Thursday, June 25, 2009

Steroids, Bleacher Ticket Prices, and Economic Rationality

"I think it has to be spoken very loud and clear on the stance, and baseball needs to stand as they have. I'm very, very satisfied with the testing program they have in place now. For a guy who's tested positive today under what happens now, like Manny Ramirez, it almost takes an idiot to participate in that. For the society, for the up-and-coming players and youth out there, I don't think those guys should be recognized at all."
Ryne Sandberg

When I was a grad student at Northwestern in the late 1970s, I went to Wrigley Field a couple of times for day games (they didn't have lights then). Taking the el, and sitting in the bleachers, it was an inexpensive form of entertainment. (I think bleacher seats cost $2.50 or $3 then and during the week they were in ample supply.) Baseball had free agency but most people didn't have cable TV (I certainly didn't) and player salaries were much more modest than than are today.

Compared to then, current ticket prices and player salaries are both astronomical. And, of course, the superstars make a ton of money. The argument for a player to take steroids to improve performance (or recovery time from injury) couldn't be plainer. The upside of improved performance is vastly higher compensation--- as long as you don't get caught cheating. Let a player do a cost-benefit analysis on the risk reward trade off and it might still come down on the side of taking the steroids.

I wonder if those who are Democrats in their politics are nonetheless Republicans in their baseball fandom. Given the furor of the Mark Sanford affair, and the recognition that the Republicans have been shooting themselves in the foot with their holier than thou approach might not baseball be in a similar boat?

From where I sit, rising income inequality is a substantial factor in why so many big league ballplayers have gone down this route. If player salaries were more modest overall, fewer would risk tempation. As it is, some players literally could not afford to go without.

And if ticket prices were more modest, going to a ballgame would be something a moderate income family could afford.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Should we have students make these?

I'm teaching an honors class in the fall and some of the students are taking it for Composition II credit, meaning they have to do additional writing projects and those projects are supposed to require instructor critique and student revision.

I have a couple of more traditional ideas for this, but I'm wondering if one of these projects shouldn't be to make a movie like the one below. For viewing this properly captions need to be enabled. That should be the default.

The idea from the (student) creator's point of view is first, to use text in a Spartan way to communicate only the very important points and leave other derivative points unsaid. Next, is to use images as a way to illustrate the points and try to connect with the reader/viewer in a way that is meaningful to them. When I made the demo, I found the image selection process a challenge. Particularly for science or engineering students who probably aren't asked to do this sort of thing otherwise, I wonder if the exercise of selecting an appropriate and compelling image to match the idea is a good one, and whether the students will start to think of their job in writing a little differently as a consequence. The third idea, in the music choice, is to have a recurrent theme through the entire piece. The song is something the audience should readily identify with and therefore it should be used to create a context for the story.

One other point where the exercise may prove of value is in noting the length of the movie, two minutes and ten seconds, and compare that with the time it takes to produce it. It took me about one and a half days, all told, and I spread that out over a few days so I could let things simmer for a while. Students need to learn that an effective short message is a lot of work. Further, some of their ideas might have to be discarded in the process, but that is ok because it improves the overall quality.

If I were to do this, I'd also have the students submit the "raw ingredients" that went into making the movie: the audio file, a document with the sources for the images, a text file for the captions with timings, and perhaps the PowerPoint that stores the images and that is used to make the screen capture.

One reason for wanting to ask for all of this is that turning the writing into a production number can be compelling if any technical blocks that are encountered can be readily addressed. The instructor (or some other helper) probably needs to provide help for the students with the technical blocks in which case pretty quick feedback is needed for that.

Another reason is that students will soon be very conscious of the "appearance" of what they make. For example, do the captions match the slides they are supposed to be about? When the appearance can clearly be improved, do the students feel impelled to do that? I don't know whether it would occur to the students immediately once they've asked this, but for me I'd then ask if the writing can be improved as well. Can it be said better? That the text is short means editing is not laborious.

One other compelling bit about this approach is that the captions can be translated into many other languages, so the potential audience for the video is quite large. (It is a separate matter whether the connections that the images and music are supposed to provide cut across cultures.) To choose a different language for the captions, mouse over the upward pointing arrow at the far right of the playbar. Then with CC on, mouse over the leftward pointing arrow and select Translate. The starting language should be English, if that's the language the captions were initially authored in. The resulting language can then be selected.

I'm quite upbeat about this last bit of functionality, perfect for the global world in which we live.

Students probably need to learn a bit about Copyright and Fair Use as preparation for making these type of movies and they need to understand that citing sources is a protection from charges of plagiarism, but that is unrelated to matters of copyright. I wonder how many instructors teach their students about that.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Long lags and contrary forecasts

After reading Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, I've been taken with the idea of causality with long lags. The question is whether you can see the relationship between cause and effect in prospect. Note that this is hard enough in retrospect and because of the lags many people miss the root cause of things. So, stirred by the recent events in Iran, as so many others have been, I'm going to take it as an affirmation of a prediction made by Stanley Fish last September - George Bush: The Comeback Kid.

I should note that I'm neither a fan of Bush nor of Fish. I voted for Bush neither in 2000 nor in 2004 and I've stopped reading Fish's blog, because most of the columns I found frustrating, too much argument for arguments sake. But this particular prediction resonates with me just now, so I want to give it its due.

The reasons seem to be clear enough. First, if you look at the heroes in Iran, one of them surely is the new social networking technology, notably Facebook and Twitter. When did those come to the fore? Under W., that's when. Second, look at what the war in Iraq did for the mindset in the rest of the region. It showed an alternative to the status quo is possible. The elections in Lebanon are a prime example. The war in Iraq may have done many other bad things, and certainly it was started under false pretenses, but it did plant this notion of an alternative to the status quo. Those are biggies. The rest is just connecting the dots.

If the Moussavi followers do indeed prevail, seemingly against all odds but now apparently a distinct possibility since the protests continue unabated, Bush's redemption will be secure. Amazing.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Quickie talking head/screen movies in YouTube

The demo below was made with Jing Pro. It allows publication directly to YouTube and either because the video is so short or because it is in mpeg-4 format, it seems to appear almost immediately without much processing. The image quality is quite sharp. That is a real plus. And the caption file is linked, so you can see what that looks like. Perhaps in a few places the caption is too long. Nonetheless, I think this is usable and not too bad.

The big tip for making the video is to select a capture region that is proportional to 16x9 and not too much bigger than the region you want to display. Doing this will "fill" the YouTube video box and leave no black border and then what you see shouldn't look too small. (If you know people will go to full screen when they watch the video you can capture a bigger area, but there is no way to know that in advance.) In this case I captured a region that was 720x405. I believe that getting exactly the right aspect ratio contributes to the sharpness of the image.

Because the video itself is so short, I produced a transcript directly without trying to use a transcription program first. You play a few seconds of the video and pause, then type what you heard and back again. I keep the movie in a window smaller than half screen, just displaying the control bar and the time. That allows another window smaller than half screen above the video window for the transcription. So even if you only have one normal sized monitor, this is pretty easy to do.

Once the transcript is done, then you have to go in to insert the timings. I have this awkward habit of pausing in mid sentence but then going ganbusters at the end of one sentence and onto the next. So note that the timings allow fractions of seconds. In what I made I only went down to a half second, but the thing allows much finer gradation if you want to put in that effort. In what I've got, the text is on the screen for about 4 seconds, depending on where I pause and how much text is on the screen.

I'm pretty impressed with what can be done now. If students were making these things, they'd catch onto the technology pretty quick and then could focus their attention on the substance of the message.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Uncompromising about change

Last night I watched the PBS documentary about Neil Young on its American Masters Series. The faces of the old rockers are haunting. I didn't know this look for Steven Stills. The music is wonderful, but also haunting. Young's speaking voice is normal. I'm not sure whether I had heard it before. He explains his singing voice as emerging from a spontaneous experience where he was screaming in words made up at the moment. His band had been instrumental only till then. The singing was a kind of coming out. He had it in him all along. It needed to be unleashed.

Young's song lyrics represent personal reaction to events, sometimes anger and disgust, but not with a political agenda tied to them. The film makes pretty clear that Young was not driven by politics, at least not during the Viet Nam War period. Instead, he was driven by the music.

The recurring theme is in the movies was that Young wanted and needed to be in groups so he could play off the music of others. The synthesis created artistic benefit. But after a fashion, when the album was done and the touring to promote it over, Young wanted to do something else. Rather than recreate what had already been done, inevitably for the "Return Of" to be poorly received because it wouldn't have the novelty to excite, Young would move on to the next venture. It was hard on friendships formed during the making of the music. But it was true to the need for creativity.

Ultimately the friends grew to understand this loyalty to make new music, to fine one's soul in the act of doing something new. And Young didn't abandon the entirely. His departure would be temporary. Ultimately he would return to the group to make new music and to rekindle friendships developed earlier.

Some of these same themes are in the documentary about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. The artist forces a new direction for the music even when the fans clamor for nostalgia. Apparently Dylan also inspired young about singing, with the distinctive singing voice and the knowledge that, "I'm no opera star."

Young and his contemporaries didn't go to college. By the time they were college age they were on the road, making music. Life on the road itself must encourage a sense of transience, but in this case there was also a different sort of infection. Young crossed paths with many of the great rockers. Each left a little mark, something to take away and integrate in to Young's own style.

Personally, I'm not able to appreciate the distinctive changes in what Young went through, especially within the 1970s, where much of his music is familiar. (Some of the later stuff shown in the film I hadn't heard before.) His falsetto singing voiced remains unchanged as does the rhythmic phrasing of the lyrics. It may be that the backup instrumentals are radically different, but I don't hear it that way. I admit to being without nuance in listening to this. I was never a giant Neil Young fan. It is the character that was more of interest to me in watching the film, what the driver was, where the loyalty lies. The answer to that is clear; the passion was for the new, for taking the next direction.

It is worth thinking about this for Learning Technology, all the more so given by the ripple created earlier in the week from the Chronicle's piece about Jim Groom presenting at CUNY about blogs as an alternative to the LMS. The learning technologist may share with the rocker the desire to push for new directions, to avoid nostalgia for what should come next. And to some extent instructors may be like adoring fans, though I wouldn't push that analogy very far.

Times do change. The mantra now is the learner as the creator. The drive for change should come out of the collective will to create. Where that will lead is hazy for me. Most learners are not nearly so singular in their purpose. Mainly, they want to ride the next wave that presents itself. Therein lies the dilemma. We still need the few who make the new music. Maybe, however, they need to come from outside us.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Dimdim and Skype 4.1 Beta

Yesterday in the late afternoon we tested the most recent versions of Dimdim (free version) and Skype (4.1 beta). Each product is making progress. Dimdim is more of a full Web conferencing product, though it seems to me it gives all the control to the meeting owner and very little to the attendees in the session. Further, it had problems with IE (worked fine with Firefox). Audio quality was good but we were all in the office so had a very good network connection.

Skye has screen sharing in its most recent beta version. It is a little confusing because the menu item for screen sharing shows up only when you have a contact selected, but it functions very well when you do youse it. Image is sharp and it can be set to full screen. Right now the downside is that you can only do screen sharing with one other person. So it is still not a tool for small group work. If they do get it to function in a multi-party call, watch out.

Screen sharing in Skype does not allow the user to pass control to others in the call. In that sense regular Web conferencing is more feature rich. But Skype has a huge market base and the product is designed to do what it does very well, which I believe is more important than having additional features.

I can't predict where this market is going and if "free versions" will prevail. But I do like that there seem to be multiple viable players in this area. That's a definite plus.