Thursday, December 29, 2011

Is fair use moot in the Internet era?

Today's New York Times has an excellent article on a case in which the court ruled that artist Richard Prince had broken the law by using photographs from a book about Rastafarians in a collage without permission.

The article (and its enlightening comments) goes well beyond this case. It examines the notion of "fair use" of copyrighted material, in which the result transforms the thing used, adding value to the original and culturally enriching society.

But, cultural enrichment is in the eye of the beholder.

Do you think Stephanie Lenz should pay the musician Prince a royalty because his song "Let's Go Crazy" is playing in the background of this video of her baby?

U.S. Federal District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel answered "no" and the video was restored to YouTube.

That case is pretty blatant -- it did not cost Prince sales and was not intended for the same audience as his recording. But, how about this case -- do you think 2 Live Crew should reimburse Roy Orbison for their sampling of his song "Oh Pretty Woman?"

The Supreme Court decided in favor of 2 Live Crew, ruling that their recording was a parody of Orbison's and was aimed at a different audience.

Regardless of your viewpoint on any of these cases, it is clear that there can be no definition of "fair use" that will satisfy everyone. Indeed, the whole thing may be moot in the Internet era. Do you really expect me to contact the copyright holder and get permission before I use an image I find using Bing or Google to illustrate a blog post?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

I cut the cord -- no more cable TV

In this video, Verizon tells us the future of home video will be a wireless LAN connecting our TV sets and other devices to a Verizon FiOS server:

I agree that we will be distributing video around our homes on LANs, but don't expect mine to be connected to a FiOS server. For a start, Verizon does not offer FiOS in my neighborhood and from what I hear and read, they have no plans to do so.

Moreover, if they eventually do offer me FiOS, I suspect that it will be expensive and I will have to purchase a bundle of video "service" -- forcing me to pay for a lot of channels that I will never watch.

But, I don't want video service from Verizon, I just want bits.

I want my home LAN to be connected to the Internet (by Verizon or any other ISP), allowing me to watch ala carte IP video.

I've taken my first step in that direction. I “cut the cord" -- dropping our cable TV service and connecting our TV sets to our home LAN using Roku boxes. We (just barely) get local channels over the air using rabbit-ear antennas.

This set up and the available content is far from perfect, but it is my first step toward unbundled IP video.

Have you cut the cord? How do you like it?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Recommended podcast: Interpreting the Constitution in the digital era

Jeffrey Rosen asks "Can the police, without a warrant, put a secret GPS device on the bottom of someone's car and track him 24/7 for a month?"

If you are interested in legal and moral issues of privacy and autonomy, you will like Terry Gross' interview of George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen, who is co-editor of a new book called Constitution 3.0 Freedom and Technological Change.

In this NPR interview, Rosen says that information technologies are "challenging our Constitutional categories in really dramatic ways" and that "none of the existing amendments give clear answers to the most basic questions we're having today." He discusses both current cases with today's technology and speculates on information and biological technology that may become available in the future and raise even thorniner problems.

The interview is 36 minutes 33 seconds, and you can stream or download it or read the transcript here.

Monday, December 26, 2011

James Fallows -- what happens when six years of Gmail is hacked and deleted?

James Fallows is a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, who, in addition to award winning coverage of national and foreign affairs, has been using and writing about information technology for thirty years. (Check this 1982 article on WordStar and what word processing meant to a journalist).

This month in the Atlantic, Fallows recounts the hacking of his wife's Gmail account and the way Google dealt with it.

Everyone in her address book got one of those "I was mugged while in Madrid, please send money" messages and all of her email was deleted. After the account was restored, Fallows visited Google and interviewed security folks there. Here is one quote from the article:
At Google I asked Byrant Gehring, of Gmail’s consumer-operations team, how often attacks occur. "Probably in the low thousands," he said. "Per month?," I asked. "No, per day."
That should get your attention.

I recommend this article -- it is a harrowing story with some practical tips.

It is also a good introduction to James Fallows. If you have not read him, you should.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Data mining for science and marketing

Researchers at Google and the U. S. Centers for Disease Control discovered a correlation between an index they compiled based on health related search terms and the incidence of flu recorded by the CDC.

Vicks has taken it a step further by sending ads for a safe home thermometer to mothers in high flu regions of the country. The ads offer the thermometer and give the location of nearby stores that carry it.

Is this a spooky invasion of privacy or targeted delivery of relevant information?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Video chat and the family

The New York times has an article on the way video chat is reshaping domestic rituals like holiday parties and birth announcements. (Skype video chat averages 300 million minutes per day).

It can also reshape every day life. My wife is Chilean and chats with siblings or her mother in Santiago every day. Here you see her talking with her sister Anita, Note that they use both iPads and Skype while they are talking.

She and Anita often chat twice a day and it can easily be for more than an hour. I doubt that they would see each other that much if they were both living in Santiago.

When my grandparents came to the US from Europe, they knew they would never see the people they were leaving behind again. Times have changed.

Monday, December 19, 2011

MIT's online classes will be different than Stanford's

MIT will follow Stanford's lead in offering online classes starting in the spring of 2012. They have not yet decided which classes they will pilot, but the courses will be free and open to all.

Stanford University is already offering three free computer science courses online this term. Stanford's classes are synchronized with on-campus sections and use short presentations punctuated by frequent questioning.

Stanford seems to be sticking closer to the traditional classroom structure and pace than MIT. MIT's press release promises self-paced instruction, interactive, online laboratories, and student-to-student communication. They are building an open source platform for their courses, which other schools will be able to use for their own online offerings.

Neither university will give online students credit, but both will offer certification for the successful completion of a class. MIT students will have the option of paying a small fee for assessment and certification, done by an independent organization in order to avoid confusion with MIT itself. Stanford students can do the same assignments and take the same quizzes and exams as regularly enrolled students, and can get a certificate showing how well they did relative to the rest of the students.

Both schools will study and evaluate their online classes, and Stanford, MIT and the rest of us will learn a lot about procedures and delivery platforms for online education.

(The New York Times covered the MIT announcement).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Louis CK goes direct to the consumer on the Internet

Comedian Louis CK is distributing a high quality, DRM-free recording of a recent concert on the Internet.

After four days, he has sold 110,000 copies at $5 each

After deducting production, Web site and transaction costs, he has a profit of around $200,000 (so far). He says that is less than he would have made had a large record company produced the video, but the public is getting more this way:
  • They are paying $5, not $20 for a CD.
  • They can make all the copies they want to.
  • They can watch it on any device they have access to.
  • It is not restricted internationally.
  • The record company does not have their personal information for marketing purposes.
There has been some piracy -- you can get it for free using Bit Torrent -- but clearly many people prefer the convenience and karma of a purchase. Louis CK points out that the concert is all new material, which to him is life-and-death intellectual property, and he reserves the right to go back to a record company in the future. I hope he doesn't.

<aside to Louis>
Louis, don't forget that this is only the first four days of sales. You have also gotten a ton of favorable publicity -- I must admit that I had never even heard of you before this and now I am going to buy the video. You also learned a lot about producing concert videos and Internet marketing, so you will have better margins on the next one.
</aside to Louis>

This is a cool example of Internet going around the (fat) middle man. Even if you don't buy the video, you should read Louis CK's insightful, humorous summary of the deal.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kickstarter -- "wisdom of the crowds" project funding -- like the Altair

Kickstarter is a Web platform for funding projects in music, film, art, technology, design, food, publishing and other creative fields. People post project proposals on the Kickstarter Web site along with a financial goal. The public is invited to pledge financing for the project, and Kickstarter holds the pledges in escrow until the goal is reached.

The funds are only collected if the project meets its financial goal within a set time.

The folks who pledge funds do not get equity in the project, like a venture capitalist would, but they can get perqs like T-shirts or products, depending upon how much they pledge.

For example, I recently wrote a short post on a Kickstarter proposal for the TouchFire keyoard overlay, which claims it will improve touch typing on the iPad. Folks who pledged could either make a small contribution to encourage the idea or pledge more to get a T-shirt or purchase a TouchFire from the first production run.

TouchFire set a fund raising goal of only $10,000, and 3,146 people pledged $201,400 -- twenty times their funding target. (Since it was oversubscribed, the first production run is sold out, but you can place an order for one from the next batch at
Kickstarter is a cool “wisdom of the crowd” way to raise capital, and the crowd seems to like this idea.

People also like the idea of Kickstarter. As of October 11, over a million people had backed projects, 166,823 of those had backed more than one, and they had pledged over 100 million dollars. To put that in context, the 2011 fiscal year budget for the National Endowment for the Arts is $154 million.
Kickstarter reminids me of the MITS Altair -- the first mass market hobbyist PC. MITS was a near-broke calculator company when they brought out Altair kits, which were featured on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics magazine. MITS financed the kits by asking for payment in full at the time you placed your order. I guess they cashed the checks, bought the parts, stuffed them in baggies and sent them out.

I sent my check and got my kit. There was no Kickstarter process to hold our checks in escrow, we were enthused about the Altair and trusted MITS. Those were different times.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

iPad WiFi is poor

My wife just got an iPad – the first tablet in our house.  It was not easy to get it away from her, but last night I managed to take the iPad to bed.  I was expecting an insanely great experience, but my first impression was that network access was slow and flaky.

To test my impression, I compared it to a Dell Precision laptop.  First, I pinged UCLA, a nearby university, 100 times using both the laptop and the iPad.  The average ping time for iPad was 63.7 milliseconds, over twice that of the Dell, and the standard deviation four times as great.  No wonder it seemed flaky.

  Dell iPad
Minimum 18 22.7
Maximum 120 231.9
Mean 30.2 63.7
Standard deviation 14.9 64.8
Next I tested file transfer times (Mb/s), and the laptop was faster:
  Dell iPad
Upload 6.29 1.77
Download 1.83 .17
That was no surprise given the variability in ping times. It doesn't look like I'll be making a lot of Skype calls or watching movies in bed.

My bedroom is at the back of the house, so I checked the signal strength. As shown below, it dropped to around -65 db as I walked from the office, where the WiFi access point is located, to the bedroom.

WiFi signal strength dropped as I walked from the access point to the bedroom.

The laptop is not perfect in the bedroom -- it does better when it is near the access point, but its radio is clearly more sensitive than that of the iPad. iPad Wifi is more like that of a netbook than a laptop.

I measured iPad ping time using Typhuun System Scope Lite, the transfer rate using and the signal strength with Metageek Inssider.

A reader pointed out that the results were affected by my pinging UCLA, which introduced Internet and server variability into the test. I repeated the test, pinging a machine within my house and found the following:

Dell: minimum 1, maximum 90, mean 5.96, standard deviation 12.6 with zero dropped packets (1 sec timeout)
iPad: minimum 5.04, maximum 202.02, mean 18.56, standard deviation 32.49 with 8 dropped packets (1 sec timeout)

Not surprisingly, the iPad remains relatively poor.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Is speech recognition finally going to catch on with Siri?

Everyone agrees that some day we will be talking to our computers -- dictating memos, asking questions, giving commands, etc. The catch is that "some day" seems to be always five or ten years in the future.

People have been working on speech recogntion for a long time. My first exposure was a demonstration of Shoebox, a calculator with speech input, at the IBM pavillion at the 1964 World Fair. In spite of years of research and hacking, speech recognition has remained niche technology.

Have we finally seen the start of practical, ubiquitous speech recognition with Apple's Siri? Maybe.

Siri has a lot of infrastructure support that earlier speech recognition systems lacked. It sends the speech back to a server for recognition and that server has assimilated clues from massive amounts of data on speech patterns. Once recognized, it relies on other services for search and to look for answers to questions. If you ask how far it is from Los Angeles to New York, it will go to WolframAlpha for the answer. Ask it where to get Indian food in your neighborhood and it will go to Yelp. (What will Apple do if you ask where to find bomb-making instructions or dirty pictures)?

Google seems to have the recognition part down, but may be playing catch up with input parsing and answer retrieval.

In spite of Apple's secrecy, Siri has attracted a hobbyist following. Check out this video of a hobbyist using Siri to control lights and other things in a room.

The developer of that app had to jump through hoops using SiriProxy to get it to work. Here's hoping Apple provides tools to encourage this sort of thing -- that might be what it takes to finally get speech recognition off the ground.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A "post Gutenberg" e-text for biology 101

In earlier posts, I talked about an electronic text Nature would publish this fall. I suggested that it was a noteworthy departure from the established textbook format and business model -- perhaps the first "post Gutenberg" text.

The etext is out now and being used on some campuses. I've had a chance to play around with it, and remain impressed. Here is what I've seen.

The professor creates a "classroom" like the one shown here. The classroom is personalized with her name and photo and an announcement welcoming the students to the class.

Click to enlarge

The classroom also contains the material she selected to include in the course. The material is organized into units, each of which contains several modules. In this example, she included four modules in the Introduction unit. She could also have included other material like summaries of and links to primary literature, and supporting topics like lab skills or hypothesis formation and data analysis.

Clicking on "textbook" takes us to the etext itself. I put quotes around textbook, because this is not a PDF-like reproduction of a typical textbook. It is not even a "book." It is a collection of 196 modules.

Each module begins with an introduction, listing the topics covered and the skills or learning objectives it teaches and concludes with a summary, which refers back to the topics and skills. Modules also have associated multiple choice quizzes. That is pretty standard textbook fare, but the teaching "pages" covering the material are not.

I've put the word page in quotes because these are not what we think of as pages. For a start, they vary in length and are significantly longer than typical book pages. Lets look at a sample page.

The page I picked is 17 screens long on my laptop. In addition to text, it contains 13 figures, a table and six test your knowledge questions. (The page I picked did not include any animations or videos, but others do).

As shown here, the figures are like those found in Scientific American Magazine -- high quality images with relatively long captions so they can stand on their own. (Nature and Scientific American are both MacMillan Publising companies).

The page I selected contained six open-ended knowledge test questions. After reading the question, the student submits then a suggested answer is displayed. This example shows a question, my answer and the suggested answer. These are not graded or reported to the professor -- they are food for thought.

The pages also include links to supplementary material like essays on the importance of this particular topic and primary references in a narrow, right hand column. The essays on the importance of a topic are written by practicing scientists and are comparable in format and quality to the text pages. The primary references include both summaries and links to the journal articles, and there are roughly 100 all together.

Modules also include multiple choice quizzes. The first time a student takes a quiz, the results are reported to the professor, but they can re-take the quiz as often as they wish. The professor has tools to analyze the quiz data, for example comparing the scores of a particular student to the class as a whole and, most interestingly, to other classes around the world which use this text. My guess is that we will see more analytic tools in the future -- perhaps one day giving very specific feedback to students.

As you see at the top of the screenshot, the classroom also contains links to a threaded discussion, grade book, and teaching resources, which include PowerPoint slides for all of the figures, a list of all the primary sources, and 2,000 test questions.

We have been talking about the professor's view of the classroom. The student view is somewhat different. They have access to flash cards and cheat sheets for each module. They can take notes while they study, and aggregate those annotations into a single study guide for the module. They can also hide or display their notes while reading.

The professor can see a student's annotations, but, at this time, there is no ability for students to share them among themselves. Students expect social networking these days, so my guess is that Nature will probably build support for study groups and sharing notes in future etexts.

The modular structure and content of this etext is different than a traditional etext and so is Nature's business model. Traditional textbooks are written by one or a small group of authors who write the entire book and receive royalties. By contrast, Nature has contracted with teachers and scientists to write specific modules and supplementary essays for a fee.

The payment model is also different. Traditional textbook publishers bring out new every two or three years to create demand for new books instead of used or rented books. Alternatively, they offer access to an electronic version for a limited time.

Nature has a different model. The student pays $49, which includes lifetime access to the material. Nature is committed to making continuous updates as the science and pedagogy change. The student gets a subscription, not a book. The $49 price is less than that of a typical print or electronic textbook, but every student in a class must subscribe. It seems to me that this would be attractive to the general public as well as enrolled students.

I don't know Nature's costs and revenues, but, since fewer than half of the students taking a class today purchase a new book, this subscription model might be more profitable than selling books. If this model catches on, it will hurt the used book, college book store and book rental (hard copy or electronic) businesses.

The reader does not have to download and install a program to use the book. The book is published in HTML and CSS, so it can be used with any modern Web browser. The server automatically detects the size and resolution of a user's display and delivers appropriate content. That allows students to use laptops, desktops, tablets, etc., but imposes extra cost on Nature -- they have to prepare around twenty different versions of each piece of art.

Gutenberg would not recognize today's books. About fifty years after Gutenberg, Aldus made signficant changes in typography, book size and production and the publishing business model. But Aldus would not recognize today's books either. Things like paragraphs, punctuation characters, chapters, indices, and tables of contents would seem to be radical innovations.

Nature has gone beyond the traditional ebook with this text, but, as with Aldus, I think this is just the first step.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Recommended podcast: State for Sale

I just listened to a Terry Gross interview of Jane Mayer on her New Yorker article "State for Sale," in which she describes project Red Map, which has the goal of winning control of state legislatures by conservative Republicans. Mayer's article and the interview focus on one state, North Carolina, because it is an important swing state and provides an example of Red Map in action.

She reports that foundations controlled by Art Pope, a discount-store multimillionaire, have spent $35 million pushing a far-right political agenda in North Carolina during the last decade. In 2010, they spent $2.2 million on state legislature elections, defeating 18 of 22 targeted democrats. Republicans now control both both North Carolina legislative houses for the first time since 1870.

There is a lot more in the podcast. For example, Mayer discusses the collaboration between Pope and the Koch brothers, backers of the Tea Party movement, the impact of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling on large, tax-decutible political contributions, and the critical role of state legislatures in Congressional re-districting.

The interview reminded me of an earlier post on James Allworth's Harvard Business Review post suggesting that we may have to choose choose between democracy and captialism and a quote by Supreme Court Judge Louis Brandeis, who stated that "We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."

It is also noteworthy that Creative Commons founder Larry Lessig, who has shifted his interest from Internet copyright reform to campaign finance reform, offers an antidote to concentrated political influence in his new book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress -- and a Plan to Stop It, which is reviewed here.

I feel a little guilty about recommending an explicitly political podcast, but there is a connection between Red Map and the anti-competitive political efforts by large Internet service providers. For example, I doubt that new North Carolina legislature will be supportive of efforts at municipal ownership of local backbones.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Irony: Perhaps the Chinese can bring competition to the US wireless market

The US Congress tried unsuccessfully to introduce competition into our telecommunication industry with the passage of the 1996 Telecommunication Act. Congress and the FCC were no match for the incumbent telephone companies with their lobbyists and legal staffs, and their efforts were defeated.

Might the Chinese have a better chance than the US Congress and FCC?

China Telecom intends to enter the US market as a "virtual" mobile network operator. They will partner with a US carrier and plan to sell handsets and services to Chinese Americans and to students and tourists who travel regularly between the US and China.

Donald Tan, president of China Telecom Americas, said they may even consider building or buying their own wireless network in the US -- "If the service is growing fast, maybe we can set up our own infrastructure. The money is no big problem for us."

Of course bastions of capitalism like AT&T and Verizon will do their best to stop Chinese competition. This was foreshadowed last month, when the US Department of Commerce excluded Huawei from bidding on a national emergency network project.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Cool historic Usenet posts

Usenet News, is a threaded discussion application that started in 1980, long before today's Web-based threaded discussion forums. Usenet news groups circulated globally and covered many technical and non-technical topics.

Google has archived over 800 million Usenet posts in Google Groups. You can search through them here.

They have also pulled together a timeline listing important Internet-related posts from 1981 to 2001.

For example, this is the post where Tim Berners-Lee announced the Web and invited people to download the "very alpha" software and try it out.

The Usenet map shown here was made by Brian Reid in May, 1993. He estimated that around 87,000 sites with some 2.6 million users were exchanging Usenet news at that time.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Energy and Emergy of the Internet

(To find out what "emergy" is, you have to read the rest of this post).

Google and other operators of huge data centers spend a lot of money on power, which leads them to locate server farms near sources of cheap, renewable energy, frequently near rivers in rural areas.

Two recent news items, one on Facebook's planned data center near the arctic circle and a study of the energy and emergy of the Internet remind us that the Internet consumes a lot of energy.

Facebook announced plans to build a server farm in LuleƄ Sweden, about 100 kilometers from the Arctic Circle. They will benefit from low cost electricity generated by dams on the LuleƄ river and from savings in cooling. The average temperature is around 2 degrees centigrate, which will enable them air cool the datacenter, which will consume enough power to run about 50,000 houses.

Powering data centers and the computers and devices that use them is only about half the story according to a recent study by Barath Raghavan and Justin Ma. We must also consider embodied energy (emergy) — the energy used in making the devices and infrastructure that make up the Internet. They remind us that we can save energy by extending the life of our computers and smart phones as well as by reducing operating power.

Taking both energy and emergy into account, Raghavan and Ma estimate that the Interent consumes between 1.1 and 1.9% of the 16 TW used by humanity. That is a lot less than we devote to transportation, so we will still be ahead if we can subsitute communication for transportation.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Two studies of concentration of power -- government and industry

A study of the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations has identified a relatively small group, including many banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy.

(Study details are available in this paper).

The image shown here (click to enlarge) represents the 1,318 transnational corporations that form the core of the economy. Superconnected companies are red and very connected companies yellow. The size of the dot represents revenue. Each of the 1,318 had ties to two or more other companies, and on average they were connected to 20. The anlysis revealed that 147 even more tightly knit companies controlled 40 percent of the 43,000 corporations analyzed.

Characterizing the concentration of power in this way is time timely in light of the recent "occupy Wall Street" demonstrations, and provides background for James Allworth's suggestion that we may be facing a choice between capitalism and democracy.

This sort of concentration is worrisome from the standpoint of stability as well as equity. What is the effect of the failure of one of a limited number of large entities -- like banks that are "too big to be allowed to fail?" Note that the database used in the study was compiled in 2007, so it does not refelct changes that have occured during the current economic crisis.

This study reminds me of another case of concentration of control. Around ten years ago, I worked on a study of the state of the Internet in Singapore for the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). I noted at the time that the government played a central role there. They picked critical areas of the economy -- oil, shipping, banking, information technology, biotechnology -- and acted as a heavy-handed venture capitalist. With the help of my nephew, who was working for Goldman Sachs in Singapore, I put together this diagram showing government ownership in the telephone and ISP industries.
The government was not a passive investor. They hired the best and the brightest coming out of the universities. They created some of the earliest strategic IT forecasts and plans, which were put into effect through significant investment. (The best and the brightest avoid government in the US, but that has not always been the case).

This approach has served Singapore well. Today, they are ranked 19th in the world on the ITU ICT Development Index. The top twenty nations all have powerful governments -- most would be considered socialist failures in tea party circles.

We've seen two studies of the concentration of power -- one in the hands of business, the other government. No study or theory will ever be able to fully comprehend anything as complex as an economy or an industry, but these cases indicate that government has a place in ensuring stability and encouraging the development of infrastructure.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Draft of IT literacy paper

I just posted the draft of a paper called IT literacy – evolution, curriculum and a modular e-text.

In the paper, I review the evolution of the IT literacy course from the 1960s to today, then describe my Internet-era curriculum and the modular e-text (currently 104 modules) I am developing to teach it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

TeleGeography’s interactive submarine cable map

I love things like TeleGeography’s interactive submarine cable map.

You can zoom and scroll and click on the map for descriptions of the cables or search their cable database.

It is an anatomy diagram for the global nervous system with us as neurons.

Compare that to this map of the NSFNet in 1986:

(Those are 64kbs links).

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Worries about OpenClass -- a new learning management system from Google and Pearson

Google and Pearson, a large textbook and etext publisher, are joining forces to offer a free learning management system (LMS) called OpenClass. OpenClass will be competition for Blackboard since it will be free, and, given the skills and resources of Google and Pearson, well done. It will also compete with Moodle, which is open source, but requires a significant staff committment to run.

That is the good news for OpenClass. The bad news for OpenClass is that the LMS market is not competitve -- it is dominated by Blackboard, Moodle and a few less popular LMSs.

Even if OpenClass is better than Blackboard and Moodle -- "open and not clunky" as they claim on their Web site -- it will take time to become a major player because we are locked into current LMSs by the material we have created, the training our students and staff have accumulated, and the systems we have built around them.

Do you use an LMS on your campus? If so, how many students and faculty know how to use it? Do students expect it to be used in a class? Have faculty invested in material that is now loaded into the LMS? Do they use it to automate testing and grading? Is it integrated with student records applications and the textbooks faculty adopt?

Don't get me wrong -- this is not a defense of the current LMSs. My campus uses Blackboard, but it is way too "clunky and closed" for me to use. I am just saying that it will be hard to displace even if OpenClass is superior.

Don't get me wrong on that either. I am not enthusiastic about OpenClass. For a start, I worry that it will favor Google Apps and Pearson teaching material. More important, I worry about the pedagogical impact of any LMS. If OpenClass were to become dominant, would it push us to teach within the confines of the OpenClass LMS -- a Procrustean fit?

On my campus today, on-line education is synonymous with Blackboard. We are in the very early stages of networked education and educational technology. It is too early for such standardization.

Don't get me wrong one last time. I believe the folks working on OpenClass at Google and Pearson are smart and mean well. I just wished they worked for a small startup that did not have such deep pockets.

For more discussion see:
Google Plus discussion
Chronicle of Higher Education discussion
Pearson announcement

Sunday, October 16, 2011

New IT literacy teaching modules

I've recently posted or revised 12 IT literacy teaching modules:
This brings the total to 102 modules. Each module has an annotated PowerPoint presentation and assignment, and many have videos, transcripts and other components. (I am adding them as quickly as possible).

Perhaps you can use one or more in a class or for self study. You can see how the modules are structured here and browse through them and here. You can also subscribe to announcements of future modules.

Friday, October 07, 2011

More on massive, open, online classes (MOOCs)

I recently wrote a post on the mother of all MOOCs, the computer science classes getting under way at Stanford this week.

If you found that interesting, check out this podcast interview of George Siemens, who leads Athabasca University’s Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute.

Siemens is a MOOC practitioner and researcher. His classes have enrollments in the thousands, and he handles the large number by decentralizing -- encouraging students to help each other and form study and discussion groups using whichever social media tools they prefer, He is distributing the teaching responsibility to the network as a whole.

Siemens does not suggest that he has found the optimal model -- he is experimenting. He says "we need to tweak or in some cases completely remodel the university system," and he is trying to learn what works and what doesn't.

One thing is for sure -- there is no single answer. What works for a math course may not work for a literature course and what works for an upper division course may not work for a lower division course.

This interview is the latest installment of a monthly educational technology podcast from the Chronicle of Higher Education. I'd recommend checking that out too.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Open online classes starting soon at Stanford – 130,000 students in one class

Stanford's experiment with free, online classes for thousands of students is getting under way. They are offering online sections of three undergraduate computer science courses:  Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Databases.

The classes are organized around blogs, as shown here. The lectures, assignments, exams, forums, course materials, quick guides to software and optional exercises are the same whether you are online or on campus.

I took a similarly open course a few years ago from the Harvard Law School. There were three groups of students -- regular law students on campus, an extension class, which met in Second Life, and an open section for those listening to podcasts. I was in the third group, and enjoyed it very much.

The Stanford class is more highly structured and the experience of the online students will be closer to that of the on-campus students than was the case at Harvard. Also, Stanford's online students will receive a certificate of completion, showing their relative rank in the class if they complete the full course.  There was neither social media support nor formal feedback at Harvard.

Others who have offered massive, open online courses (MOOCs) are generally positive, but they report some problems with privacy and spamming and rude behavior.  Since Stanford will allow open students to take exams and do assignments, there is also the possibility of cheating. (When you enroll, you agree to abide by an honor code).

The Stanford courses are unique in several ways. They are large.  The AI class has over 130.000 students from 190 countries.  Stanford will grade and rank open students who choose to be graded. Most earlier MOOCs have been on educational technology, but these are standard academic courses offered by well-known experts in their fields. They will also be using newly developed tools. The AI course is offered in partnership with a start-up called Know Labs, but, for now, there is no information about their tools on their Web site.

This is a bold experiment -- what are the implications for future undergraduate education if these and other experiments with MOOCs succeed?

For links to and discussion of other MOOCs:

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The impact of online sales tax

It seems that Amazon will be collecting tax on California sales in a year, and I expect that to become the national norm. What might the impact of the tax be?

The US Department of Commerce estimated that online shoppers spent $165.4 billion in 2010 and Vertex Inc. estimated the average state tax rate as 5.5224% during the first nine months of 2010. That says states are losing around $9.13 billion annualy in Internet sales tax.

That may be a small portion of our 14.7 trillion dollar GNP, but it would pay the salaries of a lot of state workers (especially professors :-), which would help the economy and make a lot of people happy.

But, aren't sales taxes regressive, taking a bigger percent of a poor person's income than a rich person's? For sure.

If it were up to me, I would raise revenue with a progressive tax that came out of the pockets of those better able to pay (like me) and corporations that take advantage of unreasonable loopholes..

But we are talking about sales tax, and my guess is that a sales tax on Internet purchases is relatively fair -- less regressive than general sales tax. Online shoppers tend to be relatively well off. They have computers, broadband connections to the Internet, credit cards, can accept daytime deliveries, etc.

We need emperical data on this question -- it would make a good thesis or dissertation if economists have not already studied it.

On balance, I favor taxing online sales, but if it turned out to be as regressive as our general sales tax, I would probably change my mind.

Regressive taxes are a bad idea for a couple of reasons. Most directly, they make the lives of poor people -- little kids and adults -- less happy. But they also reinforce the growing economic inequality in the United States.

What do
Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Haiti, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Paraguay, El Salvador, Chile, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Zambia, Niger, Swaziland, Gambia, Zimbabwe, Dominican Republic, Peru, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Costa Rica, Singapore, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nepal, Uruguay, Ecuador, Rwanda, Philippines, Uganda, and Jamaica
have in common?

According to the CIA World Factbook, they are the only nations with higher GINI coefficients than the United States, suggesting that their income inequality is even greater than ours. That is not very good company, and it does not make for a comfortable, sustainable place to live.

California's Internet sales tax will reshape retail

Amazon VP Paul Misener
Two months ago, the California legislature passed a law requiring Amazon to collect sales tax, and Amazon retaliated by starting a state referendum drive to repeal the law and dumping thousands of California-based affiliates. Now, it seems a settlement has been reached in this battle. It's been reported that Amazon will drop its referendum drive in return for a one year moratorium on collecting sales tax.

If you live in California, your Amazon purchases will remain tax-free for the next year, but will be taxed after that.

That will help the state budget. Amazon VP for global public policy Paul Misener said that Amazon would also "welcome back tens of thousands of California-based advertising affiliates," which means yet more tax revenue for the state.

I favored and predicted this outcome, but did not expect it to be settled so quickly. My guess is that other states will follow suit -- California is large and influential and thirteen other states are already in conflict with them over tax collection. The New York Times has also reported on Amazon's tax problems in other states.

In a comment on a previous post, Shava Nerad, suggested that the mechanics of tax collection from 50 states with different rates, forms and procedures would create a record keeping nightmare. She worried that confusion over forms and procedure would drive thousands of small mail order and catalog companies out of business.

The one year moratorium gives online retailers and states time to work out uniform, simple forms and procedures for tax computation and reporting. It seems that Amazon wants to work out such a solution. Misener says they will "work with Congress and the states to obtain a federal resolution to the sales tax issue as soon as possible."

Amazon should take the lead in designing the system. They have a large stake in having it be simple and smooth, and they have been running a complex online service since the mid-1990s. It sounds like a good Amazon Web Services application to me.

The implications of this compromise go beyond California. It tips the on-line/storefront balance, and will impact retail business throughout the nation. We might even see some Amazon stores.

Friday, September 16, 2011

US Ignite -- can the US develop innovative applications for the coming gigabit network?

In 1986, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) linked a few universities, creating a national network. The initial 56k bps links shown here were soon upgraded to T1s, and people began using applications like email, file transfer and threaded discussion..

As networks spread and increased in speed, new applications were invented. The majority of those applications were developed in the US, because we had more people using state of the art networks than other nations. Most international traffic came to the NSF backbone, where it was terminated or passed through to another nation.

But our infrastructure and connectivity lead has eroded, leaving us a typical developed nation, no longer outstanding. Nations with wide spread high-speed networks are likely to develop applications for the future.

Is there a way for us to regain momentum as we enter the gigabit era? Some US universities and cities and companies like Google have already moved in that direction. Universities are experimenting with high-speed networks and Google is connecting a few cities, but, can those efforts be connected and scaled up?

NSF hopes so. They want to connect the experimental gigabit networks at various universities and cities together to create a large enough user base to justify and spur application innovation.

The USIgnite effort is just getting off the ground -- they are now soliciting white papers and will soon hold a workshop.

For a discussion of US Ignite, check this post on Google Plus.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Amazon offers California a sales tax compromise

Two months ago, the California Legislature passed a law requiring Amazon to collect sales tax. Amazon refused, dumped all its California affiliate stores (costing the state tax revenue), claimed they were not operating in California and started a petition campaign for a ballot measure to overturn the law. In the meantime, they are not collecting tax, and when the measure qualifies for the ballot, the law will be temporarily suspended.

Now Amazon has offered to build two warehouses in California and hire 7,000 workers if the legislature will put the issue off for a few years. (Does the 7,000 include the affiliates they cut off or would it be the reinstated affiliates plus 7,000)?

I live in California and love it that Amazon is tax free -- often choosing them over another store for just that reason. Regardless, I think they should drop the referendum and start collecting sales tax and I predict they eventually will have to.

Here are a few reasons why (in no particular order):

  • Amazon asserts that an online sales tax would cost California jobs. I find their faith in low taxes as an economic silver bullet reminiscent of the Tea Party. It will cost some jobs and pay to create or maintain some others. No one knows the net change.
  • The California Retailers Association (Walmart, Barnes and Noble, etc.) says Amazon's refusal to collect sales tax cost California over 18,000 jobs and a $4.1-billion loss in sales resulting in over $7 billion in lost economic activity in 2010. I trust their figures about as much as I trust that Amazon gives a hoot about California jobs.
  • California loses jobs when consumers pay higher taxes and when Amazon affiliates are zapped, but we also lose jobs with the bankruptcy of Amazon competitors like Circuit City and Borders Books. The same goes for laying off teachers, state employees, and others.
  • I believe California needs added revenue and am willing to pay my share.
  • I worry that a sales tax might be a burden for the poor, but I bet Amazon shoppers are relatively affluent. This is an empirical question that Amazon could answer.
  • The early rationale for an online sales tax exemption was that it would allow Internet e-commerce to take off. Amazon has taken off.
  • Amazon thinks it might be cheaper to do a ballot referendum than to fight the law in court, but what about the cost of a referendum to the taxpayers?
  • The media and advertising business will surely like the referendum – both online and brick-and-mortar retailers will spend tons of money on misleading, simple-minded ads.
  • Amazon cut off their California marketing affiliates in order to claim that they had no operations the state, but seven California addresses are on the list of United States Subsidiaries at Amazon’s Web site.
Let me know what I have left off this list – on both sides.

California is a large, precedent setting state, and this battle has national implications. Wikipedia lists 13 states where Amazon is in a controversy over sales and use taxes. My fearless prediction is that the list will grow, and, in the long run, we will be paying tax on online purchases. That will change the retail landscape (and maybe Amazon will open stores when it happens).

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Get a free copy of Twitter for Good -- a how-to for organizations with social goals

When Twitter started up, its prompt question was "What are you doing?" A lot of early traffic was simple answers to that question -- interesting to your friends perhaps, but not particularly significant.

The prompt today is "what's happening?," which solicits a broader class of comment.

There are many stories of inventions that came to be used in ways their creators did not envision, and Twitter is one of those. In the preface of Twitter for Good, co-founder Biz Stone tells the story of James Buck, a photo journalist covering Egyptian demonstrations. When Buck was arrested during a demonstration he tweeted one word -- "arrested." The word spread via Twitter to his colleagues and diplomats, and within hours he tweeted again -- "free."

It is now clear that Twitter can be used for more than telling friends what you are doing. It has been used for disaster relief, political organizing, live reporting of events, as a broadcast medium for popular figures like athletes, actors, politicians and journalists, even, sadly, for coordination of terrorist activity.

Twitter for Good is a how-to book with tips and case studies for organizations and individuals that want to use Twitter for good. It's oriented toward social action, but many of the recommendations are also relevant to any organization that wants to use Twitter for public relations, marketing, and customer or community relationship management.

I have only skimmed the book, so cannot write a full, critical review, but, if it sounds interesting, you can get a free copy. Starting at 12:00 AM (midnight) on Tuesday, September 6, 2011 an electronic version of the book will be available for download at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Click on the Kindle (Amazon) or Nook (B&N) edition, then purchase them for free. The B&N version is in ebook format.

The offer is good for 24 hours. If you miss the free copy, all is not lost -- you can enter to win a copy here.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

AT&T (and Verizon) hypocrisy

AT&T argues that their acquisition of T-Mobile would benefit the public because they would be able to increase their fourth-generation LTE coverage from 80% to 97% of the US population, but couldn't they do that on their own without T-Mobile?

It turns out they had an internal proposal to do just that. In a recent FCC filing AT&T estimates that they could deploy the approximately 44,000 nodes needed to achieve 97% coverage by the end of 2013 at a cost of $3.8 billion.

However, in the next paragraph they say that senior management had rejected the proposed build out since there "was no viable business case for such an expansion." The extra coverage was not worth even $3.8 billion to AT&T.

Yet they have offered $39 billion for T-Mobile. Part of that is to acquire T-Mobile customers, but those folks might not stick around since they had already decided against AT&T. Still, what alternative would they have?

That pesky competitor T-Mobile would be gone and there would be only two competitors remaining. Sprint was small and not doing so well. How long until there would be only one competitor? Sweet.

Lest you think that I am an exclusive AT&T basher, let me point out that I was a Verizon customer until last year when they treated me so badly that I left them for cable.

Furthermore, Verizon can match AT&T's hypocrisy. If you want to come unglued, check this post on Verizon<.a>.

We are toast.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The 2011 Campus Technology Conference

I recently attended the 2011 Campus Technology Conference in Boston. Since I teach using Web 2.0 tools, am an e-text developer and my school is interested in using iPads, I focused on those areas and had a great time and learned a lot. I'll tell you what I saw, and you can follow the links at the end of this report to see videos and slides from presentations I missed.

Keynote session
The conference was preceded by a day of workshops featuring in-depth presentations and hands-on exercises. Two that caught my eye were Mark Frydenberg on Web 2.0 tools for the college classroom and Jenna Linskens on the applications and uses of the iPad in education.

Linskens stated that there are over 12,500 educational applications for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch -- that can be a bit overwhelming. Experienced teachers like Linskens and Frydenberg organize applications and focus on those that they find useful. Linskens mentioned 102 applications in 13 categories, including four "must haves." (What would be your "must have" iPad applications)?  Similarly, Frydenberg showed dozens of applications in 14 categories.
Michael Wesch

The next day, the conference got underway with an inspirational, entertaining talk by award winning teacher Michael Wesch of Kansas State University. Those familiar with Wesch and the videos he and his students have made documenting classroom atmosphere and engagement will find the first half of the presentation familiar. 

For example, over half of his students say they do not like school, but none dislikes learning and he expressed his disappointment in the kinds of questions students ask – for example "how long does the paper have to be" or "will that be on the exam?"
Wesch: required skills change over time

This presentation went beyond Wesch’s earlier work. He brought in his experience as an anthropologist in Papua New Guinea and got a bit Mcluhaneque in talking about the idea that media are more than communication tools -- they mediate and change relationships. A family gathered around a TV set at dinner time is not the same as a post-TV family. Educational needs are also different. Students who grew up during the TV era need to learn critical thinking, while those in the post TV world need media literacy for creating, filtering, organizing, distributing and rating information.

There were two and a half days of concurrent session presentations. The session format stressed quality over quantity -- each presentation was a full hour, so there was time for formal talks, demos and discussion.

Jeff Borden
Being interested in e-text, the first session I attended was "eText is Here" by Rand Spiwak and John Ittelson. They are e-text enthusiasts, but stress that the format wars were far from settled. The turbulent nature of the format and device wars was further emphasized by Jeff Borden of Pearson Learning in his presentation "Emerging Technologies in Content Delivery: eBooks and eReader Devices." Borden listed 23 e-reading devices and 18 e-text formats.

Borden is an informative, entertaining speaker. He gave two presentations, and both were recorded. I recommend watching the videos. You might also be interested in his directory of 500 e-learning tools.

Borden: tools change over time
In addition to keynotes and technical sessions, there were extended conversations with executives from Google, Apple and Microsoft. These ran concurrently with the technical sessions, and provided an opportunity to hear a strategic presentation and have plenty of time for questions and discussion. I only had time to attend one of these conversations, but will watch the videos of the other two now that I am back from traveling.

The exhibit floor
Campus Technology is not a purely academic conference -- there was a mix of academic and professional presentations, a show floor with vendor booths and an area where vendors made scheduled presentations. The exhibit area was large enough to include many interesting vendors and small enough that I had time to visit all the booths with products I wanted to learn more about -- like the three bears, it was just right.

Videos: I've just scratched the surface. Videos of the keynote sessions, conversation sessions, and featured parallel presentations are online.

Slides: The workshop and presentation slides are also online. Even if there is no video of a session you are interested in, you can download the slides, get a feel for the presentation and contact the author.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Steve Jobs is an artist

Homebrew Computer Club meeting
I only met Steve Jobs once -- at a Homebrew Computer Club meeting in 1976. Homebrew meetings were held in a stadium style auditorium at the Stanford University linear accelerator lab, and they featured a "random access" time, in which people in the audience stood up and made announcements or asked for help with a problem they were working on.

Steve Wozniak stood up and offered free copies of the schematic for the computer he and his friend had built.

After the random access session, attendees talked with each other and with vendors standing at tables in the back of the auditorium. Jobs was behind a table with a wire wrapped version of the Apple I motherboard, and we talked about the trade-offs in implementing functions in software or hardware.

Wozniak, Jobs and an Apple I
At the time, I was editor of Interface Age, a short-lived magazine with a national circulation, so I asked Jobs if he would write us an article about his ideas on design and his computer. He told me he would not be willing to write an article unless I would devote the entire issue to Apple.

I was pissed by the kid's arrogance, and walked away.

Inside the Apple I
But he was right to be arrogant. He is an artist who works on very large canvases.

Jobs does not create paintings or songs, he creates products and industries. Painters work with paint and brushes, musicians with instruments. Jobs works with organizations and capital. His artistic works include Apple Computer, Apple, Next, Pixar, Apple stores and iTunes and he's sculpted the personal computer, mobile music and phone, movie, TV and music industries. Now he is dabbling in architecture with Apple's proposed office complex.

Check this column by David Pogue for more on the industries and products Jobs imagined and then created.

Apple I

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Steve Jobs' Stanford commencement speech

Steve Jobs gave this 14.5 minute address to Stanford graduates in 2005. It is an inspiring speech, which calls upon the graduating students to have the courage to follow their passion. It would have been an even more appropriate speech to give to the entering freshman class because while in school students have the freedom to seek their passion and to make mistakes.

Text transcript of the speech.

Here are a few quotes from the speech:

"The minute I dropped out (of Reed College), I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me and begin dropping in on the ones that looked far more interesting...None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me, and we designed it all into the Mac."

"I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me."

"Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do."

"Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition."

"Stay hungry, stay foolish."

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Facebook Evil -- they invented my "interests"

As you see here, Facebook lists my interests as: PetVille, The Global Text Project, Wondershare, Quantum Wealth Management, and Celebrity Cruises

I have never told Facebook that I was interested in these things, in fact:
  • I have no interest in PetVille -- my wife plays that game with our grandchildren.
  • I am interested in the Global Text Project, but have never told that to Facebook or given them permission to tell others.
  • I have never heard of Wondershare and have no idea what it is.
  • My son-in-law owns Quantum Wealth Management, but I've never told Facebook about that.
  • I have taken some cruises, but never with Celebrity Cruises.
When people compare Google Plus and Facebook, they usually focus on features and user interface. I hope Google stays away from Facebook's Evil practices.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Recommended podcast: Maajid Nawaz on radical's use of the Internet

Maajid Nawaz
At first we naively expected the Internet and other communication technology to favor democracy over dictatorship. In a 1998 report on the Internet in Cuba, I wrote of
the 'dictator's dilemma' -- the desire to have the benefits of the Internet without the threat of political instability. How do you give people access to information for health care, education, and commerce while keeping them from political information?
Today, we have a more nuanced view of the Internet as a force for democracy -- we see that it is not only used by democrats, but by dictators and even terrorists, as illustrated by the use of Google Earth to plan missile attacks.
al-Aqsa commander in Gaza

Maajid Nawaz, presents a vivid picture of the use of the Internet by radical Islamists in his Ted Talk A global culture to fight extremism. Nawaz feels that extremists -- whether Islamists or white power advocates -- make better use of the Internet than democracy advocates. He speaks with authority, having used the Internet as a propagandist and recruiter for the global Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir for 13 years, including five years in an Egyptian prison for attempting to overthrow the government. He describes the use of the Net by extremists, asks why they have succeeded across borders and goes on to argue for a countervailing grass roots, youth-led movement to advocate for a democratic culture.