Archive for October, 2010

Movie: Waiting for Superman

Posted on October 30th, 2010 in Education, Entertainment, Movies, Politics and Law | No Comments »

I saw Waiting for Superman last night, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who’s been on the fence. The movie is a documentary of the U.S. education system by Davis Guggenheim, who also made An Inconvenient Truth. The story follows a small handful of children from various backgrounds who have applied to be in the lottery for crowded public charter schools because the ‘normal’ public schools have failed them. To setup the ending, the movie starts with an introduction to these students and their different situations. As the movie progresses, it explains more of the recent history of public education in the United States, and both Allison and I sort of lost track of the fact that these were real students from real families. The ending actually shows the various lottery processes. I had been told that the ending was quite moving, so perhaps it didn’t affect me as much as it could have. Consider Kristen Paglia’s review at the Huffington Post:

From an education advocacy standpoint, this film is a gamechanger. As Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stated at the screening, “If your blood is not boiling by the end of this film, then there is no blood pumping through your heart.” My blood was certainly boiling. Further, having fallen in love with these five children, it was hard to distinguish between the tears of rage, sorrow, and triumph by the end. This film will inspire change.

You don’t have to be super politically engaged to know that there’s a ton of problems with education in America. Sadly, it’s been a huge problem for years. Waiting for Superman does an excellent job highlighting some of the biggest problems. I’ll try not to spoil the movie for you by revealing too much, but one thing that stuck with me was an Illinois statistic about the rate of people losing their credentials for various professions. Here’s the NY Times review, which also focuses on this statistic:

In Illinois, where one in 57 doctors loses his medical license and one in 97 lawyers loses his law license, only one in 2,500 teachers loses his credentials, because of union rules.

Scary, right? The movie has a lot of other revealing things to say about the NEA and the AFT, which may come as more of a shocker to people who didn’t go into the movie thinking they were bad for education.

Guggenheim positions several people as heroic figures of a teaching revolution; it’s a stark contrast from his depiction of unions. Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, and the founders of KIPP come off looking like saints fighting the good fight. They should be lauded for their efforts, but it’s not really about finding heros. Finding heros is difficult, inconsistent, and probably not scalable. Again, from the HuffPo review:

We absolutely cannot underestimate the power of charismatic and visionary leaders, and I am grateful for the people who had the courage to make a film that celebrates education heroes, but there are not enough of those heroes to go around.

Even if we can find heros, the politics of teaching are such that they have the deck stacked against them. After the movie came out, Michelle Rhee was pushed into resigning as the D.C. Schools Chancellor. From Adam Schaeffer:

No man or woman, mayor, chancellor or superintendent can significantly and permanently reform the government education monopoly. It is unreformable. Rhee’s tenure and modest success underscores this fact. Entrenched interests regroup, respond, bide their time, and reformers move on or are shoved along.

What can we do? Well, we can realistically identify the teachers that aren’t getting the job done. Finding obviously bad teachers isn’t hard and would make a big difference. One of the reformers interviewed for the film said that if we could get rid of the bottom 6% to 10% of the profession our schools could be right back up near the best in the world. School superintendents should have the ability to fire the worst teachers rather than perform some idiotic dance of the lemons. What’s a dance of the lemons you ask? Here’s an explanation from the Hoover Institute article linked above:

Often, as a way to save time and money, an administrator will cut a deal with the union in which he agrees to give a bad teacher a satisfactory rating in return for union help in transferring the teacher to another district. The problem teacher gets quietly passed along to someone else. Administrators call it “the dance of the lemons” or “passing the trash.” Howard Fuller, the superintendent of Milwaukee public schools from 1991 to 1995, explains: “Administrators found they needed to trade bad teachers because it’s easier than getting rid of them. We had one teacher who put a student’s head down the toilet. He simply got moved to another school.”

It’s much easier to identify the worst 10% of the profession, but we can’t easily get rid of them. Remember: Illinois was only able to fire one teacher of every 2,500. That’s 249 bad teachers keeping their job for every one that gets fired.

If there’s a problem with Waiting for Superman, it is simply that the documentary needed to follow a compelling story. The most emotional aspect of the movie is watching these students as they go through the lotteries for their various charters. Unfortunately, this positions charter schools as “the answer,” when in reality those schools are still publicly funded schools. They are still subject to pressure for politicians and unions, albeit somewhat less than a normal public school. The story makes for a great documentary, but in reality we need a truly competitive environment for education. Here’s Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute:

The only way to make educators truly put children first is to require that they satisfy parents — the customers — to get their money. And that can mean only one thing: transforming our education system into one in which parents control education funding and educators have to earn their business.

Think about this for a moment. If parents had complete control over who got paid to teach their children, would we have a problem getting rid of the worst 10% of the profession? Would we have trouble accurately compensating great teachers? Would we have children stuck in lotteries like those in the movie? One of those children was entered because her mother couldn’t continue to pay for her parochial school on top of paying taxes to support her local public school. What would be so bad about treating school as a business? Again, here’s Neal McCluskey:

If a firm isn’t happy with a supplier, does it call its congressman, hold fora, pen op-eds, badger reporters, all in the hope of eventually persuading the supplier to change? Of course not: If the supplier doesn’t improve, the firm just finds a new one and moves on!

Since it is election season, I’ve seen several commercials for political candidates that attempt to trash their opponents by saying they want to eliminate the Department of Education. Every time I see one I think, “Education is too important to be a department in the government!” Do we really want to put all our eggs in one basket?

If you haven’t really given education policy much thought before, consider seeing Waiting for Superman in theaters. It’s a good introduction to both the politics and the emotion surrounding education policy. Also, when we saw the movie last night, they gave us each a $15 gift card to use at Regardless, it was a great way to spend an evening.

It’s Time to Purchase a Nook or Kindle

Posted on October 28th, 2010 in Books, Entertainment | 6 Comments »

Recently, my friend Mike wrote a post about why he hasn’t purchased an e-reader such as the Nook or Kindle. Since this post is a direct response to his, I would highly recommend reading his first.

Go ahead; I’ll wait.

Done? Cool. Let’s move on.

I should say up front that I actually agree with most of his points, but only under the premise that the entire discussion relates to academia. Although he doesn’t come right out and say his decision not to buy an e-reader is based on its utility for academic study, he alludes to the fact that someone asked him “a few months ago about seminary and e-readers.” There are numerous reasons why e-readers aren’t quite there yet for academic work (and maybe I’ll post about those later), but even academics read more than just academic work. If you read for fun, now is the time to buy.

Consider Mike’s six points from the perspective of a recreational reader. He lists two points in favor of e-readers: size/portability and search, whereas he lists four in favor of physical books tactility, reading speed, annotation, and ownership.

Size/Portability: If I’m reading a book for fun, this is a clear victory the vast majority of the time. All other things being equal, books are heavy and take up space. These may be their two primary disadvantages. They are the quintessential piece of inert clutter.

Size/Portability Verdict: A clear win for e-readers.

Search: I’m not even sure search makes sense outside of an academic context. I can’t think of a single time that I’ve wished that I had the ability to perform a textual search of a novel I was reading for fun. Of course, for academic work search is absolutely critical. This is actually one of the reasons I believe Michael was only considering an academia in his discussion.

Search Verdict: Because search is pointless for non-academic reading, I will award this as a point in favor of physical books.

Tactility: If we’re talking about right now, today, I would say this is sort of a toss-up, and Mike sort of intimates as much when he indicates that there’s a big difference between a well-bound book and a poorly-bound one. I certainly appreciate the feel of a high quality binding in my hand while reading, but I also appreciate the feel of a high quality device in my hand. My iPhone feels better in my hand than the vast majority of books that I own. I don’t think e-readers are quite up to Apple’s level of quality hardware design yet, but they aren’t that far off.

Maybe a better way to approach this is on a per-book basis. Sure, you can sometimes buy the latest bestselling piece of fun fiction in hardback, and it will probably be a better tactile experience when reading. However, you’re going to be paying $20 or more for it. You can get the vast majority of those books in electronic form for half the price, and the tactile experience might be just a little bit worse.

If you’re an avid paperback reader, then think about all the times you’ve gotten a cramp from trying to hold a paperback book with a poorly glued binding for hours. The idea of a Nook or Kindle with no binding starts to become quite enviable. Sure, you might pay a couple bucks more than you would for the paperback version. Of course, if you’re buying a paperback then you’re probably not all that interested in hanging on to it forever, so it’ll just end up cluttering up your bookshelf at the end of the day.

Here’s the kicker: Library books. Many libraries are now lending electronic books. This means your options at the Library are an e-book on your personal e-reader or a hardback with the dustcover taped to it that may have been heavily used. Now, there are several possible advantages. Last January I was at a Reader Privacy event at UNC where there was some discussion of how people sometimes left fun notes in the pages of their library books. You might get a library book that’s got some fun writing in the margin. Then again, you might hate what the previous reader thought about the book. However, if you get the e-book, you definitely won’t get any of the negatives like a book that’s basically falling apart or one that has a few key pages torn out of it.

Tactility Verdict: The best possible tactile experience is definitely a well-bound hardback book, but unless you’re only reading well-bound hardback books I think e-readers are probably better on average.

Reading Speed: When I was in 8th grade I came across some book that purported to be able to double my reading speed with just a few months of training. The premise of these improvements was based on self-discipline and learning to train yourself to read in a particular way. The book also talked about electronic techniques such as using backlit paper that highlights text based on a timer for you. I imagine that this sort of thing will eventually be standard software on several e-readers.

Still, that’s the future. Right now, there are some studies that show reading a physical book is still faster. Mike points this out in his post. I was personally concerned about this as well since the e-ink screens in the Nook and the Kindle are a bit slow to update. However, everyone that I’ve spoken to feels like the difference in reading speed is negligible. Also, if you consider only fun reading, then you might find that you can finish books faster simply because you can now carry one with you all the time.

Reading Speed Verdict: This is a wash in my book. It may eventually become a win for e-readers though.

Annotation: Annotation isn’t quite as pointless as search is for fun reading, but it’s still not all that useful. I don’t annotate my academic books that much, but I have found it to be quite useful in that context. I can’t recall ever finding it useful to annotate a book that I was reading for fun. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that some people actually do find annotations in fun books to be useful.

There are several important differences between annotations in physical books and those in e-books. One key difference is that with a physical book your annotations are limited in size based on the margin space available. Another is that annotations are easier to notice and skim in a physical book. Then again, you can (or will be able to) search your annotations.

At the end of the day, annotations depend heavily on what you want to do with them. If you’re making notes for a book report or book club, then you might need the extra “space” that you get with electronic annotations. (Also, the ability to perform textual searches on your annotations would be nice.) If you’re just marking passages you would like to be able to find easily, then there are probably other things (like electronic bookmarks) that would serve your purpose for e-readers.

Annotation Verdict: A victory for e-readers, though this is admittedly not something I would really take advantage of for fun reading.

Ownership: As Mike points out, ownership is extremely important. People want to be able to lend, borrow, resell, and give away books that they buy. When the Kindle first came out, ownership figured heavily in my first thoughts in basically two ways: I didn’t want all my books controlled under DRM and I wanted the ability to access them programmatically.

DRM stands for digital rights management, and it limits what “owners” of a book can do in an attempt to ensure that sellers, such as Amazon, are being paid for each copy of a book that people read. Essentially, this is an attempt to prevent people from downloading and reading e-books for free. Unfortunately, DRM causes way too many problems for legitimate purchasers of content in the process of attempting to distinguish legal uses from illegal uses. Check out this comic for a frighteningly accurate representation of how DRM works in the real world. In fact, DRM allows companies to do some things that would make great authors like Orwell and Kafka roll over in their graves, like tracking everything you read. I can’t understate this point. It is just critical, and the privacy concerns for DRM-enabled e-readers could be the subject of numerous posts. This EFF guide gives some more details. Some companies are realizing that DRM isn’t worth it, but most e-readers still support DRM heavily. This remains a major strike against them in my opinion.

The second concern I mentioned was that I wanted programmatic access to my e-books. I know most folks don’t care about this sort of thing, but I would like to be able to write programs that can take text from my e-books as data. It’s not that I have a particularly great idea for a program that I would go out and write right now, but I know that if all programmers have access, then several of them will probably write something awesome and share it with everyone else. This is why companies like Twitter develop extensive open API’s that any programmer can use. This is a huge part of why open source software works. The effects of direct programmatic access to a computing device (or a lack thereof) is a huge discussion that could span multiple posts. Suffice it to say that until programmers have more access, e-readers will be less innovative than they could be. Again, this remains a major strike against e-readers.

Ownership Verdict: True ownership of a book still requires having a physical copy of that book.

So why would I say that it’s time to purchase a Nook or a Kindle despite this rather mixed review of Mike’s attributes? More importantly, why would I recommend an e-reader despite the critical ownership and privacy concerns? To put it simply, not all books are the same. There are many books that don’t merit the care and attention of academic material. Also, ownership isn’t everything. There are many, many books that I could enjoy reading without actually owning them. In fact, the only books that I would want to have a physical copy of are (to steal some beautiful wording from Allison) “books to make a library of.” Here’s her full quote:

These are books that we aim to make a library of. Making a library is not putting all your old college textbooks on a shelf. Library making is the thoughtful acquisition of high quality books worthy of multiple readings and thoughtful reflection. Books whose readings will not go out of style, and whose premises, plots, and social commentary transcend writing styles and generations.

Books like these are things you would (as Mike says) bequeath to your progeny, but they aren’t the only books that I read. Will my kids really need a complete set of R.A. Salvatore books? Will they really want my copy of David Allen’s Getting Things Done? At what point is a book worthy of being passed on to the next generation? Surely not every book falls into that category, and I don’t even think that’s really a knock on those books. Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail may be a great book, but it’s not a timeless book to be cherished from one generation to the next. Books that explain new and important concepts are eventually expendable because that concept becomes well-established or obsolete. There’s simply not as much need to explain it to people.

Once we fall into this sort of dilemma, it’s time to consider the economics of the situation. How many books of this fun-to-read or important-but-not-timeless category do you have to read in the next year to make the purchase of a Nook worthwhile? Don’t forget that both the Nook and the Kindle had huge price drops this past summer.

Let’s assume that you’re getting a wifi-only Nook, since you want to use it at the library and the Kindle doesn’t support that. The cost is $150 bucks. This New York Times article talking about the price of e-books uses David Baldacci as an example, which works well for me because his books may be fun to read, but they certainly aren’t timeless works of fiction set to be handed down from generation to generation. The average price of one of his new hardback books is $26 buck, whereas the average price of is somewhere between $10 and $15 bucks. Based on these prices, you would only need to purchase and read 10 to 15 e-books to make up for the cost of buying your Nook. Every e-book you read after that is pure savings to you.

So, the question boils down to this: Are you going to read three to five books per year over the next three years that you’re pretty sure won’t stand the test of time for your children to cherish them?

That’s the breaking point for me. I usually read between 20 to 25 books per year (plus a ton of other stuff on the Internet). Most of these books aren’t pop fiction, sci-fi, or fantasy (such as R.A. Salvatore). Last year I read about 27 books and six of them were fantasy books. (This year I’m not doing nearly as well.) Still, I’m still pretty sure that I read at least five books every year that aren’t worth passing along to my children, and it is probably more like fifteen or eighteen. (How many book did you read this year because your parents bequeathed them to you?) In fact, it would be a huge burden for my children to lug around a physical copy of every book that I’ve ever read. These things take up quite a bit of space. I have stacks and stacks of books around my place for which I don’t have shelves. Sure, I could curate a library, but that means getting rid of physical books that I’ve purchased, so why not preemptively purchase a digital version of books I’m pretty sure aren’t timeless but are still interesting to read?

Even the folks that don’t think it’s worthwhile right now have to admit that technology moves pretty quickly. At some point, the prices will stabilize. We may even have advertising subsidized reading, which could be great for pop fiction. At some point, e-reader feature sets will become more clear. We don’t even know if we want color yet, and we have to consider the possibility of text-to-speech or other features in the future.

Physical books are going to be around for the foreseeable future, probably many, many generations. They have an aesthetic all their own. However, at some point, every reader must decide if it makes sense to start getting e-books. They will have to consider the economics of the situation as I did in this post. They will find a breaking point where it just makes more sense to get an e-reader and start getting some books in an electronic format. I’m not saying that e-readers are perfect. My idyllic reading experience is still probably reading a timeless, though-provoking hardback from my family library with a cup of coffee out on the porch of a cabin by the lake. But how often does that happen? Usually, I’m lying in bed desperately hanging on to my last ounce of consciousness to see what happens in some piece of pop fiction. I think a Nook will suffice.

Clothbound Classics by Penguin

Posted on October 17th, 2010 in Books, Entertainment | No Comments »

Allison posted her thoughts on Penguin’s extremely popular series of clothbound classics a while ago. In case you haven’t heard of the series, Penguin decided to publish hardback copies of the classics. This is a high margin item for most publishers because the books are out of copyright and in the public domain. Also, the books are known to be popular collectibles and excellently written.

Allison’s review focused primarily on the cover design. She’s not alone. Since the cover is the first thing people see, it has to be excellent, and Coralie Bickford-Smith‘s designs are as timeless as the writing. Just read what bloggers are saying about her. Look at their reviews of her other book covers. If you’re interested in her work Penguin Classics covers, she has given several interviews about them. Whatever the folks at Penguin are paying her, it’s not enough.

Of course, we shouldn’t judge a book series by it’s cover design; books are meant to be read, rather than just admired on the shelf. It’s more difficult to describe the pleasure of reading a good book than the way it looks. Reading isn’t easily translated to description, as evidenced by the numerous attempts by reporters trying to describe the differences between reading on a Nook or Kindle and reading a printed book.

Many attributes of a book other than the words of the author impact a reader’s enjoyment of a book. Graphic design, typesetting, layout, supplementary materials included, and even the weight of the paper chosen affect the reader. Does the dustcover get in your way? Does the book slip out of your hand? Is it hard to hold the book? Is the paper to fragile or too thick to turn properly? Is the print too small or otherwise difficult to read? Each time a reader notices something about a book other than what the author of the book intended is a sign of bad book design.

For books in the public domain, like the classics, most publishers cut corners on these important attributes, but Penguin’s results are fantastic. The typesetting is superb. The books feel great in your hand. The supplementary material truly adds value to the book.

Later this week I’ll post a review of Treasure Island, which I read this summer. I’ll be sure to address the ways that Penguin’s design decisions on their clothbound classics series impacted my enjoyment of it.

Book: Rework

Posted on October 5th, 2010 in Books, Education, Life | No Comments »

Creative Commons License photo credit: mathieuthouvenin

Rework is a bit outside my normal reading since I’m an academic and not currently in business, but given the amount of buzz this book has garnered, I couldn’t ignore it. It was compiled by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson based on their experiences running 37signals. You may know these folks from popular products like Basecamp or Campfire. You may also know David as DHH, the creator of Ruby on Rails.

The book itself is a set of short, contrarian essays on business topics, and I should stress both the ‘short’ and the ‘contrarian’ parts of that description. Many of the essays are adapted, refined, and edited from Signal vs. Noise, the popular blog at 37signals. If you’re wondering whether you should spend your money on something that’s basically already published online, I understand where you’re coming from. It’s nice to have everything in a single, canonical place though.

Reading a book is contextually different than reading a blog, but this is surely the most blog-like book that I’ve ever read. The chapters are extremely short, well-written, and each comes with a reinforcing illustration. These illustrations serve as a somewhat functional, if sometimes jarring, transition from one idea to another. If you’re an avid book reader, I think you’ll find it difficult to get into any sort of reading rhythm simply because this book doesn’t really read like a book, which is probably intended. Having said all that, the chapters are clear and direct. If you read it as if it were a paper-based blog, then you’ll pick up one unmistakably clear and easily understood business idea at a time.

For all it’s faults as a book, Rework is filled with the unconventional business wisdom that makes Signal vs. Noise a popular blog. I wish this wisdom were more conventional. Most businesses (and most business books) are geared towards the ultimate goal of becoming multi-billion dollar empires. Rework shows over and over again just how idiotic that fallacy (and all the crap that it entails) is for actually running your own business. It’s geared towards small business owners and entrepreneurs that want to make a living doing what they love. Jason Fried and DHH are quick to point out that this humble goal is often overlooked. Who wouldn’t want to get paid to do something they genuinely love to do?

If you take the idea of making a living by doing something you love seriously and you don’t mind reading a book that feels more like a blog than anything else you’ve ever seen in paper, then I would highly recommend Rework. If you’re still on the fence, check out some of the popular posts on Signal vs. Noise.

Long Time, No Post

Posted on October 4th, 2010 in Website News | 5 Comments »

Hi. So, it’s been a while since my last post. I usually dislike it when bloggers I follow apologize for not writing because I would rather they write something worth reading rather than an apology. One of the nice things about feed readers is that there’s always something else to read a few milliseconds away. In lieu of apologizing, I thought I would provide some links to some of the things that I have been doing in the intervening months.

First, I have redesigned my academic website. If you’re interested, here’s some more information on the redesign.

Second, I created a blog focused entirely on security, privacy, and technology policy called Six Lines. There were primarily three reasons for this:

  1. I wanted a somewhat more serious place to post thoughts of a somewhat more serious nature than “Blayne Sucks.”
  2. I wanted to talk about more than just “academic privacy research,” which is what The Privacy Place is designed to be.
  3. I didn’t want my academic website to get too cluttered or unfocused on my research. If you’re interested in Six Lines, you can subscribe to follow my posts.

Third, I’ve created a new aggregated feed that combines every post from Blayne Sucks, Six Lines, my academic site, and all my posts at The Privacy Place. This feed is updated on a slight delay from my other feeds, but it is comprehensive. I wrote more about the rational behind this on my academic site.

So what is the future of Blayne Sucks? In short, it’s going to live on. (Sorry Blayne…) I’m going to continue posting thoughts on life, culture, religion, sports, or politics here. Blayne Sucks will be a better traditional, personal blog if I put my more academic posts on my academic site and my security, privacy, and technology policy posts on Six Lines.

If you, like me, were disappointed at the total lack of any interesting content in this post: hang in there. I’ll have something new and interesting up tomorrow before lunch. Promise.