Speculative Words: Textbooks as New Media

“It’s not a textbook, it is an entire course,” says Jean Wisuri, director of distance education at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, describing a product called Course360, from Cengage Learning. “It has activities built right into the textbook itself.”

A professor could essentially rely on a Course360 title as the full curriculum in an online course, letting students loose in the system and having them teach themselves. The Course360 titles connect to the university’s learning-management system, linking them directly into an institution’s existing virtual classroom.

The above is form a Chronicle of Higher Ed artcile (not sure how long it will stay on the free side of the firewall) about e-texts, “The Object Formerly Known as the Textbook.” Quotes a Pearson exec with Marshall McLuhan‘s observation that the first thing that happens in a new medium is the loading of content from an earlier medium. (To wit: Vaudeville stars like George Burns and Gracie Allen become radio stars, then their hit radio show becomes a TV show. As late as the 50s, plays were still being shown on TV. During the Web’s youthful days, I made a living helping video producers put “TV on the web.” (It was a hit or miss affair.)

I hadn’t seen this old media on new platform trope for books (but, seems obvious once pointed out. Books are a media technology, after all.) And now as an ironic aside, I’ve got a work project to help put educational TV on an e-textbook. Old media? I’m your guy!)

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$20 on eBay.

The Chronicle piece makes some interesting points. Author Jeffrey Young got an oddly sanguine quote from a publisher about the risks MOOCs (and perhaps also Sal Kahn) pose to his biz model.

Whole thing makes me a little nostalgic for those monster tomes: George B. Thomas’ Calc text, with its quiet jokes, the Norton Anthologies and their younger siblings “Adventures in Literature.” They weren’t just content delivery platforms, they were emblems of the role of student. Just as you can recognize saints in paintings by their attributes, you could spot a law student at 50 yards. The ebooks should come with patches you can sew to your Hollister to prove you really are a student.

Beautiful Song: Serendipty, Carlos, and Martha Argerich

Looking for something else on Naxos Music Library, I happened upon a trove of Carlos Guastavino piano works. Trove, as in treasure, and his elegant, nostalgic piano writing helped turned my mundane home office into a Buenos Aires café, and my template coding task into something like sipping Fernet-Branca and reading Pessoa. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine listening to the incomparable pianist Martha Argerich, playing Tres Romances through a distant window. Of course, that didn’t do much for the coding!

And as a bon-bon, mezzo Teresa Berganza, another musical hero, singing one of Carlos’ songs. (And yes, I know Pessoa is Portuguese, not Argentinian, but he seemed like better company for this day dream than Borges.)

Reasonable Words: Health Care, Language and Aging

Melancholy, and provocative piece by Michael Wolff in the Guardian reviewing David Goldhill’s bookScreen Shot 2013-01-29 at 10.02.52 PM about the care for his aging father, (previewed in the Atlantic a few years back). Lacking the policy knowledge to assess the arguments, I’m still struck by a point Wolff (who wrote a compelling “You are there” first-person account of the first dot.com melt down) makes that the language we use to describe the problem inevitably constrains the set of solutions we can talk about. What if part of the problem is the very word “insurance”?

From Wolff’s essay:

And Goldhill’s book does something else. It steps outside of the established political debate and lexicon – one of the rare books addressing a major national policy issue that is able to do so in language not already debased by the problem itself.





Quotable Tech: Info Gluttony & Cross-Channel Design

A List Apart” (awful name, but good web publication) did a round up of lessons learned for 2012 in the broad category of technology and design.  A few excerpts:


The most essential service of the next decade will be the one that keeps you the best informed in the least amount of time. There’s more to life than staring at screens all day.
Mike Davidson, VP of design, Twitter, and founder, Newsvine
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For me 2012 was a year of experimentation. I learned that the more certain you are about something, or the longer you’ve been doing things one way, the more important it is to abandon your assumptions and try the complete opposite. The more embedded your assumptions are, the less you notice them—so this is not easy. —Matt Mullenweg, founder, Automattic and WordPress

I think we’re going to see more cross-channel design thinking in 2013 to address simultaneous multi-device usage, and frequent device hopping in a single workflow. Continuity between platforms will be important, but we don’t need to make the experience the same between devices. The user experience will morph with each context. We’ll need to design systems, not screens, to solve cross-channel experience design problems.
—Aarron Walter, director of user experience at MailChimp

Enthusiams: Are they Goths?

Computer journalist Sean Gallagher accompanied his college-age son to last November’s Darkon event, in Maryland. The Darkon Wargaming Club is a LARP group, and Gallagher’s piece, published by ArsTechnica, gives a real sense of it–and the level of detail involved.  Not my thing personally, but since a friend and I seriously considered (right, Tim?) creating “fantasy opera camp,” I can appreciate specialized enthusiasm.
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Some nice quotes:

A middle-aged woman (in a store) whispered, “Are they Goths or something?”
“No, wrong tribe,” I answered. “I believe they’re more like Vikings.”

“I basically get to play a mob boss. I used to be a wallflower before I got involved in this,” she told me. “Darkon is my shiny, happy place.”

Critical Words: George Bernard Shaw’s “Fave Song”

Gramophone, the UK-based classical music magazine, asked the good and the great for their “favorite song” in a piece in 1926. They’ve put the archive article up on their web site, and it is a blast from the Anglophile past. Not to be picky, but I strongly suspect that Noël Coward knew how to spell Lorenz Hart’s first name correctly though…

Interesting to browse, and GBS’s answer will not disappoint his many fans, of which I am one.

One of the choices, a setting of Masefield’s Sea Fever by John Ireland was news to me, and quite lovely it is. Here is a rendition by the great British baritone Thomas Allen.

The number of people from non-musical walks of life who talk about Mozart, Bach, and Gluck as their favorites is striking, and would not be the same today. So what’s your favorite song?

Reasonable Words: “Not exactly a Lothario,” TLS on Alan Turing

The centenary of the mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turning is over (he was born in 1912). But I’m still catching up on TLS’s and encountered a nice review article in the 12/28 issue by Michael Saler, a UC Davis History prof. Synthesizes the story through comments on three books.

Well done lead:

Before the Second World War, computers wore clothes and did their work with ink-stained fingers. The term referred to human beings engaged in mathematical calculations, who were slow and at times erroneous. It was the war that introduced the first modern electronic computing machines. They were immensely faster and more accurate than their soon-to-be-redundant human counterparts, and facilitated the invention of nuclear weapons. The decades following the war have been dominated by these two technologies. It is tempting to think of them in apocalyptic terms: the bomb threatens to end human existence, and the artificial intelligence of computers threatens to challenge or even change human nature. Recent histories charting the intertwined origins of the nuclear age and the “digital universe” provoke the queasy feeling that our species is positioned precariously between atomic night and transhuman dawn. Ironically – and reassuringly – the principal instigators of this new era, such as Alan Turing and John von Neumann, showed themselves to be human, all too human, their fallibilities and resiliencies restoring a more grounded perspective about our future. The triumph of a Dr Strangelove or a Hal 9000 remains a possibility, but either scenario pales before the lived reality of their flesh-and-blood progenitors. As the following histories suggest, truth is often stranger than science fiction.

That’s so elegant, I’ll overlook the letdown in that last sentence.

One of the themes that spirals through the review is the primacy (or not) of the gay aspect of Turing’s life in his technical work. Hard to measure the strength of that influence (anything that was suppressed for so long risks getting over emphasized). Thinking of the Turing test in some way caught up in “passing” is suggestive, if not totally convincing. Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 8.55.17 PM

Also interesting to me is the parallel Saler makes between the world of computing and nuclear weapons, in specific, von Neumann’s embrace of the Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine. Not a part of his story that gets much mention. Hard to argue with the thesis that computing and nuclear weapons are the two dominant technologies of the 20th century, though.

A Little Song: Riverwalk Jazz Streams Courtesy of Stanford

The Stanford University Library has gotten the archive for “Riverwalk Jazz,” a public radio show focused on pre-WWII jazz. Faced with the challenge of how to make this accessible, they came up with a creative answer, namely to become a little streaming radio station.

From their site,

Sidney Bechet, 1897-1959. Pre-war jazz at its best.
Sidney Bechet, 1897-1959.

The radio webcast approach to providing access to archival sound recordings is new at Stanford Libraries. For years, we have been providing on-demand streaming access to media collections, like Buckminster Fuller, Lynn Hershman’s !Women Art Revolution, and David Hamburg’s Preventing Genocide. With Riverwalk Jazz, for the first time Stanford Libraries is presenting audio content from its collections like a licensed radio station. We are excited to consider how to extend this delivery model for more collections of audio and video material!

Nice public service, and given that making the entire archive searchable and streaming on demand by individual song would probably be prohibitively expensive, this is a clever solution.

Screen Shot 2013-01-23 at 9.27.26 AMAnd if this doesn’t slake your thirst for early jazz, WGBH radio has put up some of “The Jazz Decades,” the late Ray Smith’s weekly hour of spinning albums, while chatting amiably and knowledgeably. Jazz Decades and Riverwalk made a nice Sunday night line up for me for many years. (And if you really want to overdo the nostalgia, you can mosey over to Syracuse’s WRVO and their old-time radio show, “Tuned to Yesterday,” now a podcast, where Macbeth, The Great Gildersleeve, and X Minus One rub shoulders.) And yes, I realize that “Tuned to Yesterday” describes this blog rather too well.

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