December 2007 Archives

Using Calculus to Determine "Optimal Copyright"

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Although we associate calculus with the hard sciences, in fact it's an important tool for economic and business analysis.

For instance, I just found a reference to a paper "Forever Minus a Day?: Some Theory and Empirics of Optimal Copyright" (PDF) which uses some parameters and calculus theory to propose that copyright should only be about 15 years in order to maximize overall creative output.

That is (if I understand this correctly) too little copyright inhibits creativity because artisans could not earn a fair profit, but too much copyright can also inhibit creativity because it cuts off access to preexisting materials which could be recombined in a new work (e.g. Andy Warhol might not have legal access to a famous Marilyn photo to redo). The analysis also factors in production and distribution costs as well as increases in cultural resources from new works.

I think is an interesting take on a complex policy issue. You might not agree with the assumptions (I suspect some producers would rather increase their own profits than add to the cultural stockpile), but it's worthwhile for someone to write down their assumptions on optimal policy, then maybe use a more "objective" way to find answer.

I don't expect copyright terms to be reduced anytime soon, but an analysis like this might be persuasive in keeping them from getting any longer.

After all, even when "Steamboat Willie" (1st Mickey Mouse cartoon) enters the public domain, Disney will have plenty of tricks to keep later versions locked down a little longer (maybe even a lot longer). See the Superboy vs Superman Copyright saga for a sample of what I mean.

What's your Personal Brand?

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I've been viewing a training video on Web design project management that my colleague Audrey Romano suggested and I ran into an interesting concept that I think will help me understand navigating personnel dynamics in future projects.

The training was from Kelly Goto who had been a keynote speaker a few years ago for a Penn State Web conference. At the time she had mentioned the concept of "branding" which I admit I equated to making sure we had all our logos in the right place and stuck to variations in the blue and white palette. In my defense, I had to leave her presentation early.

But this time, I got a better idea of what she meant by "branding" which is that you want to present products and services which genuinely reflect your corporate philosophy. For instance Penn State has always represented quality for value to me. That is, even though Penn State is dedicated to serving the state of Pennsylvania as a lower-cost "public" institution, it has always maintained a world class curriculum in many specialties. This is why a "Penn State" degree means so much.

I have to say that growing up in Maryland, we were always a little more impressed when an out-of-stater was able to get admitted to Penn State and had a choice besides the University of Maryland (although that university has improved a lot academically).

When thinking about Penn State employees, I think it's a safe bet that almost all of us do appreciate the Penn State "brand" and want to make sure that it's never degraded in any way. Interestingly though that can be a source of conflict as well as harmony, because we all have different ideas of what "protecting the brand" means.

This is where I think the concept of "personal brand" or "reputation/values" is important. For instance, some of us want to be as innovative as possible, but others want to be as secure as possible. Similarly some people want services to be as flexible as possible, but others want them simple and easy. Or maybe you discuss whether documentation should be "detailed" so it can account for different scenarios or just present the facts in a easily digestible manner. All of these are important considerations, but unfortunately they usually can't all be satisfied all the time. So we have to negotiate (and some of Penn Staters negotiate more effectively than others).

I think I know what my brand is, and it's probably straightforward, persistent, systematic and in-depth (I can give you plenty of specific examples if you just ask). I'm also all about the flexibility to accommodate all valid learning objectives.

Alas though...it's rarely "easy going".

PDF Likely an ISO Standard

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According to this news story from Ars Technica, it appears that the Adobe PDF format will likely be recognized as an international standard by the international ISO standards organization.

A lot of formats from commercial vendors have become de facto standards. Probably the classic case is the older Microsoft Office .doc (Word), .xls (Excel) and .ppt (Powerpoint) standards, which many non-Microsoft products can recorgnize and process.

What's a little more interesting is that the Open Source movement has encouraged software vendors to make these standards "official". It's a good way to keep in business if you can get buy in.

OK Maybe an Open Blog can Work

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I just saw that my ETS colleague Brad Kozlek wrote about open blogging in a science lab and I honestly have to agree that this is a good model.

In a recent round table with instructors using Blogs at Penn State, one of them mentioned that he specifically wanted his students to blog in the open (i.e. anyone can see the posts)...because he felt that students would pay more attention to what they wrote if they knew anyone could stumble across it.

I do maintain both an open and a private blog, and again I would agree that the writing on my open blog is much more coherent. I'm glad that I do have some open blog venues out there and I am getting a chance to use them to try out some ideas in public. Similarly, if a scientist is training to keep an usable lab journal, a public blog is a good way to sharpen the focus.

I think one caveat for this discussion is that I would say that a research journal may be semi-public genre. A lot of the entries from the Redfield Lab Postdoc Blogs were noting investigations and results from that day and are a bit technical in nature. On the other hand, more than a few are referring to Meatloaf (the musician) and Queens of the Stone Age (also musicians). There's no doubt that a blog is a little funkier than a formal research paper.

Still... I maintain that we need to carefully to define what constitutes "public" and "private" in the blogosphere and when each is appropriate.

I know, I'm stubborn.

Are Blogs Notebooks?

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We've been having some interesting discussions on how the expand and explain the full capabilities of our Movable Type Platform.

Movable Type is the engine for Blogs at Penn State, but blogs are not it's only capability. With the new system you have easier control over "static" pages which can be connected to your main blog...which means you have more control over your Web space than ever. You can post your photos and videos, write commentary and create resources for yourself (you could have your key links on one page and a static public resume on another)

There's been a lot interesting talk at ETS about how we can encourage students to use the Movable Type platform to document their Penn State life and maybe develop a professional portfolio at the end. Blogs are great for dotting down your "thought du jour", but it could be more than that. Perhaps the most exciting possibility is that this process can "nudge" students into "reflection" (do these thoughts tie together somehow?) and maybe even "exploration" (I talked about concept A...what's the next step?)

But - how can we explain this vision to the Penn State educational community? Blogs and portfolios are two pieces of the puzzle, but there may be more. Is there a common metaphor that everyone can understand?

Well, here's my modest proposal. Maybe we're talking about the "notebook" process. Like real notebooks, Movable Type can be very flexible. Some people use notebooks for diaries, others for short stories and poems, and others may draw in theirs. Some people may have one notebook for everything (all tasks in one place) and others may have several notebooks for different topics (one class, one notebook). At some point, a notebook can be re-edited for a professional portfolio...or you could just share the one you have.

But there are some powerful features in the electronic Movable Type Notebook that aren't in a traditional paper notebook. One is that it's easy to share. If you want your friend to see your class notes - you won't have to worry about your friend losing it or not getting it back to you. Not only that, but I can get to my electronic notebook from any computer

Another is that you can stuff in more media (like a video) than in a paper notebook. It's also easier to incorporate "outside material." If I see a link I like, I can plug it into my blog. With a paper notebook, I would need an extra folder just for handouts...or I have to invest in three hole punch.

And maybe the nicest benefit of all is that I can type instead of write. Anyone who has seen my rapid handwriting knows it's not too easy to read.

So that's it - a blog as a notebook. Will this metaphor make the process easier to grasp? I'm not sure yet - it's just an idea I jotted down.

Word 2007 to Dreamweaver CS3

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I know we're supposed to be getting away from the older Web 1.0 way of doing things, but since I've gone back to the Dark Side of Dreamweaver Development, I thought I would mention some benefits of converting Word files to Dreamweaver

FYI - I don't ever convert a Word File straight to HTML for standards reasons. Instead I cut and paste content between Word and Dreamweaver. Happily I can do the following.

1. If a Word heading is in the Heading 1 Style, it will become an H1 in Dreamweaver (following the Dreamweaver stylesheet). Similarly Heading 2 becomes H2, Heading 3 becomes H3 and so forth.

If the Word author wasn't that organized, you can use a shortcut like Control+1 (or Command+1) on a Mac to convert any line to an H1. Can you guess the shortcut for H2? Yes it's Control+2 or Command+2 on a Mac.

2. Paragraphs now cut and paste as paragraphs (with the P tag). If you don't want an HTML paragraph right then, then use Control+0 (or Command+0 on a Mac) to remove it in Dreameaver.

3. A new one I discovered is that some embedded images in Word may be transferred to your Dreamweaver site as "clip" images when you copy and paste from Word. So, if you have a Word file with embedded images, you may be able to extract them fairly quickly via Dreamweaver.

Sometimes the old dogs can teach me a few new tricks.

Browse or Search? - A little experiment

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I just saw an announcement for an ancient Celtic Personal Names database, and I have to say that what excited me the most wasn't the data, but the fact that it had a Browse button.

One of the perennial issues of database/archive design is how to allow users to find data. One ways is Search (just a search box into which you enter keywords), but the other is Browse (a directory list of items organized by different keywords or parameters). Interestingly, users seem to be split into Search camps and Browse, and many of my project mates seem to be Search users.

But I am a strong advocate for Browse for most databases and this is why. With the exception of very common tools like the phone book, Google or the library catalog, I don't most users can't intuit someone else's information architecture. When you have a specialized database (like ancient Celtic names) I think it's very beneficial that Browse mode exist to give user's a holistic sense of the information architecture. This is a critical factor if we expect students to start to use "professional" database resources.

So here's my thought question - do you want just a search form or do you want to browse the table of contents first when figuring out what you can extract from this resource?