Sunday, March 30, 2008

POW: Cringely

Robert Cringely put out an excellent column on 3/21/08, the podcast is here.  The theme:  Society at large is only just beginning to adapt to the emergence of personal computing, and that changes to come will be greater then the ones we've already seen.  He picks on schools in particular as an institution destined to be radically altered in character and purpose.

The current educational system is designed to help children internalize knowledge, that is to learn.  Technology in this setting is a two edged sword- on the one hand it permits vast and cheap access to knowledge (Wikipedia).  It also permits vast and cheap plagiarism and cheating (Yahoo Answers).

Cringely poses the question:  Should schools be fighting such conduct?  Is knowing how to find an answer an adequate substitute for knowing the answer itself?  In an information economy the answer must be yes, and if so what then should educational institutions look like?

For a less pessimistic view of the future of education, see Brown and Duguid.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Walter Pincus Essay

Via DeLong, Here is an essay by Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus.  Much good stuff.  The nutshell thesis:  Modern journalists have shied away from the necessary and valid role they play in influencing the federal government.

Pincus attributes this phenomenon to the pursuit of objectivity, to the desire to stay above the conflict of ideas.  That may go a long way as explanation, but I'd throw in something else. 

It seems to me that people are extremely pessimistic about the capability and utility of the federal government.  There is a sense that the major social conflicts and tensions such as poverty, race relations, and terrorism cannot be solved or even improved by government.  The gospel of Reagan.  And if the government is going to get it wrong no matter what, then who cares what it does?  Maybe journalists trivialize politics because they cannot imagine it having more then trivial significance.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Scary Stuff

Via Marginal Revolution,

Wired has a choice article about an episode from early in Nixon's first term, wherein he tried to convince the Soviets that he was insane in order to end the Vietnam War.  The logic was that by convincing the Soviets that he was crazy enough to start a nuclear war, they would pressure Hanoi to fold.  And to convince the Soviets he was really crazy, he sent a squadron of B-52's loaded with nukes to skirt Soviet air defenses.

How many problems can you find in Nixon's thinking?  Try these:

  • Pressuring USSR equals pressuring North Korea.
  • Sending a squadron of bombers armed with nuclear weapons onto the edge of hostile airspace has no downside.
  • It is in the interest of the United States to have countries with massive nuclear forces convinced that our president is insane.

How many of these delusions are present in the thinking of George W. Bush?

  • Pressuring Destroying the government of Iraq pressures Al Qaeda.
  • Sending air craft carrier squadrons into the Persian Gulf skirting Iranian territory carries no downside.
  • It is in the interest of the United States to have the rest of the world convinced that our president is insane.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Good Krugman column

Paul Krugman has a good op-ed in the NY Times describing in broad terms the problems in the financial sector. The money quote:

We were partying like it was 1929 - and now it's 1930.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

POW: TWIT #134, how to build a better podcast

My podcast of the week is episode #134 of TWIT (This Week in Tech).  One of the guests was David Winer, one of the key architects behind RSS.  About 20 minutes in the guys get into a pretty good discussion of podcasts, and the shortfalls of their current use and user experience.

David notes that podcasts are heard primarily on personal MP3 players, which are designed around songs.  Songs differ from podcasts in a number of ways, principally that you typically only want to hear a podcast once and then get rid of it.  Songs are typically kept and reused, listening to them doesn't subtract from their value.  It got me thinking about ways the experience of hearing a podcast could be improved.

First, long podcasts need breaks.  TWIT has been running almost 90 minutes lately, I never listen to the whole thing at once.  Bookmarks allow me to stop and later re-start, but in doing so I lose something, I lose the context of the conversation.  It would be helpful as a listener to have 'producer' bookmarks, like a table of contents, to know where one section stops and another starts.  You could argue the solution is that I just pay more attention to the podcast.  After all, I can stop reading a book and generally pick it up later and still know what is going on, but that comparison is misleading.  The reality is that I almost always use podcasts as an audio background while I do something else (like I use radio).  That's in contrast to reading a book, in which reading is the primary activity and I actually try to minimize what is happening in the background.  By paying more attention while I read I absorb more, with podcasts I might pick up a few interesting facts but it's primary function is entertainment.  So to summarize, long podcasts are broken up by the listeners already, it would be helpful if the podcast producers took this into account and included their own bookmarks (and recorded with them in mind) to create more listener friendly breaks.

Second, we need a podcast player that recognizes the producer bookmarks and is able to automatically jump to new material.  I'm thinking of an application that can mimic radio- integrating podcast material, regular MP3 songs, and cut music/sounds to transition between the two.

Finally, there needs to be a better way to get advertising integrated.  Why not add commercial spots that could be fit into the producer bookmarks?  Current practice is to have podcasters plug their advertisers.  On TWIT for instance, they always talk up, typically mentioning a specific title they recommend.  Why not allow outside producers to make a spot to sub in?  I'd prefer to hear directly from the author of a book (or their representative) talk about why I should download their work, rather then hear Leo Laporte talk about it.  Podcasters could have parallel feeds- one with ads, one without, and let listeners choose which to subscribe to.  That way no disaffected fans.  I think there may even be a cottage industry in there- the podcast-advertisement, wherein content creators like authors or musicians have a minute or two to tell listeners why they should purchase the product. 

Why would I care about advertising?  Because I think podcasters should be able to make a living (and make more podcasts).  I'm thinking about Bob Packett selling T-Shirts or Reilly and Markham and coffee mugs.  How much more sense would it make for them to run spots with history books?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bad news?

from a Washington Post article last week:

As he was preparing to take command, Fallon said that a war with Iran "isn't going to happen on my watch," according to retired Army Col. Patrick Lang.

Lang, a former analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in an interview that he asked Fallon how he would avoid such a conflict. "I have options, you know," Fallon responded, which Lang interpreted as implying Fallon would step down rather than follow orders he considers mistaken.

From the Post today: Top Military Commander Resigns

This may or may not mean war with Iran is imminent. An alternative explanation is that Esquire published an article last week that flattered Fallon at the expense of the administration. Fallon could have been canned because he committed the unforgivable (the only unforgivable in this administration)- making Bush look bad.

Either way, the canary in the coal mine just died.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Off the Record

Here is a critique of a critique dealing with the quote that got Obama aide Samantha Power canned. Greenwald breathes fire because American journalists tend to give more room to interviewees when it comes to declaring 'off the record' then British journalists.

Boiled down, the question is who has the power to decide what is off the record? The British style clearly assigns the right to the journalist, an interviewee may offer a comment with the condition that it not be quoted, the interviewer can accept or reject the condition and the interviewee responds accordingly. The American style seems to assign the right of determination to the interviewee. The interview is conducted with interviewee indicating as they go what is off the record or on, and the journalist just follows their instructions.

That's a pretty big difference in relative power. Has it always been this way?

Friday, March 7, 2008