Saturday, December 20, 2008

Artificial Science

Brown, A. L. (1992). Design experiments: Theoretical and methodological challenges in creating complex interventions in classroom settings. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2(2), 141-178.

At first glance this article may seem somewhat strange, with the author listing about 25 self-citations, however given the format of the article, it actually makes sense. It is written as a qualitative longitudinal review of the author’s own work over about a 15 year period, with comparisons between that work and the work of others in the field during a similar time period. It is definitely a different approach to writing an article, but it shows an interesting pattern of various ideas becoming popular among researchers and practitioners and then giving way to something else. Brown also follows the same method in writing the article about past research as when writing specific research articles – giving an overview of the entire study and the general trends, flavored with detailed information about an interesting case. In this article Brown shows us the general pattern to the studies and then gives us specific examples, such as the biology class studying carnivores and herbivores.

The actual point of the article seemed to be that just because a study doesn’t follow a strict scientific convention doesn’t mean that it’s not still useful. The author discusses some common criticisms of her work. With some results being discounted as a Hawthorne effect, Brown explains why it was not just a Hawthorne effect but even if it was it may still be a valid study with good results. The major issue pointed out by Brown is that learning outcomes depend on many interacting factors, and the act of controlling for all factors and varying just one, in addition to the fact that the observer is there watching in the first place, makes the environment become artificial. So is it better to be very scientific and be able to show a given effect size of one particular variable in an artificial environment, or to simply interact within a natural environment where most everything is out of the control of the researcher? Neither one can really be generalizable or applicable to other situations.

In terms of how this relates to my interests, since this article was not about a specific intervention, rather methods of implementing research, I can only really take the article as advice for planning my own studies. A purely scientific, sterile approach does not necessarily always provide the best information. A messy, unorganized study could very well be a poor study, but it also may be useful if providing real information about real-world environments. It is important to understand research practices to be able to implement protections against internal and external validity issues, either to prevent them from happening or to defend yourself against others that may claim your work is subject to them.

Staying culturally relevant in today’s global society

Given the speed at which technology is advancing, both in innovation and distribution, groups and individuals seem to be classified as technology haves or have-nots. The haves are seen as smarter or more successful than the have-nots. The haves then suppose it their duty to impart their ways on the poor have-nots, whether or not their help is needed or requested. Looking deep down, however, it does not appear that technology itself really causes anyone to change, rather it facilitates desired changes. Whether those desired changes are for the better or the worse depends, of course, on the situation.

In addition to technological advancements, there are many more aspects by which various cultures may differ, including geography, religion, language, social structures, traditions, available resources, etc. Technology is hailed by some as an equalizer, allowing members of cultures that might not otherwise have a voice to publish their story for the world, but it may come at a price of lost traditions and ways of life (Bowers, Vasquez & Roaf, 2000).

That is not to say that cultures should not communicate and mix to create new traditions and understanding of others. Quite the opposite is true. As we come to learn and know how and why we are different, we will understand our own background better and realize that because of our differences, everyone has something to offer. As the field of Instructional Technology continues to develop and make advances in understanding and dealing with accommodating differences between individuals and groups, practitioners find themselves developing more personalized instruction that must be sensitive to the cultural needs of their constituents.

Thomas, Mitchell & Joseph (2000) point out that the traditional ADDIE process of instructional design addresses culture in the analysis phase, but go on to encourage designers to continue interacting with the learners throughout all phases of development. In fact, they propose a third dimension to ADDIE consisting of Intention, Interaction, and Introspection that are meant to be continually evaluated during each of the steps of the standard model.

These three I’s in their three dimensional ADDIE model serve to ensure that designers pay attention to what cultures they are developing instruction for, communicate and collaborate with stakeholders, and reflect on their own thoughts and actions throughout the entire process. These additional steps may seem redundant, i.e. introspection sprinkled throughout the process just like evaluation; however, the difference between their three I’s and the existing five steps is that the I’s are specifically focused on culture, since that element is often forgotten. By adding the third dimension, designers are reminded that their instruction cannot and should not be culturally neutral, so an extra measure of care should be taken regarding cultural issues.

That said, other than recommending that designers think about culture throughout the process, this three dimensional ADDIE model does little to actually provide any real framework for incorporating cultural methods into instruction. In order to provide a meaningful model to follow, it is likely that a systematic approach is needed. Such an approach provides a scaffold for novices, which they gradually remove as they become expert designers. It is not that experts do not need to perform all the same steps, but they usually perform them intuitively and naturally. The challenge, then, in a new framework is to integrate cultural sensitivity in such a way that experienced designers will be willing to take the time to adjust their current methods and established knowledge to take into account the additional dimension.

In order for an organization to make such a change in their own methods and cultures, a change management program may be required. Jones, Aguirre & Calderone (2004) present a set of 10 tools and techniques for helping a company transform, providing means for individuals to manage their own change and an entire organization to implement a change as well. Without individual change, no collective change can be effected.

Their 10 Principles of Change Management include the following steps:
1. Address the “human side” systematically.
2. Start at the top.
3. Involve every layer.
4. Make the formal case.
5. Create ownership.
6. Communicate the message.
7. Assess the cultural landscape.
8. Address culture explicitly.
9. Prepare for the unexpected.
10. Speak to the individual.
Steps 1, 2, and 3 really state that any change must be planned out before it is implemented, modeled by the leadership of the organization, and implemented everywhere. If it is not, that shows a lack of commitment and the change will fail. Change is embraced by few, especially when it is not carefully thought out before implementation.

In making a case to each level of the organization (Step 4), the need for change must be established and a viable roadmap must be presented. Just as andragogical principles, such as the need for adults to know why they are learning something and that adults learn better with a problem-based approach than with a passive “fill me up with knowledge” approach (Freire, 1970), guide instruction of adults, they must also be utilized in any change management system (which is really just instruction anyway).

This andragogical approach to change management will ensure that all levels of the organization will claim ownership and participate in communicating the message to others (Steps 5 and 6). Steps 7 through 10 are really the core of this approach to change management, since they deal directly with changing the culture of the organization in question. This is especially interesting in terms of the current question of how to ensure the consideration of culture in instructional design.

Of course the new culture must be assessed before it may be addressed. Thorough assessment of the culture will identify values, beliefs, sources of leadership, and sources of resistance. It may be worth a reminder that this model is a change management model, which can be used for any business-related change, not just for instructional projects. A new culture may be desired or two merging companies may be combining their cultures. It also may be that other changes are made within an established culture. This model applies to instructional projects within a different culture, as long as the designers remember their obligation to develop materials that fit within the appropriate cultural context without intentionally or unintentionally disrupting established culture. It may be that an intervention is designed to change culture, such as recent campaigns in China to encourage taxi drivers to shower and brush their teeth in preparation for the Olympic Games held there earlier this year. Even such an intervention that is meant to improve cultural practices needs to be approached correctly in order to obtain buy-in from all stakeholders.

Throughout the change process, all those involved should be prepared to expect the unexpected. No plan goes perfectly, but by being willing to deal with issues as they arrive, everything will go more smoothly. The reason there are differences is because people are involved. The stakeholders should be respected, consulted, and otherwise involved in the process.

When designing instruction for those of other cultures, it may be that it is new instruction from the ground up or it may be a remix of existing instruction. The differences between a designer’s background and that of those who will be participating in the instruction need to be defined and integrated with the appropriate design model. ADDIE principles apply in any situation really, as long as the above-mentioned steps are taken to ensure integration with the new cultural milieu. Hites & Casterline (1986) discuss a few steps in designing instruction for other cultures. Based on a needs analysis, they recommend asking if technology is appropriate to the situation and if the objectives are the same. Next, they remind us to consider motivational factors, the level of English comprehension, entry skills and knowledge, and learning style preferences. At this point, all existing training materials and their delivery methods are up for change as needed. An important observation they make is the need to provide training for the instructor if he or she is not from the same culture as the students. Instructor training should include both content and culture. Following the ADDIE process, formative and summative evaluations should be held and appropriate revisions made.

By utilizing a combination of these models, it is more likely that effective, culturally relevant instruction will result. Designers should stay aware of their own cultural biases and backgrounds, stay focused on providing the best instruction while doing no harm, utilize stakeholders throughout the process of analyzing, designing, and developing instruction to create ownership among those to receive instruction, prepare the instructors as needed, and be flexible.


Bowers, C.A., Vasquez, M., Roaf, M. (2000). “Native People and the Challenge of Computers: Reservation Schools, Individualism, and Consumerism.” American Indian Quarterly 24(2).

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Hites, J.M., Casterline, S. (1986). “Adapting Training for Other Cultures.” Annual Conference of the National Society for Performance and Instruction.

Jones, J., Aguirre, D., & Calderone, M. (2004). “10 Principles of Change Management.” Strategy+Business.

Thomas, M., Mitchell, M., Joseph, R. (2000) “The Third Dimension of ADDIE: A Cultural Embrace.” TechTrends 46(2).

Friday, December 19, 2008


Many people I've talked to lately have either had some kind of spyware infestation, the notoriously scamacious Antivirus 2009 (or 2008), or just something that the kids did weird that messed up their computer.

In looking around for something to help keep computers under control, I found Windows SteadyState, which is a free program put out by Microsoft for locking down Microsoft Windows. As much as I dislike some of Microsoft's business practices and their frequent security problems (stop laughing Mac fans - the Mac OS has been bitten by malware as much as Windows has lately), this is a program that appears to have what it takes to really lock down a computer. It won't help in cleaning one up after the fact but in keeping it from getting messed up in the first place.

I used it to create an account for the kids. The account is locked down so no programs can run except Internet Explorer. Then IE is locked down so it is more limited than normal. You can set it up with a whitelist or only specific sites that can be visited, but I didn't turn that feature on.

If something strange does get installed even with the limited version of IE that is running, when you log out of the account, all changes made to the computer are automatically removed. Pretty cool. You can unlock the account so you can make changes and then just lock it back up.

I'm still playing with it, so I don't have a full review for it yet, but I recommend trying it out.

If you don't want to totally lock down your computer to just a small list of websites but still want good protection, I recommend K9 Web Protection from Blue Coat Systems. It's free for personal use. It lets you pick from a huge list of categories of sites that you can block and logs all sites that are visited.

And if you do happen to get the Antivirus 2009 trojan installed on your computer, I've found System Restore, which is automatically enabled in both Windows XP and Vista, to be the easiest option to remove it.


I recorded some digital video recently. When playing the resulting mpg files on my computer, the video was fine, but there was no sound. I could hear the sound when I played it back on the camera but nothing when it was copied to the computer.

I installed the XP Codec Pack and the sound worked fine. So cheers to you and some link love, too.

The file wouldn't play at all in Quicktime for some reason - only in Windows Media Player. I didn't install the XP Codec Pack media player, just the codecs.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Me: Chocolate muffin, please.

Coffee Shop Girl: Would you like light, dark, or pumpkin?

Me: Chocolate.

Coffee Shop Girl: Which kind do you want?

Me: Chocolate. [a little slower]

Coffee Shop Girl: There are three different kinds: light, dark, and pumpkin.

Me: I just want chocolate. [pointing to chocolate muffin behind glass]

Coffee Shop Girl: [Pulls out a regular muffin with chocolate chips.]

Me: I wanted the chocolate one. [pointing again]

Coffee Shop Girl: Oh, so you want the double chocolate. [Pulls out chocolate muffin.]

It wasn't until she pointed out my mistake in calling it chocolate, instead of double chocolate that I figured out her confusion. I just thought she couldn't hear me or something. No, she was blinded by the chocolate chips. You'd think that someone who sells muffins for a living would understand the difference between a pastry that is substantially chocolate and one that is accented with chocolate chips. She did well at covering her frustration, although I could still tell it was there. But what else was I to say? At least I was able to provide her a stupid customer story that she can complain about to her barista friends.

In a semi-related incident at the bagel shop a year or so ago, I learned that bagel people don't like it when you use the term 'fruity bagels.' I told them I wanted a dozen assorted but didn't want any fruity ones. I wanted the good ones that people actually eat, with cheese and garlic and herbs and sunflower seeds. Apparently, the kinds with fruit in them are 'breakfast bagels.'

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Not the brightest

I was at the store looking at some LED lights to replace our current energy-sucking conventional C9 lights. They are more expensive than regular lights. I overheard an employee explaining to a customer that, "they are more expensive because they last longer." That's just dumb. The fact that they last longer, combined with the energy savings, mitigates the fact that they cost more; however, just lasting longer is not justification for charging more. It may be that they cost more to make, which is fine, but that's not how she explained it. Chances are neither the employee nor the customer would have even understood the difference between what she said and reality, though, so maybe it doesn't matter.

Combine the savings mentioned above with Logan City rebates of $5 per string of old lights that you turn in, and it makes sense to go LED, right?

Well, I can't get a good photo that really shows how bad the LED lights are, but they're a weird color and not very bright. So much for trying to go green, as an extra trip to the store is now in order to return the new lights, plus any future temptation to purchase LED lights will be met with skepticism.

It did give me an excuse to play around with the shutter speed setting on my camera that I've never had a reason to learn how to use before. The bottom shot was the longest exposure. It's not as obvious as seeing it in person, but you can tell that the mini incandescent lights are brighter than the C9 LED lights.

Dear Comcast, please distribute this post for me.

From the current Comcast High Speed Internet service agreement:

Comcast does not claim any ownership of any material that you publish, transmit or distribute using HSI. By using HSI to publish, transmit or distribute material or content, you (1) warrant that the material or content complies with the provisions of this Agreement, (2) consent to and authorize Comcast, its agents, suppliers, and affiliates to reproduce, publish, distribute, and display the content worldwide and (3) warrant that you have the right to provide this authorization. You acknowledge that material posted or transmitted using HSI may be copied, republished or distributed by third parties, and you agree to indemnify, defend and hold harmless Comcast, its agents, suppliers, and affiliates for any harm resulting from these actions.

So while they do state that they're not going to try to steal anything you transmit through their network, they immediately follow that by stating that by using their network, you agree that your materials may be copied and published by pretty much anyone. Of course, it would be impossible to use the internet if material was not freely copied and distributed around the world. So then is such a clause unnecessary? Could it be misinterpreted by someone who pirates your intellectual property as giving them permission to republish such? I realize they are just trying to say that if someone steals your stuff, Comcast isn't liable. It just seems that adding unnecessary clauses like this makes such an agreement unnecessarily complex, and thus open to misinterpretation. And provides job security for lawyers everywhere.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Incremental Andragogy

The principles of andragogy, covered well by the writers over at Open Education dotnet are important to keep in mind, even when running a teacher-centered or content-centered lesson plan.

My experience at work lately has been increased misunderstanding among students of the importance of CIL (Computer & Information Literacy) in their university careers. They don't see the point, so they are immediately disengaged from any learning, treating the tests we give as hoops to jump through rather than a learning opportunity. Thus, they become very frustrated when they can't pass the tests right away, since they're trying to pass the tests without learning anything. A key principle of andragogy is understanding why the things they're learning is relevant to them. Another principle is that you can learn from mistakes. They don't want to make mistakes, and they don't want to learn anything. When I sit down and explain to someone the purpose of the tests and how it can help them, they usually understand and turn around their attitude.

Even though the content we cover is pretty set and they don't have much if any control over what they need to learn, it's still helpful to understand the reasoning behind it.

One of the comments on the above-linked article points out that it may not work to open up the classroom, since almost all kids go to school now instead of just the academically inclined ones, as it used to be when this approach was developed. I think the principles of andragogy are even more important for students that aren't academically inclined. The so-called smart kids will learn no matter what epistemology is practiced by their teachers. Maybe if the students who have a harder time in school were helped to understand why they need to learn things and how what they learn fits in with their existing knowledge, they would be more motivated.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Windows Matrix

Buy yourself something nice

Jay Leno: How about the economy, what do you make of that?

Katt Williams: I make of it what we're all making of it. I knew it was coming so I just bought as much stuff as I could. Look, we are going into a recession, America. Buy yourselves something nice before it happens.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

My Gordian Knot

I need some advice.

The requirement to pass a class that I teach is to pass a series of 6 tests. It is a one credit, pass/fail class. Pass the tests; pass the class. I teach all the necessary material during the first half of the semester. We don't meet the second half of the semester. The materials are all available online, so class attendance is not mandatory. There are an unlimited number of attempts allowed on each test.

How do I motivate people to get the tests passed? Or rather, what is the ideal set of rules to put in place to minimize the whining I have to listen to? The following are the constraints I'm working with:

I don't care when they take the tests - they just have to be done by the time I submit grades at the end of the semester.

I don't want to have to track anything, just pull up a list at the end of who passed all the tests.

It has to be simple - preferably one sentence. It's not just about whether I can track my class's progress, but that I have to be able to get the students to understand in very simple terms what is required of them.

I don't mind failing people - I just don't want them to call or email me with excuses, asking for more time to take the tests. If I haven't pulled the grades yet, I tell them they have more time.

Every time I've taught, I have done it differently. I have tried requiring one test be passed each week. I have tried 3 tests by one deadline and another 3 by a second deadline. I have tried requiring a paper on one of the test topics to make up for missing a deadline. I have tried giving students weekly deadlines with one automatic one week grace period. I have asked the students to decide as a class how to handle the deadline. I tried having a set deadline a week after we stopped meeting as a class, with an unknown-length grace period. Nothing has worked very well, although some have worked better than others.

Something I've considered but not yet tried is along the lines of requiring attendance for people who are behind on their tests (although that is counter to my constraints of simplicity and not wanting to have to track anything separate). It would be possible to require that each student take at least one test each week, whether or not they pass. I've never done one big deadline during finals week, and I don't think I ever will, since people will put off their tests until then, and they have to worry about deciding whether to study for my tests or finish work for their other classes.

It just seems that as long as there is a penalty for not getting your work done, there will be someone bothering me to avoid the penalty. Unfortunately, the penalty of failing the class seems a little harsh. Again, I don't mind failing people, but when that is the penalty, many people start coming to me to try to figure out a way to avoid it. For most people, if you hand in an assignment late and drop from an A- to a B+, it's not worth bothering your professor over. However, if the penalty for one late assignment is an F, people start to panic. The other problem is that some people figure they have failed the class if they miss a deadline, so they give up, even though I'd tell them they have more time if they asked me. But I don't want them to have to ask me.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

And now for something completely different

My faithful reader(s) will remember my Scouts' anti-drinking video last year. Fast forward a year, bringing in almost all new kids, and we end up with something similar, yet a little better than the last group did.

One of the differences is that we spent a week or two planning the video. It's two weeks if you count the first week that was about 5 minutes of selecting the video's director and 55 minutes of playing indoor soccer. The second night, we wrote out something that approximated a mutated combination of a storyboard and a script. That is, we actually had an idea of what we were going to do, whereas the group last year refused to plan anything.

Again, my ASM and I tried to give helpful hints and suggestions about directions to take the video, without taking it over completely. We started with listing out what resources we had available, with the main item we wanted to include being the drums. Once someone mentioned IBC root beer, we were pretty much stuck on having to do something with beer, so we would have an excuse to have root beer. Next year, if we do this again, I'll probably insist they choose a different topic.

One thing I learned from another scout leader is to keep the camera recording as much as possible. Some of the best moments are often when people think the camera is off or when they're messing around, thinking you won't actually use the clip of them doing something weird.

So here it is:

Pumpkin Walk 2008

This year's North Logan Pumpkin Walk was made all the better by excellent weather. Bob Marley made an appearance again this year, like he did last year. This year's theme was Calling All Heroes.

It is fitting that one of the first scenes included the all-time greatest hero, Batman:

The following is the left side of a scene honoring local hero Brent Carpenter. It's easy to notice the first funny thing about the picture, which is my son posing in the scene right behind the sign that says to stay out of the scenes. Did you notice the other thing that's out of place? The school bus is driving on the wrong side of the road:

Every child of the 80's hero, Mr. T, reminding us to stay in school:

This is supposed to be Mr. Beutler, on whose farm the first Pumpkin Walk took place. For some reason, he reminded me of Boss Godfrey in Cool Hand Luke:

They always have a scene near the end relating to something currently going on. A few years ago, there was a scene titled Martha Stewart Living in Jail. This year, it was a political scene, with the too old and too young candidates rocking back and forth:

There were also some neat paintings. Several caught my eye, but I particularly liked this one:

Let the wild rumpus start!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Open Space

Cache County is currently voting on Proposition 1 which would allow the county to bond for up to $10 million to invest in open space around the county. It would help protect scenic vistas, air and water quality, wildlife habitats, and outdoor recreation with a small increase on property taxes for all county residents.

An argument I've heard against the proposition is that if development rights for a specific property are purchased, it won't stop the development from happening but rather move the development to the farm down the road.

This argument suffers from a lack of foresight. Planning before we lose all our open space is exactly what we need to do. Just because there are currently plenty of places to develop doesn't mean we shouldn't start protecting the open space now. If there was only one parcel of land left in the county to develop, this argument might apply, but it would likely cost much more than $10 million at that point. Or perhaps it might be worth much less, since no one else would be wanting to move here. Either way, it becomes a moot point.

Preserving our open space now when we still have the option to do so allows us to make strategic choices, not just end up with two acres of land no one wanted develop as the only open space left 50 years from now.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Star Ledger

Growing up in New Jersey, we subscribed to the Star Ledger, so this story caught my eye. They are cutting a large portion of their staff. It's one of the largest newspapers in the country, so this move is significant. Another article points out that the Star Ledger has been losing money for years, not just with the recent downturn. It highlights both the sputtering economy and the increasing importance of online news sources that have been cutting into the traditional newspaper market.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Up to date

A student was in the CIL Lab taking the Computer Systems test today, which covers parts of a computer, security, networks, and the like. He would fail, study for a couple minutes, and take it again.

After the third fail in a row, I asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about. He just asked how up to date the test is and brought up a particular question as an example. It asked about how current processor speed is measured. He was answering megahertz, since he was assuming the test was way out of date. You think it's that out of date? It's been since about 2001 or 2002 that computer manufacturers passed the gigahertz mark.

I mean, my phone, which is about a year old, only runs about 200 MHz, but it's a phone, not a full-fledged computer. No one cares about the processor speed of their phone (other than perhaps me, since I actually know what it is). But when was the last time you were discussing a relatively new computer and quoted the speed in megahertz? Of course you don't remember, because it's been gigahertz for the past 6 or 7 years.

He passed it the fourth time, with his score jumping up about 15%, easily clearing the minimum required score.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Everything is Miscellaneous

I just finished Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger. The overarching theme of the book is that all the choices we make have political implications, whether we know it or not. Even something as simple as alphabetical order can discriminate or be manipulated. Having a last name that begins with BA, I'm very aware that I end up very close to the beginning of most lists; however, I hadn't realized the extent of the controversy over the years regarding this unnatural ordering system until reading this book.

The following are a couple of quotes that I liked for one reason or another and that I was able to find again later:

College students' silverware drawers, Delicious, Flickr, the BBC, and Wikipedia are miscellaneous in different ways, except for one thing: How their content is actually arranged does not determine how that content can and will be arranged by their users.

All of the examples in the above quote were ones that the author had discussed in the preceeding pages. The author included the following by Ted Nelson, who came up with the term hypertext some 40 years ago:

People keep pretending they can make things deeply hierarchical, categorizable, and sequential when they can't. Everything is deeply intertwingled.

Both quotes above touch on the fact that data is messy and that by freeing it from the rigid forms we like so much, it can be accessed more naturally by ourselves and by others.

For a fun example of a mashup that takes Flickr photos and combines them with chopped up corporate slogans, tied together with the tags that describe the photos, check out The Ad Generator. Some don't make sense. Some are hilarious. Overall, they are as meaningful (for better or worse) as real advertisements. They work because of all the metadata available for each picture. An interesting addition to the program would be to include location information from Flickr photos and combine that with information about where the user is located (easily gleaned from the user's IP address), and create localized ads that make even more sense for that user. Google and others are actually doing this kind of stuff when it comes to targeting ads.

Just last week, I was having a conversation about what it means to be computer literate. What can we expect students to know already when they come to USU, and more importantly, what should they know in order to be successful here? I mentioned that I thought it would be interesting to look into requiring students to show they know how to contribute to a wiki and post to a blog. The other person mentioned that they could see how the blog thing could be important, but they didn't think that being able to edit a Wikipedia page would be worth anything. If anything, I thought that would be one of the most important things we could be having students do as part of their CIL tests. By understanding how people contribute to Wikipedia, they will be able to better analyze the content of whichever Wikipedia page they find information on, since it will be the inevitable starting point for most of their papers, whatever the topics happens to be. So I really appreciated reading Weinberger pointing out that Wikipedia's openness is what makes it such a valuable resource.

In another recent conversation, it was posited that computer literacy included knowing who to go to solve a particular problem with your computer. I think it needs to go a level deeper - that technology users need to understand that everything does not always go smoothly. It's not enough to know that you can call the Helpdesk, describe the problem, and follow their directions to fix it. You have to expect that there will be problems, be prepared with a backup plan, and firmly push away the blame arrow from yourself. It's not your fault if your computer freezes up, just as it isn't your fault if you can't figure out how to navigate a company's website. It is your fault if you immediately give up. As technology becomes more and more messy, there will be issues to work through, but the results we get back will be more useful to us than ever before.

As I've read about many of the Web 2.0 sites mentioned in the book, it has been helpful that I've actually used most of them to some extent. I've generally started out skeptical with all of them. Why would I want to blog? Why would I want to upload and tag all my photos using Flickr? What's the use of bookmarking pages with Delicious? Yet once I start using each, I understand the purpose, and I connect to the community that I didn't realize was around me. It hasn't always been easy. When I first tried uploading pictures to Flickr and started troubleshooting why my appropriately tagged photos were not showing up in a conference feed like they should have, I was frustrated, but I didn't give up. I finally figured out that since my account was new, it had to be verified by someone at Flickr before my pictures would show up, and they eventually did. As I mentioned above, the key was to keep trying and not blame myself. I still haven't started Twittering yet. I don't see the purpose, but I'm getting closer to trying it. I know that at some point I'll enter the world of Facebook, but as of yet, I refuse.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I couldn't have said it better myself

A portion Craig Ferguson's monologue earlier this week regarding voting...

Tens of millions of Americans in the next election will not vote, which I think is pathetic. You hear people complain about our image around the world. Nothing makes us look worse than not voting. Democracy is always under threat. The threat that it’s under right now is complacency.

In Poland, they remember struggling to win their freedom. I know that Ronald Reagan single-handedly brought down communism with folksy wisdom, but in the 1980’s in Poland there was something called the Solidarity movement. It started off in the shipyards of Gdansk as a trade union for the Polish shipbuilders. In 1989, there was a nationwide referendum in Poland whether they were going to stay with the Soviet communist party or go for democracy, and the Polish government was instructed by the Kremlin to break the heads of anyone supporting an opposition party like Solidarity. People were scared. They didn’t know what to do.

The night before the vote, Solidarity plastered Warsaw and Gdansk, the whole town, with a poster. The poster was such a powerful image that it inspired the nation:
It says "Solidarity" in Polish, in red in the background.

That is Gary Cooper in High Noon. That’s what they used. Instead of a gun, he’s holding a ballot paper. The best way these Polish workers knew how to symbolize the struggle against communism was a single American armed with a ballot. You remember that the next time someone tells you voting is a waste of time.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Don't forget the little people

At the end of each summer, as the throngs of students with their newly purchased iThings return to campus, the inevitable thought comes - wouldn't we be better off if there weren't so many students around? Of course, the students are the reason we're here, right? Of what use would a university be if it wasn't for them? So we exist to help them. We are teaching and molding them. There is nothing they can possibly teach us. Right?

D'Arcy Norman recently vlogged on the need for institutions of higher education to open up more to what their constituents are doing. If we provide resources that are of no interest to students, they will not use them. We need to look at what the students are doing and bring the institution to them.

Felonius expounds on Selber's assertions:

Meeting the needs and goals of ongoing computer literacy programs in college course curriculum is going to be an institution-level enterprise, initiated from the department, and even university ground up. Individual instructors may work on an island, as individual bastions of the changes Selber is stating need to happen, but without a mandate and most importantly money at an institutional level, the changes will be haphazard at best, and limited in effectiveness.

If anything, though, the one thing I doubt about Selber's book is that he doesn't fully define what happens if we don't change. If status quo remains—and all indications are that it's going to for the foreseeable future—what are the end results? He mentions an alienation and lack of control by the average student and technology user, but how is that different from now? And to a degree, what's to say that other outside forces won't maintain an equilibrium that Selber hasn't considered?

We may be able to agree that the institution needs to standardize on something, so we're not haphazardly flinging money and technology around, but if students are feeling alienated and have no control, is it because the institution hasn't built a big enough or fancy enough vault to lock their work, discussions, and relationships into? Or is it because the institution does not follow the students' lead? What if Facebook worked like Blackboard? What if Blackboard worked like Facebook? Am I out of touch or missing something, because I have not yet joined Facebook?

Knowing (hoping) he won't take this the wrong way, I want to look back at Felonius' blog again for just a minute. I wanted to leave a comment on the posting I linked to and quoted above, but I did not want to take the time to register an account with his site. So I can't. So I didn't. I rarely register with a site just to post a reply, unless I'm really upset about something. I'm unlikely to change. So I may post a link from my blog to something interesting on his page, but I won't comment on his page. I can't. On the same note, some friends of mine have locked up their family blogs for privacy reasons, which is their prerogative. I have no complaint; if anything, I applaud them for taking steps to protect the privacy of their families, which more of us should do. But I rarely read their blogs anymore, because they do not show up in my feed reader. I can visit their sites. But I don't. I use Blackboard when I have to either as an instructor or a student, but they can't make me like it. How many of the 25,000+ little people in the USU community like Blackboard, I wonder? How many like Facebook?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Web 2.0 Rhetoric

Some things look good on the outset and turn sour quickly, whereas others start slowly but eventually work their way up to a reasonable conclusion. Selber's Multiliteracies for a Digital Age seems to fall in the latter category. As I made my way through the first half of the book, I struggled to find purpose in his words. There was not necessarily any problem with anything he said, but it seemed redundant and pointless.

As he turns from functional literacy (appropriately utilizing technology in the correct context) and critical literacy (recognizing and questioning the politics of technology) to rhetorical literacy, the purpose of his book starts to make more sense at the same time that the fear swells within me that I will in some way use the word rhetoric incorrectly. After consulting the Wikipedian Oracle to help me understand this strange word, I find myself no more enlightened as to its meaning, yet less uncomfortable due to the fact that the Wikipedia community has also had a difficult time putting together a concise definition.

The main point behind Selber's chapter on rhetorical literacy is that the way we communicate now is fundamentally different than it used to be. As Wiley points out, taking old lecture slides and posting the PDF to a website does not transform it into online content. It's offline content that has been copied and pasted onto the web. Materials and methods of communication that we use have to follow the Web 2.0 rhetoric of connecting and remixing content from various sources in a dynamic way, rather than publishing static articles.

photo by sylvar

Selber points out that the popularity of WYSIWYG html editors have made it easier for more people to design effective interfaces that are optimized for the content they are creating, which is an important component of rhetorical literacy. I would go another step and point out that even WYSIWYG editors like Dreamweaver are becoming passé. The interface has taken a back seat to the content on the web, as it should be. That is not to say that the interface does not matter, but using the appropriate content management system (CMS) means that whatever client requests your content will automatically get the content optimized for that client, whether for mobile devices, RSS feeds, etc.

Just this past week, a question was asked regarding the availability of personal web space, since the campus server that currently provides web space for faculty and students will be shut down soon. Several options are actually available from the IT department, but none of the new options allow users to upload entire existing sites; they have to upload their content into the CMS and choose one of its preexisting templates. One user pointed out that he has 10,000+ files in his website on the old server that he does not want to have to sort through and that most faculty would likely not want to redesign their websites as well. My response was, "I don't necessarily think that is a bad thing to have to redesign a website once in awhile, especially if doing so places it into a CMS that makes it easier to maintain. How many people really want to spend a ton of time working on their own from-scratch website anymore?" Looking at that particular user's site, it has some good content, but the interface is very confusing and difficult to navigate, with personal and professional content intermixed. No tagging, no RSS, and no networking tools means outdated pages that no one ever looks at.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Possible research project

In looking around for possible research topics for journal articles and presentations or for my dissertation, computer security has kind of caught my eye recently. On a weekly campus vulnerability scan recently, the list of problem computers included about 25 unpatched Macs and a few other random boxes with vulnerable versions of software running or easy to guess passwords. Subsequent network scans have found several hundred more vulnerable Macs. It's nice to see them harassed by the security team occasionally so they don't get sloppy.

One interesting machine that showed up in the to-be-killed list was the server where they post information on the computers that get locked out of the network for security problems. Ironic.

One other machine caught my eye was a student's personal computer that had blank passwords for the Admin and Owner users; critical Windows updates not installed; vulnerable versions of Quicktime, RealPlayer, Flash, iTunes, and Mcafee; and the hard drive publicly shared to be readable and writeable. Ouch. That's almost as bad as the MIS professor who set up a new server just before the Christmas break a few years ago, and came back the next semester to find it had been taken over to serve up pr0n and warez.

Since information on who a computer is registered to is easily available, I got curious and looked up the student's CIL test scores. The student has not taken the Computer Systems CIL test yet, which is the one that talks about the need to keep your OS and applications patched so your computer is protected. I wonder how many students that are contacted by the campus security team have taken that test or prepared for it in any way.

In a completely nonscientific, ad hoc, non-IRB-approved, 5 minute study, I grabbed the IDs of 3 or 4 other students threatened with being disconnected from the network, and none of them had passed the Computer Systems test either. It makes me wonder.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Isn't it semiotic, don't you think?

Semiotics deals with using signs and symbols for communicating. Signs and symbols are a big part of our lives. Even young children that are barely toilet trained know the symbols that represent the boys' and girls' bathrooms.

Why is it, then, that intelligent people who even teach many of these principles in courses dealing with UI design and similar topics still need additional textual clues even though there is a perfectly good symbol staring them in the face? My anecdotal evidence is the Computer Science department. My apologies for the poor quality of the following picture taken on my phone, but it gets the point across:

Look at the picture with me. Generally the copy button on a copy machine button is green, at least according to my limited color skills, but it also will have a symbol on it. It is a diamond with a line in it. I don't know why it is that. It just is. Perhaps it is a mutation of the 0 with a 1 in it that is the pervasive symbol for the power button, but regardless of its origin, you recognize it when you see it in the right context at least.

In this case, there are two buttons, neither of which are green, unless it is some mutated, chromatically deficient green, in which case I apologize to my offended readership, but you should know not to be taking color advice from me to begin with. Regardless of the color of the buttons, they have the copy symbol on both of them. But why two buttons? Well, let's see, what are those other little dots? One has a black dot and a not-filled-in dot, whereas the other has four dots of various colors. What on earth could that mean? Well, luckily for us, we don't have to try to guess what the lower button means, since someone has sloppily taped a poorly created sign that proclaims to all that it is for making black & white copies. I had to find a user manual online to confirm this, but my suspicion was correct that the top button is for color copies. Whew. Mystery solved. And thank you to whoever labeled the button and saved everyone that uses that copier the 10 seconds it might have taken them to figure out why there are two buttons.

The next mystery is the recently reorganized parking system on campus. It used to be that parking lots were all labeled obscure combinations of numbers and letters: A2, A4, B, C3, R2, etc. From what I could surmise, A referred to faculty lots that occasionally staff could get a spot in if they were married to influential faculty or administrators, B was for students, C was for lots that nobody wants to park in, but all the close spots are taken, and R is for students who live in campus residence halls. The numbers are there just to throw you off. Since that system was too confusing, the parking lots now go by colors. Not just any colors, but blue, yellow, gray, gold, brown, purple, red, teal, black, green, and orange. If you have an orange parking permit, you can park in any orange, yellow, or green lots. If you have a yellow permit, you can only park in yellow lots. As you can see below, they were kind enough to not only make the sign in the appropriate color, but also spell out the color so I'll know what it is. I actually appreciate that a lot. All too often people set up systems that require users to be able to tell the difference between colors that, for some people including myself, look exactly the same.

I don't know what color the motorcyle signs are, though, since instead of saying the color, they have the word motorcycle, just in case the really skinny parking stalls next to the sign didn't give it away already. I don't want to even try to figure out the fine print on the sign below, where it says you can't park there from midnight through 6 a.m. November through April, even though it's a residence hall parking lot.

It is nice to see the old, confusing system of meaningless letters and numbers go away and a new, confusing system of meaningless colors and numbers replace it. It gives me hope that I will have job security as I continue my career in academia. I wonder how many committee hours were spent deciding what colors each lot would be graced with.

Not all signs based on colors are bad. The trees down at the end of our street always provide one of the first signs that Fall is around the corner, as they are among the first trees to start changing colors in the valley and provide a reminder to head up into the canyons to see the leaves changing there before they all fall off and blow into my yard.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Multiliteracies for a Digital Age

Every once in awhile a book comes along relating to a topic you understand and perhaps even enjoy and proceeds to remove any desire to associate with that topic ever again. This book by Stuart Selber is not quite to that point yet, but I am only halfway through it, so give it time. The most important contribution so far is Selber's insistence that computer literacy goes beyond just being able to do things using a computer. We have to be able to contextualize our use of technology and use it appropriately.

photo by austinevan

Like Steph, I question the place of the English department to fret about computer literacy any more or less than any other department on campus, as important as the concept happens to be. The author appears troubled due to the fact that English departments, for whom this book is written, are not regularly consulted in matters relating to computer literacy at most institutions around the country.

I have to challenge the author's anecdotal assertion that any given department would not be consulted when it comes to something as foundational as computer literacy. Anyone who has spent any time at a higher education institution knows that every decision made goes through multiple committees made up of faculty who volunteer (or are volunteered by the department head or dean) to spend their time ensuring that the needs of faculty and students are being met (in no particular order). Those who do not know anything about computer literacy are those who choose to ignore it.

Selber's point is well taken that institutional computer literacy requirements focus generally on a disembodied understanding of technology. What does he really expect it to be, however? For most students, the basic knowledge about computers is the same across disciplines. We all press the same little button with a 0 and a 1 on it to turn on the computer, and we all need to keep our operating systems and applications patched (yes, even the Mac users). Within a major, the skills needed to succeed may be different and should be integrated across each department's curriculum based on what makes sense for that department or major. Imagine an Electrical Engineer trying to tell the English faculty what technologies should be included in their courses or vice versa.

What I would hope is that English faculty or anyone else that happens to read this book would take away that they can't depend on someone else to make their students literate, because it takes on different meanings for different people. The institution is right to establish a baseline knowledge set to be considered computer literate, but after that the departments have to properly situate further literacy instruction and practice within each field.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Writing On-Line

I found an interesting old book at the library a few days ago while looking for a different book. The one I wanted is missing, even after requesting that a librarian search for it. The book I found instead, published in 1985, is titled Writing On-Line: Using Computers in the Teaching of Writing. To clarify, when they talk about writing online, they mean writing with a word processor.

It is interesting in light of the topic this week in one of my classes, discussing the effects of Web 2.0 technologies on writing. The editors note that the purpose of the book is to caution against getting caught up in the hype surrounding computers, but rather proceed with implementing the use of computers in the classroom based on careful research.

A few paragraphs really caught my eye:

It's invitingly simple to log random flittings of thought, to etch them blithely in phosphor and with the blip of a key to store them on a disk. Somehow, I figure, they'll eventually prove useful, like the broken stepladder I dragged home last garbage night. If you write regularly, you already know that your best stuff is lodged somewhere in a vast cerebral ragbag-that a writer's ultimate, irreplaceable resource is the chaos that lives just beneath the outer dress of reason.

A word processor can make it slightly easier to tap, that's all. Easier because it can bring tantalizingly close to print what psychologist Lev Vygotsky termed "inner speech", the fluid medium somewhere between pure thought and its externalized linguistic formulation. I can sit here on a good night and, without contriving to, simply let things come, catch perhaps a thousandth part of what swarms to mind. This machine has brought home to me how taxing is the physical act of writing, how lopsided the contest between mind and hand. For better or worse, less of me will remain unsaid because of the speed and ease and even intimacy of computer-assisted writing. (Stillman, 1985)

Does that sound like any bloggers you know?

There's something for the wiki advocates among us as well:

Researchers soon moved on from a stage model of the writing process, where writers prewrote, wrote and revised (ideal writers, anyway, allegedly wrote this way; student writers seemed to write because we told them they had to, and just wanted to get it out of the way). This model didn't begin to describe accurately the ways actual writers compose; it was too neat, too simplistic and just plain wrong no matter which writers were studied. Now strong evidence leads to a view of the writing process as recursive and idiosyncratic. Flower and Hayes (1981), two leading researchers whose work is drawn in part from problem-solving research in cognitive psychology, are among those who see the writing process as a more complex series of processes than the three-stage model (Sommers, 1985).

These same discussions are happening today, with some professors banning the use of Wikipedia in class papers at the same time that others help their students write a wiki-based textbook.

Flower, L. & Hayes, J.R. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College Composition and Communication, 32.

Sommers, E.A. (1985). Integrating composing and computing. In J.L. Collins & E.A. Sommers (Eds.), Writing on-line: Using computers in the teaching of writing. Upper Montclair, New Jersey: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Stillman, P.R. (1985). A writer (and teacher of writing) confronts word processing. In J.L. Collins & E.A. Sommers (Eds.), Writing on-line: Using computers in the teaching of writing. Upper Montclair, New Jersey: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Over the last week or two on campus, there have been some preachers handing out books and talking to people just outside my building. I ride my bike past them and pay little attention to who they are talking to or what they are saying, but I occasionally hear little pieces of their conversations. A couple of things during the past couple of days have bothered me a little, and it comes down to a lack of respect for others.

I overheard one of the preachers explaining that the person he was talking to doesn't believe in Jesus. He said there are a lot of people who think they believe in Jesus, but they don't really. Really? Every religion is going to have some disagreements, but it doesn't even make sense that one person can tell another that the latter only believes that he believes in God or that he believes in a different Jesus. Whatever. It's just semantics. To me it's just a disagreement as to the nature of God, not that they believe in a different God. That difference in how it is presented is based on whether or not the presenter has respect for his or her audience. Specifically phrasing it that way tells me that the preacher has no respect for the person he or she is talking to.

What goes around comes around, however, as I witnessed an obviously fake preacher with a larger audience than is usually gathered listening to him pontificate about an important book in his life as the other preachers waited patiently for him to finish his sermon. It is a book that can tell the future. It is a book that is available to all, but that few of us take advantage of like we should. The book is the TV Guide. Huh? Leave them alone. Pass on by or go see if they have something worthwhile to say, but the open mocking is uncalled for. It's not like the preachers were taunting or desecrating sacred items or yelling outside weddings or funerals like some that I've seen that are just out to start arguments that accomplish nothing. Go talk to them - you might learn something - or they might.

On a non-religious note, I was having a conversation with someone whose class I was visiting. She mentioned something about how students often don't show professors respect in their emails. Her observation was that students treat professors like their buddy or type in all lower case or have unrealistic expectations about how quickly they should get an email back. I proceeded to mention how it bothers me when some people type in all caps or put that they need a response ASAP. Then I realized when I got back to my office later that she had sent me an email that morning with the subject line in all caps, including ASAP. Oops. I felt bad that I had totally called her out on her lack of email etiquette, even though I didn't mean to. I considered apologizing, but then as I thought about it, she's the one that sent me a message in all caps and ASAP, and it almost kept me from reading the message. I choose to think that I simply did her a favor, like the person that lets you know there is something hanging from your nose or stuck in your teeth after who knows how many people saw it there but were too embarrassed to say anything.

Monday, September 15, 2008


I sometimes feel like Don Walsh in The Chromium Fence. The political issue in this story is not as relevant as the politics themselves. Politics do not seem to ever change, as the issues at stake ebb and flow - peace, energy, hygiene, arts, education, religion, economy, healthcare, recreation, immigration, transportation, morality, etc. We move up and down Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but no matter our level, there are two opposing points to argue.

As Don refuses to take sides in the political battle taking place because of the extreme nature of the two positions, his counselor points out,

You see, Don, you have a psychological inability to come to grips with an issue. You don't want to commit yourself for fear you'll lose your freedom and individuality. You're sort of an intellectual virgin; you want to stay pure. ... You've got to make a decision. You've got to resolve this conflict and act. You can't remain a spectator. ... You haven't quite got to the point of facing reality. But you will.

I find myself asking what's so wrong about Don's position, probably because I straddle the fence on some issues myself and refuse to register with either of the major political parties. I believe both have strayed far from what their founders intended and that neither is as concerned with the issues their polemicists debate as they are concerned with maintaining the status quo, that is, their own power.

So am I maintaining my integrity as Don asserted he was doing or am I separating myself from society by registering with a minor political party? Am I, in effect, ripping up my vote and allowing myself to be disposed of just to make a statement?

I maintain my own beliefs about the issues, and it is only by apathetically restraining from making a choice between the two equally but oppositely distorted views of reality that an actual choice is made. In voting one way or the other, my vote is truly thrown away, because in this world of artificial dichotomies, one vote does not make a difference. Every vote for a third party, however, lends credence to the claims of third parties, gradually increasing support and funding until they hold enough sway to start influencing the actions of the major parties. There will actually be another option to replace them if they don't temper their extreme beliefs and learn to compromise.

One day, we'll have the opportunity to choose among instead of simply choosing between in our elections. That is worth sacrificing for.

Closing courses

An email was recently sent to instructors of online courses to let us know that Summer courses would be hidden unless we specifically ask them to remain available for students to access.

Each new semester we hide the previous semester courses from students as a means of protecting copyrights on multimedia content and preserving the security of assessment materials and other content items.

Compare that to Kevin Young's Human Physiology class that wrote a textbook using technology to encourage access rather than to hide it.

For classes of mine that have used wikis or even just static webpages that only the instructor can edit, I often refer back to them later - much more often that I will rifle through old notes or a print textbook that I probably sold back to the bookstore.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

No skin allowed

I found the following snippet in the cheating section of a course syllabus at another university recently:

It is considered cheating to input course information into PDA’s, cell phones, or other electronic or paper devices to be used during a test to look up answers. This includes your own skin.

You've got to be careful about all the new technology students are using to cheat, especially their own skin.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Desperate Commercialization

As I continue to make my way through Philip K. Dick's stories, a few of those stories presented what could be construed as a warning message against the crass commercialization that we see in our lives - made all the more interesting by the fact that they were written about 50 years ago. It appears that the pace over the last half century has not slowed down in moving us towards becoming completely inundated with advertisements for garbage.

In Sales Pitch, Ed, the weary commuter, makes his way home across the solar system while being attacked on every side by advertisements. Once his spaceship makes it home he is approached by sales robots roaming the sidewalks. Nowhere is safe, as the indefatigable fasrad robot enters their home and commences to demonstrate its abilities until such time as Ed agrees to buy him. This drives Ed over the edge, and as he tries to escape to another planet that runs at a much-slower 20th century pace, the fasrad stows aboard and continues to give his sales pitch. Ed all but destroys his ship, pushing the rockets faster than his craft could handle and opening the throttle all the way when the fasrad goes in the back to check on the rockets. As the crippled ship with Ed pinned under the debris starts its 2 day approach before a spectacular fiery descent over the rural planet he wished to visit, he relished the silence he would enjoy the last few hours of his life. The half-destroyed fasrad then makes its way towards a captive Ed to continue its sales pitch and ruin any chance of a peaceful end for Ed.

photo by Lorri Auer

In Foster, You're Dead, marketers have sold everything they could possibly sell, and change their sales tactics to sell shelters and other devices to save people's lives in case of a supposedly imminent attack. As soon as Mike's dad gives in to his constant pestering for a new shelter, the next big thing comes out and his dad has to return the shelter to the store because Christmas season sales at the family store are low due to everyone buying the new protection devices to hit the market.

These stories are a sad commentary on our society, as everything we see or do is sponsored by some company or another. All video that is shot must be scrubbed of any intellectual property references, lest anyone accidentally get free advertising or that it be construed that a passing glimpse of a logo on a t-shirt constitutes endorsement of the video production by the company whose logo was recorded. It will be interesting to watch Google over the next 10 years (they were incorporated 10 years ago yesterday) to see how their business model possibly changes. They have built their current empire on the back of targeted advertising, but perhaps as their products become more ingrained in society, they will be able to phase out advertising as their primary revenue source in favor of charging service fees to use their products. What is worse - paying for a product or receiving it free with advertising? For years, we received TV free in exchange for ads, and now we pay hundreds of dollars a month in cable and satellite subscription fees and we still have to watch the ads, unless we're willing to pay extra for a time shifting device like TiVo which lets us skip through the ads that aren't smart enough to trick it.

In Pay for the Printer, we find a society that has been decimated by nuclear war and rebuilds with the help of the Biltongs, a race of creatures that can make copies of objects brought to them. After 150 years go by, humans have been dependent on the Biltongs to print everything for them that they need and have lost all ability to build anything. The Biltongs begin to wear out and people realize that they can't build things without tools, but they can't build tools, because they don't have tools. Society has to start anew, learning to build rudimentary devices, with the few leftover pre-war devices and objects as goals to work towards.

On Michael Pollan's NYTimes blog, he posted the question Why Bother? That is, what difference will one person make in the climate change war? If I change my light bulbs, bike to work, eat locally grown food, and turn down the thermostat in my house, will I really make a difference? He places the blame for this predicament we find ourselves in on specialization. We do our job, our one little piece of the assembly line, and by focusing on our specific job, we don't think about all the costs that come into play. We blog about how we need to save the environment, while composing our eloquently loquacious posts on computers powered by coal-fired plants. We don't see those coal-fired plants, because that's someone else's job, so we forget they exist, except to the extent that we need to blog about them so we can get rid of them.

Stephen Dubner points out on the Freakonomics blog that being a locavore is inefficient, however. So specialization helps us all be more efficient but reduces our individual skills to the point that no one person can survive by him or herself. With so many of our manufacturing jobs being outsourced to China, with or without us paying attention to the fact, we are suddenly taken by surprise that lax quality control and cost cutting measures have resulted in many of the toys we give to our children being produced with large amounts of cancer-causing lead in them. Oops. Yet the Wal-Mart parking lot remains full.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Turning Wheel

Having not read any of Philip K. Dick's short stories before, Fair Game was a fun introduction to this sci-fi author. Of the ten stories that I've read so far, it was my favorite - a mixture of tense moments with a light, yet morbid touch at the end. I found myself pulling for Professor Douglas, anxious for what was to happen. With what little I had read about Dick's writing style, I knew to keep my hand over the last couple lines of the story to avoid accidentally experiencing the Aha! moment even a paragraph early. I wasn't disappointed.

photo by Michel Filion

In contrast, while reading The Turning Wheel, I found myself disliking the protagonist Bard Sung-wu, yet finding much more deep meaning in his story. His inability to comprehend those who lived in different circumstances with supposedly less access to education bothered me. I couldn't wait for him to find out that the Bards were really the fanatic cult and not the Technos. As Sung-wu rants and raves both aloud and in his own thoughts about the terrible state of things and the possibility of the classes mingling or even marrying, I thought of a former professor of mine from India telling us about the caste system there and its purpose to keep the ruling party in power and keep the peasants under control. That is, this kind of thing is happening today.

Sung-wu continues his annoying display of superiority over all he meets until he ironically finds himself being taken care of in a household of the lowest class. When he realizes the power they have over his life, he breaks down and confesses his fear of dying before he has a chance to make amends for his sins. It is interesting that he does this right in the middle of a philosophical discussion with an eloquent Techno, who points out that using technology to improve the world around you is not necessarily out of line with divine processes. Sung-wu, as part of the highest and most enlightened Bard class, has been taught (and teaches) that we must accept everything as it is, yet the lowest class of society is more technologically advanced due to their willingness to fix those elements around them that are broken and to try new things. He completely misses this point that Ben explains to him, as he is worried about his own future, but then he experiences it himself by accepting technology which will save his life. In exchange for saving his life, the Technos save themselves from further scrutiny by the goverment with Sung-wu's dismissive report about the extent of their activities, thus allowing them to continue to covertly work towards re-inventing technology that has been lost because of the repressive governing class.

In the end, sharing technology contributed to the survival of all those involved, whereas artificially suppressing the dissemination of technology through legal and cultural means caused an entire society to lose what it did have at one point.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


I tried to think of a creative title for this post, but for some reason just thinking about Blackboard sucks the creativity and life out of me.

In a class I'm taking that just started this week, we are discussing the relationship between technology and writing, in terms of various points of view - legal, cultural, etc. I mentioned that it might be worth posting our weekly reading responses on our blogs like we did in my Open Ed class last year, especially since blogs and other Web 2.0 tools are included in the topics we'll cover in the class. There was absolutely no interest. Someone mentioned that we could use Blackboard, and everyone got so excited. I think everyone but me voted for that option. I abstained. It wasn't worth taking on a room full of English majors on the first night of class. All I'm thinking about at this point of the class is the student who complained to me about how she shouldn't need to take the CIL tests, since she is an English major, so obviously knows all about computers already - and immediately proceeds to fail the MS Word test. We'll see how this class goes.

Greg Francom posted a little while back about how as an LMS, Blackboard is inferior to Moodle. The analysis is mainly based on availability of features and the number of clicks and page loads it takes to perform various tasks. Moodle required an average of just over half as many clicks and page loads as Blackboard required to do the same tasks.

So what about Blackboard's other products? Well, USU just went live with the Blackboard Transaction System (card readers), part of their Commerce Suite. The old campus card system had a lot of manual processes, was prone to being down (every Tuesday for our office it was offline), but it generally did what it needed to do in terms of checking access permissions at computer labs and athletic or artistic events and paying for purchases around campus. It needed to be replaced when the guy who was in charge of the system retired, since no one else knew how to keep it running.

The system that was chosen by someone at USU to replace it is Blackboard. I assume there was some kind of bid process, but I don't remember hearing anything about it until it went live. It would have made sense to ask those of us that use card readers what we needed, but that's an institutional issue, not necessarily a problem with Blackboard. They were most of the way through the process of setting up the new card system before anyone even remembered that computer labs use the card readers. Oh, yeah, um, we'll get you readers, too, I guess, if you really need them. Months later as Fall semester is just around the corner, I ask when the new card reader system will be available, and oh, well, everyone else already has their readers...we forgot about your computer lab. I got forgot twice. Nice.

So the new card readers don't have a timecard system, but to tell the truth, the timecard system on the old readers was somewhat suspect, so we never used it. We still just use paper timecards. Score is tied at 0.

There were two things we did with the old card readers - check that people who come into the lab are students and charge people for printouts. With the old readers, you would swipe the card and get either a short or long beep, meaning let them in or not, and the display showed the student's name.

With the new system, you have to check to make sure you are in the event entry screen, not the charging or balance screen. If you're somewhere else, you hit Clear a couple times, then event entry, and then swipe the card. Score 1-0 for the old reader.

The new readers don't show the student's name. Score 2-0 for the old reader.

To charge a student printouts in the old reader, you press the printout button, type in the number of prints, enter, and swipe the card; it would automatically choose the print account first and when it ran out, the Aggie Express account would be charged. To charge printouts in the new reader, you push clear, then charge, then tender type, then print or Aggie Express account, type in the amount of money (not number of printouts) to charge, hit enter twice, swipe the card, press enter, press OK, and press clear. Score 3-0 for the old reader.

The old reader would let you charge more printouts than the student had on their print account if you put in more printouts than they actually had left. 3-1.

The new reader isn't down every Tuesday. 3-2.

The person in charge of the new card readers on campus doesn't know how to configure the system right so we actually have the right permissions to charge people. She tells us it is user error and that she can come train us on how to use the card reader, then realizes she had something set up wrong after all. 4-2.

I'm supposed to be able to login to a website to see logs of both what money we charged to people and who used the lab, whereas I could rarely get data about activity in the old card system without calling someone that was hard to find to ask for the information I needed. 4-3.

Since we type in the amount to charge, instead of the number of printouts, we can charge what we want for printouts (rather than the standard $.06 campus rate), plus we can charge the test fees that we collect for some other tests we proctor for which we've always had to take cash or check. 4-4.

So as of right now, it's a tie. If they could streamline the process so there aren't so many button presses to perform our tasks, the Blackboard system would win hands down. We have the old system that was simple but limited, compared to the new system that is overly complex with at least a couple more features.

The LMS and Transaction divisions of Blackboard are separate, but I wonder if they may share some of the same UI designers and QA testers between them.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Fall is in the Air

The first day of school is finally here. I'm hoping that all the things at work we were going to finish over the summer will be ready by the end of this week.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Microsoft has reportedly hired Jerry Seinfeld for an ad campaign to counter Apple's well known Mac vs. PC ads and address some of the issues people have with Vista. Have Bill and Steve ever watched Seinfeld? You recall that Jerry's apartment on the show had a Mac sitting on the table in the back corner, although I don't remember him ever using it. Hopefully they will be good ads, although the campaign is put together by the same firm that gave us the freaky Burger King king, so we'll just have to wait to see.

I'm running Vista on my work machine and have issues with it, of course, but overall I don't think it's a huge deal. When I think back to the early days of XP, it's all the same complaints about driver and program compatibility problems, unnecessary GUI changes, need for better hardware to even run it, etc. Fast forward 7 or 8 years, and we see Save XP petitions to pressure Microsoft to allow users to continue purchasing XP licenses. I imagine Vista will be generally accepted at some point like XP was.

The question, however, is how much longer will the operating system even be relevant? I mean, there will always be such thing as an OS of course, but as we move more and more to accessing our applications and data via multiple combinations of devices and networks, the PC just seems less important as a standalone machine.

Perhaps Seinfeld can delay Microsoft's demise temporarily.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


It's been almost two years since Comcast hooked up our Internet and TV. The installer was new and didn't install the proper filters on the line to match the plan we signed up for.

Photo by Vik Nanda.

Last week a Comcast truck was parked on the street, and later in the day we noticed half our channels were gone - the half we weren't paying for.

Today we had a visitor during dinner. A Comcast salesman showed up at the door to see if we wanted to upgrade our TV package to prepare for being inside more during the upcoming winter.

That was convenient timing for him to show up just a few days after fixing the channel filter to lock down our access. It's just as well, since TV is such a waste of time anyway.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Professionals vs. Amateurs

I don't have a problem with professional athletes competing in the Olympics. I do, however, prefer watching collegiate sports over major league sports, because of the raw energy and greater likelihood of seeing mistakes or spectacular plays. Both ends of those spectrum are removed in the major leagues.

On a similar note, the professional broadcasters are apparently trying to keep the amateurs out of the olympic coverage business. With the collaborative tools available to us now, the global community can share video and other information faster than the professionals can block it or take it down, as Ephraim Schwarts points out, based on an article from the New York Times.

I'm already looking forward to the next Olympics to see how much further technology has progressed. The amateur broadcasters are providing more real-time access than the professionals, although the quality is not as high. In two or four more years, there will be both higher quality video and audio from the amateurs, as well as better distribution methods to broadcast to the masses. Just as mainstream newspapers are starting to feel the pinch from online news sources taking away their subscriber base, the television networks are soon to follow.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Camp is Open

Our Troop had planned on going to Camp Loll, right up by Yellowstone the last week of June into July, but while I was out of town the week before at a family reunion, I got a call to let me know that Loll was still under several feet of snow. We had to either switch to a different week or go to Camp New Fork instead. After my Assistant Scoutmaster called around to all the boys, we figured that no matter when we go, someone can't make it, so we might as well go the week we had originally planned.

I had wanted to go to Loll or New Fork, since I hadn't been to those camps before and had heard they were nice. Both camps are in Wyoming, a few hours apart. But I was scared of New Fork.

The problem was that New Fork runs an open program. That is, instead of signing up for classes that you attend at a certain time, you don't really sign up for most things. There were still a few classes that they taught at certain days and times, but most merit badges and activities are just whenever you want to do them. As a Scoutmaster that wanted to relax at camp while the boys head off to their classes, this scared me. As a constructivist and a firm believer that the boys need to run their own program and learn to be leaders through a combination of their own successes and failures, this should have been the ultimate camp. But I was scared nonetheless, which was why we picked Loll. I picked Loll.

Well, I have to say that it worked out rather well. I would even go so far as to say New Fork was one of my favorite camps. I imagine there would be some groups of Scouts for whom New Fork would not have ideal. We had it good, since we had all first year campers who worked on all the same merit badges, so my ASM and I went around with them to all their classes. If they'd all been at different classes they might have had a harder time staying on task without our gentle reminders. It also helped that the dad of one of the boys and the former Scoutmaster who was up the first couple days with us told the boys he'd take anyone to dinner if they earned 7 merit badges. So they were motivated by a reward and were lacking the influence of older boys who might have taught them some of bad habits that are sometimes learned at camp, like skipping classes.

We pretty much did all of the canoeing merit badge by ourselves the first day, with just a few things that I didn't know so we had to follow up with the waterfront staff later. We also worked on a couple other merit badges in camp ourselves. For the ones they worked on with the camp staff, they just pretty much showed up and worked on things and signed off each requirement for the merit badges as they completed them with what I'd call a junior counselor. When all the requirements were completed for a given award, they'd go to the adult over that area, who would then sign off the whole thing after doing a quick review of what they had already passed off.

Normal merit badge classes at other camps go the whole week or sometimes half the week, and if you attend every day (even if you're not paying attention), you earn it. The problem with that is if you already have done much of it or are quick at completing things, you still have to wait the whole week. With the open system, if you finish something in one day, you can start something else without missing out on what they did the first day in the other class.

Part of the benefit was kind of a psychological thing. At regular camps, usually kids will sign up for 3 or 4 classes and attend those classes in the morning each day. Then they will have free time for a few hours in the afternoon. There are merit badges that can be earned in free time, and some kids take advantage of those to earn several more on top of the classes they signed up for. However, most kids want to play during free time. It's free time. Come on, we should play, go swimming, take the boats out, carve spears, burn stuff, etc. The difference with the open system is that there is no separate class time and free time, just program time. So not having a designated free time (even though it was really all like a regular camp's free time), there was less feeling of entitlement to a break, since it was all program time.

There were a few things I didn't like, such as the junior staff not being empowered to do anything out of the ordinary - almost every question or request I had was answered with a referral to the area director. Also, there were several merit badges that they didn't have all the materials needed to complete it at camp, so the kids had to take a partial home to finish up. I should also mention the freezing cold water, but there's not much they can do about that one.

As we talked about where the boys want to go next year, they all wanted to come back, since none of them wants to have to sit through a boring class. So they worked harder than they would have sitting through boring classes and enjoyed doing it. I like trying new things, so I may pick Loll again next year, but it really is the boys' program, so if they can put together a cohesive argument, it may be New Fork again.

Our troop, the troop from Salt Lake we shared our campsite with, and our troop friend.