The Egypt Power Vacuum

Democratic revolutions are wonders to behold. The people rise up and force out unpopular rulers, especially rulers governing without a mandate from the people. The recent revolutions in Tunisia and now in Egypt are forcing out unelected leaders and ushering in change. But what protesters need to realize is that in the loss of power from one leader creates a power vacuum that is quickly filled by another powerful leader, often one who is not willing to tolerate the types of protest that cost the ousted leader his or her job. And thus, things get worse.

This seems like an obvious point from afar, but read some of the protester quotes the New York Times has featured. Here’s one example:
“I brought my American passport today in case I die today,” said Marwan Mossaad, 33, a graduate student of architecture with dual Egyptian-American citizenship. “I want the American people to know that they are supporting one of the most oppressive regimes in the world and Americans are also dying for it.”

I’m stunned at the ignorance of Mr. Mossaad. Though Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been ruling for 30 years under a “state of emergency” (giving him stronger power to rule without democratic support), his leadership has lead to a lasting peace with Israel and strong relations with the United States. To suggest that removing President Mubarak from power will result in reform is audaciously optimistic.

Consider signs and pictures hoisted in the protests. Some, featured by the Times, have shown President Mubarak’s face covered by a Star of David, indicating protest against President Mubarak’s relationship with Israel. On what planet does Mr. Mossaad reside that he believes a change in leadership will result in greater security and prosperity for Egyptians? If protesters are demanding that President Mubarak step down, then what is their proposal for choosing future leadership? If the test is who can burn an Israeli flag the fastest, then President Mubarak should have some stiff competition against religious conservatives who wish to rule Egypt under Sharia law. If that happens, I wonder which country Mr. Mossaad will choose to live in? He can bring down a regime in one country and then return safely to the United States, never having to face the consequences of his actions.

The only reasonable way to oust President Mubarak is to use the protests to call for democratic elections, in which President Mubarak can run for re-election. Should the election be tainted by fraud or should other tactics be used to deny the democratic process, then protesters can resume their efforts. But such a plan is the only way to work toward a peaceful transition of power. Without this, then the leader that comes next (whether someone new or a newly empowered President Mubarak) is sure to be far worse than the regime the protesters are trying to bring to an end.

The Paradox of Social Media Revolution

Protests continue to rage across Egypt today, as angry citizens demand the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. Despite the fact that President Mubarak fired his cabinet, protests continue, and recent reports from the New York Times indicate that some members of the army have been fraternizing with the protesters. Such pressure may force President Mubarak to end his 30 year rule over the country, or may force a violent response that would likely do nothing to quash the revolution.

The mass protest that began on Friday wasn’t supposed to happen. Egypt took the dramatic step of shutting off internet access for all citizens, as well as disabling mobile phone communications like text messaging. While pundits here and abroad credited social media for organizing and galvanizing the protesters (and while Egypt appeared to take those claims quite seriously), it was clear that, because of the shutdown, social media tools were much less able to help organize the protest.

The paradox for President Mubarak is that social media was not the cause of this revolution. On Friday morning, NPR reported that the protest was organized after Friday midday prayers. Protestors gathered at mosques for prayer and then marched to a central square in Egypt’s capital Cairo. In this age of high technology, it was old fashioned religious tradition that made the protests so easy to organize, not social media.

This must be quite flummoxing for all those wanting to credit websites like Twitter for causing the revolution. No doubt, if President Mubarak steps down, then more people will trot out saying that their Twitter messages with the tag #EgyptRevolution toppled a dictator. But dependence on websites for organizing social action works well only when such action requires a highly disperse effort (like signing an online petition or organizing small events across the country) and when the right of free speech protects the tools from government takedown. In Egypt, just as in Iran, the government was able to easily shutdown social media making it a poor tool for organizing a protest.

This fact is unlikely to change those using social media to call for revolution, mostly because (to paraphrase) “bloggers gonna blog and Twitters gonna twit.” But if any of the bloggers and Twitter users were actually the ones trying to organize the protest, then they would see that spreading the word around the local mosque is clearly the way to go, no matter how many Twitter followers you have.

New Handheld Gaming Devices

In the span of a little over a week, both Nintendo and Sony have revealed the next versions of their handheld gaming devices. Nintendo announced details of the successor to the very popular Nintendo DS. Called the 3DS, the device retains the same form as the DS Lite, but enhances its features considerably. Most notable, the 3DS’s upper screen is capable of displaying content in 3D without the need for 3D glasses. As for Sony, earlier today they released details on the successor to the PSP, with the code name of “Next Generation Portable” or NGP (though referred to as the PSP2 for the remainder of this post).

As a big fan of portable gaming, this is an exciting time for me. So let me review the two devices and indicate what I like, what I don’t like, and what still needs to be determined.

First, the Nintendo 3DS.
What I like: The best thing about the DS has always been its form. Its two screens are hinged together, so that when the device is closed, both screens face each other and are protected. I’ve seldom used a case for my DS; when I travel, I usually just wrap it in a handkerchief or something similar. The 3DS doesn’t change this design, which also means that the lower touchscreen remains intact. This kind of innovation continues to produce unique games, and hopefully this will remain so with the 3DS.

What I don’t like: The battery life on the 3DS is reported (by Nintendo) to be terrible. Nintendo reports playtimes of 3-5 hours between charges. Some have commented that this is likely to be true only on full screen brightness and full 3D effect, but when pressed, Nintendo has suggested 5 hours as the upper range, even when the 3D effect is turned off. That is just miserable for anyone playing portable games outside of the home. And about that 3D effect, I really don’t care about it, so that’s not a reason to buy for me.

Still unknown: Will the 3DS be as big a success as the DS, and will it be the future of Nintendo portable gaming? While the 3DS is a big update to the DS line (including much greater graphics power), it is not a major change from the wildly successful DS. That may mean that fewer people see it as a compelling upgrade. If the 3D effect is not a draw for many people and if the battery life is really a detractor, then we may see Nintendo release a new product in a year.

Verdict: Don’t buy yet, maybe ever.

Second, the Sony PSP2.
What I like: The first PSP was comfortable to hold and powerful. The PSP2 keeps the same comfort factor, while increasing the power substantially. Sony claims graphics on par with the PSP3 in the new device. The device has two analog sticks, allowing for excellent control in games like first-person shooters. And adding even more interest, the back of the device is a touch-sensitive pad, allowing game designers to go crazy and invent all kinds of new ways for players to interact with games.

What I don’t like: The device is large at 182 mm or over 7 inches wide. And the beautiful 5 inch screen is totally unprotected. That means a case is vital. The device also won’t be available until this holiday season. Waiting nearly a year to buy one just seems excessive. It also means there are a lot of things that I might dislike, but are still unknown.

Still unknown: As expected with a device so far from mass production, we still don’t know a lot about the PSP2; cost and battery life are the two biggest missing pieces. The device is likely to be power hungry, but in such a large device it should be easy to put in a big battery. Additionally, no one has played or touched the thing, so we don’t yet know how well it works.

Verdict: Reason to be excited, no reason to collapse over it.

There are a lot of issues facing both Nintendo and Sony in the portable gaming marketplace. The biggest is the popularity of smart phones, which put a portable gaming device in many people’s hands. I seldom play my DS since I got an iPad and iPhone. When games cost just a fraction of what DS and PSP games cost, both companies should be concerned. I’m looking forward to trying out both these systems when I get a chance.

Imported Drugs Okay for Murder

Woe to states who put convicted criminals to death. The American company that manufactures one of the three drugs that 34 states use to murder people has stopped producing the drug. Until this problem is fixed, states are left in a bind. Stop murdering or find another solution. Some have chosen to import the drug from abroad; Georgia recently did so and put a murderer to death using drugs imported from a British company. This importation comes at a time when it is illegal for consumers to purchase prescription drugs abroad and bring them into the country.

Of course, if you support the right of people to buy drugs abroad, then why shouldn’t states be doing the same thing in order to put people to death? In this case, there’s reasons to be suspicious of the imported drugs. Those that Georgia used came from a British company that is unlicensed and operates out of the back of a London driving school. Furthermore, the imported drug was manufactured in 2006 and had a 1 year expiration date. That meant it was expired when used to kill the criminal. There are meth labs with better credentials producing better product.

If it wasn’t for that pesky Constitutional protection against “cruel and unusual punishment,” this whole thing wouldn’t be an issue. Instead, advocates of the death penalty could be issued stones with which to throw at the criminal until he or she died. This is how executions are sometimes carried out in more civilized parts of the world. Utah, a similarly advanced society, allows condemned prisoners to pick their own method of death, including by firing squad. Hopefully they will add the option to be pumped full of expired, shoddily manufactured chemicals.

Does a heinous crime deserve a heinous death? Not in Georgia previously, where proper chemicals were used to minimize pain experienced by the criminal. But now, with shortages at hand, justice is no longer blind and suffering of the condemned is worth the minimization of inconvenience on the part of the state. God bless America.

Say “Kno” to being a Kno Campus Rep

The Kno tablet, for those of you not in the “kno” (okay, I’ll stop), is a gigantic tablet computer, available in single and dual screen versions, that is positioned to sell in the higher education market. Offering digital textbooks, the Kno aims to be a book replacement with no compromises, like those present on other e-readers, like the Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad (small screen size, colorless display in the Kindle, etc.). The problem is that the Kno Tablet will fail; this is 100% guaranteed, because the product is comically oversized. I don’t think you can find the same ridiculous pictures on Kno’s website any longer, but luckily I’ve saved some here. With screens of 14.1″, the Kno is way, way too large to be useful at all.

But when the Kno fails, it won’t just be due to the product itself. It will also be because the company was trying stupid ideas to market it. One of their latest offers college students the chance to work for Kno as product representatives on their campus. I have great respect for college rep. programs, as I worked as an Apple Campus Rep. when I was an undergraduate. The pay was high, the opportunity excellent, and the equipment I was given was top-notch. I’m not sure how much of an impact my work had on Apple’s bottom line, but it was more marketing at UW than Apple would have paid for (including official sponsorship of two large campus events – Homecoming and All Campus Party – without having to provide any money).

Looking at the Kno program and comparing it to Apple, it’s easy to see something is amiss. Here are the expectations for the Kno “campus ambassador”:
Student Ambassadors will be required to complete these tasks on a weekly basis:
Participate in online meetings with the marketing team at Kno
Conduct demos and complete 40 surveys with the Kno tablet
Build partnerships with various student clubs/organizations on campus
Participate in social media conversations using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Ning, etc.

As well as:
Student Ambassadors will be required to complete the following missions (one per week):
Capture video content explaining features of the Kno and why they’re relevant
Create initial contact with student clubs/organizations, in addition to demoing the Kno tablet to professors and having 5 of them give video testimonials
Create an on-campus guerrilla marketing campaign around the Kno (we’ll provide the structure/environment)
Implement your newly created guerrilla marketing campaign on your campus!
Using the notebook application on the Kno tablet, participate in our drawing contest (the best ones will be featured on our social media websites!)
Conduct a demo of the Kno tablet in front of 40+ members of a club/organization
Get in touch with campus newspaper affiliates to get a featured article in the newspaper and use social media websites (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to spread awareness and conduct surveys
Draft plans for a software app that can be used/created on the Kno tablet (the most unique/relevant idea for an app will be submitted to our internal software developers!)
Get 15 students to give video testimonials about the Kno
Participate/attend a conference related to business, engineering or entrepreneurship and document it. The more involved, the better!
Conduct another demo of the Kno tablet in front of 40+ members of another club/organization
Capture video content showing “a day in the life” of a Student Ambassador

So for all that work, what do you get? A 50% off coupon for the purchase of a Kno tablet. That’s it. No salary, no stipend, no payment of any kind, all in exchange for working a minimum of 6 hours per week. If you really want to buy a Kno tablet, but are turned off by the price (after all, the dual-screen version starts at $900), this may be a great opportunity. But as no one actually wants to buy this device, it’s essentially work with no benefit.

If the unequal balance between work and reward wasn’t enough, take a look at this absurd form required for all those applying to be a Kno rep. The form is on SurveyMonkey, rather than at Kno’s homepage. Does Kno not understand how to code simple HTML to make the form themselves? And the questions are beyond ridiculous. One of them asks: “During the application process, do you agree to complete a background check?”. The applicant will be required to complete a background check? What kind of background check? How should the applicant complete it? Obviously, they meant to write “agree to a complete background check” but didn’t bother to proofread.

No one will be surprised when Kno the company fails; indeed, the product isn’t shipping yet, and it’s not yet possible to find a single review of the product. But when it fails, we won’t just blame a disinterested consumer base. It’s clear that the Kno will fail because of a bad product, disinterested consumers, and also company leaders who are totally, hopelessly clueless. Hopefully the failure will be public and hilarious; that way it will live up to all Kno’s marketing efforts to date.

Computer Virtualization for All!

I really think computer virtualization is neat. It works like this: you use a computing device to access a remote server. That server provides your entire computing experience – operating system, applications, everything – all the stuff that your computer normally does, but remotely. And because your computer has to do so much less (as the major processing is handled by the remote server), you can run a much simpler and cheaper machine. In fact, I use computer virtualization through UW’s Social Science Computing Cooperative (SSCC); it opens Windows on my Mac and gives me access to statistics programs that I can’t afford to buy.

Just today, I read about a company that is bringing this same technologies into schools. Neverware’s product Juicebox will enable schools to get years of life out of their aging computer systems through virtualization. This is great for many reasons – easier account management, better protection from viruses and other hazards facing public computers, easier deployment of new computers, and less expense. In fact, I think this idea is so great that I wonder why virtualization systems aren’t being deployed nationwide.

For example, at home, why should Lauren and I each own expensive laptops? For larger families, this practice becomes unmanageable in its expense. But having just one family computer may not be practical either. The solution could be virtualization – files stored on the local server, accessed through inexpensive, lightweight, efficient devices (often called “thin clients”). Indeed, this would be a perfect solution for deploying computers all over the house.

Just like the idea is great for schools, it could also be great in other public spaces. Why should libraries give patrons access to a fully-powered computer? With so many moving parts, computer maintenance is a must, yet how many librarians are trained to deal with computer issues? Virtualization would be a much easier system to deal with, especially if the library contracted a company to provide the service. Libraries could then be responsible for the virtualization hardware and a monthly fee for keeping that hardware running.

In addition to seeing virtualization go to more places, virtualization allows for better access on the go. Already, I can install an application on my iPad that lets me access my computer remotely. With virtualization deployed at home, I can do the same thing with an even more seamless experience. The same can be true for work computing. If we can access work from home, but do so on an inexpensive device, then companies can save money by not having to provide each worker with a full-powered laptop.

Obviously, computers are getting less expensive, so maybe these plans aren’t really necessary. It would cost several thousand dollars to implement a home virtualization system, so, for many, the benefits would not be great enough. But consider that computers are getting more and more powerful in order to be sold at the same price. The average user does not need so much computing power. Virtualization would provide greater choice and portability. I doubt a computing revolution is about to happen, but it’s a nice thought anyway.

How Can Facebook Compete with Google?

Facebook is raising private investment money like no other company before. It’s just completed another funding round, raising $1.5 billion and increasing its worth (based on investment) to $50 billion. These numbers are astounding, even more so because Facebook isn’t exactly a revenue machine. Though Facebook does not currently release earnings figures publicly, reports indicate that Facebook makes a small profit each quarter, just a little above breaking even. Compare this to juggernauts like Apple, Microsoft, and Google (each produce billion of dollars in profits each quarter), and it’s easy to see Facebook isn’t even close to their league.

Yet Facebook keeps taking investment dollars, selling the company to make more and more money. For what purpose does Facebook need this money? I’ve speculated on this matter before, including asking when and why for a Facebook initial public offering (IPO, or “going public” and trading the company on a stock exchange) and speculating about Facebook ads for websites other than Facebook. My predictions haven’t yet come true. Yes, Facebook hasn’t gone public (I suggested that they shouldn’t). But Facebook has yet to rollout a third-party ad system similar to Google’s AdWords.

So then, why is everyone talking about IPOs and competing with the likes of Google? Tech commentators need to wake up and see reality. First we have Leena Rao writing on TechCrunch. She says that, because Facebook issued a press release indicating that they will begin releasing public earnings figures in 2012, they are planning an IPO. Just the opposite is equally likely. If Facebook takes on more than 499 shareholders, then they must release their earnings publicly, as per the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rules. Clearly Facebook is indicating that they plan to take on more private investment as an alternative to going public. Why would Facebook bother with an IPO when they can take in massive amounts of capital without pressure from public shareholders?

Second, Steve Henn, a reporter on the radio program Marketplace, when asked why Google has to compete with Facebook, said this, “Facebook’s making a case to advertisers that it’s found a more effective way to place ads online than Google has. It’s telling people that knowing what you like and what your friends like is a more effective way to advertise to you than search and links. If Facebook wins that argument, it’ll split the online advertising market that Google now dominates. So Google needs to counter[…].”

But what he fails to recognize is that Google and Facebook ads, as they stand currently, are not even remotely comparable. Google ads appear on millions of websites, not just as part of Google searches. People view Google ads way more than they view ads on Facebook. Further, Facebook ads are notoriously bad, including this recent report indicating that scams on Facebook ads are rising rapidly.

Unless Facebook rolls out an ad platform for third-party websites, Facebook and Google aren’t going to be operating at the same level. (And even if Facebook does do that, it’s no guarantee that it will be successful. Expect the most powerful privacy backlash yet.) I’m the first to say that Google needs to expand their profit centers away from just search (which accounts for something like 97% of their revenue), but the language surrounding Facebook’s power must step back from hyperbole. Facebook is wildly successful, but it must prove staying power besides demonstrating the value of a free service. With enough money, any person could create a company that people love; I’d call mine “Ice Cream Now” – one free scoop every day and toppings cost money. Unless Facebook can demonstrate an ability to make money, there’s no reason they should go public, and there’s no way that they could somehow destroy giants like Google. Investors in Facebook should take heed: a promissory note for a percentage of the company is a gamble, even if you’re “friends” with Mark Zuckerberg.

Considering Commute Productivity

The cold we are experiencing here in Wisconsin got me thinking about using a phone while walking. Specifically, I was walking to the Overture Center to buy some tickets for a performance by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra tonight. While walking, I saw just one person using their phone. Unsurprising, perhaps, because it’s so darn cold out. But interesting in that it meant everyone walking was, in some ways, wasting their time by just walking somewhere. As most every person I saw probably has a cell phone, all of us could have been making phone calls as we walked to our destinations.

That kind of multitasking made possible by the cell phone transformed daily commutes. Suddenly it was possible to get work done in the car while driving to and from work. Coupled with an increased push out into more and more distant suburbs, this change made a hour or more each way not seem quite as long. You could start work earlier and finish work later, while taking advantage of time spent in the car. As evidence for this, consider the popularity of bluetooth headsets, designed to make hands-free calling easy.

But as I thought more about the calls I could be making while walking, I realized there wasn’t anyone I would call. None of my work involves the telephone, and the personal calls I make are few and far between. I communicate with my parents regularly via the telephone, but the same is true for just one or two friends. All my other personal communication is via email. I don’t know if the same is true for all those people walking, but I imagine the phone as a calling device is becoming less important for some people.

Consider then changes to the commute. Some types of work must be experiencing the same types of changes. People need to communicate via phone less frequently. There may be some calls to make in the car during that commute, but there are probably fewer calls due to the ubiquity of email and other computer mediated communication channels. Note too the increased rise in urban revitalization. Commuters are starting to realize that an hour and a half each way is too long to spend, especially when there isn’t work to be done during that time. And consider the slowing of bluetooth headset use; consumers don’t seem to be nearly as taken with this technology as they were a few years ago.

This change in communication and, arguably, reduction in productivity during the commute would seem to push our society in a few different directions. First, we should see commuters take steps to reduce their commute – working at home, moving closer to their office or into the city itself, changing work schedules to four day weeks rather than five. These three things are all on the rise. Second, we would see a greater demand for public transportation, specifically transportation that allows people to get work done while traveling. I’m not sure if interest in public transportation is rising, but I know steps are being taken to roll out internet connectivity onto buses and trains, a feature that will surely appeal to some commuters. Third, we should see a rise in smart phones that can access the internet and email, as well as place phone calls. Obviously, this one has definitely come to pass.

That’s not to say that productivity and commuting really drive trends, but it’s a lot easier to justify a long commute if you can get work done during it. When that is no longer the case, then all that time lost in the car is time that could be spent working (on job and non-job activities). If driving starts to feel like a waste of time, then there is little doubt that behavior and preferences will start to shift. Correlation is far from causation, so let’s check back in some time to see if my predictions mete out.

Social Comparative Processes in Parenting

Amy Chua is all over the internet, it seems. Ms. Chua is a professor at Yale Law School and the author of several books. Her most recent, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” details her rather extreme views on parenting and discusses how she raised her own daughters by enforcing brutal rules that restricted socializing and enforced intensive work, including hours of music practice and rote homework exercises. As should be expected, Ms. Chua has been roundly criticized by many people. I will highlight two specific criticisms that I have read and then discuss what I think is weird about Ms. Chua.

First, New York Times columnist David Brooks criticizes Ms. Chua for “coddling her children” because “[she protects] them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.” Essentially Mr. Brooks argues that the types of activities Ms. Chua restricted her children from (sleepovers, play dates, participation in extra curricular activities that weren’t strictly academic) are the exact places where children learn valuable skills, where they will gain social acceptance, and where they will be prepared for the world outside of school. It’s a great article and I highly recommend it.

Second, in a review of the book, Janet Maslin criticizes Ms. Chua’s writing for being too self-focused. Ms. Maslin highlights parts of the book in which Ms. Chua can’t seem to think about anyone but herself. “Wherever she is in this slickly well-shaped story, Ms. Chua never fails to make herself its center of attention. When her older daughter, Sophia, was a baby, ‘she basically slept, ate and watched me have writer’s block until she was a year old.’ (The italics here are mine.) ‘Sophia,’ she later explains, ‘you’re just like I was in my family.’ When she pitches what’s already become her most notorious fit over the girls’ amateurishly made birthday cards, Ms. Chua declares, ‘I spend half my salary on stupid sticker and eraser party favors’ for their birthdays, adding ‘I deserve better than this.'” In some ways, the term “Chinese parenting” doesn’t even begin to describe Ms. Chua, as Ms. Maslin notes, because Ms. Chua is so self-focused that her parenting techniques seem designed only to draw attention to Ms. Chua.

So that brings me to my question – how do social comparative processes work in parenting? It would seem odd to suggest that they work differently in this domain compared to any other, which means that most parents do look around to see how other parents manage. And then they adjust their own behavior accordingly. Few people have any sort of training before becoming parents. Even helping to raise a sibling doesn’t truly prepare someone. That means we must look to outside sources to figure out what we should do. At the park, if other parents let their kids run free, then a parent just arriving may do the same for her own kid.

If social comparative processes are at work in parenting, then how was Ms. Chua so immune or blind to how other parents treat their children? Didn’t she feel any pressure to relent and allow her children to attend a sleepover party, when literally all their friends were doing the same thing? Didn’t her justifications for brutal music practice sessions (“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.”) seem shallow when her children expressed interest in a non-mother-approved activity (like participating in the school play, something that Ms. Chua expressly forbade)?

What did Ms. Chua think when she saw other talented children perform as well as her own daughters? Is she so deluded that she imaged these other children were also forced to practice for hours on end, with choices about their lives restricted so substantially? Any parent, Chinese or not (and it’s worth noting that Ms. Chua was born and raised in the United States and cannot speak Mandarin) knows that a child without talent cannot be bullied into developing it, and that a child with a real interest in something needs little encouragement to continue. I’m on the side of Ms. Chua’s critics, but let’s first consider the reality of the situation. No one could be as blind to reality as Ms. Chua presents herself.

All this makes me question how accurate the book really is. As Ms. Maslin notes, “[Ms. Chua] wanted prodigies, even if it meant nonstop, punishing labor. So ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ chronicles its author’s constant demanding, wheedling, scolding and screaming. […] (Her own schedule of teaching, traveling, writing and dealing with her students goes mostly unmentioned — and would require her to put in a 50-hour workday.)” A constant brutal crackdown on children is an exhausting and unwinnable battle; adding in further pressures from other parents and her own husband make such brutality unthinkable and unlikely to be true. I don’t doubt that Ms. Chua pushed her children, often to their limits and generally engaged in stupid parenting, but the extent that she describes seems unsustainable. No doubt this self-serving book is going to sell a lot of copies, but before we consider it literal, let’s think first about its purpose: Ms. Chua is not content to “Chinese parent” without at least getting some serious attention and money from the process.

Reading Social Science Research Articles

As the semester begins, I’m on a kick of trying to do things differently to improve productivity. So I bought a calendar, made sure I had a back-up to-do list notebook, started organizing papers in folders using a holder that I got for Christmas, and am currently reading David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” (which is really great!). One additional thing that I am doing is trying to read social scientific research articles more carefully, specifically to pull out and organize key information. Here’s what everyone should focus on when reading these articles.

1. Who are the authors and when was the article published? This is used to reference the article. Bonus points for looking up their general area of research and trying to understand where this particular article fits in their overall body of work.

2. What is the central research question? This could also fit under the question, “why was the article written?”. It’s important to discern the basic impetus for the article, as that makes everything else in the article much easier to interpret and understand.

3. How is the research question addressed? The answer to this question is, most often, in the Methods section. This is a great area to start when offering review of the article. Are the methods sufficient to answer the research question, or do they fall short?

4. What are the conclusions? This part seems like the most obvious, but it’s often the most overlooked. It’s pretty easy to sum up the research question and methods, but it is harder to summarize (at least, as succinctly) the results of the data. Look to the start of the Discussion section for help with this.

5. Who cares? Here lies the crux of every research paper’s fate. Does the research matter and why? This is also the best starting point for linking this research into a broader framework, such as in a literature review.

With those five questions answered for all my readings this semester, I’m hoping that I will be better equipped to discuss the articles in class and better able to synthesize the materials. Ideally, this technique would leave me remembering the articles better as well. It feels so painful to look back on class notes and realize that an article I knew so well at the time has totally left my mind. Happy reading!

Lamenting the Loss of Oldies

It’s not quite accurate to say I “grew up” listening to my area oldies station. What was on the radio most was Wisconsin Public Radio, so I guess I grew up on classical music, jazz, and news from NPR. But when it came time to listen to music when, say, riding in the car, my choice was always the station that played rock music from the 1950s and 1960s. This is reflected in my favorite music today, especially my love of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Slowly that station started playing less music from the ’50s and more from the ’70s, but when I left for college, it still retained its roots.

But something has changed since 2002. Oldies stations are no longer. They are slowly undergoing a rather serious format change. For example, my favorite oldies station growing up is now called “Green Bay’s Greatest Hits.” And Madison’s oldies station, WOLX, 94.9, has a similar title: “Madison’s Classic Hits.” These stations are becoming indistinguishable from many other classic rock and easy listening stations that fill the dial. Take a look at one of WOLX’s features – Scott Miller’s Top 9 and 9. The year most recently featured was 1979! Here’s the truly awful music that Mr. Miller chose to play.

This week: January 15, 1979
Too Much Heaven – The Bee Gees
Le Freak – Chic
My Life – Billy Joel
You Don’t Bring Me Flowers – Barbra Streisand & Neil Diamond
Hold The Line – Toto
Sharing The Night Together – Dr. Hook
Y.M.C.A. – The Village People
Ooh Baby Baby – Linda Ronstadt
Do Ya Think I’m Sexy – Rod Stewart
Extra: September – Earth Wind & Fire

Perhaps I’m remiss in complaining about the loss of oldies stations, considering that Madison, WI has one of the worst lineup of radio stations in the country. But I do believe that this shift in formatting is not endemic; it is spreading and threatening to ruin music appreciation across the country. How can anyone properly appreciate music today, especially so-called indie rock, without an understanding of that music’s influences? In the future, parents will be forced to create music history lessons on their children’s iPods just to educate their children about something they should be learning from the radio.

Furthermore, how can our society’s musical tastes improve if the only music getting played on the radio is essentially dance music? Hip-Hop stations have converted entirely to dance music. I’m not one to complain about a well-constructed pop song, but their formatting used to be urban and somewhat edgy. Now it is essentially disco music, the likes of which are also being played by former oldies stations. Dance music is wonderful, but a monoculture of music is damaging to everyone’s ears.

I would suggest we depend on student radio and community radio to provide us with a better mix, but those two types of station here (WSUM, 91.7, Madison Student Radio and WORT, 88.9, Madison’s Community Sponsored Radio Station) are filled with so few good hours of programming that they can’t be counted on. Lauren and I often joke that any good song heard on WORT is sure to be followed by 2 hours of Mexican polkas. The same can be said about WSUM, just replace “Mexican polka” with “video game music.” Whereas other cities (for example, Minneapolis and its station KCMP, 89.3, The Current) have stations consistently playing good music, Madison is lucky to string together a good 10 minute set.

Normally, at this point in the post, I would suggest some course of action, but this time, I’ve got nothing. You know what I do? Travel with my iPhone; it feeds right into my car stereo through an auxiliary port. And if I want to listen to oldies, I can use Pandora or the TuneIn Radio app. There are plenty of internet radio stations playing the music I want to listen to, even if it’s impossible to find on my actual radio. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who still thinks there was good music in the 1960s.

New Semester Scheduling Strategy

Each semester, I square off with scheduling issues. Every day has a limited number of hours, so what’s the best way to make the most of them? Last semester, my schedule changed, as I begun taking the bus to and from school at the same time each day with Lauren, who started working full time. That meant I was on campus for longer and home less each day. Couple that with working as a project assistant (rather than teaching assistant) and I had a lot of time and a very flexible schedule.

I did okay managing all that time, but there were some problems. My daily tasks were recorded in list form, useful for keeping track but not for prioritizing or scheduling. I often wasted free time in the day because I was waiting for something else to start (for example, surfing the internet while waiting 20 minutes for a class to start, simply because I wasn’t sure I had anything I could do in that time). And my breaks were unstructured and subsequently overran into work time. So, while I did get a lot done last semester (not the least of which was finishing my master’s thesis while taking three classes), I can do better.

To start this semester off right, I bought an appointment book. Across two pages, each week is shown, with days in vertical columns with hour markings from 7 AM to 7 PM. This makes it easy to schedule in specific activities, rather than just relying on a list. I still have lists, but to-do items get penciled into my calendar more frequently now. I can take advantage of careful daily planning each morning while also writing in dates and deadlines in advance. This is how I envisioned using the calendar program on my iPad; I should have realized that paper is the best way to go.

Having a list of hours for each day isn’t enough, though. So I also broke down my day into 4 1.5 hour work periods. 9-10:30, 11:00-12:30, 1:00-2:30, and 3:00-4:30. This gives me four specific timeframes in which to schedule myself. It also allows for a lot of break time, which can be used for anything. I’m hoping that providing this structure will help make each day more productive. Every morning, I can pencil in activities for the time periods to encourage myself to not waste time.

The semester starts on Tuesday, so we’ll see if my system works. If winter break is any indication of potential success, then I am feeling confident. In these two weeks before the semester starts, I’ve worked with my advisor to prepare a manuscript for submission, worked with another professor to revise a paper, and planned a study for next semester. (Not to mention: gone skiing, met multiple friends for coffee, read several books, etc.) Hopefully this semester will be the best yet.

Expectations for Verizon iPhone

Yesterday, after what was reportedly over two years of working together, Verizon announced that they will soon be selling Apple’s iPhone. The phone is different from versions sold by AT&T, but only on the inside, as Verizon uses a different mobile connection that AT&T; this requires a different chipset in the two phones. There are a lot of expectations surrounding the Verizon iPhone, especially due to widespread dissatisfaction with AT&T. Let’s review a few of those expectations.

1. AT&T customers will be unlikely to switch to Verizon because of high fees associated with contract cancelation.
For some customers, this will absolutely be true. If their AT&T service works fine (as it does in many places, Madison, WI included), then a high fee would be an excellent barrier to switching carriers. But for other customers, this fee will matter very little. For example, if service is truly terrible, then the penalty isn’t so steep because of the pain associated with continuing on the current network. AT&T charges $325 for early cancelation, minus $10 for each month of service. An individual 18 months into a current contract will pay just $145 to cancel. It’s often easy to justify paying such cost.

2. Verizon will offer better features than AT&T.
This is possible, but AT&T and Verizon have a lot in common. The biggest feature that Verizon will offer is the ability to use the iPhone as a wireless hotspot. That means the iPhone can act as a wireless router for up to five devices, making it easier to use mobile broadband on a laptop. But rumor has it that Apple will roll out this feature to all iPhones with a software update. It will be up to the carrier to decide whether or not to enable the feature. AT&T has had problems with their network, but not offering this feature would be very damaging to AT&T’s customer base, even if the feature works poorly in many places.

Aside from this feature, Verizon doesn’t do much different than AT&T. Their coverage is better, though coverage in a remote area of Utah doesn’t matter much to many people. AT&T’s coverage is faster, according to them, so it’s possible that Verizon customers may get slower signal in more places; this trade off may not be appealing to some people, especially those who have good coverage in their area. And Verizon lacks one big feature that Apple has featured in commercials – the ability to use a data connection and voice connection at the same time. With Verizon, it is not possible to send an email on the iPhone while talking on the phone.

3. The next version of the iPhone will launch on AT&T and Verizon at the same time.
It’s a nice thought, but far from guaranteed, at least for now. There are a lot of reasons that Apple may launch their next iPhone on AT&T before launching on Verizon – loyalty to AT&T (after all, Verizon turned down a chance at the iPhone, not the other way around), engineering challenges, and manufacturing issues. Additionally, as the next version of the iPhone is likely to come out this summer (as all previous versions have), then Verizon customers who purchase an iPhone will have their phones for just 5 or 6 months before seeing the new version launch. That could leave people unhappy. So too, however, could launching the new device on just one carrier. It will be a tough balancing act for Apple, but Verizon customers shouldn’t be so certain they’ll get first crack at new Apple products.

4. Android is dead.
This talking point hasn’t circulated too widely, but it’s not an unreasonable reaction to an announcement like this. Verizon is a big supporter of Android and, with the iPhone available on only one network, they were able to make big money playing off Android/Verizon against Apple/AT&T. Now their marketing efforts must be put toward something else, as they have a trump card (their superior network) that comes with a much stronger hand (gaining the most popular phone). Given that much of Android’s popularity is driven by extensive advertising (how many people have you heard ask about “Droid” phones, instead of the Android OS?), it’s unclear how this will impact Android sales. But this deal won’t kill off Android. Indeed, the better argument to make is that Android is actually so fragmented that it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. I’ll leave that point for another day.

In the meantime, my contract is up at US Cellular this summer; the contract for Lauren’s phone line expired some time ago. Will we switch to Verizon when the time comes (even as my iPhone is paid for by another company)? The answer comes down to price. As it stands now, I’ve got a free iPhone that works great when traveling, and I’ve had no issues with AT&T’s network. Do we really need to nearly double our wireless bill just so we can play Angry Birds on the bus? Not right now, that’s for sure.

The Motorola Atrix 4G

One of the standout products of the recent Consumer Electronics Show was the Motorola Atrix 4G phone. The phone by itself is powerful, with a dual-core processor, 1 GB of RAM, and a big battery. It runs on the Android mobile operating system (albeit launching with version 2.2, rather than the most up-to-date version). But more interesting are the phone’s accessories, including a dock that allows the phone to power a computer monitor or television and a laptop-like dock that comes equipped with a battery, screen, and keyboard.

On the surface, this product seems very innovative. Cell phones are becoming more powerful, so that most smart phones are basically pocket computers. Allowing this pocket computer to serve as the CPU for a laptop seems very innovative. Having a bigger screen and keyboard with processing handled by the phone seems like a great plan, especially considering that the phone’s screen size is often its largest barrier to getting real work done. Overall, the combination of a phone and computer-shell seems like a great marriage.

As much as I think this product is innovative, though, I am having a really hard time coming up with a common usage situation. That is, under what circumstances would I want to leave behind my laptop and take instead my laptop-shell powered by my phone. Each situation that I can come up with seems to be too mired in problems to really work.

Take, for example, the popular example of traveling. It’s often a hassle to travel with a laptop. It takes up a lot of room, often requiring its own bag or at least its own case. It adds pounds to any bag. And it is difficult to use it on a long trip without access to power. The Atrix’s laptop dock means a traveler could conceivably leave behind her regular laptop in favor of something lighter. But the device still takes up some room, needs careful treatment and protection, and won’t blow anyone away with battery life. Plus, the device is underpowered compared to modern laptops. It would be great for emails and web browsing, no doubt, but real work still requires a laptop. Considering that the people who need computing power while traveling are usually traveling for business, this accessory just seems underpowered.

Maybe the product would be perfect for the student. Easy portability means the device is perfect for using in class. Mobile connectivity is great for life on the go. But the device isn’t meant as a laptop replacement. That means that any student user needs to have both a regular computer and this new product. Furthermore, if the device starts to rely on the phone for its battery use, then students may find themselves without their primary communication device as the day wears on. At least the laptop dock allows the user to see her phone’s display, making texting during class a lot easier and less conspicuous.

As the product is a stripped-down laptop, maybe it’s perfect for people with only a desktop computer or looking to get their first computer. My parents only have desktop computers, so the Atrix’s laptop dock would add some portable computing to their lives. The price point will be the deciding factor to determine if this would actually be useful. But my dad’s computer will be nine years old this February, meaning $600 or $700 could be much better spent. For people getting their first computer, the user friendliness of the product will be the primary determining factor. Judging from this video from Engadget, the device isn’t very intuitive. I’d recommend the iPad for new computer users rather than the Atrix.

It’s not like products like the Atrix are new. Palm tried to release the Folio, a similar product that flopped quite famously. And a company called Celio offers a similar product called Redfly, which you probably haven’t heard of. Time will tell if the Atrix takes off. Two big hurdles, besides those mentioned above: the laptop dock costs extra and the phone is right now exclusive to AT&T. When the Verizon iPhone gets announced later today, then we’ll see how much buzz the Motorola Atrix on an inferior network can really generate.

Could Concealed Weapons Have Helped?

Today the nation mourns the victims of Saturday’s shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that left 6 people dead, including a federal judge and a congressional aide, as well as many people wounded including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. President Obama lead the nation in a moment of silence and the House Republican agenda has been postponed until next week. But given that the shooting is so highly publicized and that the shooter has been charged with attempting to assassinate Rep. Giffords (indicating this wasn’t a random event), pressure is high on those who support Arizona’s notoriously lax gun laws. Recently, the state scored 2/100 on the Brady State Scorecard reporting about the strength of gun laws. They would have received a 0, but the state does not yet force college campuses to allow concealed weapons.

But does the shooting automatically mean bad news for people who support unrestricted gun access for all citizens? Does it mean that efforts to increase concealed weapons will now fail? In Arizona in particular, where no permit is required to carry a concealed weapon, will activists be shut down and shunted from their communities? This won’t happen, and it won’t happen specifically because people who support concealed weapons have an easy argument in circumstances like these: if someone had had a concealed weapon, then the shooting would not have happened or would not have been as bad.

For those of us who oppose concealed weapons, it is our duty to argue against this position. To aid in this effort, let me outline weaknesses in the argument by pointing out two key assumptions and logical flaws that I see. If we don’t have an easy counter-argument for their claims, then states may continue rolling out gun “freedom” at the cost of innocent lives.

Assumption: Concealed carry will intimidate criminals.
Flaws: It is misguided to assume that criminal logic is rational. The alleged shooter in Arizona, Jared L. Loughner, was clearly mentally disturbed. To suggest that the threat of others with guns would have stopped him is asinine, especially considering that Arizona gives anyone legally able to purchase a firearm the right to concealed carry. In cases of other crime (say, theft), concealed weapons may work in a few cases, but theft is usually the result of compulsion or desperation. In both cases, assuming criminal rationality is ridiculous.

Assumption: If someone at the event was carrying a concealed weapon, they could have stopped the shooter.
Flaws: There’s a reason that police and soldiers go through extensive weapons training; it’s hard to use a gun effectively. There is little doubt that someone with a gun, if given a clear shot in a relaxed setting and enough time, could have stopped the shooter. But in the mass chaos erupting from the scene, how could this have been the case? The shooter was tackled when he tried to reload his gun. The gun he was carrying, a semi-automatic Glock 9 mm pistol, is designed to be fired very quickly and can be used with a clip holding 30 rounds. Under only the rarest of circumstances could a person with a gun have stopped the shooter before he was tackled without the use of a gun. There simply wasn’t enough time to save any lives with the use of a concealed weapon.

Further, suggesting that the situation would have been better had someone used a gun ignores some very frightening other possibilities. First, the shots from the bystander could have missed and struck other people; the shooting took place among a crowd in front of a store. Second, the bystander could have been mistaken as a second shooter and have been shot at by someone else with a concealed weapon; even worse, the extraneous guns could have resulted in a shootout among two or more people. Third, the bystander could have been shot by police had they been on the scene already. There are too many very likely alternative possibilities to suggest that the use of a concealed weapon would have made anything better.

I doubt that pointing out these issues will change the debate very much, but I’m really tired of hearing how concealed weapons will keep us safer. Arizona has almost no restrictions on concealed carry, but they couple it with equally lax, irresponsible restriction on gun sales. When a mentally ill person can purchase a firearm and when that gun is sold for hunting purposes, despite its total lack of usefulness in such situations, then there will be violent problems, no matter the state’s laws on concealed carry. It’s a lesson we learn time and time again, yet still Congress (Rep. Giffords included) kowtows to the NRA and we all suffer the consequences. The time for sensible gun restrictions was well before Saturday, so let’s pass new legislation now before we have to have this terrible discussion again.