Tuesday, May 31, 2005

No More Memorizing

I came across this article at Wired that talks about how a new concept mapping tool that they hope will preserve scientific knowledge, and will serve to help students learn.

My favorite quote from the Wired article; "We need to move education from a memorizing system and repetitive system to a dynamic system,"

Amen to that.

My favorite quote from the mapping site: "The CmapTools client is free for use by anybody, whether its use is commercial or non-commercial. In particular, schools and universities are encouraged to download it and install it in as many computers as desired, and students and teachers may make copies of it and install it at home."

So refreshing...

Another free concept mapping tool is Freemind. It can be found here.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Jeeves and Wooster

P. G. Wodehouse is one of those great authors that would be more widely known if only there weren't all these pesky copyright laws around, and folks could get access to his books (though there are some of them online).

His Jeeves and Wooster books are great, and if you like Stephen Fry and Hugh Lauire, of Black Adder fame, they have brought the magic of the books to the small screen.

I was reading one of Wodehouse's books and came across this quote that just tickles me in all the right spots.

"He's like one of those weird chappies in India who dissolve themselves into thin air and nip through space in a sort of disembodied way and assemble the parts again just where they want them. I've got a cousin who's what they call a Theosophist, and he says he's often nearly worked the thing himself, but couldn't quite bring it off, probably owing to having fed in his boyhood on the flesh of animals slain in anger and pie."

Behold, The Educational Power of Video Games

So I just purchased a copy of Rome Total War. I can't give you a review because I haven't played it quite yet, but I was flipping through some strategy guides and came across the notions of 'flaming pigs' (which, as Dave Barry would say, is an excellent name for a rock group). Technically they are called incindiary pigs, but I can't determine which name is funnier...

Apparently the problem in ancient Rome was that your enemy often had elephants. These elephants liked to squish your infantry, which generally made the infantry grumpy and flat. This can be a real problem for an aspiring Roman general. What to do? The ancients solved it in an ingenious way.

They would route "the besiegers’ elephants by dousing pigs in oil and igniting them and then turning them loose against the elephants"

You read correctly. Live pigs, doused in oil, on fire, scaring elephants. Maybe the same thing could have been done with hobbits against those woolly mammoth things in LOTR.

When you think about it, for the Romans, it was killing two birds with one stone. Not only do you win the battle by making the enemy's elephants turn tail and trample their own troops (how emarrasing for them is THAT?), but now you have a the workings of a killer BBQ to boot. Simply have your light infantry or Phalanx bring up the rear with hard rolls and marshmallows, a bit of brown sugar and ketchup (onion, garlic, a bit of liquid smoke and a pinch of mustard) and the conquering army can have after the battle.

I never learned this little piece of history in any of my 20 years of school, but thanks to the makers of video games, I now know what to do if a stampeding elephant herd ever wanders my way. Give me some charcoal lighter fluid, give me a bic, and stand back!

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

I'll be the Moron Sitting at the Table...

I just heard from my publicist. Ok, she's not really MY publicist, I share her with probably 70 other authors, but 'my publicist' sounds better than 'the communal publicist'.

Anyway, she has me set up for 6 book signings up and down Utah. She said we should have a schedule by the end of the day. She is very nice, and very efficient.

When a reader thinks of a book signing, they probably imagine going down to the local book store, standing in line for a bit, buying a book, then getting it signed by an author. Nothing difficult about that, no stress.

That is how I used to picture them. Let me tell you how I picture them now.

I'm sitting at a little table, surrounded by stacks of my books. People walk in the doors, spot me looking all pathetic at my table, they pretend to become very interested in something on a shelve that allows them to enter the store without having to walk by me (which probably means they need to climb over a few mannequins, through a display window), and then go about their shopping. Every once in a while the wind will blow a tumble weed past my table. Grown men will be embarrassed for me, and little kids will kick me in the shins.

I'm really not looking forward to the signings, because I'm just not a salesman. I feel like just the fact that I'm there in the store, I'm supposed to accost everybody, and convince them to buy my book. That's just not my style. Hey, if you want a book with a chicken on the cover, great. If not, great.

I also feel quite silly about signing my name to something. I always hated signing year books. “Stay cool, don't change, have a fun summer.”

Maybe that's what I'll put in the books, instead of my signature.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Who Owns Ideas?

You can read Lawrence Lessig's opinion over at Technology Review. It's a good article.

My favorite quote is from the Brazillians, ""We're against software piracy. We believe Microsoft's rights should be respected. And the simplest way to respect their rights is for Brazilians everywhere to switch to free software."

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Back in the Day...

Back when I was but a lad, I used to do a lot of reading. I bet almost one in three books I read had something in common. I would be reading along when suddenly I would spot a message written in the margins.

"Turn to page 49."

My heart would skip a beat. Somebody was trying to send me a secret message. It was too important to write on page 8, so they had to send me to page 49 to read it. Maybe somebody was in trouble! Maybe they needed help!

I would flip to page 49, only to find a message that said, "go to page 36". Ahhh, the message was of such importance that they needed to weed out all the little kids who didn't have the patience to turn to multiple pages, or were not smart enough to follow directions.

Flipping to page 36, I would find a message pointing me to page 118, then to page 93, then to page 25. Faster and faster I would flip, following the directions closely.

Finally, I would reach the last page in the thread. There, in the margins, rather than sending me to another page, was the message.

"You are a dunder head."

The final message wasn't always mean. Sometimes it said simply, "Good job", or "I like butter".

Regardless of the message, I always followed the trail. It was detective work without all of the hassle of research, heavy thinking, or getting up out of your chair.

I haven't seen a message like this in a book for years and years and years. I don't know if kids just don't do it anymore, or maybe it's because people who read the books I'm currently reading (game theory, instructional technology, etc,) just don't have any imagination.

When I was little I didn't dare write in books. I was convinced that desecrating a library book was a one-way, express ticket to hell.

Maybe I'll have to pick up Von Neumann's classic book on game theory and economic behavior, and set up a trail of pages for the next lucky reader to follow.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

What to Get Uncle Charlie Who is in the Slammer.

Hey, we are a humane society. If Women get it, and teenagers get it, and golfers get it, then by golly, so should prisoners.

I want a Chicken Soup for the 6 foot (ok, 5'11''), instructional designer's, Ph. D. student's, white boy's, soul.

My favorite is if you scroll down you will see what other people who have purchased this book have bought (all part of the long tail).

Customers who viewed this book also viewed No, you saw correctly. That book really is by Michael Jackson. Hopefully not THE Michael Jackson.

And how cool of a name is Bo Lozoff?

Nice Review...

Maria has a nice reivew of Star Wars III on her blog. I guess it's not really a review, per se, rather a comparison of SW and LOTR. Very funny either way.

Star Wars III

So, I just got back from watching Star Wars III, Revenge of the Sith.

As luck would have it, I've gone to the midnight showing of all three Star Wars episodes. Personally, I feel this is the best way to see it.

I've only witnessed an audience applaud four times at a movie. Tonight was the fourth. The other times were at the first two episodes of Star Wars, and at a movie that I don't even remember anymore, but the applause came when the trailer came on for the re-release of the first three episodes in theaters.

There is no better way to watch Star Wars than with fellow geeks. People had light sabers, people had Jedi robes. The folks behind me talked for a solid 40 minutes about something called the Chewy Effect.

Anyway, the review. This movie is probably my favorite of the first three episodes, and a very enjoyable movie. That being said, I still like the original three much better. Maybe it's because I was a little kid, and the movies just held more magic. My brothers and I were so affected by this movie that we used to play Jedi with a plastic baseball bat. One person would wield it like a light saber while the other brothers threw rocks at him. We knew that if we could only feel the force, we could protect ourselves from the incoming projectiles.

We switched to softer objects after the first bloodletting.

But the first three movies almost are a blur in my mind. Granted, I haven't watched the first two lately, but as far as I can remember, they go something like this.

Episode One is about Anakin. Everybody is amazed at how strong he is in the ways of the force. There are some cool new bad guys, and some cool new good guys, and the good guys beat the bad guys.

In Episode Two we learn more about how Anakin is strong in the ways of the force. There are some cool new bad guys, and some cool new good guys, and the good guys beat the bad guys.

In Episode Three, without giving anything away, Anakin gets even stronger in the force and turns to the dark side (and personally I felt it wasn't at all believable). There are some cool new bad guys, and some cool new good guys, and just to shake things up, the bad guys beat the good guys.

We knew all of this from having watched Star Wars, A New Hope.

I'm probably sounding too harsh. I love Star Wars. Compared to so many other movies, they are a fun, wild ride. I guess I was hoping to feel like I did back in the day, when my dad took me and my brothers to see Star Wars. When Darth Vader stepped onto the ship, I almost wet my pants. He was so evil, and Luke was so good. The good guys won, and all was right with the world.

Back then I used to dream that maybe it was all real. Maybe the Jedi were watching me. And if I practiced hard enough, they would take me out to the stars.

Those days and dreams are over. I'm sure I went in expecting too much. All in all, it was a great film. I think I was hoping for one last escape from reality. To believe, one more time.

I'm off to bed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Wiki Instruction

OK, the last in my troika of thoughts on learning and teaching.

I love Wikipedia. I find it is easy to understand, it's updated much more frequently than other encyclopedias, and you can't beat the price (free).

When I do training or teaching, I find myself constantly evaluating how the instruction is going. Did students get it? What parts were difficult? What did I say that finally got them to understand? What might be a better example to drive the point home?

If I have the opportunity to teach something over and over again, by the 8th or 9th time, I think I do a very good job. I keep the audience involved, I've figured out the quickest and most effective way to teach, and ultimately, I feel, that leads to more 'learning'.

So what if we had a wiki that focused not just on content, but the best way to introduce a learner to content or skills? Maybe they are lesson plans, maybe they are brief articles, but the focus is not on getting content to the reader, rather instructing the reader is an logical and efficient manner.

Wikipedia does this to some extent, but I'd like to see a greater focus on instruction and presentation.

One feature that would be very helpful would be 'layers'. For example, consider instruction on the American Civil War. Maybe at the top level all you have is 5 bulleted points.

  • The Civil War was fought in America.
  • The War was between the Northern and Southern States.
  • The Civil war started in 1861-1865
  • The war was fought over slavery and states rights
  • The Southern states surrendered to the North in 1865.

This might seem very basic, but this would be a good synopsis for somebody who knew nothing about the Civil war. Wouldn't it be nice to have a brief synopsis of the Zulu Civil War of 1817? Or the Russian Civil War of 1917? You could use this level as a lesson plan for a first grade class, or you could read it to have a basic understanding of a historical event.

A second level might include half a page that discusses each point a bit more in depth. Maybe in further levels new points are added, such as the economic situation leading up to the war, notable figures during the war, key events during the war that prolonged the struggle. At the early levels, information would be brief, and easy to understand. Later levels would look at critical points, in-depth analysis, and concepts that move beyond just the basics.

A topic may have 5 levels, or it may have 50. You may also have sub levels. Maybe the battle of Gettysburg starts off with its own 'five bullets', but this information would be a subset of the larger Civil War instructional entry.

This kind of instruction would not be kept just to 'content'. It would include skills as well. How do people learn to program in C++. Is there a good way to teach it? Is there a better way to teach it? What are the 3-5 major steps in learning C++. Where do you start, what do you have to understand first, what order do you follow?

As a user, I could go to a 'surfing the internet' entry and add my two cents. I used to teach senior citizens how to surf the web, and I found they could navigate the internet better if they understood what was really going on. I would add a little module that shows users a diagram of how the internet works. When they understand that they are in fact just requesting information off other computers around the world, they tend to be a bit more comfortable.

Anyway, most wikis never pick up enough users to make them successful. But I think if you could start with public school teachers, and get a nice content base up and running, you might possible end up with something useful.

The Diamond Age

Very cool article about how diamonds are being built more rapidly, and at a high quality.

May those cretins over at De Beers go down in flames.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Discussion Radio

I've been listening to 'talk radio' for about 15 years now. I listen to everything. Right wing, left wing, (anybody else notice the serious dearth of libertarian radio?), sports shows, gardening shows, travel shows... you name it, I listen to it. It beats hanging around the radio dial, hoping beyond hope the station manager plays something decent.

A while ago, after listening to the Doug Wright show on KSL I got the idea of having a discussion board attached to the show. You could listen at work, and then log on and talk about the topics at hand. Rather than just Doug, his host, and one caller at a time discussing things, you could have all sorts of people sharing their opinion. Instead of being talked at, there would be a true discussion.

Excitedly, I wrote to the 'comment' section of the Doug Wright show, and waited for a reply.

And waited, and waited.

I figured maybe it got lost in the shuffle. I wrote about something else, and heard right back. I tried again to suggest the discussion board idea. Nothing.

I tired a third time, but again never heard back.

I don't get why they would balk at this. Isn't talk radio all about discussion? Why not open it up to more voices than just Mr. Wright who often ignores many callers who bring up good points?

I do all my listening in the car. I never turn on a radio at work, or log on to listen to streaming audio. Talk radio is to pass the boredom of the car.

However, if I had a voice on the program, I'd listen in more. I suspect others would do the same.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Perfect Teacher...

I wanted to follow up on my thoughts about “the perfect teaching device”. It seems historically when a new technology comes along, we get this perception of how it's going to change our lives. There is the old anecdote that a former president of IBM predicted that the world market for computers would be a grand total of five. They were big bulky machines, and very expensive. And what would a common house dweller need a house sized adding machine for, anyway?

Similarly, predictions concerning robots were severely inaccurate. The predictions were that robots would clean our house, do our shopping, drive our cars. Robots would take on human form and become our friends (read Issac Asimov's first short story in I, Robot). In fact, robots have proven to be very useful, but for the most part they work on assembly lines and look nothing like us. They are just giant arms that perform a repetitive task.

In fact, as science has advanced, we haven't created a more intimate relationship with technology, rather we've used it to strengthen our relationships with other humans. The internet, e-mail, the cell phone, P2P file sharing. All of it helps us communicate and share with other humans, not technology. Technology is the means by which we share experiences with humans.

So why in education do we insist on creating a computer that is the epitome of the perfect teacher?

Dave Wiley made an interesting comment recently on this subject. He said, “As I interact with an intelligent tutoring system, what will be the source of my inspiration? Who will be the teacher I remember forever, with whom I form a transformative bond of trust, who I know cares and worries about me?”

So I pose a question; instead of trying to make the computer a perfect instructor, why not make it a perfect instructional designer?

Think about it. A good teacher does a lot of things at once. He delivers content. Simultaneously he is evaluating whether or not the students are understanding or are interested in that content. He is watching the eyes, the eyebrows, subtle movements of the mouth and forehead. He listens to the whispers in the room and determines if they are questioning, “I am lost” whispers, or “OK, this makes sense” whispers. Based on that evaluation he adjusts his lesson on the fly to better suit the students' needs. At the same time making mental adjustments for future lessons. Spend more time on topic X, and glide through topic Y.

We can't even get a computer to recognize speech, let alone determine if a brow furrow is a questioning furrow, or a 'wow, this makes sense, let me think about this for a moment' furrow.

But what if we had a computer that just observed. It watched how we solved the puzzles in MYST, it observed what web sites we went to, and which ones we returned to. Maybe it asks us a question here and there; “did you find this web page informative? Do you find this discussion board helpful?” No, I didn't enjoy the full 17 pages of Plato's Apology, but I found the wikipedia summation very helpful. Yes, I understood Coase's Penquin, and found it very insightful, what else is out there on the subject?

Based on the system's observations, it begins to build a learner profile. It begins to steer us toward web pages, discussion boards, and learning objects, not because they are the most popular, but because others people with similar learning styles and interests have found them helpful. It may even begin to tie pieces of instruction together. Before you read this article, perhaps you might enjoy this background found here.

And what I like most about this idea, is that the human element isn't taken out of it. Rather than attempt to teach me the subject, it may take me to a discussion board set up where the subject is being discussed. The computer would serve as a guide, directing us to places where learning and experiences are taking place. Together humans would learn, not from some unfeeling computer programmed with rudimentary commands, but by other living, breathing, intelligent beings.

Plus, the programming would be so much easier.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

My Mustache is Touching My Brain

Since I'm both going to school, and teaching, and writing a book, and working two different jobs, I don't have a lot of free time. I don't watch much TV. But a little over three years ago I caught the first episode of 24, the television show on Fox. I was hooked. Three episodes later, my wife came in to see what the fuss was about, and we haven't missed a show since.

But about a year ago a neighbor friend happened to mention that she only watched two shows on TV , 24 and a not-so-well-known show called Alias. My interest was piqued. About 6 months ago, my wife and I picked up season one. We have been plowing through them ever since, hoping that we can catch up with the episodes on TV.

Since I was making so many trips to the TV section of Hollywood video, I have since picked up a few other television shows. Monk is a fun little show, and I have also greatly enjoyed The Shield. And Firefly IS what the recent Star Trek shows are not. And then of course there are the wonderful Adult Swim shows on the cartoon network.

But I think all of my 'TV' watching has ruined my taste for movies. When I go to the rental store I don't want to pick up a movie that is going to take 2 hours to get through. I'd rather watch a 45-50 minute episode where everything is resolved in less time than it takes to cook my famous apple crisp.

I have been wanting to watch LOTR with my boys, but we just can't seem to find 9 hours of free time.

Maybe I'll rent Bill Nye instead.

The Perfect Teaching Device

I was at a presentation (which was very good, by the way) where we were discussing the possibility of making automated instruction. The goal was to create a system that would pretty much do what a teacher does, only better; because it's a computer. Once you have a program that can do what a human can do, you make a lot of these 'computers' put them in front of students, and we all sit back while people learn.

Dave Wiley was in the room and asked a very interesting question. If you have a computer that knows all of this information, why do you need to learn it in the first place? Why not just use that system as a reference?

The answer came in the form of another question (the best kind of answer), “Well, you may have a calculator, but don't you still need to learn how to add?”

This question wasn't answered right away. There was a bit of thought and discussion but eventually the question was, at least in my mind, answered quite satisfactorily. The answer has to do with recency and frequency. You know how to do things that you have either recently done, or those that you do all the time. We add often and frequently, and therefore find it easier to just learn it rather than rely on a calculator all of the time. But we don't memorize the square root of every number between 1 and 100. This information is rarely needed, and so you use a calculator.

So, if I had access to a computer that could teach me anything I wanted to know about anything, I wouldn't spend time trying to learn from it, I would simply want it in my back pocket. If I decide to visit Gettysburg, I don't need to know all of the facts about Gettysburg, I only need to know how to pull the device from my back pocket, and read. It becomes a reference.

I teach several classes at Weber State. I do not force students to take tests in which they have to memorize and regurgitate. What is the point? We live in a Google world where so much information is at the tips of your fingers. I care more that my students can find a right answer, and logically prove to me why it's a right answer, than they can just memorize the right answer I give them.

I don't think we need to come up with the perfect computer based instructor. I think students learn best by themselves. Sure, we can present information, or better yet, experiences, that will get students thinking, but if a person doesn't want to learn, they won't. In my mind, a system that can present information in a logical way, (or in multiple ways?), that stimulates curiosity or thought (which leads to learning), is a much better device than one that professes to teach.

It would be easier to build to boot. Google, Wikipedia, and Cellpedia are already steps in the right direction.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Analyze This!

Amazon.com has a few new features for some of their books.

The first feature is something called Statistically Improbably Phrases, or SIP. This consists of phrases that are unique, or very unique to this particular book. So if you look up Ender's Game you will discover that "bugger wars, beat the buggers, flash suits and null gravity" are all phrases unique to this book.

Interesting, but Amazon doesn't stop there.

It also gives you some basic stats like Flesch-Kincaid Index (Ender's game is a 5.3), percentage of complex words, and, my personal favorite, words per dollar (Ender's game gives you 16,134 per dollar, which is nothing compared to War and Peace. Good ol' Leo delivers 51,707 words per dollar, though I'm not sure what the conversion to the rubel would do to that.

And finally, you can look at the concordance, which actually uses visual weight to display the 100 most common words in the book. I'm not sure, but I think they leave out words like "the" and "and". Just by glancing at the concordance you can see that "Ender" is the most common, followed by "said".

Anyway, it's an interesting feature, though I'm not sure how directly useful it is. And this isn't on all of the book by any stretch of the imagination. It looks like they have done it only on the more popular books

Now this is a case to watch...

I was bored with OJ about 12 minutes after the white bronco ride. Michal Jackson? Who cares...

This is the case to watch.

Man loses finger in an ice cream machine.

Second man finds the finger.

First man wants it back.

Second man says he needs it to sue.

First man says he will sue if he doesn't get it back.


Pop some popcorn, and save me a front row seat.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


Have you ever noticed that a pringles chip, turned just the right way, makes an infinity sign?

Bring that up at the next HRUMC and see if you're not hailed as one of the great thinkers of our time.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Uncovered Cover

Chickens in the Headlights
Originally uploaded by firemeboy.
I was browsing the Internet and came across the cover for my new book, Chickens in the Headlights, on my publisher's web site.

It's a bit cartoony, but I think I like it. I guess a book that has a dog named Farding, isn't exactly going to be bound in leather.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Netflix and Wal-Mart and Blockbuster: Oh My!

The above three companies all offer online DVD rentals. Netflix pioneered it, Wal-Mart is so big it has to be involved with everything, and Blockbuster is the rental king, so it couldn't be left out either.

So who is going to win the online race? I'll tell you. I don't know. But I do know how any of the above companies could win it.

I got a movie on Wednesday and shipped it back Thursday morning. Monday morning, FIVE DAYS LATER, Netflix finally receives the movie. If I'm lucky they will ship today, and I will get a replacement on Wednesday again, if not, it will be Thursday before I get my next episode of Sea Lab 2021. I can pay $15 to my local Hollywood video and get three DVDs a day. The only downside there is the selection. They don’t have Sea Lab 2021, nor do they have The Brak Show. What are they thinking?

So, who is going to win the race? The solution is simple, and Blockbuster and Wal-Mart are in the best position to do this. Set up a little kiosk in their store that scans movies. I get a movie in the mail, I watch it, and then, if I choose, I go to the store, scan the movie, drop it in the box. The system automatically sends me my next movie, while my original movie is in transit. No more waiting 5 days for the DVD to travel. The companies would actually save money because they wouldn't have to pay the shipping on the envelope. And of course for those that don't really care for the increased speed, they could still send it back in the mail.

Of course the other alternative is to just send me the movie digitally while I sleep, but the nancy boys in the movie industry are far to chicken to try that approach.