Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Snow law like a snow law

It's interesting that within a few weeks of each other, two cities within a few miles of each other both discussed making it "unlawful for any person to push, plow, or otherwise deposit snow from private property into the public street."

Smithfield passed it, whereas North Logan rejected it.

It makes one wonder if somebody is going around pushing all the city councils to adopt the same ordinance. I don't know if Smithfield and North Logan use their own crews or contract out with Logan or the county, but I'd guess the same group takes care of plowing if they both discussed this issue at the same time.

Logan City, where I live, has their own snow removal crews and already has an ordinance that prohibits leaving water, wood, rocks, snow, ice, vehicles, etc. in the road in such a way that they block travel or endanger people. Logan's ordinance is worded in a way that mostly makes sense, although it does make me wonder if the puddle my sprinklers leave in the gutter would be considered a stagnant pool and leave me technically in violation.

photo by mvhargan

I'd be interested to see the wording of the proposed ordinances, but the stories linked above were a little sparse on the details. The main detail that seems clear is that they don't want residents pushing snow into the street and leaving tracks that freeze into bumps that can cause the snowplows to bounce around when they hit them; you know, a miniature version of the wall of snow the plows push into the end of your driveway right after you finish shoveling? So why don't they just make an ordinance saying that? "Don't create snow or ice piles that interfere with snowplows."

On a side note, you'd think someone could invent a snowplow with some type of guard on the right side that could be enabled by the driver passing a driveway or intersection, which would temporarily stop the snow from flowing freely off to the side and when disengaged would release any accumulated snow. It wouldn't have to hold much for very long. But I digress.

From the discussion in the articles, if it just prohibits pushing snow from private property into a public street, then what happens if you push that big pile from the snowplow back into the street? If it's technically snow from the public street, not from your private property, is there a repercussion? North Logan did the right thing and rejected it, since they agreed that it would simply be unenforceable.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Friend Lists

Is anyone out there using friend lists on FB? Are they being used "correctly"? I haven't set any up yet, since I have yet to see a point. I just don't trust that FB can get it right and that something I post for one group of people I know won't end up being displayed to the wrong people.

I generally like most Google products, although they admittedly have had some failures. That is great, though, because it means they're not afraid to try new things and pull the plug on what doesn't work. Their failure with Google Wave may end up working out well for the few people who actually used it, since they open sourced the project, and the Apache group has picked it up.

Google has yet to really hit it big in the social media market, other than perhaps their acquisition of Blogger several years ago. I don't include Gmail or Google Talk as social media, because email and IM are private communication tools, not social media. Android is great, but it's an operating system.

I don't care if Google's Orkut hits it big here in the states. I'm fine if FB keeps its stranglehold on the market. I do hope that Orkut can be used to push FB to innovate in a direction that's useful to users. Several months ago, a new version of Orkut was launched, which has something FB really needs: real separation of friend networks.

We see the friend list arrive on FB, presumably because of the new Orkut feature. The problem is that they need a whole FAQ page to explain how to use it, because it's hidden several clicks into a submenu where few venture. So like most privacy settings in FB, it's hard to find if you even know it's there. Given their history, what happens when FB decides to change their privacy settings and everything you posted for one group of friends suddenly becomes public to all (either accidentally or on purpose)?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

We can do this the easy way or the hard way

There's an obscure change that was made in Office 2007, which I only noticed because of a chance experience. They changed the terminology from labeling the X and Y axes of a chart to labeling the horizontal and vertical axes. What's the difference, you might ask? The horizontal axis is the X axis, so who cares?

I'll get to that, but first how I even became aware of this issue. I happened to be helping a student who wanted help getting ready for a retake of a test on Excel. She missed part of the chart, because she mixed up the X and Y axis labels. As we were looking at what she had done, it was very obvious that the labels did not match. I don't remember the exact topic, but it would have been analogous to having a label that said "States" next to the axis with a range of numbers and a label that said "Population" next to the axis with the names of several states. You look at it and have to wonder if something is messed up, but then again, I have written before about how students will consciously choose to answer a question incorrectly with the idea in their heads that our tests were constructed by idiots and therefore the wrong answer will likely be scored as correct.

I showed her how the labels obviously didn't match, and I opened her spreadsheet file, and showed her how the box labeled X-axis had the text she was supposed to put in the Y-axis box and vice versa. The problem? I have to admit there was some logic to her decision to switch them, albeit based on a possible problem in our educational system, which is where I'm headed with this.

Among the various chart types in Excel are the bar chart and the column chart. I don't want to get into the difference between the types of charts, where you'd use a histogram vs a bar chart vs a line chart, etc. Perhaps another post. Suffice it to say that Excel doesn't really do a histogram without a lot of work on your part, and it's beyond the scope of this post.

So a column chart and a bar chart in Excel are actually both bar charts, with Excel's bar chart rotated 90 degrees. What ends up as the vertical axis, since it is rotated, is actually the X-axis. The reason it is the X-axis is because it is the independent variable. The dependent variable is the Y. I still remember in middle school missing a quiz question, because I hadn't read the chapter for that day and had to guess whether it was the X or Y that was vertical and horizontal. It turns out, that while convention does generally put the X horizontally, it doesn't have to be that way. There is a greater law. Unfortunately, we are taught the simplistic version of the law. If we were to take the advice of some and teach more statistics rather than calculus in school, perhaps there would be some importance of knowing the difference between a dependent and independent variable and thus we might be taught the greater law.

So, what the girl had done based on this "fact" that had been so ingrained in her throughout years of math classes was specifically decide to put the labels in the wrong boxes just so the X label would be on the horizontal axis, even if that meant having the X label in the properties box labeled Y and next to data that didn't make sense. After mistakes like this and others by a multitude of students, I started putting notes like "if something looks wrong, it probably is" on most test versions that I would write.

Apparently, Microsoft must have gotten some feedback from other people getting confused, and so rather than leave it as technically correct but difficult to understand, they punted. They just changed the labels to be called the horizontal and vertical axis labels in Office 2007. Now there is no question. And the three people per year that had a problem with this now don't learn anything, because it never comes up. In case you're wondering, OpenOffice still labels the vertical axis on the bar chart as the X-axis, because that's what it is.

So at what point do we switch from teaching the easy rule to teaching the more complicated but correct rule? Is there ever a reason to teach the easy rule? Wouldn't we perhaps see fewer line charts that should actually be histograms, etc. if we taught people assuming they were capable of understanding an advanced concept? Is this an advanced concept?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


The acronym TMI is often used as a way of expressing that someone just shared too much information with you, generally something embarrassing or private or that they just don't care about. I believe some of this comes because of an overload of information always flowing around us through computers and mobile devices, so we lose the ability to filter out extraneous or private information from that which should be communicated.

Given the large amounts of information that is put out there, since people do seem to just braindump it all onto various social media sites (or vetted news sites) in a way that's easily accessible by others, those who learn to actually mine the vast data fields will do very well for themselves in our information-based society.

While some people see these vast data fields as a wasteland, like the Abominable Snowman in Monsters, Inc., I would say, "I think you mean wonderland!" We should be able to take the plethora of information created by others and turn it into something useful. There should be no such thing as TMI, because the more data out there, the better we can harness it for the good of ourselves or others.

I'm occasionally made fun of for looking up information on my phone or a computer. Someone asks a question or wants a clarification about a statement made by someone else, and everyone just sits there thinking, yeah, someone should find that out. Then the conversation goes a different direction and everyone forgets there was something they wanted to know. So I look it up before forgetting what the question was. And I get strange looks for providing the answer. I'm the smarty pants because I googled it, when half the room could have also pulled out their iPhone or Droid and looked it up themselves. They're using their phones to text, so it's not like they're put away to be polite to the present company.

Isn't that why we have smartphones? I mean, it's cool that you can use your iPhone as a digital rattle to keep your kids occupied, but isn't access to Wikipedia, Google, Yahoo Answers, Twitter, etc. the best reason to have a smartphone? Nielsen claims that 25% of smartphone users don't even access any data on their phones and that 6% of users consume over half the mobile phone data. The rest of us are on that logarithmic continuum somewhere.

What other information is out there that we aren't using? If you have a blog (or any website for that matter), do you use Google Analytics to see who is coming to your site, from where, and for what? How long do they stay, what do they do while visiting, and do they actually find what they were looking for? Is that just another type of TMI that you don't care about?

Over the past 2-3 years, my two most consistently popular posts are on Pedagogy vs Andragogy and Surf the Channel. Coming in a distant third place is a post related to Cognitive Load Theory.

It's interesting, since I spent a lot more time writing the cognitive load post than I did the other two. Maybe the third place post was too long or too academic or too focused on the specific situation in which I was using it. Something I have been able to figure out, though, is that if you can find something that is an interesting or upcoming topic that not many people are blogging about, you'll get a lot of hits. That may seem obvious, but I only figured it out because I had data that told me. If you think I should have known that already, guess which of your blog posts are the most popular and then turn on Google Analytics and tell me how close you were after a month or two of collecting data.

I've been thinking for awhile now that I need to write another post on Andragogy, because I'm afraid that the one that several hundred people a month find just wasn't all that well written or informative. It was just a quick recap of an experience I had and a few comments on some of the basics of that area. I know a lot more about the topic now and knowing people are looking for that information and having a hard time finding it, I feel it my duty to help others make some sense of it.

They could find academic articles on it or take a class on the subject. They could go to conferences and talk to people using techniques based on these principles. But they don't. At least they're googling it, which many don't even have the motivation to do like I already talked about. So if that many people come asking the question, how many more are out there who don't even ask, because they can't be bothered? There's probably not much I can do to reach out to them, since I can't force my blog down everyone's throats. I should at least try to answer the question people who do find my site are asking.

So what does Google Analytics tell you? And what are you going to do about it?