Thursday, July 31, 2008

On the shores of Ontario Lacus

According to the Cassini spacecraft, Saturn's moon Titan has a complete hydrological cycle based on ethane rather than water (which cannot exist as a liquid at the moon's average temperature of -300 F). From the story:
The visual and mapping instrument observed a lake, Ontario Lacus, in Titan's south polar region during a close Cassini flyby in December 2007. The lake is roughly 20,000 square kilometers (7,800 square miles) in area, slightly larger than North America's Lake Ontario.


The ethane is in a liquid solution with methane, other hydrocarbons and nitrogen. At Titan's surface temperatures, approximately 300 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, these substances can exist as both liquid and gas. Titan shows overwhelming evidence of evaporation, rain, and fluid-carved channels draining into what, in this case, is a liquid hydrocarbon lake.

Earth has a hydrological cycle based on water and Titan has a cycle based on methane. Scientists ruled out the presence of water ice, ammonia, ammonia hydrate and carbon dioxide in Ontario Lacus. The observations also suggest the lake is evaporating. It is ringed by a dark beach, where the black lake merges with the bright shoreline. Cassini also observed a shelf and beach being exposed as the lake evaporates.
Sounds chilly, but beautiful.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Netroots crafting Democratic party platform with collaborative software

We've been hearing about the use of collaborative software for crafting platforms. The Republican Party unveiled a crowdsourcing tool for their platform recently (although it has been overwhelmed by Ron Paul followers agitating for a return to the gold standard). Now the Netroots are using a tool that sounds more finely crafted for this sort of work:

Stern, a former economic development consultant with a masters degree from the London School of Economics, described the project as "very much a synthesis between a wiki and Digg, or between a wiki and Soapblox," the popular community-building software platform. "It's exactly in the middle. It does things that neither allow on their own." Stern is based in Washington DC, and and works with New York City-based partners Vanessa Scanfeld and Dan Scanfeld.

In one of the platform's more intriguing features, when contributors start to edit a plank the software suggests similar prior contributions and suggests that you "Borrow This Sentence." That language is pulled and added to the new version, but the original author's name stays attached to that bit of contributed text, throughout the plank's remixes and permutations. The idea, says Stern, is to "give people credit for their words and ideas." The advantage over a wiki is that no one author's version is dominant -- at least until the project is closed, and only then by community agreement, not by virtue of who edited it last.

The goal? Consensus. And efficient consensus at that. Stern: "Our assumption is that no one person is going to have all the best words and ideas. The idea is to fuse them together, synthesizing ideas into a single, concise text." Each proposed plank is rated from one stars to ten, and the highest rated plank gets to the top. The site now has ten planks categories, from health care to media and communications to electoral reform, and about 75 contributed plank versions.

This sounds like a really interesting tool. I worry, however, that the sort of polarization we tend to see on existing left and right discussion sites will make its way into the platform with this sort of tool. My colleague Trish Roberts-Miller might call this "agonistic expressive discourse," the kind that normally marks a homogeneous enclave. The question, I think, is how well the tool would scale up to include minority-perspective input.

"Learning is not to be found on a printout."

Others have already piled onto the Sunday NYT article about the so-called literacy debate: whether reading online counts as reading. The vignette that starts this debate involves a high school student who spends six hours a day reading online. But does it count?

Peter Merholz sharply eviscerates this quote:
“Learning is not to be found on a printout,” David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, said in a commencement address at Boston College in May. “It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books.”
Merholz points out that
Learning is “acquired” (if that’s even the right word… it makes it sound like something you can get at the store) through doing. Through processing. Through acting.
True enough, I think. But I should also point out that McCullough is not spontaneously generating an argument against online reading. This is the same argument that has been leveled against all of the "low genres," i.e., all genres that are not great literature. We in rhet-comp are fairly familiar with this unsupportable argument, which is sometimes trotted out to oppose composition and professional writing programs. It doesn't get much play across campus, though: imagine how this great books argument would be received by engineering, physics, microbiology, or business administration -- let alone the College of Education, where actual empirical research suggests a viewpoint closer to Merholz'.

But I digress. I found it interesting that when McCullough tries to translate this argument into an attack on online texts, he mixes up genres with media. So he ends up making a really muddled argument: learning isn't acquired on a printout, but in the pages of a book. These days, of course, books are essentially printouts. And printed-out websites are themselves frozen, rendered inactive and inert -- booklike.

As people like McCullough try to command the waves, others are interested in how new media and new genres translate into new competencies. One study involved examining how high school students' online reading affected their grades.

Elizabeth Birr Moje, a professor at the University of Michigan who led the study, said novel reading was similar to what schools demand already. But on the Internet, she said, students are developing new reading skills that are neither taught nor evaluated in school.

One early study showed that giving home Internet access to low-income students appeared to improve standardized reading test scores and school grades. “These were kids who would typically not be reading in their free time,” said Linda A. Jackson, a psychology professor at Michigan State who led the research. “Once they’re on the Internet, they’re reading.”

Jackson doesn't say whether she thinks that students would be better served by reading Jane Eyre in their spare time, but the question seems moot: she indicates that they will read online, and they won't read books. Furthermore, the sort of reading they do online -- active reading, engaged with those low nonliterary genres, those interactive texts, those snippets of information that must be assembled into new arguments -- looks a lot more like the sort of reading and writing they will continue to do in their academic life, their postacademic careers, their leisure time as adults, and arguably their civic engagement.