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Archive for November, 2006

Free the space!

I’m sure I’m heading for a D’oh! moment, but, much as I enjoy the ambiguity of the URL, why aren’t spaces allowed in Web addresses? URLs are already delimited by quotation marks in HTML markup, as in <a href=>. In fact, couldn’t we make a rule that whatever is the first character after the “href=” is the delimiter, a tactic I learned about when I worked at Interleaf? That way, you could even include quotation marks in the address, as in <a href=|http://www.lumberjacks me “Carla”.html|>.

Allowing spaces and flexible delimiters would let us express URL’s in ways humans can more easily understand. After all, should Web pathnames be harder to read than Windows pathnames?

In fact, when we need to make it clear that we’re expressing a path and not a space-delimited series, we could learn from Windows’ conventions: Use quotes as delimiters for paths such as “C:\My Programs\Whirligig Anti Virus Pro\read me.txt.” Having to use explicit delimiters on paths on occasion seems to me a small price for being able to use spaces as delimiters between words.

Now, what is the big point I’m missing that’s so obvious that I’m about to go D’oh! ? [Tags: a href=”” rel=”tag”> html ]

The safe harbor theory of media literacy – and two discussions about the Net and teaching

I had the honor of keynoting the New Hampshre Society for Technology in Education Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference, and then led two conversational sessions (where “led” means “sat while knowledgeable and committed people engaged in conversation”).

I came away realizing why media literacy programs often bother me. Frequently, the idea even is that we have to teach our children how to recognize the Internet sites that are as reliable and safe as what they’ll find in a library. That’s a useful skill, but the overall picture is wrong. If you want to know what’s going on in a field, the static and credentialed sources generally aren’t where you want to go. The credentialed sources are great for certain types of information—the solid and stolid facts, the commoditized information, the boring truth—but the real intellectual action is usually occuring in the blogs, newsletters, and forums. Confining students to the credentialed sites is likely to kill their interest and enthusiasm.

And then we have them write reports. Is there anything more likely to throttle curiosity than a report?

The two discussion groups this morning, however, were full of good ideas. For example…

Students need help “decoding” search engines, one participant said; she gets bibliographies that list Google as a source. (I’d like to see students build bibliographies together, in a class wiki. That way they could teach one another about how to evaluate a site, and the teacher could always step if they’re going wrong.)

Another participant set up a page for her class.

Someone has his students observe how they talk about the game sites they visit, for they’re evaluating those sites using valuable and sophisticated criteria.

Someone has her students using wikis to create study guides.

One person is concerned about the study that shows that students spend only 20 seconds evaluating a site. That seems to me to be appropriate, although students need our help learning how to evaluate a page in 20 seconds. Or 10.

In an AP calculus class, every day a different student is the note-taker, posting the notes on a blog. The note-taker is also responsible for answering questions on the blog that day.

In an art class, each student has a blog. Peer feedback is encouraged.

A kindergarten teacher uses a blog as a replacement for the traditional bulletin board, writing posts of interest to parents. She also uses to post photos and audio about the photos. She has connected her students with New Zealand kindergarten students where there are no bears and it’s summer in the winter.

One teacher said that a parent printed out his daughter’s MySpace page and told her he was going to post it at the mall. When the daughter objected, mortified, the parent explained that MySpace is as public as the mall.

One teacher has a book club blog for the kids.

The discussions weren’t, however, merely lists of things you can do on the Web. That’s just what I recorded, in a haphazard way. (Where was the note-taker student posting things on a wiki? :)

I so much enjoy getting to hang out with teachers. Along with with librarians and journalists, they are the heroes of democracy, as far as I’m concerned. [Tags: ]

Odd correspondences

RageBoy points out in an email that Amazon recently recommended that he buy a book titled Cataloging and Classification. When RB clicked the link that explains how they came up with that recommendation, he was told:

amazon recommendation explanation

RB thinks this is yet more evidence that Amazon’s recommendation engine is deteriorating. But, RB would like that book on library classification, so maybe it’s evidence that some correlations are non-obvious but useful nonetheless. Or possibly it’s just evidence that RageBoy is outside the hump of normality. [Tags: ]

Aristotle’s sandwich

A front page story by Jenn Abelson in the Boston Globe today covers the great sandwich controversy. It seems that a Panera’s in Worcester sued the shopping center its in for allowing a Qdoba (sic) burrito shop to open. Panera claimed its lease forbids any other sandwich shops from opening in the shopping center. The case went to court, and after the testimony of sandwich experts, the judge ruled against Panera. A burrito is not a sandwich.

This would have been a great example for my book of the absurdity of Aristotelian definition, and also its occasional necessity. (Unfortunately, I’ve turned in the final, copy-edited version.) The afffadavit of Judith A. Quick, former deputy director of the Standards and Labeling Division of the USDA said that the USDA definition of a sandwich is that it “consists of two distinct pieces of bread (or the top and bottom sections of a sliced roll or bun) with some kind of filling that contains meat or poultry.” Chris Schlesinger, chef and owner of All Star Sandwich Bar in Cambridge said in his affadacity that “A sandwich is of European roots and is generally recognized in our industry as two pieces of leavened bread with something in between, typically slices of meat and/or slices of cheese…A sandwich is typically served cold.”

Now, we could argue with these definitions. On the old Seinfeld I happened to see last night, Jerry says to Elaine, “You know, the whole concept of lunch is based on tuna.” So, clearly Quick’s definition fails. Quick’s would also rule out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Schlesinger’s is better, although it disrespects grilled cheese. And did he really have to bring in the ethnic note? Sure, sandwiches originated in Europe, but if you cut a Brazilian barbecued beef sandwich, does it not ooze?

While quibbling can make a definition better, it can’t make it perfect. But that’s ok. Definitions are almost always after the fact. Meaning does not originate in definitions. For example, we quibble with Quick and Schlesinger because we already have a sense of what a sandwich is. If Quick’s definition doesn’t allow PB&J, then that definition is simply wrong. This pre-existing sense of how the world is sliced is what enables us to come up with definitions. But the world’s slices aren’t as clean and neat as those made by the machine in the deli. So, while a tuna sandwich is the sort of example you could point at if someone wanted to know what sandwich is, an ice cream sandwich is not. Neither is the matzoh and haroset “sandwich” we eat at the Passover meal. Neither is two slices of pizza put face to face and turned into a “pizza sandwich” by your teenage son. These are all sandwiches in some sense, but are not good examples of sandwiches.

Eleanor Rosch, at UC Berkeley, would call a tuna sandwich a prototype sandwich. We organize experience around such prototypes, so that some sandwiches are clearly sandwiches (because they’re so like the prototype sandwiches) and others are sort-of, kind-of sandwiches. Prototypes, unlike definitions, are loose edged. We may be able to extract the features of a prototype to which we compare the rest of experience, but those features may not be consistent (e.g., Wittgenstein’s “game,” an example of a family resemblance in which there is no single feature shared by every member of the category) and certainly are not binary: A two-slice, face-to-face pizza slice sandwich is not a “real” sandwich, but it’s more of a sandwich than is a bucket of sand or a bee’s chin whisker.

But along comes a law suit and a judge has to draw a line where there is none in our infrastructure of meaning. Is a burrito a sandwich? Haul out the experts. Except, in this case, I would trust a linguistic expert more than a chef or regulator. In any case, the definitions we adduce are likely to be shaped by the things we’ve already decided—well, “decided” makes it sound as if it’s an act of reason instead of a groping of the features of our environment—should be covered by the definition.

So, we are in the odd position of thinking that definitions define things when in fact they often impose arbitrary divisions that obscure their real meaning.

Welcome to the Everything is Miscellaneous blog

Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder is my new book. It will be out in May 2007.
Eventually, I’ll have this blog set up and will use it.

So, check back eventually :)