Nation Building

Here’s a topic I have never written about before… Nation Building. I just want to point you to a great article I read in the Globe yesterday that puts some meat on the question of “Nation Building,” when has it happened before? How long does it take? What is really happening? How does it start and how does it finish?

Here’s the crux of the argument in “How to build a nation” – The Boston Globe

“Identities are chosen strategically, they evolve over time, and people make decisions about what identities to prioritize,” said Jeremy Weinstein, a political science professor at Stanford University who studies ethnic politics and democratic transition in Africa. “This suggests there is room for fluidity and change.”

The lesson of history, it appears, is that tribal division isn’t a permanent condition: It’s just the default when people don’t yet have a nation they have a good reason to identify with. As it turns out, there are examples to follow. And it does not take centuries — or even more than a generation — to build a sense of citizenship. In fact, what we know about forging national identities actually makes the situation in the Middle East seem less dire than it would first appear. (from “How to build a nation” – The Boston Globe)

An excellent article.

Update on Spotify II

I have become a total Spotify addict. I have almost totally stopped downloading MP3s and am gradually locating all my favorite music on Spotify. I posed a couple of semi-sceptical notes when I first started using Spotify and so I am due for an update, right?

So what has happened since? I find that I am using Spotify on my iPhone and on my computer, all the time. Occasionally I will dip back into my large iTunes collection to remind me of artists that I want to listen to. But I promptly go onto Spotify, and search for the artist and grab all their albums not just the one or two I had in iTunes.

It turns out that for me, not ‘owning’ the mp3s is not a big deal at all. I am almost always online when I am playing music, either on a computer or an iPhone. And when I am not actually online (on a plane for example) it is easy to make selected play lists available on my iPhone as long as I thought of it ahead of time.

Comparing it to Rhapsody, they are very similar services. They cost the same and seem to have similar sized catalogs. At least, most of the music I want I can find on either one. Still somehow I found that I am using Spotify much more often than I used Rhapsody. Rhapsody does not have a ‘real’ mac application so you have to have it running in a browser window which can be a nuisance.  Also the Spotify UI experience is a little more streamlined (although it misses some really important features that Rhapsody has.)

Comparing it to Pandora, the clear difference is that on Spotify you can play the specific album and/or track you want, over and over again if you want. On Pandora you can just ask for music that ‘sounds like’ another track. And while it does a decent job, you often want to listen specifically to Madeleine Peyroux and no one else.

Comparing it to iTunes, the clear difference is that I don’t own any music. And if tomorrow Spotify goes out of business or I decide to stop subscribing, my whole ‘collection’ disappears. What I own is the list of music that I like, and presumably I would be able to move the list over to the next service. Also I am constantly discovering new music and so my iTunes collection has lots of stuff that I don’t listen to anymore. On the other hand, lots of stuff, like NPR interviews, Technical podcasts, lecture series and other material is only available as mp3 and so I will keep using iTunes for that, I am sure.

What about the new integration with Facebook? Not sure yet. What music I listen to is no secret. But it is a little weird that people in my network can watch my listening habits, play by play as it were, and I listen to a lot of music. As soon as I wake up the music goes on.

Anyway, all in all, Spotify is great and is now my primary music service.

Check out CityPockets

I’ve been using various Groupon-ish web sites to great advantage. Whether it’s Groupon itself, or LivingSocial, OpenTable and others, I send all their offers to an email folder and scan the 10-15 offers I get a day in one glance (2 seconds) to see if anything jumps out. I end up buying a coupon from one of them about once a month.

Along comes CityPockets. The site solves the problem of how to remember what coupons you have and especially reminds you to use them if you lose track of what you have. It actually can log into each of your groupon-ish accounts and grab whatever new coupons appears there and displays them in one unified list.

Free, useful and saves money too. I recommend CityPockets!

My New EXCLUSIVE at Salon: National Security Lab Hacks Diebold Touch-Screen Voting Machine by Remote Control With $26 in Computer Parts

Continuing my linking to Election related news, check out this post Diebold Touch-Screen Voting Machine Hacked by Remote Control With $26 in Computer Parts from The BRAD BLOG:

"What makes this hack so troubling — and different from those which have come before it — is that it doesn’t require any actual changes to, or even knowledge of, the voting system software or its memory card programming. It’s not a cyberattack. It’s a "Man-in-the-middle" attack where a tiny, $10.50 piece of electronics is inserted into the system between the voter and the main circuit board of the voting system allowing for complete control over the touch-screen system and the entire voting process along with it."

Swipely, cool but scary?

So there’s this rather cool new service that says they will find and give you special deals to the stores and merchants you use already. The way they do it is to examine your credit card bills and help you find deals. They say:

With Swipely, you can earn automatic cash back rewards at the best local places Boston has to offer. There are no coupons to cut, vouchers to buy or loyalty cards to forget – with Swipely you earn valuable rewards on every purchase with the credit or debit cards you already have, automatically. Best of all, Swipely is free!

Sounds great, but you know how they do it? You have to give them your credit card info and login to the credit card company web site, so they can look at your charges. They say it is very secure:

Swipely downloads transactions to give you rewards via our banking technology partner using a secure, read-only connection trusted by more than 5,000 banks and 26 million consumers. Swipely uses 256-bit SSL EV bank-grade encryption and SAS 70 Type II secure data centers.

I am pretty promiscuous when it comes to this kind of thing (for example, I’ve been using for a while now) but still this one creeps me out just a little bit. What do you say?

New Jersey election fraud? Or coverup? Or just human error?

Andrew Appel is one of the best known academics studying and commenting on elections and computer science and technology related to elections. He wrote a really interesting report, “New Jersey Elections Coverup“, going into great detail about a specific incident during the June 2011 New Jersey primary election where the reported outcome of a particular race was demonstrated to be incorrect.

It was a small election and so they could literally get affidavits from voters to prove this. Mr. Apple was hired as an expert (apparently he does a lot of this, which for me colors his words to some extent) to help investigate what might have happened. The report tells a compelling story.

If you are one of those who wonders whether election fraud happens or can easily happen, this report will interest you. It also adds weight to the conventional wisdom among security and computer experts a physical paper ballot, marked by the voter, and scanned by a computer is really the best and perhaps only way to ensure fair elections.

Google+ – Professional Social Network?

Some people are starting to wonder whether Google+ will continue to grow and become a major social network. Even for Google, it will be quite an achievement to penetrate the already relatively crowded world of social networks and become a major player.

Indeed they have had an excellent start and in my opinion built quite a nice little service. (By the way, do not underestimate how much they must have spent designing, building and now deploying Google+. I call it a ‘nice little service’ but I know we are talking many millions of dollars.)

Here’s what one pundit said as criticism in a recent article:

“In that respect, is it possible that G+, at the moment, is simply a social media step too far? Are there only so many daily destination-and-connection sites a person can invest time and effort overseeing?

As contributor Paul Tassi wrote last month within a column doubling as a eulogy for the service, “The fact is, very few people have room to manage many multiple social networks … since there is only so much time in the day to waste on the Internet. Add in Google+, effectively a duplicate of Facebook, and there just isn’t space for it.” (from Worse than a Ghosttown)

I am not sure. I use Facebook for personal and family networks, and have relatively few business contacts on it. To date, I’ve used LinkedIn for my business contacts. But LinkedIn is not a social network in the sense of Facebook.

Maybe that will be Google Plus’ niche: the professional social network.

Useful quick reference for a ‘lean startup’

Check this post How To Build a Web Startup – Lean LaunchPad Edition from Steve Blank. Of course you know that Steve Blank is one of the gurus of the Lean Startup. This blog post is meant I think for his students at Stanford but you too can benefit from it 🙂

"But for the rest of us mortals whose eyes glaze over at the buzzwords, the questions are, “How do I get my great idea on the web? What are the steps in building a web site?”  And the most important question is, “How do I use the business model canvas and Customer Development to test whether this is a real business?” (from: How to Build a Web Startup)

Nice bibliography for game designers

I got some of this list from Lee Sheldon’s course syllabus. I have not read all these books but I want to:

  • Designing Virtual Worlds. Richard Bartle.
  • Character Development and Storytelling for Games. Lee Sheldon.
  • Developing Online Games. Mulligan and Petrovsky.
  • Massively Multiplayer Game Development. Thor Alexander et al.
  • Synthetic Worlds. Edward Castronova.
  • Community Building on the Web. Amy Jo Kim
  • My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World. Julian Dibbell
  • A Theory of Fun. Raph Koster
  • Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
  • The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses. Jesse Schell

Instead of giving out grades in a class, give out experience points

If you watched (or didn’t) the preceding video by Jesse Schell you might have caught one throw away idea mentioned that really intrigued me: Eliminate grades and instead adopt a system modeled more like experience points in a game. The idea he mentions I believe came from a Professor Lee Sheldon. Here’s the link to his course, Gaming the Classroom.

In my teaching at Brandeis, deciding how to handle grading is one of the trickier problems to solve. While my experience teaching so far is quite limited I have come to believe you need to be aware that your students’ expectations about what ‘counts’ towards the grade will heavily influence their behavior.

Whether you like it our not that which they feel will help their grade they will do more of and less of the latter. Yeah I would say that they are sincerely there to learn and do their best given all the circumstances. But it’s human nature: when it’s 2am and they need to decide whether to tackle the final homework, go to sleep or go to a party, you can bet that somewhere in the back of their mind is the impact they believe it will have on the grade.

So, what might this new scheme look like?

  • All activities that occur during the term can potentially gain a student experience points. Start simple:

    • Show up on time: 1 point
    • Show up on time for a week stretch: 5 points
    • Ask a question: 1 point
    • Answer a question: 1 point

  • Homeworks can give you points too:

    • Hand in your homework on time: 3 points. down to 2, 1 and 0 if it’s late by 1, 2 or 3 days
    • Quality of the homework can gain you between 0 and 10 points

  • Let’s say that your course has an element of team work

    • Every week, each member of a team gets 5 points that they can award to one or more teammates for contributing to the project
    • For every team delivery that’s on time, each member of the team gets 2 points

  • Each student’s total points is posted electronically every day on a leader board
  • A student or a team can ‘level up’ by making a certain number of points
  • Each level comes with certain privileges
  • And at the end of the term, your ‘grade’ is a simple, predefined formula based on your points

How is this different from what I did before?

  • It’s more granular. Each small event becomes converted into a standardized fungible unit, a point
  • It’s granular chronologically too. You know day to day how you are scoring
  • It’s more fun and introduces an element of competition, prestige and pride into the experience
  • It’s public yet doesn’t reveal too much.

It does have problems though:

  • The student who is not doing well is publicly exposed. This is probably a bad idea, and, it might even be unethical or illegal.
  • You need to be very careful about how you set up the points because, referring back to my original point, it will modify behavior and you will ‘get exactly what you are paying for’ which might not actually be what you want.

Anyway, it was an inspired idea. Not sure if it’s practical but it does make me think…