August 24, 2009

Social media and Higher Ed

Brace for impact!

(It's a joke on a number of levels.)

This is something we're going to be seeing over and over again, whether we're studying Social Media, Social Networks, Communications, Technology or not. We're all in the academic world and these new popular methods of communication are going to have an effect on the classroom, if not teaching and learning. What that effect is remains to be seen.

This article prompted this, the first of what I'm sure will be many posts about so-called social media: How Students, Professors, and Colleges Are, and Should Be, Using Social Media

The title is extremely misleading; it's a one-page interview that deals mostly with questions about some opinions on the current effect of social media. it barely touches on anything like advice.

My interest, specifically, is on classroom effects, and here is the entirety of that portion:

Q. How has today's student changed how professors prepare their classes?
A.
It's really forcing university professors to think about their teaching style and the pedagogical techniques that they use in the classroom. In other words, I've become increasingly dissatisfied with simply delivering a traditional lecture in the classroom. I'm beginning to debate whether or not it's effective, whether or not it works, whether or not it's a useful tool or a useful way to engage and create a kind of learning space or a learning environment. They're active learners, as opposed to passive learners. That one-way flow of content -- I don't know how effective that is anymore.

Social media is forcing professors to think about their techniques and style? They didn't think about this before? Pardon me, but I doubt that a professor who didn't consider his teaching style before is going to suddenly have an epiphany because social media has hit the scene. They may not even be aware of the effect of social media on their classroom.

Perhaps we will see some serious treatment of this subject, or some analysis that tells us serious treatment is justified. Either way, we will be seeing more books and articles like this.

NOTE: This was cross-posted to Indentured Academitude

Posted by James at 7:34 PM | Comments (3)

August 22, 2009

Death of Auto-Tune

This bit cracked me up on the Wikipedia page describing Jay-Z's song "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)."

One of the partial inspirations for Jay-Z to write the song was hearing Auto-Tune being used in an advertisement for Wendy's fast-food chain. It made him realize that what was once a trend has become a gimmick.[4]

If you're not familiar with the Auto-Tune, it's a sound processing technology that was created to automatically correct a singer's vocals, keeping them precisely on key. It's been around for many years now and it was quietly correcting singer's voices (on recordings and during live performances) until someone realized that by playing with the parameters of the Auto-Tune could create a strange effect. Instead of smoothly correcting a singer's voice, it could abruptly and harshly distort the human voice.

The first recording I know of in which it was used this way was Cher's "Believe." (listen here) That was 1998. You can hear the pitch of her voice abruptly changing in an unnatural way. To preserve the secret of Auto-Tune, they told people that they were using a vocoder to get the effect. The general public wasn't aware of the Auto-Tune, or that vocalists had been using it for a while as a "safety net" (some might say a somewhat dishonest trick.)

But it was too late. Other sound engineers figured out the trick and the effect began to appear in more and more pop music. T-Pain is especially known for it, and it's gotten to the point of parody. It was always pretty ridiculous, but this parody hammered it home pretty hard: The Lonely Island's "I'm On A Boat" featuring T-Pain himself. (NSFW - language).

When Cher puts a feature in her music, I wonder why it takes over 10 years for Jay-Z to realize it's gimmicky. And since when is Wendy's uncool!!!?!

In my opinion, the only really fun use of the Auto-Tune lately is in Auto-Tune the news.

Auto-Tune #2 and #5 are my favorites.

Pirates, Gay Marriage and the Angry Gorilla:

American exceptional ism and Joe Biden in space:

#4 is not bad, either. #7 has Pat Buchanan singing about white folks (and Katie Couric warning you about texting).

When you come right down to it, I applaud Jay-Z for rejecting the Auto-Tune, both for the effect and for the correction of bad singing. It's fun to see these artists get angry and take a stand about something as controversial and timely as Auto-Tune.

Posted by James at 12:39 PM | Comments (2)

August 17, 2009

Terminating the In Laws

Over the weekend I decided to watch the film The In Laws with Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. The classic joke from this film is to shout "serpentine" in reference to a scene in which Falk is trying to instruct Arkin on how to avoid being shot by snipers. "Serpentine, Shel! Serpentine!"

Like other movies from the 70's (this one was released in '79) this film had a soundtrack that made me feel a bit dyspeptic. But that's not why I found the film, overall, to be less than compelling.

Older comedies quite often portray situations that are intended to be zany, and they would be pretty zany if they happened to you in real life. However, we are used to movie life being much more crazy and unbelievable. The expectations of a 2009 movie viewer are much higher.

For example, when cars are chasing each other around a dirt road, and do a lot of circling back around on each other, that would be funny if you were driving one of the cars. But watching it is just not as funny as, say, the car chase in The Blues Brothers in which the method of escape from a parking lot car chase is to drive right into the mall. Only one year later (1980) and The Blues Brothers ruined the car chase in The In Laws. Subsequent movies had had to meet or beat that difficult standard.

This is not to imply that all movies which have since been made have improved on their predecessors.

Speaking of standards, I saw a completely new movie which had none. It is called Terminators and it is a direct-to-DVD-and-SyFy-Channel ripoff of the Terminator series. It's not associated with the people who made the popular Terminator movies (and less popular but undeservedly canceled TV show) but it does steal most of its ideas from those films.

The amazing thing about this film is that it appears to have been stitched together from clips that were filmed before they had the plot worked out. Certain creative choices led me to this conclusion. For example, there were long shots of the cast having discussions about what to do next. You couldn't see any faces or lips moving, and the dialogue was looped over the footage. I assume that they just hadn't finished writing the dialogue when they were filming, and so they put shots like this in to fill in "plot." There were many scenes of arguing about things that had little to do with advancing the plot.

In some ways, this is an ingenious way to create a film. You can film the thing while you're still writing the script! Unfortunately, the product is completely unwatchable crap.

Posted by James at 11:14 AM | Comments (2)

August 14, 2009

Haptic Thingy

There are a lot of changes going on in my professional life. Some of them have to do with this:

Haptic Device

That's a haptic device. The word "haptic" refers to the sense of touch. The project I've been working on for over a decade is ending and I am transitioning to a project in which we explore the possible role of touch in math and science education.

Right now I'm just learning the API used to build 3D worlds and activities with this thing. Here's a sample in an annotated YouTube video. You won't be able to feel the cube in the video because you don't have a haptic device (plus -- it's just a video!) but you can see my first accomplishment. Thanks for the help, Ryan!

Posted by James at 4:43 PM | Comments (0)

August 11, 2009

Living Will Death Panels

Republicans have good ideas!

This won't come as a surprise to reasonable people, or supporters of the Republican party. But the form of some of the criticism of good Republican ideas may very well surprise you.

Medicare, a popular1, government-run health care program for senior citizens, does not cover living wills. A living will is a way for a person to assert how they want their care to be handled, should they be incapacitated and unable to express their opinion. This is nearly universally considered a good idea, and it has been official US government policy for the last 20 years or so to encourage people to create living wills.

Seniors who are already burdened by medical costs may not understand the options, may not want to deal with expenditures necessary, or may not have access to advice for creating living wills. So, Republicans (Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Representative Susan Collins of Maine) decided that health care reform should include support and funding for seniors to have voluntary access to consultation toward creating a living will. They'd be eligible for such assistance every 5 years (I suppose so you don't have people deciding they want a weekly visit from the consultant, and charging that to the government). Democrats agreed. So this became a big bi-partisan winning idea.

In the current uninformed climate where PR firms are highly paid by some of the largest and most profitable corporations in the country in order to make sure as little reform happens as possible (so as not to upset the gravy train) this passage int he bill gets twisted thusly:

Obama is going to send people to visit seniors every 5 years and force them to decide how they are going to die!

Nobody would believe that, though, right? Think again. It's all over right wing radio, email lists, and forums that this provision amounts to an effort to "kill granny." Or "throw momma from the train."

Well, but no actual prominent Republicans would believe this, right? Think again. Sarah Palin has recently been in the news for further distorting the bill by declaring:

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society,"

And so it becomes Obama's death panel.

But no actual prominent Republican with half a brain would believe this, right? Wrong. Newt Gingrich, long a source of policy for Republicans and considered to have a working cerebral cortex, refused to correct the record when George Stephanopoulos asked him what he thought about Palin's "death panel" quote. Gingrich dodged, changed the subject, brought up unrelated writings that are not in the bill. As George said "But it's not in the bill."

This isn't just some crazy fringe. This is a refusal by so-called conservatives to have a national debate on the merits. Regardless of what bloggers and other folks argue about, at the top level you should expect substantial debate. You're not getting that.

This is not a good faith discussion. This is political cover for frightening people to show up at town halls to add frightened citizens to the shills who organize rowdy opposition.

It's not that I think there aren't good faith objections and concerns. I think that it's fairly obvious that those concerns are back-burner to the real problem here. I have advice to Republicans:

Your ideas failed to win you the election. Distortions and yelling do not improve bad ideas. Get over it, get some better ideas and participate like adults.

If you are a Republican and you object to what I describe here, then we have a fundamental disagreement about the nature of a productive discussion. If you feel your ideas can stand on their merits, you need to be the ones to criticize absurd distortions like "death panels" by calling into your radio shows and correcting anyone who allows this ridiculousness to persist.

If, on the other hand, you think it's politically beneficial, then you're not a friend of the truth. And since the loudest voices are screaming that Obama and his supporters are socialists, they are hardly going to listen to the likes of me.

If you're upset that I'm talking above about Palin and Gingrich, neither of whom are elected officials, I do so because of their prominence in the conservative movement. Gingrich for his history, Palin for having been prematurely chosen to run for high office. Want elected officials? Here's John Boehner's opposition to giving seniors assistance in handling their care according to their wishes.

1. People who have actually experienced Medicare (i.e. government-subsidized healthcare) report greater satisfaction with it than do people on private insurance)

Posted by James at 12:31 PM | Comments (2)

August 9, 2009

The Hidden Goose in Simple Software

I saw a web comic recently that was labeled "Simplicity." It was Comic #26 from Eric Burke's Twittch.

Check it out before I ruin it for you, then come back. Are you back? OK.

It compares a typical Google interface, an Apple interface and "your company's application interface. Both Google and Apple offer simple interfaces. Yours is crazy complicated! Presumably, this is a worse interface.

Value judgments aside, a simple interface is easier to use if "use" is defined as "push the one available button." It may or may not do what you want it to do. If there is a chance it may not do what you want it to do, how is that a good interface, or a good tool?

The answer is that there is virtue in something being simple to operate, understandable, predictable, consistent, and good at what it does. If it also does something that a lot of people want, then it is likely to become a successful tool. Achieving this combination usually requires a strong vision of what the tool is. And a design flows from that. Questions about how it should work often go back to the vision.

Such a tool, successful or not, is usually subject to criticism ("It doesn't do what I expected/want it to do") and suggestion ("It would be great/so much more useful if it only allowed you to do this, perhaps with an option.") When these suggestions come from people who do not share the vision, or have a different vision, there is conflict.

It's that moment of conflict that can be a challenge for any software's vision, sending it down the path leading to possible software bloat.

I've worked in environments with and without that strong vision and I can say that the situation is much better for the developer and for the product with a strong vision and support from management to stick to the vision.

Another way to say this is "people who want to make everyone happy often make complex software that ultimately makes fewer people happy." It's ironic when giving in to suggestions in an effort to expand the usability of software and make more people happy has the opposite effect. But a simple tool that fulfills clear and simple expectations is a source of joy for users, and they will either get over the fact that it is missing features, or will move on to something else.

Feature creep is a little like ripping open the goose that laid the golden egg. The goose is the vision. There is a reward for sticking to what you've got rather than ripping apart your vision in search of more gold.

Posted by James at 12:44 PM | Comments (0)

August 7, 2009

Why So Angry?

We've disagreed in this country before. Where is the heated anger over health care reform coming from?

People are showing up at congressional town halls and shouting their representatives down, intimidating anyone who supports reform and even threatening the lives of people. They yell "THIS IS AMERICA!" yet they act like some mob from a third world country. What gives?

I think Paul Krugman's take sheds some light.

There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they "oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care." Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.

Now, people who don't know that Medicare is a government program probably aren't reacting to what President Obama is actually proposing. [...] the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that's behind the "birther" movement, which denies Mr. Obama's citizenship. Senator Dick Durbin has suggested that the birthers and the health care protesters are one and the same; we don't know how many of the protesters are birthers, but it wouldn't be surprising if it's a substantial fraction.

People who stand to gain from the current very expensive system are funding efforts to continue to whip up cultural and racial anxiety and bruised pride in the wake of the election. These are people who are sick of losing and they're doing something that Democrats didn't do after 2000 in Florida. They're mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore -- they'll turn to hooliganism.

Any they're proud of it; reason appears to be a tool of last resort when you're angry to some. I have corresponded with someone who did express pride in the shouting down of congressmen, who said that any tactics were OK as long as the "message got out there."

But what is that message, and can it effectively get out there by screaming?

The message, if you ask these people, is "NO!" It's "STOP OBAMA!" And, as you can see from the quote above, their reaction is not grounded in reason. And from people I've spoken to, they have no qualms telling you that they are not trying to convince you of anything. Reason doesn't enter into it. They want to show you their teeth and their anger; like a bully or a dog, they want to see you back down. Ever tried reasoning with a bully or a dog? You won't get far.

What does this mean for people who want to take a reasoned approach? Does it mean we're wasting our breath, constantly busy either being shouted down or trying to debunk lies of these culture warriors? I've heard credulous folks repeat the following lies in the last few days, completely without irony:

  • Obama's plan will kill old people.
  • Obama's plan will send government agents to people's homes to force old people to decide how they want to die.
  • Obama's plan outlaws private insurance.
  • Obama's plan outlaws new private insurance policies.
  • Obama is not a citizen.
  • Obama is asking people to report anyone who disagrees with him.

Confront people on any one of these and you will either get yelling, changing of the subject, or someone will attack you for believing the president (forget judging based on the facts, you're a robot if you agree with the president.) When you get an argument, the arguments are often a twisted parody of reason.

For example, the dishonest, slippery, craven version of "Obama is not a citizen" is "Obama has not been completely truthful with the American people; he hasn't released x." where "x" is some piece of documentation. The person you're arguing with either really believes Obama is not a citizen or really believes it's important to keep repeating this garbage because it confounds his supporters. It's hard to tell which. What you can tell is that these arguments usually start out bold and then lapse into cowardice or changing the subject.

I ran into another argument on Twitter (someone who I do not follow replied to my tweets) about the "outlawing private insurance" bullshit. When I was able to show that the plan does not outlaw insurance, we almost had a rational conversation. In the end, he suddenly took a detour into attacking immigrants. You see? All along we weren't really talking about health care. It was all about cultural and racial anxiety. Scratch the thin veneer of lies and it's lurking right beneath.

This is why I think Krugman is right. But what does that mean for passing this reform, and for the future of American political discourse?

Posted by James at 9:13 AM | Comments (9)

This is weird

I am really not sure why I have not been posting to my blog lately. But you and I have both noticed the drop-off in posts. Well, there's something to write about!

I've got some anxiety about the blog. I want to abandon my blogging software for newer software. This blogging software I'm using is annoyingly old. But any transition will cause some hiccups and disruption. It may well be that this recent drop in posts will encourage me that a little disruption is not so bad. But I hate working on blog layouts and the other BS that goes with that.

So... Facebook.

Yeah, I've been spending some time on Facebook. It's easy to get drawn into political discussions there because I can't help but post political stories (or comment on other people's political stories). And then it turns into a "thing." And I've had enough of "things." But I haven't had enough of expressing my opinion. So I am served a daily menu of arguments that have little chance of going anywhere. At least here on the blog I could sit back and let you guys argue when I got bored or busy. Social media has splintered attention and conversation. That's a bad thing for people who struggle with focus.

There are just too many places for me to open my big mouth.

Posted by James at 8:27 AM | Comments (0)