Wednesday, March 05, 2008

This sounds like a plot from a 1980s B-movie

But instead it is wonderful, disturbing reality. I want one. I don't know of any drug dealers in my neighborhood, but I am sure I can find someone to harass with a three hundred pound robot.

Man creates vigilante robot to battle drug dealers - Boing Boing

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Unscientific experiment by The Nation: McCain's website is the only campaign website that posts unfiltered comments

Good news or bad news for the McCain campaign?
While McCain's Internet audience lags far behind both Obama and Clinton, his official websites allow more dissent and tough feedback than the Democratic candidates, according to an unscientific comment experiment conducted by The Nation. We posted about 50 comments on the candidates' websites and YouTube accounts, ranging from bland encouragement to policy criticism to sharp complaints. Only the McCain Campaign posted every comment.
Lots of examples at the link. Does this mean that McCain's campaign is characterized by straight talk -- or that it doesn't exercised disciplined message control the way the other campaigns do? I suppose that the answer depends on your understanding of how a campaign website should work.

techPresident – McCain's Unfiltered Blog

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Web-based Sparkline Generator

Sparklines are tiny line graphs that can be inserted as characters and that show trends at a glance. Joe Gregario has developed an online sparkline generator that anyone can use.

Sparkline Generator for your Dashboard Graphs

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Strange juxtaposition of stories about German military eating habits

Parliamentary commissioner: German soldiers too fat, smoke too much

[German] Airmen Made Sausage With Their Own Blood

Monday, March 03, 2008

Podcast interviews with philosophy of science scholars

Somebody at WRAB -- I think it was Graham Smart -- mentioned that the CBC had podcasts with philosophy of science folks. And here they are: Simon Schaffer, Ian Hacking, Andrew Pickering, and Bruno Latour are four whose books I've blogged, but the series includes many others. I have not gotten to give these a listen yet, but they look fascinating.

CBC Radio | Ideas | Features | How To Think About Science

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Get out and exercise, you exhausted people

Superficially counterintuitive, but it works:
When a person is sapped by fatigue, the last thing he or she wants to do is exercise. But new research shows that regular, low-intensity exercise may help boost energy levels in people suffering from fatigue.
It also helps you sleep better, something that will further help you to avoid exhaustion. I went 18 years without regular exercise -- something I keenly regret -- before taking up Ashtanga. Now I go every weekday at 6am, and have no problems with exhaustion or sleeping (though to be fair I have never had trouble sleeping).

In Santa Barbara, I even tried doing some sun salutations in my Motel 6 room after my plane flight. Can't recommend it enough -- although I recommend a better hotel, since the Motel 6 carpet smelled like stale smoke and old carpet cleaner.

The Cure for Exhaustion? More Exercise - Well - Tara Parker-Pope - Health - New York Times Blog

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Reading :: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Project Management, 4th Edition

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Project Management, 4th Edition
by G. Michael Campbell, Sunny Baker

I like to think that I am not included in the audience specified in the book's title. Nevertheless, I've been looking for a good introductory text to project management, and this one had such outstanding reviews that I bought a used copy off of Amazon without seeing it (almost unheard of for me). I read it on the plane trip back from Santa Barbara last week -- it turned out to be a quick read.

It lives up to the hype. The book covers the basics of project management, including a clear definition, a discussion of the phases of project management, guidance on how to manage in ambiguous situations with multiple stakeholders, and the like. It even talks about creating your organization, maintaining communication, collaborating, and diagnosing collaborative and organizational problems. Unlike some of the other project management books I've read, this one assumes no former knowledge in PM.

As I've argued elsewhere, I think that project management is going to be a crucial knowledge work skill, especially for technical communicators: software documentation, once a cash cow for TC, is in far less demand, while management issues such as managing user communities and long-distance collaboration on electronic projects demand new skills. For that reason, I'm strongly considering assigning this book in conjunction with Freed, Freed, and Romano's book on proposal writing: the two complement each other, with Freed et al. alluding to project planning in the context of writing proposals, and Campbell and Baker alluding to proposals and stakeholders in the context of project planning and execution. In any case, this would be a good book for advanced undergrads.

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Reading :: Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, Third Edition

Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, Third Edition
by H. Russell Bernard

Last year, I was casting around for supplemental readings on interviews and field notes for my grad-level qualitative research class, and stumbled across this thick book. I copied a couple of chapters for my class, which were great, and went back to my regular reading.

Now that I'm preparing once again for this QR class, I'm reading several relevant books. And I decided to go back to this one, reading the entire thing this time. Most of that reading was accomplished on the plane on the way to the WRAB conference and sitting in the Santa Barbara airport on the way back. And it counted as pleasure reading, because Bernard does a great job making anthropological research methods engaging and relevant.

As the title indicates, Bernard addresses both quantitative and qualitative methods. And he does so in a way that makes both accessible. But he does much more than that.

Bernard starts by discussing the foundations of social research: issues and strands of epistemology, paradigms, and history are given good treatment early in the book. Basic concepts such as variables, measurement, validity, reliability, cause and effect, and theory are handled clearly in Chapter 2, and with enough examples from Bernard's research and across the field that neophyte researchers can see how doable research is. Next, he discusses the literature search -- again, clearly enough that this crucial step can be well performed, but casually enough that neophytes can see it as surmountable.

Things get really interesting starting in Chapter 5, when Bernard explains experimental design -- something that can be tricky for qualitative-minded readers to catch, but that seems eminently surmountable here. Chapters 6-8 go on to discuss sampling for various flavors of quantitative and qualitative research. In Chapters 9-15, Bernard turns to data collection techniques such as interviewing, participant observation, and field notes; his discussion of interviewing alone takes three chapters to cover the variations of this crucial technique, and is simultaneously the clearest and most comprehensive discussion of this technique that I've seen.

The remaining chapters (16-21) cover qualitative and quantitative analysis. Honestly, I skipped through the quantitative analysis chapters, but the qualitative analysis chapters provide a solid overview of analytical techniques -- not as comprehensive as Miles and Huberman, of course, but still well done.

Throughout, Bernard's deep experience shows. He has stories, anecdotes, and citations to his own work and to others, and he often exposes the uncertainties and happenstance that tend to be hidden in finalized research reports.

The book is a solid introduction to anthropological techniques, then, and by extension to many of the bedrock techniques used in rhetoric and writing, professional writing, sociology, human factors, and user-centered design. I really like it, and I've ordered a desk copy of the fourth edition for consideration in my QR class this fall. But the book isn't perfect. Its biggest flaw, frankly, is that it's sort of talky. Bernard's deep experience gets in the way here, leading him to tell more stories than necessary and leading him away from summaries. In consequence, the book is about twice as long as it could have been, and it's a daunting read for that reason. In a QR class, I would probably have my students skip some chapters and skim others. The book is also very much an anthropology book, so those of us who are researching -- or training others to research -- subcultures within our own national culture are going to find some of the advice irrelevant or even unsettling (for instance, Bernard stresses getting all necessary shots before going to one's research site).

Nevertheless, it's an excellent read and I intend to refer to it often as I develop new research designs.

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More campaign flyers; speculation on the Clinton strategy in Texas

Tomorrow is the primary here in Texas, and I'm still receiving flyers. Previously I blogged about the first flyers I received from the Clinton and Obama campaigns (I haven't received anything from the McCain campaign yet). Flyers came in late last week as well, and they're still fascinating. I think that Clinton's flyers in particular indicate something about her Texas strategy; more on that below.

Last time I blogged, I noted that Obama's campaign had sent two flyers to me, both clearly laying out Texas' primary+caucus system and encouraging people to attend both. Clinton's flyer had focused instead on early voting and didn't mention the caucus.

Since then, I've received the following flyers in this order:

Clinton campaign: Predatory credit card interest rates
This one came in on Wednesday, I think. The picture has a woman, seated, pointing to what is presumably a credit card statement and looking at her husband in stunned disbelief. I half expected a LOLcats caption, something like WTF WE IZ PWND BY CHASE. Instead, the headline says:
Barack Obama voted AGAINST protecting American families from predatory credit card interest rates of more than 30 percent.

As an aside, I don't have a deep well of sympathy for people who don't bother to read the fine print on credit card applications -- we cut up our credit cards years ago -- so this ad didn't do much for me.

The reverse summarizes Obama's position and, weirdly, has a nice picture of him smiling. No Clinton pictures. At a glance, I actually thought this was an Obama flyer.

As with the previous Clinton flyers, this one doesn't contain any instructions on the primary+caucus system.

Obama campaign: End the War
The next flyer came on Thursday. Like the previous Obama flyers, this one is poster-sized and folded. You can tell that Obama's campaign has more money right now and that it's willing to spend that money. Also like the previous Obama flyers, this one has clear instructions on how to negotiate the primary+caucus system (called the "Texas Two-Step" here). The cover lays out three points in Obama's platform:
  • "End the war"
  • "Cut health care costs and cover every American"
  • "Cut taxes for working families by $1,000"
Not a word about the Clinton campaign here. Again, most of the verbiage is about the "Texas Two-Step."

Clinton campaign: Health care
Finally, on Friday I received a flyer with the title "Which of these people don't deserve health care?" The black and white photo features several people of different ages, sexes, and ethnicities staring into the camera as if to say, why aren't you going to provide us health care, you callous voter?

On the reverse, we again see Obama's picture -- the same friendly smile -- along with some negatives about his health care plan, which "leaves 15 million Americans without coverage." And again, no information on the caucuses.

I speculated earlier that the Clinton campaign was planning to address the caucus system in later flyers. That hasn't happened -- in fact, the later flyers are exclusively focusing on trying to drive Obama's negatives up. They don't distinguish the caucuses at all. And, frankly, Texans generally don't know about the caucuses (I didn't until this election cycle, and I've lived in Texas all but five years of my life).

So what are they up to?

One hypothesis is that the Clinton campaign is simply not competent. Although there is abundant evidence for this hypothesis, I don't think it is correct in this case.

A second is that the Clinton campaign has essentially given up on the caucuses and is focusing on the primaries alone, hoping to generate a large enough margin to overcome the 1/3 of delegates selected in the caucuses.

A third hypothesis, and I think the most likely one, is that the Clinton campaign is trying to maximize the differential between the primary and caucus results. If they can win the primaries and lose significantly in the caucuses, they can make the case that the system is inherently unfair. They've laid the groundwork for this by floating the notion of a lawsuit over the Texas Democratic Party's election rules.

That strategy would also explain the Clinton campaign's instructions for supporters to "take control of caucus sign-in sheets and vote tallies especially 'if our supporters are outnumbered.'" If Clinton people are in charge of sign-in sheets, they are well positioned to serve as witnesses in a possible lawsuit and in the media. All they have to do is to tell the truth: that Obama supporters turned out in far greater numbers in the caucuses than in the primaries (which is what will most likely happen). That makes a lot more sense than the current hysterical speculation that Clinton's rank-and-file supporters are going to alter caucus results, something that would take a massive conspiracy executed by generally honest and politically engaged Texans. As Machiavelli pointed out, conspiracies are notoriously difficult to hold together.

Update 2008.05.28: The strategy comes to fruition.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Abilene Christian gets on board with mobile learning!

The exclamation point in the heading is my interpretation of the tone in this SmartMobs post. It reports on an article from the Wired Campus, describing a new mobile learning program:
“Abilene Christian University says it will be the first university in the country to give iPhones or iPods to all incoming freshmen.”
Okay, that could be pretty exciting (especially for Apple, I imagine). I do think it is pretty forward-looking. But let's not lose sight of the fact that universities have been talking forever about requiring entering freshmen to buy computers. Some of them have actually made laptops required purchases or "given them away" (i.e., financed them through the students' fees). But most haven't, because it's very expensive to buy, service, and administer all those computers.

Handhelds are a great way to get around this issue: not only are they much cheaper, they are less complex and much of their functionality is via servers rather than on the client. I haven't reviewed the ACU materials, but I'm guessing there's a way to centrally administer upgrades and a plan to handle bricked iPhones. Of course, you can't use an iPhone for complex or input-heavy applications (say, typing a ten-page paper), but it should be able to handle most communication and surfing apps, reducing the load on desktop infrastructure at ACU.

Smart Mobs » Blog Archive » The solidifying rationale for mobile learning

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