Archive for November, 2012

Retro computing

November 20, 2012

Two items on the BBC news webpage today with a retro computing slant.  Once concerns the restoration of a 1951 scientific computer  – note the paper tape in one of the photos, which was a technology best suited for buildings with spacious stairwells where twisted tapes could be unravelled over a drop.  In terms of computer history it’s probably not quite as significant as the first LEO, which extended the reach of computing from the scientific world to that of business, but it’s impressive nonetheless to see the Witch computer back in action.

At the other end of the scale, and to me rather unexpectedly because like at least one of the commmenters on the site i was surprised that these were still being made, the UK’s last typewriter has been made in Wrexham

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Watch out for the MOOCs

November 20, 2012

David’s question about what a 21st century university might look like arrived, by chance, just at the same time that I saw this from Clay Shirky, who is interested in one particular online player – Udacity – which depends on using a MOOC (massive open online class).

Clay Shirky is a very eminent figure, and his explanation of the MP3 file as an example of how a seemingly obscure technological development can precipitate disruptive change is a powerful one.  So it’s with some trepidation that I take issue with him.  But the Internet thrives on debate, so I’ll do so on a couple of specific points.  His discussion of the role of quality, and the limitations on the sound quality from an MP3 file or the educational quality of participation in a MOOC, is interesting and is relevant to disruptive innovation.  Because it’s a typical characteristic of disruptive innovations that they are ignored because innovative products and services aren’t perceived as being good enough, only for the products and services to improve gradually until they become serious threats.  This is the lesson of observers who might have dismissed Apple in the 1980s as frivolous because they sold personal computers costing several thousand pounds, or who would have ignored Skype because it offered inferior sound quality to a phone line.

But most recorded music isn’t played through expensive equipment in an acoustically perfect environment.  So it’s reasonable to assume a ‘satisficing’ effect, that once the technology to play music had reached a certain sound quality there wouldn’t be much pressure to improve on that.  Which explains partly the success of MP3: it may not be a perfect format but for most listeners it’s good enough.

So, if you were to go back a decade to the start of the digital music revolution, I don’t think that sound quality would have been perceived as the barrier to wider use of MP3s.  Instead, I think you would have found a tacit assumption that, because the previous technologies for recording music, whether they had been phonograph cylinders or CDs, depended on the music being associated with a physical artefact, people who bought music would still have wanted the sense of possessing some such artefact.  Perhaps the ultimate expression of the importance of this artefact was t the interest accorded to the artwork on album covers.  The MP3 was disruptive because it removed the coupling between the recorded music and the artefact.  But when it first became available it wasn’t at all obvious that this would be acceptable to the market.

So what has this to do with MOOCs?  I’d suggest that if we’re looking for a technology that really has the scope to disrupt higher education, we shouldn’t just be looking at quality or engagement.  We shouldn’t just be preoccupied with whether lectures and tutorials offer the sort of interaction and coordination seen among musicians playing a string quartet (or a jazz piece, or a concerto, which I think is a particularly powerful metaphor for a lot of learning).  Instead we should be looking for technologies which can decouple the student experience from the physical university in new ways.

And on this count, I’m not sure if MOOCs are really new.  I think they offer some interesting pedagogic options, and may well open up education to a broader group of students, as did the Open University from the 1960s onwards.  But I also think it reasonable to ask, given that traditional universities have survived the first generation of Internet-based learning from around 2000, the advent of the Open University in the 1960s, and the emergence of correspondence courses in late Victorian times, why MOOCs should be more disruptive than earlier technologies.

Incidentally this shouldn’t be read as an argument for complacency.  One of the lessons of disruptive innovation is that organisations are threatened by sources of competition that they can’t foresee, and they don’t know about.

Finally I’ll pick up on the issues surrounding music.  People do still pay to listen to live music, and, given that string quartets are mentioned by Clay Shirky, it’s worth noting that there’s a long-established series of chamber concerts on Sunday evenings in London that’s been running, with just two changes of venue, for around 100 years.  Unfortunately I don’t have the data, but a determined archivist should be able to find out the price of these concerts over the years, and plot how it has changed in real terms.

Oddly enough ‘cost disease’, as Clay Shirky calls it, did have an effect on the recording of string quartets.  From the 1980s the Naxos record label set out to sell budget recordings of classical music.  This was a period when production costs of CDs were going down because of the same influences that reduced the cost of many electronic and related goods.  Naxos’s idea was to match this with a budget approach to finding artists, by looking for young and little-known performers who would expect lower payments than their more famous equivalents, and would welcome the exposure.

Moreover Glenn Gould – the famously eccentric Canadian pianist – gave up live performances in the 1960s on the understanding that he believed recorded music to be the future.  Fifty years later, one of the most significant areas of impact of the digitisation of recorded music is on talent scouts, who no longer need to travel to rooms above pubs or to busking pitches to discover new artists, but who instead trawl the more obscure reaches of YouTube.  Nevertheless, live music hasn’t disappeared.

Two 21st century workplaces

November 15, 2012

Last week I had the opportunity to visit two very different virtual workspaces, close to each other in the west end of London.  I’m contrasting them here, not to suggest that one is any better than the other, but to illustrate how two spaces with a rather similar set of requirements and starting points can nevertheless look and feel dramatically different.

180 Piccadilly is the home of the virtual office, and is part of a building that was originally the London office of French Railways, and still carries the word France in prominent capital letters along its frontage.  What makes it into a virtual office, and not just a set of serviced offices, and what also explains the apparent paradox of the name ‘virtual office’ referring to a solid concrete building, is a mail room and a small call centre within the building.  That means that businesses can create the illusion of being based in central London – right down to their mailing address and phone number – and offer meeting space in London, without their having any permanent physical presence there.
Call centre 

The call centre depends on a database which allows staff there to answer the phone in the most appropriate way for whichever of the virtual office’s clients they are representing.  So the instructions, for a particular business, may be to route a call that’s intended for a manager to a mobile number, or to a voice mailbox if the manager is in a meeting.  The building also includes short-term office space and meeting rooms.
Office space

If the virtual office in Piccadilly is a hotel for business – a description that its owners sometimes use themselves – the other virtual workspace that I visited, the Westminster Hub, is closer to a fashionable campsite, perhaps the place for the business equivalent of the curious early-21st century pastime of glamping.
Indoor greenhouse

By a strange coincidence, the hub is also in a building that was intially put up to represent a particular country – in this case New Zealand House in Haymarket.  It’s laid out as a single open space, with no conventional small offices or meeting rooms, although there is an indoor greenhouse and, interestingly, a wikihouse, within it.  Most areas of the space are almost self-consciously unconventional – even the coffee bar which sells the normal range of designer coffees, and also in a nod towards the open-source community, Ubuntu cola.

Coffee counter

Most of the occupants of the hub at the time of my visit seemed to be small, mostly high-technology, businesses using this as office space, and out to benefit from a kind of cluster effect by sharing ideas with others who used the same space.  No call centre here, as far as I could tell, but the telecoms infrastructure was all about having a fast wireless network.

As I said, two very different approaches and evidence that the nature of office space is still evolving

Nerdfighting, numeracy, and the New York Times

November 15, 2012

I’ve blogged in the past about five thirty eight, the site which aggregates opinion polls particularly in connection with American politics.  I’ve particularly noted the site’s readiness to engage in ‘nerdfights’ (their term) in connection with issues such as the 2010 general election here in Britain, where they might have disagreed – in the most constructive, scientific, spirit – about methodology.

These three related changes occured between the 2010 British general election and the 2012 American presidential election:

  1. Nate Silver, who created fivethirtyeight, changed from being an independent blogger (and, cleverly, one who could set up with a limited infrastructure, because as a poll aggregator he didn’t need to go out and canvas voters himself) to one whose site was hosted by the New York Times.  So this was a neat example of an individual blogger being ‘adopted’ by traditional media
  2. Through the election campaign, he produced figures based on his own model, and on understanding the workings of the electoral college which appoints the president, both for the probability of each candidate winning and for the result that he would expect if the election took place on that day.  His prediction immediately before the election proved to be remarkably accurate – making Nate Silver into something of a hero in some circles at least
  3. Perhaps because of his success, he has also become a rather controversial figure, almost as though political punditry and scientific analysis were two contrasting and incompatible approaches…

There’s a nice discussion of some of the scientific background to this on one of the Guardian’s science blogs.

Meanwhile the fivethirty eight site itself is back to analysing predictions about basball scores, which is where Nate Silver’s statistical analysis started.  And its accuracy in terms of the presidential election is a great illustration of the value of data and the usefulness of numeracy.

The AA’s old gold

November 14, 2012

Last week I was sent my annual renewal notice for the AA, which operates principally a motoring breakdown service and is now part of the same venture capital group as Saga, purveyors of travel and insurance services specifically aimed at the over-50 age group.  As a member of some years’ standing, the notice told me, I’m now classed as a ‘gold member’. In the leaflet explaining this, the ‘G’ of gold is represented by a squiggle so that the remaining letters appear to say something about ‘old membership’.  Is this a deliberate joke or a corporate Freudian slip I wonder?