in the basketball game and noting it was close with Michigan State on top, I decided to watch the second half. The Big Ten hadn't fared too well in the tournament until then, so this was more a loyalty thing than expecting anything else. Michigan State has been a second half team all year so I thought they had a decent chance based on that. But what I saw surprised me.

As a rule I don't check the betting line before watching a game (Louisville was a 6.5 point favorite). The announcers kept making the point that Louisville was the overall number 1 seed in the tournament. But sometimes its a matter of match ups, game plan, and fight. Michigan State was quicker to the ball and scrappier than Louisville. I had the same sensation watching that second half as I did 30+ years ago watching the Light Heavyweight Championship bout between Mike Rossman and Victor Galindez. My recollection is that Rossman had a peekaboo style that Galindez never figured out. Galindez was more powerful but he never really connected solidly and eventually he punch himself out. Likewise Louisville never figured out that they needed to raise their intensity level and eventually they faltered..

Who had Michigan State in their brackets? Listening to the Michigan State coach, Tom Izzo, this wasn't an upset. Louisville had exploitable weaknesses and Michigan State found them. The question is who else saw it that way? I didn't.

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There's an interesting piece in the NY Times Magazine this week about Freeman Dyson, worth the read even if it challenges your assumptions. Dyson is a Doubting Thomas on Global Warming, an outlier among scientists or so it seems. I'll get to the gist of his arguments in a minute. Whatever you think of those, some of the rest of piece is really quite fascinating. Dyson sees fundamental learning - creating knew knowledge - as a subversive activity. It undermines the establishment. He seemingly gets great pleasure from causing such disruption. How about this one on creativity?

“Being bored is the only time you are creative”

Sounds ridiculous, I know. Except when I was a grad student at Northwestern once a semester I'd drive back to New York to see my folks and I came to like those rides because it gave me time for my mind to wander. Now read this passage.

The breakthrough came on summer trips Dyson made in 1948, traveling around America by Greyhound bus and also, for four days, in a car with Feynman. Feynman was driving to Albuquerque, and Dyson joined him just for the pleasure of riding alongside “a unique person who had such an amazing combination of gifts.” The irrepressible Feynman and the “quiet and dignified English fellow,” as Feynman described Dyson, picked up gypsy hitchhikers; took shelter from an Oklahoma flood in the only available hotel they could find, a brothel, where Feynman pretended to sleep and heard Dyson relieve himself in their room sink rather than risk the common bathroom in the hall; spoke of Feynman’s realization that he had enjoyed military work on the Manhattan Project too much and therefore could do it no more; and talked about Feynman’s ideas in a way that made Dyson forever understand what the nature of true genius is. Dyson wanted to unify one big theory; Feynman was out to unify all of physics. Inspired by this and by a mesmerizing sermon on nonviolence that Dyson happened to hear a traveling divinity student deliver in Berkeley, Dyson sat aboard his final Greyhound of the summer, heading East. He had no pencil or paper. He was thinking very hard. On a bumpy stretch of highway, long after dark, somewhere out in the middle of Nebraska, Dyson says, “Suddenly the physics problem became clear.” What Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga were doing was stylistically different, but it was all “fundamentally the same.”


Dyson on Global Warming doesn't sound so unreasonable to me. The first point goes back to stuff we learned in grade school about the symbiotic relationship between plants and animals. You know, the stuff about plants consuming carbon dioxide and producing oxygen and animals doing the opposite. So if greenhouse gasses are on the increase, there is a natural self-regulatory mechanism in the biology. I have no way to evaluate that argument on its merits but I do believe in general that forecasting models, in economics as well as in meteorology, probably do a reasonably good job for small perturbations, but really go awry with big changes. However, Dyson's biology argument seems really there only to set the stage for his social argument, one I can better judge.

To literally fuel economic growth, access to inexpensive energy sources is indispensible. Nowadays, that means coal. For India and China, coal is a lifeblood, a means to transform their economies from peasant-agrarian to middle class/knowledge economy. Dyson sees this transformation as noble, a huge win for humanity. Of course coal as fuel is anathema to global warming advocates. It's the social agenda that drives the views about science, at least in the sense that morality moves our sensibilities, not the other way around. And on social agenda, Dyson is pure American Dream, but that we have no monopoly on that and the best we can hope for is that it spreads through the rest of the world.

Dyson is not for coal forever. He is for coal now, until other technologies (solar especially) catch up from an economic point of view. Let the already rich countries lead on alternative energy technologies. However, don't let them be paternalistic about coal. It's not the type of argument you hear every day. It doesn't sound loony tunes to me.

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It seems that old NY Times Columnists don't just fade away. They become reviewers for the New York Review of Books. I really liked this Anthony Lewis piece, Shall We Get Rid of Lawyers? Lewis doesn't have much respect for the author of the book Lewis reviews, Philip Howard, but that seems because of Howard's poor journalism, he takes things as true with only a very limited set of sources and doesn't verify the information they provided, rather than because of Howard's Conservative disposition. Lewis, who had the reputation of being an outspoken Liberal, defies the current stereotype. (We seem to become those we make fun of. My wife has taken to watching MSNBC since Obama has become president and for me they are not much different from Fox News - though I've not watched the latter - Keith Oberman in particular wants to rush to judgment rather than help us understand what is going on.) He sees litigation for social causes as a balancing act, with excesses in both directions, and no quick fixes. His comments about the selection of judges, in particular, are telling. And his quoting Richard Posner, shows he derives his center of gravity from the quality of the argument, not from where the argument fits on the left-right spectrum.

I wish he were still writing for the NY Times because his voice is so true.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

In memory of Helen

Everything seems backwards now. And it's not just the economy. Used to be

Ah gits weary
An' sick of tryin'
Ah'm tired of livin'
An' skeered of dyin',
But ol' man river,
He jes'keeps rolling' along.

Now death is the reward. Thankfully, the struggle is over, the end of pain for the matriarch and of anxious times for the children. We compare the well being of societies by their life expectancy. I wonder why.

Helen had her 90th birthday just a month ago. Most of us were here in Des Moines then. The real benefit of this marathon that had not yet come to an end is that the siblings, my wife one of those, and their spouses and offspring and for the adult offspring their offspring as well, all would gather for a meal in celebration, suspending the ordinary pace of life in the name of family.

But all was not joy at the birthday party. Alzheimers would not allow it. Helen, with grace and determination, kept up her charms in her joking way of interaction, though she couldn't remember who you were. And she was so anemic and frail. The kids worried about that. And they worried that she was beginning to outlive her estate. Who plans to be a nonagenerian?

Things also seem backwards in that we're scared of living. I relearned an old lesson on this trip. Technology can frighten us, especially those of us who seem otherwise to have life in their hip pocket. One of my brother-in-laws got a Kindle about a week ago. He hadn't yet started to use it. He quizzed me about what I did with it.

We who take technology for granted need to remember that not everyone else does and that anything unfamiliar can intimidate anyone, even the bravest. We must encourage those we support to overcome their apprehension. The obstacles with new technology are molehills, not mountains. Using the technology well is a way to live life to its fullest, a value we all can embrace. Thank you, Helen, for reminding us of that.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Interesting Whiteboard

There is an interesting Whiteboard tool that Norma told me about called Dabbleboard which one could use in conjunction with an LMS simply by linking to it. Each particular whiteboard get's its own unique url. While Dabbleboard does allow a login, it can be accessed anonymously. And the boards can be kept private so anyone outside the class wouldn't use it. It does seem to be a step up from the whiteboards that are in the LMS.

The Chat tool that accompanies Dabbleboard is actual a different product, Tokbox, which does voice and video chat in addition to the standard text chat, all through the browser without a dedicated client. It also allows video mail, a function I expect will grow dramatically in the next year or so.

Not everything works with these tools. We've tried embedding the Dabbleboard and the chat doesn't seem to function this way. Also that place where you change your name online appears flaky. But it does seem promising. I hope they keep developing it.

Two Additional Chapter Drafts Now Posted

I've written two more chapters for my book. They are up in draft form.
Chapter 4: Walking the Walk
Chapter 5: Just the Facts

Friday, February 13, 2009

Update: M&Ms Learning

YouTube did work on the Blackberry yesterday. I still could not get public radio to play, however.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

M&Ms Learning

A couple of days ago my sister-in-law sent me email about KenKen, a math puzzle game modeled after Sudoku. This NY Times piece is a good read on it (with a link to the site), particularly on the teaching approach embedded in KenKen - teaching without teaching. The students learn by working the puzzles, first simple four by by puzzles, then more complex puzzles as they improve. I've played it a lot the last couple of days, getting as good as an eight by eight puzzle. The nine by nine seemed overwhelming. I don't know if most kids would get hooked on something like this. But if they did, they'd learn a lot - about logic, algebra and factoring numbers. For the student who does get hooked, it's all very sweet, learning without studying, getting smart through play.

The design is extremely clever. I wonder if we could come up with this sort of thing in other domains, economics for example.

A few days ago I got a Blackberry Storm. I was thinking of getting an iPhone, but the rest of the family has Verizon as the provider so the incremental cost was just too great. I probably shouldn't admit this, but I've always hated cellphones and PDAs, though I've had a variety of them over time. Hearing on the connection, reading the screen, manipulating the buttons, all have been issues for me over time. The Storm is a step up. I could get to like it. The audio, both for listening and speaking (it has a voice annotation function) is very good. The navigation is fairly intuitive. The camera is excellent; it produces very high quality images. Reading email on it is quite good, very good clarity of the font and the scrolling is smooth. The touch screen typing in landscape mode - I've seen reviews where others have raved about it - is ok for me. It is still clunky and occassionally I put too much pressure on the screen, but I feel less of a ditz doing that than I did with my old Treo, tapping at it with my stylus and squinting to make sure I was getting the right letter.

So, I began to think of the Storm as a portable learning device, m-learning seems to be the craze so how would it work? Imagining myself as a student, would I be ok with it instead of a laptop? For me the jury is out. It's a more likely substitute in the field than in the classroom. I downloaded several of Google's mobile applications. Synching the Calendar and Maps worked fine but YouTube wouldn't play the videos. I tried listening to Public Radio online. The Storm does not have RealPlayer but it has Windows Media Player installed, however it didn't seem able to connect. (There are Internet Radio Stations that do play on the Storm, but of course if you want particular programming that may not solve the issue.) Perhaps these problems are temporary and I'll figure them out. The browser seems to work well but some of the Javascript stuff on Web pages doesn't show up at all. I couldn't play KenKen on the Storm. Bummer. I'm wondering whether unless everything goes xml if using a portable device means there has to be translation services or you miss out on the content.

At this point I have lots of portable devices: a Kindle, iPod, Tablet PC, and the Storm, for recreation as much as for work. Each either does a unique function or does its function so much better than the alternative that so far I wouldn't give any of them up in the name of convergence. There is, of course, also the matter of cost - of the device, of connectivity, and of content. The connectivity part is the one I least understand in terms of relating what we pay for wireless broadband versus the cost to the providers. If this is to truly become a learning instrument, the connection charges for the student have to come way down.

My sense is that m-learning is like candy. The idea is appealing, but it's still short of a real meal. At least now as compared to a few years ago, it melts in your mouth, not in your hands.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Closed Captioning with Camtasia - Tips and Tricks

Yesterday and earlier today I made some more content for The Economics Metaphor, my site for teaching Economic Principles/Intermediate Micro. Some of what I did was a screen capture movie of some Excel spreadsheets I had designed with my voice over. Thinking that others might like to give it a try, here are some of the tricks I used to get this thing produced.

First, note that Camtasia only does closed captioning if the output is Flash and at this point I've come to concluded that the move itself should be in .flv format, because it performs better and makes smaller files than .swf format. You can do open captioning (a movie with subtitles that are always there) in other formats and perhaps there is some virtue in doing it that way. But I'm going to assume most people would prefer closed captioning if they could deliver it.

Next, when Camtasia does this the captioning background is translucent. That background overlays the video. Based on experimentation, I've found that video itself should have a plain background where the captioning can appear - otherwise it looks noisy and the captions are hard to read. So I captured my video accounting for that.

Then, I want this to work reasonably well on a computer screen that is 1024x768 in resolution. And I'm making the video so it appears in my blog with two columns. The left is the main column where the video appears. The right is the sidebar column. This puts some additional limits on video width. If you were to design a video for its own stand alone page, you'd make it a little wider. I'll show where that occurs in the process.

The region I capture is 640x480. The Excel piece is 640x360 and right below it is background screen that is mono color of sixe 640x120. So there is some discipline in the size of the region that is captured where the action takes place. Those who make Tablet PC movies capturing their own writing might bear that in mind. When the movie is actually produced I shrink it slightly so it renders as 600x450. This is to fit in the blog. This step would be omitted if the video had its own page. If you want the video to render in the browser without having to scroll down to see the player and accounting for the fact that with several Tabs open and possibly a bookmarks toolbar the browser header can take up a lot of vertical space, you can't have a taller video on a 1024x768 screen.

Now let's talk about the captioning itself. (See the image below.) After experimenting with other alternatives, I've opted for 45 characters per line and two lines of text per screen as the rule. I don't always speak in short sentences or pause in the right places, but I think 3 lines of text is daunting as is too much text on any one line. So what I've got is a reasonable compromise. Also note that I put line space between the text on two different screens. It is rather frenetic to put the timings in as the movie plays. The line spacing makes that job easier.

Camtasia Captioning

That's pretty much it. My sense is that while we are being pushed to caption by our accessibility folks for any technical content students will really appreciate the captioning and students who are not native in English will likewise appreciate the captioning. It's really not that hard to do. And if the movies aren't too long, not that much work.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rabbit Has Stopped Running

A healthy male adult bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people's patience.
- John Updike