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Addicted to my laptop


There’s been a lot of discussion in the past few weeks about whether or not classrooms should allow laptops. Most schools and teachers have adapted to the fact that students use laptops. Every lecture-type class that I’ve been in this semester has had at least a few students using laptops. They’re very useful. I often use my laptop in class to check up on news, something I’m not able to do in the rush of the morning. I also like the ability to look up whatever we’re talking about in class, to follow along with a reading…any of the many useful and legitimate things that a laptop can be used for. I can’t really figure out whether I advocate having them as part of the class. Sometimes I realize that it’s distracting me from what I’m trying to do and I can make myself stop, but that’s when I care about what’s going on the in the class. If I’m particularly bored I generally wander about on the computer a little more. Sometimes I’m rather ashamed to be using my laptop, although as it’s a better tool than taking notes by hand most of the time. It’s an issue definitely to be discussed, and one that I feel that will never be resolved. Someday I think I’ll have to make up my mind if I decide to go into teaching. But I think that in some ways it’s good for you to have to use a laptop because it teaches you the limits of your ability to focus; it can make you a better student or worker.



Following last week’s class, I decided to do what probably everyone in the known world has done, explore the world that is lonelygirl15. We talked in class about whether or not it is unethical for the videos to be produced, because they aren’t true accounts of someone’s life. I still haven’t figured out if I like YouTube, or whether it’s actually just one more way that the world is taking us over, but I have come to a decision on lonelygirl15: I like it. I don’t particularly think it’s unethical in the way that most movies aren’t unethical. There is some untruth in the fact that it’s not a personal story but as long as it’s helping people and providing entertainment then it’s accomplishing all the goals that it set out. People have an obsession with honesty that got extended to entertainment in a way that isn’t completely relevant to the genre. Things on YouTube are meant to entertaining, that’s their main function. Ethics are important to be sure, as is honesty…but when it comes to entertainment, the world needs to be a little less uptight.



I’m a recent convert to podcasts. I’m an avid proponent of newspapers as the best form of media and outside some of the more literate forms of radio, (and of course the Daily Show, which I KNOW is not actual news) I don’t dally all that much in forms of broadcast media. Recently, as a way to reconnect to my past, have a few laughs and theoretically make myself a smarter person I downloaded two podcasts from NPR. The first was “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” which is the biggest throwback to my past. I used to listen to it in the car with my mother on weekends and it’s a great way to get the news and laughs at the same time. So, that went on my podcast list on iTunes. Next came “This American Life” which is produced by Chicago Public Radio and is a great feature-length story program that I have the personal imperative to listen to because I think it might make me smarter. Also, one of the contributors is Sarah Vowell, who is one of my favorite authors and someone I admire very much.
That was before. Listening to the 10/31 class, I was astounded at how easy podcasting could make my daily life. There’s not a day when I don’t spend at least five hours on my computer and having a five-minute update of the news from NPR is great. This may be one of my fads, but I think the whole idea of podcasts is an excellent idea. As a way to get ideas out, to make people smarter (which is needed by everyone in society), podcasts are almost better than forcing a New York Times on someone and saying “Read This!” So, go out there and listen. You may find something that you weren’t expecting and at a cost of generally no more than an hour a week, it’s a cheap price to pay for knowledge.

The folly of youth


Before I start, I’ve got to warn you that if you haven’t watched the lecture for the Tuesday 10/19 class or actually been in the class then go and do that now. Besides the fact that it will be nice to have some frame of reference to understand what I’m talking about, it’s just a very informative and stunning lecture and I think the guest, Nick Sylvester, was very interesting.
One of the first things you learn in journalism school, before they teach about the inverted pyramid and how to craft a lede, is that you plagiarism, in an any form, is very likely to end your career. It’s a big thing that’s sort of crammed into your head and reiterated with stories by each successive teacher who’s had a student fall victim to it.
One of the most poignant things that Nick said, or at least something that got to me, was that he had a good idea and he just got in over his head. Journalists want to tell you a story. They want to find out something that no one else has ever done before and shout it to the hilltops (and ride the successive wave of fame into a book deal and descriptions that they’re the next Woodward). It’s the idea of journalism as the Watergate babies saw it. Now in the intervening years, the idea of breaking the next Watergate has somewhat diminished and in some ways, it informs everything we do.
I’m a journalist. I don’t mean that I’ve written for a student newspaper, not that they produce anything less than quality journalism, but though I’m still in school I’ve had articles published in very reputable papers. I’m also young, I haven’t yet reached 30 and I have a laundry list of mistakes in my life that I could point to and shake my head at. I tell you this not because I’m trying to give you a biography of my life, but because I want it to be understood that when I talk about this topic, I talk about of the frame of reference of having been in similar situations.
It’s amazing to have a good idea, but to have an editor think that you have a good idea is even better. But the problem with good ideas is that they sometimes end up not being the greatest stories. Sometimes you’ve got a wealth of information and the research and quotes are overflowing your notebooks. Sometimes you can get someone to tie something together neatly with a bow, and sometimes you can paint a picture that shows something to be unequivocally true.
The problem is sometimes you can’t. Sometimes the facts show something but you have no proof, only lukewarm assumptions. And this is where the fear comes in. If you don’t have what it takes, you can end up out of a job. And that’s where the thought hits…well can’t I just say that? In a humorous piece, you get a liberty that you don’t have in straight news. But it all comes down to facts. People want to know that what you’re reading is true.
When you’re under 30, with rent and other innumerable bills to pay, sometimes this happens. I don’t agree with fabrication in any way. I don’t think it’s a good thing. I don’t think it should ever be done. But I also don’t think that someone who’s got a bright career ahead of them, someone who can write and craft stories that make people want to read a newspaper should get thrown out on their butt for one mistake. When you’re young, you make mistakes. It is the folly of youth. It’s not something to destroy careers over.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe in a business that prides itself so much on objectivity and the search for truth, it’s a one-shot deal to success and failure. I don’t want people to demand any less of journalists; I just hope that people can keep in mind that we too are people.

Community Television


We’re at a crossroads right now. The world, our country, is in a flux period where broad swaths of the electorate are really beginning to question what the powers that be are doing. I have to admit that I’m no fan of television news (I’m one of those print journalists that still writes with a pad and paper) but I think that community television can be very useful. By allowing people to interact, to put themselves out there, people have the ability to find other people who share the same ideas as them. To be the lonely dissident in this world is no fun and in some ways quite useless. But if communities around the country and the world can interact and find common ground then maybe there is change possible. Supporting old growth forests or local restaurants may not catch the fancy of everyone in our county, but maybe there are people in other parts of the state that do care. The idea of strength in numbers isn’t a euphemism, people banding together do have strength. Here’s a shout out to all the causes that don’t end up as front-page news. Find your community television station, start a blog, gather your community- do something. It is with us that the fate of the world rests.

Rule #1: Don’t be afraid to break the rules


The first time I heard of social network analysis was not in class, but was in fact on the CBS crime drama Numb3rs. I’d like to say that I watch the show because my best friend’s a mathematician and he’s given me a profound love of math but that’s not true. It’s because I have a carryover love for Rob Morrow that comes from years of watching Northern Exposure. But the show is quite good and also quite math-centric. Whether or not I believe that math rules the world and that social network analysis can tell you things about society that individual people can’t is very interesting.
But what I found most interesting in David Lazer’s lecture was the idea that communication was bad for a society, that it could cause a certain plateau in thinking. I found this sentiment extremely logical. People are ingrained to think in a certain way. Everyone’s told that there are a certain set of rules in everything and that by following the rules you can find the answer. But who are some of our most brilliant creators and thinkers and innovators? People who don’t follow rules. Rules are good for a lot of things. They given a developing brain a safety net that they can hang on to when it’s learning something new. But in the same vein, one of the most prominent rules has to be that the only way to discover something new is to break the rules. I’ve been reading a lot about discovery lately, about finding new planets and discovering giant trees. There was an article this summer in the New Yorker about Mike Brown, a professor at Caltech, who discovered Eris (informally called “Xena”), the would-have-been tenth planet. Brown was waiting one night to use one of the four telescopes at Caltech and wandered into an older telescope that took pictures of larger areas of the sky than the telescope he normally used. He started using this telescope only, eventually incorporating new technology to find what then could have been the next planet. What I take from this story is that you can’t be afraid to break the boundaries of what has always been taught (which seems eerily like the motto of the Public Opinion class) because you just might end up finding a completely new way of doing things. On Numb3rs, Rob Morrow’s character is an FBI agent whose math professor brother starts working on a case with him. Eventually the brother and his colleagues become an integral part of the team and are instrumental in solving cases. Now this is all TV of course but I think they make a good point. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s wrong and just because there’s rules doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be broken.

A Child of the Gaming Age


As someone who’s grown up in an age where being on line, and presenting in an on line world is the norm, it’s interesting to discuss the phenomenon of the people in Second Life, those who retreat almost entirely into that world. As someone who’s not always had the easiest time making friends (along with numerous self-esteem problems) I can understand why it might be nice to slip into a world where you can reinvent yourself. It’s a way to be yourself without actually having to be yourself.
As far as living in Second Life, I don’t really think that’s a good thing. There are many good aspects of having that kind of outlet for people, such as Rodica’s work with those with Aspberger’s syndrome. It extends even further to people who just have a hard time making friends. Somehow it’s easier to interface with a computer than to talk to a human being. The things that you need to learn, the awkwardness that needs to be overcome; Second Life and other programs like that are what can help to teach you that. It’s what you do with it afterwards that its important. Second Life is a step, a way for people to bond. But after that comes moving into the real world. The virtual world may have its perks, but only in the real world can we live.
In further posts, I’ll talk more about how Second Life provides a unique and innovative way to teach classes. Please leave your comments, I’d love to know what you think, whether you’re in the course or not.

Learning from Scratch


I have an aversion to technology. I love my computer and everything, it’s not that. My computer is probably the most useful thing I own. But go beyond my general research skills and I tend to freak out. I have a friend, whom I’ve dubbed the anti-me, who loves programming. He’s even designing his own widgets for his Mac. He goes into this near ecstatic state when he talks about anything like it. So when presented with Scratch I was at an impasse. Here was the thing I’d shunned, the thing I’d made fun of.

The amazing thing was that I could actually use it. I don’t mean to say that in the hour total that I played with the program that I’m now an expert in it. Far from it. But it’s hard for me to see what’s so scary about it now. I’m a writer. And I’ll never be a computer programmer. But it’s pretty nice to see that I’m not as idiotic in that realm.

We talked in class about “learned stupidity.” I’ve got a lot of that in the math and computer science realm. You do badly one too many times, you start to think maybe you should do something else. I’m not a writer because I’m not good at math or computer science. I’m a writer because it’s what gives my life meaning. But it’s nice to know that we all have the capability to do something else, and to enrich what we’re already doing.

Cooperative Learning


In the 9/12 class there was a discussion of Wikipedia, and the criticisms on whether or not Wikipedia can be relied on in the same respect as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia is the ultimate in endless knowledge, pages on every subject you could imagine, available at the stroke of a key, and it did not exist until only a few years ago. It strikes me as similar to the Google phenomenon. In class, Charlie asked how many people use Google as their primary tool for clarifying new information. With the advent of Google, everything seemed possible. Of course, there had been search engines before and all the information found had always been there to be found, but it was the speed and depth of Google, which was what made it revolutionary. Type in any word, phrase, or name and in a fraction of a second; you would be given results both mundane and eccentric. So, it is with Wikipedia, which in its English version has now more than a million entries. Wondering when the Clean Water Act was signed? When Andrew Jackson was elected president? Type it into the search bar and watch the articles appear. There is all the information you wanted, all the references, eliminating the need to carry around a heavy book with all the same information. Of course, there are problems with Wikipedia, as there is with Google, because without a ten-person peer review on whatever is returned on the computer screen, there will always be mistakes.
So here is the problem. How can you trust Wikipedia? Well, how can you trust the Encyclopedia Britannica? The Encyclopedia Britannica is a compilation of entries written by one person and reviewed and edited, a repository of knowledge verified, as much as it can be, by fact. But to consider knowledge given down by “experts” in their respective fields, experts though they may be, is to consider that knowledge eradicates all prejudice and that true knowledge can only ever be found in facts in books. Wikipedia dramatically contradicts that notion. By allowing the world to create it, it allows for the integration of factual and practical knowledge on a large scale. Any textbook expert is free to create an entry on Wikipedia and they should, but by allowing open editing, it allows for others who have expertise to talk about the concepts and refine the knowledge. Who’s to say that a third generation Gloucester fisherman understands the migratory patterns of fish in New England or a French youth who actively speaks Verlan (a type of French slang) any less than an academic who’s compiled empirical evidence on the subject it doesn’t, and something must be lost without considering those perspectives. The rough spots in the Encyclopedia Britannica aren’t so cosmetic as those in Wikipedia, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist on all levels. Neither is really better. Only through looking at both, through looking at the academic and the practical, can knowledge flourish.

Thoughts on the course


I’m sure everyone knows that this course is being taught both at the Harvard Law School and at the Harvard Extension School. Speaking 9/12 about their class at a Berkman Center luncheon, Rebecca and Charlie Nesson brought up a very interesting point, about how information produced by scholars at colleges should be transmitted. Should we tape every class and make it available on the internet? Probably not. But Charlie and Rebecca seem to have struck on an interesting way to bring students into the fold in a society that is ever-increasingly placest the highest premium on a good education.
It especially struck a chord for me, as someone in the process of getting a degree in journalism, as to how it is possible to make education available to everyone. Ask anyone with a passing knowledge of journalism history and they can tell you that 20-30 years ago the vast majority of journalists didn’t have college degrees. These days, any journalist thinking of specializing in a specific kind of journalism needs at the least a bachelor’s degree and possibly more. There’s no need to have a journalism, liberal arts or any kind of degree, but it’s what gives you the edge.
I don’t mean to imply this affects just journalism. It’s a market wide symptom. Getting better than a bad-paying job that doesn’t use any of the skills you learned is college is near impossible. Even harder is finding a job that pays off the loans most are faced with getting to attend the centers or higher learning.
My point? With an increased focus on higher education as marker for social wealth, this class seems to break the barriers of what most people are forced to live with, by combining the cream of the crop with those who have a passionate desire to learn without the means necessary to make it happen and moves toward finding some sort of solution to bringing the academics out of the Ivy Tower.

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