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 He was answering megahertz, since he was assuming the test was way out of date. You think it's that out of date?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.