Monday, December 21, 2009

Be Weird

HP's recent problem with facial recognition software failing to recognize the face of a black man underscores the importance of good quality assurance (QA) testing. Regardless of whether it was just an issue of too much backlight or something else with the algorithm, there is a problem here that should have been caught.

Recognition of different races is something that should have been pretty obvious to test. Recognition in poor lighting situations is another obvious one. HP likely did test both of these items.

It is just as important for QA teams to test things that aren't quite so obvious, such as the combination of race and poor lighting. What if you throw glasses, a hat, and headphones into the mix? What about glittery makeup? Facial hair? Vibration from using a laptop with the camera while riding as a passenger in a car or bus?

How far do you take it? Where are the reasonable limits?

For a good QA team, that's a trick question. There are no limits.

I remember finding some pretty obscure stuff when I did QA testing on videoconferencing units for Sorenson Technologies. The main product I worked on was sold as the D-Link i2eye. We stuck them in the refrigerator and under hot pads to test extreme temperatures. We'd leave a call going for 48 hours straight. We affectionately referred to one bug I found as the Kevin Bacon bug, referring to his movie Hollow Man, wherein his character turned invisible. I figured out how to send video from a third party unit to a unit that was in a call with someone else. The unit received video from both sources and mixed them together, so you'd get something that looked kind of like a semi-transparent shape moving around on the background of the other video.

What did they do about the bug I found? Nothing. They determined it was not likely enough to actually happen to warrant setting up the unit to filter where it received video from. It didn't matter to me. My job wasn't to determine what the programmers were to work on. It was to do weird stuff and report the results. Now that I manage programmers and QA testers, it is my job to prioritize what gets worked on and to remind the QA testers to stay weird.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tax Deductible

As much as I like Seth Godin, he's recently given people some bad tax advice or at least inferred it. He's offering 3,000 free review copies of his upcoming book Linchpin to people who donate at least $30 to Acumen, an organization dedicated to eliminating poverty.

They're well on their way to meeting their goal of raising $100,000, which is great.

The problem is his unclear statement that you get a tax deduction for the donation. Tax laws state that if you make a donation in exchange for a gift, the portion of that gift that coincides with the value of the gift is not deductible. If the gift is a surprise to the donor, the full amount is deductible. In this case, the donations are specifically being made in order to obtain a copy of the book. That means you're buying the book.

I suppose a portion of the $30 would likely be deductible but not all of it. The book is currently listed on Amazon for $17, so you would probably get a tax deduction of $13. At the same time, the $30 minimum must be met in order to qualify for the 'free' book, which may in fact mean the entire thing is not deductible even though it's more than the value of the book. But don't take my word for it. Or Seth's. Talk to your accountant. Pony up for charity and get yourself a copy of the book either way, but be careful about actually claiming it on your taxes.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Seth Godin recently talked about people who begrudgingly agree to work together or perform a business transaction, spending an inordinate amount of time explaining how it's a special case that isn't going to happen again.

I have to agree with his point that it makes no sense to go half in.

Just recently I had my racquet restrung, since I've been playing quite a bit in the mornings before work. I went to a local retailer, who is often more expensive than chains, but whom I generally trust. I had been looking at their website and found some string for a good price. When I got to the store, they did not have the same string as what was listed on their website. The string in the store was all $20, whereas the online string was $7. I asked if they had the less expensive string I'd seen on their website. The guy helping me said they didn't, but that they price match anyone, as long as it is the same item.

I paid $20 for the string and left my racquet to be restrung. After I got home, I got to thinking about the price match policy I had been told about. I looked online and quickly found the same string I had just purchased for $4, plus $5 shipping. I called the store, confirmed they would match the $9 price, drove back to the store, and waited while everyone in the store complained about how the price was too good, how it was probably below their cost, and tried to figure out a way to not give me half my money back. They relented and gave me $11 in store credit, which I told them I'd use to buy a racquetball glove another day, since the store was just about to close.

After several days of calling to see if it was ready, I talked to someone who said they didn't want to string it for me. I would have been fine if they had told me up front the price match didn't apply, since the in-store purchase included the stringing service. In effect, it's really not the same product, which is why I specifically asked about that issue on the phone before I drove back in. Since they did initially agree to string it without charging any extra when I talked to them the first night, I finally convinced them to actually string my racquet.

My issue now is that I don't want to go back there again. I'll go use my store credit, which at their prices won't buy me much. I was planning on buying $100-150 worth of bike parts from them to fix up my bike or perhaps even buy a new bike. Now because of the big deal they made out of $11, I'll probably go somewhere else. They've made me feel guilty like I was trying to get away with something, and I feel like every cashier knows who I am and talks about me as soon as I leave.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

What is an Educated Person?

Yesterday was the third time I've attended the Utah System of Higher Education's annual conference on general education. Last year's conference was pretty interesting, especially the discussion of e-portfolios for students. It sounds like a great idea to provide a system that allows students to upload their work into their e-portfolio and show potential employers or grad schools some of the projects and papers they completed, along with feedback from professors and classmates.

There was a follow-up to e-portfolios this year, but for some reason they scheduled the Computer and Information Literacy breakout session at the same time as the e-portfolio report. While I was sad to have missed it, we did have some interesting discussions in the CIL breakout.

I'm still processing it all, but it is interesting to note that although all the schools in the state have implemented CIL quite differently, the challenges we face at our various institutions are quite similar. Although we don't do much if any coordination, whenever one school has a seemingly innocuous discussion related to the topic, somehow the word gets out and everyone else starts getting fired up that someone may be changing something.

My fear is that one school will do something rash in their budgeting process and that everyone else will follow like lemmings off a cliff.

As the keynote speaker Jamie Merisotis told us, "Quality in higher education should be calculated based on measurable student learning outcomes, not institutional inputs." When he made the point, he was referring to the fact that prestigious schools with billion dollar endowments are considered to be superior because of the large amounts of money they throw around. However, we can flip this around to the poor end of the scale, and the maxim should still apply. The importance of a program or a general education requirement is not diminished just because the institutional inputs are lacking. CIL skills are just as important as they ever have been, if not more so. Everyone's budget is struggling. So let's get together and gather some data, determine the importance of what we're doing independent of the budget issues we face, and then see what economies of scale we can harness to help us run more efficiently.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Free Software

I followed an interesting discussion this past week. It started as a discussion of some security vulnerabilities that were released by a security researcher. "Abe" got all worked up, saying that this researcher should be prosecuted for releasing the details of the security hole so anyone would be able to take advantage of it.

The importance of openness in security was brought up, specifically how big software companies will generally try to hide vulnerabilities to protect the illusion of security, as opposed to the way open source projects just acknowledge and fix the security holes.

The conversation somehow turned into Abe accusing someone else of participating in an underground economy and personally benefiting from using free software at the expense of taxpayers, who are paying his salary (which is so false it doesn't even merit a reply). He continued on pointing out that free software isn't actually free, since there are all kinds of costs associated with it.

Of course there are costs associated with any software. The "free" doesn't mean that there are no acquisition costs but that once you have acquired it, you are free to do with it what you want. Proprietary software generally costs up front to purchase it, and then you are at the mercy of the software developers to make changes to the software if that is desired or needed. If you need a new feature and they don't want to implement it, you'll never get it. With free software, you may or may not pay up front to purchase it, but you are of course likely to invest in training, hardware, and other costs to actually implement it. The nice thing is that once you've implemented it, if you need a new feature, you can just add it or pay someone else to add it. If the original developer won't do it for you, it doesn't matter. You're free to change it if you want as long as you're willing to share your changes with others.

It was pretty obvious to everyone else that Abe didn't know what he was talking about, since he kept referring to money instead of freedom, so someone finally called him a troll. It didn't end there as he made a joke about trolls that showed he didn't know what a troll was. Someone else referred him to Wikipedia's article on trolls, after which Abe backed off and claimed he was just acting as devil's advocate and pointed out that the debate could just go back and forth all day so wasn't worth continuing.

I'm pretty sure he didn't understand all the arguments against his position or else he was the dumbest devil's advocate ever. Either way, he realized he was outmanned. The biggest piece that he was missing was not whether there are costs associated with implementing free software but that there are very real costs associated with not being permitted to maintain proprietary software yourself after implementing it. Can you really afford the lack of control over whatever platform you deploy if you use something other than free software?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Accidentally on Purpose

Utah legislators were trying to make some small changes to gift disclosure laws last year. You know, the kind of changes that make it look like they're doing something meaningful but that don't come anywhere close to the changes that their constituents want?

Well, they accidentally made a big change on the scale that ethics reform advocates have been asking for.

For some reason, rounds of golf and tickets to sporting events and concerts didn't used to be considered gifts. I don't know what they were before if they weren't gifts, but that's another conversation. I mean, I'm cool with a meal being treated differently than a gift, but free courtside seats to an NBA game is a gift.

So gifts over $50 had previously been banned. The accident came when the legislators writing the bill were attempting to just require that the names of legislators accepting gifts over $10 be disclosed. The "problem" was that in that process, they accidentally included event tickets and golf in the gift category, making it illegal to accept them if worth more than $50.

I almost felt sorry for John Valentine, a Republican from Orem, when I heard his story about how he had to turn down tickets to an Atlanta Braves game. I'm not sure how going to the see the Braves play has anything to do with the state of Utah, though.

The real question is what the legislature is going to do about it. It's frustrating but understandable when legislators don't vote to enact legislation that restricts giving to themselves. It makes sense that they would talk a lot about how important it is and then slowly each year make little tiny changes until their constituents stop complaining. But now that a major restriction has been put into place, can they remove it without a huge backlash? Any vote now to remove the restriction, even if it was accidentally put into place, will be very difficult to sell. Who wants to be the sponsor of a bill that says "please give us more gifts"?

Maybe Chris Buttars will do it. He doesn't care what anyone thinks of him, and the voters in South Jordan keep voting him back in, in spite of his idiocy. It probably wouldn't pass, though, since I think at least a simple majority of the legislature would be smart enough not to side with Buttars on anything this high up on the media's watch list. That may be giving legislators too much credit, though, especially considering the only reason they did the right thing on the gift ban bill to begin with was because everybody accidentally forgot to actually read the bill and think about the consequences of voting for it. Like they do with most everything else they vote on.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

And you want to be my latex salesman...

My last post was about a weird interview. I didn't even have a job posted at the time. He just showed up. I actually do have a job posted now, and it's not getting much better.

I've received at least two, maybe three, resumes via email that have a blank page number 2 included in their resume. That's not a great sign for someone who will be teaching people how to create professional-looking documents in a word processor, if they don't know how to delete the blank spaces from the end of the document. It actually helps to use the print preview even if you're not going to print, because someone else might.

One girl included her responsibilities at a former custodian job as: clocking in and out, getting to work on time, and cleaning the facilities. In that order. My assumption then is that she would only actually clean the facilities if she was able to successfully do the first two items. She didn't say how often she was able to perform all three tasks.

I also received a resume from a person who was just caught cheating on a test in our lab about a month ago. And now you want to work for me. How interesting...

The part that gets me wondering the most is the people who email me to ask me what they need to do to apply or who stop by my office and drop off their resume in person, even though the job posting says to email me a resume and class schedule. Invariably, their resume will list attention to detail as one of their strengths. Yes, I can see that.

Don't even get me started on the weird email addresses some people list on their resumes.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Is any impression a good impression?

I've been debating writing about an incident that happened last week. I worry about writing something negative about someone who could potentially read what I wrote about them. In this case, I'll just have to hope that either the guy doesn't find my blog or that if he does, he finds some constructive criticism that can help him out. His honesty is refreshing but also a dealbreaker.

Like anyone, I try to hire good people. It's hard to do, though. Some hires don't turn out as well as their resume and interview indicated. Other times, I'm sure I've passed on people who would have been amazing employees because of a typo in their resume.

SOCIALisBETTER @ flickrIn this case, I pretty sure I'm doing the right thing by not hiring the guy I talked to last week, in spite of how memorable he was. I really don't see many resumes that are very memorable, like resumes on t-shirts or CDs or with an ice cream coupon attached. There is one guy I remember, because he gave me his resume in a manila folder with his name on the tab. There was nothing special about him or his resume, but I use that folder to hold all the other resumes I get.

So the guy that came in last week (I'll call him Charles), came into my office unannounced when I didn't have any jobs posted and greeted me in Spanish. I returned the greeting, since I speak Spanish. He made a little joke in Spanish and introduced himself. He sounded very fluent, although I could tell it wasn't his native language. He then proceeded to tell me in Spanish that he wanted to switch the conversation to English, and I obliged. I mean, he was the one who started in another language, not me.

Charles then began to tell me about himself. He told me that he was working in another office on campus but that they didn't have money to pay him. He had supposedly created some new invention but couldn't afford to have it patented. So he's looking for a new job to get him through his last year of school. I asked if he wanted to work doing teaching and customer service in our testing center or if he wanted to work as a programmer. He said he'd like to be a programmer but that he didn't know Java, which is what we use in our office.

I told Charles that we had plenty of programmers at the moment but that we might be hiring in the testing center. I asked if he had passed the CIL tests. He hadn't. He claimed he didn't need to, since he had done his general education at another school but that he had taken a few of the tests anyway. He told me that he noticed a bunch of mistakes in our tests, and I wasn't surprised in the least when I checked after he left and found that he'd failed the tests he had taken. It always seems that it's the students who complain the most about how bad the tests are that most often fail them.

Charles proceeded to tell me how he could work in the lab but that it wasn't really something he wanted to do. He was willing to do something that wasn't related to his career goals, just to pay the bills until he's done with school. He's just not motivated to do anything for his other job since they can't pay him, so he just sits in his office and doesn't do anything. Oh, well this is getting better and better. I'm not sure, however, if it's worse than the time one of my former employees told me she was torn between an internship that was directly related to her major and continuing to work for me. It would be good experience at the other job, but she really liked that she didn't have to do anything at her current job. I strongly encouraged her to take the other job.

I decided that I'd probably heard enough, so I asked Charles to email me a copy of his resume and gave him some "we're done here" body language. He continued to lay there, flopped back on the little couch in my office, except to lean forward momentarily and hand me a copy of his resume that he had brought with him. Well, actually, he gave me two copies. One was in Russian and the other in English. I think he was trying to flaunt his language skills, in that he could make a Russian resume, in addition to knowing some Spanish greetings. The two resumes didn't look at all alike but I was worried more about getting Charles out of my office than I was about critiquing his resumes.

I started leaning back and turning to look at my computer like I had something else to do and told him that I'd look over his paperwork and email him if we had something open up. He continued to lean back on the couch and tell me again how he needed something to pay the bills. He then started talking about how he had all these ideas and that he was going to hire all these Indian programmers to implement his ideas and start a bunch of businesses. This went on a little until he finally started to lean forward a little and I quickly stood up and offered him a handshake and a "good to meet you; thanks for stopping by".

After he left, I called a former employee of mine who knows Russian and asked him to stop by for a second on his way home. My OCD about the two resumes looking completely different was on the mark, and we were able to deduce that his Russian resume hadn't been updated for two years. Sure, I don't know what it says, but I know that you gave me a two year old resume. It's not looking good.

I looked over Charles' English resume a little and was aghast at what I saw. He had mismatched fonts, underlined hyperlinks (as if I could click on the piece of paper he gave me), a particular item that he listed under both work experience and volunteer service, and it went three lines onto the second page. As I looked it over, thinking how I would have adjusted the spacing slightly to get everything to fit on one page, it all came together. The most recent job was the part in the different font, so I could tell that it probably used to fit on one page. When he inserted a few lines for his current employment (that didn't pay him anything), that knocked things down a little onto the second page. That all doesn't bode well for someone who, if hired, would be teaching people how to use Microsoft Word.

Charles, if you're reading this, you'll probably make a great cell phone salesman, but don't be surprised when I don't hire you.


Thursday, June 11, 2009


I recently mentioned in a post about Facebook that I rarely see the benefit of certain Web 2.0 technologies until I actually get in and use them. I've experienced the same thing with Twitter to a certain degree.

I haven't really started following a ton of people. I only have a small handful that I follow and a small handful who follow me. I have created several accounts. One is for work to send updates to our department website. Another one is a personal account, which updates my Facebook status. You'll also see a few of my latest tweets on my blog. It's really no big deal. Except...

The coolest thing that I've been involved with when it comes to Twitter is The current project is following several people who were involved in the Civil War, leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg in real time over several months' time. I've been tweeting two Confederate soldiers and a Yankee newspaper.

Louis Leon is hilarious. I seriously laugh all the time reading his journal. You can find his journal online or take a look at his Twitter posts. He carries the flag for his regiment and provides such interesting daily insights as to how the soldiers really lived. I find myself pulling for him and his regiment to beat the Yankees, even though I know that's the final result of the war. I hope that's not a spoiler for anyone.

Future potential projects include the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK Assasination, and really anything else that people are interested in. The main thing that will really facilitate this project exploding is software, which we've got someone working on, to allow volunteers to put together the tweets for people and load them into a database so the system can automatically post everything at the appropriate times. I have a hard time keeping up with just three accounts. I don't know how Marion Jensen, the mastermind of the whole thing keeps up with the dozen accounts he's tweeting.

There are two main points that make Twitter such a great platform: the power of the masses and the API. Of course, that's the same for any Web 2.0 application, so it's not a huge surprise. But some of Twitter's detractors are still talking about how much of a time waster it is without paying attention to the power that Twitter holds. Hopefully the team that runs Twitter will be able to figure out how to make Twitter sustainable, since they're running on venture capital now. When they accomplish that, some of the limits they have had to put on the number of API calls that can be made for performance reasons should go away.

Assuming the API issues will go away and the timed tweet application ends up being as sweet as I hope it will be, piles of twhistory volunteers will really be able to put together some awesome projects.

As cool as this project is turning out to be, hopefully others in the Twitter community can come up with even more applications of the Twitter platform.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


I gave in and joined Facebook a few months ago. As with most other social networking tools, I had been avoiding it. It seems that with most new technologies, once I get in and learn how it works, I wonder how I ever lived without it (blogging being the prime example of this). I am glad I never joined MySpace, but while I appreciate some things about Facebook and generally support it, I do have a few issues with it. I don't know if I could say that it's something I couldn't live without.

To start off my experiment, when I joined, I decided I wouldn't invite anyone to be my friend. Now, I actually did invite two people, but these were people who had previously invited me before I joined, so in effect I was just accepting their previous invitations. I'm not 100% sure how the friend recommender works, but I may have also invited someone to be my friend after an existing friend recommended them to me. What I've ended up with, after little or no inviting of my own, is a mass of family members, employees, former coworkers, former roommates, high school friends, a high school barely acquaintance, PhD classmates, professors, old neighbors, junior high friends, people I've served in Scouting with, and people that go to the same church as I do.

There are people from almost every phase of my life all lumped together, and that's where it starts getting strange. I've ignored a few people whose updates I don't care to see. I've deleted a comment or two of people who don't think before they post on something I've shared. But for the most part, all these people who have never met each other and have no connection other than at some point they met me, are having this mass, public, unfettered conversation with me and showing each other pictures they have of me from a long time ago. I don't necessarily have anything to hide, but in real life I'm not going to invite a couple of my employees over to my house to hang out with me and a couple people I knew when I lived in New Jersey 20 years ago, yet that's what's virtually happening. I'd like to see some of my friends from New Jersey again. I'd have nothing against having a barbecue for my employees at my house (we'll see if any of them are reading this and take me up on it). I just wouldn't do them both at the same time. There's something strange about it.

A possible way to work around this would be to allow the user to put their friends in different groups so only people within the same group can see each other's conversations. I don't know, but there has to be a better way.

The thing I do like about Facebook is the open platform that it is. It can be extended to be anything you want it to be. The groups are obvious, as a way to communicate with large numbers of people quickly without having to be their friends. The applications are where it really gets good. Well, the potential is there anyway. I don't feel a need to fill out every 'what X are you?' quiz out there, and Mafia Wars appears to be a colossal waste of time (not as much as World of Warcraft of course). It's just this limitless platform that anyone can write a program for and throw it out to the world to share. We've obviously had that open platform for awhile called the internet, but now the social component is automated.

I asked some students in one of the classes I teach what they would think of having a Facebook group for our class. At first they thought it would be kind of weird but then admitted they would keep up on what was happening in the class better, since they would be in there all the time. However, when I asked some of the non-traditional students (read older, less tech-savvy) in another class of mine, they basically replied that there would be no way they would set up a Facebook account, even if that was where we were 'holding' class. CourseFeed is one app that has potential in this area. I need to set it up and try it out.

So I have mixed feelings when it comes to Facebook. It makes sense. I can see the good in it. Like anything else in life, there's waste in it. I look forward to seeing if some killer app shows up for it. Perhaps the next UI redesign will be much more successful than the last one and it will actually become easier for more people to use instead of more difficult so they can reach a new audience. Right now, I'm just watching and waiting.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


KFC management apparently has worse powers of prediction than Jim Cramer.

Let's look at this for a moment. They offered coupons for free meals over a two week period with their new product, grilled chicken. Anyone ought to be able to see where this is going to end up. It gets picked up by Oprah and thousands of bloggers and twitterers, who slam their website so hard that it can't keep up with all the traffic.

The funniest part of the whole thing, I thought, was the website where the coupons were posted. It was What happens if you split that out? You get Unthin KFC. Ooh, not exactly the point they were trying to get across by touting grilled chicken instead of fried. I should mention that also worked, but the link from Oprah's page was to the unthin URL.

I assume they figured that by limiting the coupon to print four times on a computer, that people would only print a small number of coupons. I'm sure not everyone has access to a computer lab with 35 computers in it like I do (you do the math to figure out how many coupons my employees printed), but most people have access to a computer at home, one at work, plus a laptop, and maybe grandma's house. It adds up quickly.

So we go last night and get several free meals for our family and take it to a great U8 soccer game. Overall, it was a good experience. The wait was terrible, though. There was a line snaking through the whole restaurant, and when you got to the front you realized why. Even if the people scooping up the mashed potatoes were fast (which they were not), they had a hard time keeping the chicken stocked. One of my employees was a few people behind us in line. He and his wife got two meals inside and two through the drive-through. They ran out of grilled chicken and offered to let them take Original Recipe chicken instead. Really? Is that a good idea? People show up to try your new grilled chicken and you give them the fried stuff instead? So much for the whole point of the promotion, which was to try the new product.

I did actually get grilled chicken last night, but when we went for lunch today, they were out again, and they gave me Original Recipe. As good as the grilled chicken was, the fried chicken was still better. The biggest problem with the grilled chicken, I think, is that they leave the skin on. Why not cut it off and save that many more calories?

The other problem was one of sides. I don't know if other stores did the same thing, but where we went, they only allowed you to get mashed potatoes and cole slaw, even though the coupon infers that you can get any two sides you want. I suppose it's more efficient and probably cheaper to give everyone the same thing, but really, I heard a lot of people ask for something other than cole slaw only to be turned down. I guarantee a lot of cole slaw and the styrofoam bowls it comes in ended up just being tossed in the garbage. Part of the problem likely comes from the manager of the store not finding out about the coupons until just a couple days before the great giveaway was to start and being able to have enough of everything on hand to handle the increased traffic.

So today, three days into the two week giveaway, KFC announced that they will temporarily stop honoring the coupons, since they have been inundated with people taking them up on their offer. Are you that surprised, KFC? Did you really not see that coming? So now, customers have to take their coupons into the store, get an extra form from the manager, which they mail in to KFC, who will mail back rain checks with staggered dates they can be used, in order to spread out the demand a bit. At least to make up for the extra effort, they are throwing in a drink with the rain check.

So thumbs up for going with the free offer that really is actually free, but thumbs down to whoever didn't predict this would be this huge. Seriously, how can they be surprised?

On a side note, what's with the fake "Buttery Spread" and "Honey Sauce" for the biscuits? We're supposed to unthink what we thought about KFC when you give out sauce that is 89% corn syrup and 11% honey instead of just pure honey?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Collaborative Filtering and Web 2.0 Technologies

Filtering Methods

Collaborative filtering systems connect a person's needs with content based on ratings by others with similar interests and needs. Depending on the system, filtering may be based on human or machine analysis of content or a hybrid approach (Herlocker, Konstan, & Riedl, 2000). An example of the hybrid approach is Google Images, which uses a machine analysis of file names and text content in the page around images in combination with its Image Labeler. The Image Labeler is a game of sorts where users accumulate points for matching key words with a randomly selected partner, with more points awarded for providing more specific terms. The two sets of data are combined and then used in searching (Google, 2009).

Doctorow (2001) claims that observational metadata by a machine is more reliable than that created by humans, listing several obstacles to dependable human-created metadata including people's inability to fully report their own behavior and the ambiguities and non-neutral nature of many measurement and reporting techniques. Avery & Zeckhauser (1997) suggest that some incentive to evaluate content is necessary to avoid issues where the majority of users wait for others to evaluate content for them.

Some of the problems with the lack of human-created metadata may be due to the types of tools available to catalog resources. As I've mentioned before, the complex metadata standards like LOM were designed by engineers and just take too much time to implement; however, with the advent of many Web 2.0 tools there is an abundance of tagged resources and RSS feeds that easily work together. However, an abundance of tags does not necessarily solve problems without causing new ones. Tagging with a common or ambiguous word may cause unrelated content to be displayed together, and spammers may mark their garbage such that it displays alongside legitimate content (Walker, 2005). A closed community might help keep these ambiguities under control, but restrictions would likely lead to lower participation.


Communities use social interaction to combine existing knowledge with new knowledge to meet their needs. One piece of content may mean different things, based on the context in which it is used (Burnett, Dickey, Kazmer, & Chudoba, 2003). The question is how to make open tools like, Twitter, and Flickr work to facilitate individual communities without blending them all together or limiting access. It may be ideal to build or expand collaborative filtering capabilities that work in conjunction with manual tagging and machine analysis of content. In order to be successful, such a collaborative filter should filter out irrelevant information and provide a means for community members to access relevant information at the appropriate time, based on the behavior of others in the community (Walker, 2002).

De Souza & Preece (2004) point out two components by which an online community can be assessed: sociability and usability. The sociability component applies to any community, whether online or offline and includes the people, purposes, and policies involved. The usability component focuses on the technical and HCI issues of the software used. In their framework, these two components have to be aligned to produce success. Web 2.0 tools do well in terms of usability, based on the large numbers of people blogging, tagging, editing wikis, and otherwise collaborating. In terms of sociability, there is still work to do. It is easy to set up whitelists of content producers or tags once you know about them, but finding that content to begin with is difficult to do.

Web 2.0 Technologies

Walker (2005) lists Flickr tags that are related to the tag "bush" including: protest, election, politics, kerry, president, graffiti, snow, war, vote, iraq, tree, winter, cameraphone, cheney, and antibush. These associations among terms are then described as "sheep paths in the mountains" that have just formed over time, with no systematic approach. Over the past few years, clusters and pools of related content have made it a little easier to find what one is looking for. Now when searching for that same term, instead of just listing a few related tags, Flickr will prompt the user to see the clusters of related tags such as bush/green/nature/tree or bush/protest/war/iraq. These clusters help bring the sociability level of Flickr up towards its usability level which has been high for awhile now, however they are still based on manual tagging of content.

So one tool has begun to work on becoming a little bit more community-friendly, but how are the rest doing? Digg does well at quickly floating news stories in and out of the spotlight, based on their popularity within certain categories, but it is done by manual voting and categorization. Youtube videos can be associated with channels, contests, groups, categories, and tags, in addition to being rated by viewers. Videos can also be prioritized based on the number of overall views, but not by views of those similar to the user, which would be ideal. Wikipedia allows users to collaborate on documents and hold behind-the-page discussions before doing so, but in order to find a page that might be interesting to the user, a text-based search engine is used. Wordpress and Blogspot seem to follow the same pattern as these other popular tools, using RSS and tagging and linking, but not following a truly dynamic model that builds rules based on behavior and interests rather than cataloging by humans. Much of the human-generated data is good data, but it is simply not enough to narrow down the results by removing false positives. Combining with observational data and machine-generated contextual data will help triangulate the most accurate results for each individual user. Twitter and third party tools built on its API may be the closest to success with its ability to bring together both spontaneous and organized groups of people in real time for any given event.

Good Examples

For an example of non Web 2.0 collaborative filtering, we can look to TiVo (Ali & van Stam, 2004). TiVo still depends on users give shows they watch a thumbs up or thumbs down rating, but it has a few additional features most current Web 2.0 tools do not. It recommends shows the user might like, based on other shows they have watched and rated using correlated pairs of shows. It can also predict a "thumbs level" for unrated shows based on other characteristics.

For another example, Google tracks the searches and site visits of users that are logged into Google while they surf. Users can view statistics on their surfing habits and receive recommendations from Google for searches, web pages, videos, and gadgets the user might like based on the user's searches.

What's Next?

So if Google and TiVo can utilize a combination of factors to pinpoint content that would be appropriate for a user's general searching or entertainment needs, how do we harness those algorithms to extend the widely available Web 2.0 tools so they are more effective in the classroom or in business environments? Setting up a closed system is an option, but as mentioned above, a more open system should encourage more participation. With several of the tools such as wikis and blogs designed for teamwork and collaboration, it seems that the most useful collaborative filters would be those that perform well with newly created, unrated content that is identified by RSS feeds and then quickly react to the actions of users.

I'm not really sure how all these pieces ultimately fit together, but I am interested in further study on the topic. As I have been reading about virtual communities and open content lately and using several of these Web 2.0 tools for various projects, I am drawn to the power that is given to the masses to create content and influence politics, education, and many more aspects of our lives that were not open before. Traditional newspapers have new competition. There are free alternatives to the content traditionally provided by textbook publishers.

With my background in business, I believe that a reasonable amount of competition can be a very good thing. Enabling teams to more efficiently communicate with each other prevents duplication of effort and miscommunications within the group, as well as allowing the group to meet synchronously or asynchronously as schedules allow. Collaborative filtering seems to be an important next step in enabling virtual communities to better utilize the resources currently available to them. The tools for generating new content within a well-known context seem to be well developed, but an essential component of successful teamwork is better organization and dissemination of content and culture that already exist in order to maintain order when certain dynamics of the group change.


Ali, K., & van Stam, W. (2004) TiVo: Making show recommendations using a distributed collaborative filtering architecture. Proceedings of the 2004 ACM conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data mining.

Avery, C. & Zeckhauser, R. (1997). Recommender systems for evaluating computer messages. Communications of the ACM, 40(3).

Burnett, G., Dickey, M.H., Kazmer, M.M. & Chudoba, K.M. (2003) Inscription and interpretation of text: A cultural hermeneutic examination of virtual community. Information Research, 9(4).

de Souza, C. S., & Preece, J. (2004). A framework for analyzing and understanding online communities. Interacting with Computers, 16(3), 579-610.

Doctorow, C. (2001) Metacrap: Putting the torch to seven straw-men of the meta-utopia. Retrieved from

Google (2009). Google Image Labeler. Retrieved from

Herlocker, J., Konstan, J., & Riedl, J. (2000). Explaining collaborative filtering recommendations. Proceedings of the 2000 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work.

Walker, A. (2002). An educational recommender system: New territory for collaborative filtering (Doctoral Dissertation, Utah State University).

Walker, J. (2005). Feral hypertext: When hypertext literature escapes control. Proceedings of the 2005 ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia, 46-53.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Wilt Thou Pass or Flunk?

And it came to pass, early in the morning of the last day of the semester, there arose a multitude smiting their books and wailing. And there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth, for the day of judgment was at hand and they were sore afraid. For they had left undone those things which they ought to have done, and there was no help for them.

And there were many abiding in their rooms, who had kept watch over their books all night, but it naught availeth. But some there were who arose peacefully, for they had prepared for themselves the way, and made straight the path of knowledge. And those wise ones were known to some as the burners of the midnight oil, but by others they were called curve-spoilers.

And the multitudes arose, and ate a hearty breakfast, and they came to the appointed place, and their hearts were heavy within them. And they had come to pass, though not all would.

And some of them repented of their riotous living and bemoaned their fate, but they had not a prayer. And as the final hour approached there came among them one known as the professor, he of the diabolical smile, and passed paper among them, and went upon his way.

And many and varied were the answers which were given, for some of his teachings had fallen among the fallows. Many who had not a prayer in their hearts had nothing but BS to offer up in hopes of pacifying this professor.

And when they had finished, they gathered up their belongings, and went away quietly, each in his own direction, vowing to themselves in this manner, "I shall not pass this way again. It is a long road that has no turning."

Friday, April 24, 2009


Am I the only one who thinks this sign is funny?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Huge Ratios

I work in one of the nicest buildings on campus, so I often see campus tours of future students and their families come through. Student-teacher ratio is a big thing to a lot of people, so it always surprises me when I see the ambassadors (tour guides) showing off the 500-seat auditorium. Shouldn't they avoid that room?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Second Grade Economy

I was talking with two second graders on the way to school this morning. One mentioned a few people he knows that have to work two jobs, and the following exchange took place:
Me: It's just a hard time for people right now.

D: It started right when Barack Obama became president. It must have been something he did.

A: Maybe Obama will make the bosses of companies pay less so they'll have more money to pay their employees.

Obviously the economy didn't start going down right when Obama came into office like D said. I wonder where kids get that stuff, though. Is it like a game of Operator, with news agencies not quite reporting everything properly, then parents not quite understanding what is reported on the news (or maybe they listen to Rush), then the kids don't quite understand what their parents say, and then other kids at recess don't quite understand what the other kids say, and then one of them talking to me blames the entire recession on Obama?

If only the fix could be as elegantly simple as proposed by A. Just lower taxes so everyone will have more. In theory it's a great idea. The problem is that the bigger government gets, the more we depend on it. Private enterprises can't compete with government subsidized programs, so they fail. Then when tax revenues dip, the government programs fail. So do we raise taxes to prop up government programs and further reduce the amount available for private spending? The opposite effect, at least in the short term, of lowering taxes means government programs will be cut, and although that leaves people with more of their own money, it takes time for private enterprises to grow back, and the poor who rely on government programs while not paying any taxes themselves simply see a cut in services with no more money to make up the difference.

There are no easy answers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Feel the Chemistry

My office is in the same building as the Chemistry Department. It's in a renovated portion of a storage room in the basement, but it's nicely done, so it's not as bad as it sounds besides the poor cell phone reception.

In the classroom right next to my office, Chemistry holds weekly departmental seminars, where they bring in experts from around the world to hold lectures. The following are some of the exciting topics recently:
  • Tuning Photophysical Properties with ancillary Ligands in Ru(II) Mono-Diimine Complexes

  • Meso-Tetraarylporphyrins - Synthesis of, Selective Derivatization, and Possibilities of Application

  • Catalytic and Regulatory Mechanisms of Tyrosine Hydroxylase

    ...and everyone's favorite...

  • Nanomolecular Architectures: The Application of Crystal Engineering to Metallodendritic Assembly

Mixed in with all these loquaciously incomprehensible seminar sessions is this presentation coming up in a couple weeks:
  • How To Make Your Students Hate You Less If Not Necessarily Love You More

I might just attend that session instead of only eating their treats and going back to my office.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Celebrity Death Match

During the Pitt-UConn game that just ended, one of the announcers made some comment in an ominous-sounding voice about a player calling the game a "celebrity death match." A quick search turns up about 100 hits of the same AP article, most of which contain some reference to celebrity death match in the title. The article contains the following:
"We want UConn. It's going to be just like it was the last time -- it's going to be a celebrity death match," Blair said, laughing, invoking some pro wrestling terminology.

Nope, he's not referring to pro wrestling.

With all the research sports writers are used to doing for obscure records like the most consecutive home court regular season nonconference wins, you'd think they could have googled "Celebrity Death Match" and clicked on the first link to figure out he was talking about a bloody claymation MTV show pitting various celebrities against each other.

It was simply a way of stating that it's going to be a physical game, and someone might get bloody. As much as the sports media made a big deal about calling this game a celebrity death match, they have no idea what it even means. Of course, it doesn't come close to how excited they are when they get to say "Big Dance". Every time someone writes or says "Big Dance" I can picture them thinking, "Hee hee, I understand the phrases that athletes use. I'm in. I'm down with the playas." Of course, you are.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Little Brother


Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author and activist. His book Little Brother stands in both the science fiction and activism camps. He builds an argument for everyone to learn more about the technology that is pervasive in our lives, with a story of daring teenagers taking on the government. The book's byline, "Big Brother is watching you. Who's watching back?", hints at this showdown between technophiles and bureaucrats. San Francisco is turned into a police state after the Bay Bridge is blown up by terrorists. A group of teenagers fight back against abusive behavior by agents of the government, using their tech-smarts to expose injustices and force the government to reign in an overzealous Department of Homeland Security. Although at first glance the storyline appears over the top, neither the injustices being done nor the technologies used to expose them are very far off from what is happening today. Political ideologies aside, what saves the lives of these kids and many others is education and openness.


The most obvious work that this book may be compared to is George Orwell's 1984. In that book, Big Brother is the iconic face of The Party (or government), and Winston Smith is the protagonist who rebels and is eventually brought into submission by The Party. At the beginning of Little Brother, the protagonist Marcus goes by the handle w1n5t0n, pronounced Winston. The term Little Brother is used by the media in the book to describe the members of the Abuses of Authority movement, "who watch back against the Department of Homeland Security's anti-terrorism measures, documenting the failures and excesses." There are several similarities in the storylines, with characters devising methods to avoid surveillance, dealing with issues of who to trust, and government-sponsored torture. The most notable deviation from the 1984 script, other than Marcus being a nonconforming teenager rather than an experienced government employee like Winston, is that Little Brother has a relatively positive ending. Although the strings are not tied up as neatly as a Perry Mason episode, it's not at all a stretch to say that Marcus and friends "win" in the end.

Another book that provides a more scholarly approach to a similar topic is Larry Lessig's Code: Version 2.0. Both books point out that technology may be manipulated to whatever end we desire. The only way to ensure biases or bugs are eliminated is through transparency, since trust is often lacking. An important concept in Lessig’s book is that of latent ambiguities, which come about since technology moves faster than the law. A current example of this is the complaint from the Author’s Guild that Amazon’s e-book reader Kindle would be able to read books aloud without…gasp…purchasing audio rights. [Doctorow's response to the Kindle controversy]

Little Brother is aimed at young adults. It seeks to lure in these digital natives with fast-paced action, distrust of adults, cool technology, and a sprinkling of sexuality. It is important that this next generation make the leap from being consumers of technology to producers, so there will be new creators of technology to take the place of the baby boomers as they begin to retire.

In the foreword of the book, Doctorow states the following: "This book is meant to be something you do, not just something you read. The technology in this book is either real or nearly real. You can build a lot of it. You can share it and remix it. You can use the ideas to spark important discussions with your friends and family. You can use those ideas to defeat censorship and get onto the free Internet, even if your government, employer or school doesn't want you to."

In the afterword, Bruce Schneier, a well known security technologist, and Andrew Huang, a researcher known for hacking the Xbox, point out the amount of dysfunction in the world today. Security through obscurity seems to be the pervasive method in the world for keeping us safe; however, openness and courage to stand up for our freedoms is what will make us safer. Schneier admonishes us to pay attention to the world and try to figure out how it works, and by doing so we will begin to worry about the things that will actually make us safer and stop relying on technologies that can be defeated with a little bit of knowledge and a ballpoint pen.


The book follows the exploits of a seventeen year old high school student, Marcus Yallow, who uses technology to his advantage work his way around the technical measures instituted by his school district to keep the students in line. The school is truly a place that Paolo Freire would speak out against, as students are monitored and disciplined for speaking their minds; they are oppressed, rather than being allowed to participate in the learning process.

In rebelling against the oppression, these students learn about and utilize technology to encrypt chat sessions, block RFID tracking, and confuse gait-recognition cameras in the halls. As they are out skipping school, a terrorist attack occurs, and Marcus and his friends are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as possible suspects in the attack. After being held and questioned for several days and then released, they return to a city which has been locked down by the DHS. Innocent people are being stopped and questioned by police to ask why they visited certain parts of the city, since they are tracked by their RFID cards that are used for payment on bridges, toll roads, and mass transportation.

Marcus organizes an underground movement utilizing a special Linux distribution called ParanoidLinux that could run on Xboxes that had been handed out for free by Microsoft the previous year. They teach other youth around the city to reprogram RFID cards to throw off the DHS's data mining techniques. The movement gains momentum, but eventually it becomes obvious that the DHS has infiltrated the so-called Xnet. A small group of Xnet members use encryption technology to create a trusted group within the Xnet. The more this trusted group organizes and tries to rebel, the more they realize that the DHS is closer to figuring out who they are. Their only choice is to go public with the abuses being handed out by the DHS, as they bring in more agents and apply more pressure to finding these supposed terrorists.

In a conversation with his father, who did not know Marcus was the leader of this group rebelling against the DHS's tactics, his dad points out that, "The Bill of Rights was written before data-mining. The right to freedom of association is fine, but why shouldn't the cops be allowed to mine your social network to figure out if you're hanging out with gangbangers and terrorists?" Marcus' response was, "Taking away our privacy isn't catching terrorists: it's just inconveniencing normal people." His father seems willing to accept the inconveniences of being stopped without cause while looking for the bad guys, while Marcus is actively fighting for rights guaranteed us in the Constitution. In the process they address some of the latent ambiguities that Lessig discusses in Code: Version 2.0.

The publisher provides a free Teacher's Guide which contains writing activities for students with thought-provoking questions to help students enhance their analysis of the book. This is a nice addition for classroom use, covering issues such as understanding truth and reality, history, research techniques, code transparency, privacy and surveillance, righteous rebellion, torture, legal and civil rights, marketing techniques, protests, trust, and problem solving. There is really something in this book for everyone. With the book’s Creative Commons license, a teacher can download and distribute the book for free to students. If the sex or some of the language is a little too risqué, it can be legally modified.


Very little can hold the short attention span of the upcoming generation, but this novel has what it takes to keep them motivated to turn the page while learning a little bit about technology. The action and exciting technology are enough to keep the reader hooked, even as Doctorow explains the basics of cryptography, networking, IP tunneling, and RFID. It is enjoyable to learn more about the technologies, even though most people would not admit to being interested in such things. He directly ties technology into the story and how these teens are using the technology to fight back. Schneier states, "Cory invited me into the last few pages of his book because he wanted me to tell you that security is fun. It's incredibly fun. It's cat and mouse, who can outsmart whom, hunter versus hunted fun. I think it's the most fun job you can possibly have. If you thought it was fun to read about Marcus outsmarting the gait-recognition cameras with rocks in his shoes, think of how much more fun it would be if you were the first person in the world to think of that." Doctorow did a good job of showing how fun and interesting a more advanced understanding of technology can and should be. With the afterwords by Schneier and Huang, he ties back to his statements at the beginning of the book to explicitly remind the readers why he wrote it.

Unlike movies like Independence Day, Jurassic Park, and The Net, where technology is incorrectly utilized in unrealistic ways, the technologies in Little Brother either already exist or would be relatively easy to implement. The ParanoidLinux distribution mentioned in the book did not exist at the time the book was written, but interested Open Source programmers have begun putting together an operating system that mirrors the capabilities mentioned in the book. Much of the software used already exists, but the ParanoidLinux distribution is simply bringing them all together in one package. The use of real technology is very important, as it removes some of the need for suspension of disbelief, making it easier to get lost in the story.

A more in depth look at the characters in the story, however, reveals a superficial, one-dimensional nature to most of the players. There was just a lack of complexity that was somewhat distracting. The evil characters are pure evil. His friends and family are either 100% supportive of him or want absolutely nothing to do with his plans. We do get inside Marcus' head as the majority of the book is written in first person, from his point of view. We see Marcus' inner struggle and growth as the reluctant leader in the rebellion he spawned on a whim, but see little character development in those around him. Marcus does have fights with one of his friends and his girlfriend, but they seem to be more devices in furthering Marcus' growth rather than their own. I kept waiting for the twist, like his girlfriend being a spy or his dad working to help the DHS improve its data mining techniques as they close in on Marcus. That twist never came. Even the supposedly surprise DHS informant was not out of line with previous interactions with that character.


As technology departments at universities around the country struggle to attract females into their programs, Little Brother can be used as a recruiting tool. There are just as many tech-savvy, important females in the story as there are males. Computer Science suffers from a lack of understanding among both males and females as to what you can do with a degree in that field besides sitting in a dark basement writing line after line of code. Being able to program is an important part of the story, but so is understanding and using technology that has been created by others in unique ways.

I hesitate using the term "must-read", but Little Brother is high up on my recommendation list. It is not often that a book with a decidedly technology-rich storyline can reach out to both readers that are tech-savvy and less knowledgeable in a way that makes them want to learn more. Doctorow makes it easy for his readers by telling them what he wants them to do when they finish the book, presenting a compelling story, concluding with another call to action, and providing a list of more sources to turn to with their new-found interest in security, technology, and counterculture books and electronic resources.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Conflicts of Interest

Conflicts of interest are important to pay attention to, especially in politics but also in other aspects of the business world. Our capitalist society is founded on the fact that people will naturally act in their own interests. A conflict of interest occurs when someone is in some position of responsibility that would allow them to personally benefit themselves or their loved ones at the expense of whatever group they represent or over which they have responsibility.

Disclosure is generally required when a conflict of interest is present. If the conflict is severe enough, the person will step aside and let someone else handle the decisions in question.

So what happens when the person with the conflict of interest is the expert in the topic? For example, if a state legislator is also a public school teacher, bills relating to funding public education and specifically relating to teachers' salaries would obviously be conflicts of interest. Do we want everyone with a stake in public education to step out of the room and let only the construction experts work on the public education budget? Then when it's time to allocate money for construction projects, those who work in construction will leave the room while the teachers come back in and set the construction budget? Of course not. Neither group has the expertise to efficiently allocate the money for the other group. Disclosure is always appropriate, but recusal may not be the best course of action in such a situation.

So, my humble reader(s), if you've made it this far, here's your theoretical situation. A professor writes a textbook and wants to use it in class. Requiring students to purchase the textbook results in more money for him or her, so there's the conflict of interest. Letting someone else choose another book may result in a less effective classroom experience if the professor's book would be better aligned to the structure of the class. Anyone that is a proponent of open education already has a solution most of the way formulated. What about all the capitalists out there? What's your solution?

Ready for next year...

I'm saving up for next year's Valentine's Day gift...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Billions and Billions Bailed Out

I've heard a few times recently people saying that instead of spending $700 billion on bailouts we should just chop up that money and hand it out to all adults in the country. This citizen bailout would supposedly give everyone $250,000. That would be great if we could all pay off our mortgages, right? Well, it's great until you do the math. It's kind of funny how even reasonably intelligent people get off by a few decimal places and dollar signs immediately start popping up in their eyes.

Well, taking a nice round estimate of 200 million adults in the country, $700 billion evenly spread out gives everyone $3500 apiece. That's not a bad haul, but not quite enough to pay off my house, unfortunately.

The real question, though, ignoring momentarily where we would even get the money from and how we would pay it back at some point, is how many of my faithful readers would be willing to forgo a $250,000 per citizen bailout? Who would be dumb enough to turn down a quarter mil? Well, think of it another way. I'm assuming that anyone who spends their time reading my blog is probably a reasonably intelligent person who would put the money to good use. Chances are you're intelligent enough that you already see where I'm going with this. What about all the people who aren't smart enough to read my blog? Don't we all know someone who would just do something incredibly stupid if they stumbled upon a wad like that? What about all the people you don't know who would do something even more stupider? Wouldn't it be worth giving up your take, knowing that by doing so you're saving us from half a million rednecks having that much money at their disposal?
photo by kb1jl

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Introducing the chief justice of music...

In the Herald Journal (local Cache Valley newspaper) today, there was an article about reactions by those who attended a broadcast of President Obama's inauguration on the Utah State University campus yesterday. The second paragraph of the article by Kim Burgess, reporter extraordinaire is as follows:

After Supreme Court Chief Justice John Williams administered the oath of office, loud applause and cheers rose from the crowd.

Oh. So John Williams as the Chief Justice now? I figured he'd be too busy writing the music that was played at the inauguration as well as the music for about 100 movies over the past 40 years to have time to serve on the Supreme Court. Perhaps that's why his friend John Roberts is serving as the Chief Justice right now.

You expect small-time newspapers to make mistakes here and there, but confusing the names of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court with arguably the best and most well-known composer in our lifetimes? The names are similar: John Roberts, John Williams. Did the reporter just write down John Williams' name when it was announced that he wrote the music that was played by Yo-Yo Ma and whoever those other three people were that played with him and then did not pay attention or check her facts when writing the story?

It is interesting how easily obvious errors pass by undetected by an uneducated public. When I teach ethics in my class, for example, I usually mention Bill Clinton's impeachment and the loss of his license to practice law as an example of what happens when one breaks a professional code of ethics. When I ask students if they remember what the unethical act was that he did, they usually answer that he had an affair. Well, the problem was not that he had an affair but that he lied in court under oath about having an affair. Maybe to some that is not a big difference, but it actually is a big difference that many people do not understand. Only two of our presidents have ever been impeached. You would think people would know more about why and how the most recent one happened. Then again, you might think a newspaper reporter would do a quick fact-check before publishing a story, too.

Back to John Williams, of course, I was joking, and I know who the people were that played the song at the inauguration. I'm just saying that it was obvious from the crowd reaction that Yo-Yo Ma was the only one that anyone had heard of. "Air and Simple Gifts" was performed by Itzhak Perlman on the violin, Yo-Yo Ma on the cello, Gabriela Montero on the piano, and Anthony McGill on the clarinet.

Here is a copy of the song as performed at the inauguration. By posting this here, I'm going off the understanding that this performance is public domain, since it was part of the presidential inauguration. Thus, it is free of all copyright and may be copied and used in any way without permission by anyone.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Happy 200th birthday, Edgar Allan Poe.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Reducing Extraneous Cognitive Load by Accounting for Individual Differences

“I built a computer in my Electrical Engineering classes…” or “Of course I can use MS Word; I’m an English major…” or “I took a computer class in high I really have to take the CIL tests?” What is our response every time? “Just show me.”

Computer and Information Literacy (CIL) is a series of 6 tests designed for freshmen at Utah State University to display that they have basic skills in regards to using a computer and finding and ethically using information on the Internet, in the library, or from other sources. By gaining these skills early in their college career, these students will have tools at their disposal that will allow them to work more efficiently than they may have otherwise. Of course, many of those students that try the hardest to get out of the tests or simply postpone them as long as possible are the very ones that have difficulties passing one or more tests.

Cognitive Load and Cognitive Information Processing

Students come to college for many reasons. Ask 10 random students on a university campus why they’re here, and you may not be surprised to hear 11 different answers. Of course, that is because everyone is different. We come from different backgrounds, with different interests. But deep down, we’re all computers, at least according to Cognitive Information Processing (CIP) Theory, so why should learning computers be so hard?

CIP theorists postulate that information flows through the brain similar to how data flows through a computer. They describe the brain as a system which receives input in various forms, patterns are recognized and loaded into short term memory if relevant, the information is then processed further to create a response, and finally experiences may or may not be loaded into long term memory for later retrieval (Driscoll 2004).

Tools like chunking, sequencing, imagery, and mnemonics can be utilized by an instructor to help a student process information and build on existing knowledge. Some claim that if no previous knowledge exits, CIP does not apply, since new knowledge cannot be related to any existing schema (Gee). Regardless of whether we actually learn as CIP theorists propose, it is important for instructors to be familiar with the tools available to them, whether technical or theoretical, and use that which is best for their learners.

Some of the most interesting research going on in the field of Instructional Technology is Cognitive Load Theory. The relationship between intrinsic, extraneous, and germane cognitive load has some of its beginnings in CIP, which intuitively theorizes that the brain can only think about or encode a small amount of information at any given time. Intrinsic load is generally thought of as difficult or impossible to manipulate and thus ignored, as it refers to the processing that has to be done by the brain to encode practically anything. The goal should be to minimize extraneous cognitive load, which could be anything that distracts a learner, and increase germane load, or those processes that allow the learner to actively participate in the encoding process. As van Merriënboer and Sweller (2005) point out, however, “instructional manipulations to improve learning by diminishing extraneous cognitive load and by freeing up cognitive resources is only effective if students are motivated and actually invest mental effort in learning processes that use the freed resources.”

So let’s say that we follow Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction (Driscoll 2004) and we know that we must motivate our learners by Gaining their Attention and Informing them of the Objectives of our instruction. For CIL, we gain their attention pretty easily by standing in the way of graduation if not completed, and our objectives are the 6 tests they must pass. Of course, this is an area CIL could use some improvement. Yes, it is a graduation requirement, but it is more than that. These are important skills which allow students to work more efficiently. If we can help them understand that, they will be more willing to work to increase germane load and learn the material. Motivating students to take the tests sooner is a topic that does need further attention, but the fact is that we do have a captive audience, so I will focus here on how to help students once they come to us.

Learning Styles and Individual Differences

According to Shute and Towle (2003), “the challenge of improving learning and performance largely depends on correctly identifying characteristics of a particular learner.” Some characteristics of a given learner include existing knowledge, cognitive ability, personality, learning styles, and interest in the subject matter. A variety of supports are available to help students pass the CIL tests. Online tutorials are available for students to review, practice tests are available, review sessions are provided twice a week, and the actual tests give a breakdown of the topics with which the student needs some help. The problem with each of these supports is that they require the student to track manually for themselves what it is they need to work on and to decide which resources to study with.

Some of the skills we test on lend themselves to simple memorization/regurgitation through a multiple choice test and others require some critical thinking and demonstration of skills. Given multiple types of content and varying skill levels of test-takers, where do we start when developing instruction? Although it is necessary to dynamically adjust the number and type of examples and guidance for any given learner, this accommodating for individual differences, according to Reiser and Dempsey (2002), “is secondary to the fundamental content-by-strategy consistency required for effective instruction.” The type of content and goals of instructions are primary; learner styles should be reserved as a fine-tuning or adjustment to the content-based strategies. As such, we provide straight-forward text and still images for the concept tests but animated screencasts in addition to a few text explanations in the tutorials for the performance tests. A thorough review of all the CIL tutorials needs to be done to ensure that the content does match the presentation method used.

A review of our instructional materials would also help to avoid issues like the Expertise Reversal Effect (Kalyuga et al., 2003). This phenomenon shows reduced extraneous cognitive load for novices when illustrations and text are physically integrated. As expertise increases, that difference in cognitive load decreases and eventually reverses, with experts becoming distracted by all the extra information they don’t need. This is a perfect place to bring in software that can track learner knowledge and personal preferences and suppress unnecessary and distracting information from the advanced learner who does not need it.

Technology to the Rescue

In their recent book, van Merriënboer and Kirschner (2007) extend their previously published Four Component Instructional Design (4C/ID) model. A central piece of both the 4C/ID and the extended Ten Steps to Complex Learning is that of providing Just-in-Time (JIT) information to the student right when it’s needed. They give the example of a coach who observes her players from the side of the playing field and shouts directions like “remember to bend your knees...” or “no, keep your eye on the ball...” It is difficult to explain just why a certain piece of information is exactly what a learner needs at a given moment, but a master teacher can predict just what the learner needs next. They point out in their book that the more complex and open-ended the learning task, the more difficult it is to create intelligent help and tutoring systems to provide that JIT information.

A great number of online courses are simply a copy of old print materials that have been converted to PDF or HTML and placed on the web. “Instead of the page-turners of yesterday, we now have scrolling pages, which is really no improvement at all. Adaptive e-learning provides the opportunity to dynamically order the pages so that the learner sees the right material at the right time,” say Shute and Towle (2003). They go on to provide a list of essential components for an adaptive learning tool to be truly effective:

1. An independent and robust delivery system and a predictably structured independent content system that can be adapted to each learner.
2. Embedded assessments, delivered to the student during the course of learning, which triggers the presentation of more of the same topic or a new topic. Assessment should really be integrated throughout to guide the instruction, rather than be simply tacked on at the end.
3. Genetic programming, which can take an initial set of human-designed rules, perhaps set with data from a pilot study, and evolve as the system is used to increase its accuracy.

Koedinger and Anderson (1997) describe a study in urban Pittsburgh high schools helping at-risk students learn algebra skills in the context of real life situations, such as comparing the prices of two moving companies or rental car agencies. The learning environment included a grapher, calculator, spreadsheet, and an organized curriculum of problem situations. The system contained psychological modeling techniques for what they called model tracing and knowledge tracing. Model tracing is used to monitor student progress through a problem solution. Knowledge tracing is used to monitor student learning from problem to problem. Together, the software could individualize problem selection and optimally pace students through the curriculum giving immediate feedback while working on a problem. Stress from making errors was reduced because others in the class didn’t see their mistakes. The program was so successful that all students were sent through the more advanced algebra class than the basic math class and standardized test scores at the end of the year increased 15%. Additional high schools were brought on board. An important observation from this study that CIL needs to take into consideration is making our examples and test questions reflect real situations that a student may find himself or herself in. Rather than use spreadsheets, for example, to manipulate data on yearly sales figures for a store, they should be calculating grades in a class, budgeting for school and living expenses with just a part-time job, or tracking basketball box scores.

What next?

Given the large number of students we see, and the large variance in individual learning styles, there is a lot we could do at CIL to improve both our testing and teaching methods. We can currently track performance on the actual CIL tests already, but by implementing a tutoring system that would track student behaviors as they prepare, we would be able to compare that preparation data to test performance data and figure out if the students are simply practicing Selective Attention (Driscoll 2004) or if there is a problem with the tutorials. By tracking students through the tutorials, we can provide additional assistance to the students that barely slip through with the minimum score after expending a lot more effort than was necessary. Currently, the only way to really collect that kind of data would be to “ask test takers to reflect aloud on the cognitive and evaluative processes” used to study and take tests (Gall et al., 2007). Of course, asking students to track their own actions and thoughts adds extraneous cognitive load, which decreases their performance. The next step is to load our content and practice items, after whatever updates need to be made, into an adaptive tutor system to find out what’s really going on.


Driscoll, M. (2004) Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed.). New York: Allyn & Bacon.

Gall, M., Gall J., Borg, W. (2007) Educational Research (8th ed.) Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Gee, D. Learning Theories. eLearning Source. Accessed February 2007.

Kalyuga, S., Ayres, P., Chandler, P., and Sweller, J. (2003). The expertise reversal effect. Educational Psychologist 38(1).

Koedinger, K., Anderson, J. (1997). Intelligent Tutoring Goes To School in the Big City. International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education, 8.

Reiser, R., Dempsey, J. (Eds.). (2002) Trends and issues in instructional design and technology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Shute, V., Towle, B. (2003) Adaptive E-Learning. Educational Psychologist 38(2).

Van Merriënboer, J., Kirschner, P. (2007) Ten steps to complex learning: A systematic approach to Four-Component Instructional Design. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Van Merriënboer, J., Sweller, J. (2005) Cognitive Load Theory and complex learning: Recent developments and future directions. Educational Psychology Review, 17(2).

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A small quilted luxury

At the end of this week's Chris Matthews Show, a quick discussion took place regarding the fact that sales are way up for a new product, Quilted Northern's three ply toilet paper. It's more expensive, but people are still buying it in spite of the recession. So what does that say? They suggested it's perhaps a sign that we're going for small luxuries now instead of big ones. Of course, they immediately follow up talking about the toilet paper with the fact that high-end luxury cruises with Abercrombie & Kent are way up, which definitely isn't a small luxury. Maybe people are just following Katt Williams' advice.

So what's going on? Are we just in the most luxurious recession ever? If we see a 6-blade disposable razor come out, I think that question will be answered.

My real question is whether we are being pushed into a recession by the media's claims that we're in one, which causes us to cut back our spending and thus bring to pass their claims. If tomorrow the media started reporting that the recession is over, would people start spending again and thus cause a recovery? Is there harm in trying that strategy?