Monday, November 07, 2011

The FBI, CIA, Social Media, and Ninja Librarians

Last month we had a small election in our County. There were two seats open on our local school board and a bond measure for our local community services agency. As always I made sure to vote. When I got home that night I posted a Facebook notice to let people know I had voted in case anyone I knew had forgotten about the election. A few minutes later a friend posted a comment after mine. When I came to the page to read the comment I noticed a couple of Facebook ads related to elections.

On the face of it, Facebook "Related Ads" seem to be quite helpful. Why wouldn't I want to know about other election information? I've just told the whole world that I'm interested in elections.

What I know is that whatever I publish on Internet is public or at least available to someone no matter what Privacy Settings Facebook or any other Internet service offers me. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg goes so far as to say that this is a good thing. Humans long for connecting with people with whom they have something in common. That's why Facebook is so successful says Zukerberg.

As we begin to use social media, and the Internet in general, more and more for publishing our political opinions and activities the Orwellian questions arise as to who knows what I'm doing and what are they doing with that information?

It turns out that a growing list of organizations have the capacity to know. Obviously Facebook knows everything you publish on their service. So do the FBI and the CIA.

In a recent NPR story, How Does the CIA Use Social Media? Robert Seigel interviews Associated Press intelligence correspondent Kimberly Dozier about the CIA's hundreds of "ninja librarians" who comb through millions of tweets and Facebook postings looking for information to provide US government policymakers. When Dozier asked the CIA about the possibility that their analysts might be following postings by American citizens she said "the CIA was very clear with me: We do not follow Americans here or overseas. That's not our purview."

Of course it is the purview of the FBI. We can be certain they are using the same methods and digital tools to conduct their investigations. And, they are likely using the same tools anyone of us can use -- Google Analytics. "Enterprise-class web analytics made smarter, friendlier and free" is the motto Google uses to describe their powerful service that analyzes web traffic.

After the 2011 popular uprisings in the Middle East, United States intelligence staff realized they could have used these tools to predict the uprising in Egypt. In a story for NPA (Google: A New Tool For US Intelligence) Army instructor Gabriel Koehler-Derrick describes how "Google Trends allows us to get a sense of atmospherics." Trying to get a pulse of the citizenry, investigators tap into what kind of information searches people are doing. What they found after the fact in Egypt was that people were following what was going on in Tunis far more than what they might typically be searching on most days.

This isn't something new. Companies have been following our purchasing trends since the advent of computers. Grocery stores have decades of purchasing data on each of us as do banks and credit card companies.

What's different is that now we are putting even more data online. It's not just our shopping habits but our vacations, our family images, our sexual and religious preferences, and our political views. The potential for government officials and investigators for misusing this information is great. Racial profiling is one example of this very difficult issue facing our country since the tragedy on September 11, 2001. Certainly our digital footprints are a big part of the process.

Because we live in a Democratic society I have faith that the power of the information flow will not only allow us to maintain our personal freedoms but also help guarantee the open, Democratic life we enjoy.

During the recent political unrest in the US the world got a window into the power of citizenry voice. A University of California, Davis student published an eight minute video of a pepper spray incident on campus. To date nearly 2.4 million people have seen this video on YouTube.

The video expanded the public dialog such that students were able to communicate their ideas on major mainstream media outlets like Fox News. Shortened versions of the video and snippets hit the mainstream media like wildfire. It went viral. More importantly, the video provides the kind of trend that even Google's electronic servers can't analyze.

Most people watch only about the first minute and a half of the video. However, about two minutes into the video you begin to hear voices in the crowd scream "shame on you!" After just a few shouts the screams turn into a chant. In the next few minutes the police begin to realize that something terrible had just happened and they start to back away. The camera follows as the crowd begins to chant in unison over and over again. The eery video appears as if the students were pushing the police away with their verbal chastising.

This event was no Kent State and the world has changed significantly since that terrible day on May 4, 1970. One result of the tragedy at Kent State was a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a young woman kneeling over the body of a dead student. He had just been shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard. The photo helped inspire Neil Young to write one of the most memorable songs of his long and illustrious career. It also helped galvanize a generation of Americans who stood up and helped finally end the war in Vietnam.

There is no telling what today's social media will do when it comes to changing the political landscape. Just as easily as groups use it to post information about their political views, other groups can use it to publish their own views in an attempt to squelch other movements. That sounds much like Democracy to me.

Today's young people have been born as "great communicators" and the tools available to them may expand their political base if used effectively.

Whatever happens, what we do know is that the whole world is watching. Literally.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Note to self . . . There Are Vans That Don't Have Automatic Doors

This afternoon I picked up my daughter and her friend Gabby at the local mall. When I dropped Gabby off at her house she got out of the van and said goodbye. Then she pulled the handle on the door and began to walk away.

But the door didn't close.

I drive a lot of kids around these days and most of them make the same mistake with our doors. It turns out we have a 12 year old van with standard doors. Most kids today are used to automatic doors.

You could say it's time for me to trade-in my van after 182,000 miles but I think we'll keep it for a few more years. Maybe I should put a sign on the door to remind kids that they need to pull on the door to close it . . .

About a year or two ago I started wondering about who was it that invented the automatic door. Why is it such a great idea? Sure busses have them but do we need them in our personal cars?

Then I thought about Thor's Wheels. This is a B.C. comic from the 1980s. Thor, who makes one wheeled vehicles, is asked if he'd ever considered a multi-wheeled vehicle. His reply shows that either he can't imagine a different type of vehicle ever becoming useful. Or, he's completely satisfied with a one wheeled vehicle.

This is the trouble with technology. We get used to it and can't imagine the need for anything else. And, we hardly have the time to go out and find something new and learn how to use it. Then someone like Steve Jobs comes up with an idea for a new technology, creates an "insanely great" product out of it, and we all want to have it and can't wait to get it.

But is that enough of a reason to go out and get it? What are we doing with the old technology we leave behind? Are we making sure it's donated to someone who will reuse it or perhaps taking it to a recycle center? Or, is it headed for a dusty spot in a back closet or the garage, or perhaps even the garbage heap?

The scariest part of this story for me is what we are teaching ourselves and our younger generations. Most of my daughters friends are very sweet and I'm sure they don't judge me harshly for having to manually close the doors in my van. But they do react in a strange way the very first time they have to close the door of my van. It's as if they just had to learn something new.

I can hear their internal brain talking to them at that very moment: "Note to self . . . there are vans that don't have automatic doors. Back in the old days you had to close them manually using your physical strength."

I think I'll keep my van for a few more years. I just hope my daughter's friends don't think I'm some grouchy old man barking at them to close the door properly.

When I do get another vehicle it will probably not be a van. By then I hope to be done with this taxi cab driving lifestyle and I can get something smaller and more sustainable. It won't have automatic doors. Or will it? It probably won't have a key and a number of other "features" I can't even imagine. It might actually drive itself.

Sometimes I feel just like Thor. Sometimes I feel so "last week."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Can Gaming Save Education?

I attended a presentation this week at the Marin County Office of Education with James Paul Gee, author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Gee's thesis is about the positive aspects of gaming and why we should use video games in education.

He says we can use games to help people (young and old) learn teamwork, how to work on projects, and how to be learners who voluntarily seek out information in creative fashion.

Gee also describes how in education today we "punish" students who get it wrong with bad grades which tends to make them feel as if they are failing, while in gaming failure can be a positive process that helps us learn from our mistakes and get one step closer to success, the next level of the game, and our ultimate goal of completing (or winning) the game. 

He also points out that this process of coming back from failure and striving for success helps make gamers more resilient and that resiliency is key to becoming a good learner and a successful person in today's competitive world.

These are all noble and important ideas which I believe are generally true. His examples from World of Warcraft and other games make sense.  However, I believe Gee puts too much emphasis on the tech piece of the learning process.

At the end of his talk Gee left us with a slide that said "Teachers as Creators." The idea he wanted us to take away is that it's time for teachers to become creators of games that can teach students what they need to know in the process of playing the game. After all, if the people who built World of WarCraft can do this so successfully, why can't our teachers do the same in education?

To me this is the same argument we've heard for decades. The problem is defined as education is failing and the proof is that students are dropping out, or worse, sliding through without learning anything. Students are arriving at college without basic writing skills necessary to succeed at this higher level.

The system needs reform and why not turn it all into a computer game? We've shown how playing games helps people learn, this should be easy to do in schools. Right?

When I asked him about this one on one Gee said he also believes the transition to a gaming emphasis in education should be lead by the techies and not educators despite the fact that he spent a good deal of time in his talk praising teachers and lamenting how government programs like No Child Left Behind have destroyed teaching and teachers role in education. 

In fact, I asked him if he had read Douglas Rushkoff's recent book "Program or Be Programmed" which suggests that people (such as teachers) need to learn how to create and manage the technology in our lives or risk being controlled by the programs that run our social, economic, and information systems. Gee scoffed and described Rushkoff as someone who says anything he thinks will help him sell books. 

The truth is that Rushkoff has gone away from some of his earlier ideas promoting and evangelizing the positives of technology in life and has begun to question what it's doing to our society and our kids in particular. In my view this is essentially opposite to what Gee is saying about using gaming in education. For Gee it's all about putting gaming (technology) into learning.

Ironically Gee kept saying in his presentation how it isn't an either/or proposition. This is the one point I left thinking about the most. Teachers use project based learning extensively. This aspect in teaching has grown significantly for at least two decades with the help of organizations such as CUE, ISTE, GLEF, and BIE and many more.

Schools have successfully integrated technology into the learning space on a massive scale and teachers are becoming more and more skilled at involving technology in their curriculum.

Teachers are creative learners who strive to make sure their classes are fun and interesting so that their students leave with a sense of the importance of being a life long learner. Education is filled with opportunities for students to learn teamwork and become information literate.

Taking into account the ideas Gee shows us from learning through games and integrating those ideas into our curriculum makes sense. We need to learn teamwork, how to work on projects, and how to be learners who voluntarily seek out information in creative fashion. Re-tooling education to be a computer game is not the way to achieve this goal.

Education doesn't need to be saved. It needs to be nurtured and improved to meet the needs of 21st century world.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Who Will Save Us From The Future?

Who will save us from the future?

Clive Thompson writes in his column Keying In The Future Leaders in The Bohemian about how a college english student named Daniel Finnegan who invented an application for your smart phone that will automatically reply to a text message you receive while driving (or any other time you don't need or want to answer a text message). The application will explain that you are driving and will reply as soon as you get to a safe place to send a text message.

Thompson uses Finnegan as an example of how modern computer programming allows even non-computer geeks to build apps that will support and improve human existence. Finnegan used a new Google tool called App Inventor which allows for graphical "programming" of the system and features of your smart phone.

He further cites Douglas Rushkoff's recent treatise "Program Or Be Programmed" as evidence of the importance of this new way of using technology to improve our lives.

Rushkoff explains - "That's right: America, the country that once put men on the moon, is now falling behind most developed and many developing nations in computer education. We do not teach programming in most public schools. Instead of teaching programming most schools with computer literacy curriculums teach programs. Kids learn how to use popular spreadsheet, word processing, and browsing software so that they can operate effectively in the high-tech workplace. These basic skills may make them more employable for the entry level cubicle jobs of today, but they will not help them adapt to the technologies of tomorrow."

Rushkoff and Thompson make a good point about the basic understanding most people have of technology and it's use and interface within our lives. As someone who teaches people how technology can be your friend, make your life easier, help you learn and communicate with others, I see how we all need to learn more about how technology works (or doesn't work) for us.

That part I agree with. It's the part about why Finnegan decided to create his ingenious phone app that bothers me. "How do you stop people from texting while driving?" asked Thompson. It turns out that Finnegan "realized that one of the reasons people type messages while they're in the car is that they don't want to be rude -- they want to respond quickly so friends (and I assume he also meant colleagues) don't think they're being ignored."

Is it a great idea to have a app for your phone that auto replies to people when you can't get to their message as quickly as they might like? Absolutely. There are so many places where this can be useful. Is it a great idea to live in a world where people think you are rude for not immediately responding to a text. Not at all.

That's where I believe we are falling behind. To me this life of always on and always connected is turning us into rude people expecting others to do something we may, or may not, have the time or even want to do in response. What if I'm in a meeting with someone else? Is that person not deserving of my full attention? I think so and therefore wouldn't answer a phone call, E-mail, or text while meeting with them.

Recently someone arranged a meeting me and one other person. The person who arranged the meeting spent the entire time texting and writing E-mails on his phone glancing up to make a comment every once in awhile. My take away from that is whatever I had to say was not as important as whatever was coming across his phone. If that's the case, spare me the rudeness and don't meet with me. Or, better yet, don't pick up your phone and "work on it" while your supposed to be working with me.

Every so often one of my friends announces they are taking time off or even eliminating their online social networking activities because it's taken over their lives. Eventually they come back and usually with a little more balance in the amount of time they spend doing it. Integrating technology in our lives is not as easy as we might think. We often spend more time than we should with the technology that is designed to improve our lives and make it easier for us to enjoy life itself.

I'm all for democratizing the creation of technology systems and services in our lives. I'm also for having more time to be human with my family, friends, co-workers and colleagues.

I'm on vacation this week and we brought three computers with us. While on the surface that seems literally absurd to me now as I write this blog.

However, I do recognize the importance of the communication we have with the people in our world and that as long as we're not camping or literally on an island somewhere we are going to want to communicate with them.

I'm just hoping for a world where we won't be considered rude, or treated even worse, if we don't immediately reply to some form of communication in a "timely manner." I believe this is where education comes in to play. We need to integrate the technology in our world but we need to do so in a manner that is reasonable and that there are shared expectations regarding when and how we communicate with each other.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

All The News Isn't Much Fit to Print Anymore

During my recent trip to Detroit I passed by the former home of the Detroit Free Press. Like so many other buildings in Detroit this one was boarded up thanks to the decline in the economy.

Raise your hand if you still read a newspaper . . . I didn't think so. It should be no surprise for people to learn about the continued shrinkage in media outlets. Despite the big business that is the broadcast and publishing media industry the news and information component of this important sector of our society is sadly disappearing.

Advertising continues to be the major income for news outlets but this is a diminishing world for publishers. Revenue for American newspapers fell 6.3 percent in 2010 as compared with the previous year which was the worst on record according to the Newspaper Association of America. This occurred in a time when overall advertising increased especially in Television which went up by more than 10 percent last year.

As a sign of the times, the New York Times recently announced fees for readers of their online edition. With the overall decline in ad revenues for the print and electronic versions of newspapers, the Times decided it needed to charge fees for web readers to view their content.

In his presentation to employees about the fees, NY Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. called the move an investment in the future of the company and the overall existence of journalism itself. "It will allow us to develop new sources of revenue to support the continuation of our journalistic mission and digital innovation."

Matt Smith, columnist with SF Weekly wrote this week about the massive reduction in the number of people in the bay area working at newspapers. According to Smith, Bay Area newspapers cut almost 50 percent of their staff between 2001 and 2010 which compares to newsroom staffs around the country that declined by just over 36 percent.

"We are the eyes and ears of our society" Smith quotes David Weir, Co-Founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting. In the same breath Weir hopes that Americans don't "decide it is better to be blind and deaf than informed."

A few years ago I wrote a short piece referring to comments by Orville Schell who talks about how America was built on the idea that the success of Democracy depends upon an informed population. My question today is are we increasingly removing ourselves from the information we need to be useful, active, and participating citizens in America today?

The Detroit Free Press is now published under a joint operating agreement with the Detroit News. Adorning the Detroit News building are these words:

"Mirror of the public mind . . . interpreter of the public intent . . . troubler of the public conscience . . . reflector of every human interest . . . friend of every righteous cause . . . encourager of every generous act"

The long running New York Times motto is "All the News That's Fit to Print." If their business revenue declines to the point where the paper is no longer viable, who will do this then?

May 1, 2011  Addendum - 
This week President Barack Obama gave a speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner in which he made the following remarks:

"You know, in the last months, we’ve seen journalists threatened, arrested, beaten, attacked, and in some cases even killed simply for doing their best to bring us the story, to give people a voice, and to hold leaders accountable. "

"And through it all, we’ve seen daring men and women risk their lives for the simple idea that no one should be silenced, and everyone deserves to know the truth."

"That’s what you do.  At your best that's what journalism is.  That’s the principle that you uphold.  It is always important, but it’s especially important in times of challenge, like the moment that America and the world is facing now. So I thank you for your service and the contributions that you make."

"And I want to close by recognizing not only your service, but also to remember those that have been lost as a consequence of the extraordinary reporting that they’ve done over recent weeks.  They help, too, to defend our freedoms and allow democracy to flourish."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The End of More Than an Era - Say Goodbye to Kodachrome

In mid-2009 Kodak announced the end of nearly 75 years of production of Kodachrome film. Kodachrome was not just the subject of a famous Paul Simon song. It revolutionized photography on so many levels. In a 2009 NPR interview National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry explains that Kodachrome "was a beautiful film, the tonal range was extraordinary, the vivid colors were legendary."
Steve McCurry

McCurry, who shot more than 800,000 images using Kodachrome film during his career, was chosen by Kodak to shoot the very last roll of Kodachrome film. The 36 exposures he made in the Summer of 2010 appeared February 9, 2011 in an exclusive web article by Vanity Fair magazine.

The images are stunning for their quality as well as the subjects he chose to capture with these final few frames of precious film stock. McCurry switched between New York City street scenes and shots of actor Robert DeNiro, a series of images of Indian film stars and Ribari tribal elders in India, and finished up the roll with a few images taken in Parsons, Kansas home of the last photo shop in the world that developed Kodachrome film.

Ribari Tribal elder in India
I was fortunate enough to shoot a few rolls of Kodachrome film in my early days of photography. Back in the 1970s it was common for people to shoot much of their family pictures on slide film. We would gather from time to time with the slide projector and a carousel loaded up with 80 slides to watch the images on a small screen or blank wall in the house.

My career as a photographer began in earnest in the Summer of 1974 when I took my first photo class with Waldo Larson at Hanford High School. Sadly, most of the images I captured in those days don't exist any more. And those that still exist are badly damaged from years of neglect.

When I heard about the demise of Kodachrome I wondered about those old photographs. I did have the foresight to save most of my negatives and slides over the years and I am fortunate enough to have access to a Nikon slide/negative scanner. Last month I spent some time exploring some of these old images in the digital realm. I didn't know what to expect but the results were amazing.

Some of the first shots I found were actually some of the first film I ever shot, developed, and printed by myself. Scratched and damaged they still revealed a world of my youth, the town where I grew up, and my high school. This shot of the old main building at Hanford High School is amazing because most people today don't even know that it existed. Some of the older people in town will remember it and the shock that occurred when it was torn down and replaced with the modern brown brick building that is there today. This photo was taken just days or perhaps even hours before it's destruction.

HUHS Main Building 1974

I recall the difficulty the destruction crew had in taking down those beautiful pillars. They were pounding on them with a wrecking ball for hours and hours and the pillars refused to go. Of course they ultimately did go down and I was so amazed at the spectacle of it that I took this picture after they were done.

Demolished pillar from HUHS main building 1974 
I found a few other interesting images from this era. There were a set of portraits I took of classmates that includes a wonderful self-portrait:


There are so many wonderful aspects to these images. They capture the innocence of our youth and they provide a surprising moment of remembering people you used to know so long ago, and wondering what they are up to now. More people to look up on Facebook!

Doug Brown

Madeline Wing

There was also the realization that I once learned the basics of studio photography from one of my favorite teachers in high school. Of course there was also a wonderful feeling around the fact that these images still exist today and that, through technology, I can capture them again to a digital world.

Getting back to Kodachrome again it truly is amazing the quality of that film. We have surrendered our photographic work to digital cameras now and we rarely print them to paper any more. But how different is that from the days when we shot slides and only looked at them when we took the time to put the carousel on the projector and viewed them on the living room wall?

I suppose it doesn't matter. What matters is that we take the time to view them and to enjoy them for what they are: a capturing of a moment in time, a colorful picture worthy of framing, or simply something to put on the refrigerator.

Grandmere Lyon circa 1978

YMCA Youth and Government 1977
I am just glad I have them. I am glad to have been able to shoot with Kodachrome in a non-digital camera environment. In a short time, if not already, Kodachrome won't even be missed.



Friday, February 25, 2011

How the US Government Paid to Help Create Fox News

As conservatives make yet another attempt to convince Congress to shut down public broadcasting I believe it is worthwhile to revisit the history of broadcasting and the development of broadcast media and technology.

We will see that, in fact, the United States Government helped pay for the creation of Fox News and other modern media outlets by paying for the development of the technology they use and by providing preferential treatment in issuing licenses for the broadcasting frequencies they use.

About 30 years ago I wrote a college paper that explored some of the history of modern telecommunications and broadcasting technology. Although the paper isn't well written (I had no computer or the inclination in those days to do edits and re-writes) it does show us how these technologies were all developed by private companies originally funded by the Federal government. First came the telegraph, then the telephone, then radio and television. The paper was written before it's creation but most people today know how government funding helped create the Internet.

The basic story is that the government needed new communication technologies to assist them in various war efforts. Federal funding paid companies like Western Union, Westinghouse, General Electric, Western Electric, and American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) to develop these new technologies.

It all began in 1844 when Congress authorized $30,000 to build the first telegraph line between Washington DC and Baltimore, MD.

Once the government decided it didn't need to develop the technology further these companies had opportunities to develop commercial uses for the newfangled communication devices. At first it was difficult to figure out how to make money selling radios and eventually televisions. What would people do with them?

Westinghouse realized if they provided something for people to listen to there was a possibility that they would purchase radios. Thus it was the need to sell radios that helped to jump start the modern broadcasting industry around 1920.

"From there the beginning of sponsored (radio) programs came about" I wrote in 1980, "with 'brand name' programs such as the 'Browning King Orchestra.' After AT&T's decision to start what they called 'Toll Broadcasting' in 1922 such programs became the order of the day." The shows, paid for by a company or store, carried the name of the sponsor but didn't mention specific products. Also known at the time as "ether advertising," the development of radio programming centered on corporate willingness to allow this sort of indirect and eventually direct advertising which would be used to pay for the cost of production and broadcasting facilities.

With the formation of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), consolidation and cooperation within this new industry was achieved. Western Electric controlled the manufacturing of transmission equipment while General Electric and Westinghouse controlled the production and distribution of radios. All were sold under the RCA trademark. They built transmitting stations all over the USA and thus controlled both ends of the broadcasting industry -- production and sale of receivers and the production and transmission of programming.

There were attempts to put non-commercial broadcasting on the air but in general they failed. Not only did non-commercial broadcasting prove to be economically infeasible but the tremendous economic success of advertising based programming left few people calling for any sort of non-commercial programming.

One such call was the Wagner-Hatfield amendment to President Roosevelt's Federal Communications Act of 1934 which created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This amendment would have provided 25% of all radio frequencies for educational programs to promote public interest content and civic engagement. The Wagner-Hatfield amendment was defeated. There were components of the  Communications Act of 1934 that did require companies to broadcast public interest material but those requirements (including what became known as the Fairness Doctrine) were removed during the Reagan Administration.
Edward R. Murrow

Commercial broadcasters did try to provide news and information for it's viewers. But most of those efforts didn't last long. Alcoa sponsored the CBS program "See It Now" which was a groundbreaking news and documentary program featuring Edward R. Murrow. Alcoa eventually withdrew sponsorship for this program and CBS was hard pressed to pay the $90,000 per episode to keep the program on the air. See It Now went off the air in 1958.

It was almost 10 years later that Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. In his remarks at the public bill signing ceremony President Lyndon Johnson said "Today our problem is not making miracles -- but managing miracles. We might well ponder a different question: What hath man wrought -- and how will man use his inventions?"

Johnson continued: "The law that I will sign shortly offers one answer to that question. It announces to the world that our Nation wants more than just material wealth; our Nation wants more than a 'chicken in every pot.' We in America have an appetite for excellence, too."

"While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man's spirit. That is the purpose of this act."

"It will give a wider and, I think, stronger voice to educational radio and television by providing new funds for broadcast facilities. It will launch a major study of television's use in the Nation's classrooms and their potential use throughout the world."

"Finally -- and most important -- it builds a new institution: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting." Unfortunately it was already too little, too late. More than fifty years of commercial broadcasting success meant it would be an uphill battle for public broadcasters to win viewers and the revenue it needed to succeed.

Today, the federal government allocates about $430,000,000 annually to the CPB. 95% of the federal dollars are allocated directly to public broadcasting stations with television and radio stations splitting this money 75% and 25%. House Republicans hope to slash all of this money from next year's budget in order to address skyrocketing federal deficits.

The federal allocation equals about 10% of the total budget for National Public Radio. The rest is paid for by viewer membership fees and corporate sponsors. By comparison, in 2011 the Fox network received over $270,000,000 in advertising revenue for the Super Bowl broadcast alone. With these kinds of numbers it is no surprise how difficult it is for public broadcasting to compete for viewers with the financial support they get.

Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn of Colorado told NPR that public broadcasting provides a valuable service and that "No one's talking about eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or NPR. We're just saying let's not have the taxpayer subsidy. The taxpayers just can't keep paying for everything."

Democrat Earl Blumenauer of Oregon disagrees and introduced a resolution to stop the proposed cuts. "There's a reason there isn't a commercial entity that provides local programs the way that NPR does, it's not commercially viable." Small towns and rural areas would be hit hardest.

Tracy Rosenberg, Executive Director of Media Alliance notes that Public Radio has been trying to address this issue for about a decade now through the Station Resource Group which created a plan to accumulate capital if the industry is to expand and remain competitive in an increasingly complex media environment. However, the amount of money and the number of frequencies they have to work with pales in comparison to the amount of money and media outlets commercial broadcasters own.

And then there is the Internet and how it's affecting all broadcasting outlets. and are amazing sites with tremendous valuable content published and growing each day. But again, how will they compete for viewers and listeners without the revenue necessary to keep the ship afloat?

Why should you care about public broadcasting? Let's let President Johnson have the last word:

"In 1844, when Henry Thoreau hear about Mr. Morse's telegraph, he made this sour comment about the race for faster communication. 'Perchance,' he warned, 'the first news which will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.'"

"We do have skeptic comments on occasions. But I don't want you to be that skeptic. I do believe that we have important things to say to one another -- and we have the wisdom to match our technical genius."

"In that spirit this morning, I have asked you to come here and be participants with me in this great movement for the next century, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967."

We have indeed reached that next century. It is upon us to decide whether we want that century to be as brilliant as Johnson hoped and envisioned it would be.

If you want to have a say in this matter join millions of Americans in a Response to the call for the end of federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

For the Record

Driving to Davis a few weeks ago I popped a tape into the audio cassette player in my 1999 van and played Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come. After it was finished playing my son Noah said "Dad, you used to have good taste in music."

Forgetting about the jab at my personal music choices and focusing on the music and the media I thought about that "old" van I drive with 170,000 miles on it, the cassette player, and the cassettes I have from back in the day. How much longer would I be able to play those tapes? Do I need to start purchasing digital versions of this music? Most of these cassettes were created by transferring albums and CDs to tape during the 1980s. Who has the time (and the equipment) to do any of that anymore? Maybe I can get a better price for the van when I decide to sell it if I offer the cassettes as part of the deal!

About that same time I heard the Library of Congress announced the largest donation of audio recordings in its history. The Universal Music Group donated thousands of "master recordings -- the final metal discs used to press commercial releases; lacquer discs that were cut in the studio to capture full takes of tunes; and reel-to-reel tapes." 

The entire collection dates from about 1930 to 1950 and includes about 200,000 metal masters, 10,000 reel-to-reel tapes, and about 15,000 lacquer discs.

This material is considered so valuable it will be stored underground in facilities once run by the Virginia Federal Reserve and now is the Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.

The metal plates have ridges instead of grooves. They require a special stylus to play the sound. After about four months of shipping these materials via tractor-trailer the staff will begin the process of finding out what they have and eventually digitizing it all. 

What could be so valuable there and why would we want to preserve it? One example was the SECOND master recording of Bing Crosby's White Christmas. This recording from 1947 had to be created because Crosby's rendition of the song was so popular the record company was no longer able to make copies from the original 1942 recording. It was worn out.

What could be even more exciting is what we do not know is in this collection says Gene DeAnna, head of the Recorded Sound Section of the Library of Congress. "There is so much possibility here of discovery of recordings that have been off the sonic landscape of America. It's gonna be a treasure to mine for many years for the archive."

You might ask why should the United States government fund the storage, restoration, and eventual publication of material that a large corporation like Universal Music Group no longer values. According to DeAnna "90% of what we're taking in here is not commercially viable." In a recent study the Library of Congress found that only 14% of recorded music from between the 1890s to the 1960s is  commercially available to the public.

Perhaps that's just this issue. The Library of Congress isn't interested in making money. They are in the business of archiving, preserving, and providing access to the wealth of information that makes up the American Memory. If businesses come and go this material can go along with it . . . if we don't preserve it.

And this is true of our own personal treasure trove of images and sounds. Here is a picture of my Mom's elementary school class in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. 

Besides me, and my family, who else cares about this image? What makes it valuable and why and how would someone want to archive and preserve it? I'll talk more about that in future articles.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Yad Vashem Partners with Google to Publish Shoah Documents

As you all know Google is fast becoming a major player in publishing digital books. Add that to their stranglehold on the basic web information resource search mechanisms. Google seems to think it's going to be a one stop shopping center for digital information resources and ideas.

Google has announced a new partnership with Yad Vashem, the Jewish people's living memorial to the Holocaust, to archive and publish the world's largest historical collection on the Holocaust including 130,000 full resolution photographs.  Yad Vashem already publishes a number of it's resources online including the Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names. Two years ago Google and Yad Vashem partnered in the creation of a YouTube channel which publishes survivor testimonies and other materials in several languages.

This new partnership is designed to develop better methods of bringing this large amount of data available and searchable to the widest possible audience. In a press release from Yad Vashem, Yossi Matias, Google's R & D Director in Israel says, "(we are) working to bring the world's historical and cultural heritage online. The Internet offers a great opportunity to preserve and share important materials stored in archives."

Friday, January 28, 2011

You Stream, I Stream, We all Scream for . . . Streaming Video

A couple of weeks ago I went to a funeral. It wasn't your normal funeral for a number of reasons. 

Being Debbie Friedman's funeral made it unusual because so many people loved Debbie for all the amazing work she did in the Jewish world over the past four decades. The funeral was different for another reason. I went to it online. Debbie Friedman's funeral was streamed live over the Internet via

You might ask: "Why would anyone want to go to a funeral on their computer?" In this case technology played a vital role in making Debbie's funeral available to a wide group of people from fans to friends who live all over the world but could not attend her funeral. At one point there were well over 7,000 people streaming the signal worldwide.

Rabbi Stuart Kelman speaks at Debbie Friedman's funeral via

It was personal too. The site allows people to join a comment stream alongside the window of the event. At one point there were a group of people singing one of Debbie's songs and the comments came streaming in from the Internet: "singing in Haifa," "singing in New Jersey," "crying in San Francisco." There were so many comments you couldn't take them all in because they went by too fast.

Each of the 7,000 + viewers were not only participating with themselves but many people joined in groups to watch the funeral. Sitting by myself I felt part of a larger community that was both mourning and celebrating the life of Debbie Friedman. The most strange part of the 45 minutes I spent watching the funeral occurred when I started crying at my desk. With co-workers nearby I was very self-conscious.

Having been to a funeral via the Internet now I don't think of it as so strange. I certainly wouldn't want my funeral to be broadcast on the Web. I would be afraid only two people would show up. What a waste! That's the trick with technology, isn't it? When do you know you have the right technology for what you want to do?

Many people are talking about streaming classroom video. The National Association of Independent Schools launched a Task Force to explore the prospect of online learning. I wonder, though, how useful streaming classroom video would be for people other than, perhaps, those who were sick and not able to attend class and those with learning differences that would benefit from viewing it again. How often would students go back to review the class discussion? How much would that be worth versus how much it might cost. How many classrooms would we broadcast? How would all of that data be recorded, stored, and used? What is lost in the translation between being in the class and watching via the Internet? How many students would decide not to attend class and just watch from home later?

Today I watched a little bit of the live streaming by Al Jazeera . They were broadcasting video of tanks and protesters in the streets of Cairo and discussing the possibility of the end of Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt. Viewing this event clearly shows the power of streaming video technology to change the world. The question is, how does that technology translate into learning and our educational practice?

Technology can be personal, it can change the world. It can also be the wrong tool for the task at hand. Ask questions, talk with colleagues, learn from experts, try things out. You don't know if something will work until you spend some time figuring it out and giving it a try.