Friday, August 31, 2007

Fun Friday Distractions

I was going to post something all serious, but I think Fridays should be fun. In my job, I reserve Fridays for doing research and exploring new things and when I was teaching, Friday was the day I tried to learn some new technology. Fridays can also drag a bit and sometimes you need a little break. I've just discovered that one of my favorite games and one of the first games that was online, iirc, is online again. It's smart and clever and often totally hilarious. If you like the online version, I seriously recommend the CD versions. That's how we got hooked the first time. So, here's a sampling for fun on your Friday:

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Engineering the Law

Imagine if copy machines had a way of detecting whether you were copying something you printed out yourself or a book or journal article and wouldn't make copies if it were one of the latter. That's what many DVD/VHS players do. Yesterday, as I was setting up my brand new, beautiful mini-dv/DVD decks and attaching them to my brand new, beautiful Mac Pros, I tested one machine only to discover that there was no signal traveling through the firewire cable. I could watch the movie fine on the attached tv, but not through iMovie. I was foiled by engineering and the faculty and students who use the lab to make video clips for presentations won't be able to.

Last January, the Library of Congress agreed to allow for the circumvention of copy protection to make video clips for educational use. What we do in the lab is perfectly legal. To my knowledge, no one comes in and makes a copy of an entire DVD. It would take too long using the play it out method we use to take small snippets. And besides, there are plenty of freely available DVD ripping programs out there if one is so inclined. Let me just say that no pirate in their right mind is going to use a DVD player/computer setup to make massive copies of DVDs when there are programs and devices that will do it much faster and efficiently. All this engineering does is prevent regular people from doing fully legal things with content.

If we wanted to get serious about engineering the law into our machinery, we'd engineer cars to only go the speed limit or to not start if it detects alcohol at a certain level. Both of those activities can and do lead to injury and fatalities, but we don't engineer cars that way because it infringes on the rights of drivers. Whose rights are we protecting by engineering copy protection into our players and computers? Not regular citizens'. We're protecting the movie industry's and the recording industry's. I'm all for pursuing people who steal content, just as I'm all for cracking down on speeders and drunk drivers. But preventing me from working with that content legally just doesn't make sense.

There is a chance that the DMCA and Fair Use and other copyright issues will once again be considered in Congress as the content makers pressure Congress to tighten laws. The latest of these H.R. 1201 (FAIR USE act) is in subcommittee now, but may make it to the floor once again. If you want to be able to use multimedia materials the same way you use text in your teaching and research, you'll pay attention and lobby your congressmen to vote on the side of education, not business.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

On Resentment and Patience

Every year, one or two problems/requests by faculty/staff get under my skin. A post in the spring of this year articulates part of why some things get under my skin. It's complicated.

What it boils down to is that every year, really throughout the year, but it's most unnerving during the beginning of school when we're working overtime, someone outright refuses to do anything for themselves. Now, they don't just say, "I'm not going to do that." But they wheedle and beg and plead and make excuses. Usually the thing they want me to do is simple. Many people can and do do this thing for themselves. I'll admit it. I hate this. And I resent it. I feel that it's unfair to the people who at least try to tackle tasks for themselves and only call on me when they get stuck. I also feel it's unfair to devote hours of time doing this task for one person when there are 150 other people who need me to focus on other things--making sure the scanners work, for example or getting the blog software functioning or making sure enrollments are going well in Blackboard. These things affect lots of people. Oh, and another thing about the tasks I'm asked to do that I resent. They're usually outside the norm in a bad way. They're not someone trying a new technology that no one has used before. For that, I'd do backflips to help them. No, it's usually some ancient dinosaur technology that they refuse to let go of and yet, they haven't quite figured it out almost ten years into using it.

It's hard to be patient with these people at this time of year. We try, but I also feel the need to draw a line somewhere and say, I appreciate you need my help, but so do 150 other people and right now my priority is X because it affects all the faculty and students. When I'm done with X, I can help you. Might I suggest you not wait on this until the last minute so that your task isn't competing with X or Y? Might I suggest also that you consider using X for which there is ample support and I'm not the only one who can help you.

That seems reasonable, no? The problem is, it usually goes in one ear and out the other. Sigh. Patience truly is a virtue.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bring your children to work week

Mr. Geeky is heading out of town and since he's the primary childcare person during the summer months, I'll be taking over the few days. Mr. Geeky has been taking the kids into work with him every day this summer, letting them play on the computer, enforcing some reading and outside time, and taking them to lunch at the campus cafe. Other people, I guess, hire a sitter or put their kids in camp or come up with other childcare arrangements. The last couple of weeks, however, I've seen a lot more kids on campus. Childcare dries up the last two weeks of August. College students return to school. Camps, without their college kid staff, close up shop. Even high schoolers are hard to find as they take last minute vacations to the shore or realize they've earned enough money for the summer and are just going to kick back and relax before school starts.

Luckily, our campus is quite friendly to having children around. Nearly everyone in my department who has kids has brought them in at one time or another to hang out while their parents work. MMF has been writing about the fact that many public spaces are not child friendly, and what a problem that can be for parents. Although she's getting some flak in the comments, MMF argues that many liberals, who normally champion women's rights, seem to disdain children's rights in public spaces. The conversation is interesting and worth reading.

What would I do if I couldn't take my kids to work with me? I could work from home or I could take some of my vacation time. But not everyone has that luxury. It seems reasonable as a society that we'd want to provide some way for people to manage childcare and work, but we still struggle with this. And no one seems to want to confront the issue in the political arena. After all, it might upset big business. Any presidential candidates out there addressing this?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Lucky 13

Thirteen years ago today, I put on a big white dress and Mr. Geeky put on a tux and we said some things about sticking around with each other forever. It's hard to believe it's been this long.

When we made it past the 2-year dating mark, I was thrilled, since I'd never hung around with someone that long before, and I had this inkling that this was it for me, that there'd be no other someones. I'm thankful that Mr. Geeky put up with me for 13 years (plus the 4 years of living together). I'm really not the easiest person to live with, despite appearances. He's the most steady person I know while I tend to be pretty up and and down. He's really the perfect match for me. :)

We celebrated by buying each other gadgets. For me, a tv for the bedroom so I can escape the hordes of game-playing kids. For him, a Linux-compatible mp3 player, so he can listen to his own music and not suffer through mine. We also ate at a spectacular creole restaurant. We usually downplay our anniversary since it's tangled up in the beginning of the school year, but I think we both felt that 13 years needed a little recognition, a little nudge in the right direction. It's a good respite from the craziness that is the start of school.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Academic Year Resolutions 2007

Last year, I had 6 goals for the school year. I achieved the first goal, of course, finishing the dissertation. The relief of not having that huge project over my head is just now sinking in. I also felt like I did pretty well with numbers 4 & 6. I could certainly do better. The rest kind of fell by the wayside as the realities of my workload hit. So, what does this year look like? Well, here's what I'm aiming for? And you?

1. Relax. I'm putting this number one because my inability to relax and my anxiety over work, family, etc. has had a huge impact on my health. I'm going to stop obsessing over getting every little thing done. There's only so much time in a day. I don't work in a life and death environment. If someone has to wait overnight for something, no big deal. I will not worry about what other people think of me and speak my mind (politely and appropriately). I will focus on what is good, what is fun, and what I have control over.

2. Exercise. This is related to the first in my mind. Last year, in addition to doing yoga, I had hoped to go on some hikes with the family. Although we made an effort early on, our busy schedules quickly caused us to put family activities that didn't involve soccer, lacrosse, etc. on the back burner. At the very least, I hope to start a better exercise program next week, focusing on activities that are healthy and destressing.

3. Publish something. I am working on a few things in this area. It may be an academic article or a poem or a newspaper article. Who knows.

I think I'm going to leave it at that. I usually revisit this list in January, which I think is the great thing about being in academe. Two new years. Two opportunities to reflect and dream.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

YouTube and Music Video History

Thanks to YouTube, Geeky Boy has discovered Weird Al Yankovic. I'm so proud. No, really, I am. Last night, the Geeky kids and I had a little music history lesson. First, Geeky Boy showed me this:

And I said that to fully appreciate the humor, he needed to watch this:

Geeky Girl said, "Hey, they're doing the same things they were in the other video." We then discussed what a parody was. Then, the kids latched on to this video:

Geeky Girl recognized the wordplay. Can you?

Of course, I had to show them this:

And this (about halfway through):

Where would these important cultural references be without YouTube?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Cult of the Amateur

Andrew Keen's new book is meant to be controversial. He said he wasn't even aiming for a balanced look at Web 2.0. I knew this going in, so I expected to disagree with him much of the time. And I did. But I didn't disagree with everything. I do think there are some problems that need to be addressed. The problems are complicated: the issue of anonymity, copyright, spam, credibility, and the disappearance of traditional media. We can't simply dismiss all of Web 2.0 as trash simply because there are serious and legitimate issues that need to be addressed.

One of the serious flaws I see in the book is Keen's lack of hard data to back up much of what he says. There are sometimes examples--news reports mostly--but there's no real evidence that, for example, people are hoodwinked by advertising posing as sincere blog posts or video diaries. He states that "We're never sure if what we read or see is what it seems" (79). That's true of anything and if the Internet helps people be a little more skeptical and critical of what they see, hear and read, then it's not all bad.

Keen is worried not just that our culture is degrading as a result of amateur work posted on the web, but that the past purveyors of culture--newspapers, magazines, tv--are losing money and laying people off. He bemoans the loss of music stores, for example. Is it sad that Tower Records no longer exists? Yes, certainly, but could Tower Records have come up with a way to stay in business? Quite possibly. Instead of blaming the record stores and the music industry for failing to come up with a new business model in the age of the Internet, Keen blames the illegal downloads on the downfall of the stores and the industry. Certainly, illegal downloading is partly to blame, but did the music industry drop prices on CDs or open up more virtual store fronts? No to the first, and too late to the second.

He takes on the movie industry as well, warning that it may suffer the fate of the music industry. Has the movie industry learned anything from the music industry? A little. Movies are offered for download from Amazon, Netflicks and via many DVR players for $3.99 as a "rental." One can buy digital versions of movies for as little as $10, but most are $14.99. When going to a movie costs $9-$10 per person, many people will opt to watch most movies at home, especially if they have a nice, new big screen HD TV, which more and more people do. Making movies available for download is smart. What's not smart? Keeping ticket concession prices so high that most people think it's not worth a trip out. Does Keen mention this? No. He mentions that Disney is losing money. Has Disney made a really good film lately? Hmm, must be the Internet's fault.

The newspaper industry, too, is losing out to the Internet. At least here, Keen mentions that cable news has had some effect. Keen rightly points out that, for the moment, online ad revenue has not kept pace with print ad revenue even though a paper like the New York Times has over 40 million online readers. This is a real problem, but I don't think it can be blamed on the amateurs on the Internet. It seems more a function of trying to replicate a print model on the web and maybe they need to get more creative than that.

Perhaps my favorite over the top criticism is how the Internet is ruining our children--in multiple ways. First, "Web 2.0 technology is . . . creating a generation of plagiarists and copyright thieves with little respect for intellectual property. . . . Our kids are downloading and using this stolen property to cheat their way through school and university. . . " I don't deny that plagiarism and copyright violation problems have increased since Google became popular. However, the problem, as usual, isn't the Internet itself, but the fact that many teachers, professors, and parents treat it like the forbidden fruit instead of discussing these very issues. Instead of saying "don't use the Internet for research," we need to be having a serious discussion about what kind of research can be done on the web and how to treat sources with respect. The blog culture--at least the one I'm involved in--is very respectful of their sources. We need to encourage students to treat any source the way they'd treat an academic paper.

The other way that the Internet is harming our children is exposing them to a virtual Las Vegas--gambling, sex, etc. This is a tired, tired argument. The percentage of children who fall prey to an online predator is so small. A recent report that I can't find right now showed that children (usually teens) who get involved with an online predator are often participating in other risky behavior, online and off. It's so bad, Keen warns, that we're in a virtual war: "Parents must man the front lines in the battle to protect children from the evils lurking on the Web 2.0."

I don't think the Web 2.0 world is some kind of utopia. I do think, as a society, we need to wrestle with many of the issues that Keen raises, but I think we need to do so in a much more thoughtful way than Keen does. Keen essentially runs around saying "The sky is falling." It's hard to take him seriously when he resorts to that kind of argument. I don't have answers to the issues of illegal downloading, anonymous flaming, lying, or porn. But the answer certainly isn't to run away. I think we need to face these issues head on and talk about them and come up with some real solutions. I'm not seeing anyone out there doing that right now. The RIAA upped its pursuit of illegal downloaders. Most newspapers still haven't quite figured out what to do online. Anonymous trolls still roam around the web unleashing their scorn everywhere. Schools block sites like MySpace and filter searches. Even though I find Keen's book distasteful, at least he reminds me that most people are ignoring the very real problems of our Web 2.0 world and that we need to start talking about these things.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

RBOC: Friday Edition

  • I got a really good night's sleep and feel completely normal this morning. Crossing my fingers that it stays that way.
  • I'm going to see Rufus tonight--woo hoo! I've had these tickets forever and they're really good seats-front row more than likely (depends on how they set things up--at worst, they're 3rd row).
  • I got a whole lot done yesterday. I was feeling pretty wonky since I was medicated, so I focused on small tasks that didn't require much concentration. There were lots of those that needed to get done, so that was good.
  • I had a few frustrating experiences yesterday where I thought, "And you have a Ph.D.?" Nuff said.
  • I'm looking forward to school starting, both my own and the kids'. I think the kids are getting bored and feeling a little bit of cabin fever now that we're back home and not traveling and doing fun stuff. Plus, I think they're getting on Mr. Geeky's nerves. He's been solo parenting all summer.
  • I was going to start working out again, but with the return of the dizzy spells, I've decided to wait. Sadly, sitting still and relaxing is the best cure so far. My theory was that exercise would be a good way to relieve some stress and I'm sure that's still true, but until I'm sure I won't go spinning again, exercise will have to wait.
  • I have about half of the Andrew Keen post done. Watch the weekend edition. :)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Reality TV and Teamwork

I'm currently hooked on two reality shows, "Top Chef" and "Design Star." I like both of these shows because they represent real jobs that people do, but put people in competitive and odd situations. Both jobs tend to be focused on the skill of an individual and yet, both shows put the contestants in situations where their success relies on their ability to work on teams. The tension between the individual nature of the job, the competitive nature of the show, and the need to work together is fascinating. Teamwork works best when people can be non-competitive and focus on succeeding at a goal as a group. So far, this season, the teamwork situations have been horrible as people lack a goal, lack an understanding of their role on the team, and compete with each other.

On "Top Chef," for example, one competition required participants to work in teams to prepare bar food in a truck. On both teams, the participants tended to focus on their own dishes. No one really helped each other and there was generally a lack of communication. This led to food coming out slowly or badly. The person who was eliminated at the end of the show was the weak link on one team, but it was pointed out that other members of the team should have said something to her. Both "Design Star" and "Top Chef" have had situations where the teams did not articulate a vision for their success. Individuals sometimes made decisions that didn't fit with the goal of the group. Also, people have shunned working with certain people even when those people have much needed skills for the team. For example, on "Design Star" Neeraja didn't choose Rob because she thought he was difficult to work with, but then she didn't have a enough carpenter skills on her team. She also failed to plan the project well. Her poor leadership and focus on her own success rather than the team's was her downfall.

Shows like these should be required viewing for people who must work in teams or committees because they often reveal quite clearly how and why teams work or don't work. I can think of many situations where competitiveness among individuals got in the way of a group's success. Learning how to focus on a shared vision and minimize competition and personality conflicts is hard, and I think most people assume that it will just happen and don't understand the underlying conflict that gets in the way. Talking through the reasons why the tv teams fail might help people see how their own teams and committees are failing and help them find ways to succeed.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

I'm so dizzy, my head is spinning

Right before I left for vacation, I dealt with a bout of vertigo. I've never had vertigo before and I have to say, it was not a pleasant experience. I spent a few hours in the hospital, being poked and scanned and whatnot. They couldn't find anything specifically causing my vertigo, and I've written it off as mostly induced by stress. However, I encountered a bit of a spell yesterday and am now scheduling various appointments with doctors. Yay.

I feel pretty good this morning, but I kind of live in fear that it will return. If it is indeed stress induced, I'm not helping matters when I stress out over getting it in the first place. It's hard to relax when your world is spinning. Everyone tells me it will go away, but I don't know. I'm certainly glad that at this point, they've found no major cause for it, but it would be nice to have some cause that could be fixed. Sigh.

Anyway, last night I had planned to write a scathing and thorough review of Andrew Keen's book, The Cult of the Amateur, but instead I watched two Tivoed episodes of Design Star. Yes, my tastes are all over the map. So, assuming I still feel well by the end of today, that's what you'll see.

Monday, August 13, 2007

I'm back

I've returned from vacation and now work begins. I'll have a substantial post after I catch up a bit.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


So, it's printed. The forms are filled out. It's done. I'm really, really a Ph.D. I feel a little like skookumchick. Now I don't really know what to do with myself. I'm not off to become a professor, but I do have several new irons in the fire. The world does indeed seem a little different.

In my formal acknowledgements, I thanked the usual people--my husband (though not for typing), my adviser and committee, other faculty members, various helpful colleagues. But I also thanked my blog readers. I told profgrrrrl a while back that I really didn't think I could have finished my Ph.D. without my readers. I felt supported by my readers and also felt accountable to them. I didn't want to let you all down--though I also knew you'd be there if I did fall down. Some of you even gave me specific comments and ideas. But also, I felt like blogging and reading all your blogs kept me intellectually active in a way that worked for me. Even though I didn't write specifically about my work here, you all made me think. And the practice of writing every day didn't hurt either (though I'm told my voice is not academic enough). I didn't feel isolated the way I'd felt years ago when I tried to finish the degree on my own.

So, thank you all for being there, virtually or otherwise. I am sincerely grateful.