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Random


Happy Holidays and all the best for 2010. It's going to be an exciting year!!

The term 'Social Media' is the 'Web 2.0' of 2009. The power of social media. Let's leverage it. But what is it? Just like Web 2.0, a marginally useful buzzword with no real definition, social media allows us to refer to a class of things without referring to anything at all. I'm not even sure that the popular notion of social media is any different than Web 2.0 (in its usage, anyway). Google Trends reveals that Web 2.0 is so last year, and social media is on the rise:

web-2.0-vs-social-media
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Looking for clarity, I typed 'define: social media' into Google:

Google-Social-Media-Def
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Wolfram Alpha is supposed to be great at these sorts of direct questions, but:

Wolfram-Social-Media-Def
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I can see how ideas like this are useful. To say that Company X needs a 'social media strategy' means a few things: interactive, user-generated, viral. These days, it means Facebook and Twitter. But next year it'll be another set of web darlings. When it comes down to brass tacks, talking about social media doesn't get us very far in thinking about what we'd actually like to be doing, or in the case of academics, studying.

Anyway, I'm not sure how much closer this gets to answering the question that I started with. But having grappled with the notion of Web 2.0 for a long time, I'm comfortable with the idea of social media, as long as it keeps its place. Here's an analogy I've used in the classroom: Web 2.0 is like talking about culture at a national level. Do the Japanese or Americans have a culture? Well, I would say yes – culture exists as long as there are two people, all the way up to billions. There are a few things we can say about Americans or Japanese in general, but they're not very accurate or detailed, and they don't allow us to say anything good at all about anyone in particular. Talking about American culture is a shorthand for large and complex phenomena. It's just a convenience, and in that role it's useful. Go further, and you're talking gibberish, fool. So, keep your place, social media, and we'll be just fine.

I thought I would write a short post to satisfy anyone who has some curiosity like mine. Working on CHI and CSCW papers in the past, I've always used the Word template, but I've now finally had enough torture, and I'm never doing it again. I'm switching to LaTeX.

I've also heard from a few folks that the different templates will render very differently, leaving you with more or less space to write. According to David, there's even substantive differences between versions of Word. So, out of curiously, and also as a learning experience, I moved a recent CSCW Note over to LaTeX. I'm using the LeD editor with the latest CSCW 2010 LaTeX template, and I have this to report about the differences in length as a result of rendering: there are none. Word and LaTeX seem to be about the same, with a few more words on some pages, a few less (fewer?) on others. YMMV, I'm sure. But for me the greatest benefit of LaTeX is going to be the content/presentation separation. I can write a paper in plain text with tags, and just forget about the formatting part, about wrangling multiple columns and cranky headers and everything. Woo hoo!

Our internet has been down at home this week – what a drag. We have Vonage, too, which means no internet, no phone. We're cut off from the modern world! Except for our cell phones, and the TV, and the radio, and the friendly neighbor who (unwittingly) provides us with a shaky wireless signal.

What's so interesting about the neighborhood signal is how variable it is. Some days I can get 4 bars of signal in my office, and some days I have to carry my laptop out onto the back porch to get just 1 bar. Not only that, but sometime 4 bars will support streaming video on ESPN (for example), and other times it'll barely fetch my email headers. I'm so confused about why it's so up and down. Is it weather conditions? Signal interference in the area? Is it physical? I mean, can something like a door, whether it's open or shut, influence the signal that much when you're far away and it's comparatively weak? I know that physical barriers like walls, etc. is a big factor in signal quality, but I would expect that stuff to be largely constant – either it can make it through the walls or not. I wouldn't expect such big swings from day to day. Sometimes from hour to hour. Does anyone know what sorts of things can effect WiFi at distance?

Anyway, the repair tech. comes today. Let's hope we get our own internet back!

Wordle is a very cool (and very popular) tool for visualizing word counts in text. It creates these beautiful, stylish little word clouds. See below for an example. It has one fatal flaw, however, that makes it pretty, but pretty useless in a practical sense: you can't specify phrases that the cloud should keep together.

For most words I wouldn't need to do this, but a few key phrases need to stay together. In the cloud below, for example, I need to tell Wordle to keep 'social dilemma' and 'public goods' together. This simple function would allow me to add huge amounts of meaning to the visualization. This would be so easy to implement that I can't see why Wordle doesn't do it.

A secondary fun feature, probably not so fatal, would be to include some simple stemming features to combine frequencies of the same words used in multiple tenses, plurals, etc. There are a variety of open-source packages for doing this.

Competence Wordle
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This morning on KQED's Forum was an interesting discussion about the current financial crisis we're all in. The show's moderator brought up what I think is one of the most fasinating issues in this whole adventure: treading the line between responsibility and bailout. A lot of people have cried foul, for example, at the notion of spending huge sums to bail out banks and the auto industry when those companies have been so badly managed for so long that they've basically run themselves into the ground. I tend to agree with this outlook.

What made me angry, though, was listening to the commentator arguing against bailing out individuals who are in trouble with their personal finances (mortgages, etc.) using a personal responsibility argument like this: Hey, look, I'm responsible, I have a budget, I spend within my means, and I don't take on loans I can't afford. Why should people who were irresponsible get bailed out while I have to foot the bill?

Why? Because deciding to bail out people with bad mortgages is on totally different ground than deciding to bail out the auto industry. On the one hand we have sophisticated industries staffed with executives, lawyers, accountants, etc. who have had all the opportunity and agency in the world, and have chosen badly, irresponsibly, and run their companies into the ground. These are people who should have known better, who were greedy and imprudent, and now have their hand out because they've noticed that the door to the vault is wide open.

On the other hand we have consumers who've made bad decisions. But they have not made decisions on the same playing field as the corporations, and they've also not made them on the same playing field as your adverage upper-middle class KQED commentator. When lenders were giving out loans to anyone who asked, when media messages push imprudent credit practices, when individuals – as a result of personal choice, yes – but also as a result of a huge variety of socio-structural economic issues are less well equipped to evaluate their financial choices and make sound decisions, is it fair to hold them to the same standards as Ford, GM, Bear Stearns, etc.? Is it fair to hold them to the same standards as more privileged, educated individuals? I say: no. We do not live in a world where the playing field is flat and even, and everyone is equipped and informed equally and so we can just invoke a simple argument for personal responsibility. We need a bit more understanding there.

At the same time, personal responsibility is key. I don't know where the line is. But invoking a blanket personal responsibility argument, failing to take the nature of the world into account, is wrong, it's narrow-minded, and its ethnocentric.

File this one under 'no-freakin'-duh':

Mobile phone calls distract drivers far more than even the chattiest passenger, causing drivers to follow too closely and miss exits, US researchers reported on Monday.

Using a handsfree device does not make things better and the researchers believe they know why – passengers act as a second set of eyes, shutting up or sometimes even helping when they see the driver needs to make a maneuver…

…They have demonstrated that chatting on a mobile phone can slow the reaction times of young adult drivers to levels seen among senior citizens, and shown that drivers using mobile telephones are as impaired as drivers who are legally drunk.

Check out the Reuters story or the original study.

Recently many folks were laughing / sneering / cringing at Wired editor Chris Anderson when he stupidly proclaimed the end of theory and the scientific method. He said: why do we need theory when we can just throw massive data into models and see what falls out? I've already reviewed why this is idiotic.

Today, ComputerWorld has a story about Allan Greenspan's testimony on Capital Hill about the financial crisis: Greenspan, Cox tell Congress that bad data hurt Wall Street's computer models

Business decisions by financial services firms were based on "the best insights of mathematicians and finance experts, supported by major advances in computer and communications technology," Greenspan told the committee. "The whole intellectual edifice, however, collapsed in the summer of last year because the data inputted into the risk management models generally covered only the past two decades — a period of euphoria."

Mr. Anderson – Game. Set. Match.

Re-printed from an old Straight Dope message board. Ha!

The first computer class I took in college was on punch cards. This wasn't before the earth's crust cooled, it was only 1979. Anyway, it's probably why it took me so long to sit down at a computer again; I had nightmares about those @#$&*^~! cards.

Oh yeah? The first programming I learned, we saved our programs on spools of paper tape. We didn't even have a CRT, just a Teletype machine. (This would have been in 1975 or '76). We eventually got a 9 1/2 inch floppy drive and a CRT, and were some happenin' dudes. I've still got some of the spools, and the enormous floppy disk.

You had a Teletype machine? We would have KILLED for a Teletype machine! Once I had to write an entire operating system using nothing but a wall full of toggle switches! Keyboards… HA! You had it easy!

You all had electricity? All we had was a bunch of gears that had to be roatated by hand… Took years just to get the thing to add 1 + 1.

You had gears??? All we had was rocks and sticks. Rock = 0 and stick = 1. You'd get a line of code all written and then a dog would come and carry off your 1's and you'd have to start all over. You guys had it easy.

You had rocks and sticks? Jeez, try growing up in the desert… Grains of sand made the coding damn near impossible!

Occasionally I think there are moments around here that illustrate how unique (read: strange) the iSchool at Berkeley is.

Case in Point: the 'A Hierarchy of Skills' thread. It began innocently, with someone inviting us into the thought experiment of ranking programming languages in the order that they should be learned. Enter incredible geekdom, and more than 100 sometimes impassioned emails about a variety of topics, including:

  • why PHP sucks
  • why Python is amazing
  • why Java sucks
  • why Ruby is amazing
  • what an iSchooler should know
  • what the best language for programming courses is
  • occasionally, the original question

So, basically, it was one of the most in-depth, geekiest, interesting threads ever. And then, to top it off, we have this. The abridged, cliff notes version in graphical form. Who would do this? Ryan Greenberg, in this case. But really it occurs to me how unique and amazing the Berkeley iSchool can be, full of talented people who will debate each other to death, then make jokes, then make pretty visualizations of the whole process (and then probably go drinking). God this place is special.

Centithread - A Hierarchy of Skills

(Click for a larger version)

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