Archive for December, 2004

Jerry Orbach dies

Wednesday, December 29th, 2004

This on CT.

Jerry Orbach, star of Law & Order for many seasons, died last night of prostate cancer. Just last week NBC rebroadcast his last episode in the series. Even though he had left the show, he was taking part in the production of the new upcoming spinoff “Law & Order: Trial by Jury”, which will start airing in 2005 with Orbach performing in three episodes.

Chocolate chemistry

Tuesday, December 28th, 2004

If I was more like my parents or my brother (i.e. if I had a Ph.D. in Chemistry), I’d probably appreciate this NYTimes article about the intricate physical and chemical details of baking more than I do, but it’s still an interesting read. Alternatively, in that case I wouldn’t need an NYTimes article to explain this info to me.

For geeks

Sunday, December 26th, 2004

Which file extention are you?

You are .*> You are a wildcard.  You are everything to everybody.  You can’t make up your mind as to what you want to be.”><br />Which File Extension are You?</a></p>
				</div>
		
				<p class=Posted in Humor/Fun | Comments Off

Chocolate, New York edition

Saturday, December 25th, 2004

Following up on my note regarding quality Chocolate from a few days ago, here’s a link to another article in the New York Times, this time about a chocolatier in NYC. [The article is already behind a subscription wall, bummer I had forgotten to get the blogger link. Readers at institutions with LexisNexis subscriptions can find a copy in their archives.]

Privacy in the age of blogging

Monday, December 20th, 2004

This on CT.

Jeffrey Rosen has a piece in yesterday’s NYTimes Magazine about the practice of blogging intricate details about one’s dating and sex life on one’s blog. (I was going to say “one’s private life”, but how private is it once it’s been blogged and read by hundreds?) As usual with journalistic pieces such as this one, it is hard to tell how widespread the phenomenon is, but it is out there to some extent and may be worth some thought. I certainly know that people in my social circles – friends, family members, colleagues – do wonder what I will and will not blog about from our interactions and sometimes even preface comments by saying “this is not for blogging”. I always reassure these people that I never blog information about other people without permission and in general rarely mention any names or other identifying information (except to give credit, but I check in such cases as well). However, from reading the article one would think my practices are more the exception than the rule.

Since I do not blog anonymously there is more social control over what I decide to make public. After all, everything I say reflects on me in return. Outing information about others that many may find inappropriate will have negative repercussions on me. So even if I had no concerns, whatsoever, about the privacy of people around me – but I do – a solely self-interested approach would still dictate that I keep information about others’ lives private in order not to upset people and in turn lose credibility and trust in the future. However, such social control operates much less effectively among those who can hide behind the veil of a pseudonym.

As I prepare for my upcoming undergraduate class in which students will be required to maintain blogs, I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about how to comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). According to FERPA, I have to make sure that certain details about student enrollment in my classes are kept private. In the process, I have realized that this is a one-way street. There is nothing preventing my students from blogging whatever information they decide about me. Of course, social sanctions may still exist. Students may decide it is not worth upsetting their instructor through such practices. Nonetheless, there will be plenty of opportunities for blogging things after class is over. Moreover, they may have individual blogs not associated with the class that are written anonymously and can serve as an outlet for commentary about others.

Of course, we all have different selves depending on the social situations in which we find ourselves and there is no reason one should let down certain guards in front of a classroom or when with a group of colleagues. Perhaps the most disturbing part about the phenomenon described in the article is that people are blogging intricate details about their private lives, which in turn includes the private lives of others. Of course, as long as this is a known fact one can accept it and behave accordingly (or not accept it and stop spending time with the person assuming that’s an option). But it sounds like this practice often only becomes clear after the fact, which seems to put unfortunate added pressure on private interactions.

Blogs by students

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

This on CT.

I am teaching an undergraduate class this Winter called “Internet and Society”. [1] I am going to require each student to maintain his/her own blog. This poses some challenges from keeping up with the amount of written material to assuring a certain level of privacy for students (as per related federal laws). I still have a few weeks to think about the specifics and thought would see what experiences and wisdom others may have accumulated in this realm.

The course is a social science course (half the students will be Communication Studies majors, half of them Sociology majors) with a focus on exploring the social, political, economic and cultural aspects of the Internet. I do plan to teach students some technical skills, but that won’t be the focal point of the course. I will provide basic installation of WordPress and then will work with students to tweak the layout and style to their liking. Those who are especially interested in this aspect will have the opportunity to personalize the blog considerably, but that will not be a requirement.

The closest analogy to requiring blogs seems to be classes where students are required to keep journals. I have only seen this done once so I am curious to hear about additional experiences (or, of course, any experiences people may have with blogs by students in particular). The idea is to ask students to comment on their readings and class discussions on their blogs. They would be required to write a certain number of entries (I am not yet sure how many). They would also be required to comment on other students’ blogs (I am not yet sure how often).

One challenge of this method is that it creates a lot of material for the instructor to follow (there will be around 30-40 students enrolled in this class). In fact, it is probably not realistic to expect the instructor to follow all this writing, or even to ask a teaching assistant to read all the blogs constantly. One way I thought to evaluate this amount of material is to ask students at the end of the quarter to submit their best X number of posts for evaluation and perhaps the best Y number of comments they made on other people’s blogs. Nonetheless, I would like to keep up with the material as the quarter progresses so thoughts students express on blogs can be incorporated into class lectures and discussions.

As to why require blogs in the first place, here are some reasons. First, I like the idea of asking student to keep journals. It is hard to get students to do class readings, but requiring constant reaction to the readings and discussions should help. Second, I think asking students to maintain blogs will help convey some points to them about the potential of the Web to help people reach wide audiences. Of course the particular point there is that simply having a Web site in no way guarantees that someone suddenly has a wide-reaching public voice. But I think this will be easier to convey if students experience it first hand. On the other hand, the blogs will be public and it may be that people not associated with the class find them, read them and comment on them, which could be an interesting experience for students. (I have specific plans in mind to encourage such outside involvement.) Finally, knowing that one’s peers are reading one’s writing seems to encourage more serious reflection on the part of students than simply handing in assignments to an instructor so the overall quality of writing should be higher. That’s more of a hunch than a claim I can back up by any systematic evidence.

Due to federal laws about students’ privacy, there is the additional concern of keeping students’ identities private on their blogs. Information about what classes students are taking is not supposed to be made public. My thinking on this right now is to recommend to everyone that they blog under a pseudonym, but if they decide on their own to make public their identities that is up to them. What I have not yet decided is whether I should suggest that everybody stay anonymous to each other. Commenting on course material anonymously may allow certain people to open up more than they would otherwise or express opinions they may not want to if their identities were known. But it may make the incorporation of blog material into in-person class discussions somewhat tedious.

Fn1. The syllabus is not yet available, but you can view a brief class description here.

Chocolate

Wednesday, December 15th, 2004

This on CT.

It’s my birthday (it’s still the 15th where I’m writing this) so I’ll take this opportunity to talk about something dear to my heart: chocolate. A friend who clearly does not realize how little time I spend working out gave me two pounds of some very good quality chocolate for my birthday. (Maybe the idea was that this way even after sharing with him I’d still have enough left for me.:) Another friend – whose wife and I have a monthly ritual of giving each other Belgian truffles on random holidays – sent me a link to a New York Times article about some of the best places in Paris for quality chocolate. One of the most intriguing gifts I’ve gotten recently came from Paris and was chocolate related: chocolate perfume. The scent is very real, and I don’t mean of some cheapo imitation American candy bar. The aroma resembles very high quality chocolate. Surprising as it may be, smelling the perfume can have healthy repercussions. A whiff of that scent will nullify any craving for poor quality chocolate (the type most likely to be around one’s office where such cravings often arise). Before completely dismissing all American chocolate, I should note that at a chocolate party where the hosts had us guests sampling and rating unidentified milk and dark chocolates from all over the world, some American chocolates actually came out quite highly ranked (including something as generic as Hershey’s dark chocolate).

I think a sophisticated chocolate enthusiast has cravings for specific types of chocolate, not just chocolate in general. So sometimes it is that M-azing candy bar you crave while other times only a Cote d’Or hazelnut dark chocolate bar, a Ritter Sport Marzipan bar or a Sport falat will do (just to name some of my favorites).

For those in the Chicagoland area, I highly recommend the Belgian chocolatier Piron in Evanston (the source of my monthly chocolate truffle ritual mentioned above). I welcome pointers to other great chocolate stores wherever they may be.

Buying blue

Tuesday, December 14th, 2004

This on CT.

I was interviewed for a Chicago Tribune piece about the new Web sites that have spurred up encouraging people to buy blue.1 The idea is to get people to spend money in the stores of companies whose political action committees and employees support Democratic candidates and causes. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s completely unclear whether: 1. people’s purchasing behavior is that connected to their political ideology; 2. the blue side will use the compiled information more than the red side (after all, the information can also be used to boycott companies instead of supportint them). Regardless, it is certainly interesting to see where people are channeling their political frustrations.. and how quickly news has spread of these sites.

[Accessing the article requires registration. Bugmenot may be worth checking.]

1 I’m glad to see that the reporter quoted me in the right context, which is not always a given. Unfortunately, she got my departmental affiliation wrong. My primary appointment is in the Department of Communication Studies.

Voting error in the 2004 elections

Saturday, December 11th, 2004

This on CT.

A friend of mine, Philip Howard, has been taking a very innovative approach to teaching his class on Communication Technology and Politics at the University of Washington this Fall. He and his students have been collecting data about the use of communication technologies in the elections and writing reports about their findings.

The team has released reports on topics from the legalities of voteswapping to the political uses of podcasting. The latest article looks at voting error due to technological errors, residual votes and incident reports. They have collected data on these for all states for the presidential, the gubernatorial and the senate races. They weight the incident-report data by total voting population, eligible voter population and registered voter population. They find that in some cases – see state specifics in the report by type of error – the margin of error was greater than the margin of victory.

What a great way to get students involved, to teach them important skills and to contribute helpful information to the public. They make their data available for those interested in the details. You can download spreadsheets with information off their site. They also offer an extensive list of resources including a pointers to academic literature from the past twelve years on technologies and campaigns.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned that they are posting reports now as white papers and are eager to receive feedback. It looks like they will continue to analyze the data and welcome suggestions.

Becker-Posner blog up and running

Sunday, December 5th, 2004

This on CT.

A few days ago Henry at CT pointed us to the Becker-Posner blog. I see now that they have posted an introductory entry.

Blogging is a major new social, political, and economic phenomenon. It is a fresh and striking exemplification of Friedrich Hayek’s thesis that knowledge is widely distributed among people and that the challenge to society is to create mechanisms for pooling that knowledge. The powerful mechanism that was the focus of Hayek’s work, as as of economists generally, is the price system (the market). The newest mechanism is the “blogosphere.” There are 4 million blogs. The internet enables the instantaneous pooling (and hence correction, refinement, and amplification) of the ideas and opinions, facts and images, reportage and scholarship, generated by bloggers.

It looks like the blog will have comments, and for now they plan on posting once per week, on Mondays. (According to Technorati the 4 million figure may be a low estimate, the number of blogs tracked is closer to 5 million as of today.)

One issue that keeps coming up regarding academic blogs (that is, blogs by academics) is whether there is any peer review involved. I think the above comment again suggests that there can be valuable post-publication peer review on blogs either through comments or response posts on others’ blogs.

WordPress

Sunday, December 5th, 2004

This on CT.

I’ve been meaning to post about the blogging software WordPress and a recent announcement from my hosting service Dreamhost now gives me even more reason to do so. WordPress is a great free blogging software that I decided to use for my own blog back in the summer when I was upgrading various parts of my site. It is free both in the sense that you don’t have to pay for a copy and in the sense that you have the freedom to modify its code. It is filled with wonderful features such as no rebuilding when making changes to your template and efficient ways of dealing with comment spam. WordPress is committed to offering cool features of other programs such as MT’s Trackback. It also offers importers for Movable Type, Greymatter, Blogger, b2, and Textpattern with others forthcoming (Nucleus and pMachine). Moreover, it is quite easy to install, definitely much more straight forward than some other programs such as Movable Type. When they say it takes five minutes they aren’t kidding (granted, some more general prior technical knowledge can be very helpful).

But wait! If you don’t have five minutes to spare (and perhaps you’re lacking some of those technical basics) then Dreamhost is the way to go. A few days ago they announced automatic installation of WordPress on Dreamhost accounts. I use Dreamhost for the hosting of my sites and highly recommend them. Their prices are extremely reasonable and the services just keep getting better.[1]

Once you are done with the installation, all sorts of styles are available to alter the default one. For those just a tiny bit more ambitious but without the necessary prior knowledge, it’s possible to pick up the requisite PHP and CSS know-how within an afternoon (okay, based on prior HTML skills and a certain amount of geek determination) to make additional changes to the designs. All-in-all, I’ve been very happy with WordPress having used it for about three months now. And the Dreamhost install option is awesome.[2]

fn1. Full disclosure: if you sign up for their services through the above link, I will get a referral fee.

fn2. I will be setting up blogs for about thirty students in a month so I welcome any feature that assists the process.

What will they think of next?

Saturday, December 4th, 2004

This on CT.

Amidst all the election news of the past month from all over, I have had little energy to compile a post about a referendum taking place tomorrow in Hungary: extending Hungarian citizenship to Hungarians living outside of Hungary’s borders. (Pick any country around Hungary and you’ll find relevant populations from Slovakia to Romania, from Serbia to Ukraine). When a nationalist party becomes desperate in securing votes, it comes up with interesting ideas. Why not extend voting rights to all Hungarians across the globe? Those who left in 1956 or who live as frustrated minorities in other countries may be the perfect targets for their nationalistic message. Give those people voting rights and the party may be able to secure quite a bit of popularity in the future.

Apparently there are no details about what it would take for people to prove their Hungarian “origins” (seems like opening a can of worms to be asking that kind of a question in this area of the world). That may be one aspect that would allow the current government (made up of parties that are not backing this initiative) to temper the effects of a majority yes vote.

One facet of all this of additional interest to me is how the country would proceed with the voting rights of those living abroad. The only way those of us abroad can currently cast our votes is to go to the Hungarian embassy in the country in which we reside. Obviously, this leads to few votes from those not residing in Hungary. For the initiative to be really effective, they would have to tweak this part of the system as well.

The outcome of the referendum tomorrow will only count if at least a quarter of those eligible to vote – so about two million people – plus one vote for the same outcome.