Sunday, May 20, 2007


For all those concerned, I'm switching platforms to WordPress. My new url is (predictably enough):
All future posts can be found there.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Nebulous Notion of "Computer Literacy"

Techdirt stumbled onto a problem I think is worthy of note the other day.

Apparently studies have shown that a lack of good IT literacy can have someone waste up to 40 minutes per day. Of course, the real question is how to solve this problem. As the article notes, the answer is in better training for employees -- but it's not yet clear what kind of training is really needed. Perhaps part of the problem is that it's different elements of basic IT skills that are tripping up people and there isn't really one silver bullet for solving all those problems.

I think this presents an interesting paradigm shift that we'll have to make in our day to day language and interaction in the near future. Namely, the question of "are you computer literate" no longer carries any real meaning.

Because computers can be used to do a thousand things, asking if one knows how to use a computer has become akin to asking if one knows how to use an education. To give a meaningful response, the counter question needs to immediately be asked, " well, to do what?"

Several sectors of society have already shifted towards in this direction, asking for competence in specific software packages instead of general literacy. After all, in house a company tends to devote its entire IT layout to Microsoft or Lotus or some other all inclusive package. Without knowledge in that application, an employee would require nearly as much training as one who knew nothing about computers at all.

However the more important shift is a cultural one, one that will move the question of computer competency into the background instead of the foreground. I suppose this will move hand in hand with the gradual shift towards a more ubiquitous computing experience. I know I look forward to the day where computers fade nearly entirely into the background, allowing for free form creativity and action from it's users.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Where's the Counterpoint?

There has been a lot of media attention paid to the dangers of social networking websites like MySpace and others can create for our children. Such stories often star shady abductors misspelling words and carefully luring children into their web each night, preying on their naivety and innocence. However, as one might expect if one looked at any national or state statistics, abductions have not risen dramatically since the rise of these websites. Nothing terribly significant has occurred since then.

As I watch the one-sided news coverage I find myself asking a question, why aren't their any voices present in the mass media countering this argument? It seems like every good point should have a counterpoint like every story should have (at least) two sides. However, on this issue, the voice of reason seems to be especially lacking in popular media.

It's not lacking elsewhere however. Adam Thierer at The Technology Liberation Front has a new study out, and his most recent post on the subject contains the following counterpoint among others:

A final myth about social networking that I discuss in my paper is that teens are at a much greater risk in these online communities than they were in the offline social communities of the past. It’s clear that part of what is driving the push to regulate social networking sites is that many adults simply don’t understand this new technology and have created a sort of “moral panic” around it. But parents misunderstanding teens—or a new trend or technology that teens love—is really nothing new. For example, today’s grandparents will recall that when they were teenagers in the 1950s and 1960s, their parents worried about their hanging out at burger joints and roller rinks. And today’s parents will remember that in the 1970s and 1980s, their parents were concerned about their hanging around shopping malls and video arcades. Those places were the social networking sites of their eras. And so it continues with the networking sites that today’s youngsters enjoy: digital, interactive websites.

It's an argument that eloquently and politely debunks the hysteria surrounding social networking sites. Hearing it's reason makes me wonder twice as hard as to why this sort of thing isn't heard from the popular media on the heels of each scare story.

If the goal of the news networks is to scare people, I can understand it's absence. However, I think the point Thierer raises here is both simple and engaging. It gets people to think about times from their past (most likely positive ones) and settles their minds a little bit about the future. Thus his argument should have an appeal to most Americans, qualifying it as mainstream material.

Yet it's absence persists. So why isn't it on the nightly news next to the scare stories? Is it too hopeful for society to be more stable than we thought? Is it too complacent with criminals we should obviously find evil and detestable? Is it too reasonable to ask the public to use its intellect instead of its base emotional response?

I don't know the answer, but having taken no journalism or media courses, it's interesting to try and guess from an economic standpoint exactly what influences demand to reach this equilibrium. Does the public desire to be scared and nothing else? Are the network executives keeping the scare stories unchallenged for a reason? Is there greater profit in scaring America rather than informing America? Is there another influence I don't see?

Granted there is challenge to the mainstream ideas in a few public arenas, like some blogs and the handful of debate shows on television, and while I believe those sources are vital to the public discourse, I think their influence simply isn't enough to balance out the presentation in the mass media. So I look to the Nightly News and ask myself again...

Where's the counterpoint?

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Friday, March 16, 2007

The ATHF Witch Trials

Let's begin with a picture.

Now for some background.

Recently, a publicity stunt by a late night Cartoon Network show, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, caused a big scare in Boston. So reports The Boston Channel:

Monday, January 08, 2007

College Recruitment and Web 2.0

Ars Technica recently posted an article noting that prospective students are expecting more out of their college recruitment process than ever before.

Students want to feel like they are being incorporated into the campus
community, and many of them therefore wanted personal contact with
faculty and already-enrolled students, not just with admissions
counselors. 83 percent of the high-schoolers surveyed said that they
would read a blog written by a faculty member, while 63 percent would
read one written by a current student, and 57 percent would like to
create a personalized profile page about themselves on the school's

While I agree with a number of the suggestions, especially the student and faculty blogs, if I were an administrator I would proceed with extreme caution. Not just because Web 2.0 is new and scary and different, but because of the nature of Web 2.0 itself.

While the age of user-created content is undoubtedly a good thing, utilizing it in a college recruitment setting takes power from the universities, something I doubt they would approve of. Imagine, if you were in charge of your school's image and didn't have the reputation of Harvard, Yale, or Duke, would you really want to entrust that image to the masses? Especially when talking about individualized web pages on a school's server, things could get unruly very very fast.

Especially since the data shows that students still want to receive information via snail mail, I don't believe that this survey reflects a growing desire for technological use in the recruitment process. Instead, I think that this shows students want to exploit every opportunity to get into their school of choice be they traditional or high-tech opportunities. Raising the bar to apply for a school would presumably weed out more students, giving the ones who really want to get in a better chance.

To sum up, I do believe more communication between the faculty/students and the prospective students has the potential to be a good thing, but it involves an inherent loss of control on the university's part, so we won't see drastic shifts soon, but probably witness a few new ideas come into play each year. Also, I think the survey would've been the same if students were offered simply more options instead of more Web 2.0 focused options.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Shaping P2P Traffic

Techdirt recently posted about how Internet Service Providers are shooting themselves in the foot. Not that this is surprising coming from Techdirt (and it's certainly justified to an extent), but the issue they raise does give some reasonable food for thought about ISP's traffic shaping P2P traffic.

The funny thing, though, is that whether or not it really is a burden,
the idea of using traffic shaping is absolutely going to backfire. As
we've already discussed, the more ISPs try to snoop on or "shape" your
internet usage, the more that's going to be a great selling point for encryption.
People are going to increasingly encrypt all of their internet usage,
from regular surfing, to file sharing to VoIP -- as it makes it that
much more difficult to figure out what kind of traffic is what and to
do anything with it.

A few things that they didn't explicitly point out I find to be particularly important.

  1. The power of the individual is sticky

    It's tough when you're offering a platform like an internet connection. While users constantly search for new applications and uses of their connection and bandwidth, the telcos want things things to stay the same as much as possible in order to provide only what is needed from a willingness to pay perspective, thus earning a predictable, reasonable rate of return on their investments. However when the internet gets involved, that dichotomy is thrown out of balance, because the technology evolves at a breakneck pace, keeping the space virtually unpredictable.

  2. A rising level of human capital will be less likely to tolerate this activity in the future

    As reported by Ars Technica, A new poll by Zogby International and 463 Communications showed that most (83%) of the respondents believed that the average 12-year-old knows more about the Internet than do members of Congress. I believe this is more than a matter of perception, and it will spell trouble for the profits of telcos down the line unless they can learn to adapt more quickly to their market. More educated consumers will begin to demand more from their internet connections and will either switch providers, or find ways to make it retain their previous level of functionality via encryption or some other method. This isn't necessarily bad, but it does mean that the present tension from bandwidth hungry consumers is only likely to increase in the future.

In conclusion, I have neither a silver bullet. nor even a particular side in this case. I wish competition were more prevalent in the current broadband space, because as it stands I couldn't switch my provider today if I wanted to. If I could, I think I would get more worked up about the issue of traffic shaping, but at present I'm content to sit on the sidelines and watch the debate unfold for a while longer.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Leave it to the Government

Via Boing Boing, USA Today has written an article about how the metal used in nickels and pennies has become more valuable than the coins' face values.

Soaring metals prices mean that the value of the
metal in pennies and nickels exceeds the face value of the coins. Based
on current metals prices, the value of the metal in a nickel is now
6.99 cents, while the penny's metal is worth 1.12 cents, according to
the U.S. Mint.

That has piqued concern among government
officials that people will melt the coins to sell the metal, leading to
potential shortages of pennies and nickels.

I don't see this as a sign of a failing economy, but I do see this as an interesting quirk when it comes to money. Because (historically at least) is tangible, it has to be made out of one type of material or another. As inflation rises steadily through growth of the money supply, eventually those materials could become more valuable in raw form than as they money they're coined into.

However, I fully support the government's move here for a very simple reason. Melting down currency of any kind directly changes an the money supply in an economy. Quite frankly, I'm not willing to let individuals, foreign or domestic, be in charge of the money supply of my primary currency.

On a personal level, the value of the money I hold may increase due to falling money supply, but depreciation often is indicative of more harm than good. Additionally, increased volatility in the value of our currency would scare investors away, weakening the economy as a whole.

To briefly hit on a subject too large for one post, this activity serves to bring the currency back to the gold standard, or in this case the copper standard. After a while, the prices of pennies and nickels would re-establish themselves at a penny and a nickel, restoring "convertibility" from the penny to its metal. This would only work in one direction though, because individuals couldn't convert metal back into currency.

It's an interesting topic, with many far reaching ramifications. However, since most of them only serve to destabilize the economy the only suitable option is to leave the money supply in the government's hands. It's better for everyone that way.

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Sorry for the Absence

I'm sorry for not keeping up with my blog recently. This year I've taken on more a good deal more responsibility at school and I haven't had the kind of time I was previously taking to write my posts. I think I previously set the standard a little high for myself, expecting each post to be more like an essay than a standard blog post. From now on, I'll likely be publishing more often but with slightly less depth. Again, sorry for the absence.