Tuesday, April 29, 2008
One other comment about the creation of this sort of thing. Camtasia is both a capture solution and a movie editor. You need both to make this. But Camtasia costs and if this is really for students, then perhaps there needs to be a free alternative. On a PC, Windows Media Encoder is fine for the capture. The output will be .wmv rather than .swf, but that is a minor concern. You might then not want to capture in slideshow mode, but rather in the regular edition mode. If you do this, you must advance the slides manually, for example with the arrow keys. For the editing, one might use Windows Media Maker, though there doesn't seem to be a Vista version. Likewise, there is commensurate software for a Mac (iMovie for the editing, not sure about the capture). The free software makes this a little harder, because there are more applications to use. But should still be do-able.
Monday, April 28, 2008
Saturday, April 26, 2008
The Democratic race for President,
Has two candidates left who’ve set precedent.
One’s a woman, the other a black man.
For more than a year they ran and ran.
And they’re still running, which makes the super delegates hesitant.
- - -
My dad would write the letters ‘CA.’
The word they stood for, he could not say.
His life was prolonged by insert of a stent,
To drain the poisons within him, which would not relent.
It’s been almost nine years since he passed away.
- - -
When rhyming one must give up all pretense of taste.
Sounds alike rules, putting good ideas to waste.
The trick in doing this type of word play,
Is ensuring the reader reacts, “On, nay!”
Which is why limericks like these are written in haste.
- - -
Web 2.0, whether blog or YouTube video,
It’s empowerment galore so we can all say so.
Voicing opinions and commenting on others,
Whether of strangers’ thoughts or of in-laws who are brothers.
It’s about exchanging ideas rather than making dough.
- - -
Dr. Suess taught us with a cat in a hat.
And green eggs and ham and all the rest of that.
For kids learning language with a picture and a rhyme,
It works very well most of the time.
But for adults perhaps it turns a bit flat.
- - -
The need to rhyme shows I’m deranged.
But each of us have aspects that are strange.
Surely its better in it to take delight,
Than use it to give others out of their wits fright.
Which is why my theme song is “groan on the range.”
Friday, April 25, 2008
Thoughts turn in spring toward the traditional pastime. Unfortunately, the dreaded Red Sox are heating up. And I’ve taught myself not to get too caught up in the pennant race till September, when the end is in sight. So I indulge my passion in other ways. I confess to have become a Utah Jazz fan and watch at least part of their games in the playoffs. (Deron Williams who in college played at
One of those movies is the Jackie Robinson story, with the man himself in the title role. (You can watch it online.) As films go, even restricted to the genre of sports films, it is not a great picture. There is a stiffness in the acting, a predictability in the delivery. But the story is incredibly important. Breaking the color line was the crowning achievement of baseball, more important than all the home runs, stolen bases, and no-hit games put together. It is worth viewing to mark this great achievement. The key character apart from Jackie Robinson himself is Branch Rickey. The full speech to which I linked is worth a read. It gives a very interesting interpretation why U.S. history regarding Blacks after emancipation was so much harsher than the similar experience in Latin America, where there is and was much greater acceptance of Blacks – slavery was a condition of circumstance and predated the African slave trade; there was law called manumission (it is spelled differently in the speech) where slaves could buy back their freedom and most did, and free people who had been slaves were prone to take care of their own kind when they became free. The speech makes it clear the Rickey was looking to break the color line for some time before he found Robinson. He had a vision of what was necessary to do that.
"Then I had to get the right man off the field. I couldn't come with a man to break down a tradition that had in it centered and concentrated all the prejudices of a great many people north and south unless he was good. He must justify himself upon the positive principle of merit. He must be a great player. I must not risk an excuse of trying to do something in the sociological field, or in the race field, just because of sort of a "holier than thou." I must be sure that the man was good on the field, but more dangerous to me, at that time, and even now, is the wrong man off the field. It didn't matter to me so much in choosing a man off the field that he was temperamental, -- righteously subject to resentments. I wanted a man of exceptional intelligence, a man who was able to grasp and control the responsibilities of himself to his race and could carry that load. That was the greatest danger point of all. Really greater than the number five in the whole six.
In the movie this issue about off the field behavior played out in a scene where Rickey tests Robinson for his reactions in a variety of circumstances, each meant to provoke Robinson with taunting, racial epitaphs, and worse. I don’t have the precise dialog, but my recollection is that eventually Robinson asks something like this. “Mr Rickey, don’t you think I’m strong enough to fight back?” And Rickey responds, “Jackie, I want you to be strong enough not to fight back.” In Rickey’s view fighting back would be the path toward lack of acceptance by the rest of the nation. The only way was for Robinson to turn the other cheek. The movie is worthwhile for watching that scene and for how events transpired thereafter. Ultimately, Rickey allowed Robinson to take the gloves off and he had a variety of fights out of public view, proving his mettle in the more traditional way.
The other movie I want to comment on is a wonderful piece of fluff in black and white, perfect viewing for a rainy afternoon, It Happens Every Spring. A chemistry professor, played by Ray Milland, makes an accidental discovery when a baseball from a sandlot game crashes through the window of his lab, knocking over beakers with who knows what in them to produce a one of a kind formula for a substance that is repelled by wood. When applied to a baseball the substance makes for the perfect ‘spitball’ and the professor becomes transformed into the best pitcher in the major leagues.
The professor/pitcher is in the absent minded category, lovable but zany. He ends up rooming with his catcher, who tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. There’s great comedy between them. This movie is purely for the entertainment value while watching, no real take away afterwards, but it is interesting to note how professors are depicted in the film, a stereotype that I believe persists to this. Unfortunately for me, I fit much of the stereotype – absent minded, sure; not able to deal with normal real-world stuff without the help of others, definitely; but also, charming and loveable if these other needs are attended to but capable of being aloof and too focused on ideas rather than on people otherwise. Other people might read the behavior as disdain, though I’d call it concentration.
This is not a perfect segue into the presidential campaign as sports viewing but I want to switch to it anyway. And the first thing I want to note – the partisanship among the analysts seems greater than I can ever recall before. When you watch a ball game on TV and you are tuning in on to the home team’s broadcast with the home team’s announcers, it is really no surprise that they favor the home team. That’s the expectation. But if you watch a game on a national network, say on ESPN, you expect the announcers to just want good play and not prefer one team over the other. In this case, it’s neutrality that is the expectation. During a break between innings they might do an interview with the manager of one team (typically not too informative – the other team might be watching) and if so they’ll be sure to get the manager or some coach of the other team later in the broadcast. They are governed by rules of fairness in how the broadcast is conducted and the broadcasters take that seriously; if they themselves are fans for a particular team they restrain that as best as they can. The system works pretty well, not perfectly to be sure, but it is more than satisfactory.
Consider this Wikipedia entry on the now defunct TV show Crossfire and in particular Jon Stewart’s appearance in 2004. The criticism, one I suppose that many people at CNN agreed with since they cancelled the show soon thereafter, is that people on that show would not argue in a way where they might change their opinion if their counterpart made a good and effective point, so that the end result would be a synthesis of the starting views of the participants. Rather they’d more or less give a sales spiel about their position and keep spieling whenever they had the opportunity. (Sometimes both from the right and from the left presenters would talk at the same time, which made them both look rude, but by opportunity here I mean when the other wasn’t speaking.) When those on TV don’t move toward a synthesis of ideas, neither does the audience. Members of the audience either embrace one side of the argument, and then feel confirmed by hearing someone else give voice to their own views, or they are repulsed by it all and walk away with the sense that argument is a painful thing to do, something to be avoided whenever possible. We talk about the Net Generation regarding their technology experience, but we don’t talk about their lack of experience in witnessing interesting debate and in learning how argument advances thinking.
CNN’s own election coverage has in effect moved some of the Crossfire into the same programming with Wolf Blitzer, John King, and the other Caspar Milquetoast staff of regulars. They’ve done this, I suppose, to compete for viewers with Fox News. Unfortunately, the approach has spilled over elsewhere including to ‘more respected’ outlets, like the New York Times Op-Ed page and the Charlie Rose show. All are competing for eyeballs and being loud can drown out making subtle points. So a kind of Gresham’s Law has been at work here, which is doubly unfortunate because when there are lingering remnants of good argument being made, the viewers likely find it hard to separate the chaff from the wheat.
This particular show, from last Tuesday, was better than most in getting the pundits to make real argument. But even here, there might be what you call ego getting in the way. Early in the show, perhaps around the 17 minute or 18 minute mark, Dick Polan defends a Clinton ad that others had argued was mean spirited. Later in the show when the question came up how the candidates were talking to the Press off the record, Polan reported that Clinton was much better in that context, warm and open. Obama didn’t do it much and was stiff and guarded when on the record. I know the first time through when I watched it on TV, I got the strong impression that Polan was for Clinton. On watching the replay on Google video, the impression was still there but more muted. What did come across, since so much of the subject was connection with working class white (male) voters, an obvious topic of discussion after the Pennsylvania Primary, is Polan’s willingness to document where Clinton seemed to make that connection and Obama didn’t.
I thought the best bit of the show came in Mark Halperin’s analysis around 22:30, where he begins by talking about the fatigue of both candidates and then turns to the fact that they are no longer getting better in the campaigning, partly because of that fatigue. (Both candidates did improve early on.) Rather they are now taking a low to the ground tactical approach that gives most of the rest of us who’ve voted in our own state’s primary the impression that the primary season is too long. The question then becomes whether the rules should be changed to shorten the season. (Baseball, that most traditional of games, has the Designated Hitter, a multi-tier round of playoffs, and a reinterpretation of the strike zone. Even our must revered institutions can go through rules changes.) Or is this such an exceptional circumstance with two strong candidates that we should not project this experience into how things should be done in 2012 and content ourselves to watching the theater of the endgame as the nominee is selected?
All of the pundits seemed to agree that Obama is remote and aloof, or at least is perceived to be that way. The question arose whether Obama is the next Adlai Stevenson or the next JFK. Here Stevenson is cast more or less in the role of the Ray Milland character in It Happens Every Spring, as the egghead who can’t connect with ordinary people. (I don’t know whether this is a fair characterization of Stevenson, who did get the nomination both in 1952 and again in 1956. It’s true that he lost both times. But Ike was a popular opponent.) None of the pundits even remotely suggested casting Obama as the next Jackie Robinson. They seemed much more comfortable attributing the Obama behavior to his intrinsic character than to view it as a planned approach, to remain guarded and circumspect in order to gain acceptance, shielding his own character from view.
Maybe they are right. I don’t know. They’ve got more direct information. The rest of us only have what we view and read. But there were many reports from well before the Pennsylvania Primary that Obama muted his critique of Clinton, and that doing so was a deliberate strategy on his part. I’ve got the impression that he’s still pulling his punches even after the two campaigns stepped up their attacks on each other right before the Tuesday vote. And I’ve been puzzling over this because of the perception that Obama is the more tired candidate and Clinton the stronger. First, I question whether it’s true. Second, if it is true, I question why. Obama holding things back explains both – remember the Branch Rickey line from the movie.
So it could be his personality but I’m not giving up on the thought that Obama is playing out the same sort of strategy that Rickey laid out sixty years ago. In clinging to that idea, I’m challenging the wisdom of the pundits. Taking on the pundits is my form of diversion. It’s more fun than yelling at the umpire for a bad call.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Sometimes technology *features* are simply there, just showing off or so it seems. On the Kindle, I’ve noticed that Wall Street Journal articles give a word count – this article has 1244 words, that sort of thing. It follows the byline. “Does this help the reader?” I wonder. The New York Times doesn’t do this sort of thing, so it’s something Journal folks have cooked up, not something endemic to the Kindle. Just how long is an article with 1244 words? Does the reader count the words in deciding whether to continue the piece. “I’ve got 572 words to go and this seems blather, so I’ll stop now.” I don’t need word count to make that choice, or do I?
On the Kindle the user can vary the font size, but the font itself is fixed, Times Roman I suppose, though without a menu to choose from I can’t be sure. In MS Word, there is an awesome menu of fonts. I only know what a handful of them look like. How many are variations on a theme? I wouldn’t be able to tell one from another. But I’m pretty sure the Kindle font is Times Roman. Kindle so aspires to read like a book. Many books are printed in Times Roman. The Harry Potter Books are the exception that proves the rule. With books aimed at adults, the text is supposed to be pure symbol, not an artifact in itself that the reader should react to. But nowadays, why not a book with a sans serif font? Why does tradition rule here?
A couple of weeks ago I had an assignment to write a 500-word essay on a topic. I go back and forth between my office computer (MS Word 2007) and my home computer (MS Word 2003). I am cognizant of the file type (.doc or .docx) but believe that in itself has no effect on the viewing. I am also aware that the default font has changed, from 12 point Times New Roman in Word 2003 to 11 point Calibri in Word 2007. What explains this change? I first moved to Outlook 2007 on my office computer and for quite a while used in conjunction with the other tools in MS Office 2003. The default font colors in Outlook 2007 are pastel, as if progress in the software requires a softer look in the text on the screen. Calibri is a sans serif font. I suppose the softer look requires a sans serif font.
It occurred to me in writing the assigned essay that with the change in the default font type, that would change how long a 500-word essay would appear on the screen. What would such an essay look like page length-wise? I believed that one page of Times Roman 12 point was somewhere between 300 and 350 words. What would the switch to the to Calibri 11 point do to word count per page? I wrote this post partly to practice the 500-word essay. (It is not quite 600 words.) I was quite surprised to find out it fit entirely on one page. And I was a bit disturbed by this observation. Could the font change account for such a big difference in words per page? So I converted what I had written to Times New Roman 12 point, expecting the text to then run over to the next page. Lo and behold, it didn’t. It still fit into one page, with a couple of lines to spare.
Now I was scratching my head. How had I come to the belief that a page of text in MS Word had about 300 – 350 words? My current experience showed a page plainly could accommodate in excess of 500 words, perhaps even 600 words. In writing this post I’ve not yet hit the first page limit and this sentence culminates with the 649th word. (One of my sidebar discoveries is that Word 2007 has a status bar at the bottom of the page where Word Count is one of the options and is turned on by default. If you are looking for a technological cause of writer’s block in a student doing a term paper, this could be it.)
This was a real discrepancy. I don’t typically come up with a belief in fact that has no basis in experience. Sometime in the past my pages had 300 – 350 words. Was that when I was a Mac user? Perhaps. I recalled some difference in pagination when crossing platforms. But this seemed too extreme to be explained by this. Something else was the likely cause. I double spaced the text. That produced the requisite 300 – 350 words. Now I single space. Did I double space in the past? Probably I did but I don’t have a good memory of it.
Reconstructing the likely error, sometime when I did double space I did a tiny bit of looking to find word count per page, got the 300 – 350 words as the ballpark, and remembered that. Later I switched to single spacing, but had no immediate reason to track words per page. When I needed to consider that, I used my old beliefs, though circumstances had changed. I hadn’t recalibrated, though the circumstances demanded that I do.
This type of error is particularly troublesome to an economist, who has been trained that rational actors should not experience money illusion. But now, with a somewhat greater appreciation of cognitive challenges, for me personally and for our species as a whole, I began to wonder not so much why I had made this mistake, but rather whether we’re all prone to make mistakes of this sort on a repeated basis, namely we don’t recalibrate our world view that was determined in a previous regime while knowing full well that the regime has changed. Hence we are prone to make errors, because our world view is not up to date appropriate for the current circumstance.
Let me illustrate with a more profound mistake. I took the SAT in 1971, once in the spring and again in the fall. I’ve written about this extensively in the context of the current testing craze so I won’t belabor it here. I simply want to recall two things from that experience. At the time I believe that test measured something important. And I performed significantly better on the Math part than on the Verbal part. The Bakke case, which got enormous publicity at the time, happened in the late 1970’s. So by the early 1980s I must have been exposed to the argument that there was a cultural bias in the SAT that had an effect on minority student performance. But I believe I completely discounted that argument regarding my own performance. And even to this day, I believe that the math proficiency correlates with performance in certain college disciplines (e.g. Chemistry or Economics) and that reading comprehension can be measured to some degree by the type of questions that the SAT asks (although I would concede that prior knowledge of the subject matter is implicitly measured, not just understanding of the passage under question).
It was not till I started to get involved with learning technology and listening to faculty from all across campus that I began to hear criticism about standardized testing in general and the SAT in particular. Perhaps this is just human nature, but I started off by resisting those criticisms because of the above mentioned correlation, which I had witnessed in my own experience both as an undergrad and in grad school. Over time, however, I’ve come to believe the test is insufficient in some important ways. The situations it covers are all closed ended. We want thinking on open ended problems. Skill at the one does not necessarily translate to skill at the other. And the SAT is a speed test. By its nature it can’t measure persistence. Yet stick-to-it-ness is probably a more important characteristic than aptitude. Hard problems require chewing on them for quite a while. Sparks of genius are great, but they are fueled by hours and hours of being stuck.
This altered perception about the test notwithstanding, I still clung to the belief I was a math guy; verbal skills were out of my purview. In retrospect, and especially because there actually was considerable other evidence to the contrary, this represents a remarkable lack of recalibration. Now I can see how I made the error. I had a strong taste for intellectual argument, certainly in college and I believe even back in high school. But I had limited places to express this interest. What I found was outside the classroom, with friends in a social setting. I didn’t see that as verbal skill because it was outside of school. Writing, which I do now largely because such friends are not close at hand, is my current way of making intellectual argument. But because much of that happens via blogging, and there is a community of .edu bloggers of which I’m a part, now it seems part of school, so I must be a verbal guy.
* * * * *
Profound errors of this sort make me wonder whether others are making them. I think the answer has to be that they are. Let me illustrate, but this time in reverse.
Look at this list of symptoms for jet lag. Note that irritability is a significant consequence. Then scroll up to the previous item and read about the causes for jet lag. To this I would add that whether in a plane or a car the passenger is subject to vibrations and if traveling for a long period of time those can be disorienting. (They give me a sense of internal hum well after the trip is over. Consequently, I have a well deserved reputation for being a poor traveler.) I’d add to this that on airplanes the engine roar itself can create a feeling of assault and deprivation. Most of us have been through this and continue to experience it now and again. But we get over it; it’s part of the routine.
Now consider the consequence of taking one trip after another, without enough time for recovery in between. What happens to our attitude? Our behavior? Suppose we’re in a high visibility, high stress job. How will others interpret what they see in us? Will they make adjustments for the travel and the schedule we’ve been keeping? Suppose these people have seen us when they visited us in our usual environs and where we performed at a very high level. They’ll likely have experienced us acting at lower level while on this grand tour of trips. Will they think of that as a fall from grace or simply an inevitable consequence of the unforgiving schedule we’ve been operating under?
Now consider the current presidential campaign where the Democratic candidates have gone negative. Many in the press have noted that the candidates are tired. But they note that and go on; then these reporters compare the candidates to their own best moments and to each other. Here’s a simple hypothesis that I’d call recalibration. If candidates have to continue to campaign well beyond when they expected it was necessary, they’ll be more negative at the end since that matches how they actually feel, due to jet lag and related fatigue. It might take years to confirm this, because the actual test would be how the candidates are with their inner circle. It could be that all this negative stuff is an act. But I don’t think so.
If we voters as well as the pundits are capable of recalibration, might we not more readily forgive the candidates for making promises during this part of the campaign that they renege on once assuming office, understanding that under fatigue the pandering that results doesn’t constitute a commitment? Or are we so locked into the memory of “read my lips” that we’re incapable of making such allowances. David Brooks seems to think Obama has fallen from grace, and that he has boxed himself into an ungovernable corner with his performance in last Wednesday’s debate. In my view, Brooks has got it wrong. He hasn’t recalibrated.
And if that is true, what if the pundits do this sort of thing regularly? They read the Ouija Board, but don’t make allowance for the known change in the rules. Do we do the same thing in Higher Ed?
Friday, April 18, 2008
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
It turns out that PowerPoint has a particular slide layout called images with captions. That sizes the images appropriately and you can put the captions in right there - very easy. In what I produced below, I used the titles only, not the captions themselves, but the effect is to produce captions. The new Camtasia has a timer in the recorder. This makes it very easy to manage the transitions. In this case, I had 10 slides. The audio of the Strauss piece was about 1 minute and 20 seconds, so I came up with 8 seconds per slide. (Your ability to do arithmetic gets challenged when you do the recordings.)
So, production-wise, this is very easy. Camtasia makes output for a blog format - 400 x 300 .swf file with a built in player. Then that just gets popped into the blog.
But unlike the previous video, where there was some creativity in the construction, this was pretty straightforward and dull. There is very little synthesis or pulling things together. It is just a recollection of the film 2001. So if students are to make these sort of things as part of their work, the emphasis needs to be on the creativity in the story, not on the production. The point of this post is, the technology is easy enough that they can do precisely that.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
I’m in the Fort Lauderdale airport (free wireless) awaiting for my American Airlines flight which turns out to be on time and not canceled. I’m ecstatic about that because when the trip is over I want to get home asap.
I was down here to see my mom, do her income taxes, and check on how things are going. Like many middle aged children, I’ve got one parent in the grave and the other not faring very well. My mom is well down the dementia path. She spends a good amount of time sleeping. Yesterday, in the middle of one of her naps, she started to scream violently, absolutely terrified. I can only guess it was a painful memory from her childhood. She grew up in Nazi Germany; a Jew who got out in time. Her parents did not. I have no way of knowing whether those are the thoughts that torment her. But on a previous visit I witnessed more or less the same thing where she spoke in German during the bad dream. My mom was multi-lingual. Now she doesn’t even have one language.
That afternoon, I spent some time going through family photo albums. In the mid nineties, I had gotten my dad a low end Mac with a color printer and one of the things he did was use it for pictures (he was a photography buff of sorts, not skilled, but with interest in making the captures) and then enlarge them and print. There’s quite a bit of my kids when they were very young and my siblings and their families. This was using the computer to satisfy a habit formed well earlier in life. We had a large collection of photo albums with black and white photos, mostly from the 50’s and 60’s but some from the 40’s as well. My dad also had taken a ton of slides that I believe are lost forever and we had 8 mm film that we converted to VHS, but I’m no longer sure where that is.
I was fascinated looking through the pictures. My mother was a remarkable woman fifty years ago. My sister was the star in many of these pictures. She’s the first born. And I could see myself and my brother wearing Best & Co. clothing that I remember made us itch because it was wool. There were also photos of many family friends and relatives, some from abroad. I recognized a few and could recall stories of what was happening when those pictures were taken. But there were other photos where I didn’t know who that was. Perhaps my siblings will know. Otherwise the memories are likely lost forever. Does it matter if I pass these memories along to my children?
My mother wrote an autobiography which my father edited extensively to eliminate some of the redundancy. I had copies made yesterday and will see if my children are interested in reading it. I read an earlier version some time ago. My impression was that it was historical fiction, at least the early years, because the truth was too painful. It occurred to me, however, that it may actually be how my mother came to know things, spinning a view of the world that others could not recount, a learning disability before anyone knew the term.
I suppose this happens in many families. The lineage and history gets forgotten. Perhaps it’s better to forget, but if so, why are those pictures so fascinating to see?