Archive for February, 2011

Whither the nation state?

February 17, 2011

Evgeny Morozov has gained some publicity lately through his publication of a book entitled the net delusion which takes a cautious view of the transformational possibilities of the web.  He was born in Belarus towards the end of the cold war, but spends most of his time in America, and, consistent with his views, has a distinctly unflashy website with links to his prolific writing output.

Put simply, his central argument is that the Internet can be used by authoritatiran regimes to bolster their authority, as well as by individuals to resist authority, and that its existence isn’t going to diminish the importance of individual countries.  In fact there are echoes of the observation that the very earliest American data networks, that subsequently morphed into the Internet, were both tools of the government, and useful tools for rebels, a paradox that can still be observed on the net.

Perhaps it was pure serendipity, but after reading some of Morozov’s work, and while searching for interesting quotes to prompt discussion, I came across one of the supporting pages for the BBC’s virtual revolution series. broadcast last year.  Aleks Krotoski, who presented the series, is careful to attribute the idea of the demise of the nation state to Bill Thompson.  But she raises the intriguing idea of ebay as the equivalent of a nation state.

In fact I don’t see this as being inconsistent with the survival of the nation state.  You can be a citizen both of the UK and of eBay.  If you’re an active eBayer you might well operate internationally, and you might cross borders as effortlessly as any frequent flyer.  But you’ll still want to know whether you are buying from a seller in Putney, South West London, or Putney, Vermont, not least because nation states have a tendency to impose taxes and there can be particular VAT issues if you are buying online from abroad.  So eBay may create a cadre of global citizens but that’s not equivalent to the disappearance of the nation state.

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Cadenza learning

February 17, 2011

Educationalists love jazz bands.  They don’t necessarily enjoy listening to them (although I do) but they are fascinated by the interplay of the musicians, the way that they work as a team with very informal leadership structures, the way that they can share tacit understanding of each others’ actions, and the way that they can often improvise at will, playing something quite spontaneously.  Wolfgang Stark, a professor of organisational and community psychology and, as it happens, a keynote speaker in the meeting that I attended in Berlin a couple of months back, has worked with a jazz musician, Christopher Dell, on what jazz bands can tell us about organisations.

But not everybody is as creative, or innovative, or original as a jazz musician.  And not every task needs creative or original thought on every occasion.  So maybe we should look at other musical styles to give us ideas about learning.  Classical music, in general is very precise and formal, with every detail laid out in the score, and with clear instructions and procedures to follow.  So if we look to jazz bands to understand how to develop original ideas, maybe we should look to classical musicians for ideas on how to follow instructions clearly and competently, but also to do so with style and panache.

Incidentally, it’s tempting to assume that most music from mediaeval days until the 20th century was classical, but that’s clearly untrue.  There were thriving cultures of folk music, in parallel with classical music, for many years.  And while classical music generally depends on music being written, folk traditions are aural in that musicians learn tunes purely by listening to them.  As evidence of the existence of parallel traditions, I’d draw on the work of none other than Elvis Presley.  His greatest hits included wooden heart – originally a German folk song, so non-classical – and I can’t help falling in love with you – based on an eighteenth French song, plaisir d’amour, written very much in the formal, classical tradition.  And I’m sure that the folk traditions would have included plenty of improvisation.

While a symphony orchestra operates on a command and control principle with a conductor at the front, other groups of musicians are more democratic.  A string quartet should be a partnership of equals – if anything, more so than a jazz band – but one aiming for precision in following a score, not improvisation. 

But there is one place that classical musicians can get close to improvisation, and that’s in the cadenza within a concerto, where the soloist demonstrates his or her own virtuosity.  Traditionally, while a composer might write  cadenzas, soloists would also often write their own.  Interestingly, the violinist Nigel Kennedy, who spends time working on both classical music and jazz, has written his own cadenzas.

So maybe the cadenza is a metaphor that we should look at for learning.  It offers a choice to the performer – to use the composer’s cadenza and make the best of it, or to write their own, or even to pick up another cadenza and possibly adapt it.  It allows for originality within a disciplined whole.  And it offers a chance for individuals to show other their strengths.

It’s particularly relevant because of the dichotomy that I’ve observed in higher education, that students are keen (and increasingly so) to carry out their own research, but they need and expect a lot of scaffolding to do so.  And that this dichotomy is particularly marked with the current generation.  Moreover, the cadenza idea fits well with the current generation’s interest in individuality and identity.  So we shouldn’t necessarily expect students to go off and improvise jazz, unless they are really comfortable with the idea.  But we could ask them to do the equivalent of writing a cadenza, a short piece which fits into a larger whole, and which can be adapted to make best use of a particular student’s individual strengths.

I should, of course, point out that I’m not the first person to have thought about this.  There’s a business coaching company in Newcastle called Cadenza Associates, and in 2009 Rebecca Front wrote a piece in the Guardian, which applies the cadenza metaphor to her own memories of schooldays.  And those were both revealed by a quick Google search without even looking outside the UK.  But I still think it’s a powerful analogy, and in the spirit of encouraging comment and dialogue I would be interested in hearing from anybody who would like to pursue it further, particularly in connection with higher education.

Of public and private

February 16, 2011

Every now and again I come across areas of confusion caused by the differences between different versions of English – particularly British and American.  A particular recurrent example, and one which I’ve seen several times in examples of student work which are otherwise excellent, concerns the terms used to describe different types of school.  Incidentally I’m here talking about school as the institution typically attended from the ages of maybe 5 to around 18; Americans are much more likely than Britons to say ‘I’m going to school’ even if they are going to a college or university.  And in British universities, including the one where I work, it’s common to refer to a sub-division of the university as a ‘school’.  This is already a linguistic minefield and I haven’t even got to my point.

There are many types of school in Britain and plenty of different ways to categorise them.  One is between primary (ages 4-11) and secondary (ages 11-18): if my knowledge of American English is correct then that’s roughly equivalent to the distinction between American elementary schools and high schools.  There are seven Harry Potter books because British children, including Harry Potter at Hogwarts, often spend seven years in secondary school.

The other important distinction is between state schools, which are state-funded, and private, or ‘independent’, schools where the parents pay tuition fees.  This is where the British/American linguistics become most confusing.  Americans typically talk about ‘public’ and ‘private’ schools, where public are the ones that are funded through (usually local) government and where parents don’t pay fees.

But in Britain, the term ‘public school’ is used to refer to some of the most expensive and exclusive private, fee-paying, schools.  These are long-standing institutions and the original argument was that they sold education to the public in the same way that Fortnum and Mason sell groceries to the public: it was available to anybody who could pay for it, and wasn’t limited to members of royal families or religious orders.  To add to the complication, the British term, State School, doesn’t work in America, because the word ‘state’ would imply that these schools were funded and organised at the level of a particular state, as distinct from the whole country or from an individual city.  Whereas in fact one thing that the very different educational systems in Britain and America have in common is that, usually, schools are organised and funded at a fairly local area.

Now the coalition government’s proposals around free schools add another dimension to the linguistic mix, since all state-funded schools are essentially free to parents.  In fact the key characteristic of the proposed free schools (and I recognise that there are a lot of contentious issues around how effectively this would work) is a level of separation between the schools and the local authorities that fund them.  In fact ‘independent school’ would be a more accurate description, but as I’ve already mentioned, that one already has a different meaning in the UK

So right and yet so wrong

February 11, 2011

This piece from the BBC includes an intriguing quote from an analyst (Tomi Ahonen, quoted around half way down) suggesting that Nokias woes might have been overstated and that they should look on the bright side.  True, Nokia still has an immense market share, but I don’t think there’s any room for complacency.  Of course, Toyota would envy Nokia’s sheer presence in the market, but they wouldn’t envy the ability of competitors to build up a huge market share and a strong brand within a very short time.  And perhaps if they are to look at the motor industry, they should look at the problems encountered by the British motor industry in the 1960s and 1970s; admittedly they were hampered by dreadful industrial relations and poor quality manufacturing, but they also had a tendency to build products that the engineers wanted but which didn’t necessarily appeal to customer.

Or they could stick to IT and look at Digital Equipment, until the advent of the Smartphone the most dramatic example of a business whose traditional market disappeared because of disruptive innovation – in their case the personal computer.  Jack Schofield’s obituary of Ken Olsen is a reminder of how rapid the fall of Digital Equipment was, from Fortune magazine’s hero in 1986 to acquisition by Compaq in 1998.  And also even if his statement about nobody needing a computer at home was taken out of context, it’s apparent that Olsen and his company, for all their brilliance and perception, sadly misjudged the impact of the personal computer.

Grumpy commuter moan

February 11, 2011

Why do people stand by the bottom of the stairs on buses when there are plenty of seats upstairs?  I can see that for a short ride you wouldn’t want to go upstairs but wouldn’t it be courtesy to keep away from the stairs?  Obviously the driver of the 134 that I was on this morning was also getting grumpy about this, as ibus system can be used to make announcements that seats are free upstairs, or to admonish passengers to move down the bus, and these were being used to some effect today.

Meanwhile, in the other place

February 10, 2011

Could it be pure coincidence that the candid note from Nokia’s CEO surfaced in the press on the same day that Hewlett Packard announced a new range of mobile devices, including its own take on the tablet computer?  HP has in the past been remarkably successful at spreading its product range around many parts of the IT sector, so this is an announcement worth watching.

HP’s tablet offerings use an operating system called WebOS, which is a redeveloped and rebadged version of the operating system developed by Palm, who were absorbed by HP last year.  This had an excellent reputation for many years as a base for small portable devices.  But HP’s tablet needs to appeal to many customers who cannot remember the Palm Pilot, and some who will remember it well but associate it with an earlier generation of devices – part of the reason that the Pre hasn’t proved to have much impact in the smartphone market.  So HP’s tablet may be a promising enough product but I’m pessimistic about the prospects for that specialised operating system.

The pattern of the last 20+ years in personal computing has been that Apple, and only Apple, can successfully sell products with a proprietary operating system that’s linked to a particular hardware manufacturer, and it looks as though the same pattern applies to mobile phones and tablets

Nokia’s crisis point

February 9, 2011

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-12403466 and quite a lot of other web coverage suggests that Nokia is finding the disruptive effects of smartphones even nastier than they had expected.  Interestingly, though, they seem to have acknowledged threats from other directions, notably that Symbian is rapidly falling behind other operating systems in the smarphone market, and also that low-cost manufacturers are threating the market for basic, simple phones

Ocado’s occupational hazard

February 9, 2011

Online supermarket Ocado launched a revised website at the start of this year.  It’s slick, looks good, and fits well with Ocado’s strategy.  But it’s not an unqualified improvement in terms of usability.  Click to edit an order that you’ve made earlier, and it isn’t obvious how to change what’s in the order.  Click over the ‘view order’ button and you can do exactly that – view the items you’ve ordered but not add or remove anything.  To change the contents of your order you need to click over the ‘trolley’ button which is conspicuous enough on the page, but isn’t obviously what you want.  Maybe that’s counter-intuitive, maybe it just seems strange to me because I’d become used to the previous version of the Ocado website.  So it’s a reminder of quite how important and subtle usability issues are for e-commerce, and also the extent to which changing a website carries an occupational hazard of confusing or deterring some of your existing customers.

On Eric Schmidt

February 3, 2011

Two linked articles in Fast Company are related to Eric Schmidt’s imminent departure as CEO of Google.  One focuses on his vision of the future, which could extend to ‘augmented humanity’ while the other focuses on Google’s approach to inter-generational management.  Amusingly, Schmidt has remarked, using Twitter, that his role, as a baby boomer (he’s 55) was to provide ‘adult supervision’ to Google’s young founders: presumably they can now be relied on to clean their teeth regularly and to go to bed at a sensible time.  In practice, I guess, his role appears to have been closer to that of a mentor, who could use his detailed knowledge of the IT world to help his colleagues exploit their bright ideas.  I’m unconvinced that the recognising the value of somebody with experience is really much of a novelty.

A hat tip, to use the conventions of the blogosphere, goes to Spryros from my part-time MSc group, who drew my attention to the augmented reality piece.  His reaction was that this was an example of convergence of real and virtual life (much more a millennial generation way of thinking than a typical baby boomer’s approach) and that it increasingly doen’t make sense to discuss people’s virtual presences on the Internet independently from their real lives.

Uncertain science

February 3, 2011

I was amused to see this report last month, since I remember studying SI units in physics at school, and it already seemed an anachronism that weight was defined in terms of a lump of metal stored securely in Paris, while other measures are defined in more contemporary and, as far as one can tell, technical matters.  It also seems like an inconsistency given that the metric system does depend on a simple relationship between the measures of distance and of weight, in that a litre (1000 cubic centimetres) of water weighs a kilogramme.