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July 2004

Bad Apples?

Jeff Jarvis and Om Malik have both written about iPod woes:

One is a chance, two is a coincidence but three is a trend. It is official - the new iPod updater is killing iPods. (Om Malik)
The iPod crashed bad last night -- because of Apple's own iPod updater. Thing was working fine. But after updating it wants to be plugged in. It didn't think it was plugged in and wouldn't do anything else. Resets didn't work. Then a reset apparently hosed the drive. iPod dead. I call Apple; wait forever; told I'm six days past my 90-day phone time; I say it was their goddamned updater that did this to me; he listens; he agrees. iPod dead. I'd play Taps... if I could.

Fred Wilsons' iPod crashed yesterday. Om Malik's iPod died, too. Dreaded clicking noise, just like mine.

The Airport Express is OK, but setup wasn't the breeze it's supposed to be. Worse, when I tried to follow the instructions to set up profiles, it kept crashing my Vaio (Apple's revenge). And the instructions bear no resemblance to the software.

The problem with Apple for years now has been that it pays more attention to design, aesthetics, UI, and advertising than it does to nitty-gritty technical matters. I was thinking about buying a Mac again. Now I'm doubting it. (Jeff Jarvis)

Meanwhile, Marc Canter points the way to Dashboarder, 'your one-stop shop for all Dashboard needs' — adding, 'do it for Windows'.

More about wikis

My post earlier today (here) has attracted some interest: 'wikis and teaching' is a troubled partnership, but it's being attempted by many ... Doing Something Different (Doug Miller) links discussion of the "problems" experienced by some of us with wikis to an earlier posting of his about Tinderbox:

Most of the criticism I read of Tinderbox seems to me to arise from people approaching it with preconceived ideas about how it "should" work, and not being able to shed these preconceptions enough to understand how it actually does work. Nor is this problem limited to Tinderbox; I read similar remarks related to wikis, news readers - hell, it wasn't all that long ago that I had discussions of a similar nature with people concerning web browsers.

IrishEyes (Bernie Goldbach) trackbacked to my earlier post and has this to say:

After immersing in the way-Alpha Mobhaile, I think it's actually a wiki flogged as community webware. Most of its early adopters cannot spell either "mobhaile" or "wiki" and they certainly won't be ready for the wiki approach to information management. As David Smith notes, this is not an unusual problem. ... Another part of the metric is in the uptake and follow-on use and that metric will be challenged by people who cannot figure out wikis. Wikis are inherently difficult hard work. To be used correctly, they need to be taught. The implementers need to understand how to use them.

I can quite see how wikis can be 'paradigm busting software' (Doug Miller's term for Tinderbox). Franz Dill, writing at Future Now, has a fine short post today about wikis in the workplace:

The blog is like an online newspaper, it's serial and you may expect to be able to only scan the headlines each day. Of course you can use a blog like an archive, since all blog software has a search. I do that, but the readers of the blog sometimes don't grasp the wealth of information a blog contains. In contrast, a Wiki does not look serial. If organized reasonably it looks like a reference work. So it looks like an archive and users figure this out right away. It does suffer from a critical mass problem, if there is not enough there, users just won't think of it when they need it. To create a critical mass, you need lots of contributors. If your Wiki is public you can get enough enthusiasts to provide content. Within a corporation it's harder to get enough people to invest the time to get the Wiki to a state where it's a viable resource. I am optimistic about the use of Wikis in the workplace, and look forward to working with them in and outside of the corporation.

Even in praising wikis, then, Franz Dill recognises some of the problems — and in teaching (UK secondary; 13–18) these can seem pretty daunting. This autumn, we will be trialling wiki/wiki-based software with classes, but I have found that even Basecamp, a fairly straightforward collaborative software environment, just isn't given the time by (most) students that it requires if it is to yield the greatest benefit. (It tends to end up as a teacher-directed portal for pushing out information and as a node of online study references. None of this is bad, but I'd had greater hopes for it than this.)

It comes back to what we want IT to be about in schools and how we prepare pupils for a world in which electronically conducted/assisted collaborative activities (something that wikis are so good at) will be part of their adult working environment. Of course, wikis won't work if just dropped in to classrooms and the worst thing would be if we end up turning them into electronic work-sheets. Many2Many quoted Kairosnews:

Each week, I prepared the material, each week I contrived some kind of in-class activity to let people ‘interact’. But as I mentioned before, I was merely creating fill-in-the-blanks exercises … I realize now, that to get to the level of which I was aiming, in terms of communal constructivism, you need to let the participants identify their own blanks.

The challenge of wikis, of any paradigm busting software, is one which must necessarily send us back to re-examine the ways in which we work. The challenge is bigger than "just" IT, but IT departments have to bite this bullet. As I noted before, the IT priesthood (in schools, in business — anywhere) has other interests ... This earlier posting concerned something Ross Mayfield had found in eWeek, and it's only fitting to end by linking to Ross Mayfield's post today with its hilarious photo of a meaningless barrier. Ross's five points for software design: don't create false barriers; trust users to create (my addition: and invest in the training and re-thinking needed to give teachers and young people the skills and confidence to be creative with these tools); keep it simple; recognise that the old notion of authority is displaced by the new tools; recognise that what matters is not ticking off the number of filled blanks.

For love

Astonishing (only because so unusual in this context) disclosure from Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia:

Qn: What methods have you found that work best for getting people not only involved in contributing, but also keeping them contributing to the Wiki?

Jimmy Wales: Love. It isn't very popular in technical circles to say a lot of mushy stuff about love, but frankly it's a very very important part of what holds our project together. I have always viewed the mission of Wikipedia to be much bigger than just creating a killer website. We're doing that of course, and having a lot of fun doing it, but a big part of what motivates us is our larger mission to affect the world in a positive way.

It is my intention to get a copy of Wikipedia to every single person on the planet in their own language. It is my intention that free textbooks from our wikibooks project will be used to revolutionize education in developing countries by radically cutting the cost of content. Those kinds of big picture ideals make people very passionate about what we're doing. And it makes it possible for people to set aside a lot of personal differences and disputes of the kind that I talked about above, and just compromise to keep getting the work done.

I frequently counsel people who are getting frustrated about an edit war to think about someone who lives without clean drinking water, without any proper means of education, and how our work might someday help that person. It puts flamewars into some perspective, I think. Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing.

Link via Many2Many.

Why wikis may not work for you or me

My attempts to use wikis, personally (as part of my self-imposed regime to learn about new tools) and with pupils, has convinced me that Many2Many is spot on: wikis are strangely hard work and require the teacher to invest heavily in leading pupils to understand how to use them — and such heavy guidance quickly becomes heavy-handedness, killing the very collaborative spontaneity wikis so clearly can release.

The comments at Many2Many are themselves interesting: 'A few things which are going wrong: wikis have gotten *hard*. This goes against the very concept of a wiki, and yet to use a system like MoinMoin, or Twiki requires learning'; 'I'm not sure what you should expect from them when people *don't* have a lot of information that needs collating'.

Contrary views

Two provocative pieces from the Telegraph this week: Rupert Christiansen explains why Allen Bennett's The History Boys is bunk and A N Wilson why Auden had no right to talk of suffering. Curiously, they form a linked pair:

"Maybe Auden has it right," says Hector in Alan Bennett's The History Boys. "That's a change," replies Mrs Lintott, his sensible colleague. Hector: "Let each child that's in your care ..." Mrs Lintott: "I know, '... have as much neurosis as the child can bear'. And how many children had Auden, pray?"

Since I sat entranced through The History Boys, Mrs Lintott has been my heroine. She reminds me here of the many moments, when reading Auden, when I have been irritated. Take one of his most-quoted anthology pieces, the 'Musée des Beaux Arts', written in December 1938 of all dates ...

Meanwhile, Rupert Christiansen concludes:

It's meant to be a comedy, you might retort. But because I found it so implausible, I couldn't laugh. Although there are a few smart lines (Mrs Lintott's "history is women following behind, with a bucket" has undeniable force), I was dismayed at the frequency with which Bennett resorted to the crudest method of épatant les bourgeois - using respectable adults to explete the lower order of swear words. ... This isn't funny, it's just cheap, and all too typical of the opportunism with which Bennett has composed the play.

If you want to understand the impact of a charismatic teacher, read Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; if you want to contemplate the feverish intensity of male adolescents, there's Lindsay Anderson's If…; if you want to explore the problems of teaching and interpreting the past, turn to Raphael Samuel's Theatres of Memory. Just don't bother with The History Boys.

Windows sans IE

It can't be done? Well, apparently this ain't true — Crackbaby:

For those of you who may remember, I posted an article a while back about how to remove Internet Explorer from your system which came as the result of Microsoft refusing to help me with this. Needless to say, thousands of people started flooding the sight to see how I did it and now even Microsoft is wondering how I did it. They have asked my advice on how to remove IE from the system. Read on for more details...

The Guardian: 'the English language global liberal voice'

Ian Mayes, the Guardian readers' editor, wrote (17 July):

According to NewsKnife the Guardian was the world's most popular news source on Google News (an automatic search of 4,500 news sites) for the six months to the end of June this year. In that time Google News brought about 2m referrals. The Google search engine in the UK and US over the same period brought about 14 million people to the Guardian. A site called Technorati, which shows the most preferred links among bloggers, recently had the Guardian as the sixth most popular site in the world.

A week before, Mayes had written about the changes the paper is about to undergo: in format ("midi" shape), further re-design, introduction of newer technology, etc. The 'most significant but most difficult to predict element' of change is 'the future relationship and degree of integration of the paper and the web. Where the total sales of quality newspapers in Britain are in slow decline, use of the internet has soared, closely paralleled by Guardian Unlimited. The editor said: "For hundreds of thousands of people the Guardian is the website." '

In the past five years the number of page impressions - separate pages opened by readers - has risen from fewer than 10m a month to more than 100m with, for example, some 9 million unique users (separate individuals) arriving at the Guardian website in June this year. It has become one of the world's leading newspaper-based websites, far ahead of any other newspaper website in the UK, and in the US second only to the BBC among favoured UK news sites. ...

In fact, a geographical locating system now used by the Guardian makes it possible to say that Guardian readers are literally all over the world, in more than 180 different countries on an average day. It is roughly right to say that the Guardian has more readers in the US than it has in the UK. Last month more than 3.5 million people across the US visited the site, compared with just over 2 million in the UK, although the latter are generally more avid, opening more than twice the number of pages looked at by US readers. To take one recent day, June 21, visitors to the site came from 185 countries. The most represented were: US, UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Japan, Spain and Ireland. At the other end of the list were the Cook Islands (eight recorded users), Tajikistan (seven), Andorra (seven), Somalia (seven), Togo (seven), Bhutan (five), Equatorial Guinea (five), Suriname (three), Lesotho (two), with just one user noted that day in the British Indian Ocean Territory (the Chagos archipelago) ...

It means, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that the Guardian puts a girdle round about the earth in rather less than Puck's 40 minutes. Mistakes travel similarly far and fast, which makes correcting them even more important. In a recent online survey conducted by the Guardian, 89% of the 1,200 respondents answered "yes" to the question: "On balance do you trust editorial coverage on Guardian Unlimited?" And 98% of the respondents were aware that the website was part of the Guardian and Observer newspaper group, based in the UK. (In a separate survey of Guardian newspaper readers, 59% were aware of the readers' editor, and of those 76% felt the paper was becoming more responsive).

The editor again: "It is clear that the Guardian is becoming the English language global liberal voice. It has earned an incredibly high degree of trust. That means that today's journalists have a much bigger influence than any previous generation of Guardian writers. The bigger the internet becomes and the more voices there are on it, the more important it is to have a voice that is recognisable, truthful and reliable."

The director of digital publishing sees the Guardian of the future as part of a global information community whose members interact with the Guardian and with each other with a frequency we have barely begun to imagine.

Connected citizens

Justin Hall has a great article in Mobile Entertainment:

... mobile entertainment serves a critical social function -- it will teach us how to be connected citizens. ... Soon, mobile devices will have tangible context-sensitivity – knowing where you are, and juggling that with time of day and your activities to suggest information, or appropriate diversion. ... One look at mobile messaging and it's clear that its success lies not so much in its explicit professional potential so much as its usefulness for maintaining personal relations. ... With mobile entertainment, we’re practicing for the empowered mobile future by playing together.

Preserving digital data

This is now a critical issue in our society, as The Independent reported at the weekend (see here). In 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at ... Digital Preservation', Lavoie and Dempsey look at some of the issues involved and conclude:

Preserving our digital heritage is more than just a technical process of perpetuating digital signals over long periods of time. It is also a social and cultural process, in the sense of selecting what materials should be preserved, and in what form; it is an economic process, in the sense of matching limited means with ambitious objectives; it is a legal process, in the sense of defining what rights and privileges are needed to support maintenance of a permanent scholarly and cultural record. It is a question of responsibilities and incentives, and of articulating and organizing new forms of curatorial practice. And perhaps most importantly, it is an ongoing, long-term commitment, often shared, and cooperatively met, by many stakeholders.

As experience in managing the long-term stewardship of digital materials accumulates, there will likely be even more ways we will need to look at digital preservation in the course of building digital information environments that endure over time. But this should come as no surprise: after all, Wallace Stevens found at least thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.