Administrative Note: New Blog URL

For several years, I’ve hosted my personal blog at http://chrisaldrich.wordpress.com. This week I’ve moved everything over to a new address at http://boffosocko.com.

Those who have previously been subscribed by email will continue to receive email notifications of new posts as before.  WordPress.com followers will only see new posts in the Reader. You will not receive email updates unless you subscribe to receive those on the new site.  Some older subscribers may have missed one or two recent posts in the transition this week, so feel free to take a moment to catch up.

Others subscribed via RSS may potentially need to update their RSS feeds to reflect the change.

I’ve set up 301 page redirects so that those visiting old URL pages should automatically be redirected to the appropriate pages, but some may need to use the search box functionality to find the article or notes they were looking for.

If you have any issues/problems in this transition that you can’t seem to remedy directly, please email me directly; I’m happy to help.

Thanks for reading!

 

Reframing What Academic Freedom Means in the Digital Age

Creation of a Task Force on Academic Freedom

Not long ago, my alma mater Johns Hopkins University announced the creation of a task force on Academic Freedom.   Since then, I’ve corresponded with the group on a few occasions and in the spirit of my notes to them, I thought I’d share some of those thoughts with others in the academy, science writers/communicators, and even the general public who may also find them useful.  Toward that end, below is a slightly modified version of my two main emails to the task force. [They’ve been revised marginally for their appearance and readability in this format and now also include section headings.] While I’m generally writing about Johns Hopkins as an example, I’m sure that the majority of it also applies to the rest of the academy.

On a personal note, the first email has some interesting thoughts and background, while the second email has some stronger broader recommendations.

Jacques-Louis David's  (1787) Oil on canvas entitled "The Death of Socrates"
Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates” (1787, Oil on canvas)

 

My First Thoughts to the Task Force

Matthew Green’s Blog and Questions of National Security

Early in September 2013, there was a rather large PR nightmare created for the university (especially as it regards poor representation within the blogosphere and social media) when interim Dean of the Whiting School of Engineering Andrew Douglas requested to have professor Matthew Green’s web presence modified in relation to an alleged anti-NSA post on it.  Given the increasing level of NSA related privacy news at the time (and since as relates to the ongoing Edward Snowden case), the case was certainly blown out of proportion.  But the Green/NSA story is also one of the most highlighted cases relating to academic freedom in higher education in the last several years, and I’m sure it may be the motivating force behind why the task force was created in the first place.  (If you or the task force is unaware of the issues in that case you can certainly do a quick web search, though one of the foremost followers of the controversy was ArsTechnica which provided this post with most of the pertinent information; alternately take a look at what journalism professor Jay Rosen had to say on the issue in the Guardian.) I’m sure you can find a wealth of additional reportage from the Hopkins Office of News and Information which maintains its daily digests of “Today’s News” from around that time period.

In my mind, much of the issue and the outpouring of poor publicity, which redounded to the university, resulted from the media getting information about the situation via social media before the internal mechanisms of the university had the chance to look at the issue in detail and provide a more timely resolution. [Rumors via social media will certainly confirm Mark Twain’s aphorism that “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”]

While you’re mulling over the issue of academic freedom, I would highly suggest you all closely consider the increased impact of the internet and particularly social media with regard to any policies which are proposed going forward.  As the volunteer creator and initial maintainer of much of Hopkins’ social media presence on both Facebook and Twitter as well as many others for their first five years of existence (JHU was the first university in these areas of social media and most other major institutions followed our early lead), I have a keen insight to how these tools impact higher education.  With easy-to-use blogging platforms and social media (Matthew Green had both a personal blog that was hosted outside the University as well as one that was mirrored through the University as well as a Twitter account), professors now have a much larger megaphone and constituency than they’ve had any time in the preceding 450 years of the academy.  This fact creates unique problems as it relates to the university, its image, how it functions, and how its professoriate interact with relation to academic freedom, which is a far different animal than it had been even 17 years ago at the dawn of the internet age. Things can obviously become sticky and quickly as evinced in the Green/APL situation which was exacerbated by the APL’s single source of income at a time when the NSA and privacy were foremost in the public eye.

What are Some of the Issues for Academic Freedom in the Digital Age?

Consider the following:

  • How should/shouldn’t the university regulate the border of social media and internet presence at  the line between personal/private lives and professional lives?
  • How can the university help to promote/facilitate the use of the internet/social media to increase the academic freedom of its professoriate and simultaneously lower the technological hurdles as well as the generational hurdles faced by the academy? (I suspect that few on the task force have personal blogs or twitter accounts, much less professional blogs hosted by the university beyond their simple “business card” information pages through their respective departments.)
  • How should the university handle issues like the Matthew Green/APL case so that comments via social media don’t gain steam and blow up in the media before the university has a chance to handle them internally? (As I recall, there were about two news cycles of JHU saying “no comment” and resulting bad press which reached the level of national attention prior to a resolution.)
  • How can the university help to diffuse the issues which led up to the Green/APL incident before they happen?
  • What type of press policy can the university create to facilitate/further academic freedom? (Here’s a bad example from professor Jonathan Katz/Washington University with some interesting commentary.)

I hope that the task force is able to spend some time with Dr. Green discussing his case and how it was handled.

Personal Reputation on the Internet in a Connected Age

I also suggest that the students on the task force take a peek into the case file of JHU’s Justin Park from 2007, which has become a textbook-case for expression on the internet/in social media and its consequences (while keeping in mind that it was a social/cultural issue which was the root cause of the incident rather than malice or base racism – this aspect of the case wasn’t/isn’t highlighted in extant internet reportage – Susan Boswell [Long-time Dean of Sudent Life] and Student Activities head Robert Turner can shed more light on the situation). Consider what would the university have done if Justin Park had been a professor instead of a student? What role did communication technology and the internet play in how these situations played out now compared to how they would have been handled when Dr. Grossman was a first year professor just starting out? [Editor’s note: Dr. Grossman is an incredible thought leader, but most of his life and academic work occurred prior to the internet age. Though unconfirmed, I suspect that his internet experience or even experience with email is exceedingly limited.]

Academic Samizdat

In a related issue on academic freedom and internet, I also hope you’re addressing or at least touching on the topic of academic samizdat, so that the university can put forward a clear (and thought-leading) policy on where we stand there as well.  I could certainly make a case that the university come out strongly in favor of professors maintaining the ability to more easily self-publish without detriment to their subsequent publication chances in major journals (and resultant potential detriment to the arc of their careers), but the political ramifications in this changing landscape are certainly subtle given that the university deals with both major sides as the employer of the faculty while simultaneously being one of the major customers of the institutionalized research publishing industry.  As I currently view the situation, self-publishing and the internet will likely win the day over the major publishers which puts the university in the position of pressing the issue in a positive light to its own ends and that of increasing knowledge for the world. I’m sure Dean Winston Tabb [Dean of the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins] and his excellent staff could provide the task force with some useful insight on this topic. Simultaneously, how can the increased areas of academic expression/publication (for example the rapidly growing but still relatively obscure area known as the “Digital Humanities”) be institutionalized such that publication in what have previously been non-traditional areas be included more formally in promotion decisions? If professors can be incentivized to use some of their academic freedom and expanded opportunities to both their and the university’s benefit, then certainly everyone wins. Shouldn’t academic freedom also include the freedom of where/when to publish without detriment to one’s future career – particularly in an increasingly more rapidly shifting landscape of publication choices and outlets?

The Modern Research University is a Content Aggregator and Distributor (and Should Be Thought of as Such)

Taking the topic even further several steps further, given the value of the professoriate and their intellectual creations and content, couldn’t/shouldn’t the university create a customized platform to assist their employees in disseminating and promoting their own work? As an example, consider the volume of work (approximate 16,000-20,000 journal articles/year, as well as thousands of articles written for newspapers (NY Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.), magazines, and other outlets – academic or otherwise) being generated every year by those within the university.  In a time of decreasing cost of content distribution, universities no longer need to rely on major journals, magazines, television stations, cable/satellite television, et al. to distribute their “product”.  To put things in perspective, I can build the infrastructure to start a 24/7 streaming video service equivalent to both a television station and a major newspaper in my garage for the capital cost about $10,000.)  Why not bring it all in-house with the benefit of academic flexibility as an added draw to better support the university and its mission?  (Naturally, this could all be cross-promoted to other outlets after-the-fact for additional publicity.)  At a time when MOOC’s (massively open online courseware) are eroding some of the educational mission within higher education and journals are facing increased financial pressures, perhaps there should be a new model of the university as a massive content/information creation engine and distributor for the betterment of humanity? And isn’t that what Johns Hopkins already is at heart? We’re already one of the largest knowledge creators on the planet, why are we not also simultaneously one of the largest knowledge disseminators – particularly at a time when it is inexpensive to do so, and becoming cheaper by the day?

[Email closing formalities removed]

 

Expanded Thoughts on Proactive Academic Freedom

Reframing What Academic Freedom Means in the Digital Age

[Second email opening removed]

Upon continued thought and reading on the topic of academic freedom as well as the associated areas of technology, I might presuppose (as most probably do) that the committee will be looking more directly at the concept of preventing the university from impeding the freedom of its faculty and what happens in those situations where action ought to be taken for the benefit of the wider community (censure, probation, warnings, etc.).  If it hasn’t been brought up as a point yet, I think one of the most positive things the university could do to improve not only academic freedom, but the university’s position in relation to its competitive peers, is to look at the opposite side of the proverbial coin and actually find a way for the university to PROACTIVELY help promote the voices of its faculty and assist them in broadening their reach.

I touched upon the concept tangentially in my first email (see above), but thought it deserved some additional emphasis, examples to consider, and some possible recommendations. Over the coming decades, the aging professoriate will slowly retire to be replaced with younger faculty who grew up completely within the internet age and who are far more savvy about it as well as the concepts of Web 2.0, the social web and social media. More will be literate in how to shoot and edit short videos and how to post them online to garner attention, readership, and acceptance for their ideas and viewpoints.

The recent PBS Frontline documentary “Generation Like” features a handful of pre-teens and teens who are internet sensations and garnering hundreds of thousands to millions of views of their content online.  But imagine for a minute: a savvy professoriate that could do something similar with their academic thought and engaging hundreds, thousands, or millions on behalf of Johns Hopkins?  Or consider the agency being portrayed in the documentary [about 30 minutes into the documentary] that helps these internet sensations and what would happen if that type of functionality was taken on by the Provost’s office?

I could presuppose that with a cross-collaboration of the Provost’s office, the Sheridan Libraries, the Film & Media Studies Department, the Digital Media Center, and the Communications Office as an institution we should be able to help better train faculty who are not already using these tools to improve their web presences and reach.

What “Reach” Do Academics Really Have?

I’ve always been struck by my conversations with many professors about the reach of their academic work. I can cite the particular experience of Dr. P.M. Forni, in the Department of Romance Languages at Krieger, when he told me that he’s written dozens of academic papers and journal articles, most of which have “at most a [collective] readership of at most 11 people on the planet” – primarily because academic specialties have become so niche. He was completely dumbfounded on the expanded reach he had in not only writing a main-stream book on the topic of civility, which was heavily influenced by his academic research and background, but in the even more drastically expanded reach provided to him by appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show shortly after its release. Certainly his experience is not a common one, but there is a vast area in between that is being lost, not only by individual professors, but by the university by extension.  Since you’re likely aware of the general numbers of people reading academic papers, I won’t bore you, but for the benefit of those on the committee I’ll quote a recent article from Pacific Standard Magazine and provide an additional reference from Physics World, 2007:

A study at Indiana University found that ‘as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.’ That same study concluded that ‘some 90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited.’ That is, nine out of 10 academic papers—which both often take years to research, compile, submit, and get published, and are a major component by which a scholar’s output is measured—contribute little to the academic conversation.

Some Examples of Increased Reach in the Academy

To provide some examples and simple statistics on where something like this might go, allow me to present the following brief references:

As a first example, written by an academic about academia, I suggest you take a look at  a recent blog post “Why academics should blog and an update on readership” by Artem Kaznatcheev, a researcher in computer science and psychology at McGill University, posting on a shared blog named “Theory, Evolution, and Games Group”. He provides a clear and interesting motivation in the first major portion of his essay, and then unwittingly (for my example), he shows some basic statistics indicating a general minimum readership of 2,000 people which occasionally goes as high as 8,000.  (Knowing how his platform operates and provides base-line statistics that he’s using, it’s likely that his readership is actually possibly higher.) If one skims through the blog, it’s obvious that he’s not providing infotainment type of material like one would find on TMZ, Buzzfeed, or major media outlets, but genuine academic thought – AND MANAGING TO REACH A SIZEABLE AUDIENCE! I would posit that even better, that his blog enriching not only himself and his fellow academy colleagues, but a reasonable number of people outside of the academy and therefore the world.

Another example of an even more technical academic blog can be found in that of Dr. Terrence Tao, a Fields Medal winner (the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel prize), and mathematics professor at UCLA. You’ll note that it’s far more technical and rigorous than Dr. Kaznatcheev’s, and though I don’t have direct statistics to back it up, I can posit based on the number of comments his blog has that his active readership is even much higher. Dr. Tao uses his blog to not only expound upon his own work, but uses it to post content for classes, to post portions of a book in process, and to promote the general mathematics research community. (I note that the post he made on 3/19, already within a day has 11 comments by people who’ve read it close enough to suggest typography changes as well as sparked some actual conversation on a topic that requires an education to at least the level of a master’s degree in mathematics.

Business Insider recently featured a list of 50 scientists to follow on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, and blogs amongst others). While there are a handful of celebrities and science journalists, many of those featured are professors or academics of one sort or another and quite a few of them are Ph.D. candidates (the beginning of the upcoming generation of tech-savvy future faculty I mentioned). Why aren’t there any JHU professors amongst those on this list?

As another clear example, consider the recent online video produced by NPR’s “Science Friday” show featuring research about Water flowing uphill via the Leidenfrost Effect. It is not only generally interesting research work, but this particular research is not only a great advertisement for the University of Bath, it’s a great teaching tool for students, and it features the research itself as well as the involvement of undergraduates in the research. Though I’ll admit that producing these types of vignettes is not necessarily simple, imagine the potential effect on the awareness of the university’s output if we could do this with even 10% of the academic research paper output? Imagine these types of videos as inspiring tools to assist in gaining research funding from government agencies or as fundraising tools for Alumni and Development relations? And how much better that they could be easily shared and spread organically on the web, not necessarily by the JHU Corporate Umbrella, but by its faculty, students, alumni, and friends.

How Does the Academy Begin Accomplishing All of This?

To begin, I’ll mention that Keswick’s new video lab or the Digital Media Center at Homewood and a few others like them are a great start, but they are just the tip of the iceberg (and somewhat unfortunate that faculty from any division will have to travel to use the Keswick facility, if they’re even notionally aware of it and its capabilities).

I recall Mary Spiro, a communications specialist/writer with the Institute of NanoBioTechnology, doing a test-pilot Intersession program in January about 4 years ago in which she helped teach a small group of researchers how to shoot and edit their own films about their research or even tours through their lab. Something like this program could be improved, amplified, and rolled out on a much larger basis. It could also be integrated or dovetailed, in part, with the Digital Media Center and the Film and Media Studies program at Krieger to assist researchers in their work.

The Sheridan Libraries provide teaching/training on using academic tools like bibliographic programs Mendeley.com, RefWorks, Zotero, but they could extend them to social media, blogging, or tools like FigShare, GitHub, and others.

Individual departments or divisions could adopt and easily maintain free content management platforms like WordPress and Drupal (I might even specifically look at their pre-configured product for academia known as OpenScholar, for example take a look at Harvard’s version.) This would make it much easier for even non-technicalminded faculty to more easily come up to speed by removing the initial trouble of starting a blog. It also has the side benefit of allowing the university to assist in ongoing maintenance, backup, data maintenance, hosting, as well as look/feel, branding as well as web optimization. (As a simple example, and not meant to embarrass them, but despite the fact that the JHU Math Department may have been one of the first departments in the university to be on the web, it’s a travesty that their website looks almost exactly as it did 20 years ago, and has less content on it than Terrence Tao’s personal blog which he maintains as a one man operation. I’m sure that some of the issue is political in the way the web has grown up over time at Hopkins, but the lion’s share is technology and management based.)

The Provost’s office in conjunction with IT and the Sheridan Libraries could invest some time and energy in to compiling resources and vetting them for ease-of-use, best practices, and use cases and then providing summaries of these tools to the faculty so that each faculty member need not re-invent the wheel each time, but to get up and running more quickly.  This type of resource needs to be better advertised and made idiot-proof (for lack of better terminology) to ease faculty access and adoption. Online resources like the Chronicle of Education’s ProfHacker blog can be mined for interesting tools and use cases, for example.

I know portions of these types of initiatives are already brewing in small individual pockets around the university, but they need to be brought together and better empowered as a group instead of as individuals working separately in a vacuum.  In interacting with people across the institution, this technology area seems to be one of those that has been left behind in the “One Hopkins” initiative.  One of the largest hurdles is the teaching old dogs new tricks to put it colloquially, but the hurdles for understanding and comprehending these new digital tools is coming down drastically by the day. As part of the social contract in the university’s granting and promoting academic freedom, the faculty should be better encouraged (thought certainly not forced) to exercise it.  I’m sure there are mandatory annual seminars on topics like sexual harassment, should there not be mandatory technology trainings as well?

To briefly recap, it would be phenomenal to see the committee make not only their base recommendations on what most consider academic freedom, but to further make a group of strong recommendations about the University proactively teaching, training, and providing a broader array of tools to encourage the active expression of the academic freedom that is provided within Hopkins’ [or even all of the Academy’s] mighty walls.

[Email closing removed]

I certainly welcome any thoughts or comments others may have on these topics. Please feel free to add them in the comments below.

 

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CECAM Workshop: “Entropy in Biomolecular Systems”

On Friday, I had an excellent and stimulating conversation with Arieh Ben-Naim about his recent writing and work, and he mentioned in passing that he had been invited to a conference relating to entropy and biology in Vienna.  A quick websearch found it quickly, and not having heard about it myself yet, I thought I’d pass it along to others who are regular readers and interested in the area.

The workshop on “Entropy in Biomolecular Systems” is being hosted by the Centre Européen de Calcul Atomique et Moléculaire (CECAM)

Logo for the Centre Européen de Calcul Atomique et Moléculaire (CECAM)

Location: DACAM, Max F. Perutz Laboratories, University of Vienna, Dr. Bohrgasse 9, A-1030, Vienna, Austria
Dates: May 14, 2014 to May 17, 2014

The workshop is being organized by:

  • Richard Henchman (University of Manchester, United Kingdom)
  • Bojan Zagrovic (University of Vienna, Austria)
  • Michel Cuendet (Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, Lausanne, Switzerland and Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, USA)
  • Chris Oostenbrink (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Austria)

It’s being supported by CECAM, the European Research Council, and the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics Group.

I’ll note that the registration deadline is on April 21 with a payment deadline of April 30, so check in quickly if you haven’t already.

The summary from the workshop website states:

This workshop brings together the world’s experts to address the challenges of determining the entropy of biomolecular systems, either by experiment or computer simulation. Entropy is one the main driving forces for any biological process such as binding, folding, partitioning and reacting. Our deficient understandng of entropy, however, means that such important processes remain controversial and only partially understood. Contributions of water, ions, cofactors, and biomolecular flexibility are actively examined but yet to be resolved. The state-of-the-art of each entropy method will be presented and explained, highlighting its capabilities and deficiencies. This will be followed by intensive discussion on the main areas that need improving, leading suitable actions and collaborations to address the main biological and industrial questions.

Further details on the workshop can be found on the CECAM website.

 

As always, details on other upcoming workshops and conferences relating to information theory and biology can be found on our ITBio Conferences/Workshops page.

 

 

2014 Andrew J. Viterbi Distinguished Lecture in Communication: Abbas El Gamal

The USC Viterbi School has recently announced Professor Abbas El Gamal of Stanford University will present the 2014 Andrew J. Viterbi Distinguished Lecture in Communication. The 12th annual lecture entitled “Common Information” will be given on Thursday, April 17, 2014 at 4:00 PM at the University of Southern California in the Seeley Wintersmith Mudd Memorial Hall of Philosophy (MHP) room 101. A reception will precede the lecture at 3:00 PM.

USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering has provided the following abstract for the talk:

Entropy, introduced by Shannon in 1948, arises naturally as a universal measure of information in single-source compression, randomness extraction, and random number generation. In distributed systems, such as communication networks, multiprocessors, distributed storage, and sensor networks, there are multiple correlated sources to be processed jointly. The information that is common between these sources can be utilized, for example, to reduce the amount of communication needed for compression, computing, simulation, and secret key generation. My talk will focus on the question of how such common information should be measured. While our understanding of common information is far from complete, I will aim to demonstrate the richness of this question through the lens of network information theory. I will show that, depending on the distributed information processing task considered, there can be several well-motivated measures of common information. Along the way, I will present some of the key models, ideas, and tools of information theory, which invite further investigation into this intriguing subject. Some parts of this talk are based on recent joint work with Gowtham Kumar and Cheuk Ting Li and on discussions with Young-Han Kim.

Headshot of Abbas El GamalBiography: Abbas El Gamal is the Hitachi America Professor in the School of Engineering and Chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University. He received his Ph.D. degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1978. He was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Southern California (USC) from 1978 to 1980. His research interests and contributions have spanned the areas of information theory, wireless networks, CMOS imaging sensors and systems, and integrated circuit design and design automation. He has authored or coauthored over 200 papers and 30 patents in these areas. He is coauthor of the book Network Information Theory (Cambridge Press 2011). He has won several honors and awards, including the 2012 Claude E. Shannon Award, and the 2004 Infocom best paper award. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the IEEE. He has been active in several IEEE societies, including serving on the Board on Governors of the IT society where he is currently its President. He cofounded and/or served in various leadership roles at several semiconductor, EDA, and biotechnology companies.

Audiences: Everyone Is Invited

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“Living in Cybernetics” – 50th Anniversary Conference of the American Society for Cybernetics

The American Society for Cybernetics is currently planning their 50th Anniversary Conference. Entitled “Living in Cybernetics”, it will be held between August 3 and August 9, 2014, at George Washington University in Washington D.C. For more registration and additional details please visit the conference website.

 

Living in Cybernetics

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What I Use: April 2014

The first in an occasional look at the technology I use regularly

Friends, family and colleagues are frequently asking my advice on what kind of devices and software I find most useful.  So following in the tradition of Bernard Pivot and subsequently the Actor’s Studio, and sites like LifeHacker, Supersite for Windows, and many others, I’ve borrowed a handful of standard “get-to-know-you” type of questions that others might find helpful.

Keep in mind that given an infinite budget, I’d have quite a bit more or possibly be using something slightly different or more recent, but the following are things I actually use on an almost daily basis. I also have a large handful of occasional devices and tricks that are not included in the list for brevity.

Fifty years from now, this list should also be fairly entertaining to reread.

 

Primary equipment

Mobile device

Samsung Galaxy S III

Computer

Lenovo Thinkpad Edge E431; I’m enamored of the fact that the operating system lives on a small internal SSD for incredibly fast boot times.

Operating system(s)

I am using the final, shipping professional version of Windows 8.1 with Update 1 on my primary laptop PC.  I have a multi-boot set up on a 10″ Asus EeePC with XP, Windows 7, JoliOS (flavor of Linux), and a multi-boot set up on an HP desktop with XP, Vista, Windows 7, and the latest Ubuntu Linux.

Productivity

I haven’t found a reason to really upgrade from the Microsoft Office 2007 Small Business suite of tools including Word, Excel, and Outlook, which I use on a regular basis, but  I’ve seriously been considering getting Office 365 Home Premium. For the bulk of my writing though, I usually eschew Word and use WinEdt as a text editor/user interface in combination with a MiKTeX installation and Adobe Acrobat to typeset in LaTeX – the output is simply glorious. Lately I’ve also been working at rolling git version control into the mixture with Bitbucket. I use a variety of online storage solutions in addition to Google Drive and SkyDrive Pro, but my primary account is on Dropbox which does an excellent job of syncing files across platforms as well as sharing document with others. I generally use it by way of their Windows integrated application which makes for a very seamless workflow. For email, contacts, and calendar management, I primarily use Outlook.  But I also have a well-exercised Gmail account for sifting most of my social media accounts, as well as a lot of bacon and spam.

Internet and communications

For web browsing, I use the latest version of Google Chrome typically to the exclusion of all others. For instant messaging and video chat I use either Skype or Google Hangouts depending on the others involved, though I generally prefer Hangouts. I obviously use WordPress, but also have a few sites running Drupal as well. I do not use any third party security software as Windows Defender in Windows 8.1 includes anti-virus functionality and this seems to be more than enough. Generally just not clicking on any links you aren’t 100% certain are secure will cover most problems with viruses and malware.

Digital media

Music: I rarely, if ever, purchase music online or otherwise.  I bounce back and forth between free versions of Pandora and Spotify, though I tend to spend much more time on Spotify lately. Most of my owned music, audiobooks, and video content is managed through iTunes. I use DoubleTwist to sync to my Android devices.

Video: Netflix is the primary video service I use on an almost daily basis, though Amazon Prime’s streaming services is a fairly close second. Given the general availability of the content I want to watch, I find it rare to need to purchase any video content on any other platforms. I don’t often rip DVD’s, but when I do, I love Handbrake, which seems to be the sine qua non in the area.

Books: I have such a complicated set up with regard to ebooks, it will take an entire post to cover it all.  In simplest terms, I manage everything through a well-integrated combination of Calibre, Goodreads.com, Amazon’s Kindle, Adobe Digital Editions, Adobe Acrobat Reader, DJView, and Dropbox. Most books I get are either purchased through Amazon or are borrowed from a litany of local public libraries. I’ve spent the last several years converting almost all the reading I do to electronic reading. I still prefer to read on paper, but the overall process is much simpler in digital.

Audiobooks: I’ve loved Audible.com for a long time, but I’m currently on a short hiatus from it playing catch up on some of the content I’ve accumulated over the past couple of years. It’s a truly lovely service.  I also often use the Overdrive service through several local libraries for downloading and listening to audiobooks. While Overdrive is clunky and smothered in DRM, it works and is just good enough, and I’ve yet to find anything better that is free. When necessary, I’ll also borrow CD’s from the local library for listening as well.

Photos: I generally do a horrible job of managing my thousands of photos, but what little effort I do put forth goes into both Google+ Photos with Picasa or into the auto-backup feature in Dropbox.

Other applications and utilities

Feedly.com, TweetDeck, Mendeley.com, GetPocket.com,

Android Phone/Tablet apps

My favorites and most often used include: Waze, Evernote, Foursquare, Google Hangouts, DoubleTwist, Amazon Kindle, OverDrive Media, Audible, Facebook, Pocket, Netflix, Coursera Companion, Instagram, Path, Starbucks, Key Ring, Dropbox, Mailbox, Pandora, Flipboard. There are others, but I rarely use many of them.

 

 

Home technology

Television

I’m using a Samsung Series 5, 40″ LCD flatscreen.  Though there are certainly much newer models out there, this really has everything I could want and supplies a fantastic picture as well as even native sound.  Until the mansion arrives, or California housing prices drop precipitously, this is probably more television than I even need. For service, though I also pay for Comcast cable (just to get internet service), I only use DirecTV which, though I desperately love, I have a feeling I’ll eventually dump it to live a complete cord-cutter life.

Set-top boxes

In addition to a DirectTV HD DVR, I also have a Roku XD|S and Google Chomecast.  Though I enjoy the Roku, the user interface could be much better.  The Chromecast gets far more daily use, particularly for Netflix integration (via either a tablet or cell phone) and in my mind is the clear winner for being drop-dead easy-to-use. I particularly love the fact that the Chromecast automatically turns on the television and changes the internal television tuner, so I don’t need to pick up other devices to control the television.  I’ll also frequently use a mini-HDMI to HDMI adapter to connect my Kindle Fire HD to the television for streaming Amazon Prime video to the television as well.

Kitchen

  • Coffee: I’m not a total fiend in this department and usually prefer soda or tea, but when necessary, a simple Bodum French press in combination with a Kitchen Aide coffee grinder are just lovely.
  • Mixer: Life wouldn’t be complete without my 325 Watt Artisan Kitchen Aide stand mixer with a handful of attachments.
  • Soda maker: At the beginning of the year, I got a SodaStream and have been making my own carbonated beverages. Nothing is really quite as good as a Coke or a Dr. Pepper, but it’s been more creative and entertaining than pursuing my old habits.
  • Scale: I believe Fannie Farmer irreparably destroyed much of what could have been some superb American cuisine and any semblance of science in the kitchen, so I avidly use my Salter 3003 Aquatronic Glass Electronic Kitchen Scale to begin the healing.
  • Thermometers:  Among many others I primarily rely on a Maverick CT-03 Oil & Candy Digital Thermometer and a CDN DSP1 Dual Sensing Probe Thermometer and Timer

 

 

Free-form Broad Questions

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Why?

Calibre – For my 2000+ ebooks, this is an indispensable e-book and document program that is to books as iTunes is to music. I also use it to download dozens of magazines and newspapers on a daily basis for reading on my Kindle. I love that it’s under constant development with weekly updates for improved functionality.

Waze – When living in Los Angeles, this real-time traffic application often saves me anywhere from 30-90 minutes of time in traffic a day; it also has the side benefit of helping you explore parts of the city you might not find otherwise.

DoubleTwist – Since I’m an avid Android fan, I use this simple app to dovetail my music and video collections in iTunes to sync with my other digital devices.

What’s your workspace setup like?

My WorkspaceFor the past couple of years I’ve been using a 1962 McDowell & Craig executive tanker desk that I refinished in 2008 and I use a matching chair which I painstakingly reupholstered by hand in late 2013. I often use the custom made glass top with dry-erase markers to sketch out ideas or write disposable notes and also place photos and incunabula of various sorts underneath it. I’ve been tempted to do a standing desk but as yet haven’t. I’m half tempted to follow the lead of film editor Walter Murch and set my desk up on cinder blocks to jack it up to waist level.

What’s your best time-saving/shortcut/life hack?

It’s probably not the best, but at the beginning of the New Year, I had read some material about slimming down my wallet, which had gotten a bit out of control, and though it hasn’t been a major life-changer, the subtle differences have improved my daily life and workflow as a result. Using the android app Keyring or the Google Wallet app has helped significantly in reducing the amount of plastic I carry in my wallet. Everyone should have at least 10 library cards, but no one should have to carry them in their wallet (or on their keychain).

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

I primarily use a very customized version of Outlook and its  task functionality to track my to do list items, but I’m also progressively using Evernote for some tasks. I’ve lately taken to using Evernote as my commonplace book.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?

My Kindle Fire 7″ HD is indispensable and I primarily use it only for reading as well as the occasional Netflix screening.  I’ve also had some great experiences lately with my new Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag and my Zojurishi Travel Mug – I don’t know how I managed without them before.

For education purposes (primarily lectures), I am absolutely in love with my Livescribe Pulse Pen. I own three different versions. Every student on the planet should have one.

I could maybe live without them, but I’ve had a 30 year love affair with my Pentel 0.5mm and 0.7mm mechanical pencils, and they’ve literally lasted that long.

What do you listen to while you work?

Most often, lately, it’s been concert music from the past 500 years as well as some jazz work I’ve been exploring.  I’ve lately been re-exploring the late 70’s and early 80’s music which I missed in my very early youth.  Often I’ll also sample material friends and colleagues are listening to which is relatively easy on both Pandora and Spotify.

What are you currently reading?

Generally I’m actively reading 4-5 books at a time and less-actively up to 15 or so.  I use Goodreads.com to manage my reading lists, to find recommendations from others, and in part to catalog my library (though I’m far from having everything I own there).  I usually tend toward non-fiction, science, math, history and biography when reading for pleasure, though the occasional fiction piece will work its way into the stack. I’m a sucker for great youth literature.

Because of my commuting habits, I’ve also taken to listening to audiobooks and particularly course titles from The Learning Company’s Great Courses Series over the past several years. They’re not only educational, but they’re almost always very entertaining.

My specific active reading list right now includes:

And I’m currently listening to:

What are you currently watching on television?

I regularly watch Modern Family, The Big Bang, Hannibal, Charlie Rose, Person of Interest, Suits, PBS News Hour, The Good Wife, Downton Abbey, White Collar, Major Crimes, Psych, Parks & Recreation, Blue Bloods, The Profit, Restaurant: Impossible, Grimm, Perception Recent one-off shows include: H2’s Big History Series and Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews

 

Bernard Pivo-esque section

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?

I have a generally better memory than most. Though it was naturally good when I was younger, I ran across the concepts of the major system and the method of loci (aka the memory palace) at an early age and they have helped significantly.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I never seem to sleep as much as most, but lately I’ve been getting 5-6 hours of sleep at night usually from 2-7am. I’m far from a morning person and most of my best thinking hours are from 11pm to 2am.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?

I grew up definitely as an introvert, but during college I managed to force myself to be an extrovert. These days I move between the two as my mood and social circumstances dictate.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Some know it as the “Golden Rule,” but “Treat other people like you want to be treated.” I highly recommend people read How to Win Friends and Influence People.

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Rap Genius, a Textual Annotation Browser for Education, Digital Humanities, Science, and Publishing

Since the beginning of January, I’ve come back to regularly browsing and using the website Rap GeniusI’m sure that some of the education uses including poetry and annotations of classics had existed the last time I had visited, but I was very interested in seeing some of the scientific journal article uses which I hadn’t seen before. Very quickly browsing around opened up a wealth of ideas for using the platform within the digital humanities as well as for a variety of educational uses.

Rap Genius logo

Overview of Rap Genius

Briefly, the Rap Genius website was originally set up as an innovative lyrics service to allow users to not only upload song lyrics, but to mark them up with annotations as to the meanings of words, phrases, and provide information about the pop-culture references within the lyrics themselves.  (It’s not too terribly different from Google’s now-defunct Sidewicki or the impressive Highbrow, textual annotation browser, but has some subtle differences as well as improvements.)

Users can use not only text, but photos, video, and even audio to supplement the listings. Built-in functionality includes the ability to link the works to popular social media audio services SoundCloud, and Spotify as well as YouTube. Alternately one might think of it as VH1’s “Pop-up Video”, but for text on the Internet. Ultimately the site expanded to include the topics of rock, poetry, and news.  The rock section is fairly straightforward following the format of the rap section while the poetry section includes not only works of poetry (from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to the King James version of The Bible), but also plays (the works of William Shakespeare) and complete novels (like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.) News includes articles as well as cultural touchstones like the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner Speech and the recent State of the Union. Ultimately all of the channels within Rap Genius platform share the same types of functionality, but are applied to slightly different categories to help differentiate the content and make things easier to find.  Eventually there may be a specific “Education Genius” (or other) landing page(s) to split out the content in the future depending on user needs.

On even its first blush, I can see this type of website functionality being used in a variety of educational settings including Open Access Journals, classroom use, for close readings, for MOOCs, publishing in general, and even for maintaining simple-to-use websites for classes. The best part is that the ecosystem is very actively growing and expanding with a recent release of an iPhone app and an announcement of a major deal with Universal to license music lyrics.

General Education Use

To begin with, Rap Genius’ YouTube channel includes an excellent short video on how Poetry Genius might be used in a classroom setting for facilitating close-readings. In addition to the ability to make annotations, the site can be used to maintain a class specific website (no need to use other blogging platforms like WordPress or Blogger for things like this anymore) along with nice additions like maintaining a class roster built right in.  Once material begins to be posted, students and teachers alike are given a broad set of tools to add content, make annotations, ask questions, and provide answers in an almost real-time setting.

Screen capture from Poetry Genius featuring The Great Gatsby

MOOC Use Cases

Given the rapid growth of the MOOC-revolution (massively open online courseware) over the past several years, one of the remaining difficulties in administering such a class can hinge not only on being able to easily provide audio visual content to students, but allow them a means of easily interacting with it and each other in the learning process.  Poetry Genius (aka Education Genius) has a very interesting view into solving both of these problems, and, in fact, I can easily see the current version of the platform being used to replace competing platforms like Coursera, EdX, Udacity and others in a whole cloth fashion.

Currently most MOOC’s provide some type of simple topic-based threaded fora in which students post comments and questions as well as answers.  In many MOOCs this format becomes ungainly because of the size of the class (10,000+ students) and the quality of the content which is being placed into it. Many students simply eschew the fora because the time commitment per amount of knowledge/value gained is simply not worth their while. Within the Poetry Genius platform, students can comment directly on the material or ask questions, or even propose improvements, and the administrators (the professor or teaching assistants in this case) can accept, reject or send feedback request to students to amend their work and add it to the larger annotated work.  Fellow classmates can also vote up or down individual comments.

As I was noticing the interesting educational-related functionality of the Rap Genius platform, I ran across what is presumably the first MOOC attempting to integrate the platform into its pedagogical structure. Dr. Laura Nasrallah’s HarvardX course “Early Christianity: The Letters of Paul,” which started in January, asks students to also create Poetry Genius accounts to read and comment on the biblical texts which are a part of the course. The difficult portion of attempting to use Poetry Genius for this course is the thousands of “me-too” posters who are simply making what one might consider to be “throw-away” commentary rather than the intended “close reading” commentary for a more academic environment. (This type of posting is also seen in many of the fora-based online courses.) Not enough students are contributing substantial material, and when they are, it needs to be better and more quickly edited and curated into the main post to provide greater value to students as they’re reading along. Thus when 20,000 students jump into the fray, there’s too much initial chaos and the value that is being extracted out of it upon initial use is fairly limited – particularly if one is browsing through dozens of useless comments. It’s not until after-the-fact – once comments have been accepted/curated – that the real value will emerge. The course staff is going to have to spend more time doing this function in real time to provide greater value to the students in the class, particularly given the high number of people without intense scholarly training just jumping into the system and filling it with generally useless commentary. In internet parlance, the Poetry Genius site is experiencing the “Robert Scoble Effect” which changes the experience on it. (By way of explanation, Robert Scoble is a technology journalist/pundit/early-adopter with a massive follower base.  His power-user approach and his large following can drastically change his experience with web-based technology compared to the  common everyday user. It can also often bring down new services as was common in the early days of the social media movement.)

Typically with the average poem or rap song, the commentary grows slowly/organically and is edited along the way. In a MOOC setting with potentially hundreds of thousands of students, the commentary is like a massive fire-hose which makes it seemingly useless without immediate real-time editing. Poetry Genius may need a slightly different model for using their platform in larger MOOC-style courses versus the smaller classroom settings seen in high school or college (10-100 students). In the particular case for “The Letters of Paul,” if the course staff had gone into the platform first and seeded some of the readings with their own sample commentary to act as a model of what is expected, then the students would be a bit more accepting of what is expected. I understand Dr. Nasrallah and her teaching assistants are in the system and annotating as well, but it should also be more obvious which annotations are hers (or those of teaching assistants) to help better guide the “discussion” and act as a model. Certainly the materials generated on Poetry Genius will be much more useful for future students who take the course in future iterations. Naturally, Poetry Genius exists for the primary use of annotation, while I’m sure that the creators will be tweaking classroom-specific use as the platform grows and user needs/requirements change.

As a contrast to the HarvardX class, and for an additional example, one can also take a peek at Cathy Davidson’s Rap Genius presence for her Coursera class “The History and Future (Mostly) of Higher Education.”

Open Access Journal Use

In my mind, this type of platform can easily and usefully be used for publishing open access journal articles. In fact, one could use the platform to self-publish journal articles and leave them open to ongoing peer review. Sadly at present, there seems to be only a small handful of examples on the site, including a PLOS ONE article, which will give a reasonable example of some of the functionality which is possible.  Any author could annotate and footnote their own article as well as include a wealth of photos, graphs, and tables giving a much more multimedia view into their own work.  Following this any academic with an account could also annotate the text with questions, problems, suggestions and all of these can be voted up or down as well as be remedied within the text itself. Other articles can also have the ability to directly cross-reference specific sections of previously posted articles.

Individual labs or groups with “journal clubs” could certainly join in the larger public commentary and annotation on a particular article, but higher level administrative accounts within the system can also create a proverbial clean slate on an article and allow members to privately post up their thoughts and commentaries which are then closed to the group and not visible to the broader public. (This type of functionality can be useful for Mrs. Smith’s 10th grade class annotating The Great Gatsby so that they’re not too heavily influenced by the hundreds or possibly thousands of prior comments within a given text as they do their own personal close readings.) One may note that some of this type of functionality can already be seen in competitive services like Mendeley, but the Rap Genius platform seems to take the presentation and annotation functionalities to the next level. For those with an interest in these types of uses, I recommend Mendeley’s own group: Reinventing the Scientific Paper.

A Rap Genius representative indicated they were pursuing potential opportunities with JSTOR that might potentially expand on these types of opportunities.

Publishing

Like many social media related sites including platforms like WordPress, Tumblr, and Twitter, Rap Genius gives it’s users the ability to self-publish almost any type of content. I can see some excellent cross-promotional opportunities with large MOOC-type classes and the site. For example, professors/teachers who have written their own custom textbooks for MOOCs (eg. Keith Devlin’s Introduction to Mathematical Thinking course at Stanford via Coursera) could post up the entire text on the Poetry Genius site and use it not only to correct mistakes/typos and make improvements over time, but they can use it to discover things which aren’t clear to students who can make comments, ask questions, etc. There’s also the possibility that advanced students can actively help make portions clear themselves when there are 10,000+ students and just 1-2 professors along with 1-2 teaching assistants. Certainly either within or without the MOOC movement, this type of annotation set up may work well to allow authors to tentatively publish, edit, and modify their textbooks, novels, articles, journal articles, monographs, or even Ph.D. theses. I’m particularly reminded of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s open writing/editing of her book Planned Obsolescence via Media Commons. Academics could certainly look at the Rap Genius platform as a simpler more user-friendly version of this type of process.

Other Uses

I’m personally interested in being able to annotate science and math related articles and have passed along some tips for the Rap Genius team to include functionality like mathjax to be able to utilize Tex/LaTeX related functionality for typesetting mathematics via the web in the future.

Naturally, there are a myriad of other functionalities that can be built into this type of platform – I’m personally waiting for a way to annotate episodes of “The Simpsons”, so I can explain all of the film references and in-jokes to friends who laugh at their jokes, but never seem to know why – but I can’t write all of them here myself.

Interested users can easily sign up for a general Rap Genius account and dig right into the interface.  Those interested in education-specific functionality can request to be granted an “Educator Account” within the Rap Genius system to play around with the additional functionality available to educators. Every page in the system has an “Education” link at the top for further information and details. There’s also an Educator’s Forum [requires free login] for discussions relating specifically to educational use of the site.

Are there particular (off-label) applications you think you might be able to use the Rap Genius platform for? Please add your comments and thoughts below.

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