Monday, December 20, 2010

Live Feedback

During our Digital Revolution event, we used text messaging to collect live feedback from the audience and project it on a secondary screen.  The results were a mixture -- there were certainly some who used the anonymity of texting to simply play around with the technology.  But there were others who used the medium to reflect on the presentations, ask questions, and participate with the organizers in a running back-channel conversation.

Below is the unedited transcript...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Watch the Digital Revolution!

On December 9, 2010 from 7:00-9:00pm (MST), watch our live presentation, and be sure to listen for ways to participate with our live backchannel! You can watch right here, or at our channel on

Update 12-10-2010: The archived recording of the event can be found here.

Watch live video from Digital Civilization on

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Producing an Event = Producing Content

As we are counting down to our big Digital Revolution event tomorrow night, we've suddenly been energized by the live broadcasting features, discussed in our last two posts, that will enhance our live event. The realization I had about this today was that an event is not just a culminating thing or a networking opportunity; it's an opportunity to focus and create content that will endure beyond the event itself. We already knew this with respect to each of the presentations that groups were putting together (all of which have an accessible, permanent component to them). What we hadn't considered, though, was the event itself becoming enduring, valuable content as it is preserved and used by future online visitors.

Eric Collyer posted this trial video on his account today to demonstrate how it is that we will be able to upgrade the broadcast stream with titles and by plugging in the media directly (like the music video he inserts) rather than drawing just on the camera's poor reproduction of it.

Watch live video from ericgcollyer on

Wow, this thing is suddeny going to look more professional. What does that do? As we show this to the students before our dress rehearsal in the morning, I think it will motivate them to bring their A-game, since they are not doing an end-of-term academic thing; they are producing permanent content for the web.

Live Feedback

During our dry run for the digital showcase event, we ran an open poll for each presentation using Poll Everywhere.  We used an open-ended question with free response, so that everyone could give feedback.  Here is a sampling of the comments we received:

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Virtual Audience Adds Umph to Our Live Event!

In the true spirit of Digital Revolution, our big event happening in one day and 20 hours has just gotten bigger and a lot more interesting. Suddenly, we move from a potential audience of 300 (the size of the room) to a potential audience of two billion. PLUS we have added live audience polling to engage both our local, in-person audience and our virtual audience online! How sick is that!

Live Streaming Our Event
Here are some screen caps showing our dress rehearsal for the big event. Thanks to Eric Collyer, who has been experimenting with on his blog, we are now set up and running with our own live streaming channel:

So, if you can't be to our Digital Revolution Event in person on December 9, 2010 (or if you are reading this when it is over and want to see the archive version of the event) click on that address (or just scroll down, since I've embedded our channel below).

Live audience polling leverages our reach further, adding precious interactivity:

Monday, December 6, 2010

Connecting through Events

One of the reasons we decided to stage a major event to conclude our Digital Civilization course this semester is to give our students practice in connecting. Connecting is one of the three pillars of digital literacy (along with "consume" and "create"), and can be done in many ways. An event, however, is a very powerful way of connecting

From Electronic to In-Person Connecting
An event bridges the critical gap between electronic and in-person sorts of connecting. Someone I've invited to the event, Scott Cowley (a former student's husband whom I've followed on Twitter) once told me that his most meaningful digital connections were those that led to in-person encounters. I think that's true. There is nothing like face-to-face, in-person meetings with fellow human beings. We can do so much through electronic communications, but nothing beats flesh-and-bone people.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Power of Open

Some of you may remember this image from a previous post on copyright:

I created this image using only open source software and artwork available in the public domain.  In fact, I didn't draw anything myself -- it was entirely a remix.  Here's how I did it:

Digital Revolution: Event Preview

For our Digital Civilization class, our culminating activity isn't the final examination; it's a public showcase, a special event for which we are now all anxiously preparing. We call it "Digital Revolution: Upgrading Education for Digital Civilization." [explained | on Facebook].

Here's a preview of each of the ten presentations that will be made that night. Have a look, then join us for the live event on December 9, 2010...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Announcing the Digital Revolution Event: December 9, 2010

(Image credit: Andrew DeWitt)

Update: See a preview for the event by clicking here!

Events are awesome learning tools -- far more authentic, I think, than the artificial deadlines that drive most academic work. With events, a sense of social expectation energizes collaboration. Nothing like a clear purpose, a destination, and an audience to motivate people to bring their A-game.

That's why for our Digital Civilization class we have scheduled a showcase of final projects -- projects that we are going to try to demonstrate to a much broader audience than the forty people of our class. It's been a fantastic semester, full of challenges and opportunities, and this public event on the evening of Thursday, December 9, 2010 is going to help bring it all together. Here's the title for our event:

Digital Revolution:
Upgrading Education for Digital Civilization

This two-hour event will imitate the Ignite event format in which speakers are given exactly five minutes to make their presentations. This is a high-energy format that allows an audience to be exposed to a range of interesting ideas and people within a short period of time. In our case, we have ten presentations based on group projects. Between each presentation, Dr. Zappala and I will recognize students and blogs for their achievements in meeting our learning outcomes and for trailblazing digital literacy. A contest is also in the works, spearheaded by our event planning team, Kristina Cummins and Megan Stern.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Freedom from Wires

Wireless networking enables us to communicate wherever we are, without having to plug a cable into the wall.  Wireless networking is also economical -- I have heard estimates of $1 million per mile to lay fiber optic cable in an urban environment where streets need to be dug up.

While most of us are familiar with basic WiFi networking that provides us with Internet access at a wireless hot spot, computer scientists and engineers are developing many exciting new ways to use wireless technology.  Follow me across the fold for some examples.

Sharing Links Intelligently

Links are the neurons of the Internet. How, when, and where should one share hyperlinks?

In this post I go over

  • Links within Blog Posts
  • Links Shared on Facebook
  • Links Shared on Twitter
  • Social Bookmarking: Serious Link Sharing
  • A Tool for Presenting Sets of Links
  • Tools for Sharing Sets of Links 
It's that last item that I'm most excited about today, due to the arrival of a new tool from

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Member Sourcing": Mormon Crowdsourcing

I presented on Friday, November 12, 2010, at the Mormon Media Studies Symposium at BYU. This was a very energizing conference with many different kinds of people attending from the worlds of journalism, media production, academia, the Internet, and diverse constituencies within the church (public affairs people, archivists, audio-visual producers, etc.). There's obviously a lot going on in this space and that's why conferences like this are so important. It was good to see Kristina Cummins there, one of our classmates, who blogged about using Twitter during the conference.

My topic was looking at crowdsourcing from an LDS perspective. I really enjoyed creating this Prezi presentation in which I put "member sourcing" into context and looked at recent and prospective uses of this means of organizing labor through online tools. The biggest takeaway from my research: the LDS church is looking more to develop creative collaborative communities through crowdsourcing than they are simply trying to use a top-down task delegation approach. And I'm convinced they have incubated the tools to accomplish this more substantial kind of crowdsourcing. Especially within their online tech community, they've proven they can motivate and encourage individuals with a talent pool, matching projects to interests, recognizing contributors, and building community at the same time they are developing specific projects. Very good sign.

My Prezi presentation follows the break, followed by the audio recording of the presentation if you want to listen to that while going through it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Keynesian Beauty Contest

In Chapter 12 of General Theory of Employment Interest and Money Keynes uses the example of a beauty contest to explain price fluctuations in the stock market.  Imagine a newspaper contest in which entrants are asked to choose the most beautiful face from a set of six photographs of women.  If your choice is the most popular, then you get a prize.

The "first degree" strategy is to choose the face you truly choose is the prettiest.  But if you care about winning, you might instead use a "second degree" strategy in which you choose the face you think other people believe is the prettiest.  A "third degree" strategy chooses a face based on the average opinion of what the average opinion of beauty is.  And so on ...

Relating this to the stock market, Keynes wrote that investment in the stock market is driven by expectations about what other investors think, rather than your own expectations about whether a particular investment will be profitable.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Using the Internet as a Supercomputer

This is a Prezi presentation I created to provide some background on distributed computing projects that make use of spare computing cycles:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Computers LTD: Chapter 2 Review

A friend loaned me his copy of Computers LTD: What they Really Can't Do, by David Harel, and I've found it to be a great resource for explaining computability and complexity theory to a general audience.

Chapter 2 of this book discusses computability, covering the major results in this area.  Harel starts by introducing the tiling problem, which is easily understandable because it can be represented graphically.  This is the sort of problem that can be really vexing -- it seems like you ought to be able to devise an algorithms for arranging the tiles on a plane  -- yet it turns out to be undecidable.  This is a great way of revealing the idea of noncomputable problems, a basic theoretical result that may catch the amateur by surprise.

Social Discovery

My greatest insight regarding digital literacy is that our most efficient and interesting use of electronic tools for teaching, learning, and research happens through what I call "social discovery." What I mean by this is that instead of pursuing a given subject, it is better to search for the people who are invested in or discussing those subjects, connect with them, and take it from there. I think this is the big game-changer.

But social discovery requires changing how we think about searching and researching. It requires integrating social efforts into intellectual work. I really think what it means is that technical-social skills are integral to emerging literacy. If you don't know how to find, contact, engage, respond to, and collaborate with people in real time or near-synchronous time -- well, you just aren't digitally literate. Not in a world that is networked both technologically and socially. I'd like to compare conventional intellectual work in a college class with intellectual work that is enhanced by social discovery, using the example of one of my recent students who had great success in using "social discovery."

Monday, November 1, 2010

Human Interfaces

What makes a computer easy to use?  The field of Human-Computer Interaction studies how humans and computers interact, combining the fields of computer science, linguistics, social sciences, and psychology.  Much of the work in this area has the goal of simplifying complexity and making computer interfaces simple and intuitive.

A great introduction to this field is the work of Dr. Donald A. Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things.  In this book, Norman examines how ordinary objects are designed and explains how failures of a product are often failures of their design.  He uses principles of cognitive psychology -- how people perceive, remember, think, speak, and solve problems -- to explore fundamental principles that guide good designs.  (Notice the picture of the teapot on the cover of his book.)  Another classic book by Norman, The Invisible Computer, goes so far as to argue that the computer ought to be hidden behind the scenes.  His premise is that companies have become too technology-centric and need to focus instead on designing products that are human-centered or activity-centered.  In this work he advocates for information appliances -- simple objects with computing embedded in them.

Course Project: Group Formation

We hosted a lively discussion in our previous post on the course project.  Our next step is to form project teams so you can begin working together on these exciting ideas.  Read on for the next step ...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Crowdsourcing Analyzed

Here's the Prezi presentation that I put together on Crowdsourcing and presented on 10/28/10. It doesn't include the information about prediction markets that I'd hoped, but it's a good start on the subject.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Computer Animation

Luxo Jr., by Pixar
Computer animation in films continues to make remarkable progress.  I remember seeing Luxo Jr. shortly after it was first released by Pixar in 1986 at an animation film festival that screened at Stanford University.   I was fascinated by the technology, and briefly thought about taking my studies in that direction before having a really difficult time in a computer graphics course.

Brigham Young University is now at the forefront of developing computer animated films, at its Center for Animation, a collaboration between the College of Engineering and Technology, College of Fine Arts and Communications, and College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences.

Algorithmic Art

A fractal by Peter Raedschelders
Can computers generate art?  Can an algorithm be represented visually in a way that could be termed artistic or even beautiful?

The field of digital art, in which digital technology is used in some critical part of the creative process, dates back to the 60s when Frieder Nake began exhibiting his works in Germany.  Today, there are many different subfields of digital art, one of which is algorithmic art, in which the focus is on creating algorithms that a computer uses to generate art.


While the Wikipedia article on Modernism is very useful (especially the historical summary), it is also long and detailed (Don't let me stop you from exploring it!). I wanted to find some succinct sources that epitomized Modernism for our course. Here are two. One is a very readable PowerPoint presentation I discovered by searching SlideShare (by Maria Teresa Ciaffaroni). The other is a handout from a 2008 course on Modernism taught by Sarah Brouillette I discovered by searching MIT's OpenCourseWare (after the break). Please browse through the SlideShare presentation, perhaps using some of the themes or people mentioned in the presentation as beginning points for your own self-directed learning.
How do these various aspects of modernism relate to our digital civilization today? Are we suffering a comparable sense of a loss of tradition? Does the technology that drives so much of our culture today confirm or challenge traditional systems? How does art play a role? Has it succumbed to mechanization and mass consumer culture (the concern of Walter Benjamin or Theodor Adorno)? Chime in. Don't forget to read past the break for that summary list from MIT.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Course Project

This post is intended to give you an overview of what we're expecting for your course project for the Digital Civilization class.  You will be completing your project in teams of about four students and working on this project throughout the second half of the semester. Remember that we plan to have a showcase for all the final projects on the evening of December 9th (a Thursday).

As explained below, your project should
  1. be an authentic task
  2. belong to one of the history of civilization content areas we list below
  3. draw upon the historical context of Western Civilization, and 
  4. use some of the digital media tools and digital culture concepts we have explored during the first part of the semester.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Cory Doctorow on self-publishing

I heard an interesting interview with Cory Doctorow about self-publishing on NPR's All Tech Considered today.  Some of the things he does to step outside the box of a traditional publisher:
  • publishes his work online using a Creative Commons license
  • uses Facebook and Twitter to build an audience
  • creates an online community to edit for typos and give tips on packaging and shipping
  • sells copies at traditional book stores
  • provides print-on-demand with Lulu, four different covers
  • gives attribution to readers if they fix a typo, providing their name in a footnote
  • solicits donations
  • sells limited-edition hardcovers, hand-sewn, with an SD card audio book and extra material bound into the book
  • sells audio CDs
  • sells stories for a commission on a mutually-agreeable subject
  • supplements his income with deals to write a novel
Doctrow states that he will make as much money, or more, as he would with a traditional publisher for his short story collections.   He thinks he will net $70,000 to $80,000 on his new book of short stories.

More on biologically-inspired computing

Gideon posted earlier on genetic algorithms used in computing.  Today I saw this fascinating article on how bees can solve the Traveling Salesman problem better than computers.  The Traveling Salesman problem is essentially this: given a set of cities, what is the shortest possible route that visits each city exactly once?  Or put in terms of bees collecting pollen: given a set of flowers, what is the shortest possible route that visits each flower exactly once? 

This problem is extremely difficult to solve -- it falls into a class of algorithms called NP-hard,  meaning that we do not yet have an efficient algorithm to solve the problem.  Computers may need to be infinitely parallel in order to solve this hard of a problem in a reasonable amount of time.  It's fascinating that we continue to learn from nature and bring these insights to the world of computing.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Online Pioneer

What defines the American pioneering spirit?  Perhaps a desire to improve one's lot in life, to start anew, to fulfill a vision of what could be.  Pioneering requires determination, perseverance, overcoming obstacles, leadership, a willingness to work for the common good, being comfortable with risks, faith.

Much of Mormon history is wrapped in the pioneer experience that many early church members had.  This pioneering continues today as members worldwide start new family traditions, open remote countries to the presence of the church, and build legacies.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Creative Internet

Google has put together this presentation on some of the many creative things that can be found on the Internet.  Some of these will really resonate with what we have learned about in this class.  Others are just cool.

Genetic Algorithms: Applying Evolutionary Biology to Computing

Principles of biological evolution are being applied to how computers solve problems in a variety of fields today, from aerospace to finance, acoustics, engineering, etc. It holds the promise of turning innovation into a computational process that can be scaled. How does this work?

Replication and Randomness
Computers are good at replicating, just as biological organisms are. The advances that come with biological evolution come about as minor changes (random mutations) end up favoring fitness for survival (over the course of many generations). So, with that in mind, a computer replicates millions of instances of a problem, and then introduces an element of isolated randomness to each of those instances (just as every individual person replicates the human genome, but we come with randomized versions of our own genetic code).

Survival of Fittest Solutions
Then, since computers are really good at repeating cycles, it's possible to have different "generations" or repeated cycles of the computer trying to find a solution. Benchmarks are set up to determine the viability of candidate solutions, and those candidate solutions either "live" or "die" depending on how well they get to those benchmarks. The computer then replicates the more favorable candidate solutions, introduces additional random factors for the next generation, and tries it again. Here's an example of how it works.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Innovation vs Evolution

As we're reading Darwin's Origin of the Species this week, I thought it would be worthwhile to distinguish between evolution in the natural world an innovation in the digital world.

Evolution occurs when the traits of a genetic population change over successive generations, generally a very long period of time relative to the life of an individual in the species.  Changes are introduced through mutation and then inherited through reproduction.  Natural selection chooses traits that aid the survivability and reproduction of the species.

Are changes in the computing world a result of evolution?

Linking your blog to Facebook

One of the useful things I've done is to link my blogs to Facebook with a tool called NetworkedBlogs.  This will post to your Facebook feed every time you post a new article to your blog, so that your friends can see it.  I've found this is a good way to bring traffic to your blog.  I'm going to walk through how I set it up.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A revolution in publishing

We've talked a lot about printing and the print culture this semester, and how the digital revolution is changing the way we consume and share the printed word.  I found this story to be a fascinating look at what happens when writers embrace the digital world and step outside the bounds of the traditional publisher model.

Four authors collaborated to write a book and publish it exclusively through Amazon's e-book service.  They followed two core principles of digital citizenship that we have discussed -- release early, and release for free using the freemium model.  The authors released free teaser material when they had only written a few chapters.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Babbage: Inventor, Mathematician, Computer Scientist, Hacker

"Lo! the raptured arithmetician! Easily satisfied, he asks no Brussels lace, nor a coach and six.  To calculate, contents his liveliest desires, and obedient numbers are within his reach."

E. De Joncourt, On the Nature and Notable Use of the most Simple Trigonal Numbers
Charles Babbage quotes the above passage in his 1864 work, Passages from the life of a philosopher, illustrating the pure joy he feels when working with mathematics.  One can't help but feel the same sense of wonder as he explains the algorithms underlying his beautiful Difference Engine. Imagine his wonder if he had ever seen it operating!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Peer-to-Peer Networking, Copyright, and Civil Disobedience

Presentation and discussion after the break...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Romantic Hacker

MIT has been the site of many famous hacks.  One of the more memorable was the placement of a realistic MIT police cruiser on top of the Great Dome, atop a  building on the MIT campus.  The beauty of this hack was in the effort required and the attention to detail:
MIT Hack: a police cruiser on the Great Dome
The car turned out to be the outer metal parts of a Chevrolet Cavalier attached to a multi-piece wooden frame, all carefully assembled on the roof over the course of one night. The hackers paid special attention to detail. Not only had the Chevy been painted to look just like a Campus Police car from all sides, but a dummy dressed up as a police officer sat within, with a toy disc gun and a box of donuts. The car, numbered ``pi,'' also sported a pair of fuzzy dice, the license number ``IHTFP,'' an MIT Campus Police parking ticket (``no permit for this location''), and a yellow diamond-shaped sign on the back window proclaiming ``I break for donuts.''

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Mini-Book Club Assignment

A classic study of the Renaissance
During the next week we are organizing a reading and research activity for students in order to jump-start outside reading and research in the historical content areas of the course. We know that our Honors students are capable of finding, studying, and reporting on more substantial sources than we have been seeing. Recently I posted on how to bring books into your digital life. This assignment will get you using some of those suggestions. We also intend it to be a way for students to connect more, as this was a main concern during interviews.

After you get broken into groups of three on Tuesday, October 5th, you will conduct a "mini book club" up through Thursday, October 14th that will get you involved in the three overarching aspects of digital literacy: consume, create, and connect. We expect you to narrate this entire process on your blog and not to wait until you've done all of the steps.  Obviously these posts will count toward the required digital literacy labs assignment. So here it is:

Friday, October 1, 2010

Connecting in Person: Critical Mass

Dalton and friend on tandem bike during Oct. 2010 Critical Mass ride in Provo, Utah
In a recent blog post Dalton Haslam talked about participating in Critical Mass, a monthly cycling event in which cyclists in various cities take to the road --en masse-- both to enjoy the ride but also to call attention to cycling as an important alternative to vehicle transportation. He got me curious, so I borrowed my neighbors very-sweet-ride and, with about 50 others (including Dalton and class member Morgan Wills) took to the streets of Provo tonight. Now, in some cities these Critical Mass events have caused some consternation, with some of their members using this as a sort of activism. Would we block traffic? Get arrested?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Installing Intense Debate

One of the difficulties with blogging is that it is difficult sometimes to keep track of where you have commented and to remember to check back in case the author has replied.  One tool that helps manage this difficulty is Intense Debate.  This is a replacement for the default commenting system on your blog, and it includes some nice features.  You can have comment threading (so you can reply to a specific comment), get notified when someone replies to your comment, and integrate with Facebook and Twitter.  Here is how I installed Intense Debate on this blog:

John Locke and the Internet

Bill Cheswick -- Internet Mapping Project
To understand the Internet, let's look to John Locke, writing in Of Civil Government:
To understand political power correctly, and derive it from its origins, we must consider what state all men are naturally in: a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions as they see fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking permission or depending upon the will of any other man.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ten Ways to Bring Books Into Your Digital Life

Just because books are a legacy knowledge format doesn't mean you shouldn't make good use of them. The digital realm is reviving and repurposing books (just as those classical books from antiquity got a brand new life during the Renaissance when put into print). Books are more important than ever!

So, if you want to be taken seriously on your blog, show that you are good friends with books, that you read then, think about them, share them, and respond to them. It's so easy to do nowadays! Here are ten ways to bring books more powerfully into your digital life:

Agile Software Development as a Metaphor

An agile ninja

Software development has undergone a revolution in the last decade.  The formal software engineering method consists of the following steps:
  • Requirements: figuring out what the customer wants
  • Design: specifying on paper how the software should be built
  • Implementation: writing the software in a programming language
  • Testing: running tests to ensure the software acts as specified
  • Documentation: explaining how to use the software
  • Deployment: selling or installing the software
  • Maintenance: providing bug fixes as necessary
In the classic waterfall model, these steps are done one at a time.  Each step can be quite lengthy, and the final product is usually not ready until months have passed.  In particular, the requirements are considered to be almost a contract -- they cannot be changed once they have been formalized, because the design depends upon them.  Changing requirements means restarting the software design process.  The waterfall model is analogous to a samurai -- fighting is only allowed under strict rules that govern the fighter's code of conduct.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Nine Women Can't Make A Baby In One Month

This is a famous quote from Fred Brooks in his classic book, The Mythical Man Month.  Brooks uses this as a drastic example of a phenomenon that has come to be known as Brooks' Law:
Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later
Brooks coined this maxim while working as a software engineer at IBM during the 1950s and 60s.  He noticed that large software projects tended to run behind schedule, and that a manager's first instinct was to add more manpower.  After all, this works in many other fields.  For example, if you need to pick a crop of peaches, the more workers you employ, the faster it will get done.  John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath describes how the perfect partitioning of this kind of manual labor during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s led to the exploitation of workers, movingly illustrating the ugly side of capitalism.  Brooks explains how software engineering is rarely partitioned perfectly into smaller increments of tasks, so that adding more workers actually delays a late project even more.  Each additional worker requires "ramp up" time to become integrated into the project, plus additional personnel and communication costs, factors that managers of the era were ignoring.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Traditional vs. Digital Economies

One of the most profound changes in digital civilization is the emergence of economies that do not play by the traditional capitalistic rules that the West had taken for granted since the time of Adam Smith and the Industrial Revolution. I will briefly introduce and contrast chief principles of the market economy (drawing on Adam Smith) and those of the emerging economies in the digital world (by referring to several key concepts and their proponents).

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Digital Literacy Overview in Prezi Form

I'm glad to see many in our class playing with Prezi (as Andrew did recently). The visual nature of Prezi is far superior to PowerPoint. It is not tied down to sequence as PowerPoint is (one can pan around, zoom in and out, interrupt following a set path, etc.). It is more open to uses of space, movement, size, and orientation, too. For me, it isn't so much a presentation tool as it is a thinking tool. I reconceive of my topic while struggling to represent it using the formal features that Prezi favors.

Here's a first draft of a presentation about digital literacy that I put into Prezi form (for a presentation I'm giving to some English majors this week). What do you think? Part of what helped me here was recasting each of the three C's (consume-create-connect) into a set of questions. The visuals set up some parallelisms and symbolic relationships that I liked. I'm interested in your feedback before I take it further. Oh, and I've also set it up as public and licensed for re-use. Take a copy of it and revise, remix, or rework it on your own, if you like.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Science is Messy

In "The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge", Thomas Sprat wrote:
The society has reduced its principal observations into one common-stock and laid them up in public registers to be nakedly transmitted to the next generation of men, and so from them to their successors. And as their purpose was to heap up a mixed mass of experiments, without digesting them into any perfect model, so to this end, they confined themselves to no order of subjects; and whatever they have recorded, they have done it, not as complete schemes of opinions, but as bare, unfinished histories.
What a fantastic metaphor for the open pursuit of science -- a mixed mass of experiments, unfinished work, heaped up into a common place to be nakedly transmitted from one generation to the next!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Algorithms and Truth

Fixing a broken lamp
In an earlier post, I introduced the concept of algorithms as a way of solving problems using a step-by-step process.  Most of us understand algorithmic thinking when it is applied to everyday tasks.  Fixing a broken lamp is a good example of an algorithm, because it involves taking different paths, depending on the outcome of several questions.  A recipe is a simple form of an algorithm:
Sausage and Peppers
1 package of Italian sausage (mild or hot, your choice)
2 bell peppers (red, orange, yellow, green, your choice), sliced
1 sweet onion, sliced
1 Tbsp minced garlic
fresh basil (or dried)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 28 oz can whole tomatoes
1 package angel hair or penne pasta

1. Cook the sausage whole, on medium heat, until browned, using 1 Tbsp of olive oil. Alternatively, broil the sausage in the oven.  Slice into pieces and reserve
2. In the same pan, cook the bell peppers, onion over medium heat using 1 Tbsp of olive oil, until onion is lightly browned.
3. Add the garlic to the pan and simmer until slightly browned.
4. Add the sausage back to the pan.
5. Puree the tomatoes by pulsing, so that there are still small chunks.
6. Add the tomatoes to the pan, along with the basil.
7. Simmer the sauce on medium-low until reduced and thickened, about 10 or 15 minutes.
8. Serve over angel hair or penne pasta, cooked to package instructions for al dente.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ten Ways Out of the Google or Wikipedia Rut

Do you default to using Google or Wikipedia for just about every online search? Those are great resources, but not the only gateways to research and learning online. In fact, there may be more efficient or interesting ways into your subjects.

This post includes 10 great starting places for researching topics online without resorting either to Google or Wikipedia.

I'm going to walk you through each of these as I research the history of science and the scientific method. Watch how much fun I have in diversifying my online discovery methods. Hope you'll try some of these!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Open Source Science

I attended an interesting talk on by Daniel Lopresti on a new approach to machine perception at the BYU Computer Science colloquium on Thursday.  Machine perception refers to the ability of computers to mimic human behavior for tasks such as computer vision, document analysis, image processing, speech recognition, and natural language understanding.  Dr. Lopresti is advocating many approaches that we have discussed as part of the free software movement:
  • open, shared resources: the research community shares data, algorithms, citations, and other work
  • crowd intelligence: people can rate the quality of the resources, so that the community develops an interpretation of which are the best
  • transparency: algorithms and results are publicly available so they can be modified and improved by other researchers
As a side benefit, results are verifiable and repeatable.  Beginning researchers can build off of existing work more easily, instead of starting from scratch.

Essentially, this idea does away with the status quo of research in many fields, where each researcher works independently, rarely shares algorithms, doesn't always share data, and runs tests that are limited and not easily reproducible.

by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center
Scientific research seems like the perfect match for openness and transparency. Science is often done for purely altruistic reasons -- to simply advance the truth and knowledge.  The complicating factors are that (1) corporations want to patent their research to monopolize it for themselves, and (2) academics want to keep their data and algorithms private for as long as possible, in order to publish more papers.  Open source science is a big dream, but we haven't yet figured out how to balance these concerns with the benefits that an open source approach would provide.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Empire Building on the Internet

So you want to build yourself an empire on the Internet.  You have a great idea for a new product, you scrape together some money, get a web site built, and open your first Internet storefront.  Time to conquer the competition.  Things start off well.  Your site makes a splash, people love your product, and they start coming in droves.  One problem: your site can't handle the load.

Waiting time for a queuing system (Brian Tung)
You've just encountered the harsh realities of queuing theory. Imagine you own a bakery, and you employ one clerk to staff the store.  The clerk is fairly efficient and takes about a minute to handle a customer.  Some customers will take longer, because they have a special order.  If two customers arrive within 30 seconds of each other, clearly the second will have to wait until the first one is finished.  If customers keep arriving quickly, a line will form.  Queuing theory says that if customers start arriving close to the capacity of the store (1 customer per minute), delays will quickly grow and waiting time will become infinite.  The remarkable thing is that this happens before the store reaches its capacity, because some customers take longer to service than one minute, and because sometimes customers arrive sooner than the average.  The same situation holds whether you run a bakery, a web server, or a highway.  (See Brian Tung's excellent blog entry explaining why this happens for freeway traffic.)

Social Bookmarking - The Diigo Digital Civilization Group

Of all the digital tools I have learned, I think social bookmarking to be among the most regularly useful. It has brought order to all the constant surfing and research I do online. It's not that hard to learn, and you'll end up getting more mileage out of your online work.

Dr. Zappala uses the bookmarking service, which is great. I have been using Diigo. We've decided to require students to learn and use Diigo because it is well suited for academic purposes. I'm glad that Kevin has posted about Diigo and has an account going already. We'd like you to get an account and then join the Digital Civilization bookmarking group I've set up on Diigo. Read on for more of an explanation and instructions on getting started.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Electronic Freedom

As a modern analogue to the Protestant Reformation, I would like to introduce several important organizations that fight for electronic freedoms.

The free software movement was started in 1983 by Richard Stallman with the foundation of the GNU Operating System project.  The goal was to create an operating system using only free software, where free is defined using four principles:
  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Background for The Cathedral and the Bazaar

Eric Raymond
One of the assignments for this week is to listen to a speech by Eric Raymond on the subject of his famous essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar.  It is unclear when he gave this speech, but it was possibly in 1997 at the Linux Kongress conference.

In this speech, Raymond talks about his insights into a programming philosophy he dubs "the bazaar".  His thoughts draw heavily from observations of the Linux operating system development process, which is coordinated by Linus Torvalds.  Linux is free software, written entirely by volunteers, and may be modified and redistributed by anyone.  While Linux has not had much of an impact on the desktop market, it runs about 20 to 40% of the servers on the Internet, and is increasingly being used to run cellular phones.  The Android phone system developed by Google is based on Linux, for example.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Legacy of Manutius

I've blogged a lot about computer technology lately, discussing algorithmic thinking, programming languages, and metadata.   I want to take some time to tie these concepts together with the history we've been studying lately.

Aldus Manutius, the great Renaissance publisher, is well known for his preservation of Greek, Latin, and Italian texts, as well as his innovation in bringing these books to the general public in a small, portable format known as an octavo.  The modern analogue to his efforts is Project Gutenberg, which is digitizing as many books as it can and providing them for free to the public.  The latest count includes more than 33,000 free electronic books.  In many ways, this project is fulfilling Manutius' dream beyond his wildest expectations, due to the sheer volume of books being made available and the vast number of readers.  Of course, Manutius could not have forseen the digital age, when copies have become nearly free.  Nor may he have forseen an era when volunteers would donate their time and resources to provide such a large digital library.

Renaissance, Reformation, and China

It's been such a pleasure to discover a series published by Oxford of very short introductions (to historical periods, famous people, and various -isms). Using my Amazon Prime account (which I love and students can get for free for a year) in two days and for $9 I had in my hands Jerry Brotton's The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction. In 125 brief pages, it gives a great overview of this period.

The image here is Raphael's fresco of the Donation of Constantine. There's Constantine, formally conveying secular authority of the Roman Empire to the Catholic Church.  I spoke about that document in the Digital Civilization class -- how Lorenzo Valla discredited it through linguistic analysis and proved it to be of medieval origins. What I didn't know

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Our Mormon Renaissance

Inspired by James Wilcox's post, "The Mormons are Renaissance Humanist" and Jeffrey Whitlock's "Humanism from a Latter-day Saint Perspective," I thought it was a fit occasion to make some parallels between the Renaissance and the predominant religion of those in this Digital Civilization course at BYU.

A few years ago I presented a paper at the Association for Mormon Letters called, "Our Mormon Renaissance." It has to do with early and ongoing aspirations of Latter-day Saints to achieve the cultural greatness largely identified with the fertile period of the Renaissance.  Hope you enjoy it.

Data and MetaData

bits, by sciascia on flickr
In some ways, the digital revolution is all about data -- the photos, videos, and web pages we view and share. Data is simply a series of zeros and ones, stored together in a file.  Each zero or one is a bit and eight of these bits together is a byte.  The computer assigns meaning to each bit or byte, depending on the type of the file.  For example, in an image, a byte might represent one of 256 different colors for a pixel or one dot in the image.  In other images, a pixel might be represented by 24 bits (three bytes), allowing for over 3 million different colors for each pixel.  In a text file, each byte can represent a character; the ASCII system maps each of the byte values to a character in the English language.

Campagna autunnale vicino Linguaglossa, by alfiogreen
Metadata is data about the data.  It describes what the data means, and makes it easier for us and for computers to categorize the vast amounts of data we share on the Internet.  It's what makes data truly useful.  The photo sharing site Flickr, for example, allows users to tag photos with key words describing the image.  If I was looking for photos of Linguaglossa, the town in Sicily where my ancestors are from, a simple search will find many beautiful pictures.  In fact, your digital camera usually stores metadata about each photo right in the image, describing the camera settings used to take the photo, the date, and other useful information.  Many web pages include metadata describing the content so that search engines can index it more accurately.

Digital libraries use metadata standards to markup resources for cataloging purposes.  For example, metadata for an author might look like this:
<name type="personal">
    <namePart>Bradbury, Ray</namePart>
      <roleTerm type="text">creator</roleTerm>
This uses a format called XML, which encodes metadata in a human-readable form.  In this case, we can see the author's name, Ray Bradbury, and his role as the creator of the work being cataloged.  XML plays a critical role in data exchange on the Internet; it allows data to be extracted in a format that describes it structure, so that computer programs can automatically translate it in meaningful ways.  For example, the RSS and Atom formats are used by blogs to publish a list of posts, so that they are easily read by software such as Google Reader.  The RSS format for the books added to Project Gutenberg can be found at  You can see metadata in action on a digital library by searching the metadata for Project Gutenberg using the Anacleto search engine.

The First Programming Language

Jacquard Loom Punch Cards, by Lars Olaussen
The first programs were written for a loom designed by Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752-1834).  The programs consisted of a series of holes punched into a card.  The machine reads each row of holes, corresponding to one row of thread in the design being woven, and uses the pattern to determine which hooks should be used for that row.  It's an ingenious system, and one that has been used for hundreds of years in the weaving industry.  Variations on these punched cards were used in early digital computers in the 20th century.

Punched cards such as these bear a close resemblance to what we today consider "machine code".  They are in essence a sequence of instructions in a language that can be directly executed by a machine.  They're not terribly easy for humans to understand.  Modern computer programming uses higher-level languages, which are then translated into machine code.  An example of a higher-level language is the Logo language I discussed earlier.

Wired Magazine has an interesting story on the Jacquard loom and its place in history.

Update: Here's a link to a BBC story I had been trying to find earlier about the lace industry in UK and their use  of Jacquard looms to this day.

Programming as Problem Solving

The programming process
I highly recommend the book Computers Ltd.: What They Really Can't Do as a good introduction to the concepts of computability and complexity from a non-technical perspective.  The figure at right is inspired by a diagram the book uses to introduce the concepts of programming and programming languages.

When a programmer has an idea for developing a new piece of software, the first thing he does is express this idea as a algorithm.  An algorithm is a method for solving a problem in a step-by-step fashion.  The next step is to implement this algorithm in a high-level programming language; this is a language designed to make it easy for a human to tell the computer what he wants it to do.  The programmer then uses a special program called a compiler to translate this language into machine code, which is a series of instructions the computer can understand.  The result is a software program that can be run on a machine, such as a laptop or a smart phone.

From this description, you can see programming is a two-step process, of first designing an algorithm and then writing it in a programming language.  Algorithm design is usually the hardest part; computer scientists often refer to the need to train students to think algorithmically.  A good definition of what we mean by this is found in Developing Algorithmic Thinking with Alice, a paper by Cooper et al. that was published in the 2000 Information Systems Education Conference:
1) state a problem clearly, 2) break the problem down into a number of well-defined smaller problems, and 3) devise a step-by-step solution to solve each of the sub-tasks
This is an extremely important skill that transfers over into many disciplines, and the reason why we believe most students can benefit from taking at least one programming class sometime in their education.

Finding Blogs to Read

Blogs are among the most important content sources today and finding and following appropriate blogs is a key part of the "Consume" portion of digital literacy. Here are some ideas for discovering blogs to follow. First, it's important to understand some major divisions among types of blogs.

There are "big" blogs (blogs associated with conventional, big media, like the New York Times blog, or blogs that are very popular and whose posts get tens or hundreds of comments). These big blogs are good to know about to stay current on things, but not as good with respect to communicating with others. They help you get the pulse on things, but they aren't strong with connecting you to communities or individuals. It is most often the smaller blogs where you can have personal interaction with the blog author. So look for those as much as for some of the big-content or top blogs.

Blog Search
This is an obvious starting point, but perhaps not always the most direct or efficient way of finding blogs to follow. But give it a try. The two most important blog searching services are Technorati and Google Blog Search.

Both of these services include mini, general directories to blogs you can browse. Technorati also has an authority ranking for blogs, which is a very interesting concept. Both services also list top blogs and categorize these. (And both index blogs generally, not just big ones)

Top Blogs

Technorati maintains a well known list of top blogs, the "Technorati Top 100." This list has a heavy emphasis on news and politics (Huffington Post; CNN, Politics Daily, etc.) and especially technology blogs. Given the focus of the Digital Civilization course, some of the tech blogs are certainly worth following. I particularly recommend Read/Write/Web. Unlike some of the gadget-oriented blogs, it deals with larger principles and social trends, the effects of technology. Mashable is very current for Web2.0 and social media.

Blog Directories
Browse the categories in such blog directories as blogcatalog or blogged. There are also directories maintained by the major blog platforms. You might visit the Typepad Featured Blogs site. I find these directories have a more diverse set of categories (often more appropriate for academic purposes). If you are interested in connecting with LDS blogs (the "Bloggernacle"), you should consult the Mormon Archipelago or LDS Blogs directory.

Education Blogs
Especially appropriate for students are the many blogs hosted by teachers, educators, professors, students, and people in the ed-tech community. A good starting place for these is blogged, but the best is probably EduBlogs.

Institutional Blogs
Governments, universities, libraries, museums -- they are all getting into blogging as a way of communicating with constituents and featuring content. Try out the Library of Congress Blog, or any of the Smithsonian's blogs for starters.

Finding Blogs through "Social Discovery"
However, the best way I've found to discover blogs is indirectly, looking not so much for topics as for people, and by associative searching (by seeing who follows whom online). This is part of "social discovery," a key concept in digital literacy that we will be talking a lot about.

Essentially, what this means is that if you are involved in a social network (Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, etc.) you click on your friends and followers and see if they have a profile or a link to their own personal blogs. Or, if you find a particular site or blog that fits your interests, and it has the followers feature enabled, you can usually find great blogs by seeing who else has shown enough interest in the topic of the blog to register as an official follower, then click through to see if they have a blog. This works great through Twitter, too. (See my brief video tutorial on this here).

If you are using Google Reader or Google Buzz, these also have follower features enabled and you can go see the profiles and websites of those that are following you. For example, take a look at my own Google profile. You can see the many places that I show up online. Indeed, almost any of the media content sites now have following/ friending features and some sort of profile that can lead you to discover interesting people and their sites and blogs. I've found people through SlideShare, for example, a site devoted to posting and sharing PowerPoint presentations. You can do the same via Flickr (for photos) or Goodreads (for books).

Have you looked up the people that follow you on your blog? They just might be producing content you want to channel your way.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Without Apology

Dr. Zappala and I have thrown a lot at our Digital Civilization class: new tools, and a radically new approach to content, independent learning, and connecting students to their own passions, to other students, and to things bigger and broader than a semester and a Gen Ed requirement.

But no apologies! Sure, it's a lot, with plenty of kinks to work out. We'll get some things wrong. But we know where we are going, and that direction is not backwards to the status quo of higher education.

Speaking of which, the following video expresses our sentiments. Only, unlike the professor at the beginning, we will not shrug and say we have failed our students. We are giving this experiment all we've got.

Too many teachers, courses, and colleges proceed apace as though no radical revolution is underway in our society, This is not our point of view. We will not be teaching this course in the traditional way with a little bit of audiovisual enhancement to dress it up. No. We are challenging our students in a serious way precisely because the stakes are so high and the attention given to the change is so low -- even at first-rate universities like the one we teach at.

It isn't just that technology is increasing and media multiplying. All our institutions are being reformulated -- not just retooled -- as the revolution takes hold in how we communicate, think, solve problems, collaborate, persuade, work -- in how we conceive of the world and act meaningfully within it: government, business, family life, art -- the works.

It may appear to our students that their professors are a couple of geeks imposing their love of things technical upon their students. If so, they have missed the point. It is not about the tools, nor some naive attachment to gadgets and science fiction. It is about the principles upon which society is built (or rebuilt); it is about a lifetime of purposeful, educated, passionate involvement in the life of the mind and the lives of our neighbors across the planet. It is about the very purpose of an education. It is about realizing how to realize your potential in a world in which print literacy will no longer dominate. It's about catching up, yes, but it is more about catching the vision.

We have that vision, and it thrills us. And it scares us a bit, to tell you the truth. But we want to take our students with us, forward in the future. We want them to be brave enough to detach from the comfort and familiarity of  textbook learning and to pick up the challenge to dig deep within to the taproots of their passions, and to reach beyond themselves and their classrooms to the social networks and authentic issues and problems to which they need not wait to begin contributing their talents.

For all of this, we don't apologize. We hope our students are just crazy enough to stay with us for the ride.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Civilizing Us Digitally

Do our technological tools lead us toward or away from being civilized?

Daniel's recent post discussed simulations, through which parts of the world are modeled by computers in order to ask important questions about physical phenomena like weather or oil spills. In a way, this is how you can think about history or about literature. Stories (both the true and fictional sorts) are simulations. When we read Thomas More's Utopia, it models social phenomena, which might be as vital as those physically-oriented simulations Daniel mentioned.  Kevin Watson rightly pointed out that Utopia was not a place without problems (Andrew DeWitt noted that slavery was troublingly part of More's ideal place). Fine. The problems within a fictional utopia yield useful information for the real world. We can appreciate history and literature as a set of experiments from the past to color the present.

Our digital world is a richly experimental world, combining the data-driven world of science with various social sandboxes. Video games are often condemned as the end of civilization (or at least the end of reading). What about Sid Meier's famous computer game, Civilization? You start in 4000 B.C. and attempt to engineer a society to stand the test of time.

Video games are called antisocial, but if you are learning the various dynamic factors that influence the rise of nations across centuries, isn't that a kind of valuable knowledge? Maybe this sort of gaming could be the sort of "civic media" described in Dalton Haslam's recent blog post:
the use of media and information to help society function in the the way that it should. It helps foster democratic ideals and leads to greater awareness as citizens
Media advancing democratic ideals, greasing the wheels of society. Sounds like technology and media are definitely tools for advancing civilization. It's true that advances in communications technology have generally meant greater participation from more people within their societies. This is where social idealism and technological utopianism combine: if we can only get a laptop for every child in the world, we'll soon have global democracy (and the end of poverty, etc.).

Studying a bit of Thomas More's Utopia is a good place to begin our thinking through digital civilization. As Mike Lemon points out in his recent post, the narrator of Utopia speaks admiringly of Utopians learning from the Greeks, yet the constant ironic tone puts this admiration in question. As Mike says, "Is he truly admiring the idea of information dissemination, or is he poking fun at the current trend of rediscovery"? Maybe Thomas More was playing with readers the way we might play with Sid Meier's game, Civilization.

Part of Renaissance thinking was devoted to idealizing (especially over ancient civilizations), and part of it was devoted to skepticism. That's why you get something like More's Utopia -- literally meaning a place that is "not" (u-topia) and a place that is good (eu-topia).  That's probably a healthy place to be during this Digital Renaissance of today.

Civilization itself is an ideal, going back to Plato's Republic or to St. Augustine's City of God. But in contrast to what? The root word of civilization is the Latin civis, or "city." Are cities inherently ideal -- as opposed to rural places? That's very problematic. As writers like Thoreau and Wordsworth (or environmentalists like John Muir, Rachel Carson, or Edward Abbey) have illustrated so well, our connection with earthy, sky, and land may be more profoundly meaningful than the artifice and pollutions of city life. Are we aspiring to a dystopia by privileging "civilization"?

Nepalese women using One Laptop computers on the way to Mt. Everest base camp
And worse, by focusing on DIGITAL civilization, are we only distancing ourselves further from the authenticity of our physical environments and from friends and family? We've all known the scenario of technology sucking hours away, isolating us as we hover over screens, ignoring the flesh-and-blood people that are nearby. Is technology civilizing us or isolating us?

I've been interested by Kristen Cardon's musings about technology and education in her blog. She's studying Tibetans and technology, and she is asking some tough questions:
Why do we, along with Tibetans see a holy grail in classroom technology? Given that some technologies actually improve the classroom, which ones detract?
I honestly don't know how to answer those hard questions. Even as we construct this class, Dr. Zappala and I anguish over whether we are focusing too much on means (digital tools) and not enough on ends (course content).

Let's up the ante even more. Maybe we're just gearing up for oppression through our technology in the classroom (either being oppressed or being oppressors). One of my recent students, Allison Frost, used her research blog to study the ways that China is truly ramping up in the digital age into Big Brother -- the overlords of George Orwell's 1984. At first I thought this was a simplistic analogy, but her research was very convincing. In the hands of those who wish to monitor and micromanage, technology is a powerful agency.

And if you look at how gambling, pornography, terrorism -- or even just spam, uncivil discourse, bullying, and widespread idiocy -- have spread rampantly through technology, it's easy to see see digital civilization as an oxymoron. We've invented the means to amplify our own worse tendencies to the point of moral and physical self-destruction.

Photos: 1) flickr - graye; 2) flickr - One Laptop Per Child