Follow by Email

Sunday, August 26, 2012

I haven't posted in some time. It's been a busy year. Recently I prepared a table of key dates on technology for an article I was working on this summer and I think it tells a lot about where our technology is going and where it has been. 
One of the key academic urban legends about technology is the "how long it took..." story. Many scholars (myself included) have quoted the oft' cited (but specious) statistic that “It took 37 years for radio to reach 50 million listeners, 34 years for the telephone to have 50 million customers, 13 years for television to reach 50 million viewers and 4 years for the Internet to reach 50 million subscribers” (Hannemyr, 2003, p. 111). Unfortunately, the fifty million as a percentage of the population (i.e., diffusion) is not comparable. The U.S. population in 1878 (when the telephone was introduced), was just 38.5 million (a seventh of what it is today). Mass production had not been invented yet by Henry Ford. No large infrastructure existed to publicize or produce the technology. And no one really needed it (much like the Internet when it was introduced). Thus, as Hannemyr points out, “the early adoption rates for all three media are roughly of the same order of magnitude. . . . This becomes even more obvious if instead of plotting the absolute number of users, we plot usage as a percentage of the total population” (p. 116). 
Hannemyr, G. (2003). The Internet as hyperbole: A critical examination of adoption rates. The Information Society, 19, 111–121.
This is the sort of technological mythology that we are up against as professional communicators. People do not read articles or books anymore, and criticism of the internet has become pretty uncommon. When we look at these dates, we have to wonder why every time a new technology comes out we think it is a new invention. Facebook, except for pictures, works just like a listserv, Skype is just VOIP internet telephony, I had this in graduate school in '95, Twitter is hardly worth commenting on. It's just a list service at its core. 

We ignore the the truly transformative technologies like Google Scholar, which transformed information retrieval for academics, and technologies like Craig's list (also just a list service) that largely was responsible for the death of the newspaper classified ad. 

The creativity that we see flowing on the internet in the first ten years or so of life is phenomenal. Until Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter came along, then  everything seems to stop. Almost every use of the internet before html in 1993 (and wide public access of course, people always ruin everything -- hell is other people) is non-corproate (until AOL moves in right before the Web browser was invented). After the web becomes readily available to everyone, almost the only thing people can think about is making money -- actually, porn was the single largest motivating force on the internet for about 15 years.

As professional communicators we need to take the internet back. The principles of community and civility, what the internet was founded on, should drive how we interact with our fellow humans. We need to take back the internet. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hybrid Media: Not so Hy: Rant about new technology

Hybrid Media

My Colleague James Avery sent me this article today.

It was interesting but not very timely. In responding to his message I got carried away and decided to put it here.

His premise, to be candid, is about five to seven years old. I have been saying as much since I  came back from Latvia on my Fulbright. I have a lengthy discussion of it in my writing book (but  I did not have the fancy "Hybrid Media" advertising  name) and have talked about this in articles for several years. Before I left in 2005 for Latvia I had been learning about aggregators and made my Intro to Public Rel. students download one  and monitor feeds in 2005 and 2006 for class assignments. Google came out with its service right after this and became easier for students to use to pick up RSS feeds.

I am conducting a Delphi study right now with 30-50 top people in computers, social media, programmers, scholars, artists, bloggers, professional communicators,  and others -- I left out agency people intentionally because most of them are so far behind the social media ball that they are still trying to make Facebook a household name instead of learning HOW to use the  media properly. This guy is on the right track, but Nicholas Negroponte knew almost this much back in 1995. In the 1980s, computer experts (Burnham, et al.)  were seeing trends in computers that most people are only recently beginning to understand -- loss of privacy,  protection of personal information, loss of self (Stoll, 1999) etc. Even people like Christopher Lasch (1979)  were seeing the changes in society decades ago. Levinson in the Soft Edge (1997) raised dozens of privacy issues and talked about pricing of digital content, etc. In 2003, Tufte wrote the Cognitive Dimensions of Powerpoint (not on point here, but an example of someone who was asking us to use our technologies to do more than entertain).

I know, academics like Maureen Taylor and I in public relations "don't understand the business world" -- except when were being paid for consulting... Many of the non-profit media development agencies actually know more about new media technology than the agency social media people do. The average Iranian Journalist could probably tell you 10 ways to avoid detection on the internet while US students still struggle with how to get a handle on their Facebook settings.

The problem with many social media "experts" is that they think that every "new technology" is new. They aren't. And they read the wrong books. The books to read were not written last year but last decade. You want to understand a movement, read what the critics of it say, not what the true believers claim. Same thing here. To understand new technology, first understand the old technology and how things like telephones worked. McLuhan in 1964 told us about the intimacy of the telephone. Do you really think Steve Jobs dreamed it all up? I'm sure he read McLuhan and Negroponte.

Burnham, D. (1984). The rise of the computer state. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Negroponte, N. (1995). Being digital. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Lasch, C. (1979). The culture of narcissism: American life in an age of diminishing expectations. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Levinson, P. (1997). The soft edge: A natural history and future of the information revolution. New York: Rutledge.

McLuhan, M. (1964/1999). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Stoll, C. (1999). High-Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don’t Belong in the Classroom and other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian

Tufte, E. R. (2003). The cognitive style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press, LLC.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Writing Graduate School Letters

How to Write a Letter for Graduate School

It's that time of the year when professors go looking for jobs and graduate students begin sending out their applications for graduate school. Many students mistakenly assume that letters of application are about them. They aren't. 
The graduate school application letter is essentially a pitch letter. However, unlike pitching a new service or writing a cover letter for a job in the “real world,” graduate school is not the “real world.” A group of faculty members (or a graduate advisor/director) make admission decisions. Professors in the humanities are often looking for more than just decent GPAs and high GRE scores—al­though you should not make the mistake of thinking that these are not important—Professors are also looking to see that you know something about their department and faculty members, and have a clear idea what you want to do. In order to write an effective letter, consider the following suggestions.
First off, be sure not to wait until the deadline to apply. Just because a school says that applications are "due by February 1" does not mean you should wait until then. The applications that come in first are reviewed first by the admissions committee and have a greater chance of being selected for an assistantship. 
Second, writing a compelling letter takes hours, even days as you gather some research about the program and revise and rewrite your letter. If you write it in 30 minutes, it will probably not be that good. 
Things to Remember

       Do not misspell or misuse the name of the department (“communications” for example, or call a department of “Human Communication” a department of “Communication Studies” or [gasp] “Speech Communication”). Use their name. 
       Do not say that you are “undecided” (get decided or get a real job and figure it out). You can usually change areas of specialization once you are in the program (sometimes it’s hard), and professors want to be convinced that you know what you are doing).
       Clearly articulate why you want to come to the school. Be specific. Do not speak of “how interesting the department looks,” or “what great classes are offered.” Professors want to know who you want to work with, what specialization area you are interested in pursuing, what you want to write your thesis/dissertation on, etc. Professors want you to tell them what you are interested in studying. Additionally, it does not hurt to mention the professors you would like to work with—this shows that you are familiar with the program. For example: “I have read several of professor Taylor's articles in my public relations classes and it would be an honor to work with her. Her work on activism has been very influential in my thinking…”
     Include writing samples that show your ability to conduct graduate level work. Ideally you will submit a conference paper that was accepted at a regional or national conference. Any conference paper will do in a pinch. If you do not have a conference paper then submit your best class paper or ­professional document. Avoid trite/ephem­eral topics (critiques of movies, television programs, songs, etc.).
       Structure the letter to focus on three or four key points just like you learned to do in public speaking class. Be sure to have a proper introduction/conclusion, proper transitions, etc. You are asking to be accepted into a community that makes its living by writing and teaching. You are trying to convince us that you can do both (all graduate degrees are teaching degrees). You will best demonstrate this by showing proper scholarly form in your essay.
       Get useful letters of recommendation. Letter writing is an art; do not go to an amateur. If you want to get into a communication program, get communication teachers to write you letters. A useful letter comes from someone who knows something about graduate school in the humanities and knows you well. Your boss at the diner who has a Master's degree in business will not impress a professor deciding whether you should be admitted into the Doctoral program in interpersonal communication. Similarly, university presidents, CEOs, deans, and administrators write notoriously bad letters. Most administrators are out of touch with graduate school. Many administrators are too busy to write a good letter, or even to write the letter themselves. Professors do not care if you are “hard working,” “the best student assistant ever,” etc. Big deal. It only takes a “competent” student to be the best assistant ever. Every student thinks that s/he is above average—that is what teachers tell everyone these days. We want to be told that “your writing skills are among the best so-and-so has seen…”; “you have a clear idea of what you want to study…”; “your level of maturity is exceptional and is reflected in the topics you choose to study…” etc. Only someone who understands what a graduate acceptance committee is looking for can write this letter well. 
       Avoid hyperbole. Professors are not stupid and we know when someone is “blowing smoke” at us. 
       Do not write about your dreams (“As a child I knew that I wanted to work with people…”). This is perhaps the most common strategy used, and among the most boring. Professors love learning. Some of us love teaching but that gets beat out of us. You are writing a letter to professors not your mom and dad. Use your rhetorical skills and think about your audience as you craft your message. Don't pander, but don't ignore them.
       Unless you are applying to a religious school (and even then, avoid it) do not say “god bless,” “in sha Allah,” etc. This is guaranteed to annoy many educators who are sensitive about separation between church and state issues. Why take the chance?
       Do not write about yourself in the third person (“Let me tell you about a young man who…”).
       Do not use a narrative style (“Once upon a time there was a hard working student…”).
       Never, never, never, have spelling errors or proofing errors. If I have to explain this, you should not be thinking about graduate school. And if I have any here, please send me a message so I can remove them.
       Ask the professor in your department who writes the best to proofread and critique your letter before you submit it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Learning to Learn Fast

Below, is another summary of a Long Now lecture. Besides my plug to join The Long Now, NOW, as a member you can watch podcasts of the lectures and have access to a lot more information of interest.


[SALT] Learning to learn fast (Timothy Ferriss talk)
Stewart Brand []
Sent: Friday, September 16, 2011 5:58 PM

To acquire "the meta-skill of acquiring skills," Ferriss recommends approaching any subject with some contrarian analysis: "What if I try the opposite of best practices?"  Some conventional wisdom---"children learn languages faster than adults" (no they don't)---can be discarded.  Some conventional techniques can be accelerated radically.  For instance, don't study Italian in class for a year before your big Italy trip; just book your flight a week early and spend that week cramming the language where it's spoken.  You can be fluent in any language with mastery of just 1,200 words.

That's what Ferriss calls the "minimum effective dose" for learning a language.  The equivalent with any skill or goal is worth identifying.  A regular 5 minutes of kettlebell swinging can tone the body rapidly; 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking makes your slow-carb diet effective; just 20,000 "early evangelists" for your book in its first 2 weeks guarantees it becomes a best seller.

With any skill, "solve for extremes and anomalies."  Look at who's best and how they do it, but especially look for those who are surprisingly good---the wispy girl who can deadlift 405 pounds---because they're doing it with technique rather than genes, and technique is learnable.

How do you manage the self-discipline to bear down on learning a skill?  Ferriss suggests you begin by treating your new regime as a trial (vowing permanence can be discouraging)--- give it 2 weeks or 5 serious sessions.  By that point early rewards from the discipline will keep you going.  You have to measure to detect the rewards ("What gets measured gets managed"--Peter Drucker), and score-keeping lets you make your progress a competitive game with others---which becomes its own motivation.  Make public bets about your specific goals, where you'll pay painfully if you fail.  "Loss aversion" is a surprisingly powerful incentive.

You can get profound effects in an amazingly short time, Ferriss concluded.  "Doing the unthinkable is easier than you think."
                                        --Stewart Brand

PS:  Acollection of all of these summaries of the SALT talks (nearly 100 now) is available on the Kindle for $3.  Foreword by Brian Eno.

Stewart Brand --
The Long Now Foundation -
Seminars & downloads:

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors, IPads in schools

Many US schools adding iPads, trimming textbooks

Many US public schools providing iPads to students, moving away from traditional textbooks 

This is one of those news stories where you have to ask what kind of unreflective and apparently untrained (in fact checking) journalists is the AP hiring. Some basic math tells a different story here.

According to the post (which you can read below):
At Burlington High in suburban Boston, principal Patrick Larkin calls the $500 iPads a better long-term investment than textbooks, though he said the school will still use traditional texts in some courses if suitable electronic programs aren't yet available. 
"I don't want to generalize because I don't want to insult people who are working hard to make those resources," Larkin said of textbooks, "but they're pretty much outdated the minute they're printed and certainly by the time they're delivered. The bottom line is that the iPads will give our kids a chance to use much more relevant materials."
There is nothing outdated about a literature textbook, even if it is 50 years old. The same can be said of Algebra, which, as a discipline, contains a discrete body of knowledge that does not change much from year to year.

iPads instead of books, while it sounds compelling is a waste of taxpayer money. A book costs a fraction of the price of an iPad and will be good for about five to ten years in most subjects. IPads, are breakable, valuable, and subject to "loss" (both real loss -- "oops, I left it on the bus" -- and fake loss "I lost it" when it is sold to someone or taken from from a younger student by a bully or criminal). iPads also require schools to instal and maintain wireless equipment and create infrastructure costs (lots of new places needed for kids to plug them in when they come to school with no charge or run down throughout the day are needed, relevant apps., etc.). The story also suggests that lots of stuff are free for the iPad like graphing calculators, etc. That is just not the case. A decent calculator for the iPad costs money. The free stuff is mostly junk (crashes a lot, bad interfaces, etc.), read the reviews, look at the apps yourself. I just paid for an HP calculator for my iPad because the free ones were so bad.

There is no upside to spending taxpayer money on this. A better model is simply to require kids to buy them when they enter school as "school equipment" like a calculator or sports equipment, and create funds for disadvantaged kids. Students need to own them for the devices to be taken care of and treated with respect.
The iPads generally cost districts between $500 and $600, depending on what accessories and service plans are purchased. 
By comparison, Brookfield High in Connecticut estimates it spends at least that much yearly on every student's textbooks, not including graphing calculators, dictionaries and other accessories they can get on the iPads.
The HMH Fuse online app is free and gives users an idea of how it works, and the content can be downloaded for $60. By comparison, the publisher's 950-page algebra text on which it was based is almost $73 per copy, and doesn't include the graphing calculators, interactive videos and other features. 
For a school that would buy 300 of the textbooks for its freshman class, for instance, the savings from using the online version would be almost $4,000.
Okay, let's unpack this: by not buying 300 textbooks they save 4,000 bucks. Hmm., 300 books means 300 students need them. Three hundred iPads at only $550 each is $165,000. Three hundred books at the estimated cost of $73 is $21,900. Divide that into 165,000 and we get 7.5, about the number of textbooks that a student might need per year, except, the books will last 5-10 years (depending on how much money the school has to buy new ones). Even if books were used only once (and they are not), it's a wash.

But no one will steal an algebra textbook, break one, or have it stolen from them. There are no service contracts needed, no extra costs for software and programs to monitor student use and block porn or prevent pedophiles from having easy access to them in a way that will be largely unmonitored by parents. Indeed, going to and from school, in school, over lunch, in their rooms at night, etc., children would have access to the internet (free wireless is everywhere and in many homes). No IT person to be hired for books, and every teacher teaches the same course content, so the learning experience is similar for everyone, and teachers spend more time actually teaching and not developing materials that do not yet exist, etc.

Additionally, how long, realistically, will an iPad last in the hands of school children, even vigilant ones? Most hardware is considered to be obsolete or nearly so in three years. The iPad is unlikely to take three years of 24/7 abuse anyway, but if it did, it would be nearly obsolete. The school that bought books can still use most of them them (literature, math, natural sciences, foreign languages, etc.) for a few (or several) more years. The math in the story just does not work out.

More impotently, U.S. children lag behind 32 other countries in the world in reading, including places like Brazil, Mexico, and Russia, (all right above us). You can be sure that Finland and Canada (2 &3), aren't giving kids iPads to use in school. We are 27th in Math and 22nd in science. None of these scores will be improved by iPads.

This is smoke and mirrors. I love technology -- buy my ibooks -- but we should use it to make our lives better, not simply because it is the latest thing and we think it's cool.


Monday, August 22, 2011

Journalist explains when and how to follow up a pitch

[On the whole, this is just common sense, but sometimes
it helps when someone else tell us something...]

On at least a weekly basis, I get a phone call from a perky sounding junior PR associate, who says, “Hi, Ms. McCarthy, I just wanted to follow up with you on Client X’s placement on your website.”

I invariably reply, “Huh? Who?” And then try to piece together the fragments of my brain that remember what she’s talking about. Even after she’s done describing the client and the pitch, I usually still don’t know.

Email inboxes are a black hole for PR pitches. Like many journalists, I get a minimum of 200 emails a day, a majority of which are press releases and pitches. Some of the content is excellent and well placed, but most of it is junk—either poorly targeted or plain old boring.

The journalist/PR relationship should be symbiotic, and there are a number of professionals out there who work extremely hard to make sure that is the case. Check out these tips for effective follow-up to make sure you’re among the group that’s making this relationship stronger:

Do follow up. Following up is not inherently bad. A quick, “Hey, do you think this is a fit for your publication?” followed by a few quick facts about your client is an excellent way to stay top-of-mind in a non-intrusive way. I respond to emails and then delete them as a way to keep control of my inbox. Your response and follow up is basically the only way to make your placement happen, just go about it in a smart way.

Don’t nag. Giving your client placement is technically a favor. When you send me your pitch, I could just as easily seek out another expert or product and steal your idea. Placing your client is my choice, and you need to be respectful of that. Multiple phone calls and annoying emails will get you nowhere.

Let some time pass. Following up the next day is useless. Chances are I haven’t even had time to read your email, much less determine interest in your pitch. Give me a few days to consider your material and where it fits. Conversely, waiting too long will absolutely ensure that I have no clue what you’re talking about. Three to four days seems to be a pretty comfortable window.

Provide added value. To make your follow-up message more enticing, offer a laignappe—that is, a little something extra. Provide the journalist with an extra set of statistics, an additional interview, or something else that will help make their story better. This is the fastest way to a journalist’s heart—make his or her life easier, and the reporter will keep you in mind.

Amy McCarthy is a content strategist and editor living in Dallas.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Neil deGrasse Tyson to host new series of Cosmos

For students:
And you thought all scientists were nerds.
We we're all young like this once.

More than three decades after it aired, Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking, brilliant 13-part TV series Cosmos:A Personal Voyage will finally get a sequel.

Cosmos, which originally ran in 1980 and was rerun many times over the following decade, is widely regarded as one of the first, and best, TV shows to make science accessible to everyone. You can watch the show now on Hulu, but despite its brilliance it is still a show from more than 30 years ago, and you can tell — the special effects are primitive by today’s standards, but more importantly some of the content has been superseded by discoveries in the intervening years....


Password Strength's Cory Doctorow writes about work by
Philip Inglesant and M. Angela Sasse from University
College London on Password Strength.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Superlinear cities

Superlinear cities (Geoffrey West talk) 

on behalf of Stewart Brand []
Sent: Tuesday, July 26, 2011 1:56 PM

"It's hard to kill a city," West began, "but easy to kill a company."  The mean life of companies is 10 years.  Cities routinely survive even nuclear bombs.  And "cities are the crucible of civlization."  They are the major source of innovation and wealth creation.  Currently they are growing exponentially.  "Every week from now until 2050, one million new people are being added to our cities."

"We need," West said, "a grand unified theory of sustainability--- a coarse-grained quantitative, predictive theory of cities."

Such a theory already exists in biology, and you can build on that.  Working with macroecologist James Brown and others, West explored the fact that living systems such as individual organisms show a shocking consistency of scalability.  (The theory they elucidated has long been known in biology as Kleiber's Law.)  Animals, for example, range in size over ten orders of magnitude from a shrew to a blue whale.  If you plot their metabolic rate against their mass on a log-log graph, you get an absolutely straight line.  From mouse to human to elephant, each increase in size requires a proportional increase in energy to maintain it.

But the proportion is not linear.  Quadrupling in size does not require a quadrupling in energy use.  Only a tripling in energy use is needed.  It's sublinear; the ratio is 3/4 instead of 4/4.  Humans enjoy an economy of scale over mice, as elephants do over us.

With each increase in animal size there is a slowing of the pace of life.  A shrew's heart beats 1,000 times a minute, a human's 70 times, and an elephant heart beats only 28 times a minute.  The lifespans are proportional; shrew life is intense but brief, elephant life long and contemplative.  Each animal, independent of size, gets about a billion heartbeats per life.  (West added that human bodies run on 100 watts---2,000 calories of food a day.  But our civilizational energy use adds up 11,000 watts per person.  We're like blue whales walking around.)

Does such scalability apply to cities?  If you plot, say, the number of gas stations against the size of population of metropolitan areas on a log-log scale, it turns out you get another straight line.  Ditto with the length of electrical lines, carbon footprint, etc.  Per capita, big city dwellers use less energy than small town dwellers.  As with animals, there is greater efficiency with size, this time at a 9/10 ratio.  Energy use is sublinear.

But unlike animals, cities do not slow down as they get bigger.  They speed up with size!  The bigger the city, the faster people walk and the faster they innovate.  All the productivity-related numbers increase with size---wages, patents, colleges, crimes, AIDS cases---and their ratio is superlinear.  It's 1.15/1.  With each increase in size, cities get a value-added of 15 percent.  Agglomerating people, evidently, increases their efficiency and productivity.

Does that go on forever?  Cities create problems as they grow, but they create solutions to those problems even faster, so their growth and potential lifespan is in theory unbounded.

(West pointed out that there is a bit of variability between cities worth noticing.  On the plot of crimes/population, Tokyo has slightly fewer crimes for its size, and Osaka has slightly more.  In the U.S., the most patents per capita come from Corvalis, Oregon, and the least from Abiline, Texas.  Such variations tend to remain constant over decades, despite everyone's efforts to adjust them.  "Exciting cities stay exciting, and boring cities stay boring.")

Are corporations more like animals or more like cities?  They want to be like cities, with ever increasing productivity as they grow and potentially unbounded lifespans.  Unfortunately, West et al.'s research on 22,000 companies shows that as they increase in size from 100 to 1,000,000 employees, their net income and assets (and 23 other metrics) per person increase only at a 4/5 ratio.   Like animals and cities they do grow more efficient with size, but unlike cities, their innovation cannot keep pace as their systems gradually decay, requiring ever more costly repair until a fluctuation sinks them.  Like animals, companies are sublinear and doomed to die.

What is the actual mechanism of difference?  Research on that continues.  "Cities tolerate crazy people," West observed, "Companies don't."

                                --Stewart Brand