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Month: March 2013

A productive (in an abstract sense) week

This has been a pretty productive week, all in all. Not a lot to show in terms of work completed/produced, but that isn't everything. Most of the time, but not always. (Also, there's no pun on "abstract" anywhere in here. Sorry to disappoint you.)

On Tuesday I attended a seminar on Backward Design offered by Sarah Miller of Madison Teaching and Learning Excellence Program (University of Wisconsin-Madison) through the CALS Teaching Resource Center, an organization I was unaware of before this event. The focus was on how students learn, practical ways of incorporating active learning into the classroom (e.g. we worked in little teams to turn lecture points into prompts for small discussions), and finally discussed Backward Design. In a nutshell, Backward Design is a three-step process:

  1. Identify the goals for students (i.e. what they should know or be able to do after the course).
  2. Make assessments that actually assess these goals (because students value what you assess, but also build in some gradation into exams).
  3. Fill in the rest of the learning activities for the class.

All in all, this was a helpful seminar and a good use of two hours.

On Friday (today), the GSAC met with the Provost (and the Dean and Associate Dean of the Graduate School, among other big shots). (Recall that GSAC is the Graduate Student Advisory Council for UF's I-Cubed program, and that I am a new member this semester.) While I attended the pre-meeting planning session last week, I have taken a very passive role with regard to the agenda and content (mostly because I lack the perspective gained from attending the previous meeting with the provost). While I wasn't thrilled with the way the presentation ended up developing, it was still a worthwhile presentation to attend, at least from my perspective. The main thing that GSAC was trying to address was the lack of faculty support in some areas for interdisciplinary projects and events, and they were looking for possible solutions from the institutional/administrative side. The response was mild, and with seemingly good reason. The provost offered many good points that GSAC could do to address the issues we perceive, and also noted that 'the faculty' is a very diverse group of individuals that spans the university, and there isn't some magic tool that the administration has to control and inform the entire faculty. The main takeaways from where I was sitting were:

  • Get your message out to as many groups as possible as often as possible. This is the only way to become visible and get the faculty to respect the work GSAC does.
  • Creating space, either physical or virtual, won't be enough to change anything. There must be a clear plan for how such space would be used to foster interdisciplinary collaboration.
  • Some faculty have no interest in interdisciplinary collaboration. If a student is interested in interdisciplinary collaboration, then why choose such a faculty member as an advisor?
  • Rather than waiting for an institutional stamp of approval, we should approach the people of power in our departments and colleges directly for things. Go to the source.
  • Similar to the above, if we aren't sure what a group of people (e.g. the faculty) are thinking, we should just go ask them.
  • Interdisciplinary collaboration takes a lot of time and effort, and faculty (that are universally very busy) are unlikely to participate in overly broad programs that have the hope of some real result in the end. When doing a project, identify a specific expert need that you have and approach an expert. Explain exactly what you need and how they can directly help.
  • Faculty (and possibly academics more broadly are motivated by three key things):
    1. Money (e.g. grant money) - you can't 'buy' faculty with money to elicit sustained change: when the money dries up, they go elsewhere
    2. Recognition (e.g. authorship or awards) - this is related to money and can be used for promotions, tenure, etc
    3. Intrinsic academic interest (e.g. their love of the field) - they do what they do for a reason: appeal to this reason directly (e.g. "We need your expert knowledge to do X and Y.")
  • Lastly, graduate students should focus on keeping their advisor happy. Advisors control the education of graduate students, and while some negotiation over work and projects can work, in the end what the advisor says goes.

Speaking of keeping my advisor happy... right now I'm still working on some side projects, but I'm trying to only engage in new work that relates to statistics education. I just want to wrap up these holdovers from my previous life and then... onward and upward!

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An actual comic on statistical literacy!

Statistical literacy is necessary for everyone, and this comic from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal sums it up nicely. (I'm not entirely certain of the technical term for the attitude the woman holds toward the data, but in discussing similar people and situations with colleagues the term that seems to fit is that such people feel that they are 'immune from variability' - that somehow they are exempt from randomness (maybe a 'lite' version of solipsism?). Either way, it could probably be characterized as Level A in the GAISE framework.)


Copyright Zach Weiner (SMBC). Used with permission.
keywords: statistical literacy; terrorists; airplanes; texting; texting and driving; rare events;

For more statistics-related comics, check out the master post.

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On Google Reader and Software as a Service

Eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

Photo of a rendition of the tree by YashiWong
Copyright YashiWong CC 3.0 BY-SA (from Wikimedia Commons)

The year is 2013, and computers are faster and more ubiquitous. All aspects of education - and life - are being revolutionized. With the increases in computing power and bandwidth and decreases in cost and size, computers are becoming increasingly reliant upon servers, software-as-a-service, and "The Cloud" (a buzzword I use with mild disdain). This trend requires that we trust the companies and organizations providing the services to us to A) continue to provide the functionality for as long as we, the consumers, need it and to B) take adequate steps to protect our privacy and the security of our information.

On 1 April 2004, Google launched Gmail, a webmail service that offered the unheard of storage capacity of 1 GB. It was originally an invite-only service, and I was an early adopter (sometime in June 2004). I began to use Gmail almost exclusively, and this marked the beginning of my reliance on software as a service. Having been around computers since my early childhood, I understood the dangers of relying on third parties to provide tools that I use, and I experimented with running my own servers (for mail, web, and IRC). Despite my beliefs about the dangers of software as a service, I became lazy and complacent. My vigilance waned.

Canary in the coalmine

In May 2009, Google announced Wave, a service that was hoped to revolutionize the way people communicated and collaborated online. Briefly, the core idea was that standard email and chat systems rely on old Web 1.0 paradigms and that with the ubiquity of high-speed internet and computing that these paradigms could be challenged. As with Gmail, I was an early adopter of Wave. It turned out, however, that everyone that used Wave was an early adopter (in that there wasn't a deluge of people that began to use it after us).

Original Google Wave logo
Google Wave logo

In August 2010, Google announced that Wave was being discontinued, and by April 2012 the system was officially offline. While I hadn't used Wave in any substantial capacity (mostly using it for brainstorming and collaborating on small projects for school), I saw the potential in Wave and saw its place in my life. I was on a trajectory for slowly but steadily increasing my use and reliance upon Google's incarnation of Wave.

Apache Wave logo
Apache Wave logo

Wave perished but did not die. The core technologies live on in two forms: the rebirth of Google Docs (and later Google Drive) and Apache Wave. The former is another cloud service that resembles parts of Google Wave. The latter is the true successor to Google Wave with the goal of continuing work on the software and protocol with the eventual goal of making it so that there can be private Wave servers that are able to communicate with each other (e.g. I could run my own Wave server on my terms but still derive the benefits of a community of users - similar to how the Diaspora project is approaching social networking).

Spring cleaning

Google is famous for many reasons, among them a spirit of innovation and a willingness to try new ideas (e.g. Wave). Not all of them are as successful as they would like, and to ostensibly keep their focus on core products strong, began discontinuing products and services that were not widely used or had been superseded by other technologies. The first round of spring cleaning was in 2011, and it has occurred several times, the most recent being in March 2013. In this latest round, they announced the demise of Google Reader, a web-based RSS reader.

The discontinuation notice displayed on Google Reader. "Google Reader will not be available after July 1, 2013"
The discontinuation notice displayed on Google Reader.

The writing has been on the wall. In 2011, the community features were removed from Reader coinciding with Google's expansion into other social networking ventures (i.e. Buzz and Plus). I didn't use the social features much, so I didn't much care. ("First they came...") With the total discontinuation of Google Reader (due to a declining user base), a product I use daily, I am starting to see the naivete in my reliance on Google's services. Many have argued for the value of Google Reader, and many have argued that it was past its time. Petitions were started (this petition has over 125,000 signatures at the time of posting - one of them mine), and competitors offered seamless transitions. It seems today that Google will continue with the discontinuation despite the outcry.

This has two key consequences. First, one must always anticipate that software as a service will be discontinued in time, even by colossal companies like Google. When someone else controls the systems, you don't. Period. Secondly, niche groups may suffer more than others. In the end, when Google Reader dies I'll find an alternative. I may use Google's services less in the future, but being an American I have a plethora of options. For many Iranians, Google Reader is the only reasonable option. Google Reader is accessible as with an encrypted connection. The easiest way to block Google Reader for the Iranian censors would be to block the entirety of Google - a move that incited outrage when exactly this happened in September 2012. While Iran is very crafty at censoring the internet, Google Reader remains one option for accessing censored parts of the web for Iranians. (Of course, Iran is preparing a halal domestic internet that will result in blocking all western sites - including Google - so this may be a moot point.)

The state of affairs

I'm glad that Google broke my trust with Google Reader. It shattered the illusion I had about their benevolence and will force me to confront my reliance upon an organization that does not have my best interests in mind. Google exists to make a profit, not for the betterment of Doug-kind. As I type this, I have five different Google websites as pinned tabs in Google Chrome. I use an Android phone. My email is through Google. My phone number is controlled by Google. Google's seamless integration across services is wonderful, and I can't imagine it any other way.

Or, I couldn't until last week. Henceforth, every piece of technology I use will need an exit strategy. I always have had a vague notion of the alternatives for various programs and websites that I use, but vague notions are simply not good enough. An explicit exit strategy is required.

There is, of course, a spectrum of reliance. On one end is software as a service. Gmail, Google Reader, Microsoft Office 365, EA's Always-on DRM used in games such as Diablo III and SimCity 5, and countless other pieces of software and websites are entirely reliant upon both the internet and a company maintaining the servers on the other end of the line to operate. If this is no longer in their best (financial) interest, then the software or service will cease to work. Using software as a service may make sense at times, provided the limitations are understood.

On the other end of the spectrum is software that one develops personally, entirely from scratch (and on hardware that one has built from scratch). This is almost certainly not feasible in a pure form. Developing an entire computer system - hardware and software - from scratch is a pipe dream, and would preclude the rest of one's activities for several lifetimes. (As Carl Sagan said, "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.")

I perceive a spectrum of control over one's computing, from most to least control (not exhaustive, with appropriate nuance and gradation):

  1. Inventing the entirety of the hardware and software that one uses
  2. Using strictly open source software and open hardware (Richard Stallman does this)
  3. Using strictly open source software on readily available - but closed - hardware (gNewSense is one Linux distro that is 100% Free Software)
  4. Using software and hardware that is run entirely from computer systems under one's control (i.e. no reliance on any computers - even on the internet - that one does not have absolute authority over)
  5. Using software and and hardware that one can make backups of and install without an internet connection (i.e. now allowing reliance on the internet for some functions, though not mission-critical - using an Android phone as a computer might fall into this category as one doesn't necessarily need to use it as a phone)
  6. Using software that requires an internet connection to a fixed set of servers not under one's control (e.g. activation servers needed for things like Microsoft Windows and Office)
  7. Using software that requires a constant internet connection to use, even software that could otherwise operate without the internet (e.g. single-player video games that require a constant internet connection)
  8. Using some software that is hosted entirely remotely (i.e. true software as a service)
  9. Using entirely software as a service (i.e. computing 100% in The Cloud)
  10. Using entirely software as a service on borrowed, proprietary hardware (e.g. a leased or borrowed computing platform that interfaces entirely with the internet with no local software or storage)

Right now, 1, 2, 9, and 10 are unreasonable for many people and organizations. Most people will be in the 3-8 range, depending on their specific needs (both for capabilities and finances). Right now, with my reliance upon Google's Gmail, Voice, Calendar, etc., I think I fall into the 8 range. I'd like to be able to get down to the 5 range for all possible things (recognizing that I will still rely on the vague concept of 'The Internet' to exist and facilitate things such as email and other network services). Even if I don't operate at level 5 and continue to operate at level 8, I want to have a technology exit strategy that will allow me to rapidly and without much loss of functionality and simplicity transition to level 5. This involves identifying alternative ways of doing whatever computing is necessary and understanding ways of transitioning one's data into them. (e.g. Google Takeout is a service - out of the benevolence of Google - that allows one to export one's data from Google's services and this could be used to transition data, but alternate strategies should also be found.)

Identifying alternatives and their limitations is no small task. I don't expect that I will achieve this overnight, but I hope that I will be able to find offline, open-source alternatives for (nearly) everything I use. If not, I will accept the limitation and plan accordingly. Some things may rely in principle upon running my own servers (e.g. hosting this website and email servers from my own computers). This may be practically unreasonable, but is technically possible. (Of course, I still need to rely on external DNS servers for the domain name to resolve...)

Moving forward

If Microsoft stops developing software, I can continue to use Windows 7 and Microsoft Office on my laptop indefinitely. I'm okay with having physical copies of software that is functional today, even if it is no longer developed and irrelevant in the future. (I could still install Word Perfect on DOS and use it to its full potential. Not practical, but could be useful in some nightmare scenario.) In the near future I'll do my best to identify where I rely on other companies and services and what alternatives exist. When I do, I'll post them. For now though, I just need to internalize the fact that The Cloud will not always be there, and that reliance upon it is a recipe for disaster. This may seem obvious, but it really hits home when services that one uses cease to be. (This is like backing up data. Go backup your data! Don't wait to lose it all!)

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Statistics: A Guide to the Unknown

Statistics: A Guide to the Unknown, now in its fourth edition, is the product of the ASA-NCTM Joint Committee aimed at introducing statistics, in a non-technical way, to a wide audience. The book is a series of essays on a variety of topics that would likely appeal to many casual readers with the broad goal of improving statistical literacy. There is a strand of research that suggests that attitudes have an effect on achievement (in statistics education); positive attitudes can lead to better achievement. (For more information, see SERJ Volume 11(2), the special issue on attitudes toward statistics.)

Statistics A Guide to the Unknown 3rd edition coverThe third edition (Tanur, Mosteller, Kruskal, Lehmann, Fink, Pieters, & Rising, 1989; featuring essays grouped into four main areas: the biological, political, social, and physical world) is freely available in digital form at the Cengage website. Use the drop-down box to select the different parts of the book. Particularly for introductory courses, these essays may be a valuable tool for convincing students that statistics is useful and valuable.

The fourth edition (Peck, Casella, Cobb, Hoerl, Nolan, Starbuck, & Stern, 2006) seems to be a substantially new volume (hence making the older edition freely available). I have no experience with it, but one would imagine that it has been updated to stay relevant to the public.

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Grad Life at UF

Being a seventh-year Gator affords me a unique perspective at times. While it is true that many students continue their studies at UF seamlessly from being undergraduates, I find that most are working on masters degrees and, as such, leave relatively quickly. Also, the sheer number of students that did not attend UF for undergraduate (with many, many being international students) makes my perspective stand in greater relief with their perspective and background.

My perspective can be characterized by appreciating what changes UF has made since 2006, and recognizing the different attitude that the university holds toward graduate students. While getting scores of emails can at times be annoying, the number of important, relevant opportunities that are presented to graduate students seems to be greater. Moreover, the support systems seem to be institutionalized. Of course, some of this may be because I have had the time to find these resources and come, but I do seem to remember that receiving better emails happened almost overnight, and other double-Gator colleagues have made similar comments about the increase in respect we feel from the university. (Not everything is roses, but improvement is improvement. And tautologies are tautologies.)

The best example of this respect that I can give is that the administration really seems to listen to graduate students. The three ways I've seen it manifested recently are:

GSC logoGraduate Student Council: At UF, the GSC is an organization affiliated with the Graduate School and Student Government (SG) that is designed to meet the needs of graduate students. The key ways in which their presence has been felt recently are in the awarding of travel grants for students to present at conferences and in the changes made to the support systems for international students post-admission but pre-first day of classes. The administration seems to have been supportive of efforts to help students not be stranded at the local airport (more bus routes), not find themselves homeless the first few nights in Gainesville (specific, affordable temporary housing), and other orientation programs that are appreciated. While their seems to be some confusion about the role played by GSC in the overall university among graduate students (e.g. many people don't understand the need to vote in SG elections despite GSC being funded by SG), the faculty and administration seem to respect the aims of GSC.

I-Cubed logoGraduate Student Advisory Council: While GSAC has an unfortunate name (leading many to confuse it with GSC), it is one component of a coordinated effort by the Graduate School to improve the lives of graduate students. In 2009, several key members of the administration (including the Provost and Dean of the Graduate School) were awarded an NSF grant that has become the Innovation the Institutional Integration (I-Cubed) project. The goal is to improve the lives of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and SBE (social-behavioral sciences) graduate students. One component of this is GSAC, which is a committee comprised of graduate students that work with the administration to identify areas that could be improvement and work to change things. I'm serving on GSAC (a new member as of Spring 2013), and the project really seems to both have an impact on graduate students and have the actual (not just nominal) support of the movers and shakers. Because the grant ends in 2014, the goal now is to institutionalize the changes so that UF continues to have in place the mechanisms for helping graduate students.

"Dine with the Dean": Last but not least, the Dean of Students (apparently) likes to have monthly meetings with different groups of students to figure out what is working and what needs improvement. A few days ago, a group of graduate students (including myself) had a quick lunch with the Dean and were able to share our thoughts. I was able to pitch my idea about allowing students to keep their email address after graduation, and it seemed to be well-received. It remains to be seen if anything will come from this, but the free food and face time with the Dean were both appreciated.

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